Two Case Studies in Biopolitics: A Critique of CBT as Ideology (Part 6)

What is biopolitics? This term, put simply, refers to bodies of knowledge and practices of power over subjected populations, and over life itself. Different populations become the object of differentiated techniques of discipline and surveillance. In Australia, such techniques are particularly grotesque with regard to the Aboriginal population and to refugees, but also to the unemployed, the disabled, and those within the health and mental health systems, among others. Many have justly pointed out the duplicity of the surveillance state in the case of NSA, for instance, but many more intensive forms of surveillance remain almost invisible. Moreover, some practitioners of CBT claim that their doctrine is on the side of ‘human rights’; yes, we might agree, but the ‘human rights’ in question are those of paternalistic neoliberal interventionism, of which the horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan were the most chilling examples in the past decade.Two recent examples of the role of CBT and psychology at large in biopolitics may help to illustrate my points above.

1.)    Workfare in the UK

A recent article drew attention to the extent to which psychological practices were implicated in coercive, unethical and politically regressive discipline meted out to the unemployed in the UK. Workfare is labour which the unemployed are expected to perform if they are to receive welfare assistance. The authors of the article note that this process – of assessment, enforcement of sanctions, coercion, modification of allegedly troublesome attitudes, and so forth – closely involved the psychology profession. ‘Positive psychology’ courses were mandated for many unemployed people, with the explicit goal that such individuals acquire a positive affect, in order that they may be of better use to potential corporate employers, and to the state. Other goals of the psychology workfare programs were to elevate subject’s ‘motivation’, and to regard non-compliance as akin to pathology, and punish and modify it accordingly. Curiously, the article in question omits any mention of CBT (probably due to the politics of CBT in the UK, where it is very popular among clinical psychologists) but its influence is unmistakeable. The cajoling of individuals into a positive affect and ‘motivated’ stance with regard to their own subordination (with ‘negativity’ held to be intrinsically irrational); the conjoining of ‘good functioning’ with compliance; the use of ‘assertiveness training’ – all these are the hallmarks of CBT. In addition, psychometrics was deeply implicated in this exercise, with the subjected population being threatened into submitting to quantitative tests, conducted online (of course). (Positive psychology and ‘strengths-based’ intervention were also used, but insofar as they were, they merely reiterated the basic functions of CBT). This attempt to bludgeon a financially vulnerable (and sizeable) portion of the populace through ‘scientific’ technocracy is entirely consistent with the views of Beck and his followers, and can be understood, in Kuhnian terms, as a ‘normal’ and paradigmatic use of CBT and psychometrics as a discipline.

2.)    Psychology and torture in Guantanamo Bay

Increasing evidence has emerged of the complicity of US psychologists in the CIA’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program of inmates at Guantanamo Bay, since at least 2002. The CIA’s activities there are widely regarded as torture, from both a legal and moral standpoint. Stephen Soldz, a psychoanalyst, (among others) has written (here and here, for instance) of the involvement of psychologists in designing, implementing and overseeing torturous interrogation practices against detainees, many of whom are yet to be released.

At first, this may appear to be an aberration in an otherwise ethical profession. The American Psychological Association’s (APA) code explicitly forbids psychologists to participate in a range of unethical practices, including torture. Yes, there are longstanding links between the military, the CIA and psychologists, but one might imagine that the latter group consists only of rogue practitioners. Nevertheless, the APA has refused to sanction (and, for a long time, even investigate) those psychologists accused of torture. When a Task Force from the APA finally examined the matter, its chairman, one Dr Behnke, echoed the justifications for torture given by Dick Cheney and averred that the Guantanamo psychologists conducted themselves in a manner that was ‘safe, legal, ethical, and effective’. ‘Ethical’ torture – this is what psychology has come to.

There is something symptomatic about a so-called helping profession closing ranks with torturers. Whilst there may be many reasons for this to have occurred – corruption is one possibility, for instance – we should examine the ideological foundations of this position. The APA is an uncritical supporter of the DSM, despite the ridicule it has incurred. To support the DSM necessarily involves, at the scientific level, support for an arbitrary basis for diagnosis. At the ideological level, it necessarily involves support for diagnosis as a political tool. Moreover, the APA has heavily promoted the use of CBT. Of course, the advocates of CBT do not regards themselves as promoting torture. Yet if we take this worldview – that provided by the DSM, CBT, psychometrics and so forth – we see that ‘soft’ forms of authoritarianism and coercion (issuing direct imperatives, distraction, ‘homework’, techniques of indoctrination, etc) are already typical of psychological intervention. Difference, non-compliance, criminality, ‘negativity’, are already routinely regarded as pathological, as something to be eliminated from subjected populations. Mainstream psychologists are already committed to a view in which individuals are regarded as mere bundles of data, from which the salient points are to be extracted as efficiently as possible. Thus, the psychologists at Guantanamo acted in a manner entirely consistent with the principles of mainstream psychology, but have simply taken things a slight step further, biopolitically speaking. It is not that most psychologists support torture – on the contrary – but if they support the dominant ideologies within their discipline, as outlined above, they are most of the way there. Private firms and individuals come together with the state to produce the most advanced techniques for extracting data from the subjected. These techniques themselves are but the logical conclusion drawn from psychology’s foundations, and other, more brutal conclusions for the control of populations remain to be drawn. All of the necessary assumptions and preconditions for ‘ethical’ torture existed long before ‘enhanced interrogation’ and, as we can see, the actions of the Guantanamo psychologists acted in continuity with mainstream psychological principles. As such, the APA acted quite consistently in refusing to offer a word of reproach against them.


6 thoughts on “Two Case Studies in Biopolitics: A Critique of CBT as Ideology (Part 6)

  1. Thank you for this powerful and important analysis and for your central point, that the collusion of psychology (whether in workfare or Guantanamo) is consistent with mainstream principles, rather than an aberration. On CBT, I agree: key elements of workfare e.g. mandatory training and referral show all the hallmarks of CBT. I did want to say, however, that we didn’t avoid mentioning CBT intentionally, or because it is popular! What we were hoping is that the British Psychological Society (the professional body for all versions of psychology) would take a stand on workfare or at least engage with the arguments. But so far, like the APA, not a word of reproach has passed their tightly drawn lips.

  2. Pingback: Two Case Studies in Biopolitics | stewilko's Blog

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