Challenge Capitalist Social Relations

A Direction for Change

The realities of mental health professionals and the realities of recipients of mental health services appear to be fiercely conflictual, dramatically dissimilar. But, at length, their situations encounter a conjuncture of common interest, in the achievement of effective needs response and interdiction. The professionals, coming face-to-face with this eventuality, are pressured to replace arrogance with humility and force with persuasion, while the recipients must act from strength and self- esteem. To construct an principled alliance of these groups is tantamount to creating an engine for reform which challenges the therapeutic system's disconnect from social dynamics.

The present system of social sanction and empowerment by state regulation gives psychotherapy a largely arbitrary power, a coercive power both unjustified and corrupt. Professionals find it easy to be irresponsible and manipulative, tending to promote ultra-individualism and train therapy recipients to personal opportunism at public expense. Progressive professionals with incipient social critiques are hamstrung by the contradictoriness of a structural empowerment for the wrong purpose. The need is to redefine the helping process, to create a new kind of helping role aiding people with their needs as they identify them, in solidarity with the struggle for social progress.

Attention to the business of society, the social work discipline, is limited by the depth of its critique and the scope of its empowerment. To criticize in depth the vested interest of authority is to get stuck on the impossibility of honoring truth and pleasing authority at one and the same time. The helping practitioner must contemplate conscience and navigate with diplomatic skill through a myriad of political obstacles and yet survive socially. The way, in principle, to bootstrap this social dilemma is to set up a code of responsibility, to provide a supportive, social venue for discussions about efforts to wrestle with problems of conscience.

The fallacy of promoting social change through the helping process is manifested in the heroic self-images of therapists, habituated to potency and fearful of transcendence by ego death. They are quick to see the demand for real change as an affront, that the bitterness of victims of their system is nothing but an effort to derogate them personally. It is hard for prisoners of self-starting ego dynamisms to see clearly, when they are invested in their work and stand accused that their habits are obstacles to systemic reform. Yet, whatever the social dysfunctions of therapists, they are generally susceptible of education and should take comfort in the fact that the object of change is really reinstitutionalization, not trashing therapists.

The Maturation of Mass Psychology

A history exists of efforts to inject progressive politics into the dilemma of social interventions versus political realities. The Social Therapy (ST) movement adapted Vygotsky's theory that process serves as both tool and result, enabling them to invert the social / political impossibility by taking the progressive process as tool. That is, the perspective of the theory of activity led them to reinterpret the dilemma of social versus political, by making it a locus for exposing its conflictual nature and reorganizing its social basis. Unfortunately, and unreasonably, ST has posed itself as tool and result for reorganizing the political Left and deviated from the intermediate task of psychiatric reform.

The Bolshevik blinders of ST obscure their grand idea of the importance of making progressive psychology tool and result in changing history. Indeed, their over-valuation of the subjective component of making and analyzing history has cost them their ground as grassroots workers in social change. Organisms are bloodied in a transforming way by their involvement with history and defined when the quantity of the bloodletting exceeds their response capacities. ST itself is absorbed in the blood of its own birthing and does not credit the autochthonous mental patients' movement for moving the scope of the possible beyond their reductive therapy canon, beyond their intentionality.

Before the Marxist psychology of ST, there was the trend of conventional transactional analysis in a generic radical package, Radical Therapy (RT). Their vision of educating and purifying the Left movement psychologically had the opposite limitation to that of its progressive psychology counterpart ST, trailing behind rather than running ahead of movement work. The mental patients caught RT in the act of trying to control their movement and streamed past them into the main arena of grassroots movement activity. The RT trend is languishing today in a marginalized state, circumscribed by its own gaming, while radical innovation has moved in novel directions such as the 12-step self-help work process and child abuse survivors' groups.

The radical humanist movement connected with personal growth psychology is progenitor of the RT and ST movements. Not being radical organizationally, it lacks the pretense of being a substitute for the Left movement and renders unto Caesar what is Caesar's. However, its center at Esalen has both preserved and developed an affinity with the Soviet experience in psychology as well as served as a pole for holding up the counter-culture. Here, in gestation, are the beginnings of a new paradigm, which in the above movements is only an availability, a fledgling new social psychology of abuse.

The Ideology of Social Conditioning

When you try to change people's behavior, you run into stuckness, into habituated behavior conventionally described as "repetition compulsion," often functioning at cross purposes with need. Radical social intervention meets a curious opaqueness of process where people become stubborn and contrary, an unmapped interface between ego and abuse. In the 20's Reich developed Sex-Pol Leagues in Germany to challenge people's psychological commitments to the old order and penetrate that opacity. Just so, any helping process that is informed by social dynamics must contain some plan for engaging people's fears and reworking their social reflexes, their systems of habits.

There is deliberate social repression that is aimed at preventing progressive directions in social dynamics and at perpetuating vested interests. A classic instance of reactionary social intervention is the self-maintenance system of medical model psychiatry, which assassinates the characters of people whose behaviors are suspect and, most of all, those who are critical of the system's values. In the 50's, McCarthy employed political terror modeled on this intervention approach to inculcate the habits and attitudes of clinging to the old order. Recent repression patterns, like Cointelpro in the 70's and today's attacks on the counter-culture and the infrastructure of society, are mainly refinements of this intervention process.

The partisans of social repression advocate it as a positive virtue, as an elitist ideal which people of privilege should uphold. They undertake to train people to the "free enterprise" values of greed, status-seeking, and the like, to behavior that is predatory upon the struggle for social justice. They formerly contrived a Me Generation psychology with a yuppie practicum; they are deeply into questions of social design and cultural management in pursuit of their business purposes. Real human beings at the seat of government, in the CIA, in the estates of the rich sit and develop schemes of social conditioning to bend people's attitudes and habits to their objectives.

The social relations of capitalism constitute precisely the field of contention for any helping process that purports to go beyond the presently sanctioned operating realm of individual psychology. If you promote the attitudes attendant on fostering alienation and exploitation, attendant upon appropriating a person's labor power, you enhance the prestige and salience of the old order. From shameless reptilian attitudes to cold- blooded social conditioning, capitalist social relations burden all the work of organizing and struggle. In order to change people's behavior, control of the parameters of social relations must be wrested from those presently in command of them.

An Existential Psychology of Activity The capitalist who turns abuse for profit can afford harsh and abrasive attitudes as well as gentler-seeming demeanors backed up by the violence of authority. The unwholesome style, the essential rudeness, of capitalists can be modified cosmetically, as by jogging or health regimes, or reformatted, as by psychological advice or training. Head-to-head, the defender of the oppressed is both pressured by an ambience of the people's aggravations, and embarrassed by the quasi-wholesome hypocrisy of her adversary, to return abuse for abuse. To gain the psychological advantage, those who have nothing to lose but their chains must abide their bitterness and challenge their oppressor's denial gracefully.

Mental dysfunction is labeled "mental illness" in honor of the medical model, the biological projection of the social relations system that militates against social change. Conventional social psychology, which accommodates the medical model permits and encourages this language, the language of character assassination in the name of biology. The helping process should avoid crippling itself with such labels, adopting instead usages that acknowledge and reference the problematic of capitalist social relations. Appropriate empowerment for helping modes is closely linked to identification with the subjectivity of its target population, to respect for their dignity.

A person suffering a disturbance of being is not aided by ferocity which makes further disturbance in the being; this is a bad helping tactic that cries out for an alternate remedy. It is necessary to understand a disturbance as a reflection of the social condition, rather than as a private affliction. First you disentangle the experienced conflict, then you embrace the denial and wrestle with it until your feelings refocus on the objective social basis of the conflict. The harmony of your being is sustained by your abstraction of this process and by the organic nature of engaging the source of the disturbance in its essence and in a direct and appropriate manner.

Fighting abuse with abuse is a self-limiting approach which is a poor palliative and surely not a substantial remedy to capitalist social relations. The reductive formulations which are the paraphernalia of positivism are themselves ultimately an abuse of being, and are the raw material for new capitalist attitudes. The old Soviet remedy of Pavlovian conditioning of the masses, backed up by brutalities, failed as a remedy when it resulted in new reactionary social relations. The way out is to go with the existential critique of positivism, concentrate on articulating and cherishing the social being itself, and actively produce wholesome social relations.

Towards a Discourse Strategy