To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.
(Bahá’í Office of Social and Economic Development statement on Social Action page 5)
There is no justification for continuing to perpetuate structures, rules, and systems that manifestly fail to serve the interests of all peoples. The teachings of the Faith leave no room for doubt: there is an inherent moral dimension to the generation, distribution, and utilization of wealth and resources.
(Message from the Universal House of Justice – 1 March 2017)
I may be biased. My suspicions about psychiatry and capitalism go back a long way. I know you’ll want to know what on earth those two systems of thought have to do with each other but I’ll come back to that in a moment.
For now I want to declare up front that my recent reading may have simply been confirming my long-standing biases. My flirtation with Marxism in my late twenties and my involvement with People Not Psychiatry (PNP) in the early 70s testify to the biases.
My iconoclasm was tempered by experience, and I came to realise that neither of my bêtes noires was all bad. However, I remained convinced that they were not all they were cracked up to be either.
Which brings me to the first book I wish to speak about: Cracked by James Davies. I did a short review of it recently so I won’t be rehashing any of that. I just want to focus now on one small part of his argument.
Davies, towards the end of his book, addresses his concerns about the training of future psychiatrists (pages 282-285):
At present in the UK, psychiatric training provides only cursory lip service to academic critiques of the bio-psychiatric world-view. Serious anthropological, sociological or philosophical critiques of the medical model are seen at best as interesting sidelines to what psychiatrists actually do.
He quotes one of his interviewees:
As Pat Bracken said frankly: ‘What I hear from the trainees working with me is that the exams are very much heavily skewed towards learning facts, diagnostic categories, causal models all framed in the medical model, as though you can teach psychiatry in the same way as you will teach respiratory medicine or endocrinology.’
Psychiatrists who are sceptical of this approach nonetheless teach it uncritically. He quotes someone in that position: ‘What troubled this psychiatrist most was not just that he was acting against his convictions, but that by the time these trainees had passed their professional tests their critical sensitivities had been eroded.’ The reported experience of trainees supports this view. And young psychiatrists are afraid of seeming critical in case they are written off as ‘anti-psychiatry’ to the detriment of their careers.
Which paves the way to finding out why I have lumped two apparently dissimilar disciplines together.
Economic students learn one particular type of economics; and… they are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner.
Why would that matter?
Well, firstly, we all know by now that neoclassical economic models failed to predict the 2008 crash and still fail to explain it fully now.
The authors go further and make it clear that:
We are failing to equip the next generation of economic experts with the knowledge and skills to build healthy, resilient societies… Critical and independent thinking is discouraged and there is little or no history, ethics or politics in economics courses.
They are troubled by two characteristics in particular of neoclassical economics (page 38-39):
Firstly, it is based on a mechanical view of the world. . . . . Secondly, neoclassical economics paints a picture of the economy as a stand-alone, abstract system that emerges naturally from the actions of individual agents.
It does not ask ‘why agents behave as they do’ or ‘whether the economic goals embedded in its models are desirable.’
They go on to explain (page 40):
In practice the type of mathematics used by economists means that there is a focus on material sources of well-being such as income and consumption over less tangible issues such as human rights, job security and mental health.
There is an almost complete absence of critical and independent thinking (page 47). There is also a total lack of focus on ethics (page 51). The authors regard this as indoctrination, not even training and certainly not education (page 54).
The book as whole is a rigorous and detailed examination of the evidence for econocracy’s failings, both as a system for training competent economists and as the means of ridding our society of its potentially disastrous flaws in the political and economic sphere.
The authors argue in the end that (page 151) ‘we need a new relationship between experts and society,’ and suggest various ways in which this could over time be accomplished. They do not claim it would be easy, not least because many economists in the US, for example, like too many psychiatrists everywhere, are supping with the devil without a sufficiently long spoon (page 158): in 2010 ‘During 96 testimonies to Congress by 82 academic economists – under oath – one third failed to disclose that they were being paid for consulting by companies that would be regulated under [the proposed legislation under discussion].’
They conclude (page 169):
We know it is tempting to leave economics to the experts, particularly as this is part of the dominant political culture of the twentieth century, but in this case we cannot afford to. We are being sold short because the very knowledge and skills we need to address the great challenges humanity faces in the twentieth century have been systematically left out of the education of those who go on to run our economy.
I find it disturbing that two key areas of education in our culture, the one affecting our general well-being and the other affecting our mental health, should have been so deeply infected by both a mechanistic way of thinking, whose limitations McGilchrist has convincingly exposed, and a prioritising of profit, that many thinkers other than Karl Marx have long been questioning.
I won’t go over that ground in detail again here as it is covered extensively elsewhere on this blog. Just one quote, from McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary to illustrate what a the nightmare world he feels will be created by the untrammelled operation of the utilitarian left-hemisphere,will have to suffice. Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist spells out simply and clearly some of the characteristics of that world (page 430):
Skills . . . would be reduced to algorithmic procedures . . . which could be regulated by administrators. . . . Increasingly the living world would be modelled on the mechanical. . . . When we deal with a machine, there are three things that we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. . . . In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere’s appreciation of How (quality) would be lost.
Executives of the firms that are pushing sustainability… are unaware or purposely ignoring that the global economy is already consuming more than the Earth can provide. No matter what happens in the United States and Europe, the burden will increase as the rapidly growing economies of China, India, and elsewhere strive to attain the same levels that we “enjoy.”
But do we “enjoy” our consumer lifestyle? Data on drug abuse, crime, social alienation, and disintegrating communities might suggest otherwise. And yet, we continue to seek satisfaction in having and consuming more stuff.
As more of us consume more as more countries get wealthier, time may be running out.
And now, I will end by simply emphasising that both these books, The Econocracy and Cracked, are well worth a careful read.