Socialism is the Best Medicine

Socialism is the Best Medicine

Can Psychotherapy Change the World?

June 1, 2007

BOOK REVIEW: Gloria Steinem (1992) Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. Little, Brown and Co..

BOOK REVIEW: James Hillman and Michael Ventura, 1992, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse. HarperCollins.

In her book Revolution from Within, Gloria Steinem insists that raising self-esteem can change the world. With attacks escalating against women’s rights, it is astonishing that such a prominent feminist would publish a self-help therapy book.

Steinem starts with important but not original observations: that most people (male and female) live with confusion, pain, low self-esteem, and self-blame; that none of the self-help books on the market connect the inner world of misery with the external political realities that generate this misery; that we learn to feel worthless and alienated in the family; that the low self-esteem of the oppressed is reinforced by a sexist, racist, and homophobic school system and by pseudo-sciences that attribute all human behaviour to biology. She also observes that human beings are social beings who can flourish when they work together for mutual benefit.

These observations could lead to revolutionary conclusions, but Steinem goes in the opposite direction. From the dedication on the first page (this book is “inspired by women, whose self-esteem is making the deepest revolution”) to her final conclusion (“self-esteem starts out as a personal blessing, but it becomes nothing less than an evolutionary force…”), she promotes higher self-esteem as the solution to all problems.

In a shameless appeal to employers, Steinem even argues that higher self-esteem will make workers more productive. This makes no sense, because workers with higher self-esteem are less submissive and less willing to tolerate exploitive and unsafe working conditions.

Steinem offers dewy-eyed portraits of Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Julie Andrews, and other notables as examples of the benefits of “finding the true self.” We are invited to emulate Winston Churchill who “emerged from this inward journeying with a new strength and maturity that helped to sustain England when he became its leader in wartime.”

In Steinem’s view, self-esteem is powerful enough to stop nations from warring. How self-esteem would overcome the relentless drive to accumulate capital is not explained.

Steinem wants us to believe that changing ourselves will change the world. Class never enters her equation. In one line, she rejects marxism because the Stalinist regimes had “no soul.” She devotes just two paragraphs to the factory women of her hometown who organized for equal pay, more access to abortion and social services, and won a new personal confidence in the process.

Steinem rejects the power of class struggle to raise self-esteem. She confesses regret for her past belief that factory owners’ wives were the enemy because, for her, the only enemy now is low self-esteem

Steinem offers a gourmet recipe for those with no food. She assumes that everyone has access to methods of building self-esteem, from painting and dance lessons to flying airplanes. In this sense, her book is deeply offensive to the majority of people who struggle to acquire the basics.

When the women’s movement shifted its focus from women as class fighters to women as victims of violence, the politics of challenging the system were rejected in favour of reforming personal relations within the system.

Along with other ex-radicals, Steinem has joined a therapy movement that has grown within the middle class in direct proportion to their inability to change the world.

In their book, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy – And the World’s Getting Worse, Hillman and Ventura argue that therapy exacerbates the problems of a sick world. By emphasizing the “inner soul”, therapy pulls people away from active protest against the social sources of sickness.

“Yet therapy goes on blindly believing that it’s curing the outer world by making better people. We’ve heard that for years and years and years…It’s not the case.”

It doesn’t help to get your shit together “if the shit is not yours to begin with, nor your parents,” but the “shit” of an oppressive system.

“If therapy imagines its task to be that of helping people cope (and not protest), to adapt (and not rebel), to normalize their oddity, and to accept themselves ‘and work within your situation; make it work for you’ (rather than refuse the unacceptable), then therapy is collaborating with what the state wants: docile plebs.”

Hillman and Ventura describe the middle-class perspective of therapy,

“Its balanced, middle-ground position wants both the individual and the system to survive, by accommodating the individual as best as possible to the system. The system as such, however, remains outside its purview.”

What this means in practice is “the consulting room as a branch of your local police station.” Instead, the authors believe that therapy should be transformed into a “cell of revolution.”

Unfortunately, the authors’ call to raise individual awareness of social problems is disconnected from any scientific analysis of these problems, providing no real way to change them. As a result, they get stuck in the same contradictions they rejected earlier. They state that change “begins with the realization that things are not right…And that is the job of therapy… It’s not to tell a person how to fight or where to fight, but the awareness of dysfunction in society, in the outer world.”

While awareness is a good start, in this book it goes nowhere.

“The reform of society begins in the reform of its language…For if we are working at curing our talk and less at talking of cures (for this or that problem) we would be engaged in true conversations, the very activity that does turn all things around.”

Lacking any real solution, the authors sink into mysticism.

“The Persian Gulf War shows that the incredibly difficult task of controlling Mars, the God of war, depends in our time on managing Hermes. As information is our new God, Hermes has replaced Yahweh, and, like him, Hermes too has become a God of war.”

Rejecting “therapeutic passivity” and distrusting organized politics, Hillman and Ventura promote what they call “empty protest” instead.

“You take your outrage seriously, but you don’t force yourself to have answers…Don’t try to replace the helpless frustration you feel, the powerless victimization, by working out a rational answer. The answers will come, if they come, when they come, to you, to others, but don’t fill in the emptiness of the protest with positive suggestions before their time.”

Despite their criticisms of therapy, the authors never abandon their psychological view of the world where power-hungry rulers are “people whose inner growth has been severely stunted,” where “epic events like revolutions have the feel of family feuds,” and where “our political and cultural struggles…are not political or cultural or economic at all; rather, in the context of the collective psyche, they are more like dreams.”

Hillman and Ventura tap into widespread discontent with a crisis-ridden world that must be changed, yet they provide no sense of how such change could be achieved. The result is pessimism.

For an alternative and more hopeful view, read Rebel Minds: Mass Suffering, Class War, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019).



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