Meeting the Needs of the Power Structure

March 23, 2014


In the history of authoritarian governance, there have always been ruling power structures such as monarchies, dictatorships and corporatocracies (the combination of giant corporations, the wealthy and their political representatives). All these power structures have constructed a particular idea of “the professional” to act on their behalf.

Power structures have used clergy to subdue populations (that’s why dissident clergy who cared about social justice and who were embarrassed by their profession created “liberation theology”). Power structures have used police and armies to try to break human rights and labour movements. And today, corporatocracies claim the profession of mental health as a powerful means to maintain the status quo.

In 1989 in El Salvador, Ignacio Martin-Baró, both a liberation theologian and a social psychologist who had popularised the term “liberation psychology,” was assassinated by a US-trained Salvadoran death squad. Martin-Baró had observed this about US psychology: “In order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.” First, some obvious examples, then the more submerged part of this iceberg.

The Visible Iceberg

The American Psychological Association (APA), for several years, not only condoned but actually applauded psychologists’ assistance in interrogation/torture in Guantánamo and elsewhere. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the US military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, an APA task force in 2005 concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military; and in 2007, an APA Council of Representatives retained this policy. It took until 2008 for APA members to vote for prohibiting consultations in interrogations.

Historically, nothing was more powerful in ending American involvement in Vietnam than the brave actions by US soldiers who refused to cooperate with the US military establishment (see the 2005 documentary Sir! No Sir!). However today, American mental health professionals, by way of behavioural manipulation and psychiatric drugs, make such a resistance more difficult.

The former president of the APA, Martin Seligman, was a consultant for the US Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme – receiving not only social position and rank but several million dollars for his University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Centre. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Seligman was quoted as saying, “We’re after creating an indomitable military.”

In one role-play utilised in this Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, reported by the New York Times, a sergeant is asked to take his exhausted men on one more difficult mission. The sergeant is initially angry and complains that “it’s not fair.” But in the role-play, his “rehabilitation” involves reinterpreting the order as a compliment: “Maybe he’s hitting us because he knows we’re more reliable.”

Even more powerful than “positive psychology” manipulations in subverting resistance to the US military-industrial complex is the use of psychiatric drugs for US soldiers. According to the Navy Times, one in six US armed service members were taking at least one psychiatric drug.

The Submerged Iceberg

Anti-authoritarians are vital for democracy and democratic movements, as they question whether an authority is legitimate before taking that authority seriously; and when they deem an authority to be illegitimate – dishonest, incompetent, exploitative – they resist it. Early in my career as a psychologist, it became clear to me that many individuals diagnosed with mental disorders are essentially anti-authoritarians, and that a potentially large army of anti-authoritarian activists were being kept off democracy’s battlefields by mental health professionals who had pathologised and de-politicised their pain.

The selection and socialisation of mental health professionals tends to breed out many anti-authoritarians, as all but a handful conform to the demands of authorities so as to advance their careers. Thus for many MDs and PhDs, those people different from them who reject attentional and behavioural compliance appear to be from another world – a diagnosable one.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan (who as governor of California had gained attention by quelling college student protests), was elected president of the United States. That same year, the American Psychiatric Association, in goose step with America’s swing to the right, published their revised diagnostic bible, the DSM-3. DSM-3 added several more child and adolescent diagnoses that subtly and obviously pathologised stubbornness, rebellion, and anti-authoritarianism.

One of these new diagnoses – now quite popular in the United States – that obviously pathologises rebellion is called “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” ODD kids are routinely doing nothing illegal and are not the kids who were once labeled as “juvenile delinquents” – that nowadays is diagnosed as “conduct disorder.”

Besides the pathologising of stubborn, anti-authoritarian children, I have discovered in nearly three decades of practice that many people with severe anxiety, depression, and/or psychosis are also anti-authoritarians. Often a major pain in their lives that fuels their breakdown is a fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will cause them to be financially and socially marginalised, along with a fear that compliance with such illegitimate authorities will cause them to lose their self-respect.

Most mental health professionals meet the needs of the power structure by only focusing on helping their clients adjust to society, regardless of just how insane US society has become. By insane I mean: multiple senseless wars that embroil an unknowing American public; prisons-for-profit corporations such as Correction Corporation of America which buys prisons from states and demands a 90% occupancy guarantee in return; and the ordinary insane daily lives of the overwhelming majority of Americans, dominated by alienating, meaningless jobs, significant unemployment and underemployment.

There are dissident mental health professionals who depathologise and repoliticise suffering. They recognise that many among their clientele diagnosed with disruptive behavioural disorders such as ODD, or depression, anxiety disorder, and other so-called mental illnesses are not essentially biochemically ill. They recognise that their clients’ self-destructive behaviours are fueled by a variety of pains, including the pain of illegitimate authorities at many levels in their lives. But these dissidents comprise a small handful among the nearly one million American psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and other mental health professionals.

By Bruce E. Levine|


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