How Psychologists Subvert Democratic Movements: A Talk at the 2012 Psychologists for Social Responsibility Conference

By the 1980s, as a clinical psychology graduate student, it had become apparent to me that the psychology profession was increasingly about meeting the needs of the “power structure” to maintain the status quo so as to gain social position, prestige, and other rewards for psychologists.

The Backward March of Psychologists

The academic psychology that I entered as a psychology major in the 1970s was by no means perfect. There was a dominating force of manipulative, control-freak behaviorists who appeared to get their rocks off conditioning people as if they were rats in a maze. However, there was also a significant force of people such as Erich Fromm who believed that an authoritarian and undemocratic society results in alienation, and that this was a source of emotional problems. Fromm was concerned about mental health professionals helping people to adjust to a society with no mind to how dehumanizing that society had become. Back then, Fromm was not a marginalized figure; his ideas were taken seriously as he had best sellers such as The Art of Loving, and he appeared on national television.

However, by the time that I received my Ph.D. in 1985—from an American Psychological Association approved clinical psychology program—people with ideas such as Fromm’s were at the far margins. By then, the focus was the competition as to what treatment could get patients back on the assembly line quickest. The competition winners that emerged, owing much more to public relations than science, were cognitive-behavioral therapy in psychology and biochemical psychiatry in psychiatry. By the mid-1980s, psychiatry was beginning to become annexed by pharmaceutical companies and forming what we now have, a “psychiatric-pharmaceutical industrial complex.” And increasingly marginalized was the idea that treatment that consisted of manipulating and medicating alienated people to adjust to this crazy rat race and thus maintain the status quo was a political act, a problematic one for people who cared about democracy.

My “Tactical Withdrawal” from Mainstream Psychology

After graduating, it seemed clear to me that academic clinical psychology and psychiatry departments, hospitals, and the mainstream clinical institutional worlds were going to depress, damage, and enrage me more than I was going to make a dent in reforming them, so I made a “tactical withdrawal” into private practice. Only several years later, in the late 1990s, did I begin to go public—writing articles and books, giving media interviews and talks about the problems in the mental health profession.

A major motivation for my going public was that I was embarrassed by the direction of my profession, and I wanted to separate myself from it. I remember thinking, half seriously, that when all these kids who were having a difficult time fitting into dehumanizing environments and who were getting increasingly drugged—first with psychostimulants and then with antidepressants and antipsychotics—grew up and figured out what had happened to them, they would get pretty enraged; and if ever there was a revolution and it resembled the French Revolution, then instead of kings, queens, and priests’ heads being placed in guillotines, it would be shrinks’ heads; and I thought that if I spoke out, maybe I might get spared.

Over the years, I discovered a handful of other psychologists and even a few courageous psychiatrists who were also speaking out against mainstream psychology and psychiatry, and most of them have paid a severe professional price of marginalization. I also came across psychologist authors who were not routinely discussed by mainstream mental health professionals but whom I respected. One such psychologist author/activist was Ignacio Martin-Baró.

Martin-Baró was a social psychologist and priest in El Salvador who popularized the term “liberation psychology” and who was ultimately assassinated by a U.S. trained Salvadoran death squad in 1989. Most U.S. psychologists are unaware of him, though he is known to many of you here at this Psychologists for Social Responsibility conference.

One observation by Martin-Baró about U.S. psychology was that “in order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.” We can see that in many ways. I want to start with the most visible evidence of this at the tip of the iceberg, but I also want to talk about the more submerged part of this iceberg that may even be more troubling for democracy and democratic movements.

Meeting the Needs of the Power Structure: The Tip of the Iceberg

On the obvious level, we can see psychologists meeting the needs of the power structure for social position and rank in the recent policies of the American Psychological Association (APA). For several years, the APA not only condoned but actually applauded psychologists’ assistance in interrogation/torture in Guantánamo and elsewhere. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the U.S. military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, the APA assembled a task force in 2005 to examine the issue and concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military. And in 2007, an APA Council of Representatives retained this policy by voting overwhelmingly to reject a measure that would have banned APA members from participating in abusive interrogation of detainees. It took until 2008 for APA members to vote for prohibiting consultations in interrogations.

Also at the tip of this iceberg of how psychologists have met the needs of the power structure are the efforts of perhaps the most famous academic psychologist in the U.S., who is also a former president of the APA, a man who once did some worthwhile work with learned helplessness. Of course, I’m talking about Martin Seligman, who more recently has consulted with the U.S. army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program—this for not only social position and rank but for several million dollars for his University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which quoted Seligman saying, “We’re after creating an indomitable military.”

To give you an example of how positive psychology is used in this Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, in one role play, a sergeant is asked to take his exhausted men on one more difficult mission, and the sergeant is initially angry saying that “It’s not fair”; but in the role play, he’s “rehabilitated” to reframe the order as a compliment, concluding, “Maybe he’s hitting us because he knows we’re more reliable.”

This kind of “positive reframing” and the use of psychology and psychiatry to manipulate and medicate people— one in six U.S. armed service members are taking at least one psychiatric drug, many in combat zones —so as to adjust to dehumanizing environments has concerned many critical thinkers for quite some time, from Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, to Erich Fromm in The Sane Society, to more recently, Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided.

The Submerged Iceberg: How Psychologists Subvert Democratic Movements

I want to turn now to the more submerged, less visible but more ubiquitous ways that psychologists are meeting the needs of the power structure and subverting democracy and democratic movements.

One major area that concerns me is the everyday pathologizing and diseasing of anti-authoritarians. This is quite scary because anti-authoritarians are absolutely vital for democracy and democratic movements. I want to talk about how this is being done, but first let me define authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism

Authoritarianism is unquestioning obedience to authority. Authoritarians in control demand unquestioning obedience, and authoritarian subordinates give them that unquestioning obedience. In contrast, anti-authoritarians question the legitimacy of an authority before taking it seriously. Does the authority know what it’s talking about or not? Does it tell the truth or lie? Does it care about the people who are taking it seriously or is it exploitative? And if anti-authoritarians assess an authority to be illegitimate, they then challenge and resist it.

So, of course anti-authoritarians are essential for democracy and democratic movements. And by pathologizing and “treating” anti-authoritarians, psychologists and other mental health professionals are taking them off “democracy battlefields.”

I began to think about this problem of psychologists pathologizing anti-authoritarians when I was in graduate school in the early 1980s. Prior to that, in 1970s—when mental health professionals were moving forward instead of backward—psychiatry, in response to the pressure of gay activists, had removed homosexuality as a mental illness from their diagnostic bible, the DSM. But 1980 was a sad year—Erich Fromm died, Ronald Reagan became president, and the DSM III was published in 1980, my second year of graduate school.

The DSM III was a huge expansion of psychiatric disorders, with many more child and adolescent diagnoses, and I immediately noticed that the DSM III was pathologizing stubbornness, rebellion, and anti-authoritarianism. Some of these new diagnoses subtly pathologized rebellion, but one diagnosis was in-your-face obvious pathologizing of rebellion—“oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD).

For those of you who are not clinicians, ODD kids are not doing anything illegal. ODD kids are not the kids who once were labeled “juvenile delinquents”—that’s “conduct disorder.” No, the official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.”

When I discovered ODD, I told some of my professors that I was already a little embarrassed by the profession but now I’m really embarrassed—didn’t psychologists realize that just about every great American activist from Saul Alinsky to Harriet Tubman, to many great artists and scientists, to scientist-activists such as Albert Einstein would have been diagnosed with ODD? In response, they diagnosed me as having “issues with authority.” I definitely do have issues with authorities who don’t know what the hell they are talking about—this another reason that I withdraw from the mainstream mental health professional world.

Anti-Authoritarians Kept Off Democracy Battlefields

So, I went into private practice, and I have received many referrals for these teenagers diagnosed with ODD from colleagues who are uncomfortable with these kids. As I worked with these kids, I found that not only did I like most of them but I also respected the vast majority of them, as they have real courage. They don’t comply with authorities whom they consider to be illegitimate, and most of the time, I concur with their assessment. If they do respect an authority, they aren’t obnoxious, and usually they clamor for adults whom they can respect and who genuinely respect them. Not only are these kids not mentally ill, many of them are what I consider to be the hope of the nation.

Over the years, I have worked not only with ODD teens but also with adults diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse, and with psychiatric survivors who have been previously diagnosed with various psychoses. What’s impossible for me to ignore is how many of these individuals diagnosed with mental disorders are essentially anti-authoritarians. It began to be increasingly clear to me that this was potentially a large army of anti-authoritarian activists that mental health professionals are keeping off democracy battlefields by convincing them that their depression, anxiety, and anger are solely a result of their mental illnesses and not, in part, a result of their pain over being in dehumanizing environments.

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for AlterNet called Would We Have Drugged Up Einstein?” about why anti-authoritarians are diagnosed with mental illness, and it was picked up by several other Internet zines. I received a huge response, including many emails from people who have been diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder who positively resonated with this particular sentence: “Often a major pain of their lives that fuels their anxiety and/or depression is fear that their contempt for illegitimate authorities will cause them to be financially and socially marginalized, but they fear that compliance with such illegitimate authorities will cause them existential death.”

So, over the years, I have become increasingly confident that there is huge group, a potential army of anti-authoritarian activists who are being pacified by the mental health profession and taken off democracy battlefields. And this, I think, is one important reason why the number of Americans actively involved in democratic movements is so low.

Of course this is not the only reason for political passivity in the United States, as there are many spokes on the U.S. political passivity wheel. The decimation of labor unions disempowering working people, as 35% of working people in the 1950s were in unions, compared to 12% today and only 7% among non-public employees. Increased workplace surveillance to go along with government surveillance which pacifies people. Social isolation—25% of Americans don’t have a single confidante in their lives—preventing even the possibility of solidarity. Staggering student-loan debt, which breaks young people’s spirit of resistance. Extremist consumerism that weaken us. And so forth. But the pacifying spoke in the wheel that I feel the greatest obligation to talk about most loudly is how our mental health profession is taking anti-authoritarians off democracy battlefields.

Psychologists’ Unavoidable Political Choice

If you look at the history of top-down hierarchical civilization, the reality is that there have always been power structures. There has been the ruling power structure of the combination of the monarchy and the church. And today in the U.S. and many other nations, the ruling power structure is the corporatocracy—giant corporations, the wealthy elite, and their politician collaborators.

All power structures throughout history have sought to use groups of people, especially among so-called professionals, who will control the population from rebelling against injustices. Power structures have used clergy—that’s why clergy who cared about social justice and who were embarrassed by their profession created “liberation theology.” Power structures have certainly used police and armies, as has been done throughout American history to try to break the U.S. labor movement. And the U.S. power structure now uses mental health professionals to manipulate and medicate people to adapt and adjust and thereby maintain the status quo, regardless of how insane the status quo has become.

So, mental health professionals have a choice. They can meet the needs of the power structure by only focusing on adjusting and adapting to what I think is an increasingly insane U.S. society. By insane I mean multiple senseless wars that Americans don’t even know why we are fighting. By insane I mean prisons-for-profit corporations such as Correction Corporation of America buying prisons from states and demanding in return a 90% occupancy guarantee—this actually occurred recently in my state of Ohio. And so on.

Or mental health professionals can act very differently. Clinicians can recognize that many among their clientele diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse are not essentially biochemicaly ill but are essentially anti-authoritarians. Not all of them are anti-authoritarians but many of them are. And that self-destructive behaviors are fueled by a variety of pains, one such pain is the direct and indirect impact of illegitimate authorities at all kinds of levels in people’s lives. And pained anti-authoritarians can be exposed to the idea that throughout history many people, famous and not-so-famous, from Buddha to Malcolm X, have transformed their pain and their self-destructive behaviors to constructive behaviors through art, spirituality, and also activism.

And once anti-authoritarians have their pain and their anti-authoritarianism validated and feel more whole, they are likely to become less on the defensive and more secure. That’s when the real fun begins, as we can move to the next level—we can learn to get along with one another. When anti-authoritarians regain the energy to do battle with the corporatocracy and learn to get along with one another, watch out—we might actually achieve something closer to democracy in the United States.

7 Responses

  1. Lenore St. Hilaire
    Lenore St. Hilaire October 13, 2012 at 2:23 pm |

    Thank you Mr Levine for your article. Being a hard core anti-authoritarian, I can very much relate to several of your statements.

    I was raised in a family that was lead by a dominant father with an authoritarian style of child rearing. We attended church regularly and I jokingly refer to myself when asked my religious background as a ”recovering Catholic”. This is not quite so humorous to those of us that have been subjected to the patriarchal, oppressive and often abusive confines of that religion.

    School was not enjoyable and from a very early age I felt that I did not fit into their tidy little box of what a ”decent and productive citizen” should be. I frequently spoke out or questioned authority, which as was actually encouraged in the 1960’s and 70’s. One of my earliest school memories was being hit over the head with a book by my grade one teacher and ejected from her class for speaking out.

    In high school it became abundantly clear that I was being groomed as a drone to serve the 1% and I strongly rebelled and ”bucked the system”. This resulted in my parents trying to have me institutionalised and failing that, tried to put me in a foster home.

    As an adult I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD and a laundry list of co-morbid symptoms including Oppositional Defiant Disorder. What a surprise!

    I have been offered a myriad of pharmaceuticals and have been weaned off all of them by attending rehab at my own considerable expense. At one point I was offered shock treatments to cure my depression and immediately discontinued my ”care” with Dr. Quackenbush.

    I consider myself a survivor of the atrocities of the religious, political and medical machine that is prevalent in our very damaged and broken society.

    Having also been negatively impacted by, and I quote directly from your post, ”illegitimate authorities of all kinds of levels” and am tremendously relieved by ”art, spirituality and also activism”.

    Many of my heroes are people that are unique and free thinking. Almost all have been shunned, persecuted and even tortured and killed for their opinions and beliefs. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as were many others that defied the doctrine of those in power.

    I look forward to the day anti-authoritarians in all societies unite and reclaim our rightful heritage: a world that is liberated, just and celebrates free thinking and differences. Only then will there be true democracy.

  2. August
    August October 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm |


  3. James FitzGerald
    James FitzGerald October 15, 2012 at 6:44 am |


    Fantastic article. You made my day, although at the same time it’s depressing to think how effectively the liberating advances of the 1960s have been clawed back, and how the so-called “helping professions” have played a key role.

    As a writer, I have been consumed with issues of social conformity my entire life. I hope you will read my latest book, “What Disturbs Our Blood”, (available on Amazon) which, among other things, exposes the brutalities of bio-medical psychiatry in Canada and the USA, both inside and outside my own family.

    Keep up the good work. We need an army intelligent and informed voices like yours.

    all the best,

    James FitzGerald

  4. Mikele Rauch
    Mikele Rauch October 15, 2012 at 7:53 am |

    Right on Bruce!
    This is an incredible piece. Thank you again.
    Mikele Rauch
    Healing the Soul after Religious Abuse: the Dark Heaven of Recovery

  5. jessi
    jessi October 15, 2012 at 9:00 am |

    one problem with levine’s argument is that psychologists themselves are assumed to somehow be outside of the power structure and their clients stuck in it, a patronizing (patriarchal) model. only the free can free the enslaved – savior, save yourself!

  6. Kirk Hill
    Kirk Hill October 16, 2012 at 1:50 pm |

    Quite the contrary, Jessi, Levine locates the psychological profession as part of the power structure.

    The article would benefit from a not uncommon matter complicating the Anti-authoritarinism versus the Establishment polarity, namely that many anti-authoritarian people also have serious mental issues (depression, alcoholism, bi-polarity, e.g.). Of course, the choice is to respect the anti-authoritarian side and but take the mental issues seriously. No prefect answers here, but I agree that anti-authoritarians are to be nurtured and supported. I love them.

  7. Dr Alan G Phillips Jr
    Dr Alan G Phillips Jr December 30, 2015 at 2:30 pm |

    Psychology currently enjoys a status, prestige and reputation in America that belies its questionable results. In spite of its semi-religious aura on popular television and radio talk shows, it rarely “cures” anyone of their maladies, often causing worse complications due to its increasing trend of prescribing many, untested medications with terrible side-effects. It virtually ignores the social, political and economic problems affecting large numbers of Americans, choosing instead to place all responsibility for human troubles on isolated individuals. By doing this, it insulates many of its practitioners from their own personal responsibilities to the larger, failing social, political and economic climates. Furthermore, I will challenge any common American to find a psychologist who will ever define normal human behavior. Instead, a person will encounter psychological “experts” who offer an ever-growing laundry list of “disorders” that must be controlled, medicated or extinguished to produce an “adjusted” individual to the faulty society that goes unchallenged. Increasingly, the psychologist has replaced clergy by pulling the “science” card and claiming results which actually turn out even worse than those accomplished in churches and synagogues. Someday, America needs to raise serious questions about the false myths told by peddlers of psycho-babble.

Comments are closed.