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Psychotherapy in the Service of Ideology

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In an incredibly prescient book Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, the left-wing populist author Cristopher Lasch wrote way back in 1994 about the way in which a new ‘managerial elite’ was emerging in modern culture which had superseded the previous old guard of hereditary aristocracy. Instead of justifying itself through the titles and achievements of its ancestors, this new aristocracy held itself as being meritocratic – and therefore the disproportionate power it wielded in society in comparison to the wider working class was framed as being justified through superior attainment, intellect and educational achievement.

Lasch pointed out in his book an interesting feature: that this elite used psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic language as a means of supporting itself ideologically. For those individuals and groups unable to make the meritocratic leap up the rungs of the class ladder, this would be blamed on the failings of the individual character, and a therapeutic perfecting of the self and ‘self-esteem’ would be offered as a means of both explaining the failure and maintaining the ideology. This symbiosis between therapeutic culture and ideology allowed those who had slipped through the net to be explained as failed selves who needed further work, and strengthened the belief in meritocratic attainment, rather than questioning the fundamental basis of the meritocracy and the disproportionate power of the managerial overclass itself.

One aspect of this new class which Lasch identified was the increased focus on cultural and identity issues at the expense of class politics. Uplifting of the power, representation and prestige of the working class as an act of solidarity was no longer the central focus of ‘left’ politics; instead, importance was given to allowing individual members of minority groups greater potential access to this meritocratic elite. 

The political theorist Michael Lind has followed Lasch in his recent book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite. Both Lasch and Lind comment on the shift from economic to cultural issues within the politics of the Left as being a central feature of the ideology of this new elite, and not only this, but also the employment of therapeutic language (and what Lasch calls a culture of narcissism) as being the central way in which it supports itself, forefronting a focus on identity as a commodity. Sociologist Eric Kaufmann in the book Whiteshift describes the features of this ideology as being a movement away from class issues towards an emphasis on cosmopolitanist universalism for its university-educated White majorities while emphasising ethno-tribalism for minority populations. His contention is that it has resulted in the creation of a new system of taboos which is deposited from academic high culture, and display of which signals membership of this elite class.  

Criticising politics framed as causing harm

As a researcher into the relationship described briefly above between this elite ideology, (which the sociologist Erik Kaufmann labels as ‘left-modernism’) and its interactions with psychotherapy I was very interested to witness the recent furore at a letter written to the BPS magazine, by Dr Kirsty Miller. The fallout around this letter constituted an example of the way in which this ideology functions in synergy with psychotherapy – employing the personalised, psychotherapeutic language of psychological harm to protect itself from the outside critique of its ideological assumptions. 

Fireworks began when Dr Miller wrote a relatively mild letter suggesting that this ideology which she euphemised under the term ‘social justice’ should be detached from the psychological sciences with instead greater focus given to attaining scientific objectivity. This letter was offered as a lone counterpoint to the orthodox view which embraced the ‘social justice’ viewpoint. Responses were interesting, in that Miller’s comment was perceived not as a critique of ideological over-reach or ideological encroachment on a professional field. Instead, her letter was (almost entirely) responded to as if it were a personal attack against the disadvantaged – something which could be considered ‘harmful’ to minorities, ‘racist’, and even so poisonous that it would even destroy the ambitions of minorities who were previously considering a career in the psychological services (smashing their dreams by not accepting the ideological premise of intersectionality and related paradigms). It was couched overwhelmingly in terms that suggested that this act of criticism constituted personal, psychological harm against hypothetical minorities which had to be protected by the benevolent censoring of Miller’s letter.

This is (of course) itself a racist view, one which rests on a caricature of minorities; in the sense that it patronisingly suggests that minorities cannot tolerate the idea of objectivity without being brutally traumatised – that they operate on some kind of diminished psychological level in comparison to ‘White’ people for whom objectivity is accessible, and who presumably are able to deal with ideological criticism without their entire life-plan being upended. It also makes the assertion that the ideology of ‘social justice’ (as a euphemism for intersectionality) and minorities are synonymous, appropriating them as figureheads while eclipsing (as an example) the many socially conservative minority communities in the West today. These assumptions allowed Dr Miller’s ideological criticisms to be re-framed as racist attacks on the psychological health of minorities themselves.

Although I do not have space to explore this within this article (a larger more academic article is forthcoming), this is partly a byproduct of the epistemology (theory of knowledge) that is employed by these paradigms, which is ironically what Dr Miller was originally questioning: influential intersectional theorists such as Crenshaw and Hill-Collins have stated that objectivity, transcendent truths or universals are merely an occluding mirage under which White supremacy inevitably lurks; therefore a request to return to focus on an ideal of objectivity, or to question the influence of the ‘social justice’ movement as overly ideological in the hope of retaining some kind of liberal neutrality is received as an attempt to assert White supremacy. Truth or objectivity does not exist; only the power interests of different identity groups. We have all heard the slogan ‘the personal is political’. Unfortunately with this kind of exchange we are now seeing the flip-side of it – that political criticism and theoretical exchange is invariably reframed as personal nastiness. This diminishes the ability to work through the problems which adopting this paradigm to therapy presents if ideological criticism inevitably constitutes a personal attack on a minority, all that is left is censorship and personal attacks in return: We are left with personal clashes between individuals as representative of ethnicities and the ideology continues to function unaffected – even when it might need a quite radical rethinking. This inability to process criticism except as racist attack is surely the sign of a dogmatic system of thought, one which it would be unwise to hitch the reigns of psychotherapy to if any sort of free thought is a value which it would seek to encourage.

Nick Opyrchal is a psychotherapist and counsellor in private practice. He is a PhD candidate whose research focus is the intersection between ideology and psychotherapy.

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