The 2015 edition of the Annual Review of Critical Psychology, devoted to Marxism and psychology, will be available in the next couple of weeks. It consists of 10 articles previously presented as papers at the Second Marxism and Psychology Conference, held in Morelia in August 2012 (see previous Southern Psychologies post about the conference here), and two articles reflecting on the conference as event and on Marxist work in critical psychology.
The edition has been a long time coming, but I think it is a fascinating collection of texts, focused of course on Marxism and critical psychology, but theoretically and geographically diverse (and, importantly, not all originally written in English). And while it is very clear that Marxism remains a source of inspiration for critical psychologists around the world, it is equally clear that there is no single approach that can legitimately lay claim to being the definitive ‘Marxist psychology’, or that would even want to create and institutionalize such a psychology.
What follows is a slightly amended extract from the introductory article, written by myself, David Pavón-Cuéllar and Leonardo Moncada. The full article can be found here.
Although no single definition of critical psychology exists that could bring together under one banner the disparate and at times contradictory efforts claiming this name, there would be no meaning to the designation at all if it did not entail, at the very least, some sort of refusal of psychology in its dominant forms. What gives critical psychology the semblance of a shared agenda, of something approaching a collective practice — despite its diversity, despite often being at odds with itself — is that it positions itself and articulates its refusal of psychology from within psychology, seeking to overcome the strictures of the discipline and its practices, and to develop alternatives in and to psychology both through critique and reconstruction. Refusal, of course, can and does take many forms in critical psychology: epistemological, theoretical, methodological and political critiques cohabit in an uneasy relationship with the discipline, ranging from outright rejection to forms of institutional complicity by which critical psychology, as a more or less loyal opposition to the mainstream, plays its role in the diversification, exportability, and further academic and cultural entrenchment of psychology.
Undeniably, critical psychology is small compared to many other areas of the discipline, but it has certainly gained in visibility and even status over the last number of years and has proven viable as a source of academic distinction for a growing number of individuals employed in departments of psychology around the world. Academic markets in the time of the corporate university are replete with niche offerings; older tokens of academic standing are making way for marketability and commodity value, for and ethos of constant innovation, transformation and rebranding.
The hazard here, for critical approaches that remain unaware of or unable to theorize the political economy of psychology, and to account for its own role within it, is what Ian Parker refers to as recuperation: “the process by which radical ideas become neutralized and absorbed; […] become part of the machinery that they attempted to challenge” (Parker, 1999, p. 78). The threat is not simply that by becoming an established sub-discipline that peacefully co-exists with other sub-disciplines, critical psychology will unwittingly add momentum, by trading on psychology’s institutional success and cultural spread, and by offering it legitimacy and further applicability in some contexts, to the reproduction and further entrenchment of the discipline still primarily in terms of its dominant assumptions and practices. The threat, instead, is that the surplus value afforded the discipline by a ‘critical psychology’ that distinguishes itself in ameliorative terms by promoting qualitative alongside quantitative styles of inquiry, by focusing on embodied experience and affect instead of exclusively on cognition and behaviour, and by theorizing and rendering knowable the self as a relational, distributed, discursive achievement rather than a stable, transcendental entity, reinforces psychology’s entanglement with a capitalism increasingly invested in the local, the affective and the commodification and remaking of identities, experiences and lifestyles. Critical psychology, as an upgraded psychology, in this manner often contributes to the shaping of neoliberal subjectivities and cultures under capitalism rather than to its critique and undoing: “the ‘critical’ take on mainstream psychology brings the discipline closer to the requirements of contemporary capitalism” (Parker, 1999a, p. 85).
It is here that Marxism re-enters the scene to play an important, perhaps even necessary role in the critical refusal of psychology. Rather than merely an established theoretical tradition in the institutionalized social sciences and even psychology, Marxism as a still open frontier of political invention and modes of collectivization and revolutionary action, as a living and growing source of social movement oriented theory and practice, never fully captured by the insular interests of academic disciplines and the academic careers they support, forces even critical psychology to own up to its entanglement in the political economy of psychology and the university, and to how it profits from a deeply psychologized contemporary capitalism. Parker (1999) goes as far as stating that Marxism – and he specifies a revolutionary Marxism – is the only theoretical resource “left that can tackle the problem and reassert once again a properly radical stance toward academic, professional and cultural aspects of the discipline” (pp. 86-87). Some readers may feel that Parker is guilty here of hyperbole, or that he neglects to take into account that Marxism itself is not immune to recuperation in many different ways, including even facile forms of academic identity politics, the radical chic of an insular campus politics – however, even such readers would be hard pressed to suggest a theoretical and political resource more suitable, especially when engaged and developed in dialogue with many other critical traditions, as is displayed so richly in the articles in this edition, to interrogate psychology’s entanglement with capitalism, and to extricate from it a truly critical approach to subjectivity and the difficulties we face as individuals and collectives in this world. Marxism, accordingly, functions for us in a manner similar to the role attributed to it in relation to philosophy by Balibar (1993), namely Marxism “not as a philosophy, but as an alternative to philosophy, a non-philosophy or even an anti-philosophy” (p. 2, emphases in the original).
Significantly, Balibar does not therefore attribute to Marx an abandonment of philosophy; Marx does not leave philosophy to remain itself while he departs for political economy. Instead, his refusal shifts the very coordinates of philosophy: Balibar (1993) writes, once again in relation to philosophy, that “after Marx, philosophy is no longer as it was before. An irreversible event has occurred, one which is not comparable with the emergence of a new philosophical point of view, because it not only obliges us to change our ideas or methods, but to transform the practice of philosophy” (p. 4, emphasis in original). This too captures for us the role we want Marxism to play in relation to psychology. Marxism in psychology, or the effect of a Marxist refusal of psychology, is neither merely an abandonment of psychology as an academic enterprise, nor solely concerned with the reconstruction of a “better” psychology in its place. Marxism in psychology is rather a vector along which psychology is forced to become worldly: to be challenged, disrupted, detoured, forced beyond itself, occupied, deprovincialized, decolonized – from the perspective of subjects in struggle and in relation to their timely desire for change, not as effect of the unilateral implementation of a scholarly tradition.