Review – Revolution in Psychology: Alienation to Emancipation by Ian Parker - £15.00 – Pluto Press
There is something deeply wrong with psychology. This is the premise with which Ian Parker begins this book. Far from simply understanding how we behave and feel, psychology goes on to try to help people cope and adapt to the problems of everyday life which is where Parker argues the main problems lie. He argues that because life under capitalism is organised around exploitation and alienation, then psychologists that aim to help people adapt to this life are only prolonging these problems. Furthermore, because of this psychologists tend to be inherently hostile to social change. As Parker puts it, “Activists need to know about psychology, and what needs to be done to prevent it from operating only as an instrument of social control” (pg.1).
Parker shows how psychology appeared at a particular point in the development of capitalism. It emerged after the period of capitalist accumulation in the late 19th century, when workers struggles were beginning to materialize, the formation of the second international etc. Psychology was a used to justify that capitalism is the natural state of affairs in the world and located human problems as being due to ‘human nature’ or ‘mental defects’. Parker also notes that psychology’s popularity increased massively under Thatcher.
Thus, Parker explains, poor people became seen as less naturally competent than the rich, those who grew up without the ‘ideal’ nuclear family became predisposed to be hardened criminals and racism became justified due to the ‘essential differences’ between people of different ethnic backgrounds’ genetics.
Furthermore, psychology even falsifies its own history. Parker shows this by citing a book by the appropriately named E.G. Boring. This book argued in 1926 for psychology to be a positivist discipline based on the steady accumulation of ‘facts’ about human beings. Parker notes how false this perspective is by pointing out that Boring’s argument was constructed on the basis of ignoring any parts of the history of psychology thus far that didn’t fit his ideas. He notes how psychology in the US adapted itself to a version of evolutionary theory that fitted capitalist ideology, and how intelligence tests had to be revised when researchers found women and blacks were doing better than they ‘knew’ they should be doing. He also shows how works from outside US-UK mainstream psychology such as Freud’s psychoanalysis was adapted to its ideology, pointing out that Freud was mistranslated with his famous Id, Ego and Superego, actually being everyday German words rather than the jargon we have today.
Crucially he notes that “…psychologists are not consciously dedicated to the survival of capitalism” (pg 30). Rather that psychological ideas act as ideological guardians of capitalism, and he is critical of the fact that many psychologists have not thought through their ideas to their natural conclusions, despite the humanitarianism of many psychologists and the fact that some even came from radical or socialist backgrounds. He does, however, point out some instances where racist psychologists have put their ideas into practise, such as South Africa during apartheid.
Parker then goes on to discuss psychology in relation to work, political dissent and mental health. One of the key points he makes here is that the ‘psychologisation’ of these issues confuses involved rather than clarifies it, and serves to rip problems out of their social, political and economic context, citing the example of recent research in Venezuela that has ignored the huge social transformations there.
He then tackles more recent approaches within psychology that have emerged from criticising mainstream psychology and deals with each in turn, from merely accentuating more positive ideas about psychology to more radical alternatives such as discourse analysis and action research. Parker shows how these approaches have either adapted themselves theoretically back to mainstream psychology, got wrapped up in post-modern ideas about the end of history or transformed into just another branch of psychology.
In a chapter called ‘Psychology and Revolution’ Parker shows how ideas and serious challenges to psychology are bound up with material events. He deals in turn with the 1917 Russian revolution, the May events in Paris 1968, second wave feminism and Latin American in the 1980s, showing how new ideas and concepts were thrown up by each of these events, but points out that this only a glimpse of what could be possible.
He then discusses psychology and the left in a chapter that is full of warnings. One of the main things he criticises is the notion of cultism that has been attached to Marxists and Trotskyist groups by ex-left converts to psychology, including the Militant tendency (forerunner of the Socialist Party).
In his next chapter, Parker draws attention to the struggles against psychologisation in the world. He discusses how people are diagnosed as mentally disabled rather than focussing on what in their environment is disabling them. He continues by discussing the deinstitutionalisation movement in Italy in the name of ‘democratic psychology’ and other anti-psychology and anti-psychiatry movements. Whilst understanding their motives as progressive and emancipatory, Parker also sees their limitation without social change such as how the brunt of responsibility for care could be thrown into the family etc.
Parker concludes by outlining a programme of transitional demands for psychology which he says “…will put social change on the agenda of psychological practise” (pg. 200). These span demands related to democratising psychological treatment and research, questioning psychological ‘knowledge’ and categorisations of people, research methodology and topics, and finally against notions of ‘well-being’ and ‘work-life balance’ (as argued for by Tory leader David Cameron) which stress individualistic objectives that can only be achieved by the ruling and middle classes.
Despite being a Professor of Psychology, Parker is deeply hostile to the discipline and several times calls for an ‘end to it’. Throughout the book you can sense his anger, sometimes I got the impression that he was condemning everything psychology has ‘discovered’, but there may still be useful things that it has found but could (and should) be interpreted differently. His main arguments are correct though, only great social movements and revolutions can inject the notion of change into a-historical psychology. Psychology will either flourish and break through its ideological trappings or sink and get thrown into the dustbin of history as the capitalist version of medieval alchemy.
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