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Defending the PsyCommons from the PsyEnclosures of the Psychological Professions

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
10th January 2013


Denis Postle has written an important book, Therapy Futures, which we will present soon.

Here is already an introduction in the form of a call to defend the “psychological commons”, which are just as real and necessary as the other commons.

Excerpted from Denis Postle:

“Enclosures of commons become problematic and often unjust when they involve claims of ownership:

* Privatised languages

* Sequestered knowledge

* Monetized relationships

* Social exclusion

* Despotic governance

These qualities tend to be strongly present (but not exclusively so) in professions such as law, the military, science, academia, medicine and the focus of concern here, psychology.

Is psychology worse than these other professions? Why is it being singled out here?

The cultures of the psy professions in the UK have been an object of study for me since the early 1990s. Lately I’ve become convinced that the psychological professions, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counselling have fenced off and taken possession of significant sectors of the psyCommons. Think of them as gated communities that embody to some extent all of the above list of five forms of commons enclosure. To put it another way, with various levels of state agency endorsement, they confidently assert that the psychological profession’s accumulated learnings about the human condition belong to them.

The professional qualifications that give access to these learnings are marketed with great attention to securing the enclosures within which they are held. Pecking orders of status, exclusivity and privilege are diligently pursued, tribalism and fiefdoms abound. In this the psy professions are perhaps no worse than other enclosure exponents except that, as I claim, their ownership distorts, disables, demeans, diminishes and makes the psyCommons less intelligent than it might otherwise be.

How so?

To argue that the psy therapies are problematic is not to deny that they are locally very valuable, and populated by caring and thoughtful practitioners. What then is problematic? I believe that the professional psy enclosures bring to the psyCommons a ‘therapy model’ of power relations, which generally privileges expertise about the human condition in a way that mirrors the ‘medical model’. Different yes but I believe equivalent in its deleterious effects on the psyCommons.

The extreme hierarchical knowledge and organisational styles in the medical universe, with its collusive handshaking with the pharma industries, still tends to makes health a matter of neglect in the first place and professional repair in the second place. And this tends to be reproduced by the psy professions. Power relations take the ‘power over’ form of expert/supplicant. Their foundation continues to be rooted in psychopathology, its treatment and alleviation. Access to psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy is typically triggered by a crisis and therapy ends when survival or recovery has been attained.

So far so good I guess you could say. Doctors doctor and therapists therapise.

However let’s cast a glance backwards for a moment. Over the last hundred years or so there has been a huge accumulation of learnings from countless contact hours between therapists and clients as they navigated a passage through their human condition concerns. These learnings came from those of us in crisis, or those of us who had painted ourselves into a corner and felt trapped and who sought help or who found themselves with an unfulfilled appetite for joy and delight.

What happened to this learning? If we break a leg, we’d be likely to talk about with friends and family about how it happened and how it was treated. We would be much less likely to speak about our ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness’, the outcomes, or any resolution that did (or did not) occur are unlikely to have been broadcast into the psyCommons but any generic process learning to be taken from our ‘mental illness’ treatment would have become the property of our practitioner. From a psyCommons perspective it disappears into a psy professions enclosure.

While it may seem unduly harsh to say so, the establishment of professional enclosures in the psyCommons and the sequestering in them of psy knowledge harvested from us, looks to have been a form of theft. Theft, in the sense that mining, quarrying, and oil extraction have been a form of theft from the global commons, often to the detriment of local populations. The ‘data-mining’ of the psyCommons by the psy professions looks to be a branch of this imperious culture, with an incremental growth of psy enclosures that, following the state regulation debates, has been easier to see. The notion of theft is appropriate for two reasons, as with the enclosures of common land in the UK over past centuries, the power relations have been crushingly disproportionate, think industrialized/corporate health care, ‘highly qualified’ practitioner elites, and big pharma, reciprocity/power sharing has largely been absent.

That this is more visible with hindsight doesn’t reduce the importance of this theft or data-mining from psyCommons, which has at least two important consequences. One is that due to their framing in the medical model of human functioning the human condition issues that have been historically coming towards the therapy professions have mostly arisen from people with a troubled, damaged or under-resourced life experience, and who are often in crisis. The psy professional learnings thus accumulated are overwhelmingly concerned with the recognition, diagnosis and resolution of hurt and harm and survival and recovery from them. When distilled into theory and practice concentrates, this experience tends to have a very strong bias towards deficits. The promotion of flourishing, well-being, co-creation, love and emotional competence tend to be off the professional agenda, or are dismissed as ‘emotional hygiene’.

A second problem that the psy-enclosers pose for the psyCommons is that as mentioned earlier, they have no place for shared power. Psy-enclosures arise from an approach to power relations that privileges and prioritises accumulated expertise. One consequence of which is that peer to peer relations with clients are commonly forbidden, with severe sanctions imposed where there are transgressions. The recent intense pressures in the UK towards professionalization have sharpened this boundary but might it not also be an unhelpful artefact of the general lack of peer to peer relations in the professions themselves? In recent decades progress as a psy leader has increasingly seemed to entail devising a psy enclosure and promoting it as a therapy brand. Added to this, the privileging of professional expertise tends to feed deference and undermines self direction so that expectations of professional expertise are likely to be way ahead of its capacity to deliver.

A further demeaning effect of the psy professions enclosures is that as guardians of the culture of ‘mental illness’ they attract projections of fear and dread. Thus exposure to psychological professionals is commonly regarded as something to be avoided, and not without reason, crossing the threshold into NHS diagnosis and treatment of ‘mental illness’ is likely to result in the casting of a difficult/impossible to erase shadow in our medical records. Access is scarce too; the Scottish government is currently trying to ensure that no one waits longer than 18 weeks for ‘treatment’.

What does this mean for the psyCommons?

If we come out from under the shadow of the psy professions enclosures and look at them as historical constructs it is possible to see that, through their warehousing of sequestered learnings, they have taken out a huge overdraft on the psyCommons and that it is time for this debt to be paid back.”

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