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Psychology and Capitalism is a critical and accessible account of the ideological and material role of psychology in supporting capitalist enterprise and holding individuals entirely responsible for their fate through the promotion of individualism.
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About the Author
Ron Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Kingston University with over 30 years' experience in Higher Education. He is the author of five books.
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Psychology and Capitalism
The Manipulation of Mind
By Ron Roberts
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Ron Roberts
All rights reserved.
Origins: A Dangerous Science
Control, in any complete sense, is not an aim but a dangerous myth.
(Bannister & Fransella, 1971, p.201)
If we are to fully consider the central thesis of this book –that the nature of psychology as an academic discipline is inextricably bound up with the character of the socio-economic and political realm –we must of necessity examine the historical contexts within which it first arose and then subsequently developed. An inspection of any number of textbooks places the emergence of scientific psychology in the second half of the 19th century. This was when Wilhelm Wundt, working at Leipzig University, set up the first laboratory of experimental psychology. His aim was to establish a new domain of science fused from earlier philosophical studies of mind and an experimental tradition borrowed from physiology, which had investigated the body as a purely mechanical system. Wundt wished his experimental psychology to bridge the gap between the investigation of physiological processes and what could be revealed through intro-spection –the process of examining one's own conscious thoughts and feelings. In this Wundt was monumentally unsuccessful.
However, to begin the story from Wundt is already too late. Accounts of the history of experimental psychology which do so fall into the trap of uncritically accepting psychology's claims that its experimental tradition was a logical extension of Enlightenment thought. The Enlightenment was a cultural movement which swept across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries aiming to not only revolutionise thought but change society through the force of reason, argument and evidence alone. What psychology claims in effect is that its growth and influence stem from the scientific and intellectual strength alone of its arguments, and not the touch nor the influence of politics, power, privileged interest, money or emotion. This was an account which American textbook writers at the end of the 19th century wished to promote, but it was far from the truth.
Psychology's real history began a good 300 years prior to Wundt's appearance on the scene. Before 1500 there was no mention in any literature of the word psychology; its first recorded use was by the Croatian humanist and Latinist Marko Marulic in his book, Psichiologia de ratione animae humanae in the late 15th or early 16th century. Its first use in the English language was by Steven Blankaart in 1694 in The Physical Dictionary which refers to "Anatomy, which treats of the Body, and Psychology, which treats of the Soul" (cited in Itten & Roberts, 2014, p.61). A real danger in linking early use of the term to its present application lies in assuming that the terms are addressing the same phenomenon. While Newton's treatment of gravity in the 17th century and Einstein's in the 20th century are clearly different, they are dealing with the same phenomenon –the actions of free-falling bodies in a gravitational field, and the nature of the attractive force between them. In psychology's case, however, we have to tread carefully. As can be seen from its early use, the word pertains to the soul, a non-material presumed entity whose existence few if any psychologists or psychotherapists of the 21st century would subscribe to. An even greater danger is to project contemporary psychological terms back in historical time and make presumptions about both the way people experienced the world and the value of contemporary hypothesised psychological constructs in explaining how they behaved in it.
In fact not long after psychology entered the lexicon, the noted philosopher Immanuel Kant dismissed the possibility of psychology as a natural science. The best it could hope for, he argued, given that psychology lacked any axiomatic basis (a system of undisputed a priori propositions from which to proceed), as well as the considerable problems associated with introspection, was to proceed empirically and produce a collection of facts which could be ordered and classified. As such it would at best comprise an historical doctrine of nature (Brysbaert & Rastle, 2013). This criticism finds echoes in Kenneth Gergen's (1973) argument, toward the end of the 20th century, that psychology is not a science and should be considered a branch of historical knowledge, capable only of statements whose truths are contingent on time and place (see Chapter 2). Kant queried the value of introspection –the attempt to systematically make observations of one's own mind –because not only does one alter, by observing, what is being observed, but what is doing the observing and what is being observed are one and the same. Karl Popper's view of science was that it needs "points of view and theoretical problems" (2002, p.88). Psychology, when it began, had neither. Arguably this is still the case.
Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology as well as the doctrine of positivism, made similar arguments. To him psychology's subject matter, the soul, was beyond the reach of the senses and immeasurable. It could never attain the status of a science. Notwithstanding these objections, psychology developed initially as a branch of philosophy (Intellectual philosophy) considering the various products of the mind –such as dreams, thoughts, ideas, emotions, imagination, will and moral reasoning. The first textbooks of psychology duly began to appear around the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The fledgling attempts to establish psychology as a coherent discipline were met with widespread scepticism as to its possible utility. The first steps to rebrand psychology as an experimental social science began in earnest with Wundt's aforementioned use of introspection in 1879. Wundt's work, though oft cited as the celebrated first use of the experimental method in the nascent discipline, actually yielded little by way of fruitful knowledge. For psychology to be given the kick start into respectability, developments outside the disciple were what came to have the greatest influence in both shaping what went on (and still goes on) within it and in determining its practical utility. It was Kant's suggestion that psychology could only usefully proceed through classification and ordering that proved the more prescient and led to psychology finding or inventing something which it could measure.
Historical, Political and Technological Influences
The key developments for psychology as a discipline were historical, political, cultural, social and technical. Christianity and the Protestant reformation in particular had paved the way for a form of individualism to develop. Stressing one's private relationship with God, Christianity's influence was multiplied by a series of technological developments. These included not only the mirror –which perforce encouraged and increased self-awareness –but also the printing press, which in turn led to more widespread literacy, letter-writing and the birth of the novel. On top of these the feudal order was giving way to the new capitalist one which led to the new mercantile capitalist class promoting the private accumulation of capital and wealth above the collective ownership and use of natural resources. The early period of industrialisation saw marked increases in the human population and the rapid rise of industrial centres of production to which people from the country flocked. With rapid urban growth there were an entirely new series of problems about how power and control were to be maintained. The ruling class of the day sought to exert this control through gathering ever more information about the hordes of people who not only were occupying the new urban spaces but also constituted the producers of the various forms of new wealth through their labour. As the divisions of labour multiplied, it became increasingly important to be able to categorise this potential workforce in terms of who could and couldn't do what kind of work.
Classification, Statistics, Norms and Deviance
It was thus in the 18th century and the beginning of the industrial revolution that psychology got its modern impetus. The young discipline, as yet lacking any demonstrable utility, was able to acquire it through the help of another new discipline then pushing out its first shoots above the soil of the new social order. That discipline was statistics. The impetus behind its foundation was to construct a science of the state –hence its name. The young science of the state initially concerned itself with collecting demographic and economic data. Accordingly it became known as Political Arithmetic in English, and later took its name from the German Statistik. Here begins the numerical disciplining of people and the social spaces they inhabit into various boxes, categories and packages.
The centuries-long process of surveillance effectively began here and runs all the way to the modern security state. Despite the almost ubiquitous presence of statistics in contemporary psychology, it is imperative to stress that it began not to enhance human well-being or to promote a deeper understanding of the natural world, but to serve the needs of government and central administrative bodies. Without an awareness of this, one cannot fully appreciate psychology's preoccupation with coding, counting and classifying people –i.e. turning them into numbers outside of this history. Neither can one understand the long history of surveillance –that directly authorised by the state or that internally practiced on oneself –without contemplating how statistics contributes to it. The development of statistics as a discipline leads to normative descriptions of human beings and human social groups –height, weight, family size, age etc. Only in the 19th century did statistics escape this enclave to become a general method of analysis and interpretation of data.
One of the troubles with statistical norms is that from being purely descriptive their use can shift imperceptibly to being prescriptive –used as a basis for saying not how things are but how they should be. A recurrent feature of the use of so-called psychological norms is that the descriptive aspect rapidly disappears and all that is left is the prescriptive, mystifyingly announced as 'value free' science. This is how we come to mistakenly accept social norms of behaviour as prescriptions for how we ought to behave, even in the absence of information as to how people do behave in actual real-world situations. Human situations of course, without fail, unfold in historical contexts –one reason why they are poorly understood. In reality the enormous variety of possible situations coupled with the clash of people's unknown histories means that a prescriptive account of how people ought to be expected to behave based on prior probability cannot be known. On top of this, mere facts can never logically give rise to statements regarding what ought to be. Ifs do not lead to shoulds. These are arrived at outside the scientific arena and then imported into it by a system of smoke and mirrors to claim scientific backing for what are essentially political or moral judgments. One of the few psychologists to come clean on this is Marie Jahoda, who in a foreword to Laing, Phillipson and Lee's Interpersonal Perception admitted that there can be "no norms for interpersonal encounters" (1966, p.iv) –a piece of wisdom that, sadly never made it out of the 1960s.
As political arithmetic developed, what could not escape the attention of the administrative class during this period of social transition was the large numbers of people who, from the point of view of the state –a state run naturally enough by the wealthy for the wealthy –served no useful economic function, and disrupted the day to day lives of those who did. These comprised an assortment of beggars, prostitutes, criminals, the sick, the disabled and the mad, as well as those whose personal conduct was embarrassing to the reputation of their wealthy relatives. The sheer numbers of such people meant that the powerful of the day were motivated to do something. What had begun in England as a relatively small-scale operation, the parking of one's 'aberrant' relatives in a madhouse, eventually increased in scale. What began with private madhouses –usually very small establishments catering for only a handful of individuals and, initially, run by the clergy –came to be run-for-profit businesses led by the burgeoning medical profession seeking to expand their sphere of influence. This they did as religious influence waned. A veritable 'trade in lunacy' ensued. The presence of doctors lent credence to the claims they advanced that those of unsound mind were not simply unruly but ill. Even then however the legitimacy of the 'alienists,' as the mad-doctors came to be known, was widely questioned –even from within the medical profession.
Madness, Distress and Social Control
Eventually as the power of the nation states increased, large- scale asylums for the insane sprang up, housing mainly poor people. By 1800, there were around 5000 people in England confined in these asylums, out of a population of 10 million (Cromby, Harper & Reavey, 2013). The aim of these early mental hospitals was social reform not healing. And within the mantle of social reform lurked the shadow of social control. Around this time a new 'moral' treatment for the inmates of asylums became fashionable throughout Europe and the United States, challenging the biological stance of medicine. Its chief protagonist, Pinel, while scathing about the coercive conduct of doctors –"the doctrine of superior force," he wrote, "is not less applicable to the practice of medicine, than to the science of politics" (cited in Read, 2004, p.18) –was also frank that he himself was trying to impose society's moral code on 'deviant' individuals. He particularly wished to eradicate what he saw as celibacy, promiscuity, apathy and laziness and to do this by having his charges internalise authority to police their own behaviour. The purveyors of moral management however lacked any institutional power-base and so medicine eventually reasserted its authority, professionalised the asylums and imposed a biological dogma on public understanding of the people imprisoned there. Not all agreed.
The management of madness and psychological distress is pivotal to the establishment of psychiatry as a social force and arguably also central to its development along with that of psychology. The continuing popularity of psychology is fed in part by a desire amongst its followers –students, academics and therapists –that it will somehow deliver to them knowledge of how to live a better life and escape from the pitfalls of the psychological pains they (and we) all endure. This is a seriously misplaced wish. The major influences on our lives we believe are those we can most easily see –emanating from one's friends, lovers, family and associates. But the larger more powerful forces in society lie unseen and remote and forever untheorised by psychologists.
Madness, symbolically at least, points to something beyond our understanding –an invitation to another more frightening world than the one we know. The attraction of the arts of psychiatry and psychology for students and state alike is to tame this beast and thereby gain power over the terrible unknown. The apparent absence of reason to be found in the mad serves to strengthen and legitimise the importance which the Enlightenment has given to it and to which the young disciplines of psychology and psychiatry have hitched a ride. The myth of reason as the cure for all ills was a child of the Enlightenment and once unleashed knew no bounds. Its corresponding dark side is the fear of insanity. Goya's famous etching, created as the 18th century drew to a close –"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" –expresses this fear in a nightmarish vision. Writing in the mid-19th century Marx saw the increasing lunatic population as a direct consequence of capitalism. But this was a view from the fringe. With medicine firmly in the ascendency, Marx's view would sink almost without trace.
Measurement and Inheritance
The medicalisation of madness contributed two of the key pillars of thought which were to play an important role in securing the 'scientific' credentials of psychology. Chief amongst these was the viability of diagnosing, classifying and categorizing troublesome people. This penchant for labelling and pigeon-holing people via the use of scientific-sounding labels –preferably with Latin or Greek etymology –fed off the lure of Enlightenment thinking and was taken up with gusto by the new psychoanalytic movement led by Freud at the end of the 19th century. The view that Freud helped promulgate, that mental illness was ubiquitous (nobody was exempt), has obviously been of seminal import for the pharmaceutical companies of the 20th and 21st centuries wishing to expand their markets and peddle cures for non-existent illnesses. What is particularly interesting about the history of both psychoanalysis and psychology is that they show these disciplines effectively behaving like businesses themselves, perennially advertising their wares –making a point of enlarging their sphere of influence in the absence of any real evidence to support their claims of efficacy.
Excerpted from Psychology and Capitalism by Ron Roberts. Copyright © 2014 Ron Roberts. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Origins: A Dangerous Science 1
Chapter 2 Psychology and Ideology 19
Chapter 3 Capitalism and Mental Health 35
Chapter 4 Psychology and Militarism 55
Chapter 5 Psychology, Business and the Market 71
Chapter 6 Psychology and Capitalism 89