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What Then Must We Do?

That is the question that Leo Tolstoy, having surveyed the misery of the ordinary Russian people, tried to answer in 1886. It is also the question that people pose – often somewhat resentfully – when confronted by the kind of objections to the social and psychological status quo that I have raised in these pages. ‘It’s all very well to criticize, but have you got any better ideas…?’

The role of social critic is these days not a comfortable one, and tends to invite various dismissive diagnoses from those who seem to feel affronted: ‘pessimist’, ‘depressive’, ‘arrogant’, ‘cynic’, and so on. It is not to avoid these diagnoses that I attempt an answer to the ‘what must we do?’ question here: they will be pinned on me anyway, as sure as fate. I merely want to demonstrate that, as I suggested at the beginning of this short work, an answer is not difficult to find. The difficulty, as the oblivion into which Tolstoy’s wonderful book has sunk demonstrates so well, is in putting any answer into practice.

We are faced at the societal level with exactly the same problem that faces the client of well conducted psychotherapy: we can see clearly enough the events – among them our own actions – that have led to our predicament, but the means of rectifying them are still beyond our reach. As I have argued elsewhere, tragedy offers a far better model for human distress than does psychotherapy: although we can envisage remedies for our condition, we are at a loss to know how to put them into effect.

And so the ‘answers’ that I try to sketch out below are not given in the expectation that they are to be easily achieved, or indeed achieved at all. Perhaps, at most, they may help to retain a kind of hope.

In keeping with the ‘proximal-distal’ dimension that I have used to consider the causes of distress, so also the implications for what we should do may be categorised according to the readiness of their availability to us as individuals. There are, it seems to me, four spheres in which action necessary to redress the difficulties identified in the previous pages of this work may conceivably be taken. Ranging from the proximal to the distal, they are the clinical, scientific, philosophical and political spheres. I hope it goes without saying that in what follows I am not pretending to offer an exhaustive analysis of what may be possible, but merely picking out some of the more important issues that suggest themselves for our attention.

Implications for ‘clinical’ practice

We cannot, I think, escape the clinic. Although it is almost certainly not the most appropriate site in which to address the kinds of psychological distress and suffering that afflict people in present day society, there is no other which is obviously more appropriate. Although the long-term answers to those of our woes that are potentially amenable to influence may lie much more at the distal reaches of social organization, it is (as clinicians are the first to point out) still individuals who suffer and seek some remedy to their pain. It would be a callous society indeed that stood back and offered them nothing just because nothing much is likely to provide any real ‘cure’ at the personal level. It is incumbent on us to do what we can, even if we cannot do much. In a fractured, largely urban society in which, thankfully, religion no longer plays a significant role, the clinic, in one form or another, is the place people will turn to when in difficulty, and it is for the foreseeable future in the clinic that we shall probably be doing the little that we can. As it is, however, the clinic is profoundly inadequate for the task at hand.

No one is more aware of this inadequacy than those who encounter the clinic – whether as practitioners, consumers or simply observers – and are able and willing to reflect on their experience of and role within it. The kinds of questions to which such experience gives rise are clearly reflected in the discussion taking place on the forum attached to this website, where people contemplating, or having just embarked upon, a therapeutic career are particularly open to the inevitable inconsistencies and dilemmas inherent in the role.

In his contribution, for example, Paul Moloney (12/4/01) faces squarely the limitations of the therapeutic role while acknowledging the almost irresistible pressures on clinicians to disregard them. Penny Priest (12.14.010) asks whether the whole therapy business should be scrapped. Jim Keys (12/3/01) suggests a partial rescue of therapeutic integrity by characterising it as a ‘radical dialogue’ rather than a quasi-medical treatment. Kamilla Vaski (11/15/01; 11/21/01) encourages us to have the confidence to ‘re-imagine’ the role of therapist such that the limitations described by Paul (and indeed myself) are accepted in fact as strengths. All these, and other, contributions wrestle with the recognition that, though nothing like what it is conventionally cracked up to be, there is something about the therapeutic role that is indeed valuable. Kamilla’s invitation to re-imagination of what therapy may be about suggests to me a positive emphasis on a number of themes:-

  • Demystification. Although itself not a concept taken up by counsellors and psychotherapists in their theoretical reflections, ‘demystification’ describes quite well what the best of them spend much of their time doing in practice. For it is indeed the case that people seeking therapy often start out with very little idea about what is causing their troubles. Conventional therapies spend a great deal of time in what one might call the demystification of the proximal sphere, i.e. unpicking with clients the events and relationships in their immediate experience which give rise to all the phenomena of psychological distress, self-accusation and self-deception that are familiar to most practitioners (I have tried to describe the foremost among these in How to Survive Without Psychotherapy). Elsewhere I have called this process ‘clarification’, and it is perhaps the most developed of the three principal planks of therapy (the other two being ‘comfort’ and ‘encouragement’); that is to say, it is the process that therapists of all schools spend most time thinking and writing about, and attempting to teach. Insofar as there can be said to be ‘skills’ of therapy and counselling, the arts of listening carefully and helping to clear ways through people’s confusion can probably be developed through guided practice, and hence tend to form the core of most schemes of ‘training’.
    However, having, so to speak, cleared the conceptual undergrowth obscuring the client’s view of his or her immediate predicament (so as to achieve ‘insight’), most approaches to therapy consider that the work of clarification is done and that it is now up to the clients themselves to switch on their ‘responsibility’ and put matters right in ways that I have suggested in earlier pages are quite likely impossible. The notion that a ‘clinical’ predicament could be demystified to the point of showing that there is nothing a client could do about it precisely because it is not his or her fault, but the outcome of distal influences over which s/he can have no control, is unacceptable to most therapists not because it is unreasonable but because it is, from a professional point of view, extremely inconvenient. From the client’s point of view, however, it need not be inconvenient at all, but constitute rather the lifting of a heavy burden of moral apprehension, if not outright guilt, that was completely unmerited. The aim of therapy then becomes to clarify what it is not as well as what it is possible for individuals to do to influence their circumstances, and, given the limited powers available to most of us to act upon our world, the most ‘therapeutic’ outcome may well be achieved by the former.
    Such an undertaking leads to a very different kind of dialogue from that characteristic of conventional therapy. Rather than there being a progressive emphasis on the ‘inside’, culminating in the patient’s assumption of responsibility for a moral universe of which s/he is supposedly the author, there is likely to be a literal process of ‘enlightenment’ in which the person is released from all kinds of mystified responsibilities and helped to see him or herself as embodied and located within an external reality highly resistant to individual influence and totally impervious to wishfulness. The implications of such a dialogue are indeed radical - even, given the nature of current Western society, subversive – but they may still be therapeutic.
  • Rescuing subjectivity. Each of us lives at the centre of a private world of thoughts, feelings and experiences which is quite unique as well as exquisitely vulnerable. When, as inevitably we must, we compare this world with the world in which those around us appear to live their lives, our sense of our own vulnerability may become so acute as to be almost unbearable, for their world may seem to reflect a certainty and solidity which is entirely lacking in ours. Within the secret depths of our personal experience are packed a seemingly infinite range of hopes, fears and fantasies, desires we hardly dare to recognize and shames that are anguish to contemplate. From the moment of birth, and indeed before, we are exposed to an unremitting tempest of sensation – pleasures as well as pains - to which, as we mature, becomes attached a framework of judgement that buzzes with justifications, condemnations and self-deceptions to the point where any kind of self-certainty seems impossible.
    What gives form to this subjective world, makes it intelligible and bearable, is the social space in which we find ourselves located and which confers meaning on our experience. Subjectivity is born of embodiment but achieves coherent understanding through social interaction. Our bodies, to be sure, give us knowledge of the world, but we can only truly make sense of that knowledge through the structures of meaning which are provided through our congress with others. But that does not mean that our embodied knowledge of the world is infinitely malleable, can be shaped into whatever stories people choose to tell us. Those stories may be true or they may be false; they may guide us towards an intelligible world which answers faithfully to our embodied understanding, or they may obscure it from us in a blanket of mystery that renders our actions tentative, fearful, dangerous.
    Where the public world is painstakingly shaped to accommodate, appreciate, elaborate and civilize our private experience, a kind of harmony may be given to our lives that, while certainly not erasing all possibility of tragedy, at least gives us a chance to live, as selves, in accord with others about the nature of the world into which we have been thrown. There comes to be a kind of satisfaction in being a subject in social space.
    Where, on the other hand, the public world is shaped to exploit our subjectivity, to mystify, obscure or distort the wordless knowledge our bodies give us of the world, no such harmony will be possible. Either we may accept and attempt to live within the distortions, surrendering to orthodoxy at the cost of our souls, or we may be driven to live out our subjectivity in a constant state of confusion and apprehension, scurrying in the cracks which show through make-believe like woodlice in a rotten wall. Very rarely, some people seem to have from the start a confidence in their embodied experience that no amount of adversity can shake, but even so they nearly always find themselves in a revolutionary minority split off in many ways from the social mainstream.
    In comparison with the centuries of art, literature, philosophy, religion and science that have strained to dignify our subjective experience of life by building a worthy public framework for it, the stance taken by psychotherapy has been deeply ambivalent and for the most part extremely superficial. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid the judgement that, in most of its official theorizing, therapy has been one of the principal means of discipline whereby the subject if forced into line with the ruling dogmas of power. Very few approaches to therapy explicitly reject at least a covert form of ‘normativeness’ in which certain moral and/or aesthetic standards of human being are specified not in the subject’s interests, but in the interests of power. In this kind of approach subjectivity is constrained rather than liberated, and patients’ fearful expectations of being judged are only too quickly confirmed.
    However, there are some exceptions to this tendency (see for example Reading Psychotherapy) and I suspect that in practice (as opposed to their official pronouncements) many counsellors and therapists adopt an approach to their clients which affirms rather than subverts their vulnerable subjectivity (this, no doubt is why therapy is so often seen as a preferable alternative to the ‘medical model’ of psychiatry). Nevertheless, this is not a securely established aspect of therapy in general, and far too many clients will have experienced an increasing rather than a lessening strain on their subjective experience of self as the result of therapy.
    But what does it mean to ‘affirm vulnerable subjectivity’?
  • The rehabilitation of character. The notion of ‘change’ lies at the heart of virtually all approaches to psychotherapy and counselling. At first glance it seems, furthermore, self-evident that it should. Asked what it is that should change as the result of therapy, most practitioners would, I suspect, refer to some aspect of the client’s ‘self’, i.e., something inside the person. At one extreme this might be, for example, aspects of a hypothetical construct like ‘the unconscious’, at the other the internal cognitive processes that are taken to control behaviour. It is this insistence on change that in my view tends to cancel out many of the otherwise valuable insights that therapists have articulated over the years. People are not allowed to be themselves.
    Take as an instance of this the ‘client-centred’ approach of Carl Rogers. As Rogers’s work gained in influence at about the middle of the twentieth century, it did indeed bring with it a great sense of liberation: much of the grim moralism of ‘dynamic’ psychotherapy seemed to fall away, and the emphasis Rogers placed on ‘unconditional positive regard’ and ‘empathy’ seemed to allow subjects to escape the yoke of therapeutic discipline and, precisely, come to be themselves.
    But, as the professions of therapy and counselling burgeoned, ‘positive regard’ turned out not to be unconditional, and empathy to be not so much an end as a means. For these constructs were treated as merely instrumental in the altogether superordinate task of bringing about change. The upshot of this is to place a new burden on patients, for they are freed from an external therapeutic discipline (mediated by ‘interpretation’, ‘the ‘analysis of the transference’, etc.) only to have to repay the warmth and empathy of their therapist by successfully changing themselves. The Rogerian counsellor is not just warm and empathic: the warmth and empathy carries with it an expectation – all too easily turning to an obligation – to change.
    Much of the time, however, for reasons dealt with at length in earlier pages, change is precisely what clients cannot do, not because of incompetence or ill will, but because the powers by which change could be effected are, quite literally, beyond them. To all the other senses of inadequacy and guilt that they may be carrying, then, is added the guilt of being unable to reward their counsellor’s kindness with an appropriate therapeutic adjustment of self.
    The answer to this dilemma, I believe, is to remove from an otherwise benign emphasis on acceptance and empathy their element of instrumentality. They should be, simply, ends in themselves. The best word I can think of for an appropriate, non-instrumental approach for therapists and counsellors to take to their clients is compassion: not so different from ‘empathy’, perhaps, but a little warmer, recognizing not so much that it is necessary to stand in the other’s shoes, but that we already are in each other’s shoes. If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    What clients have to change, if they can, is not their selves, but their world, and in their attempts to do that both they and we have no realistic alternative to accepting that they are who they are. I, you, everybody is not so much a ‘personality’, with all the assumptions that tends to bring of a modular self to which potential structural adjustments of various kinds may be made, as a character, a body inscribed by its experience of the world, indelibly expert in its own idiosyncrasy. We may feel with others whose predicaments form no part of our own experience, but such compassion need bring with it neither the wish nor the hope that they should change. Images of suffering demand not that the sufferer changes him or herself, but that the suffering should be relieved. The starving child needs food, not moral uplift.
    The appropriate role for therapeutic psychology is to record, celebrate and wonder at the extraordinary diversity of human character and to reject immediately any notion it may be tempted to conceive of making moulds for people. We are really not there to judge or shape people, and we need nurse no secret agenda for change. Such change as therapists and their clients may pursue together has no need of mystery, nor even delicacy, but is a down-to-earth matter of what powers are available to the person to make a difference. And if the person, as is often the case, can do nothing, the compassionate acceptance of who they are may still be a comfort.
  • Reinstating the environment. There is no reason why ‘clinical’ psychology should be seen as synonymous with therapy. Indeed, it is only in relatively recent times – particularly with the rise of the ‘dynamic’ therapies of the twentieth century – that the doctoring of the self has come to be seen as the principal business of psychology. The focal concern of psychology with the making of individual subjectivity in no way implies that subjectivity is necessarily self-made. Personhood, along with the subjective awareness of it, is the outcome of an interaction of a body with a world, and it therefore behoves the psychologist to pay careful attention to the constraints and influences of both .
    As is the case with the emerging discipline of ‘community psychology’1, it makes as much sense now as it did to Plato to consider the ways in which individuals are shaped by their environments, and to distinguish environmental influences that are benign from those that are malign.
    If this seems entirely obvious, it is salutary to remember that the whole thrust of ‘therapy’, and much of the weight of ‘evidence’ from social psychology, has been to suggest that the environment does not have a defining influence on individual psychology and that not only can people somehow choose whether to be influenced by it or not, but that pretty well any damage done can be repaired. Earnest debates take place as to whether, for example, poverty and unemployment, loss, brutality and violence contribute to mental disorder, crime, and so on. The fact that human beings are complex, resourceful and resilient means that simple cause-and-effect answers to such questions are not unequivocally demonstrable, and so it is easy to conclude that the pain and havoc wreaked by the ills of society are actually factors of, for instance, weak or vulnerable ‘personalities’ rather than of the ills themselves. This answer is of course exactly what is required by a global corporate plutocracy that depends for its survival on the unremitting exploitation of a mass of ‘consumers’ who must a) be stuffed to bursting point with rubbish, and b) be rendered as far as possible incapable of accurately criticizing their condition.
    But the relation between environmental influence and personal psychology is complex not because it is mediated by some indefinable aspect of the ‘human spirit’, but because environmental influence is in itself far more complex than we have hitherto considered. Because psychology (and especially therapeutic psychology) has been so preoccupied with supposedly interior factors of motivation and cognition, etc., its considerations of environmental influences has frequently been extraordinarily crude and casual – to the extent that it could be argued, for example, that siblings share a ‘similar environment’ or that the influence of TV violence could be measured by showing violent cartoons to toddlers.
    In fact, of course, people know perfectly well that huge advantages are to be gained from occupancy of favourable environments, and the more they have been beneficiaries of such environments, the better they know it. Moralistic homilies and visions of a compensatory after-life are strictly for the masses. The occupants of corporate boardrooms and big country mansions pay unwavering attention to the kinds educational establishment attended by their offspring and the quality of ‘lifestyle’ they submit themselves to.
    How environmental influence works, how it interacts with embodiment, how some social relations become crucial while others glance off apparently unnoticed, constitute questions of enormous subtlety and difficulty and provide material for generations of study. This is, furthermore, a perfectly proper study for clinicians. Rather than attempting to peer into the murky depths of a metaphorical psychic interior, populated only by the hypothetical constructs of our own imagination, we need to get down to the much more difficult and demanding task of trying to tease out the ways in which environmental influences combine and interact to shape our subjectivity.

Scientific implications

I don’t want to get into an argument about what does and does not constitute ‘science’, and I certainly don’t want to align myself with the narrow Anglo-American scientistic orthodoxy that tends to get dismissed by its opponents as ‘positivistic’. But neither do I want to subscribe to the neo-Romantic position often taken up by anti-science, in which rhyme is preferred to reason.

What seems to me important, for ‘clinical’ psychology anyway, is what I take to be the broad project of science rather than the particular content of its methodology. By this I mean a commitment to achieving and communicating an understanding of the world and its occupants that is based on experience, reasoned argument, painstaking and sceptical checking and, ultimately, an appropriate (though very rarely total) degree of consensus. It seems to me that this process is likely to be essentially materialist and realist, though of course critically so.

The integrity and value of science in this sense depends on its being unconstrained and un-perverted by special interests or by the kind of Authority that forms itself into a dogmatic ruling orthodoxy. And that kind of freedom is of course precisely what, in our neck of the social-scientific woods, we have not got. What has come to be put forward as ‘scientific’ in clinical psychology and psychotherapy is a set of dogmas that is shaped and maintained almost exclusively by interest and aimed resolutely at obscuring the causes and consequences of emotional and psychological distress.

There are at least two main sources of interest involved in this state of affairs. The first is the proximal interest of clinicians who, whether consciously or not, perceive their livelihood to depend ultimately on their personal ability to bring about cure (though they may find a more intellectually diplomatic word for it). This is the source of interest that guides much of the research activity and clinical case discussion in the literature on therapy and counselling. It makes sure that only certain kinds of questions are asked and only certain kinds of ‘findings’ considered relevant: questions about therapeutic technique presuppose clear-cut answers that, when they are not forthcoming, are taken to indicate simply the need for more research.

The second, more distal, influence is broadly political, and seeks to maintain a fiction of personal psychopathology as the explanation for mental ‘disorders’. The drive, for example, for ‘evidence-based practice’ in ‘mental health’ services is imposed by central Diktat and countenances only research projects that conform to a primitive set of quasi-medical assumptions dressed up as ‘science’. Inspired by Fordist and Taylorist principles (i.e. the conveyor-belt, deliberately de-personalized and managerially controlled methods of production developed towards the beginning of the 20th century), the Business model of knowledge which has come to prevail in the last twenty years is technicist and crudely pragmatic. It assumes that knowledge-production is achieved by posing appropriate sets of designer questions and must be directed and controlled by management. Once produced, knowledge is to be transmitted thereafter by means of off-the-shelf ‘training’ modules.

This approach to the managerially directed division of labour in ‘science’, whereby centrally determined questions are farmed out to technicians for a kind of algorithmic ‘research’ process yielding packaged knowledge that, in turn, is further disseminated by operatives versed in the techniques of training, rules out just about everything that is creative, intelligent and worthwhile in scientific discovery and teaching. For these latter are processes that take place at the very forefront of human endeavour (i.e. are not manageable ‘skills’) and depend for their significance and fruitfulness on qualities of understanding and enquiry that are not specifiable technically in advance. The kinds of flexibility and resourcefulness, sensitivity and intelligence that are the hallmarks of, for example, good scientists and teachers cannot be contained within a packaged ‘spec’ of the kind so beloved of business managers (the myth of specifiability is a core feature of Business culture), but are the result of a kind of nurturing husbandry of inquisitiveness and creativity whose results can only be hoped for, not guaranteed.

By deliberately excluding the kind of intellectual originality and adventurousness that is characteristic of real achievement in the sciences as much as the arts, Business may well protect itself from unwanted surprises, but it does so at the expense of producing a dumbed-down, uncritical environment that is deadeningly third rate, uncreative, and ultimately (because essentially stupefied and imperceptive) profoundly ineffective.

The corruption of science by business interest in the pharmaceutical world constitutes a microcosm of our society. Impecunious scientists whose public funding has been withdrawn are induced to have articles published in learned journals under their name, but which have in fact been written by ghost writers in the pay of the drug companies (all this documented in The Guardian, 7.2.02). In this way an appearance of independent evidence is used to create a spurious authority to underpin make-believe.

As far as research in ‘clinical’ psychology is concerned, we need to recognize that (as, no doubt, in many other areas) no further progress will be made until we have re-established an environment for theoretical speculation and practical enquiry that is both independent and secure. That is to say, the discovery and development of knowledge (recognizing and communicating what is true about the world) is completely inimical to the play of interest and must, as far as is humanly possible, be separated from it. The one-dimensional culture of the corporate plutocracy, interested only in profit, is incapable of producing the conditions in which intellectual pursuits flourish. For the kinds of unconditional patronage and guaranteed independence necessary will not only be seen ideologically as needlessly wasteful and unacceptably out of managerial control, but would in fact inevitably constitute a threat to the corporate regime itself. As soon as the cultural unidimensionality of Business is shattered by the introduction of non-bottom-line dimensions, it finds itself vulnerable to orders of criticism that threaten its very survival.

Business is definitely not interested in the disinterested pursuit of scientific evidence. The principal alternative open to it is, as we have seen, the development of increasingly convoluted systems of make-believe to run alongside the extremely banal technological processes of knowledge-production that are managerially controllable.

Philosophical implications

Paradoxically perhaps, the existence of make-believe proclaims the importance of truth. Notwithstanding the best arguments of the ‘constructivists’, make-believe is not the outcome of an ultimate relativity, but derives its importance from its ability to be taken for the truth. The possibility of truth lies behind make-believe, just as a covert truth-claim lies behind every avowedly relativist account of how things are. In this way make-believe is subservient to truth; it seeks to stand in for truth, but is always at risk of being dispelled by it.

Make-believe (spin) is essential to politics precisely because politics is so vulnerable, even in today’s depleted democracy, to dreaded ‘public opinion’. For public opinion is what people believe to be true, and as long as political power is contingent on what people think, it will be essential to control what they think. Hence the enormous effort that is put politically into maintaining ideological power, to controlling the formation and reception of meaning in every sphere and at every level. But truth is still not sovereign, for behind truth lies power.

It really doesn’t matter to politicians how blatant and absurd (to the more discerning consumers of the ‘safety-valve’ media) the (mis)representation of truth becomes just so long as mass opinion continues to be controlled. This is because what people take to be true still, just, has the propensity to undermine power. If power should ever manage to find a way of subverting this last vestige of democratic influence, it will cease immediately to bother with spin and abandon with huge relief all the apparatus of make-believe, for truth will no longer be important.

Corporate plutocracy still depends to an extent on a depleted democracy and must therefor sustain a notion of the ‘truth’, but this is a severely debased form of truth, i.e. truth as virtually synonymous with public opinion and purveyed by the public relations and advertising industries. Precisely because it has become so debased, so transparently fabricated and manipulated, ‘truth’ may be mistakenly represented (perhaps, indeed, in good faith) by the intellectuals of ‘postmodernity’ as an outmoded construction of the discredited ‘grand narratives’ of former times. But rather than the exposure of the, so to speak, conceptual impossibility of truth, what we are witnessing is the disempowerment of truth, its cynical reduction to technologies of spin in which there is a tacit acknowledgement that truth is on the way to not mattering at all.

Truth, and its parasite make-believe, thus only matter as long as there is a possibility of popular solidarity forming around a common understanding of what is the case (e.g. how the world works to immiserate us) and destabilizing the structures of global corporate plutocracy.

In this state of affairs the philosophical task becomes that of rehabilitating the concept of truth, which in turn means deconstructing constructivism!

There can be no doubt that language is of the first importance in the formation of human conduct and society. But this does not mean that language is generative of reality itself. The over-excited embrace (and often only rudimentary understanding) in broadly ‘therapeutic’ circles of notions of ‘discourse’, ‘narrative’, etc. having their origin mainly in the writings of French post-structuralists such as Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard, has resulted in an almost psychotic disregard of the real circumstances of people’s lives.

Of course words do not directly reflect an incontrovertible reality or ‘hold a mirror up to Nature’; of course language can never give direct access to Truth. And of course language is absolutely essential to our understanding of and interaction with the world and each other. But this does not invest language with some kind of magical power of creation in which it brings worlds into being. Certainly language is the principal medium of persuasion, but it persuades by pointing to something other than itself, something that is the case rather than something that is merely said2.

It is easy to see how we can be misled by our linguistic ability into investing it with magical power, but only the machinations of power, surely, can explain the extent to which the world has come to be presented as de-materialized at the highest intellectual levels. Foucault spoke, after all, of the ‘discourse of power’, not the power of discourse, and yet it is this misconstruction which seems to have gripped the imagination of the ‘constructivists’. Language does not describe reality, they say, in contemptuous dismissal of the ‘grand narratives of the past’. No, but neither does it bring it into being.

Language allows us to place our experience at a distance from us, to hypostatize and manipulate it. Otherwise, we could only live our experience – or be lived by it, rather in the manner of dreaming. Inevitably, we are constantly tempted to believe in the actuality of our imaginings (which is why scientific enquiry has to be so sceptical and so painstaking), but when we take imagination as definitive of reality (or alternative realities), we have sunk into collective madness.

It is in the interest of any powerful minority that has been able to shape society to its own considerable material benefit, and at the cost of depriving the majority, to obscure not only the processes by which it has achieved its position but also the very nature of reality itself, particularly the significance of people’s experience of pain. There is enormous scope for such obfuscation in the time-honoured and entirely familiar ideological and rhetorical manoeuvres (‘spin’ and PR) that aim at convincing us that black is white. But to insert at the highest levels of philosophical thought the premise that there is no such thing as reality is a coup indeed.

While we may agree that in the past a too heavy-handed positivist authority attempted to claim a special relationship with Truth that allowed no use of linguistic concepts other than its own (i.e. that language could indeed be used to describe an independent reality), we need to recapture a view of language as articulating our relations with the world as best we can. We can in this was acknowledge that any form of ‘ultimate’ realty must always remain a mystery beyond our grasp, but that that does not mean there is no such thing as reality. Some things are more real, some statements more true, than others. Reality is sensed in embodied experience before it is articulated in words, and what we say needs always to be checked against other kinds of evidence, including where necessary every other possible intimation we may have of our living existence in material reality.

Political implications

Let us not mince matters. The following speaks for itself. It is the Statement of the Centre for Research in Globalisation, as set out in their website:-

CRG Statement

The Centre's objective is to unveil the workings of the New World Order.
War and globalisation go hand in hand, leading, in the post Cold War era, to the destruction of countries and the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people. In turn, this global economic system is marked by an unprecedented concentration of private wealth. The institutions of war, police repression and economic management interface with one another. NATO is not only in liaison with the Pentagon and the CIA, it also has contacts with the IMF and the World Bank. In turn, the Washington based international financial bureaucracy, responsible for imposing deadly "economic medicine" on developing countries has close ties to the Wall Street financial establishment.
The powers behind this system are those of the global banks and financial institutions, the military-industrial complex, the oil and energy giants, the biotech conglomerates and the powerful media and communications giants, which fabricate the news and overtly distort the course of world events. In turn, the police apparatus represses, in the name of "Western democracy", all forms of dissent and critique of the dominant neoliberal ideology.
This "false consciousness" which pervades our societies, prevents critical debate and masks the truth. Ultimately, this false consciousness precludes a collective understanding of the workings of a World economic and political system, which destroys people's lives. The only promise of global capitalism is a World of landless farmers, shuttered factories, jobless workers and gutted social programs with "bitter economic medicine" under the WTO and the IMF constituting the only prescription.
The New World Order is based on the "false consensus" of Washington and Wall Street, which ordains the "free market system" as the only possible choice on the fated road to a "global prosperity". The GRG purports to reveal the truth and disarm the falsehoods conveyed by the controlled corporate media.

Michel Chossudovsky,
29 August 2001

This seems to me about as succinct a summary of the state of affairs confronting us as one is likely to find.

Nothing could suit corporate plutocracy more than for people to believe that the real satisfactions of life stem ultimately from the cultivation of privacy: that subjective well-being, that is to say, is a matter of ‘personal growth’ from the inside. One-dimensional Business culture in fact closes down public space such that the ‘real’ world’ (i.e. the world of the market economy) becomes simply a given that people have to accept without question: ‘resistance is useless’. If the many can be persuaded that they have no say in the shaping of material reality, and that personal satisfaction is purely a matter of self-doctoring and private consumption, the world is left wide open for exploitation by the few.

When the only public meanings available are the grim and unassailable ‘realities’ of the market, people are left to scrabble together for themselves make-shift ways of sharing experiences that actually cannot be accommodated within the Business model (an example would be the rituals of grief that have developed rapidly in recent times – impromptu roadside shrines, greater emotional demonstrativeness, etc.). Quite apart from feeling politically impotent (and demonstrating our alienation by shunning the ‘democratic’ process in unprecedented numbers) we have to cast around for ways of making communal sense of experiences that inevitably arise from our existence as embodied beings but are no longer served by abandoned – and often discredited - traditions.

However, because we are social beings, individual subjectivity cannot develop and flourish in a virtual vacuum. The structures of public space necessarily supply a kind of exoskeleton for our feeling and understanding of what it is to be human, and where those structures are drastically reduced, our subjectivity becomes fractured and incomplete. At its most grotesque, people may become stripped of public identity altogether: nameless automata at the end of a telephone without powers of reason or judgement, able only to reiterate a handful of stock phrases.

It is of course understandable for people to feel that one answer to the heartlessness of the outside world is to retire into the realm, if not of the inner self, at least of the private life of home and family, etc. However, I suspect that this kind of strategy is built on the false premise that inner space, privacy, is somehow independent of public structure. In fact, if anything, the opposite seems to me to be the case. For individual people, hell is more often to be experienced within the confines of the family (or indeed the agonies of introspection) than it is in the spaces beyond, and public structures of meaning – what one might broadly call cultures - that have evolved over time to accommodate the concerns of embodied human beings may offer an escape from privacy that actually lends meaning and significance to once private suffering. A decent, caring, multi-dimensional public world makes use as well as sense of private pain and confusion. One of the most tormented and abused (and admirable) people I ever met was rescued as child from total perdition by films and books, which, among other things, uncovered, to her amazement, the possibility of love.

The way to rescue subjectivity is, then, not to sink further into our ‘inner worlds’, but to struggle to open up public space and build within it structures that are adequate to giving meaning and purpose to our lives. The relentless Business onslaught over the last couple of decades has stripped away practically every way we had of understanding ourselves other than the stupefying mantras of the market economy. Deeply hostile to social, intellectual, artistic, spiritual and what Ivan Illich called convivial ways of thinking, being and experiencing (not least because they give subjects the possibility of criticizing their condition), Business, where it cannot undermine them directly, invades them parasitically, like one of those wasps that lays its eggs on the pupae of other creatures. Intellectual life gives way to a kind of managerially authorized posturing, intelligence to the bureaucratized application of mindless rules, history to fashion. Even ordinary conversation, via the media, takes on the tones of hyperbolic advertising gibberish.

Every nook and cranny of existence is turned to commercial use and the apparatus of consumerism is everywhere. Taxation is replaced by sponsorship. Every article for sale is laden with the ‘added value’ of ever more contrived and crazy exercises in branding. Sport becomes big business. Thought, feeling, relating and understanding become prescribed, iterative rituals in which people no longer know what they think, or what to think, unless it is prescribed by commercial logic, or the crude dogmas of political correctness that have come to replace morality.

And all the inarticulate confusion and despair that this state of affairs generates is to be soaked up by ‘counselling’.

There can be no doubt that this Business take-over of just about every aspect of life has been successful almost beyond belief, so much so that it is virtually impossible to envisage how the process might be either reversed or overthrown. There was, to be sure, a great deal that was unsatisfactory about the traditional orthodoxies that prevailed before the take-over, and to attempt to return to the intellectual, moral and spiritual institutions we used to know would indeed be retrograde in the worst sense. We need to recover the multidimensionality of public space that we have lost, but without the stuffy authoritarianism and entrenched inequalities that often went with its principal features.

There are still those who hope that something like this might be achieved by existing political organizations. In an excellent article in the Guardian (20.3.01) David Marquand offers a perceptive analysis of the social ills that beset us and the need for a ‘renewal of the public services and the culture that sustains them’, and hopes that this may yet form a real (as opposed to virtual) part of New Labour’s project in Britain. However, nothing has occurred since the re-election of New Labour that took place a couple of months later to inspire confidence that that may be the case – other, of course, than copious amounts of verbal make-believe.

A rather less optimistic perspective is gained from a re-reading of C. Wright Mills’s brilliant book The Power Elite, written almost fifty years ago. In it, he documented the processes that closed down and commercialized public space in the USA, replaced its civil service with agents of the corporate plutocracy, and so on - the development of the very processes, indeed, that so dominate us now and to which there seems to be no organized and publicly endorsed opposition. There is, thankfully, an unofficial and unendorsed opposition that from time to time makes itself felt in no uncertain manner (as it did, for example at Seattle and Genoa), but it is not yet clear how or whether this could become a political factor in the consciousness of the vast mass of the public who are currently firmly in the grip of the conventional media.

Consider for a moment the following, highly over-simplified, diagram of how a conventionally left-wing political system might theoretically be aimed at creating the kind of personal environment where individuals could flourish as both public and private beings:-

It is sobering to reflect that even this relatively modest ideal has become so far out of reach as to as to appear simply absurd. For national governments no longer determine their own policies, and the influences of global corporate plutocracy intrude at every level of social organization to further their own interests.

In the absence of any organized opposition, all we can do is resist as best we can. It is vain to expect, though, that the piecemeal dissent of scattered individuals is going to make much of an impact. The apparatus of power is too well developed for that.

But nothing lasts for ever, and untrammelled greed has its blind-spots. Maybe the best we can hope for is to have some idea of what to do when the apparatus collapses.

1. A good account can be found in Orford, J. Community Psychology: Theory and Practice, Wiley, 1992.
2. An excellent critique of ‘postmodernist’ overstatements of the power of words may be found in Margaret S. Archer, Being Human. The Problem of Agency, Cambridge University Press, 2000. One does not have to concur with the author’s religious inclination to appreciate the passionate lucidity of her defence of reality.



Why publish on
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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