In recent years there has been a revival of interest in the Commons – commons of air, water, seas, rivers, seeds, genes and land have been recognised, along with the depredations visited upon them of enclosures by people and institutions claiming ownership.
Missing from this list of commons, rich though it already is, is another commons, the planet-wide layering of language, symbols, ideas and beliefs through which we live our lives, I call it the psyCommons.
There are many stories to be told about the psyCommons, the one I outline here focuses on one country, the UK, where historically, the phenomenon of enclosure has been sharply apparent. I point to key elements of this commons and make proposals about some of the enclosures of it that seem to be compromising or harmful.
The psyCommons is a name for the innumerable fragments of our learning from experience – the stories, injunctions, rumours and habits – through which – as we repeat, revisit, or revise what is held in this commons – daily life unfolds.
In the UK 60 million+ people draw on the psyCommons to become more or less savvy about navigating through the key elements of the human condition, birthing, growing up, parenting, adolescence, partnering, work, ageing and dying. So far as the psyCommons seems out of sight to us this is perhaps because of its intangibility, its ubiquity and our unique individual roles in it. The psyCommons resides in us as persons. It becomes tangible when it is enacted, through relationships with others, through engagement with tasks – through the innumerable instances of conversations and silences, appreciation and objection.
The psyCommons embodies vital learning from experience about our living, loving and departures from the human condition. Learning to recognise the psyCommons is important, equally important is noticing how it is being compromised by enclosures that, as I argue here, lead to harm and distortions in the politics of daily life.
A word about the notion of enclosure. Enclosures are not here held to be intrinsically bad news. All language and image-making and indeed clothes and even the seat you are likely to be occupying, are forms of enclosure, as are the traffic systems, tax codes, CV’s, doors and locks that seem necessary for a functioning civil society.
Enclosures of commons become problematic and often unjust when they involve claims of ownership:
These qualities tend to be strongly present (but not exclusively so) in professions such as law, the military, science, academia, medicine and the focus of concern here, psychology.
Is psychology worse than these other professions? Why is it being singled out here?
The cultures of the psy professions in the UK have been an object of study for me since the early 1990s. Lately I’ve become convinced that the psychological professions, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis and counselling have fenced off and taken possession of significant sectors of the psyCommons. Think of them as gated communities that embody to some extent all of the above list of five forms of commons enclosure. To put it another way, with various levels of state agency endorsement, they confidently assert that the psychological profession’s accumulated learnings about the human condition belong to them.
The professional qualifications that give access to these learnings are marketed with great attention to securing the enclosures within which they are held. Pecking orders of status, exclusivity and privilege are diligently pursued, tribalism and fiefdoms abound. In this the psy professions are perhaps no worse than other enclosure exponents except that, as I claim, their ownership distorts, disables, demeans, diminishes and makes the psyCommons less intelligent than it might otherwise be.
To argue that the psy therapies are problematic is not to deny that they are locally very valuable, and populated by caring and thoughtful practitioners. What then is problematic? I believe that the professional psy enclosures bring to the psyCommons a ‘therapy model’ of power relations, which generally privileges expertise about the human condition in a way that mirrors the ‘medical model’. Different yes but I believe equivalent in its deleterious effects on the psyCommons.
The extreme hierarchical knowledge and organisational styles in the medical universe, with its collusive handshaking with the pharma industries, still tends to makes health a matter of neglect in the first place and professional repair in the second place. And this tends to be reproduced by the psy professions. Power relations take the ‘power over’ form of expert/supplicant. Their foundation continues to be rooted in psychopathology, its treatment and alleviation. Access to psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy is typically triggered by a crisis and therapy ends when survival or recovery has been attained.
So far so good I guess you could say. Doctors doctor and therapists therapise.
However let’s cast a glance backwards for a moment. Over the last hundred years or so there has been a huge accumulation of learnings from countless contact hours between therapists and clients as they navigated a passage through their human condition concerns. These learnings came from those of us in crisis, or those of us who had painted ourselves into a corner and felt trapped and who sought help or who found themselves with an unfulfilled appetite for joy and delight.
What happened to this learning? If we break a leg, we’d be likely to talk about with friends and family about how it happened and how it was treated. We would be much less likely to speak about our ‘mental health’ or ‘mental illness’, the outcomes, or any resolution that did (or did not) occur are unlikely to have been broadcast into the psyCommons but any generic process learning to be taken from our ‘mental illness’ treatment would have become the property of our practitioner. From a psyCommons perspective it disappears into a psy professions enclosure.
While it may seem unduly harsh to say so, the establishment of professional enclosures in the psyCommons and the sequestering in them of psy knowledge harvested from us, looks to have been a form of theft. Theft, in the sense that mining, quarrying, and oil extraction have been a form of theft from the global commons, often to the detriment of local populations. The ‘data-mining’ of the psyCommons by the psy professions looks to be a branch of this imperious culture, with an incremental growth of psy enclosures that, following the state regulation debates, has been easier to see. The notion of theft is appropriate for two reasons, as with the enclosures of common land in the UK over past centuries, the power relations have been crushingly disproportionate, think industrialized/corporate health care, ‘highly qualified’ practitioner elites, and big pharma, reciprocity/power sharing has largely been absent.
That this is more visible with hindsight doesn’t reduce the importance of this theft or data-mining from psyCommons, which has at least two important consequences. One is that due to their framing in the medical model of human functioning the human condition issues that have been historically coming towards the therapy professions have mostly arisen from people with a troubled, damaged or under-resourced life experience, and who are often in crisis. The psy professional learnings thus accumulated are overwhelmingly concerned with the recognition, diagnosis and resolution of hurt and harm and survival and recovery from them. When distilled into theory and practice concentrates, this experience tends to have a very strong bias towards deficits. The promotion of flourishing, well-being, co-creation, love and emotional competence tend to be off the professional agenda, or are dismissed as ‘emotional hygiene’.
A second problem that the psy-enclosers pose for the psyCommons is that as mentioned earlier, they have no place for shared power. Psy-enclosures arise from an approach to power relations that privileges and prioritises accumulated expertise. One consequence of which is that peer to peer relations with clients are commonly forbidden, with severe sanctions imposed where there are transgressions. The recent intense pressures in the UK towards professionalization have sharpened this boundary but might it not also be an unhelpful artefact of the general lack of peer to peer relations in the professions themselves? In recent decades progress as a psy leader has increasingly seemed to entail devising a psy enclosure and promoting it as a therapy brand. Added to this, the privileging of professional expertise tends to feed deference and undermines self direction so that expectations of professional expertise are likely to be way ahead of its capacity to deliver.
A further demeaning effect of the psy professions enclosures is that as guardians of the culture of ‘mental illness’ they attract projections of fear and dread. Thus exposure to psychological professionals is commonly regarded as something to be avoided, and not without reason, crossing the threshold into NHS diagnosis and treatment of ‘mental illness’ is likely to result in the casting of a difficult/impossible to erase shadow in our medical records. Access is scarce too; the Scottish government is currently trying to ensure that no one waits longer than 18 weeks for ‘treatment’.
What does this mean for the psyCommons?
If we come out from under the shadow of the psy professions enclosures and look at them as historical constructs it is possible to see that, through their warehousing of sequestered learnings, they have taken out a huge overdraft on the psyCommons and that it is time for this debt to be paid back.
However old habits and hard-earned status and privilege die hard and the professional enclosures don’t seem likely to relinquish their professional straitjackets any time soon. Indeed in the UK, under the aegis of the Professional Standards Authority, they are busy right now custom-fitting new professional kite marks. Might it not be the case however that, if we use a ‘psylearning lens’ rather than a ‘treatment lens’ the psy professions enclosures may be showing signs of being on the road to ruin, or at least staleness and defensiveness?
How can this be? While both are beyond the scope of this article, there are, due to revisions of the NHS delivery of ‘mental health services, two background reasons for this decline. As the NHS is privatized, the shift to ‘commissioning’ – out-sourcing services – looks set to generate a monopoly for a single therapy brand, cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT]. Alongside this, there is an intended shift being implemented in the NHS from this-is-what-we-offer-take-it-or-leave-it to towards ‘personalization’, treatment being determined by user choice. It remains to be seen whether this purported shift in power relations escapes being merely cosmetic.
Another reason for a decline in the psy profession enclosures, is beginning to be apparent in the UK. Their privileged professional status is at risk from the exponential growth in the capacity for rapport, sharing and peer to peer relations and especially learning, provided by the social and other media through the internet. This is not to draw a dystopian future where face to face human condition enquiries disappear but rather to point to how the power weather is changing, how rapport between us is being more and more manifest in the direction of peer to peer relations. The New Yorker’s most popular cartoon has one dog at a keyboard saying to another, ‘on the internet no one knows you are a dog’.
In the face of these social changes, rather than mime the onset of Alzheimer’s and lose our wits, wouldn’t it be more intelligent of us as psy profession enclosers to re-invent ourselves, to make a decisive shift from therapy/treatment to re-entering the psyCommons? As someone on the margins, not in the psy enclosures but not entirely out either, I see that there could be a move towards seeing ourselves as ‘facilitators of enquiries into the human condition’, and so far as possible being co-enquirers – we could call it Human Condition Enquiry, HCE – where ordinary wisdom is honoured, where power is shared and where aversive dread-filled notions of mental illness crumble under the weight of a commons-wide understanding that everyone sometimes has something that merits psy attention.
What might this mean in practice? That as practitioners we grow out of our need for professionalized identities and become HCE stewards, that we become public aggregators (and publishers) of generic human condition psy knowledge. As a riposte to the micro-fascism of the claims to exclusive validity of ‘evidence-based’ practice, we could also assert that all HCE work be seen as a valid form of research.
What does this mean for psyCommoners? The psyCommons web of mutuality, rapport and reflexivity (learning from experience) and peer to peer support for our active daily commitment to surviving, recovering and flourishing lives in, through and around us, it is enormously abundant. At this point in my enquiries beginning to identify and name it has seemed sufficient. Look out for a more comprehensive exploration of its virtues and lacunae and their political and ecological implications later. For the moment it seems enough to note that in contrast to the psyCommons riches, the advice, help and perspectives dispensed by psy enclosure owners, seems a culture of willing scarcity.
It would be a pity if due to the need to maintain their enclosures, the psy professions were to miss, as the young and not so young people of the Occupy Movement and their brothers and sisters in the middle east recognise, that we are living through a Gutenberg moment – analogous to the time when the church’s monopoly on the production of texts and, it is easy to forget, being able to read them, was broken. The professional monopoly of psy expertise distilled from the psyCommons has also been broken. A post-professional psychological therapies culture is no longer a dream. The future is here, in Mumsnet, in Alcoholics Anonymous, in Co-Counselling, in Family Lives, in the more than a thousand self-help survivor and support groups listed in ukself-help.info in the Hearing Voices Network, and innumerable other resources and the ability to search for, find and engage with them.
To add a psyCommons to the existing lists of Commons – oceans, airwaves, seeds, aquifers, bytes and silence – and suggesting that it is in the same league, may seem an audacious step, but it is one I believe whose time has come.
While I take responsibility for the views expressed here, I acknowledge that the psyCommons notion emerged from conversations with Guy Gladstone, Richard House, Jennifer Maidman, Arthur Musgrave and Andy Rogers.
An earlier treatment of the psyCommons proposal along with supporting material and a case study of UK psy enclosure activities appears in Therapy Futures – obstacles and opportunities available from Lulu.com
The psyCommons blog by Denis Postle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.