Ecopsychology for capitalism’s spell: Andy Fisher

Published online 20 September 2009.

Book review: Fisher, Andy.  Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life.  Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002.

This is a book review, really some ruminations, upon Andy Fisher’s Radical Ecopsychology.  Here I wish to explore the subtext of capitalism’s spell in Fisher’s book.  Our separation from the world-ecosystem in equilibrium and our joining with the machines of industrial development under the spell of capitalism is what is at stake; Fisher speculates upon the possibility of “making sense of suffering in a technological world” so we can “hear our own inner voice” (183) in a naturalistic sense.  In short, Fisher wishes to break the spell.  Fisher intends ecopsychology as a therapeutic support to an ecology movement which must win something for our “human nature” if any of us are to survive.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

I am going to take a break from the health insurance diary business today in order to address issues of our separation from nature.  Those of you who wish to engage my most sincere opinion upon this urgent matter should consult jamess’s diary of yesterday, with which I agree.

Health care reform in Congress may be the most pressing issue for the political types which visit Orange: however, the most fundamental issue facing the world today is the spell which pervades the social group mind, the spell of the capitalist system.  Overcoming this spell will probably be a prerequisite to saving the world from ecological disaster, of which abrupt climate change is the most telling sign.

I can say other things about capitalism’s spell with reference to other books.  The idea that the capitalist system operates a sort of magic upon people, through a sort of spell, is not new: it at least dates back to Marx’s concept of “commodity fetishism” in vol. 1 of CAPITAL.  In the linked section, Marx refers to “the mystical character of commodities” by way of this poetic fairy tale:

…we will content ourselves with yet another example relating to the commodity form. Could commodities themselves speak, they would say: Our use value may be a thing that interests men. It is no part of us as objects. What, however, does belong to us as objects, is our value. Our natural intercourse as commodities proves it. In the eyes of each other we are nothing but exchange values. Now listen how those commodities speak through the mouth of the economist.

“Value” – (i.e., exchange value) “is a property of things, riches” – (i.e., use value) “of man. Value, in this sense, necessarily implies exchanges, riches do not.”[35] “Riches” (use value) “are the attribute of men, value is the attribute of commodities. A man or a community is rich, a pearl or a diamond is valuable…” A pearl or a diamond is valuable as a pearl or a diamond.[36]

So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange value either in a pearl or a diamond.

If commodities could speak, they would say “you WANT us, don’t you, and not because we have any purpose in your life, but because we’re VALUABLE!  BWAHAHA!”  Thus the idea that, for instance, gold, has inherent value, rather than the value of gold being a byproduct of pandering after it, is the spell laid upon gold by participants in the capitalist system.

Accordingly, then, participants in the capitalist system pursue this social magic throughout their adult lives in the form of money, property, and, generally, “assets.”  The phrase curriculum vitae means “the course of one’s life,” and, if one is of the professional classes, one’s curriculum vitae lists one’s work history, one’s educational history, and one’s portfolio of accomplished works.  The curriculum vitae does indeed express the course of one’s life, but as a means of conjuring up another job, using all the incantatory power of the fabulous jobs one has already accomplished in the course of one’s life.  The curriculum vitae, then, is also an incantatio capitalisticus, a capitalist spell.

As for the rest of “normal life” under capitalism’s spell, consumerism and family life define normal roles for participants in “leisure time”; “work” itself is equivalent to being on someone else’s payroll (or, for the more contingent workers, of performing “billable skills”); and the absence of work is “unemployment,” which is equivalent to poverty in a world in which the possibility of living off of the land has been denied.

Philosophically, the adult individual living under capitalism believes that she believes whatever she wants to believe, and is “free,” and this is what the philosophers call “liberalism”; participation in the employment system, however, is what actually gets put on nearly everyone’s personal calendar of events.

Earth itself, whose ecosystems provide us with life, is conceived under capitalism’s spell as composed of “real estate.”  Earth’s ecosystems are conceptualized as mere collections of “natural resources” which are to be transformed into “raw materials,” “consumer products,” and “waste” (in that order) if any value is to be attained for the system’s sovereign individuals before they die.  This activity is guided by the philosophy known as possessive individualism; its institutional form is called property.

*****

One can see, then, that following the traditional recipe for “Marxist revolution” is not entirely going to succeed in canceling out capitalism’s spell.  Even if we could take over government and abolish property and money by decree, people would still believe in those concepts, and live their lives under their spell.  The history of the Soviet Union offers evidence of this.  The Soviet elites attempted to impose “Communism” upon the Russian people, but this lasted only for seventy-odd years, until the end of 1991 when the Soviet Union was abolished by decree.  At that point the new elites dismantled “Communism,” at great cost to most of the people there, but the people did not rise up to reinstate it.  An authentically-popular communism would not have been so easy to eliminate.  The spell survived, over all those years.

*****

Thus there is something distinctly psychological about our adherence to the existing order, despite its environmental costs.  Most importantly in this era, we (or more specifically our society’s professional and owning classes; the rest of us merely acquiesce) cling to capitalism despite its descent into the hazards of abrupt climate change.  There must also, then, be a psychological solution.  This solution needs to take the form of a psychological “reunion” between people and the natural world.  This reunion is not just about having a “back to nature” adventure, although Fisher does use a wilderness rite of passage as part of his therapeutic practice.  Rather, the psychological divide between inner and outer nature must be exploded.  We the human race must be brought back to reality to confront the vast damage we have done to the natural world, and thus to ourselves:

Ecopsychology is a psychological intervention aimed at contributing to the transformation of society by encouraging or providing for the recovery of our nature and our experience, for the regaining of lost world-relations and life-meanings.  It is an effort to remember that, and how, we are a part of the big life process; to get us back into the service of all life.  (187)

Ecopsychology is meant for self-understanding, not as any sort of “cure”; rather than promising the individual psychological health from within a sick society, Fisher points to the environmentalist movement as leading the way to a social cure, while ecopsychology’s role is to “make sense of suffering in a technological world”:

…the Ego isolates itself from the ground of being, attempts to exist for itself outside the flux of life, to become a permanent island in the swirling ocean of nature — and suffers from the impossibility of the project.  While the tendency toward this suffering mode is given in the human situation, the attitude a society adopts toward it is not.  A society, that is, can develop ways to understand, find meaning in, minimize, and move through suffering; or — at the other end of the spectrum — it can choose to mystify, institutionalize, exacerbate, and exploit it. (71)

Fisher puts special attention into the analysis of shame as evidence of psychopathology.  He conceives of us in industrial life as experiencing a sense of shame at having destroyed our natural environment, replacing it with the various caricatures of nature we call “cities,” “suburbs,” “farmland,” and so on.  Fisher’s first task is to give voice to that shame, to bring it out and to let it speak, as shame is evidenced by acts of hiding.

Fisher’s intended purpose for ecopsychology, in guiding human spirits, is to “develop a psychology that embeds humans within a more-than-human society” (125) — which would bring us to a state of intersubjectivity with the natural world, as it long ago was expressed in the traditional rites of some hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies.  Fisher suggests a number of practices for doing this: environmental education, for instance, could be performed in the context of “the intimacy of lived relationships with other life” (186).  Fisher also works with “peer self-help psychotherapy groups” and “focusing” communities (182); there are a number of paths to reunion.  The necessary element in these paths, he suggests, is sensitization:

We generally prefer to stimulate ourselves — to get excitement into our deadened bodies through bungy jumping and watching horror movies — rather than to resensitize ourselves.  To the extent that we can do the latter, however, the benefits are trememdous, for (among other gains) we reclaim a centre for ourselves.  (183)

Thus breaking the spell means being sensitized to the world of the natural “other,’ rather than being stimulated by its ability to present spectacles for our consumption.

The specific flaw of the technological world, Fisher well knows, is “the economization of reality” (84-87).  For Fisher, the domination of Earthly nature by the capitalist system promotes narcissists:

The permeation of our culture by narcissistic features signals one of the central psychological outcomes (and engines) of our historical mode of relating to nature.  While narcissism is usually discussed in terms of grandiosity and self-absorption, I want to emphasize that at the core of the classic narcissist is an utterly shame-bound person whose early needs were severely violated to such an extent that they have almost no sense of their own insides, their own bodily felt living.  They identify instead with grand self-images that act in fantasy to compensate for their terrible sense of inadequacy…. on the whole, however, this condition is not a problem for the running of a capitalist society, for feelingless, hungry narcissists are in many ways perfectly adapted, if not tailor-made, for it.  Having had their own nature violated, and lacking much grasp of their inner motivations, narcissists consume endlessly in a quest for lost selfhood, and, seeking self-esteem through productivity, performance, ladder-climbing, and hollow expressions of brute power, are all too prepared to participate in the technological ruination of nature (85-86)

The narcissists, of course, are the professional class that is put on display in America’s, and the world’s, mass media, and the physical world has been redesigned to be their collection of conveniences, their spectacles, and their occupational ladders.  Their power is that of the capitalist system (and of the government which facilitates and imitates it — which is why I speak of capitalist discipline, and not merely of capitalism).  The fantasies of our narcissistic professional class are reflected nightly in televised broadcasts.  Our world’s global economy (not to mention its national and international political structure) rewards productivity, performance, and hollow expressions of brute power for its professional classes.  Bringing this group to a reckoning with the ecological facts of life may be an important saving gesture in our efforts to bring the human race “back to nature” before nature does away with us.

*****

Now Fisher tells us that ecopsychology is a project-in-formation, which means that there is as of yet no elite of ecopsychologists, no professional doctrine, no established practice, no guaranteed cure for the human race.  To be fair, any real practice would have to veer into the realm of political activism, for only through politics will we be able to deal with the results of the history of power, in which the strong have triumphed while the weak have been killed off, marginalized, or gang-pressed into the working class.  To sum up, then: Fisher’s book is a good start: it hopes to begin the process of healing.

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