Psychopolitical cults

The term ‘psychopolitics’ has a sinister edge to it now, but it was not always so. The term has undergone significant shifts of meaning. In studies of fascism in the 1930s to the New Left rebellions of the 1960s it referred to the attempt to connect subjectivity – our personal experience of who we are in the world – with political change. Progressive use of the term ranged from psychoanalytic accounts of the way relations to authority become embedded in individuals – ‘internalised’ – such that people feel isolated and unable to change, to feminist insistence that politics is to be found inside our intimate relationships as well as in the struggle against economic exploitation.

With the fading of revolt in the 1970s and the later apparent victory of capitalism in the 1990s, more was learnt more about the involvement of the security forces in psychological propaganda during the Cold War and against the Left. Now psychopolitics came to refer to the fear of brainwashing and the destruction of individual autonomy, but the horrible twist to these revelations was that psychological theories as to why the world was a miserable and destructive place became even more powerful. The increasing influence of psychological discourse – stories about what the mind is like and how it is possible to master it – has meant that psychopolitics is something that people are in awe of, even afraid of.

The accusation that this or that group is a ‘cult’ is infused with this new discourse, and psychopolitics in the sinister meaning of the term is used to mobilise our fear of groups and collective action. Now, instead of explaining why we are isolated and made to experience our oppression as individual – down to each of us to tackle on our own – the psychopolitical explanations of cult behaviour are designed to make us suspicious of anything other than individual experience. The ground-rules for this psychopolitics of collective action, and of organised groups that seem to threaten our precious individuality, mean that anyone who refuses to believe that the label ‘cult’ is useful must themselves be labelled as cultish.

This is a good example of how everyday commonsense comes to feel so right when it is not, and this intense fear of cults, and especially cults that aim to change the world, is exactly the kind of fear that the old progressive psychopolitics tried to understand. Someone who does not believe in the devil is still capable of making a judgement about right and wrong, and someone who does not believe in ‘cults’ may have other very good explanations as to why some groups are or are not destructive.

In the early 1990s I went to New York to meet with the ‘social therapists’ led by Fred Newman. They combined some kind of radical politics with some kind of radical therapy, and I already knew that this explosive combination of Marxism and psychology had led some of their opponents to label social therapy as a ‘cult’. But why was it so explosive? Precisely because they were linking Marxism – dangerous enough when it was put into practice outside the academic institutions where it had been confined since the 1970s – and psychology. But they were doing something very different with psychology than psychologists do, and the fact they did not really seem to take it seriously as a collection of facts about behaviour and the mind enraged many academics and practitioners. The psychology, fear and awe of psychology coded as dangerous ‘psychopolitics’ seemed to overshadow all of the critical debate about their work. Ex-members and political opponents were more obsessed with Fred than other members of this supposedly cultish organisation or their ideas about social therapy (of which there are various forms).

I gathered a lot of material – journals and leaflets by and about the various social therapy front organisations, of which there were many – and wrote a long critical article called ‘Right said Fred “I’m too sexy for bourgeois group therapy”’. The allusion was to a British band called Right Said Fred that had a chart hit with ‘I’m too sexy’. Lois Holzman – one of the leaders of the group – wrote a reply ‘Wrong said Fred’, and our friendship cooled somewhat I think. But the sense of misunderstanding and betrayal eventually stabilised into an uneasy arms-length distance relationship with social therapy that was most probably helped by us being on different sides of the Atlantic. I did not mean my article to serve as a test, to see if they could withstand criticism, and it did take a while to puzzle over what they were up to, puzzling that continues to today.

This puzzling could be easily ended by grabbing onto the label ‘cult’, for that in itself would also explain why they do not really seem to behave like a cult. Psychopolitics today is like a kind of conspiracy theory that is directed at oppositional groups rather than at the powerful, and it works its way into images of groups that people do not like by making us feel that if they don’t seem like a cult then that must be because they are even more devilishly cultish than we first thought.

I know, for example, that saying how nice those folks are won’t cut much ice with people who don’t like them, and I know that telling you how Fred is at the centre of what social therapists do in their performance work and in their politics will only confirm what you think you know already, that he is obviously the cult leader. In fact, this perhaps hopeless attempt to persuade you that I am not just another gullible fool who has been taken in by this gang is bound to fail, and so I write this in a rather defensive and cautious way (even as I try not to be). To say I was ‘defensive’ is to borrow a term from psychoanalytic psychotherapy that now has wide currency among the Left and liberal chattering classes. As I write this account I am reminded about how defensive and cautious I was when I first met them, as if at any moment they were going to whip my brain out and wash it thoroughly in some East Side Manhattan magic potion. All the social therapy group talk about ‘transference’ (in which past relationships are replayed onto the figure of the therapist) fed my sense that I should keep up my defences when near to them. Their psychoanalytic reference points provoked in me some psychoanalytic responses, deep lived and even with this armoury a little fearful.

It is worth reading the stories circulating on the internet, and with prize of place on websites devoted to exposing social therapy, of people who have left Fred. The paradox appears time and again is that these people seem to have learnt a lesson about collective action from social therapy, but then, I think, drawn the wrong conclusions. At the one moment they have absorbed some of the progressive ideas about psychopolitics that are still alive in this group and at the next they have made sense of those ideas in the frame of present-day discourse about ‘cults’, a discourse that will explain nothing and which merely serves as ammunition against their old comrades. The narrative in the complaints often goes like this: I was in a bad state with lots of personal problems; I met the social therapists who said the problems were in the world; I got drawn into political activity that they said was therapeutic; I gave years of my life and got burnt out; I realised that this was a cult that manipulated people; I got out to save myself from being manipulated; I now campaign with others against the group to expose them.

You can hear this kind of narrative from many people who have once been involved in other radical political movements, and if they change their minds (when they decide that they cannot change the world) they then bitterly resent the resources they put into it. They feel they were duped, and they feel better if they can now put some energy into warning others against getting involved; and (so you can see how easy it is to psychologise political choices) we could then say that their activity now serves as a guarantee to themselves that whereas they were once in the grip of a cult they are now really free. But should we not treat this talk about ‘cults’ as something that also grips us all? We have a choice, it seems to me.

 We can either notice how a set of terms is used to pathologise politics, in which case notions like ‘cult’, ‘brainwashing’, ‘internalisation’ and ‘defensiveness’ are treated as buzz-words which indicate that someone has bought into and is endorsing a particular version of psychology (a version of psychological commonsense that is infused with quasi-psychoanalytic notions which we might at other times treat with suspicion). That would give us some room for manoeuvre, and it would enable us to have a debate about different political strategies (even, heaven forbid, including members of the organisations labelled as cults). Or we can line up with those who tell horror-stories about themselves or others as if they were mindless victims who could never have really had any opinions different to what we take to be ‘commonsense’ unless there were deep and dangerous ‘psychological’ reasons, reasons to explain mistaken ideas away. Every few years there is a new wave of allegations and panic about Fred and Co., and every time the panic draws sections of the left into alliances with those who seek to use psychology against politics, and then, of course, this kind of alliance ends up using psychology as a form of politics to discredit all of the left.

The ground-rules of debate in psychological culture individualise our experiences, our responses to political debate and especially our membership of political organisations. Those who care enough about a political cause to join a group are almost immediately pathologised and treated with suspicion. Actually, the social therapists have had some very interesting things to say about this process, taking the link between ‘transference’ and power seriously for example, but while they have used some psychoanalytic ideas they have also refused to sign up to psychoanalysis or to any particular kind of ‘psychology’ as such. The irony is that while these ideas are wiped out of the debate, the ones who are actually drawing on psychology do so by surreptitiously attributing it to the ‘cult’ they attack. What if we could refuse to sign up to psychology too? Perhaps we would then really be able to take the political role of psychology as a form of psychoanalytic reasoning in popular culture more seriously and find something better to do with it than passively accept that we are victims of some peculiar cult mentality.

This article on Psychopolitical Cults was a chapter in Ian Parker’s 2009 Psychoanalytic Mythologies published by Anthem Press.

This is one part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements