Denis Postle, Independent Practitioners Network
The kind of aggression which the UK Health Professions Council (HPC)1 felt licensed to deploy in their approach to taking control of the psychological therapies, sparked in some of us not only resistance, but active consideration of alternatives (whilst as far as possible avoiding being defined or ‘positioned’ by what we were opposing). And indeed cogent opposition via eIpnosis2 was feasible because I lived with an alternative form of civic accountability, the Independent Practitioners Network (IPN)3. However, when in 2010, I decided to step aside from full-on engagement with the HPC and its allies, there was an unexpected rush of new perspectives.
Exploring the vast Peer to Peer (P2P)5 online community, discussions with a study group of colleagues, and reading widely across political and social history, returned my attention to a notion which I’d had many years earlier; that there was a much bigger context to these regulatory disputes than was being acknowledged. As I had seen it in 2003, there was a vast prairie of psychological engagement between clients and practitioners but that some organizations were damaging this engagement by building professions, walled enclosures of psychological knowledge and practice, and controlling access to them. This had some resonance for me with the nineteenth century cattle ranchers and others in the US fencing off the prairie and displacing the indigenous people – and I’d seen how, in Iran, the government had forcibly re-settled nomads as a way of undermining their independence.
Dropping opposition to the HPC, a very clear example of these kinds of ‘licensed aggression’, created the space for a conjunction of two ideas to suggest itself; the first of these was the renewed international interest in the notion of ‘the commons’ as a way of integrating ecological and political concerns. The air/sky is a commons, the radio spectrum is a commons, the oceans could be argued to be a commons and also the fish in them, the underground water table is a commons. The internet is increasingly establishing what seems to be a series of commons of information.
Second was the sense that the tightly constricted regulation-mindedness of the psychological therapies blocked expansive exploration of, and innovative thinking about, how human condition needs could be better met at this point in history. Alongside this, colleagues were arguing for ‘post-professional’ forms of practice. What might they be? Out of this rich brew came a new idea, strongly reinforced by contact with two very articulate ‘service users’, that the problem with the psychological professions and their walled gardens of expertise was that they were making enclosures of a psychological commons.
The basis of the proposition of a ‘psychological commons’ is that everyone develops a store of knowledge about all of the key elements that could be called ‘psychological’ – their own and others’ motivations, recognition of patterned behaviours, how they and others make decisions, and so on. This flux of myriad understandings, insights and expectations forms a resource, a commons—a psychological commons that we are free to tap into and add to. And on occasion to challenge – that’s to say, as with any commons, there are issues of governance.
I have found it helpful to see the constituents of the psychological commons as what Richard Dawkins called memes6 – that is – cultural ideas, preferences and beliefs which evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes are proposed to do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. N.B. my use of memes here discards their sociobiological baggage including the claims that they could be empirically measurable units of communication. I favour of Liane Gabora’s7 variation of meme as anything that can be the subject of an instant of experience:
A psychological commons can be thought of as a grouping of memes that shape what we make of the human condition and thus how we might live, love and ‘work’ with it.
There are intrapersonal psy memes around gender, identity, value and confidence and so on.
There are interpersonal memes – what supports and what interrupts social flow/rapport – including family dynamics and parenting, plus work relationships, sexual attraction and sexual functioning.
Then there is the layer of psy memes about social relations: memes about how to live in couples, in teams, in departments, how to be streetwise, how to survive and live with asymmetries of power, how to keep ourselves safe, etc.
Yet another layer of psy memes includes psy knowledge structured and reflected via religion, capitalism, sport, media, art, music, theatre, cinema, TV etc., etc.
We might suppose that as we age, and new generations find new challenges and opportunities, psy knowledge is in constant flux.
What about enclosures of the psychological commons?
Historically there has been a bias in these memes that places valid knowledge outside, in others, especially experts and dominant authorities, and the famous. This often seems to be a replay of overly authoritarian parenting, or a failure or denial of, or incomplete, individuation. Here, perhaps, is a dynamic of memes that gives rise to psy enclosures – groups of memes that tell us how to, or how not to live, how to be healthy, and what is, or is not, ‘normal’. A list of them would include: medicine, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, counselling, psychoanalysis, plus sociology and innumerable other academic -ologies. We could also add most manifestations of guru-dom and god(dess)-dom and revelatory religions as enclosures that posit how-to-live memes and, not least, alongside these, stardom, advertising and brands.
And there are also huge numbers of other social enclosures. Golf/tennis/ clubs, gyms, Lions, freemasonry, tenancies, leases, contracts, shops, offices, factories. These are enclosures which, with their associated memes, have a prior purpose of employment or profit and not infrequently, hidden agendas of exclusivity, influence and identity.
Added to this are the several-centuries-long list of enclosures due to capitalism’s incessant drive for accumulation and its need to find outlets for surplus wealth. This seems convincingly an origin of the over-arching economic meme of the necessity for ‘growth’. Many current forms of enclosure mirror the history of imperial exploitation of territory and populations. They continue this via patenting and copyrighting of intellectual property and territory in industries such as food production, healthcare, publishing and broadcasting. In some of these, including media and banking, territories are invented which can then be enclosed, i.e. credit swaps and bestsellers.
However, doesn’t much of our psychological knowledge and the most valuable of it, come from professional psychology? Such sources of psychological expertise are a major origin of the memes that circulate in the psychological commons but probably, without exception, all were developed from relationships with clients. Are all psychological enclosures problematic or damaging? If they and their governance are freely negotiated by participants/inhabitants, probably not. As became apparent with the UK state regulation of the psychological therapies debate, typically, enclosures that are imposed generate either resistance or non-compliance, or both. There has been a vital development here. Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Tragedy of the Commons8 theory, a meme taught to countless MBAs, appeared to prove that a commons cannot sustain internal governance. Elinor Ostrom’s9 decisive contradiction of this assertion via evidence of many participant-governed commons, from fisheries to water extraction, resulted in her being awarded a Nobel Prize in 2010.
Looking at the human condition through these meme lenses tends to support my earlier intuition of a psychological commons prairie of vernacular psy knowledge and praxis stretching off into the distance. Scattered across this landscape is a metropolis of psy knowledge enclosures, clinics, mental hospitals, GP surgeries, pharmacies, mental health charities, the walled gardens of therapy trainings and therapy trade associations. How do such enclosures qualify as problematic? Some suggestions: if they unilaterally assess, diagnose, treat, and dispense; if they claim special or privileged, for instance ‘scientific’ knowledge, of the human condition; if they claim possession of objective evidence of effectiveness; and if they claim privileged possession of definitions of normality and abnormality; if professional expertise is favoured over mutality and co-enquiry.
If we think only of the UK, the memes of heritage religion have given way to multiple versions of the capitalist ethos of accumulation as an over-arching belief. The paradox of an imperious church of love is replaced by equally paradoxical memes that insist on the necessity for ‘growth’ along with the alienations and prosperity of Capital. I don’t believe I’m the first to wonder whether the memes of ‘personal growth’ and the ‘growth movement’ might be echoes of this urge for accumulation.
A second meme-shift is the move in some cultures away from gross gender asymmetries of power, a result of the economic progress of some women in the last 50 years; and a possibly related reduction of respect for institutional and political authority. Following de Mause, I also tend to think of this diffusion of respect as a reflection of a less authoritarian, more child-centered approach to child care in recent decades, which generates a new politics that has less time for authoritarian memes.
Thirdly, there is the techno revolution, especially the internet, which diffuses and connects, and which, as did the Gutenberg revolution, dissolves professional boundaries and enclosures of psychological expertise. We might keep in mind that the arrival of printed books was accompanied by the Reformation and, ultimately, the development of science. What is the Internet leading to? However, as McLuhan pointed out, all such extensions of human capacity also amputate something important.
Due to these burgeoning influences, there appear to be some decisive shifts in power away from centralized autocracies and towards more participative social relations, at least in the psychological field. Colleagues have called for recognition of this through discovery and development of forms of post-professional practice. In so far as this gathers support, the notion of a psy commons might well provide a theoretical/imaginal basis for fruitful developmental directions.
From a techno perspective, resistance to the psycommons enclosures perhaps has two dimensions; first, that many hitherto professional boundaries are falling under the momentum of vast amounts of psy knowledge being made freely available; secondly, that new forms of unmet needs and distress are emerging, or could be expected, which existing forms of psy enclosure may deal with poorly.
If those of us with a psychological perspective on the human condition were to engage in fruitful reflection/re-evaluation/recreation of what we might have to offer, what might the notion of psychological commons suggest? How might we contribute to this emerging mix; the dissolution of psychological enclosures and the creation/diffusion of psychological memes? What might we actually do?
Might it be possible, alongside renewal or recovery of mislaid practice, to generate new, currently relevant forms of participation in the psychological commons that meet existing and newly emerging psy needs? Is it a practice that waits to be invented – some equivalent to co-counselling, or NVDA, or counselling? Or the diffusion of some aspect of lived experience that would be relevant to a psychological commons, for example governance in groups and networks? Or might we only have a role in influencing the composition and direction of the psychological commons ethos?
In these matters it looks like the task is to boldly venture where academia and therapy might fear to tread!
psyCommons blog by Denis Postle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.