Is psychotherapy left-wing?

According to David Edgar’s article in Guardian, the right is suddenly on the retreat and the left is back with a vengeance. The fact that his article begins with a picture of Jeremy Corbyn at the Glastonbury festival in many ways encapsulates his argument: that the future belongs to the young (or at least the young at heart), socially liberal, outward looking and pro-European/globalisation. The irony that this promise of a new socialist paradise is being propagated by a group of (mainly) white late middle aged men seems to have escaped most of the commentariat.

Interestingly, Edgar seems to interpret the recent UK election result as a triumph for (left) liberalism, rather than a victory for social conservatism, which is what it actually was. However, the general consensus amongst both mainstream/legacy and social media is that Corbyn ‘won’. The logic here is that because Labour were not annihilated (as much of the self-same liberal commentariat predicted) therefore they must have won. And yes, it is perfectly true that minority governments tend not to have a very long life expectancy because as some point the party they are relying on to keep them in power pulls the rug from underneath them, as was the case with the Callaghan government in the late 1970s. However, what many people seem to forget about the Labour government of the time is that it was already veering towards the right (in spite of the many myths about it being in the pockets of the unions, etc). So in many ways it could be argued that Thatcher simply carried on where Labour left off.

If anything, the message of the election seems to be that the UK is a deeply divided and troubled nation, and that in response to this politics is polarising – just as it did all across Europe in the 1930s.

Before looking more closely at psychotherapy’s relationship with ‘the left’ perhaps we need to define a bit more clearly what this actually means today, and especially in the UK. Or, to put it another way, what exactly were all those enthusiastic crowds who greeted Jeremy Corbyn during his election campaign, and, of course, at his headline appearance at Glastonbury, actually cheering (and in many cases voting) for?

I would argue that in many cases they were cheering (and voting) for an escape from the reality of antagonism and division. In other words, people are frightened about what the future might hold, they are frightened of living in a deeply divided and confusing society. Of course, there are many ironies here: many of those who voted for Brexit were voting for a return to a (fantasised) past; a past of certainty, a past where everyone knew who they were and where they were going. And yet, it would appear that many of these same Brexiteers ended up voting Labour. But is it really that surprising? Once the political reality of Brexit started to dawn on people, i.e. that it would be a long, drawn out process and that no-one in power really had a clue what a post-Brexit Britain would look like, Jeremy Corbyn’s off-shore socialist paradise suddenly started to look very attractive indeed.  On that note it now seems clear from his Glastonbury speech that the model for Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of socialism is not Soviet Russia (not, to be fair, that it ever was) but rather the festival, albeit one surrounded by a wall and one for which you have to pay a small fortune to attend.

In his article, Edgar argues that ‘the majority of British people are social liberals, and are becoming increasingly so.’ Edgar seems to base this assertion on the fact that support for the death penalty continues to fall and that, in general, research suggests that even amongst those who voted ‘leave’ the majority did not see social liberalism as a force for ill (even though this seems to be contradicted by the fact that people who didn’t like social liberalism multi-culturalism, immigration, feminism and green movements ‘overwhelmingly voted leave’.) However, the point that Edgar and other proponents of (left) liberalism seem to be forgetting here is that in many ways social liberalism is the new conservatism. In other words, the ideas and values of social liberalism have been around for decades now and have become engrained in our culture.

Behind this belief in social liberalism lies another narrative: that of history as progress; from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from social conservatism to liberal democracy. Of course, this is simply a perpetuation of the myth of the Enlightenment, but many people seem to have short memories. Short enough, it would seem, to forget that none of the ideas being propagated by Corbyn and associates are actually new. Most of the more socially liberal ones originate from the 1970s and early 1980s, and the others go back to at least the 1940s, e.g. state ownership of major industries and utilities. The key point here is not that there is anything necessarily wrong with such ideas but rather that there is nothing especially new, progressive, or indeed, liberal, about them.

But what about psychotherapy (and for the purposes of this post I include psychoanalysis within this term)? Is there anything especially ‘left-wing’ about therapy; and by this I am not so much referring to the political beliefs of individual therapists, but more in terms of an underlying ideology which informs the whole profession?

Certainly many of the ‘humanistic’ and ‘person-centred’ approaches to psychotherapy make no bones about the fact they support ‘progressive’, liberal values and politics, and openly challenge what they would see as reactionary (and, by implication, right-wing) positions such as homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, anti-abortion, and so on. Many of these practitioners belong to Psychotherapists and Counsellors for Social Responsibility (PCSR) and its website gives a clear sense of the underlying values and politics of the organisation, as do the papers contained in the PCSR’s journal, Psychotherapy and Politics International.

Within the Lacanian field there certainly appears to be more of a leftwards focus than in any other direction. I’m thinking especially here about the work of Yannis Stavrakakis and, of course Slavoj Žižek, although I would argue that of late there have been some serious questions regarding Žižek’s political leanings. Perhaps the key point here about both Stavrakakis and Žižek is that they are very much in the tradition of social critique and critical theory, which has always traditionally been associated with the left of politics (or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that I have yet to find a critical theorist on the right of the political spectrum). And this goes back to the whole question of the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s version of socialism/social liberalism: it is very much based on critique, a challenging of the established order, which of course is why Corbyn voted so many times against his own party during the Blairite era.

In the wider field of psychoanalysis there has been a long tradition of social critique. One has only to think of the work of Wilhelm Reich in the 1930s and his critique of authoritarianism and fascism. And, of course, there is the work of the Frankfurt School which was the predecessor of modern day critical theory, and especially their critiques of ideology, capitalist society and the authoritarian personality.

At the same time, however, there have been many critiques of psychoanalysis as being too bourgeois, as being inherently individualistic, and either playing down or totally ignoring the role of the social and the political. One early example of such a critique, which is still very much worth reading, is Valentin Voloshinov’s Freudianism: A Marxist Critique. And, of course, both Freud and Lacan have been heavily criticised for their alleged sexism and phallocentrism. Another criticism of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis relates to its cost: the reality is that, in the UK at least, most psychotherapy, and especially long term therapy, is practiced within the private sector and, by implication, is not available to those who cannot afford the fees. This is often taken as a confirmation by its critics that psychotherapy has a middle-class bias, both in terms of its cost and of its values, i.e. which are predominately individualistic. This raises a rather interesting irony: many of those practitioners in the private sector who espouse the values of social liberalism and would see themselves as left-leaning would struggle to earn a living if they attempted to cater solely for clients who were on benefits or very low incomes. Of course, many such practitioners are well aware of this dilemma and would argue, quite rightly perhaps, that it’s not their fault that there is so little provision for long-term therapy on the NHS.

On the whole, though, I think it is fair to argue that there is certainly a left-leaning bias in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in the UK in the early part of the twenty-first century, and this is because, since the 1970s, there has been a shift towards identity politics, which is very closely linked to the values of social liberalism and a (liberal) left ideology. And one of the main reasons for this shift, I would argue, is to do with the legacy of the 1960s and what was, ironically perhaps, the failure of the political left, at least in terms of class struggle. Whatever the media hype about the 1960s, it was certainly not the triumph of radical politics. If anything, it was about the commodification of the counter-culture which was packaged up and sold to the masses. But part of this response to the failure of class politics was the emergence of a different type of politics, which was based around the transformation of the self rather than the transformation of society. This was the emergence of the idea of ‘the personal is political’ which led eventually to the rise of identity politics. In many ways it was a retreat into the (imaginary) self with the aim of ‘self-actualisation’ or finding one’s ‘real self’. The critical point here is to find a sense of identity, a place in the world that one feels comfortable with, and for other people to validate and respect this identity.

I would argue that a great deal of the ‘politics’ of psychotherapy is about facilitating the process of identity formation. Even in the Lacanian field, where the whole question of identity and ‘the self’ becomes highly problematic, one could argue that if the ‘aim’ of analysis is to identify with one’s sinthome, then isn’t this simply another version of identity politics? And, of course, in many ways, psychotherapy is perfectly placed to address questions of identity, questions of ‘the self’. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony: it is the left that now makes the question of the self, the question of identity, central to its political project. And this goes back to the question of what a ‘socially liberal’ politics would actually look like in terms of a set of government policies. Essentially they would aim at providing an economic and cultural framework which facilitated the politics of identity on a grand scale; in other words, self-actualisation and identity formation for the masses.

But what if identity politics has had its day along with the dreams of self-actualisation for everyone? What happens when the realities of a living in a deeply divided and polarised society finally hit home? When it becomes clear that there is no escape into an offshore, socially liberal paradise? Do we then need to find another politics and another psychotherapy that can confront the antagonisms that lie at the heart of social reality? And what would such a politics, such a psychotherapy, look like…?