||For many of us working in academic psychology, it is obvious that we need to attack the oppressive assumptions and practices of the mainstream. Mainstream psychology separates knowledge and practice, legitimizes racism, pathologizes dominated social groups, eternalizes bourgeois social relations, and so on. The question is how do we go about this attack. Versions of critical psychology have emerged which suggest the strategic use of our positions as psychologists and the intellectual resources our positions provide us. As such, we appear to have the best of both worlds; we can satisfy some of our own needs as critical people (and be true to our consciences) while at the same time making our living as psychologists even perhaps getting a decent career out of it.
My argument is that such a position is part of the problem not part of the solution. If we really want to challenge what is fundamentally wrong with psychology, we should look more critically at our own situation rather trying to use our situation to help others who can supposedly benefit from our specialist knowledge. It follows from this, therefore, that critical psychology can offer nothing to the movement' at least not in the way the relationship between the two is usually set up. Rather, if anything, critical psychology leaches off the 'anti-capitalist movement' and all radical activity.
Psychology is within and part of academia and can't be understood without understanding the nature of academia. Critical psychology the attempt to criticize bourgeois social relations using the resources of psychology by definition preserves psychology itself. This therefore means premising one's 'intervention' on the existence of academia. The key point is that academia is not neutral; it is not some set of tools that only acquire their meaning through the use to which they're put; academia already embodies alienated social relations and it operates to alienate its 'users'.
Some reading this will be slightly puzzled. They may experience their academic jobs as relatively privileged, and regard the university, as a relatively free space to pursue ideas, as one of the few positive achievements of capitalism. I will directly address these points shortly. For now, I want to unpack the argument that academia is alienating.
Academia is alienating essentially because it is the institutionalization of specialized knowledge. Within itself, it fragments this knowledge through the separation of the distinct disciplines and obscure specialisms of the sciences, social sciences and humanities. In relation to the wider world, academia embodies the dehumanizing division of labour between the mental and the manual that characterizes capitalism. It is a realm of knowledge abstracted from practical concerns; as such, it is (along with the media) part of a one-sided ideological realm whose inhabitants are one-sidedly intellectual. It is the counter-part to those practical realms (i.e. most other work) where the inhabitants are largely denied from fully exercising their intellectual faculties.
When I say that academia is alienating, therefore, I mean that it is an institution which subsumes our (intellectual) activity within alien needs and purposes i.e. those of capital. In a moment, I will suggest in what capacity academia functions for capital. For now, the argument is that academia cannot stand outside a revolution that abolishes the capital relation but must itself be abolished. Put differently, if our specialized roles are alienated, we need to act out of role rather than try to hang onto them as part of our supposed radicality. This kind of point was ably made in Refuse:
The 'opposition' by counter-specialists to the authoritarian expertise of the authoritarian experts offers yet another false choice to the political consumer. These 'radical' specialists (radical lawyers, radical architects, radical philosophers, radical psychologists, radical social workers everything but radical people) attempt to use their expertise to de-mystify expertise.… The academic counter-specialists attempt to attack (purely bourgeois) ideology at the point of production: the university. Unwilling to attack the institution, the academic milieu, the very concept of education as a separate activity from which ideas of separate power arise, they remain trapped in the fragmented categories they attempt to criticise… [But] when [others] participate in the class struggle they don't do so by 'radicalizing' their specific place in the division of labour (e.g. radical dockers, radical mechanics) but by revolting against it. (pp. 10-11, 23).
A characteristic approach of the critical academic is to engage in what can be called the ideological struggle. A set of dominant discourses/assumptions/arguments is identified, and research/theory/analysis is marshalled to expose their negative consequences and/or partiality. Such work can be worthwhile in various ways, but also has fundamental and profound limits. Unless it is combined with some broader practical intervention whereby the academic challenges academia itself, it reproduces his or her separation as a specialist in the realm of ideas. At its worst, it privileges this realm of ideas as the central locus of struggle and neglects how social relations give rise to and make particular (liberatory or ideological) discourses possible and meaningful.
Moreover, if the ideological struggle is taken seriously, it is simply the perfect way of engaging the critical academic in the stuff of academia of transforming herself and her radical intentions into so much academic fodder. Academia needs people who produce lots of words and ideas. The considerable amount of personal control we have within our jobs (compared, for example, to the cleaners who service our offices) gives us the scope to choose what and how we research and write about; while some might suggest (wrongly, in my view) that this makes it 'less alienating', it is precisely this scope afforded to us that serves to drag us into the fold, that recuperates our critical impulses. In fact, our most critical impulse is our desire to escape our own alienation, not our wish to use our alienated labour itself (i.e. to reinforce our own alienation) supposedly to support others' attempts to escape; such a wish is a living contradiction. The committed right-on principled critical psychologist is often the one who works hard and long to produce vast amounts of publishable words and ideas, and who sacrifices her pleasures to this project of words and ideas, who feels the joy of creation within work and the pain of not being able to complete her plans. How very different from Lucky Jim, who dislikes and disowns his academic work, and doesn't even make the effort to 'use' it to create his own projects beyond that of paying the rent. But isn't Lucky Jim in a sense the practically critical one, in that at least he's much clearer that he's alienated? By contrast to Jim Dixon, many of us believe in what we do, identify with the project of academia (if not its particular findings and theories), and lose sight of the way that, in expending our energy in 'using' academia, this is precisely how academia uses us. The critical psychologists are, thus, just as much as the uncritical career academics, perfect fodder for this realm of endless words and ideas, a realm which reproduces itself as healthy and alive even through its own critique.
Given all this, what can academic theory in general and critical psychology in particular offer to the 'anti-capitalist movement?' A lot, perhaps, if we are referring to those tendencies and ideologues of the 'movement' who use research to win the battle through arguments. In fact, 'anti-capitalism' is a very good career for some people such as Noreena Hertz and Naomi Klein.
However, these tendencies which appear ultimately as a set of alternative proposals for a 'fairer' version of capitalist relations are only one of the forms of the 'anti-capitalist' movement. Indeed, some of the best and most uncompromising actions we have seen against the capitalist relation in recent years have taken place under the banner of 'anti-capitalism'. I am thinking of examples such as the June 18th 'Carnival Against Capital' in the City of London in 1999 (J18), the actions around the attempt to close down the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in the same year, the mass mobilizations against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Prague in 2000, and the assault on the fences in Quebec at the Summit of the Americas in 2001.
It seems intolerably arrogant and presumptuous to suggest that critical psychology can offer something important to those people involved in the most radical aspects of these events. In a crucial sense, many of those involved in J18, for example, already have theory. (Indeed for many if not most 'anti-capitalists', the theory they express through their actions far surpasses their verbalized explanations of their relationships to capital, which are too often bogged down in a leftist -liberal discourse of 'big business', 'imperialism', 'human rights' etc.). The relation between theory and practice is internal; theory is an aspect of practice, and practice expresses theory. To argue otherwise would be to endorse the 'injection' model of the relation between theory and practice (which appears in Lenin's work, but which owes nothing to Marx). In turn, this means that all critical psychology and the other critical academic disciplines can do is tail-end and attempt to leach off the 'anti-capitalist movement'. The 'anti-capitalist movement' is data, ideas, relevance all the things that critical psychology needs. Ask not what critical psychology can do for the 'anti-capitalist movement', but rather what the 'anti-capitalist movement' can do for critical psychology.
It's just academic
So far then, I have suggested that the university and hence critical psychology cannot be the basis of a practical critique of the social relations of capital. However, I now want to show how the inherent limits of academia are at the same time a modest but positive opportunity for some 'anti-capitalists' and others who do not want to do anything of use to capital.
Some critical folk might argue the basic problem with the university, and the key reason why we can't 'use' it ourselves, is that it is essentially a factory for the production of knowledge for use by the state (in state control) and capital more generally. In fact, my own academic specialism, crowd behaviour, would seem to bear this kind of argument out. Theories of crowd behaviour arose as a practical attempt by the ruling class to deal with the problem of working class crowds. In the nineteenth century, Tarde and Sighele debated the effect of the crowd on individual psychology in order to resolve the bourgeois problem of criminal responsibility. Le Bon popularized some of their ideas in a book which also explained how the threat of the crowd to bourgeois order could be harnessed and re-directed by a crowd demagogue using the appropriate form of rhetoric (simple and repetitive).
There are two problems with treating this kind of example as indicating something general about the relation between university research and the interests of the state. In the first place, while it is certainly true that applied work in the service of the war machine, psychiatry, surveillance, advertising and so on is carried out in universities, much more applied academic work is relatively benign. For example, there is a whole industry of health psychologists attempting to persuade people to eat more fruit and less fat. The critique of this work is not its practical usefulness to the state or capital so much as its possible ideological effects in drawing attention to the symptoms rather than the causes of ill-health in capitalist society.
Second, and most importantly, a huge amount of work in the universities, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, and including most research work in psychology, has no obvious application at all. Any applied relevance that researchers specify when they fill in their research funding forms is contrived or general. Again, it is more adequate to grasp the function of this knowledge as ideological rather than instrumental. To use the example of the study of crowd behaviour again, while interest in the specialism has arisen and declined in waves (e.g., 1920s, 1960s), reflecting bourgeois concerns with the various threats to 'civilization', what theorists provided was not so much concrete tools and practical recommendations for the police, army and judiciary but rather a set of ideological resources which could be used to justify and legitimize existing repressive practices. Thus, the crowd was typically cast as irrational either through collective social influence processes occluding individual identity, or through an individual reversion to basic drives and instincts and hence inherently dangerous; and hence the full force of the state was necessary to control or eliminate the crowd.
The (critical-negative) view that the basic problem of academia is the state's use of its products as tools to oppress us is, just like the (critical-positive) view that academic activity can unproblematically be treated as a tool for progressive ends, mistaken in its grasp of the essence of what is bad and good about academia.
Even within the current climate of rationalization, where market principles are increasingly being applied to what we do, academia remains essentially an ideological realm - a realm of ideas not practical applications. This is the case for the same reasons that, while the university is of course a pre-capitalist invention, it has flourished and developed as capitalism itself has developed. The bourgeois world comprises not only a war between capital and proletariat, but also competition and conflict between different bourgeois subjects and capitals. The competing material interests mean problems in producing disinterested knowledge, in uncovering truths, in developing theoretically and/or empirically-based explanations. The role of academia then is precisely to provide such knowledge. By being essentially separate from the conflicts of material interest by remaining neutral, and committed only to knowledge-production itself academia operates as an arbiter of knowledge. As such, rather than designing new practices based on particular interests, its main purpose is to provide rationalizations and justifications for existing practices based on 'universal' interests. We might even go further and perhaps say that its function is to have no (instrumental) function. Academia is a self-reproducing world of endless words and ideas; the more words and ideas you produce, the more justification you create for more such words and ideas. Arguments must be answered; theories must be tested; suggestions must be developed; and so on.
But an ideological realm a realm dedicated to scholarship and knowledge for its own sake has its price. That price is its sheer uselessness, its 'waste', its redundancy. To say that something is 'just academic' is to say that it doesn't matter. The term is almost an insult. The quintessentially academic work is not that which provides the new tools for the state and capital's attempts to dragoon us into bourgeois public order, but that which is utterly trivial and has little relevance to anything practical.
However, from the point of view of those of us who don't want to produce anything useful for the existing order, this is also an opportunity. Despite the pressures operating to make university lecturing jobs much like other kinds of work, academia is nevertheless still a relatively open-ended space where people can indulge their peculiar research interests. The privilege of the job is precisely that it gives us the time and the resources (library, word-processors, printers, internet) to explore topics that may be useless and pointless to capital, but still interesting to us.
The net social effect of this indulgence may be the same as in the case of the critical psychologist who is trying to use her work to change the world i.e. zero. And here too there is the same danger of becoming so involved in and identifying with the work that one sacrifices one's free subjectivity to academia instead of attempting to abolish academia for the sake of one's free subjectivity. But the possible difference is that, since the 'indulger' doesn't believe her work is practically useful or necessary for positive social change, she or he may be more ready than is the critical psychologist to get stuck into the real struggle and meet her own needs in other ways. Which of them is more ready to take a day off from their oh-so-vital work to stand on a picket line or, if that still sounds to self-sacrificial, to stay in bed?
Before illustrating some of these points with my own research, some qualification is necessary. First, it would be wrong to suggest that academia can produce nothing of value to anti-capitalists, and to wholly dismiss its ideas and theories; in this sense, my argument above seems to go too far. Second, and at the same time, the version of 'academic freedom' I am arguing for has significant practical limitations. In principle, and particularly in the past, academia is a potential source of the best of bourgeois theory which can be used/ransacked/looted by those interested in using it for distinctly anti-capitalist purposes: an obvious example is Marx's use of the bourgeois philosopher Hegel. The problem for the working class was, and is still, finding the time, opportunity and resources systematically and consciously to develop theory. Therefore, working class people and others fighting capitalism outside academia have often had to take the best ideas and knowledge from bourgeoisie scholars who have had this time and space. Thus, we should not completely dismiss the products of academia but should regard them as possible sources for developing our own ideas. These days, however, as the Research Assessment Exercise and other forces encourage academics to produce more output of less substance, and academics themselves become bogged down in so much junk, there is relatively less for the anti-capitalist to loot. Under current conditions, in which there are endless vacuous journal articles which have to be read, the freedom to choose and carry out one's own research project becomes somewhat restricted