SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 132 - October 2009

What’s the use of psychology?

Revolution in Psychology: Alienation to Emancipation

By Ian Parker, Pluto Press, 2007, £15

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

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 says the main problems lie. He argues that, because life under capitalism is organised around exploitation and alienation, psychologists who aim to help people adapt to this life are only prolonging these problems. Because of this, psychologists tend to be inherently hostile to social change: "Activists need to know about psychology, and what needs to be done to prevent it from operating only as an instrument of social control". (p1)

Parker shows how psychology appeared at a particular point in the development of capitalism. It emerged after the capitalist accumulation in the late 19th century, when workers’ struggles were beginning to materialise, and at the time of the formation of the second international. Psychology was used to justify capitalism as the natural state of affairs in the world and to locate human problems as being due to ‘human nature’ or ‘mental defects’. Parker also notes that psychology’s popularity increased massively under Margaret Thatcher.

Thus, poor people became seen as being less naturally competent than the rich. Those who grew up outside of the ‘ideal’ nuclear family were predisposed to becoming hardened criminals. Racism could be justified on the basis of so-called ‘essential genetic differences’ between people of different ethnic backgrounds.

Furthermore, psychology even falsifies its own history. Parker shows this by citing a book by the appropriately named EG 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 that did not fit his ideas. Parker 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 that women and black people were doing better than they ‘knew’ they should be doing.

He also shows how works from outside US and British mainstream psychology, such as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, were adapted to this ideology. Freud’s terms ‘das Es’, ‘das Ich’ and ‘das Über-Ich’, were not translated straightforwardly as ‘the It’, ‘the I’, and ‘the Over-I’, but were mistranslated by James Strachey as ‘id’, ‘ego’ and ‘superego’.

Crucially, Parker notes that "psychologists are not consciously dedicated to the survival of capitalism". (p30) Instead, he comments, psychological ideas act as ideological guardians of capitalism. 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.

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 the issues involved confuses rather than clarifies, and serves to rip problems out of their social, political and economic context. He cites the example of recent research in Venezuela that has ignored the huge social transformations there.

Parker also discusses the relationship between the left and psychology where left-wing groups have become psychologised as ‘cults’ with unrealistic ideas. And he draws attention to more recent approaches in psychology that have emerged from critiques of mainstream psychology. In most cases, however, these have adapted themselves back to mainstream psychology theoretically, got wrapped up in post-modern ideas about the end of history, or been transformed into just another branch of psychology.

In one of the most interesting chapters, Psychology and Revolution, Parker shows how ideas and serious challenges to psychology are bound up with material events. He deals 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. He points out that they only gave a glimpse of what could be possible.

He concludes by outlining a programme of transitional demands for psychology which he says "will put social change on the agenda of psychological practise". (p200) These demands relate to democratising psychological treatment and research, questioning psychological ‘knowledge’ and categorisations of people, research methodology and topics, and opposing the notions of ‘well-being’ and ‘work-life balance’ which stress individualistic objectives.

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 condemning everything psychology has ‘discovered’, at other times recognising that there may be some useful knowledge that could (and should) be interpreted differently. His main arguments are correct. Only great social movements and revolutions can inject the notion of change into ahistorical psychology. Psychology will either flourish and break through its ideological trappings or get thrown into the dustbin of history as the capitalist version of medieval alchemy.


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