Torture, psychology and the neoliberal state

A recent US Senate Committee report provided the specific details for something which many people already knew: namely, that the CIA applied a wide range of torture techniques against its detainees, including waterboarding and rectal ‘feeding’. (Elsewhere, the CIA merely arranged for other intelligence services to perform the torture through the process of extraordinary rendition). At the core of this program were a team of psychologists who were paid handsomely to devise and implement ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.

No doubt every profession has a certain number of rogues and mercenaries, but what is remarkable in this case is that the psychologists in question have been protected, for years, by their professional body (in the US, this is the American Psychological Association, or APA).  To the extent that the torture was investigated at all – and this investigation was delayed, and minimal – their conduct was found to be ‘ethical’.

The question arises as to how a profession, ostensibly in the business of ‘helping’, and supposedly governed by ethical guidelines, could be directly responsible for grotesque acts of mass torture. Even more puzzling is how such abuses could take place against the backdrop of a global increase in critique of the abuses of the mental health profession. The DSM-5, a diagnostic manual for mental health, was released in 2013, and significantly expanded the number of ‘disorders’ within its purview, on the basis of pressure from interest groups and the flimsiest of quantitative methods: it was met with widespread ridicule.

Anti-psychiatry and critical psychology are less marginal discourses than ever before. Within mental health, practitioners and policy-makers are drawing from their lessons in an attempt to produce a more humane, less coercive mental health system. (One recent example, from Britain, can be found here).

On the one hand, we have voices calling, with unprecedented urgency, for ‘understanding’, and for respect of the rights of mental health ‘service users’. On the other hand, we have psychological discourse instrumentalised into a set of torture ‘techniques’, as part of a broader project, in the style of Gustave Le Bon, for the control of subjected populations. One should consider, for instance, the use of psychology in forensic settings, in ‘human resources’ as a means of staff control, or in the form of ‘behaviour management’ for children who pose difficulty for adults.  An explanation is called for, and it seems to me that there are at least a couple of lines of argument with which to explore this apparent contradiction.

The first line of thought that I will discuss here is the old Foucauldian thesis, developed in Madness and Civilisation: that, as the psy-disciplines became at once both more ‘scientific’ and more ‘moral’, formerly barbaric methods of discipline were replaced with much more insidious – and for that reason more effective – techniques for control of the subjected. In Foucault’s account, this process reached its apogee in the figure of Pinel, who replaced the brutal practices of his predecessors in psychiatry in favour of indoctrinating in subjects the ideals of self-observation, self-management and the ‘voluntary’ renunciation of social deviancy. It goes without saying that this form of treatment accorded well with the bourgeois values of the time. Where there was resistance to these ‘moral’ methods, the offender would find him or herself ejected from ‘moral’ treatment and relegated to ‘confinement and the dungeon’.

While Foucault’s interpretation of the development of psychiatry ends in the early nineteenth century, the development did not stop there. The process of clinicians attempting to have subjects internalise formerly external pressures and coercions continues unabated. Thus, the suppression of subjects as treatment – a psychoanalyst might call it castration – occurred in the mid-twentieth first in the form of lobotomy and neurosurgery, then via heavily-sedating narcoleptic drugs. In psychology, at least, the technique has shifted to the now dominant paradigms of Cogntive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and psychometrics, without relinquishing the project of population control. Psychology is neither a unified nor centralised discipline, as evidenced by the number of critics from within, but CBT and psychometrics nonetheless constitute the dominant elements.

CBT, in a nutshell, draws on the cognitive theories of AT Beck and the behaviourist ideals of Skinner (among others) to distil its practice into a series of highly directive ‘techniques’ and instructions for suffering patients. CBT holds that psychopathology derives principally from irrational thoughts but also from ‘maladaptive’ behavioural’ patterns; the role of the CBT clinician is to intervene to correct these errors. Subjects are schooled (and given ‘homework’) in correct thinking on the basis of the panopticonic and Taylorist ideals of total self-transparency and self-management. These are the ideals that must be inculcated for treatment to be considered successful.

There are variants of the treatment, ranging from cheap, short-term interventions that can be administered by virtually anyone, to more sophisticated, longer-term and flexible approaches. The emphasis is on pure, standardised and quantified ‘technique’, as opposed to transferential therapies, founded on the clinician-patient relationship. While torture is an extreme and rare implementation of psychological technique, CBT techniques typically – in ‘normal’ usage – are strongly based on suggestion and aimed at conformist goals. The CIA psychologists, for instance, founded their Enhanced Interrogation Techniques on the ‘learned helplessness’ model of noted Behaviourist, Martin Seligman, who used to administer electrical shocks to dogs as part of his research.

The collaboration between psychologists and the CIA might be extreme and therefore novel but the paradigm from which it emerges has a long history of both generalising the results of animal interventions onto humans (à la Seligman), and of employing a Sadean approach to its ‘science’. (Indeed, the terrorising of Little Albert was at the heart of this paradigm’s institution.) The poet Auden pointed this out when, in 1952, he contrasted psychoanalysis, which treats of unique ‘subjects’, with Behaviourism, which treats humans as a ‘keyboard’. As he put it:

The behaviorists are certainly right in one thing; the human mind does have a nature which can be tampered with: with a few drugs and a little regular torture every human mind can be reduced to a condition in which it is no longer a subject for psychology.

Some drugs, some torture: it should be clear that the seeds for the CIA scandal were sown not just by the Bush-Cheney administration, appalling as it was, but existed as an intrinsic component of CBT’s ideological framework. Instrumentalisation of the subject by quasi-scientific technique is the rule of the psy-disciplines, not the exception.

Little wonder, then, that the APA exonerated and protected those psychologists involved. Self-regulation is considered the highest good, on the condition that subjects forget that self-regulation is always, in the first instance, regulation by (and for) an Other. ‘Income management’ is an example of this sort of ‘self-regulation’.

Psychometric approaches constitute the other jewel in the crown of psychology’s epistemology, and presuppose a situation in which ‘data’ sits within a subject, waiting to be extracted, if only one has the right tools. The idea is that the clinician isolates certain kinds of subjective data (while ignoring others), and thus quantifies it relative to a norm. Again, it is not as if the majority of psychometricians are CIA torturers, but most share the same epistemological foundations.

In contrast to ‘free association’ – wherein a patient can, even must, say whatever comes to mind and is permitted to remain silent – psychometrics, in the form of standardised interview techniques, workplace surveys and assessment of subjective states, actively constructs the data it purports ( naively) to be extracting. (After all, in psychometrics, subjectivity can never be given free expression through language, but must be filtered through the discourse and multiple-choice categories of the observing Other). Even with the extreme coercion involved in torture as a method of data extraction, this ingenuous, radically non-constructivist epistemology ensures that, in some sense, the techniques do not ‘work’ (as indicated by the failure of the CIA torture to yield any relevant information unavailable by other means).

I draw attention to these frameworks because their application occurs well outside of Guantanamo Bay. The Australian Psychological Society – the local equivalent of the APA – publishes a bi-monthly journal, a recent edition of which looked at psychological science’s contribution to ‘wellbeing’ in the workplace’ through the lens of the dominant perspectives such as CBT, psychometrics, and ‘positive’ psychology. The emphasis is on an uncritical use of the notion of worker ‘resilience’, by which we can understand the worker’s compliance and exploitability. ‘Resistance’ might be the most appropriate antonym.

This approach has some influence, and largely overlaps with the corporate mental health strategies of the advocacy group Beyond Blue, for instance. Thus, ideologically-laden positions that favour employers are presented as the best in psychological empirical ‘science’. Partisan politics can be presented as neutral, natural, and ‘empirical’. A pathological workplace is literally inconceivable within this paradigm. Discontent is to be radically and relentlessly individualised within specific cases of poor ‘wellbeing’. CBT can be used to instil in suffering workers a regimen of self-help (especially self-monitoring), in order to promote ‘positive emotions and resilience’. As one author says, ‘this skill would be invaluable particularly in workplaces like the ACT Government which is experiencing high levels of “bullying” and associated stress-related claims’. Note the scare quotes around ‘bullying’ – and the fact that an intrinsically social problem (workplace bullying) is assessed and treated as the individual worker’s problem. It matters for the workplace only insofar as costly claims are involved.

We learn, for instance, that about one-third of all cases of psychological injury in Australia involve ‘low morale’, rather than a psychiatric condition per se. This is clearly a considerable expense for employers. Here, one approach to remedy the problem is to use psychometrics as a management tool. Of particular concern are workers who are found to exhibit ‘trait emotionality’: for them, ‘iatrogenic effects tend to occur when psychologists collude with clients’ externalising causal attributions’. To translate this into lay terms: blaming one’s workplace for a problem is inherently pathological.

Fault is always understood to lie within the self. ‘Correct’ causal thinking necessarily implies self-blame, self-management, self-rectification. Implicitly, the model is Thatcherite, in the sense of being profoundly individualistic. Society does not exist, any more than context or history – or, at least, none of these are visible within the paradigm.

Again, these interventions for the employer (and against the worker) are not exceptional but part of the usual operation of the dominant paradigms within psychology. The same approach can be found elsewhere.

To take another example, psychoanalyst Sylvie Dagnino spent a week at a behaviourist treatment program for young people with autism. She writes of

a young girl who presents severe behavioural problems and who, thanks to the method, today spends her time doing a sorting-out task in front of a wall (because one has to diminish, of course, everything that could be overly stimulating). Presently this young girl works for an ESAT (a French work scheme) within the institution. She thus does sorting out. She is neither paid nor socialised. I ask the trainer: ‘So this adolescent works for an ESAT, and doesn’t receive a salary?’ But, the trainer replies, she is happy, ‘We know this because she doesn’t have any behavioural problems anymore. We can therefore leave her to her task and we can condition other residents.’

Just as in the example of resilience in the workplace, wellbeing is coextensive with the absence of complaint or inconvenience to superiors, with silence, or, better yet, with the ostensible agreement of the sort one finds in rigged elections.

There are, of course, many within psychology – and within society at large – who contest such interventions. In an exercise that I can commend  as salutary to all progressive people, one should read the financial press, which in Australia, at least, has followed the lead of critical and anti-psychiatry advocates and complains that there is too much diagnosis. The new diagnostic manual is particularly harmful to health insurance companies who, the same publication informs us, may have mental health claims for 60-80 percent of policy-holders. So are the Thatcherites becoming Foucauldians?

Some might read this as an indication of the need for caution regarding any critique of psychology and psychiatry, since austerity governments might use this, opportunistically, as a support for cuts. Some have even suggested that the broader Foucauldian critique of the modern welfare state tends toward neoliberalism.

This admonition, however, is based on a false dichotomy between the welfare state and neoliberalism, when in fact, the contemporary welfare state is already comprehensively neoliberal. Thus, from politicians arguing for balanced budgets, to elements within the business community itself, one finds contradictions.

Some (including the present Australian government) want fiscal discipline, austerity, ‘small’ government, and so forth, but these elements are not exactly Foucauldian or Deleuzian. On the other hand, plenty of people within the business community, for example, support public health (as a boost to productivity, as a reduction of sick days, etc.), and public education (mainly in the form of ‘vocational training’), and the dole (as a boost to consumer spending, since dole earners seldom save). On the one hand, there is bipartisan support in Australia for some degree of cuts to government spending, with reduction of public deficit regarded as a good in itself. On the other hand, there are unparalleled, costly interventions to a range of subjected populations – asylum seekers, the unemployed, Aboriginals, among others – supposedly for the benefit of these populations. The state gradually comes to embody the principles of discipline and surveillance of populations through what was formerly welfarism, and in the service of markets.

We are not, therefore, dealing with a contradiction between neoliberalism and welfare, but a contradiction with the neoliberal state itself. This is well-illustrated in the work of geographer David Harvey, who contends that the neoliberal state contains unstable and transitional elements. The state, in his account of it, is by turns activist (for instance, in market enforcement, promotion of market freedoms) but also indifferent to many individual and collective freedoms (such as the right to strike). In Australia’s recent history, Workchoices was perhaps the exemplar of neoliberalism. Sold as legislation to promote workplace freedom and ‘flexibility’, it greatly tilted industrial relations in favour of employers, centralised power with the Federal Government, and was derided by the conservative HR. Nicholls Society as ‘Stalinist’.

Psychology as a field has a complex and disparate relation to these economic and political positions. Yet, as I have argued, the case of psychologists becoming torturers is not an anomaly within psychology, but merely the extreme expression of coercive, conformist ideals that are to be found with increasing frequency in the discipline. In the terms of Lacanian psychoanalysis, sometimes these paradigmatic psychological interventions are presented in terms of a Master’s Discourse, and sometimes as a Scientific Discourse.

The point is to meet them with something other than an Hysterical Discourse, to systematically expose the ideological underpinnings of coercive psychology in the prisons, the workplaces, schools and hospitals. It is also to recognise that, contra the critics of Foucault, it is not a choice between government cuts and government coercion, since it is already bipartisan policy in Australia (and elsewhere) for governments to pursue both agendas. ‘Health’ can be co-opted by the dominant economic and political paradigms as readily as anything else. As with the case of the psychologist torturers, this makes for strange, but not inexplicable, bedfellows.

David Ferraro

David Ferraro is a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist in Melbourne. He is the current president of the Lacan Circle of Melbourne, and is interested in the philosophical, political and literary aspects of psychoanalytic work.

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  1. Psychologists have not ‘become’ torturers – psychology is based upon torture. Experiments upon animals (have, and continue to) form a large part of psychological theory. There is little evidence any of this torture of animals makes any positive contribution to human well being.

  2. This article provides a useful analytical link between torture and the current turf wars over human distress. It could be read as building on Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, pursuing threads between economics, psy sciences and state violence.

    The coercive treatment of individuals as atomized units needing ‘correction’ is more widespread than most people think. Australia for example, and Victoria particularly, reportedly has the highest rates of involuntary outpatient treatment (per capita) than any other jurisdiction in the world. That is, forced psychiatric interventions in the community, usually in the form of depot injections. Victoria pioneered the ‘long leash’ trials, as they were called in the 1980s when it first started deinstitutionalising. The same measures were met in the UK with outrage from civil rights groups when they were floated in the late 90ies and 2000s, and eventually adopted. (They scarcely rated an Op-ed in Australia). Even if the moral dimensions of this coercive treatment are set aside, which is a questionable step, extensive studies now strongly indicate they are ineffective even by their own standards. They are also the subject of criticism by the UN Special Raporteur for Torture.

    I disagree with the author that ‘Anti-psychiatry and critical psychology are less marginal discourses than ever before.’ This may be true of critical psychology. But the anti-psychiatry movement has a fraction of the currency it once held, particularly in the 70ies, when RD Laing was a household name. Interestingly, the anti-psychiatry era had a libertarian flavor whereas the inheritors of the movement, such as critical psych professionals and psychiatric ‘user and survivors’ seem to balance their concern for liberty and freedom from state intervention with a strong focus on so-called ‘positive rights’ or the obligation on states to provide essential support. Much of the support demanded is not psych-science-based but relates to housing, decision-making support, personal advocacy, and so on. An interesting article that examines this development in relation to the current global disability movement has been written by Sheila Wildeman .

    On the point of redistributing state resources, I’m not sure it is correct to say that the welfare state is comprehensively neoliberal. There has and will be pushback within parts of the nebulous welfare state. Further, the welfare state is substantially different between countries. Compare the US and Australia: Australia has widespread paid sick leave, tax credits for cheaper childcare, a federal minimum wage that can be raised relatively easily, we have tertiary fees that don’t devour the country’s young. Dissolving these differences can be misleading, or worse, politically paralyzing. What’s to defend if all is lost? Suggesting an intractable neoliberal takeover ignores the fact that further cuts will breed more racism, more sexism, more violence. Cuts to disability support and social housing breed vulnerability to abuse, exploitation, and neglect. They spoil identities, foster alienation and, ultimately… more mental distress. Defending the decent parts of the welfare system is surely not a zero-sum game and doesn’t need to detract from critical views or actions against other parts of the state (e.g. those that torture, or socialize bank debts and privatize profits).

    These comments aren’t meant to detract at all from the article, which I thought was rad. Cheers.

  3. Thanks to each of you who has commented, and thankyou, Piers, for your considered response.
    Coercion in psychiatry and related fields (child protection comes to mind) is alive and well in Australia, and doesn’t seem to exercise libertarians or the popular media in the manner of guns or taxation. For me, deinstitutionalisation is an example of the contradictions that I had in mind when writing this article. On the one hand, it is entirely true that institutional care could be grim, and that an alternative was needed. However, the ’empowerment’ (or ‘choice’) offered by many forms of deinstitutionalisation play directly into austerity economics (shutting down services), as well as necessitating more insidious forms of ‘self-management’, which invariably begin with coercive practices. For me, this is the role that much psy treatment plays, especially the dominant paradigms which work under the cover of empirical validation.

    Another example could be Centrelink. It has become leaner and much more punitive in terms of the support it offers, what it requires of ‘clients’, etc. Moreover, it is now accompanied by a slew of auxiliary agencies who reap millions of taxpayer funds to conduct discipline and surveillance of said clients. As always, diagnosis is one thing, treatment another. I agree that a counsel of despair is useless, and that opposing Centrelink’s ruthlessness ought not to lead to something like calling for the abolition of the dole, for instance.

    I take your point on anti-psychiatry, and I expect that its influence may well be non-existent in many places. It’s a biased sample, but online, there are a few voices – particularly in the UK and Northern Europe – which articulate something of an anti-psy position. The BPS report that I cited, whilst problematic, in my view, may well have been inconceivable a decade ago (and may well still be inconceivable in many other countries).

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