Depoliticizing Politics: Repressive Individuality in Therapy and Education

The manifold revolutions that swept across the globe in the 1960s resulted in the independence of over 30 African nations; the birth of the sexual liberation movement; the generation of second-wave feminism; and the passage of critical, albeit limited, pieces of civil rights legislation. Each of these notable achievements engendered a new consciousness that undeniably weakened the cohesion of dominant modes of oppression levied by the ruling few. Moreover, the revolutionary brio of the 1960s created new structures of feeling resulting in social needs incompatible with prevailing hegemonic assumptions and practices. That is, the emergence of a threatening new consciousness became ubiquitous. As a result, the chief concern of the ruling class, however, entailed containing the consequences of such revolutionary energy.

Unfortunately, despite a wealth of commentary on the achievements of the 1960s freedom movement, cultural critics have generally remained blind to the adaptive strategies quickly adopted by the ruling bloc to maintain their control over the masses. I argue that, beginning in the early 1970s, brokers of social power and privilege responded to the threat of the freedom movement's relative success with the scientization of repression and the psychologization (internalization/atomization) of liberation. Further, I argue that, since the early 1970s, ideologies that reflect both the scientization of repression and the psychologization of liberation have grown incrementally more embedded within the internal logic and structure of our education system.

As writes Herbert Marcuse, one of the methods by which “education” manages the mind is through the “liberal sublimation or … the conversion of real gut problems, gut reactions into problems of method, research and statistics. For example, the neutralized language of syntax and false consensus, the search for exact definitions and research in what you already know” (in Kellner, 40). The epistemological implications of such a shift are both clear and inimical. We tend to invest less trust in our own experiences until the moment at which they become scientifically verifiable. Of course, the instruments of verification are produced by those who wish to discredit the experiences of those that they've already marginalized. This is the scourge of scientific positivism: deeply partisan interests surreptitiously operationalized through a rhetoric of neutrality. Objectivity (even false objectivity), of course, requires metrics, evaluative mechanisms and indices which themselves inherently ratify the legitimacy of exchange value. Quite simply, in order to create “fair” conditions of exchange or evaluation one needs also to produce objective and standardized tools of measurement.

The very same logic that generates abortive claims to objectivity also provides the parameters and norms that govern the field of psychology. Against this trend, I argue that the psychologization of life – or the broad sweep of psychology today – has depoliticized politics itself. Psychology requests that we live healthily in a society premised on disease. (Ask yourself, is it easy to be “at ease” in a world rife with so much avoidable suffering?) Psychology prescribes the achievement of privatized well-adjustment. The field's intransigent insistence on such an atomized strategy for liberation is deeply problematic because it remains inherently self-defeating. Why? The answer is deceptively simple, I think. To achieve freedom in a sea of unfreedom (No one is free when others are oppressed!) leads invariably to alienation from others and, thus, ends up producing the very antithesis of freedom. Or, as Marcuse writes, “emancipation,” under these conditions, “would become a huge ego trip” which itself is deeply incompatible to freedom. (in Kellner, 45)

That is, the strategy of individual “adjustment” abstracted from the amelioration of social iniquities denies the roles of power, hierarchy and privilege in society (politics, really) by transmuting them into a psychological form. (Oh, you can't concentrate because you live in an oversaturated marketplace? Take this Ritalin!) In this instance, liberation becomes premised on an auto-critique of our psyche. In order, however, to create non-repressive conditions on a large scale, we must insist loudly that therapy and political education, although likely related in an a posteriori sense, are far from synonymous.

The post-1960s era – an era in which state strategies of coercion and containment have sufficiently replaced the use of indiscriminate force – has produced, then, a situation in which our internal character structures are constituted by an interplay between our innermost personal desires, needs, pleasures, pains and the society which shapes them in its own image. As Marcuse writes in his 1955 book entitled “Eros and Civilization,” “psychological categories have become political categories.” (Marcuse, 1) That is, psychological problems invariably turn into political pathologies because the cure of personal disorder depends more directly than in times past on the cure of the general disorder. Therefore, in an age punctuated by the scientization of repression, the social world is both internal and external to our corporeal selves. Our consciousness and unconsciousness alike are shaped by the dominant features and fixtures of our society. No matter how convinced we may be that our needs are actually our own, they continue to be what they were from the beginning – products of a society whose dominant interest demands repression. (Think Freud's distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, for example.) Therefore, although psychology is in actually deeply political, it tends to obscure its origins in an effort to guard itself from being asked to create potentially transformative relationships between psyche and society that would likely result in a political challenge to those in positions of power.

Psychology fails time and again to draw this sort of nexus and, as a result, implicitly pushes us to overdose on the concept of identity. The psychologization of existence has – no surprise here – crept deeply into the field of education. Educators qua armchair psychologists often leave themes like identity and experience removed from the problematics of power, history and politics. (I should state that, at Berkeley, Education and Psychology share a library and a building.) Although I'm a vigorous defender of personal empowerment, I remain concerned about the highly fashionable overindulgence of “individual voice and identity” iatrogenically affixed to discourses premised on the psychologization of liberation.

Step into most any classroom today and what you'll likely find are educators invoking pedagogical models that exalt the outcome of “lived experience” as a process of finding one's voice. And, yes, while this is essential, it's also dangerously myopic and serves to reinforce the linkages between (the scientization of) repression and (the pshcyologization of) liberation. We, as educators, cultural critics and political activists must demand a linkage of personal experience and identity to the politics of culture and critical democracy. If we cannot meet this challenge, then our pedagogies are likely to become exercises in middle-class narcissism. Unacknowledged adherence to a post-1960s model which scientizes repression and psychologizes liberation severely limits our ability to enlarge our analysis enough to trace the indissoluble nexus between psychological and political categories. If we accept that notion that psychological categories are political categories in disguise, then we must remember that we're not nearly as unique as, perhaps, we'd like to presume. I'm convinced now more than ever that the recognition of our relative anonymity and the emptiness that such an acknowledgment implies helps to establish the conditions necessary for revolution in our day. Perhaps, the very achievement of emptiness is the first step in the revolt against the emptiness of modernity itself.


Kellner, D, Lewis, T, Pierce, C, Cho, K, eds. “Marcuse's Challenge to Education,” New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Marcuse, Herbert. “Eros and Civilization,” New York: Vintage Books, 1955.