Psychotherapy as a politial act: first thoughts

Among Sartre’s publications one that stands out as a political tract is the small but profound work, Anti-semite and Jew. His analysis of the roots of prejudice, and his understanding of how the process of persecution arises, makes a valuable and insightful contribution to understanding a contemporary western world that is currently living in the wake of the near collapse of finance capitalism. A world characterised by constant subjection to the fear of the stranger, epitomised by rising anti-immigrant fervour; an increasing persecution internationally of minorities such as gays and bi-sexuals; and the rolling back of female emancipation. We live in a world increasingly characterised by an apprehension of difference.

The issues that bring patients to therapy are rooted in concerns derived from relations with the ‘other’, whether (as is usually the case) other people, or the ‘other’ in terms of social, cultural or physical environments. When the ‘other’ is not known sufficiently it leads to existential uncertainty. Such uncertainty generates anxiety, which if unresolved or too strong to be held, turns the subject towards what Sartre describes as irrational responses, often projections of blame, anger or guilt onto the ‘stranger’ (or the ‘strange phenomenon’), because not to do so would generate a sense of self that is not acceptable, would undermine this ephemeral sense of identity. These are not responses grasped from nowhere, but often poorly rationalised and emotional responses to experiences of perceived or real suffering.

The individual may equally project that (initially) pre-reflective sense of non-acceptance inwards, and interiorise the experience, (a more common occurrence I suggest for those who come to therapy), a process that undermines (or in some particularly difficult cases overdetermines) the ephemeral sense of self that we all seek. I would add, however, notwithstanding the interiorisation of such alienation, a dialectic process ensures that there is a response in which the individual’s interactions with society are reinforced. She may also respond to the possibility of group activity (a process of exteriorisation), and adhere to collective manifestations of prejudice, or hostility towards the ‘stranger’, such that the dialectic engenders a self-reinforcing process of non-acceptance towards the ‘other’.

As Sartre argues, we are free because we choose within our context, and in making choices we create the opportunity to express our subjectivity in our interactions with our world. So, too, does the ‘other’. To deny our own freedom is to deny our subjectivity and is the ultimate deception. From this notion of ‘freedom and authenticity’, it is possible to conceive of an ethical framework and a political agenda.

Any discussion of the political nature of psychotherapy, pre-supposes an ethical perspective. This is captured by the potential for reciprocity that exists in our relations with the ‘other’. This notion essentially forms the bedrock of ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad faith’. Sartre had argued in his early work that being-for-others involved ultimately either surrendering subjectivity in order to capture the other through submission, or objectifying and subordinating the other to ones’ own subjectivity. He described this as denying one’s own freedom or that of the ‘other’, through either voluntary or wilful submission of subjectivity. Freedom is an expression of the subjective. To deny one’s freedom is to be in ‘bad faith’. It is possible, within this rubric, to assert the possibility of a mutuality of interest, or reciprocity of knowing, in human relationships. If we are able to meet the other not as an object, with the implicit threat described in the ‘look’, but as a subject to be affirmed and accepted then the possibility of reciprocity (and intimacy) is present. As suggested by Sartre’s later writings, we are free to choose, while accepting the freedom of the other to do likewise.

Existentialist thought in part arose through the rejection of the conception of Man as merely mechanistically determined. As a conscious being she is set apart from both inanimate objects and other animals and plants. This debate is even more intense today, although the voices against this fundamentalist view of science are unfortunately a minority. The question remains: are we totally determined beings, both physiologically and concomitantly psychologically, or is there some point where we are able to break out of past conditioning and act as free and conscious agents? The message of B&N emphasised the latter: ‘being-for-itself’, effectively consciousness, was always free to choose. Even in passivity we inexorably choose who we are. The notion of praxis highlighted in the Critique reinforces the possibilities created by conscious choice, even though in this later work Sartre was to clarify the limitations of choice, and recognise the weight of conditioning, especially of the early, formative years. There remained, however, a window for freedom, for choice, for without that window how can we be held responsible for our actions; how can history not become formulaic? The starting point for an existential ethics remains the concept of existential freedom. I suggest that the underlying philosophical framework that Sartre elucidated, shows the practice of psychotherapy to be a political act, one that is orientated towards both freedom and authenticity in the manner in which the individual (or singular universal) expresses her dialectical interaction with the world.

In order to justify this statement I will define a political act as a purposive intervention that impacts, in some way, on the totality of relationships that constitute a social context; and one that is premised on an ethical perspective. I understand that within the therapeutic context the individual has a perspective, of a varying degree of concreteness, of themselves that is based on a dialectical relationship between the world as she perceives it, and the felt sense of self described by her fundamental project. From within that process emerge the manifestations of anxiety that are her way of responding to her world. I suggest that in the context of psychological trauma, of whatever degree, there is a response that is a denial of freedom in some form, a loss of authenticity in her relations with the world, either through negation of her own freedom or that of the ‘other’. The role of psychotherapy is to enable the individual to draw down the blinds of ‘fear and loathing’; to achieve a heightened awareness of her transient self; and to know and accept her own subjectivity as well as the subjectivity of others.

Acceptance of the freedom of the ‘other’ is a quintessential part of this. Acceptance of one’s own freedom also implies acceptance of responsibility: we choose our freedom and concomitantly accept responsibility for that choice. But in doing so we recognise and accept the freedom of the ‘other’, since such acceptance is the premise upon which one’s own freedom is based. As Sartre emphasises:

I am obliged to will the freedom of others at the same time as I will my own. I cannot set my own freedom as a goal without also setting the freedom of others as a goal

As outlined above, developments of Sartre’s work suggest that relationships (of whatever form) are not stable unless based on reciprocal acceptance, and that the achievement of the latter is the experience of freedom. It is a psychological liberation. Such an act of liberation, because we are social animals, because our praxis can and does change the world, even in an infinitesimal way, is a political act. The dialectical processes, which are an unalienable consequence of our touching of the world, engender a response and counter-response to our praxis (or hexis).

And it contributes to a progressive politics, since where there is mutual acceptance there is no space for a hierarchy of needs, and the concomitant aggrandisement and exploitation; or the exaggeration of difference and rejection of the stranger that characterises the politics of fear and hate. Rather it is a politics that recognises the mutual interdependence of social relationships, one premised on egalitarian values. It is the politics of freedom and liberation, a cause that Sartre promoted for much of his life.

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