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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 for change.

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.

Morality now

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. Christ’s message becomes ‘The Church’. Because power is power, it holds all the cards, and will never be defeated – only impeded. Marx’s greatest mistake was to assume that capitalism contained the seeds of its own downfall. Seemingly he hadn’t 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 of self.

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 main’2. 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 for thee.

This page last revised 18/12/01



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the Internet?


The structure of social space

The experience of self

The technology of profit
   1 Make-believe
   2 Outside-in
   3 Inside-out


What then must we do?

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