Does Humanistic Psychology Support the Capitalist Status Quo?

A new paper argues that Buddhist psychology and psychoanalysis have more potential for social resistance than humanistic approaches.

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A recent article published in AWRY: Journal of Critical Psychology provides a response to humanistic psychology from a Buddhist psychological and psychoanalytic perspective. The authors argue that the beliefs and practices underpinning humanistic psychology do little to combat the capitalist “managerialism” of contemporary psychology. They pose Buddhist psychology and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis as alternatives to the humanistic approach, which they argue supports the current socio-economic and political status quo.

“In a quest to make the world resemble a neoliberal (‘euspychian’) ideal, humanistic psychology makes use of the same sorts of frivolous ‘self-care’ techniques that Zizek warned are in vogue for professionals and managers who are trying to squeeze out every last ounce of surplus labor value from the workers they exploit,” argue Benjamin Ramey and Rivers Fleming.
“Instead of working towards material improvements in the lives of working and oppressed people, humanistic psychologists have constructed programs where, for example, individuals with different opinions are asked to get together and talk about the feelings brought up in difficult topics such as racism and police violence.”

Humanistic psychology is sometimes heralded as a more humane alternative to psychology and psychiatry’s status quo reliance on medication and coercive forms of “care” sometimes linked to capitalist economic imperatives.

Humanistic psychology, with its emphasis on viewing each person as having inherent worth and dignity, is confronting both the limitations and potentials of the human condition. It seems to have something to offer to its wayward, technocratic cousins.

However, some believe that humanistic psychology has too readily been either co-opted by, or from the start been an accomplice to, a consumer-capitalist society that focuses on self-improvement/self-actualization and can sometimes result in “happier,” easier to exploit workers.

There are exceptions, of course, such as the social critic and humanistic thinker Erich Fromm, among many other humanistic and existential thinkers who would likely take issue with the way humanistic ideals have been deployed in contemporary psychology.

A case could also be made that many progressive practices in psychology/psychiatry, such as Open Dialogue, Soteria Houses, the work of R.D. Laing and other anti-psychiatrists, the Hearing Voices Network, and more all carry some influence from humanistic thinking.

The current article presents a critique of specific developments in the field of humanistic psychology, especially linking contemporary humanistic ideals to those of neoliberal capitalism. They pose psychoanalysis and Buddhist psychology as potentially valuable alternatives which might provide some degree of resistance to the psychological demands of neoliberalism and the capitalist marketplace.

Ramey and Fleming give a brief history of humanistic psychology, beginning with its inception in the thinking of humanists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. They state that the movement grew out of dissatisfaction with the “dehumanizing” elements of psychoanalysis and, ironically, the pessimistic aspects of existential thinking and psychotherapy—ironic because existentialism has always influenced humanistic psychology.

They are critical of Maslow, particularly his ideals of social engineering, which quickly left the realm of academia and clinical work and took root in the business world. Here, he applied his thinking to, the authors argue, “make workers happy and compliant so that capital can exploit them more effectively.”

As for Rogers, they state that he developed a clinical method based on recognizing the essential goodness of the other person through certain conditions, such as unconditional positive regard, congruence/genuineness, and empathy. The end goal here was a path towards “self-actualization,” or the person achieving their highest ideals and potentials based on an idealized version of the self.

The authors are quick to point out that the type of psychoanalysis that humanistic psychologists saw as “dehumanizing” was, in fact, not based on Freud himself, but how psychoanalysis was taken up as “ego psychology” in the United States.

Here, there was a significant emphasis on developing a robust and healthy ego, which the authors believe scrapped much of the respect for the enigmatic and sometimes irrational nature of the unconscious as Freud conceived of it—focused on an “ecstatic” form of reason with included poetry, imagination, and more. Ego psychology also, they believe, contained elements of conformity and adaptation to consumer-capitalist society with its emphasis on a “technical” form of reason.

In fairness, the authors distinguish between the roots of humanistic psychology—existentialism and phenomenology—and humanistic psychology itself. They cite the prominent existential psychologist Rollo May and Irvin Yalom as pointing to a rift between the “self-centered” humanistic psychology of the ‘60s and ‘70s “human potential movement,” contemporary humanistic psychology, and the existential-phenomenological roots of Humanistic psychology.

They note that Rollo May was a great appreciator of Freud, even though he ultimately thought Freudian ideas had their limitations. May was also a critic of mainstream psychology’s emphasis on “gimmicks” and “technique” over paying attention to the whole person in all of the complexity of their lived experience:

“The gimmick approach, May thought, engenders boredom and the mass production of a new set of interventions designed to tackle a complaint and increase consumer satisfaction with therapy services.”

Against the idealized self-focus of humanistic psychology and the conformism of psychoanalytic ego psychology, the authors pose two alternatives—Buddhist psychology and a version of psychoanalysis based on Freud and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Buddhist psychology, they argue, opposes valorizing the ego, going against the “self-improvement” or “self-actualization” paradigm of humanistic psychology. They pose this approach as one alternative to self-focus, which can easily fall into the trap of consumer capitalism.

More centrally, the authors focus on a renewed vision of psychoanalysis based on Freud and Lacan. They quote Lacan:

“The American sphere has so summarily degenerated into a means of obtaining ‘success’ and into a mode of demanding ‘happiness’ that it must be pointed out that this constitutes a repudiation of psychoanalysis.”

For Ramey and Fleming, as for Lacan, the goal of psychoanalysis is not a kind of instrumental tinkering with isolated symptoms with the promise of personal improvement—associated with American consumer society and ego psychology—but a focus on the “fault lines” of the person’s subjectivity and an emphasis on taking responsibility for one’s fate, “regardless of the events to which one has been subjected.”

The authors conclude:

“We find our critiques of humanistic psychology to be of especial relevance in the current political climate of the United States. Humanistic psychology developed in the mid-to-late 20th century through a particular diversion of existential psychotherapy, which was nursed in the distinctly narcissistic capitalist milieu of the U.S., and its aims of self-actualization are amenable to the dictates of the professional-managerial class in service of capitalism.
We have shown how the theories and aims of humanistic psychology have deviated immensely from the founding developments of existential psychology—much like the way ego psychology deviated from the work of Freud—and we have provided a Buddhist critique of the main aim of humanistic psychology, namely the reification and enhancement of a self which is putatively progressing along a teleological path to some kind of ‘wholeness.’”

 

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Benjamin, R. & Fleming, R. (2022). A response to humanistic psychology. AWRY: A Journal of Critical Psychology, 3(1), 161-173. (Link)

9 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting article, but just more of the same: every psychology minded person jockeying for position to hold the microphone:
    I’m right! No, I’m right! No, I’m right! And on and on and on….

    So think about it. Does every idea/approach under the sun need a name? And if so, why? What are the motivations of those promoting one idea over the other anyway? Sounds like another instance of ego/conformity, to me.

    And as for materialism/business/capitalism hijacking every therapy du jour. What do you expect? It’s just human nature. Not always good, but that’s reality.

    So what do you do? Avoid getting hung up on terms for this, that, or the other thing, and just do what works for you –

  2. I don’t get, but neither do you, and that’s okay. Is that humanistic psychology?

    I stare out the window or sit in a garden. Is that Buddhist?

    I give myself a headache bemoaning the past, or worse, pay someone to listen. Is that psychoanalysis?

    I wonder the about the point of it all and why I’m here. Is that existentialism?

    Now, did I forget something? Yes, my common sense, self respect, and a cup of chamomile tea –

  3. I find this whole article really strange, beginning with the positive comment on Erich Fromm (my hero). I can’t believe that any Lacanian would agree with you. I don’t know if Lacan attacked him personally, but I would bet he condemned him as just another post-Freudian.
    As for humanistic psychology, these are the same arguments I heard in grad school, decades ago. Humanistic psychology is hardly monolithic and can’t be reduced to theory. Most practitioners follow Rogers in attempting to be present for those who seek their help, rather than analyzing them. In what I think are Lacanian terms (I am no expert, nor do I want to be), they are more oriented to viewing people as subjects, rather than egos. Do you really think that being present supports capitalism? Do you really think that the Lacanian emphasis on analyzing people, in accordance with complex theoretical constructs, is more likely to relieve suffering? I don’t.

    • Agreed. I don’t see any indication in Lacan’s texts that he was concerned with alleviating suffering. The intricacies of French postmodernist theory and intellectual politics are as far away from the actual needs and concerns of the psychologically abused and distressed as Lacan was from volunteering in a soup kitchen.

  4. Freud, as I also understand him, did not work to make his patients “whole.” Psychoanalysis as practiced by Freud was a negative psychology, that is, it saw the analysand as injured and aimed only to help him overcome learned neurosis. Freud’s patients had more immediate problems than being unhappy or not feeling whole. They were crippled by inner turmoil.

    If a positive psychiatry seeks to put someone in touch with his creativity to better actualize his unique self, Freud’s interest — imo — was more focused on revealing the contradictions in the patient’s thinking and in revealing the paradoxes that prevented the analysand from functioning better in the world. It was this functional aspect that interested Freud most. Freud, of course, had ideas about the structure of society but his concern as a doctor was to help the patient function as painlessly as possible within that structure, such as it was.

    I don’t know enough about Buddhism to comment on its similarities with psychoanalysis. It is certainly much older than the latter and, like psychoanalysis, came to take on many forms these often contradicting what I understand to be Buddhism’s basic tenets as a secular belief system. Capitalism was also a later development and Yes Buddhism must certainly reject consumerism as a means to happiness.

    Interesting attempt by the authors to flesh out the similarities between Freud and Buddha.

  5. The fallacy of humanistic psychology reminds me of Dr. Bartlett’s book: an excerpt

    “When normal human psychology supports and indeed promotes the delusional reification of stipulated definitions it becomes dysfunctional, for to equate what is purely a construct and hence fictitious with what is real is delusion, while to recognize delusion is to acknowledge that cognitive failure has occurred. In the context of psychiatric nosology, when stipulated definitions of “mental disorders” inappropriately lead to their reification as real “disease entities,” nosology similarly becomes dysfunctional. We need to take this statement out of the abstract framework of nosology and to place it within the framework of the people who are directly and indirectly affected-psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, social workers, their patients or clients, pharmaceutical and insurance companies, the courts, the political system, and the wider society. When we do this and find our feet firmly planted on the ground, it is hard to avoid the strong impression that group delusion must be at work when definitions are constructed by panels of experts, then are agreed upon and ratified, then are given official endorsement as diagnostic rules by today’s psychiatric community (recall once again that rules are not true or false), and then are misconstrued by psychiatrists themselves, and subsequently by much of the rest of society, as “true statements” about real diseases”

    From Steven James Bartlett’s book: “Normality does not equal mental health: The need to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health”

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