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Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 359-361 ( 7 September )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/smail.html
The Nature of Unhappiness
by David Smail
Reviewed by Christopher Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care, University of Liverpool, Liverpool L69 3GB, UK.
This is not actually a new book, as it simply brings two previous works by the same author1 together in one volume, with a brief new foreword - perhaps the academic equivalent of a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation. However since the original material is lively and well argued, and this version may well reach a new and wider audience than before, there is no great harm in that.
Smail is a clinical psychologist who works within the UK National Health Service. His basic thesis is a rejection of the self-help philosophy of human action - and with it the theoretical underpinning of much of the therapy and counselling industry. He does not accept that we are more or less self-determining free agents. Rather he sees the person as an interaction between his or her physical body and ‘an environment structured by power both now and in the past’. His basic approach is to define a person as ‘a point in social space through which outside powers and influences flow, rather than an entity within which powers and influences originate’. Within psychological theory he is in the behaviorist camp; putting it in religious terms, he is clearly on the side of determinism rather than free will. It is therefore his intention to give an account of unhappiness which stresses its social origins, and hence (and here the benefits of his approach suddenly become apparent) give us the opportunity to free ourselves from the awful sense of personal responsibility for our misfortunes and predicaments which may all too often be the unwonted by-product of the more personalized, voluntaristic approaches to psychotherapy.
The first volume is preoccupied with power. Smail correctly points out that psychological theories rarely move beyond the power exerted within the family - where by the oedipal child or the tyrannical parent - and generally fail to see the importance of wider social structures. He widens the ‘power horizon’ to include the effects of politics, culture and class on personal relations, and the impact of ideology on family life and education.
If emotional and psychological distress is brought about by social and environmental powers which originate at some distance from those ultimately subjected to them, then it follows that the best therapy comes in the form of political, ethical and ideological change. We need to move beyond the microenvironment of the therapeutic space, and through our interaction with patients provide three essential things: comfort, through proximal solidarity; clarification, to undo the mystifications of power, by helping patients to remember, see and say; and encouragement to physically and materially alter their position in the world.
Smail gives us plenty of useful examples of patients he has worked with over the years, and provides valuable illustratory links between personal distress and the politics of the UK in the 1980s. He does make connections between his own ideas and those of radical psychiatrists of the Langian school, and political philosophers such as Foucault. However I am concerned that such connections are quite sketchy. Smail gives the strong impression of being a lone voice crying in the wilderness, whereas his ideas on power, his criticisms of Freudian theory, fit comfortably within a considerable - and potent - radical tradition of which he does not seem to be fully aware. We could start, powerfully if somewhat arbitrarily, with the Frankfurt School 2, proceed through French structuralist thought of the late 1960s, by way of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism and the (often impenetrable but sometimes illuminating) periodical Ideology and Consciousness. What these all have in common is a willingness to take the debate a stage further than Smail appears able to do, and create a dialogue between the seemingly disparate traditions of psychoanalysis and Marxism 3. Since the disappearance of the Berlin Wall and the inexorable spread of capitalism with a human face, this dialogue may seem somewhat anachronistic. However I do not believe it is. If and when the third version of Smail’s work appears, it will be interesting to see if he has taken this crucial next step.
1. The Origins of Unhappiness, originally published 1993, and How to Survive without Psychotherapy, originally published in 1996.
2. Martin Jay. The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950. Heinemann, London 1973
3. Christopher Dowrick. Strange Meeting: Marxism, Psychoanalysis and Social Work. British Journal of Social Work 1983, 13, 1-18. Also: The Roots of Consciousness (Marx, Freud and Hegel). History of Political Thought 1984, 3, 469-502.
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© Christopher Dowrick.
Dowrick, C. (2002). Review of The Nature of Unhappiness by David Smail. Human Nature Review. 2: 359-361.