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The standpoint from which I write is a 'clinical'
one, and the (tentative and provisional) conclusions I come to are
the result of having struggled for years to make sense of the kinds
of distress people bring to the psychological clinic, and how they
cope with it. In the course of that struggle I have found myself constantly
wandering into territory that is only partially familiar to me and
being forced to use tools not routinely found in the clinical psychologist's
kit. Though this is not a work of sociology, politics or philosophy,
it will at times seem as if it is trying to be; but I want to insist,
still, that it is a work of clinical psychology, and that is because
it is throughout rooted in and informed by 'clinical' experience.
Even then, however, I have heavily to qualify the
use of the word 'clinical' because it carries with it so many false
assumptions. The majority of those who find themselves in distress
in Western society turn to the clinic because there is nowhere else
to go that carries the same promise of relief. They, as well as most
of those who treat them, believe that they are hosts of a personal
illness or disorder that can be cured by established medical and/or
therapeutic techniques. That belief, however, is in my view (and the
view of many others) false, and it is clinical experience itself that
reveals it as false.
By 'clinical psychology', then, I do not mean
a set of medically or therapeutically based procedures for the cure
of emotional distress, but rather a privileged opportunity to investigate
with people the origins of their difficulties and to consider the possibilities
Unfortunately, orthodox clinical psychology has
in my view failed to make the most of this privileged opportunity,
and has been misled by its anxious desire to heal, as well as by its
perception of its own interest, into betraying the scientific basis
on which it claims to rest. For 'science' means taking reality into
account and articulating the lessons it teaches (i.e. attending to
evidence). And that is exactly what clinical psychology has not done.
For reasons which I have written about elsewhere (see, for example,
Smail 1995, 1998)
clinical psychologists have been very well placed to gather evidence
about the nature of distress which is as little distorted by interfering
factors as it is possible to be. But though this evidence undoubtedly
forms part of their unformalized experience, in their official theorizing
they have steadfastly disregarded it in favour of conventional, quasi-medical
notions of personal disorder and 'treatment'.
What clinical experience teaches in fact is not
that psychological distress and emotional suffering are the result
of individual faults, flaws or medical disorders, but arise from the
social organizations in which all of us are located. Furthermore, damage
to people, once done, is not easily cured, but may more easily (and
that not easily at all!) be prevented by attending to and caring for
the structures of the world in which we live. These are questions neither
of medicine nor of 'therapy'. If anything, they may be seen more as
questions of morality and, by extension, politics.
The nature of morality
It is inconceivable that emotional suffering could
be banished from our lives. Being human entails suffering (even if
we have lost the knowledge and wisdom which allow us to suffer with
dignity and compassion). At the same time, there can be little doubt
that a rearrangement of the ways in which we act towards each other
could bring about a very significant lessening in the degree of emotional
pain and anguish that has become so commonplace in our society that
it is barely noticed.
A moral vision of peace, justice and freedom is
not hard to establish; the landscape of Eden is easily recognized.
What is not easy to understand and resist are the many ways in which
the means of achieving that vision are concealed and obscured, and
it is with these questions that I shall be most occupied.
Morality arises through the experience of a common humanity
and its affirmation in the face of power. Morality is not an individual,
but a social matter; it makes demands upon us which extend beyond our
finite, individual lives. It is about resisting those forces which
seek to drive wedges between us in order that some may feel and claim
to be more human than others.
Our common humanity rests upon our common embodiment.
We are all made in exactly the same way. We all suffer in the same
way. Most immoral enterprises seek in one way or another to deny this
truth and to justify the greater suffering of the oppressed or exploited
on the grounds of their being different in some way physically,
racially, psychologically, genetically, and so on. Absolute, self-conscious
immorality, on the other hand, makes use of its knowledge of our common
embodiment to inflict maximum pain and threat: the torturer does unto
others as he would not have done to himself, and the terrorist, choosing
victims at random, implicitly acknowledges the equivalence of all people.
The history of the civilized world
is one in which powerful minorities have sought (ever more successfully)
to impose and exploit conditions of slavery on an impoverished majority.
This is necessarily always an immoral undertaking, for by its
actions it denies the continuity of humanity between slave and master
while seeking ideologically to obscure that denial1.
At the turn of the twenty-first century, the structure
of global society is grotesquely unjust and the means of maintaining
it so not only profoundly immoral but insanely dangerous. We crazed,
clever monkeys knowingly contemplate the destruction of our own habitat
and yet seem helpless to stop ourselves. There seems to be no moral
guidance to point a way out of our predicament. The moral voice, stripped
of authority, has been drowned out. God is well and truly dead; the
Market has triumphed; only the fittest shall survive. Can there be
a moral counter to the new Business barbarism?
Unlike the kinds of arguments which establish scientific
knowledge, moral arguments are not progressive and accumulative, nor
are they ever conclusive. Moral argument and social critique constitute
a running battle with ruling power, and even though they may be dealing
with eternal truths, they will never find a form in which these can
be asserted once and for all; the best they can hope for is to find
ever new ways of re-formulating and re-stating their insights such
that brakes are applied to the ever-expanding ambitions of power.
A further difficulty is that, insofar as they are
successful, moral argument and praxis will be corrupted and co-opted
in the interests of power. Christs message becomes The
Church. Because power is power, it holds all the cards, and will never be
defeated only impeded. Marxs greatest mistake was to assume
that capitalism contained the seeds of its own downfall. Seemingly
he hadnt conceived of moving goal-posts
For anyone hoping to win the moral high ground
once and for all on the basis of a knock-down argument or a conclusive
act of rebellion, the inevitable dominance of a corrupt and corrupting
power is likely to be a cause of despair. For such a person the insights
into venality, stupidity and corruption of, say, a Swift, turn to absolute
cynicism rather than merely profound disillusion. Not only are illusions
destroyed, but idealism too is crushed.
Illusions and ideals
But there is a big difference between illusions
and ideals. The loss of illusion is a necessary process on the painful
road of enlightenment; the loss of ideals is spiritual death. We live
in an age which is very nearly spiritually dead. Perhaps it is spiritually
dead. The only redeeming prospect is that, unlike bodily death, spiritual
death need not be final. (Spirit is not a personal possession, but
a property of common humanity; it therefore does not die with the individual
body, but is in a completely literal sense immortal.)
Ideals are in this age poorly understood. People
are clear enough about goals, objectives and 'targets', but moral purposes
which are designedly unachievable faze the Business mind. Ideals
are not just unlikely to be realized by their very nature they
can never be realized. Nevertheless, their existence is what
makes life worth living.
The essential moral insight is that human existence has to
be informed and guided by ideals which are more than merely achievable
personal goals, and that we must operate by moral rules in a game in
which we shall always be defeated. There is absolutely no necessity
that a life lived in pursuit of good rather than power will be materially
rewarded in this world or a next; such a life does not permit of final
achievement and satisfaction. There is no spiritual nirvana, no
final solution, no ultimate certainty; no City of God, no Kingdom of
Heaven, no end of history.
Every inch of moral ground gained will be lost
and will have to be re-taken over and over again. Every moving argument
will be negated and will have to be re-stated in a form unanticipated
by power, every morally uplifting tale will be culturally silenced
or revised and will have to be rewritten in a newly subversive guise.
If, furthermore, we do not guard against the futility
of optimism, we run the risk of handing the world over to those who
know how to exploit it to their advantage. In the last few pages of Taking
Care I give examples of
the kind of optimism born of faith in Right and Reason which, reassuring
though it may have been at the time, is revealed in the cold light
of history to have been pathetically misguided.
In the past we have only been able to take morality
when laced with religion; hitched to a terrifying authority or a fatuous
promise of everlasting life. Our task for the twenty-first century
is to see that a moral society is one supported by human ideals far
more profound, stable and enduring than a childish dependence on supernatural
fantasies or the expectation of material reward. The reason why we
have to do this is simple and we all know it: no man is an island.
At the heart of our problem is our understanding
The Business view of humanity
There are more instructive uses for the clinic
than the doubtful virtues of 'treatment' so ably criticized by Michel
Foucault and Christopher Lasch (see 'The Experience of Self'). For
the clinic is a fine place to observe the workings upon us of our environment;
talking to people in troubled states of mind brings to our attention
far less any inadequacies or shortcomings of their own, and far more
the noxious influences of the world in which we have to live.
What has been particularly evident to me from the
distress people have felt and expressed is - beyond the damage done
to them, significant though it is - the way that Business culture has
over the last twenty-five years or so colonized our minds.
Despite a significant hiccup around the middle
of the twentieth century, Business has finally triumphed at its end.
In doing so, Business values and language, its precepts
and its Weltanschauung have seeped into every corner of our
souls and shape every aspect of our conduct. In trying to understand
ourselves and others we seem unable to think beyond Business psychology:
selfish competitiveness fuelled by anxiety. We are possessed by the
horrific individualism upon which Business mores are based.
One of the fevered dreams of the new century
is of immortality. Leaning back in his stretched limo, an aged
Texan billionaire explains his expectations of a genetically
engineered infinity. Reckoning he will be able to buy a life
halted at about the age of forty, he'll 'travel a lot', which
is something he's always wanted to do. He'll 'get a nice girl
friend' to accompany him. And he'll 'have time to read the newspapers'.
We see ourselves as distinct, self-creating and
self-motivating social units, psychologically co-terminous with our
skins. We believe that, unlike every other entity in nature, we control
and take responsibility for ourselves, that we live out our lives through
a series of decisions which we take in accordance with our feelings
and our purposes. We have unquestioning faith in our rationality, believing
that we are able to direct and if necessary change the course of our
lives according to perceived necessities. We do, it is true, acknowledge
the possibility of unconscious motives, but these are again
seen as personal to ourselves and in principle alterable once their
nature has been brought to the attention of our conscious will. We
believe that happiness is obtained through personal development and
consumption. We are even losing the courage to die.
A new Copernican switch
Our only hope is to de-centre ourselves,
to see that we are not islands and that our existence does indeed
make sense only as part of the main2. We are
social creatures who have come to mistake our nature as isolated individuals.
Consequently, we do not understand how our social world has come into
being nor how we operate within it: we stumble around blindfolded,
full of envy, rage and pain.
We are not who we take ourselves to be: not, individually,
the architects of our personal destiny, not responsible for all we
do and think. We are truly not, even, extinguished by a personal death;
the Texan billionaire does not in fact have to steal the existence
of our progeny in order to find time to enjoy the newspapers (but for
our progeny, of whom he will be a part, to exist, he will need the
courage to die).
Exactly as Copernicus showed that our planet is
not the centre of the universe, so we need to see that our selves are
not the fons et origo of our experience and conduct. As far
as understanding ourselves is concerned, our Twentieth Century psychologies
have been almost entirely misleading. It is with some of these misunderstandings,
and the ways they are exploited by power, that much of the rest of
this publication will be concerned.
1. Anyone who thinks that slavery no
longer exists in the modern world should consult Disposable People,
by Kevin Bales (Univ. California Press, 1999). Not only is the practice
of slavery widespread, but it exists on an unprecedented scale. Bales
is careful to consider only 'true' slavery: people being forced to
work for nothing. People having to work at meaningless jobs for barely
subsistence wages is little better (see Viviane Forrester's The
Economic Horror for a denunciation of this state of affairs).
2. Thanks to Ernest Hemingway, not too
many people can be unaware of this passage from John Donne's Meditation
17, but it will do no harm to repeat it:-
No man is an island, entire
of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as
if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine
own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls