Messages from the Immaterial Commons: 2) Professional Wisdom and the Abuse of Power

The PsyCommons and its Enclosures – Professional Wisdom and the Abuse of Power.

First published in Asylum

couple chatting

Commons, commoning and common goods, apart from their intrinsic value, can wake us up to the extent to which valuable human resources have been enclosed for exploitation or social control. Enclosures such as copyright, land, patenting (and bottled water), have surged into view. Less apparent but equally important are the enclosures of some of the emotional, intrapsychic aspects of the human condition. Advertising, branding and marketing will have to wait for another day, what follows is an outline of how the enclosures of professionalized psychology demean, damage and exploit the common resources of the human condition.

Origins

I have long been active in the resistance to state regulation of counselling and psychotherapy. I wrote and published well over 300,000 words on the eIpnosis web site plus a couple of books, (Postle 2007, Postle 2012) opposing what I saw as the capture by the state of counselling, psychotherapy and psychology.

I was intermittently aware that over a long period, sustaining dissidence can result in the unconscious absorption of the ethos and even the methods of what is being opposed, that we could come to mirror what offended us. A devotion to critique can defend us from the awkward realities of devising and implementing a positive programme

I made one or two half-hearted attempts to quit but the momentum of the rush to regulate tended to pull me back. My 25+ years of effective practice, framed in a rigorous form of civic accountability (Independent Practitioners Network) counted for nothing; the Health Professions Council was set on preventing people like me from practising.

However as with any headlong political campaign, a pause is as good as a rest and a couple of years back I woke up to a realisation that my vantage point on the psychological professions, some sectors of which are still seeking the endorsement of their expertise by the state, was from outside. I had quit. A quite painful collapse of solidarity has followed.

I had long seen the UK psychology organisations, UKCP, BPS, BACP along with the BPC as walled gardens of professionalized therapy, gated communities with a very high price for entrance. But now this vision reversed direction, I saw these professions, not as oases of nourishment and care, but as something deeply problematic, they were enclosures, enclosures of a commons of ordinary wisdom and shared power, that enables three quarters of the population to get through life without the help of the psy professions. I called it the psyCommons,

The psyCommons

In recent years confidence in the state and markets has increasingly looked misplaced.

Whether it is at home, at work, or in local and national government there have to be better ways of organizing ourselves than those we presently struggle with.

They seem daily more and more toxic, inequitable and unsustainable.

One promising option is to look beyond Markets and the State and to revive and revalue the idea of the commons – the atmosphere, the oceans, rivers, forests, seeds, the internet, and our genes – our common heritage, and one that comes with some well understood Commons-style governance.

The psyCommons, a self-sustaining feature of the human condition, is an addition to this list of commons.

The psyCommons presently identifies two human capacities: rapport, the combination of eye contact, gaze, gesture and body language on which relationships ride; coupled with the phenomenon of learning from experience. – how we change, survive, recover and flourish. Feedback from a colleague suggested I add chat – what we say to each other and to ourselves – how we make sense of what is going on in our lives

Between them these three capacities generate the shared power and ordinary wisdom we need to be psysavvy, to be able to shape how, and with whom we share our lives.

The psyCommons initiative seeks to build a framework for the validation and promotion of ways in which we can all become more psysavvy.

That said, it is important to remember that, as I mentioned earlier, something like forty five million people in the UK get through life without needing help from the psychological professions. However, becoming psysavvy doesn’t yet receive the attention that we give to physical fitness

In recent decades, we have greatly benefited from better nutrition, better public health and a much more aware approach to bodily self-care.

Tens of thousands of people are capable of running the 26 miles of a marathon, over twenty thousand cyclists capable of riding a hundred miles, recently passed the end of my street.

Huge numbers of other people run a little, cycle a little, swim a little, dance a little.

The body part of the bodymind is increasingly well taken care of. We are living longer.

This article argues that becoming psysavvy, psychologically savvy, is as important as paying attention to physical fitness.

But there are obstacles in the way of this.

Enclosures

As daily life unfolds, our psyCommons of ordinary wisdom and shared power meets innumerable influences that shape how we relate to each other and how we do or don’t learn from experience. For example: Religion, Science, and Capitalism.

While much of what was for centuries taken to be god-given, such as sin, has moved towards being seen as a human construction, the absolute truths of religion still have wide appeal.

Science, despite the narrowness of its remit, continues to be perceived as a source of truth rather than as a very highly specialised form of learning from experience.

Alongside this, capitalism rewards monetary value, and denigrates and ignores local ‘use value’. Market fundamentalism blinds us to alternatives, and dismisses the social damage it causes as ‘externalities’.

While these contribute work, technology, wealth for some and a place to hold our wedding, they also tend to deform and distort the daily life of the psyCommons.

But more on them another day, because there are also the professions: The law, the military, academia and medicine; portfolios of expertise about our ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ and ‘have to’s.

All the foregoing create and sustain Enclosures of the psyCommons. They define territories of the psyCommons, patent them, copyright them, privatize them, academicize, bureaucratize them. They build fences, install gatekeepers and charge for access.

The psyEnclosures owned and operated by the psychological professions that are the focus of this article have a central role in the life of the psyCommons, I believe they impoverish and demean and damage the psyCommons.

How so?

psyEnclosures

As the grip of heritage religion on the psyCommons loosened, the medical profession began to replace it, and some doctors began developing psychological knowledge. To protect and promote their knowledge and expertise, psychiatry, psychoanalysis and psychology built professional enclosures.

These psyEnclosures, owned and operated by professions that had branched from medicine, brought with them the medical ethos – illness, deficit, dysfunction, diagnosis and treatment.

Unavoidable aspects of the human condition such as bereavement, anxiety, attraction, disappointment and resistance to oppression and even sexual diversity, were seen as ‘illnesses’.

The idea of ‘mental illness’ and its mirror image, ‘mental health’ was born.

Privileged access to countless meetings with clients enabled the psyprofessions to mine the psyCommons and to extract and process the raw material they found. This raw knowledge was then refined into a variety of expert systems for dealing with the mental illness that the professions had discovered. Or had created?

All of this extraction and refining was, and still is, held in the tightly policed professional enclosures of psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy and counselling. As occupations they work hard to be indistinguishable from the professions that enclose them.

These psyprofessions claim exclusive ownership of the expert systems they have developed. In the UK and elsewhere they have sought, and mostly succeeded, in having the state endorse their possession and stewardship of this knowledge.

While there are undoubtedly lots of caring, generous practitioners, what matters here is the downside of the psyprofessions. They install a widespread belief in the rest of the population about the nature of human condition difficulties.

That they are a dangerous territory.

A wilderness, full of mystery and threat. Monsters lurk and swamps can trap the unwary.

If we have taken up residence in this psywilderness, or look to be about to do so, the community resilience and resource of the psyCommons tends to be evaporate; ‘qualified’ ‘expert’ help is likely to be sought via referrals to the gated communities of the psyprofessions.

This presumption of danger, and the need for rescue is very important, it generates a society-wide taboo about valuing and understanding the emotional and imaginal aspects of the human condition.

People know, we all know, that a diagnosis of ’mental illness’ in our medical records invokes a near impossible to erase stigma. Unsurprisingly, human condition difficulties are commonly denied or concealed.

Because of this, access to professional psy knowledge and expertise is usually the result of, and often requires, a crisis.

A crisis that may often be prolonged and consolidated by the treatment.

There are many exceptions but the gaze of the professional psypractitioner, especially those in the NHS and allied services, has been trained to see deficits, dysfunction, pathology and illness. ‘Evidence-based’ normalcy measurements are likely to be followed by diagnostic ‘category fitting’, and biochemical treatment of symptoms tends too often to follow

The psyprofessions tend to ensure that as clients and patients – we enter their enclosures as supplicants. Passive acceptance of the psyexpert’s gifts is presumed. Power sharing is absent. Professional expertise rules.

This is not to deny its capabilities but to underline how paradoxically; it contributes to the impoverishment of the psyCommons of ordinary wisdom and shared power.

Capturing and holding knowledge about the human condition in the psyprofessions and the shame and secrecy due to contact with, or entry into their Enclosures, inhibits the diffusion of this knowledge back into the psyCommons.

So far as we ensure that human condition distress is seen as illness rather than as pointing to a need for community support, for re-evaluation, or political change – we can expect to find dependency and despair.

And there is another downside to the psyprofessions enclosures. Psychological service provision from them can never match the amount and cost of human condition distress that is likely to be manifest in this or any other psyCommons.

The professions who have built and who live in, and off, the psyEnclosures, seem content to maintain this condition of scarcity.

Why is not hard to find, it sustains political and economic leverage.

As we heard earlier, physical fitness, being savvy in knowledge and practice about the body part of the bodymind, is increasingly commonplace. Complementing this achievement with a matching increase in psy-fitness, becoming psySavvy, seems timely and achievable.

Through dissolution of the psyEnclosures and taking back the psy knowledge that came from us, that belongs to us, the psyCommons could become abundantly psysavvy.

Let’s do it.

References

Postle, D. (2007) Regulating the psychological therapies from taxonomy to taxidermy PCCS Books

Postle, D. (2012) Therapy Future: Obstacles and opportunities – introducing the psyCommons Lulu.com

Independent Practitioners Network http://i-p-n.org

eIpnosis http://ipnosis.postle.net

Video version of this text: The psyCommons and its Enclosures – Professionalized Wisdom and the Abuse of Power. http://youtu.be/pxuFnUuLqyc