Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Psychologist Critical Of Capitalism

The latest book by David Small, "Power, Interest and Psychology" which came
out last year (PCCS Books, Ross-On-Wye, England, 2005; also available as a
free read on his website at, but only
recently to our attention, constitutes the perfect synopsis of the ideas he
has been developing in all his prior works, in particular, "Taking Care"
(J.M.Dent & Sons, London, England, 1987) and "The Nature of Unhappiness"
(Robinson, London, England, 2001). Because of their importance in the
overall field of clinical psychology in stressing society over individuals,
and also the potential assistance they may accord to those of us advocating
a new society with relative difficulty for the past century, it was felt
justifiable to examine his ideas in more than the space normally accorded in
our journal to a book review.

David Smail is a psychologist, now retired from his position as Special
Professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Nottingham in England
from 1979 to 2000, little known either within his field or to those outside
of mental health who are critical of capitalism. However, his books have
over the years made giant contributions, in this writer's opinion, to an
understanding of the psychology of oppression. Also, his description of the
psychological effects and requirements of capitalism reads as though it came
right from the pen of a socialist in this very journal, and indeed comes
highly recommended for our readers, differing only, and unfortunately, in
the specific political conclusions he draws in the last fifteen or so pages,
as we shall see later.

Smail has been a longstanding critic of psychotherapy, in particular the
way it values an interior view of humankind (one based on a fictitious inner
world with false claims of influence upon the world, what he calls
"ideality") over an exterior view of humankind (one based upon the existing
social relations of power, or "reality"). Smail is very aware that
psychotherapy does provide some valuable elements, such as empathic
listening, and the solidarity that a therapist offers a patient, however as
a social materialist (as he calls himself) he criticizes the "magical
voluntarism" inherent in psychotherapy, which no matter what clinical
orientation (psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, humanistic) communicates
a false message that "you can change the world you are responsible for in
order to lessen the distress you feel"). This message, says Smail, is
essential to the underpinning of capitalist relations, which depend upon the
producers or dispossessed experiencing their misery as essentially owing
either to something that is fundamentally wrong with them, or to a product
of their choice or will, or to something somehow alterable through greater
conviction, will-power, analysis or insight on their part. Changing people
or their reactions to our stressful world is after all what therapists do.
Indeed, they possess an economic interest in promoting such a goal, since
therapy is by definition that professional service. Smail feels clinical
psychologists should be focusing more on helping humans understand their
social natures and how the world inevitably produces certain emotional
reactions. He feels with good reason that clinical psychologists stressing
individual psychopathology and vulnerability and therapeutic assistance for
these (which is mostly what they have done) have wrought a gross disservice
to humanity by in this fashion serving the ideological needs of capitalism
that requires us to adopt an atomized conception of our citizenship, atoms
that look after themselves and their families, competing with other atomic
consumers and workers in the marketplace.

Smail mourns (as we do) the resulting the loss of our understanding of the
material reality we inhabit, which has been substituted in clinical
psychology by the fiction of our exaggerated powers as individuals, even
though most of the "proximal" (local) powers we do exert, for example upon
our children, friends, family or in the workplace, are limited in relation
to the "distal" (far away) powers of states and corporations which much more
significantly define the nature of our condition as working people. The
reason this happens, according to Smail, is partly owing to the ease with
which humans fall prey to certain illusions because of the nature of their
"embodied" existence (we do after all experience ourselves as "minds"
"inside" "bodies" looking "out" "into" the "world outside"), and of their
minds as being the products of bodies interrelating with environments. In
the limited "proximal space-time" we inhabit, it is easy for each of us to
experience our world as "self-as-centre" (much as our ancestors were fooled
into believing the geocentric view of the universe that appeared quite
rational according to the input from their senses – it certainly does look
as though it is the sun rising). See Figure 1 called The Impress of Power
for an encapsulated explanation of what we have discussed thus far.

The Embodiment balloon illustrates what we as bodies experience – our
feelings, abilities, dispositions, perceptions, memories, reflexes and
impulses – products of our peculiarly human neurological wiring. At the
same time, we also develop (and mostly acquire from our culture) a set of
beliefs, ideas, or ideals that evolve along with the development of our
language. One might legitimately view these as linguistic constructions.
Because we have an ongoing internal self-talk (which Smail calls
"commentary") about our embodied experience, it is easy to construe our
commentary as somehow causing our ongoing actions or emotional reactions.
In short, it is easy for us to assume a personal agency that we may not
actually possess, at least not to the extent we imagine personally, or we
are brainwashed into believing by society's ideologues. Smail suggests that
the most powerful influences that end up impinging upon the individual tend
to be those further from him or her, such as the economic, political and
cultural that help to define the nature of our actual worlds (physical as
well as mental). This is where Smail is at his most brilliant – discussing
how biological and cognitive limitations of humans are so easily exploited
by the ruling class to create the sort of dream-world humans inhabit more
and more, and which create such a lasting hold upon them especially in terms
of their beliefs and allegiances.

Smail suggests that "power (the means of obtaining security or advantage)
is the fundamental dynamic of social structure." He suggests that our
embodied existences certainly do provide some basic powers that some may
exert over others, for example physical attractiveness or muscular strength,
however such powers as the economic, the legal, the coercive and the
ideological (the latter being the control of meaning, language, perspective
and horizon) which define the nature of our existences to the greatest
degree tend to be distal influences, which control us considerably even
though we possess no meaningful control over them (as individuals). Smail
understands the blinders that workers have on not only because of the
immense economic interests that the owning class has in maintaining them,
but also because workers too in their states of dispossession have emotional
interests to avoid seeing the brutal, naked, painful, truth, and so to
accept the manufactured dream world of endless commodities, entertainment,
celebrities, religion, and of course psychotherapy (which helps individuals
to view their disturbances in entirely individual terms, which they falsely
think to be correctible through changing ideas and through being
sufficiently motivated to do so). In essence, the dreams workers inhabit
that are mostly produced by the capitalist class feed real emotional
interests workers may have in accepting powers that may help them overcome
their status, their loneliness, or their anxiety.

Smail states that our preoccupations are with things closer to home than
the real world, such as with our own economic survival and that of those
close to us, with our status within the social groups we occupy locally,
with everyday personal satisfactions and discomforts, with ambitions,
dreams, and wishes. Our immediate interests, then, may blind us cognitively
to the wider picture, but Smail also attributes such blindness to the distal
nature of the actual centers of power – just as the commentator in the
socialist video Capitalism and Other Kids Stuff discusses how easy it is not
to think about the millions of starving children in other continents because
of their distance from our everyday lives, so we also typically never step
into the corporate boardrooms or mansions where critical decisions affecting
our daily, ordinary, lives are made.

Smail writes especially powerfully when discussing the psychology of
oppression. He writes: "The material of subjectivity is indeed raw, and its
significance is lost without a public world that can structure it and give
it expression. For our private experience to mean anything, for its value
to be realized, it has to be accommodated within a "commons" – within public
space – that recognizes it as a contribution." He writes a bit further on
that a "life is given meaning and value not by being enjoyed in private, but
by being lived and appreciated in public." Such recommendations by a
clinical psychologist are of course a breath of fresh air not enjoyed since
Erich Fromm wrote "The Sane Society" in 1955, and are thus heartily welcomed
by those of us who work for a world of common ownership that we feel might
better realize not only our material needs in our world of relative poverty,
struggle to make a living, and economic insecurity, but also might more
effectively nurture our emotional needs for participation, validation,
creativity, and freedom.

Smail, however, makes a few points with which socialists must disagree.
Indeed, they appear to spring out of errors in his analysis (even though his
understanding of the psychological requirements of capitalism is truly
brilliant and highly recommended to other socialists). His political
recommendation ends up being a moral prescription 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." This
would seem in contradiction to his main thesis that the idea of a change in
our basic constitution (at least in a class society) is a psychological
fallacy. Meanwhile, while certainly praising Marx earlier for his very rich
social psychology, he also condemns him for naively assuming that capitalism
contains the seeds of its downfall, and for not foreseeing its ability to
produce "movable goalposts." But of course, it was precisely because Marx
understood psychological life as emerging from existing material conditions
that he felt revolutionary ideas would forever spring out of them. In other
words, how else may we interpret even David Smail's insights (more "seeds"),
if not reflecting the social conditions of capitalist exploitation and
alienation and supporting Marx's thesis that the contradictions of
capitalist production produce socialist consciousness?

Smail thinks persuasion is a waste of time, but his pages on this matter
appear to be in attack mostly upon the idea that persuasion of existing
political and economic institutions falls upon deaf ears owing to their
interests, with which we would agree. But what of persuasion urging for our
liberation from capital attempted by working people to others in their
class? Furthermore, why if Smail considers interest of such prominent
influence upon action does he not conclude that working people should be
more receptive to revolutionary ideas if indeed they do possess an economic
and presumably also an emotional interest to abolish the conditions that
limit their power so significantly? At one point, Smail admits to having no
idea how to achieve social change, but then shortly later he wonders if
perhaps solidarity action will arise from our having nothing to lose but our

The greatest problem with Smail's thesis appears to be in his understanding
of power. While it may be true that capitalism is able to exert power in
different ways (legal, economic, coercive, ideological), his theory views
capitalism in not a very socially relational manner at all. He falls prey
to the same errors of modern anti-capitalists and leftists who view
capitalism as having entered into a unique neo-liberal globalization phase
that is qualitatively different from previous forms. Indeed, his book
contains an illustration of one theoretically improved society that is
basically a form of capitalism in which wealth is more fairly distributed
(fair, presumably, only for those who see the system as potentially fairer),
taxation more progressive, and public services more extensive. After his
powerful critique of the role of capitalism upon the human psyche, this
appears to be one very anti-climatic vision of a society "Taking Care" (the
title of a previous book). This shows how he views the corporate
capitalists and the states that make political decisions on their behalf as
basically the bad guys because of their noxious influence upon the quality
of our lives, and not the relations of capitalism themselves which produced
and required such institutions. This view of capitalism does not account,
for example, for how workers are actually complicit in this process by
actually providing the system with power at every election (we have no
argument with Smail about the extensive influence of ideological power upon
their choices or upon how they think about the election).

Smail sees society's significant power as sort of floating powerfully from a
distance but does not appreciate how this power originates in the ownership
of the means of production. So many leftists and anarchists share this
incorrect view of power, and so spend the bulk of their time trying to
reform capitalism rather than to replace it outright with a new society
geared exclusively toward meeting human needs and not toward selling
commodities. When the means of production are owned by a minority, that
minority requires a coercive, legal and ideological machine to protect its
property. When the means of production are owned in common (or by no one,
same thing), then an ideological, coercive or legal apparatus will no longer
be necessary. Just as money will no longer be necessary, since wealth will
be produced and consumed by the same global population that owns it. And
along with such common ownership, all citizens will possess equal access to
the decision-making process. Surely Smail does not find evidence in our
past or in countries elsewhere in our present that state capitalist regimes
are more democratic and participatory? That people in such regimes are any
less likely to be sent to therapists when they get depressed or fed up
living their nine to five existences?

How can Smail as a psychologist so critical of capitalism not see that it is
not the type of capitalism that his patients find so miserable, but the very
relations of that society, whatever government is in power? Does working
for a small company necessarily mean workers feel less dependent, less
excluded, less exploited, less overworked, less bored? Socialists postulate
that no matter what type of capitalism (private, state, or mixed) the basic
relations of the system are identical – the majority must work for the
minority in order to buy back some of the wealth from its wages that it
produced as a class. Also, without understanding such relations of
capitalism, Smail is not able to even consider an alternative, a society
without employment, money or states, even though he is so understandably
nauseated by their effects upon us admittedly psychologically vulnerable

Smail has therefore done a fantastic job (and is a lone voice in the field
of psychology doing it) in attempting to explain what appear to be the
cognitive errors humans make that frustrate their ability to understand the
workings of the entire system (for example, their tendency to view the
"outside" in terms of "selves" in the center of their worlds), and also what
we may term the existential experiences that keep them focused on day to day
concerns of their own economic and psychological survivals. How else could
they not be so focused, given their deprivation from the means of life?
Surely slaves and peasants were similarly focused in prior exploitative

Still, hundreds of thousands of workers have thus far over the past few
centuries understood that they have an interest in collectively putting an
end to such a society and replacing it with a society of common ownership
and production for use instead of sale, even though at no time were they
ever sufficient in numbers to actually do so. A poignant question to
address a psychologist such as Smail is: "Why do some workers possess these
insights and work for such a future, while others remain blinded?" Another
question that comes to mind is: "In what way may existing psychological,
cognitive, knowledge serve socialists in terms of what they should be doing
to more effectively convey socialist understanding to other humans?" As a
psychologist, is Dr. Smail not aware of other forms of cognitive distortions
and biases that cognitive scientists have reported humans frequently engage
in (the fundamental attribution bias to name only one) other than the
experience of self-as-centre that may have further explicated the process
that keeps humans from seeing the bigger picture of their exploitation or of
their membership in an international class if not in a worldwide family with
common ancestral origins? Smail writes at length of the ways science is
used in the interest of supporting capitalism's ideology or profit-making
(we would not argue with him here) but what of scientific thinking that
encourages skepticism and demands evidence before accepting claims, which
Smail does seem to discuss briefly in positive terms – may the rise of such
thinking as part of mainstream culture not act as an important antidote to
humans' natural propensity to think in limited ways that capitalism clearly
exploits? If capitalism produces greed, as Smail argues (and of course we
agree here) then why does he not argue for its complete abolition if he
desires humans to behave in more cooperative and caring ways?

Dr. Who

Chicago, 2006

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