Eva Illouz, one of today’s most established sociologists (yes, I am a HUGE fan), whom German “Die Zeit” called one of a few people that will shape the thinking of tomorrow just published a very interesting essay on psychology titled “How therapy became a multimillion dollar industry”. In 2008, Illouz published a book on this topic called “Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help”. In her new essay, she talks about some very important and interesting (but also controversial: Israeli psychoanalysts attacked her strongly because of the essay) aspects of the commercialization of psychology.
The first is psychology becoming a very profitable industry:
“The reason why the notions of health and inner truth became increasingly powerful throughout the 20th century is that they activated a formidable economic machine. The more we look for our healthy selves; the more we can multiply and diversify psychological problems; the more we can declare any life unhealthy and in need of management and improvement − the more clients there are. Think, for example, of shyness. Until 20 years ago, shyness was in fact a virtue, a sign that a person was modest, appropriately reserved, virtuous, moral. But shyness has been relabeled as a “social anxiety,” needing a medication (Paxil) and appropriate care and cure by psychologists. Quite simply, the more a professional group labels emotions and behaviors as “dysfunctions,” the more it is able to justify what we call a psychic problem, and the more the psyche becomes a source of profit, an endless economic machine.”
“Psychology, then, is not only a profession. It is a mega-industry that takes us to the economic heart of modern society.”
“Spending on treatment for mental health and substance abuse in the United States was estimated at US $85.3 billion in 1997.”
(I wonder why there are no newer numbers?)
Illouz will go on explaining why that matters. She will argue that psychology is to the soul what neoliberalism is to the economy: not only a way to further commercialize our existence but also to make us believe we carry the complete responsibility for everything that occurs in our lives, we are the only ones to blame for failure and that we should concentrate our energy on changing (or healing) our “sick” selves. This will have numerous effects: it will stigmatize anger and turn it inside, thus preventing revolution or change. It will depoliticize problems and turn all problems into our own private issues. It will make us believe we are flawed and should invest energy into “healing” ourselves and not so much into the world around us. And it will position itself as the only answer to the crises “inherent in the very experience of living”:
“Psychologized selves are overly preoccupied by their well-being and emotions; they are selves that think that if they work on themselves enough, they will change the outside world, or that the world outside does not matter, only the world inside, and that conflicts can always be solved by figuring out in a mature way how to communicate. That is not how social changes happen. Psychology plays an important role in the depoliticization of society, through privatization of problems and through the promise (as well as the injunction) of self-improvement.”
“Of all emotions, anger is probably the most political one: without it, one can hardly think of revolutions, demonstrations and social protest. Yet, angry people are told overwhelmingly by the surrounding culture that their anger is their private problem, that it has a psychic cause, that it can and should be managed and that failure to do so only shows one’s incompetence. But is anger indeed a private problem?”
“If you explain your difficulty in keeping a steady job by citing your lack of self-confidence or a self-destructive tendency, you will think of your workplace and the economy very differently than if you explain them by citing labor laws that make it easy to fire workers or the ruthless competitiveness of market economies.”
This is why, Illouz argues “More than any other social group, psychologists have become a central nerve of contemporary society and contemporary capitalism.”
Illouz also pinpointed a very interesting interaction (or a vicious circle) between psychology and collapse of clear rules about identity and morality. Whereas certain things used to be clearly judged as bad or as rules (you don’t rape and you respect the elderly), today, they will be psychoanalyzed (did the rapist have a evil mother? Is saying “no” to children disrespecting their rights?). This collapse of rules and morality created confusion and need for more psychotherapy:
“This suggests that psychology works as a cultural outlook for understanding and healing the self, that is, as a language that helps us figure out who we are in a world where clear rules and norms about identity and morality have collapsed.”
The paper poses very interesting questions and highlights some of the most crucial problems in our postmodern society. But there are contra-arguments such as: While too much blame on ourselves and our “ill” psyches can prevent social change, detaching from responsibility and power to change, and blaming the environment can be just as contra productive. Furthermore, working on our inner selves is the central pillar of all schools of spiritualism and the only path to enlightenment and happy(er) existence. Yes, the difference is that spiritualism doesn’t presume that our souls are “ill” – in contrary, it will teach us about the divinity of our existence. Instead of treating us as patients, spiritualism will treat us as the ultimate source of power and control in our lives. Furthermore, there are different kinds of anger – not all anger is caused by external factors which could, when faced, be roots for social change (think anger at abusive father). Another point Illouz forgot to analyze is what I believe to be one of the most important reasons for the blooming of psychology industry: the collapse of families and friendships.
In any case an extremely interesting essay and fantastic food for thought so here the link to the whole essay: