Dysfunctional system

With socialism no longer appearing a viable alternative, many place their hopes in an 'internal revolution of the self'. Liz Hoskings looks at the 'recovery movement'

Greens and ageing hippies are fond of quoting the maxim that in order to change the world we must begin with ourselves. While I do not dispute the necessity of being kind to our fellows, self-awareness can easily transform into self-obsession. Helen Fielding satirised the self-help culture in her best-selling novel, Bridget Jones's diary, the story of a neurotic, single, urbanite middle class 30-something, which was shortly thereafter transformed into the blockbuster movie starring American actress Renee Zwelleger and the not so appealing (at least not in my opinion!) Hugh Grant. Those of us females who are familiar with Fielding's character will no doubt find aspects of it that we can relate to, living in the age that we do. I must confess myself that a few self-help books stock my shelf! But if one reads Fielding's novels one cannot help but wonder how much of this so-called therapy is actually helping the novel's character (or otherwise feeding her neurosis). Stemming partly from the self-awareness movement begun by the new left in the 60s, the 'recovery movement' gained popularity in the United States, and subsequently western Europe, in the 1980s. Thus begun the consumer paradise of self-help books satirised by Fielding. One could walk into a high street bookshop and find a DIY cure on almost any neurosis. Psychotherapy (the benefits of which have been questioned within the medical establishment) was en vogue. Along with this came a belief in repressed memory syndrome - events from one's childhood that are too painful to remember are pushed into the unconscious and forgotten. This idea has now largely been debunked within the medical profession. 'Repressed memories' that have been brought up by patients during analysis have more often been products of their imagination, induced by suggestions by the therapist, rather than fact. Elements within the feminist movement unfortunately encouraged this phenomenon by portraying not only children, but also women, as helpless victims. Some even naively believed it to be the beginning of the break-up of the oppressive patriarchal family structure. The recovery movement fuelled the victim culture with its subjectivism. On a well known US talk show a woman remarked that a father yelling at his daughter was not the equivalent of him raping her. She was booed by the audience and asked how she dared judge another's pain. While it may be true that some of us are indeed thicker-skinned than others, to equate verbal abuse with rape is clearly absurd. Yet self-help gurus encourage this attitude. As one well-meaning writer put it, "If it felt abusive to you, it was abusive." End of story. According to these gurus, we are not adults, but 'adult children', carrying within us an inner child needing the nurture that we lacked in our early years. While I realise that there is no such thing as the ideal childhood or the ideal parent, and we should indeed come to terms with our 'demons', we can - we should - be sceptical about the merits of the recovery movement. For one, it virtually excludes those of us who are atheists or agnostics as its overtones are clearly religious. It largely based itself on the '12 steps' of Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step is an acknowledgement of our "powerlessness over our compulsive behaviours". The second step is the recognition that only putting ourselves at the mercy of a 'higher power' will restore us to sanity. Most of the remaining 10 steps involve god to some degree or another. Much has been said in the mainstream press about the supposed success of Alcoholics Anonymous, a fellowship that was started by evangelical christians. Yet, as the US left liberal Wendy Kaminer pointed out in her book Sleeping with extra-terrestrials, it is a success that is impossible to verify due to its anonymity. It cannot take into account the people who attend one meeting and do not return due to their disbelief in a higher power of any kind. She also pointed out that the freedom of religion enshrined in the US bill of rights not only means the freedom to worship as one chooses, but also the right for one not to worship. This freedom, she said, should surely extend to residents of US alcohol and drug treatment centres, funded by the state. Yet the medical profession has the tendency to push 12-step programmes onto recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, and they are enshrined within the harsh regimes existing in treatment centres. With addiction and the social problems it creates there is a tendency to adopt the attitude, 'If it works, it works - never mind the rights of the individual'. The method's actual success in practice, leaving aside the propaganda, is highly debatable. The victim culture prevalent in the 80s was partly fuelled by the neoliberal economic policies. When the individual is enslaved to the blind laws of the market, feelings of alienation are only too common, especially during times of insecurity. In 1930s Germany it was far easier for the resentful petty bourgeoisie to find a scapegoat (the jew) rather than turn against the capitalist system itself. The situation was not helped by the inadequate policies of the left, which provided the only credible alternative to fascism. Clearly the situation in 1980s Britain and the US differed greatly from that of 1930s Germany. But prior to Thatcher's electoral landslide the nation was unstable and the far right was on the rise. During the 80s, despite the boom, Thatcher's neoliberal policies also brought about economic insecurity among large sections of the population. The left was weak. Welfare and other public services were gradually being eroded, and unemployment was at an-all time high. No doubt many people felt extremely alienated, and looked for solutions to their problems. Addiction was one way of coping; religion was another, both mainstream and cult. Another way was to find a scapegoat, which the recovery movement provided. It was not the system that caused this mass alienation, but rather it was our repressed feelings carried over from childhood. Our dysfunctional families, not the system, were to blame. The salvation was to be found in therapy: only in recovery could we atone for the original sin of our parents. Recovery promised eternal happiness and bliss, along with a discovery of god. I attended a 12-step group and one of its promises was that fear of economic insecurity would be left behind. If the revolution comes tomorrow, maybe! It is quite ironic that the recovery movement, which has roots in the 1960s new left and feminist movements, implicitly teaches us that economics and politics are, to put it bluntly, none of our business and have no bearing on our emotional and mental states. We shall see later how the self-awareness programmes of the new left ceased to be a challenge to the establishment and turned into one of its tools. But the main problems that are addressed by the recovery movement - namely, bouts of depression, loneliness, emptiness, insecurity, low self-esteem and alienation - cannot be unrelated to the economic system that shapes our lives. Although psychology as we know it did not exist at the time of Karl Marx, he could nonetheless see that the capitalist system would bring about alienation in the human psyche. In fact, the world we live in today resembles the world of capital described by Marx over 100 years ago more than it did in his lifetime. Neither were Marx and Engels indifferent to the oppressive structure of the patriarchal, nuclear family. In his Origin of the family, private property and the state Engels empathetically described its oppression of women and children. Under capitalism, all families are, to a degree, dysfunctional. Society itself is dysfunctional, and will be up until the day the irrational economic system we live under is abolished. As Engels envisaged, with the withering away of the state should also come the wane of the nuclear family that is an essential part of capitalist society. This does not mean I am slipping into moral relativism. Shouting at a child clearly is not in the same category as sexual molestation or a severe beating. And the recovery gurus are right when they point out that problems such as addiction or neurosis in a family cause it to be more destructive than it would be without these problems. And neither do I dispute the fact that the family does shape much of our character: indeed our parents are the first figures of authority we look to. If we had abusive childhoods, then it is likely we will be more susceptible to neurosis. What I do dispute is the subjectivity of the recovery movement, its religious overtones and its indifference to the social sphere around us. The nuclear family is not an isolated unit, but is part of an entire and complex social system. The family is also shaped by the social conditions surrounding it. Yet these are issues that the recovery movement does not address, and rarely do individual therapists. Only a couple of practitioners attempted to combine psychoanalysis with Marxism. One was Wilhelm Reich and another was the German émigré writer, Erich Fromm. In his book Fear of freedom, Fromm put together a detailed study of the authoritarian character and the psychology of fascism. This was followed by The sane society, in which he studied mass psychology under the capitalist system and the condition of alienation. Fromm pointed out that the prevalent culture itself provides antidotes to this condition (ie, consumerism, Hollywood movies, nightclubs, etc). Neurosis usually occurs in individuals in whom the antidote fails to do the trick, he claimed. Wilhelm Reich, as well as writing his well known work The mass psychology of fascism, focused a lot of his studies on the sexual revolution and its necessary intertwinement with the social one. He found himself and odds not only with the Stalinist Communist Party of Germany, which found his sexual studies a liability, but also with the International Psychoanalytic Association, which decided to expel him due to his beliefs. Freudian psychoanalysis is a method that has long been debated among those in the medical profession. It has been questioned and modified by various practitioners, and has also been subject to abuse by certain institutions. Channel Four not long ago did a series of documentaries examining its use by the US state in order to influence public opinion. One example was the anti-communist propaganda of the McCarthy years. The 1960s saw a resurgence of new left radicalism and a growing peace movement. Many young radicals were drawn to the works of Reich and his ideas of sexual liberation. However, after the failure of the 'hippie revolution', the movement naturally became more inward-looking, choosing to separate itself off from capitalist society - dropping out of consumer culture - instead of taking it on. The corporations were concerned by this, so they brought in teams of advisors who recommended promoting lifestyles and fashion as establishing 'identity'. By the late 70s these movements - the hippies, peaceniks and new left - came to the conclusion that it was pointless directly challenging the system. The way forward was to have an 'internal revolution' within the self. This 'revolution' contributed to the recovery movement described earlier. The establishment was not slow to pick up on this. Opinion pollsters were soon brought in, and psychoanalytic methods were used to establish a 'personality type', into which most of the 60s era radicals fitted. Ronald Reagan's election campaign targeted those people, with libertarian rhetoric promising to 'get government off the backs of the people', promoting self-help and esteem. As with Thatcherism in Britain, 'Reaganomics' did not in fact reduce the power of the state, but rather made it stronger. Neoliberal policies were accompanied by a new round of anti-Soviet hysteria and higher military spending. This was commonly nicknamed in the US 'Cold War II'. By 1989, due to pressure from these cold war warriors, capitalist restoration had already begun in parts of the Soviet bloc. By 1991 the Soviet Union was dead. Francis Fukuyama triumphantly proclaimed the "end of history". These events were cheered not only by the conservative bourgeoisie, but also left liberals, social democrats and even some Trotskyists. George Bush senior declared a 'new world order' of peace and cooperation, which began, in Orwellian fashion, with a military assault on Iraq. The left was even more confused and fragmented than before. To the working class socialism no longer seemed a viable alternative, which allowed welfare benefits to be further eroded, with little resistance. The 1990s saw the ascendance of postmodernism, where all is relative. Postmodernism cannot be easily defined due to its fragmented nature. But, broadly speaking, its main characteristics seem to be an emphasis on subjectivity (a feature it shares with the recovery and new age movements), the dismissal of any ultimate reality or truth, and a rejection of seeing history in terms of any grand narrative. Postmodernism is a broad church aimed at a variety of dissatisfied intellectuals. If you are unclear about your philosophy, you can easily claim to be a postmodernist and no one can dispute that. Although postmodernism contains much critical philosophy, which is always a healthy thing, its relativism and subjectivism prevent it from mounting any serious challenge to the status quo. Another trend within the last 10 years has been the advent of new age religions, which have fitted well into the self-help culture and recovery movement. Self-help books usually appear beside the new age section, under one big umbrella named 'Mind, body, and spirit'. New age is not one religion: like postmodernism it encompasses many beliefs. A new age follower would find no problem attending a 12-step meeting, for instance, as the 'higher power' could be Jesus, Buddha, the mother goddess or whoever! New age is a perfect movement for a consumer society. You need not go on long retreats and learn meditation techniques from monks; all you need to do is visit your high street bookstore and choose your preferred method of self-awareness. Gods these days are for sale like almost everything else. Unlike traditional religion, new age has no ultimate reality, and its main emphasis is on subjectivity (all paths lead to god). Many psychiatrists and psychotherapists are new age followers or gurus themselves, and some have written bestsellers. M Scott Peck and Betty Shine are two names that spring to mind. As psychoanalysis is not an established science, the subjectivity of new age may possibly appeal to them for this reason. They may also have found its methods helpful in managing certain neurosis. There is also a new age version of feminism that enshrines so-called female values, such as intuition and emotion, and scorns so-called male values, such as rationalism and analysis. The new age and recovery movements, which are both subjective and individualistic, can easily merge into one another. Both are inward-looking and preoccupied with bolstering self-esteem. With a tendency to treat one's social surroundings and objective conditions as irrelevant, the promise of this new religion is that by finding the right attitude and the 'spiritual rebirth' one can magically transform one's life and find everlasting success and happiness. This promise can also extend to the economic realm, as there are several self-help gurus out there who publish books on 'how to get rich', 'how to climb the corporate ladder', etc. Generally speaking then, this trend is largely asocial and apolitical - convenient at a time when political apathy is at an-all time high. While we do have a resistance movement among the anarchistic, anti-capitalist youth, that movement also has a postmodernist side which prides itself on being disorganised and fragmented. It lacks the cohesion and purpose of the 1968 movement that some ageing radicals are keen on comparing it with. So what hope is there then? My main purpose in writing this essay has not been to debunk religiously orientated programmes that may help severely alienated individuals in regaining their sense of identity. It is my view that one can find a sense of purpose (which is something that religion can also give) not in retreating from the world and looking inward, but by looking outward and seeking to change it. To challenge capitalism and the alienation and neurosis it inevitably brings we need a cohesive movement that looks at the world objectively in order to begin to change it.