North American Anarchist Studies Network
January 16, 2011
DRAFT of article in press, Theory in Action
Anarchism and Psychology
Many anarchists are suspicious of “psychologizing” and make little reference to psychology as a discipline beyond dismissing its individualist focus. Yet psychological assumptions about power, hierarchy, cooperation, and similar dynamics underlie critiques of statism and capitalism and shape prefigurative efforts to transform society so that human beings can more easily achieve both autonomy and mutuality. At the same time, personal and interpersonal turmoil frequently hinder those efforts. The challenge is to determine which aspects of psychological research and psychotherapy, especially critical psychology and extensions of humanistic psychology and radical psychoanalysis, might help anarchists grapple simultaneously with both the personal and the political.
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Referring to the merging within each of us of internal and external forces, Gustav Landauer wrote that “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently” (Landauer, 1910, cited in Buber, 1958, p. 46). Like all worldviews, anarchism incorporates assumptions about human nature and human society that explain how we act and how we think we should act. This “everyday psychology” (Jones & Elcock, 2001) helps us understand our own and others’ behavior and shapes our sense of what kind of society is desirable and possible. Becoming part of anarchist political culture (Gordon, 2005) often means replacing old assumptions with newer ones. Yet despite the significance of psychological assumptions about reciprocal links between the personal and the political, it remains unclear to what extent any of psychology’s various guises — academic discipline, therapeutic profession, psychoanalytical understanding, or force of popular culture — can help advance liberation and community.
Anarchism and psychology each contains an array of tendencies with little consensus about definition, origin, methods, scope, or goals. Anarchists — not only anarchist academics — debate just what anarchism is, how and when it started, what it seeks, how to do it right, and — especially academics — whether post-anarchism replaces the older kind. Psychology has comparable questions: Is its proper focus mind or behavior? Is it, or should it be, a science, and if so what kind? Does it seek general laws of behavior or better understanding of individuals in context? These parallel debates have implications for advancing anarchism and for determining whose interests psychology might serve.
Anarchism’s critique inevitably delves into psychological terrain. Anarchists generally advocate values such as cooperation and mutual aid, self-management and participation, spontaneity and liberation. A non-hierarchical society, we believe, would help people meet shifting and sometimes-conflicting needs for autonomy and mutuality without hurting others in the process (Fox, 1985, 1993a). We know that elite control depends not just on suppressing radical movements but also on misdirecting us along careerist, consumerist, nationalist, and other ideologically convenient paths that sacrifice either autonomy or mutuality, and often both. This misdirection operates largely through dominant institutions — education, religion, media, law, psychotherapy — that internalize and disseminate particular views of human nature and society.
To be clear: I am not saying these topics are only psychological, or that what psychologists have to say is more useful than what others say. Because the interplay between individual and community is “the central tension in perhaps all social theory” (Amster, 2009, p. 290), the most productive approaches are interdisciplinary.
I also know that too much psychologizing deflects attention from political work. The latest trend — “positive psychology” — is mostly one more enticement to change our thinking rather than our world (Ehrenreich, 2009). I agree with Zerzan (1994), who noted that “In the Psychological Society, social conflicts of all kinds are automatically shifted to the level of psychic problems, in order that they can be charged to individuals as private matters” (p. 5). And with Sakolsky (2011):
[T]he human impulse toward mutual aid is further suffocated by those in the debraining industry who professionally proselytize on behalf of an apolitical positivist psychology. The latter’s emphasis on blaming ourselves for our own alienation and oppression is then reinforced by our everyday relationships of mutual acquiescence in which we are constantly encouraged to “be realistic,” get with the program, stop whining, pop an anti-depressant if necessary, and, for god sake, appear upbeat. (p. 10)
Furthermore, I’m not ignoring psychologists’ roles as enforcers of conventional Western middle-class values and agents of state and corporate power. It’s a sordid history, from intelligence and personality testing that categorizes people for bureaucratic social control, to pacifying prisoners, workers, mental patients, students, and women, to psychological manipulation ranging from spreading distorted models of normality to advertising corporate products to interrogating prisoners at Guantanamo Bay (Herman, 1995; Tyson, Jones, & Elcock, in press). Psychotherapists routinely use medicalized diagnoses created by psychiatrists, demanded by insurance companies, and sometimes designed explicitly for social control. “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” for example, stems from the diagnosis of “anarchia” that Benjamin Rush, the “father of American psychiatry” and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, applied to resistors to federal authority whose “excess of the passion for liberty” constituted “a form of insanity” (Levine, 2008).
Despite a sprinkling of anarchist psychologists (e.g., Chomsky, 2005; Cromby, 2008; Ehrlich, 1996; Fox, 1985, 1993a; Goodman, 1966/1979; Sarason, 1976; Ward, 2002), the discipline remains a mixed bag. So maybe it’s not surprising that anarchists so infrequently refer to it even when they use psychological concepts and talk about human nature. Few of the 28 chapters in Contemporary Anarchist Studies (Amster et al., 2009), for example, mention psychology, which does not appear in the index; none of the 34 authors is identified as a psychologist. An Anarchist Studies Network reading list notes “psychology potentially has a great deal to offer anarchism (and vice versa!)” but lists much more work on psychoanalysis than psychology, much of it old and not in English (anarchist-studies-network.org.uk). I’ve found references to only one book with both anarchism and psychology in the title (Hamon, 1894). With sporadic exceptions, including recent connections to ecopsychology (Heckert, 2010; Rhodes, 2008), there’s been little systematic treatment of potential links.
As already noted, on the other hand, anarchists regularly make psychological arguments, often paralleling those of Marxists and Situationists (Debord, 1967; Vaneigem, 1967). That was true for Kropotkin, Emma Goldman, and other classical anarchists and it’s true today. For Landauer, “People do not live in the state. The state lives in the people” (cited in Sakolsky, 2011, p. 1). For Goldman, “The problem that confronts us today, and which the nearest future is to solve, is how to be one’s self and yet in oneness with others, to deeply feel with all human beings and still retain one’s characteristic qualities” (cited in Shukaitis, 2008, p. 12). Emphasizing “the personal and psychological dimensions of life,” early women anarchists insisted that “changes in personal aspects of life, such as families, children, sex should be viewed as political activity” (Leeder, 1996, p. 143). A century later, Milstein (2009) says anarchism — “the only political tradition that has consistently grappled with the tension between the individual and society” (p. 92) — aims “to transform society in order to also transform ourselves” (p. 12). For Salmon (2010), “It is easy to talk about challenging the system and forget about challenging ourselves at the same time. It is not about putting one above the other, but realizing that both have to go hand in hand to be truly revolutionary” (p. 13). Gordon (2005) too insists that the transformation begins now:
Anarchism is unique among political movements in emphasizing the need to realize its desired social relations within the structures and practices of the revolutionary movement itself. As such, prefigurative politics can be seen as a form of “constructive” direct action, whereby anarchists who propose social relations bereft of hierarchy and domination undertake their construction by themselves. (p. 4)
There’s a problem, though. Although we want to live by anarchist values today, none of us grew up learning how to do that. Barclay (1982) wrote that “individual members [of anarchist intentional communities] ... have been reared in the cultural traditions and values of th[e] state and have only the greatest difficulty divesting themselves of their deleterious effects” (p. 103). The “tension in anarchist theory between the political and the personal” (DeLeon & Love, 2009, p. 162) means “it’s going to be an ongoing struggle to find the balance” (Milstein, 2009, p. 15).
[M]ost recent pieces that confront issues of power in the movement focus on the way in which patterns of domination in society are imprinted on interactions within it — uncovering dynamics of racist, sexist, ageist or homophobic behavior, and asking why it is that positions of leadership in activist circles tend to be populated by men more often than women, whites more often than non-whites, and able persons more often than disabled ones. (Gordon, 2008, p. 52)
Confronting these difficulties, sometimes we falter. In the face of so much that needs doing, sometimes we settle for just getting by, staying functional enough for the work of the moment rather than developing personal, interpersonal, and collective skills an anarchist society might someday provide more naturally. We know that focusing on ourselves — our own relationships, needs, feelings, desires, troubles large and small — can become preoccupying, isolating, narcissistic. We resist individual solutions. Yet if we did understand our needs and wants better — where they come from, why we have them, how to satisfy them, how we might change them — and if we did learn to interact more effectively, then our living situations might be more satisfying, our relationships more fulfilling, our work lives more bearable, and our community and political projects more successful. Anarchists have a good sense, I think, of what life would be like free of competitiveness, possessiveness, jealousy, and domination, opening ourselves to liberation, spontaneity, and joy. But deciding to be different doesn’t make us different. Ridding ourselves of a lifetime of bad habits, deformed needs, and twisted emotions is not so easy.
It would be useful if the field of psychology was an ally rather than foe, even though anarchism may still have more to offer psychology than the other way around. Yet a growing number of critical psychologists (Fox, Prilleltensky, & Austin, 2009) are as ready as Sakolsky (2011) and Zerzan (1994) to blast psychology’s ideological role while also exploring research, teaching, and therapy alternatives. Critical psychology is more marginal than its counterparts in other fields and likely to remain so (Parker, 2007), its adherents more often Marxist or even liberal than anarchist (Fox, in press), but it remains the most likely disciplinary space to advance the three anarchist projects described by Gordon (2009): “delegitimation, direct action (both destructive and creative), and networking” (p. 253). In the next section I describe three areas with mixed implications for advancing anarchism: clinical psychology as therapeutic profession, social psychology as knowledge-producing technology, and the progeny of humanistic psychology and radical psychoanalysis.
Mainstream psychologists sometimes grapple with useful concepts despite so often missing the point. The tension between individuality and mutuality is particularly relevant. The assumed dualistic split between self and other is standard fare, with terms such as agency/communion, independence/interdependence, autonomy/psychological sense of community. Personality theorists consider how circumstances — family, friends, school, etc. — affect growth from self-focused infant to socialized adult, and sometimes how different societies produce the personalities they need. Social psychologists make a mantra of the interaction between “the person” (e.g., personality, emotion, beliefs) and “the setting” (the presence of others, configuration of a room, perceived norms), although mainstream views of setting typically exclude society, culture, and history (Tolman, 1994).
These tensions and interactions are central to anarchist thought, which recognizes the inseparability of, and reciprocity between, personal and societal change as well as the difficulty of attempting both simultaneously. Anarchists “acknowledge this self-society juggling act as part of the human condition” (Milstein, 2009, p. 14). “Lifestyle decisions such as squatting or open relationships of intimacy have pushed anarchists to recognize the potential that radical lifestyle actions can have in freeing our minds from oppressive social norms” (DeLeon & Love, 2009, p. 161). Because “[t]he task for anarchists is not to introduce a new society but to realize an alternative society as much as possible in the present tense” (Gordon, 2005, p. 12), all domains invite struggle.
[T]he personal is political, but it is also economic, as well as social and cultural. Struggles around issues of care and housework, of the tasks of the everyday, are not just individual concerns unrelated to broader political and economic questions — they are the quotidian manifestations of these larger processes. Recognition of their connections, as well as the connections against questionable power dynamics in the home, school, office, hospital, and all spaces of social life, is an important step. (Shukaitis, 2008, p. 5)
Salmon (2010) argued that, “If our personal relationships are being used to keep us in conformity with the current system, then to challenge the basis of our relationships is part of tackling the political dead end that the mainstream continually tries to force us down” (p. 13). Gordon (2010) made a similar point:
This is sometimes called “prefigurative politics.” So it makes sense for anarchists who have a critique of human-nonhuman relations and of the exploitation of animals to try and live in a way that seeks to undo that exploitation, e.g., by avoiding animal products (as well as campaigning and taking direct action against labs, slaughterhouses, battery farms, etc.). Similarly, anarchists who have a critique of monogamy, for example from a feminist point of view, would look at ways to live differently in the present by practicing polyamory. (Gordon, 2010)
Or, as the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem (1967) wrote, “People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths.”
Psychology as Therapeutic Profession
When most people think about psychology they have in mind the therapy profession: clinical psychologists but also psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors who help resolve “mental health” difficulties. They may assume that psychology is based on Sigmund Freud or that psychology and psychoanalysis are pretty much the same thing rather than “two disciplines with an obvious boundary dispute” (Tyson et al., in press, pp. 184–185). Most clinical psychology students do learn various ways to understand mental health and illness — very loaded terms — as well as therapy techniques based on competing schools of thought. Only some of what psychotherapists do resembles the advice offered in self-help pop psychology books that purport to teach us how to fix ourselves.
Critical psychologists have objected to psychotherapy‘s most common approach: helping us adapt to an unsatisfying world by internalizing problems and solutions rather than recognizing their societal nature. Psychology’s claim to be a science separate from philosophy accompanied 19th century Social Darwinism, which imagined and demanded a competitive, striving human nature for a dog-eat-dog capitalist world. It assumed rather than challenged hierarchy, patriarchy, and race privilege. Twentieth century psychologists who eventually became therapists encouraged people to fix themselves rather than challenge bosses, political elites, or dominant institutions more broadly. And still, today, mainstream therapy helps us function, boosting our confidence and self-esteem and maintaining our relationships so that we can get through school, get to work on time, keep at it one day after the next, mastering stress reduction techniques and ignoring any inkling that something outside ourselves might be at fault even when millions of us have identical “individual problems.” These culturally disseminated clichés have become part of our everyday psychology, seemingly obvious and natural and right (Fox et al., 2009).
These generalizations have important exceptions. Feminist, Marxist, anarchist, and other critical and radical therapists — psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts such as Alfred Adler and Erich Fromm — have explored the links among our emotional states, habitual behaviors, and the society around us, tracing common difficulties to culturally determined conditions. Radicals have more often explored psychoanalysis which, “[i]n part due to the continued awareness that minds are products of social and cultural environments, ... always had more of a potential for cultural critique than psychology, especially those aspects of psychology that relied on technological control rather than conceptual understanding” (Tyson et al., in press, p. 178).
Especially influential among radicals was Wilhelm Reich (1942), whose exploration of the connection between sexual repression and fascism stimulated variants of analysis and therapy following Marxist, feminist, and other critical traditions (Sloan, 1996; Tolman, 1994), including anarchism (Comfort, 1950; Perez, 1990). Reich followed Otto Gross, an early Freudian who broke away to develop an anarchist psychoanalysis taking into account
[s]uch problems as anti-authoritarian, repression-free upbringing, the emancipation from patriarchal, hierarchical structures in the context of family, marriage, career, etc., the emancipation of women in particular, the rights of the individual to decide freely about his/her life, especially in reference to drugs and euthanasia, and finally questions about the freedom of the individual in relationship to social norms and traditions. (International Otto Gross Society, 2009)
Gross believed that “[w]hoever wants to change the structures of power (and production) in a repressive society, has to start by changing these structures in himself [sic] and to eradicate the ‘authority that has infiltrated one’s own inner being’” (Sombart, 1991, cited in Heuer). Similarly, the psychiatrist Roberto Freire’s 1970s somatherapy, based in large part on Reich, took an anarchist approach in trying “to understand the socio-political behavior of individuals starting from what happens in their daily lives” (“Somatherapy,” 2010). Also taking into account societal context, from a more existentialist direction, was anarchist Paul Goodman’s contribution to gestalt therapy (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951).
Mainstream psychotherapy continues to reinforce an asocial, apolitical adjustment-seeking individualism. When psychologists work in prisons, mental hospitals, schools, factories, militaries, and other institutions that confine people and shape behavior, their work crosses from neutrality to social control. The “anti-psychiatry” movement gains more attention, but psychologists too work in mental hospitals. At the same time, critical and radical psychologists have contributed to efforts critical of mainstream psychiatry and psychotherapy (P. Brown, 1973; Ingleby, 1980; Williams & Arrigo, 2005).
Social Psychology as Knowledge-producing Technology
Social psychology exemplifies the discipline’s preferred image as science rather than therapy profession. Social psychologists sometimes do research that therapists can use, but mostly they range more widely, looking for universal principles of behavior assumed to be independent of time and place. Why do we help someone? When are we more or less likely to follow orders, cooperate or compete, love or hate? Even: How can we persuade people to recycle? Social psychologists typically use experimental methods to study behaviors that we ordinarily explain to ourselves using our internalized everyday psychology; they claim such research is necessary because our “everyday psychology is often inaccurate” (Jones & Elcock, 2001, p. 183) and only science can reveal the truth.
As an undergraduate I responded to social psychology’s liberal reform agenda with naive optimism and personal curiosity. But later I returned to graduate school steeped in Israel’s utopian-socialist kibbutz system (Horrox, 2009), the 1970s anti-nuclear power movement (Epstein, 1993), and books from Kropotkin (1902) to Bookchin (1971, 1980, 1982). I realized then that social psychological research — on power, hierarchy, and authority, decision making and cooperation, relationships and community — demonstrated the benefits of “communal individuality” (Ritter, 1980) in a “free society of free individuals” (Milstein, 2009, p. 12). Others too noticed; for example, political psychologist Dana Ward, curator of the Anarchist Archives, has explored authoritarianism, group dynamics, and the development of political concepts (“Political Psychology and Anarchism,” 2009; see also Hamilton, 2008, on intrinsic motivation; Fox, 1985). But the field never embraced anarchism’s social psychological vision of maximizing autonomy and community.
There was a time when some imagined more. At the dawn of modern psychology, Augustin Hamon (1894) advanced a social psychology that
emphasized systematic, empirical research and situated the “problematique” of social psychology at the interface of the individual and societal levels of analysis.... They linked a strong commitment to social movements expressing anarchist-communist ideas with a critical reevaluation of concepts in the social sciences, criminology, etc.; that is to say, Hamon conceived of the social sciences, sui generis, as critical sciences. (Apfelbaum & Lubek, 1983, p. 32; see also Lubek & Apfelbaum, 1982)
In 1967, Abraham Maslow, one of a handful of theorists looking to anarchism as something of a model (Fox, 1985), taught a course called Utopian Social Psychology. It addressed “the empirical and realistic questions: How good a society does human nature permit? How good a human nature does society permit? What is possible and feasible? What is not?” (Maslow, 1971, p. 212). But today social psychology is hardly utopian or even very social, focusing instead on what we think about behavior, “paradoxically ... seek[ing] to explain behavior in terms of individual rather than social and cultural factors“ (Jones & Elcock, 2001, p. 187). There’s not much talk of experimenting with community.
In my own work in a subfield called “psychology and law,” an anarchist stance helps dissect the legal system’s justifications for its own legitimacy, which essentially assume that human nature is so bad only the law lets us survive (Fox, 1993a, 1993b, 1999). Anarchists don’t all agree about human nature — some think it’s pretty good, others good or bad depending on circumstances, some don’t seem to care — but generally we don’t think that legislators, judges, and cops are the reason most people under ordinary circumstances are reasonably decent. Moreover, unlike Marxists who tend to think law’s utility depends on who controls it, anarchists generally dismiss the rule of law no matter who’s in charge and object to legal reasoning’s purpose: judging human interaction by generalized abstract principles independent of circumstances facing actual people.
Humanistic Psychology, Radical Psychoanalysis, and Prefigurative Politics
Aware that therapy, navel-gazing, and self-help books (Justman, 2005; Zerzan, 1994) don’t lead to social change, anarchists are generally suspicious of psychotherapy’s core as well as of humanistic approaches from Western psychology, Eastern philosophy, and New Age mysticism that spawned the human potential movement where much of the work on self and relationships occurs today. Although some forms of humanistic and even New Age thought claim compatibility with social change movements (McLaughlin & Davidson, 2010; Rosenberg, 2004; Satin, 1979), too many participants insist the only way to change the world is to work only on themselves. Capitalists, of course, happily sell us whatever we need to meditate and communicate, practice yoga and Tantra, discover our authentic selves, and wander down our spiritual path of the moment, positive, happy, self-absorbed, and non-threatening. Understandably, thus, anarchists often reject these individualistic solutions and focus instead on more systemic approaches.
Recently I’ve begun exploring groups that go in the other direction: prioritizing personal growth and interpersonal dynamics necessary for creating community. This personally rewarding “participant observation,” as social psychologists might call it, has challenged my own assumptions, stereotypes, and habits and tested my ability to be patient with new language, styles, and ways of looking at myself and the world. Although the groups I’ve come across do not define themselves as anarchist, and thus attract people with various political and apolitical identities, their purposes and methods overlap significantly with anarchist values. Aiming to shake us out of complacency toward new habits, goals, motivations, and emotions, they mirror anarchist calls to re-think things we’ve always taken for granted about human nature and hierarchy, capitalism and materialism, monogamy and sexuality. The goal, at least for some, is not just to focus inward but to create communities less repressive and oppressive, more egalitarian, satisfying, and just.
Efforts that seem potentially useful stress mutual support, study, and exploration rather than individual psychotherapy, self-help, or a guru’s prescription for inner bliss. Network for a New Culture (www.nfnc.org), for example, uses an eclectic, non-dogmatic approach incorporating elements of humanistic psychology, cognitive and gestalt therapy, and Reichian/Jungian analysis as well as varied communication and community-building methods. Exploring links between beliefs and emotions, body and unconscious, self and culture, NFNC creates settings that challenge widespread emotional, behavioral, and sexual assumptions. Some of this exploration follows approaches developed in more explicitly radical intentional communities in Germany (ZEGG, www.zegg.de) and Portugal (Tamera, www.tamera.org). Similarly, some psychologists using anarchist frameworks (McWilliams, 1985; Rhodes, 2008) incorporate insights from ecopsychology and ecofeminism as well as from Zen, Taoism and other psychologies challenging Western notions of consciousness and reality, self and other (Ornstein, 1972; Rosenberg, 2004). It may be impossible “to re-create personality and thus transform life” or “to create your own reality” (Zerzan, 1994, p. 12), but it is possible to learn skills and create communities that help us act and feel closer to what we imagine is possible.
Gordon (2010) cautions, in a somewhat-related context, that “these practices and lifestyles are in danger of congealing into a self-referential subculture that detracts from other areas of activity (e.g., direct action, propaganda, solidarity work),” but he adds “there is no reason why they should have to come at the expense of these.” Marshall Rosenberg (2004), an early proponent of radical therapy whose Nonviolent Communication method is used in interpersonal and political conflicts, talks of spirituality but acknowledges that
spirituality can be reactionary if we get people to just be so calm and accepting and loving that they tolerate the dangerous structures. The spirituality that we need to develop for social change is one that mobilizes us for social change. It doesn’t just enable us to sit there and enjoy the world no matter what. It creates a quality of energy that mobilizes us into action. (pp. 5–6)
I have not yet explored spiritual groups, but it’s worth noting that some anarchists consider non-institutionalized religion compatible with anarchism (e.g., A. Brown, 2007). Kemmerer (2009) points out that “institutionalized religion in every nation tends to support the status quo, but many religious teachings ... support anarchy” (p. 210). Lamborn Wilson (2010) agrees; referring to “various sorts of spiritual anarchism,” he
propos[es] that fascist and fundamentalist cults are not to be confused with the non-authoritarian spiritual tendencies represented by neo-shamanism, psychedelic or “entheogenic” spirituality, the American “religion of Nature” according to anarchists like Thoreau, sharing many concerns and mythemes with Green Anarchy and Primitivism, tribalism, ecological resistance, Native American attitudes toward Nature ... even with Rainbow and Burning Man festivalism.... (p. 14)
Lamborn Wilson adds a useful reminder: “[A]ny liberatory belief system, even the most libertarian (or libertine), can be flipped 180 degrees into a rigid dogma.... Conversely, even within the most religious of religions the natural human desire for freedom can carve out secret spaces of resistance” (p. 15).
Seeking it All
Milstein (2009) maintains that anarchism’s “dynamism” stems from the notion that “humans aren’t just fixed beings but are always becoming. Seeing all life as able to evolve highlights the idea that people and society can change. That people and the world can become more than they are, better than they are” (p. 59). The relevant question here is whether psychology, in any of its therapeutic, research, or alternative guises, can contribute to an anarchist culture in which participants live more fulfilling lives while working more effectively toward a world that provides better lives for everyone.
Cromby (2008) noted that, unlike Marxist psychologies (Seve, Holzkamp, Vygotsky), there is no influential anarchist psychology. Imagining such a project, S. Brown (2008) emphasized that though it may seem “simply not the business of psychology to extend itself beyond the study of the person ... the model of the person adopted at any given time is always framed in relation to a contrasting notion of the collective” (p. 1). An anarchist psychology “will not emerge from a different model of the person but rather from a simultaneous rethinking of person and collective together” (p. 2). “Indeed the very thought of creating such a disciplinary division seems inimical to anarchism. But what we might say is that psychology in an anarchist register must take ‘life’ as its object rather than ‘subjectivity‘ or ‘the individual‘” (S. Brown, 2008, p. 10).
Whether anarchists outside academe will find poststructuralist and postmodern approaches (Kuhn, 2009; Purchase, 2011) more useful than older forms remains to be seen. Critical psychologist Tod Sloan, attempting to direct radical therapists and counselors toward community-building group work, says
the point isn’t to take humanistic individualist psychotherapy and apply it to heal anarchists ... It is to rescue the truths that are buried in that subjective moment of the dialectic ... and see what is going on there in the psyche as always implicating the social order, internalization of oppression, suppression of the body, etc. Otherwise, we just move to working on ourselves and forget that the state and capitalism and patriarchy etc. are the fundamental issues. And this is where critical psych needs to do its work. (Sloan, personal communication, January 5, 2011)
The risk in using any form of psychology is being diverted from the world outside ourselves. Despite that risk, I believe the exploration is worth it. Many of us would be more effective anarchists as well as more fulfilled human beings if we could counter our culturally determined everyday psychology. As Shukaitis (2008) noted, “The social relations we create every day prefigure the world to come, not just in a metaphorical sense, but also quite literally: they truly are the emergence of that other world embodied in the constant motion and interaction of bodies.” (p. 3). There’s much we can learn. We may want a revolution, but as Emma says we want to dance, too.
Paying more attention to the personal and interpersonal also means responding to those who experience mental or emotional distress. We know that they — perhaps we — often struggle in psychiatric systems that are overworked, bureaucratized, medicalized, disinterested, and often inadequate at best. Yet this struggle also takes place with friends and comrades. Dorter (2007) pointed out that although psychiatric survivor movements “ask fundamental questions of what it means to be mad in an insane world,... questions of mental health and mad liberation ... figure little into the work that anarchists collectively focus on, or in the ways we structure ourselves or organize” (p. 8). Introducing anarchist accounts of mental distress, Asher (2008) hoped
to spark more discussions about mental illness within our political communities and friendship circles, [so] that we can begin to offer each other and ourselves the support we need. We need to realize when people are drifting away because they aren’t able to cope, and we need to be doing all we can to give them all they require. In our supposedly radical communities, mental illness is deeply stigmatized, and even at times ridiculed. It shouldn’t be up to those of us in our deepest depressive states or our most manic episodes to call people out on this shit, but so often, if we don’t do it, nobody else will. (p. 3)
Finally, resistance to anarchism often stems from accepting culturally dominant explanations of human behavior and sometimes from individual satisfaction at successfully navigating societal barriers. Believing that society needs strong leaders, strong laws, and strong cops because human beings are too flawed to survive without them reflects a particular understanding of motivation. A careful reading of mainstream psychology can help counter some of these arguments. The development of a more critical alternative psychology at the interface of individual and community could help us re-imagine what we are capable of creating together.
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