Archive for February, 2012

The Authoritarian Personality

February 22, 2012


German critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno and the distinguished colleagues with whom he collaborated to produce The Authoritarian Personality (1950) have with this volume produced a deeply fascinating and critical work for students of developmental and political psychology. The book, the first title in the Studies in Prejudice series coordinated by Adorno’s fellow German Marxist Max Horkheimer, is motivated by investigation of “the potentially fascistic individual,” a character type whose personal and behavior tendencies, claim Adorno et al., would likely lead her to “accept fascism if it should become a strong or respectable social movement.” This concern regarding the posited mass-presence of authoritarian personalities is of course rooted in Adorno and Horkheimer’s traumatic experiences as Jewish leftists observing the twentieth-century Nazi catastrophe; its fundament is tied to their intellectual and philosophical efforts to work toward ensuring that fascist rule never again arise, that millions of persons never again be murdered by genocidal militarists, that otherwise capable agents never again go along with racist-imperial politics. In this sense, Adorno and the other contributors seek with their study not just to “describe prejudice” but more importantly to “explain it in order to help in its eradication.” Posing then as political doctors of a sort—not unlike Wilhelm Reich in his The Mass Psychology of Fascism—the authors aim, via a “sincere and systematic scientific elucidation” of the phenomenon of prejudice, to “contribute directly to an amelioration of the cultural atmosphere in which hatred breeds.”

Introducing their work, the authors disclose some of the premises governing their study of prejudice: that personality is never static or isolated but rather “evolves under the impact of the social environment,” that people will generally accept political and social programs they feel will serve their economic interests, that membership within a particular social group can be expected to influence one’s views of those outside the group, and that people who are hostile toward one minority group are “very likely to be hostile against a wide variety of others.” They note that the chance for the development of fascism is aided along to the degree that people in general already exhibit authoritarian personality traits.

Else Frenkel-Brunswik, author of a number of chapters in the work that examine interviews with study-participants, summarizes the “most basic distinguishing criterion” found in The Authoritarian Personality between prejudiced and non-prejudiced individuals as being “the readiness to include, accept, and even love differences and diversities” in the case of the latter, as set against “the need to set off clear demarcation lines and to ascertain superiorities and inferiorities” among the former. This posited chasm in personality trends is introduced in the preliminary analysis given in the volume’s second chapter of two male college students, Mack (highly ethnocentric) and Larry (considerably less so), and developed more broadly in Frenkel-Brunswik’s chapters detailing and analyzing the results observed in the personal interviews performed with subjects regarding the following questions: work, income, family background, childhood, sex, school, social relationships, and minorities and “race.”

Frenkel-Brunswik’s first major chapter examines familial relationships and childhood in the interview material. She finds that those scoring high on the prejudice tests tend to conventionally idealize their parents, fear them (and consider this to be demonstration of respect), rebel against them capriciously, depend on them in exploitative and manipulative fashion, feel obligations to them, and generally express an “ingroup orientation” among family members—the family, that is, above or against the rest of society. Those scoring low on the prejudice tests are found to engage in objective appraisal of their parents, reject their parents on principle—or be independent them also on principle—and seek love and nurturance from them. Conventional idealization is found in the glorification of the external physical appearance and a lack of analysis of the personality of parents; low-scoring individuals on the other hand express criticism of parents’ pressure to make their children be more sociable or of their possessiveness and dominance, yet these resentments are often coupled with gratitude for positive qualities such as unconventionality and generosity. Unprejudiced individuals are more likely to demonstrate genuine positive feelings for their parents than more prejudiced ones. High-scoring participants willingly express their submission to their parents on the basis of fear; regarding questions of corporal punishment, they often agree completely with harsh regimes to which they historically were subjected, and they are given to periodic capricious rebellions that in no way challenge dynamics of subordination. Low-scoring persons, in contrast, demonstrate much less of a need of approval from their parents. Frenkel-Brunswik claims furthermore that typical prejudiced subjects seek to exploit their parents in material fashion, just as they exploit others; opportunism and the hopes of “making a deal” with parents seem to reign among these persons. More prejudiced subjects moreover tend to stress their family heredity and background in an attempt to distinguish their genetics from the rest of society—to create an in-group. Less prejudiced individuals are seen to have received more love from their parents, allowing them to develop independence from them.

In terms of specific perceptions of the characteristics of parents, high-scoring males and females tend to regard their fathers as being distant and “successful” (a “provider”), while low-scoring persons find their fathers to be relaxed, warm, and given to intellectual-aesthetic pursuits. More prejudiced participants claim their mothers to have been “sweet,” sacrificing, submissive, and a moral-model, while less prejudiced ones find mothers warm, loving, understanding, and—as with fathers—intellectual-aesthetic. Frenkel-Brunswik theorizes that unprejudiced males are aided in their development by the lack of an imposing father-figure who may threaten their masculinity, an eventuality that seems to give rise to overcompensatory aggressivity and need for authority. She further finds there to be a tendency toward father-dominated families among more prejudiced subjects, while unprejudiced persons seem instead to have experienced a mother-oriented household in which love rather than submission-domination dynamics rule. The development of “humanitarian values” within sons is linked to the relationship with the mother, and high-scoring respondents are far more likely to report anxiety regarding social status among parents than are low-scoring ones. Concluding this section, Frenkel-Brunswik notes the importance of relationships among children and parents for future political activity; she claims the power-orientation observed among more prejudiced participants to follow from their own trauma of being helpless, weak children subjected to hierarchical relations with parents: the prejudiced tend then to identify with the strong against the weak, in an attempt to escape their own former weakness.

Frenkel-Brunswik also authors the chapter on sex, people, and self as seen through interviews. In their attitudes toward sex, more prejudiced persons emphasize “conquests” and dates, engage in promiscuous relationships, generally view sex in terms of power, and exhibit a conventional morality repressive of the id. More prejudiced men seek in opposite-sex partners submissiveness, “sweetness,” and purity, while females seek hardworking, energetic, and “clean-cut” men. Among less prejudiced persons, there is more of an acceptance of the id, a greater interest in fusing sex with affection, a genuine respect and fondness for one’s partners, and a general desire for love rather than power dynamics; there is an emphasis among low-scorers on companionship, warmth, and understanding in opposite-sex partners. Many high-scoring men tend to see sex as a question of status; responding to strong needs for maintaining ideals of masculinity, such men speak of their depersonalized encounters in largely economic terms. Sex is almost utilitarian in this calculus; one prejudiced subject in particular is analyzed as “talk[ing] about sex as though it were an ego-alien tension which has to be ‘relieved’ for hygienic reasons.” High scorers are also found ultimately to be disrespectful toward sexual partners, with low-scorers exhibiting opposing trends. More prejudiced participants determine their values toward partners largely from convention, placing much stress on class, church membership, and conformity with established values, whereas less prejudiced individuals think more autonomously in these terms.

Similarly, in their attitudes toward others, high-scoring subjects tend toward moralistic condemnation, distrust and suspicion, manipulative opportunism, and hero worship, all within a hierarchical conception of human relations. Lower-scoring participants express much more permissiveness, empathy, and openness toward others; they promote egalitarian-mutual as well as loving inter-relations. More prejudiced individuals tend to view the world as dangerous and hostile—a “jungle-world”—in keeping with Darwinian conceptions of society; viewing humans as motivated only by power and material benefits, more prejudiced persons will engage interpersonally toward the end of securing their access to power and influence. They are expected to attendantly admire the strong and despise the weak. In contrast, less prejudiced persons are oriented more toward finding persons who will love them and with whom they can share understanding and camaraderie; they are more apt to express their need to help others and receive affection in return. Low-scorers furthermore tend to explore intellectual and artistic questions with their friends, and Frenkel-Brunswik notes that they are more able to seek common interests and enjoyment with friends relative to the prejudiced, who tend to be more anxiety-ridden.

Regarding their present selves, high-scorers glorify themselves, proudly situate themselves within prevailing conventional expectations for gender, and explain their development by genetics and accidents rather than psychology. Low-scorers are more capable of critical self-appraisal, and they are more willing to concede fallibility and weakness; they readily identify themselves as different, and their ego-ideals include among other things self-improvement and social change. Explaining their past resolutions of adversity, more prejudiced participants emphasize “will power and cheerfulness” as critical; they tend to think of themselves are basically moral and under control, as follows from their hopes to belong to dominant in-groups. Less prejudiced persons are more willing to identify themselves as different or unconventional; they are more likely to express “world identification” as their form of belonging to society, with an emphasis on egalitarian ideals of solidarity. More prejudiced persons are observed as viewing property as an extension of the self, while low-scorers are seen to be more casual and pleasure-seeking as regards money and possessions. In their perceptions of their childhood selves, more authoritarian subjects report having been “difficult,” “stubborn,” “spoiled,” or “aggressive” as children, with less authoritarian participants remarking on their shyness, isolation, and unpopularity in childhood. While high-scorers also describe their childhoods as bland, low-scorers tend to be more “adult-oriented,” as is reflected in one’s commitment to reading or interest in education.

In their conclusion to The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and company summarize the study’s findings, restating the opposition they find between the “hierarchical, authoritarian, exploitive parent-child relationship” they theorize as being carried over to attitudes toward others as expressed by more authoritarian persons, together with the suspectibility of these to “a political philosophy and social outlook which has no room for anything but a desperate clinging to what appears to be strong,” against the pattern comprised “chiefly [of] affectionate, basically equalitarian, and permissive interpersonal relationships,” as expressed by unprejudiced individuals. Defending the Freudian approach of emphasizing childhood experience, the authors nonetheless note that their study does not adequately account for the “social and economic processes” that influence the development of families within which children are socialized. Acknowledging another limitation, they note that they investigate authoritarian potentialities but not authoritarian behavior itself; in this sense, they cannot predict the conditions “under which an actual outbreak would occur,” as would follow from the “readiness” for such an outbreak as reflected in expressed opinion. Nonetheless, they have recommendations for addressing what Adorno terms the “authoritarian syndrome”: any psychosocial “countermeasures” that would be had should take aim at “stereotypy, emotional coldness, identification with power, and general destructiveness.” While they state that the “modification of the potentially fascist structure” cannot be the work of psychology and psychologists alone—it is much more a general problem, related, in Hegelian-Marxist terms, to the “total organization of society”—they vaguely propose a program to avoid the development of ethnocentric personalities within childhood: “All that is really essential is that children be genuinely loved and treated as human beings.” The authors close the volume by expressing their faith in the potentialities of people in general—continuing a trend seen in much of twentieth-century German Marxism, from the work of Ernst Bloch to that of Franz Neumann1—noting the majority of their subjects in fact not to have exhibited extreme ethnocentrism, and identifying the prospect of fascism as largely an imposition advanced by dominant groups, one whose victory is denied to the degree that humans employ reason and exercise eros.


1Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1976 [1959]); Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1944).

Blue marvel

February 17, 2012

A “blue marble” image focusing on the northern half of Earth’s Western hemisphere, this was taken by the Suomi SPP satellite on 4 January 2012, following the example of the Apollo astronauts of the 1970’s.

As Dr. Jeff Masters writes, analyzing the photo:

“The image is very interesting meteorologically, and extremely strange. It is obvious that it is a winter image, as revealed by the large area of stratocumulus clouds off the U.S. East Coast all the way to South Florida, caused by cold Canadian air blowing offshore. However, the U.S. and Canada are virtually snow-free and cloud-free, which is extremely rare for a January day. The lack of snow in the mountains of the Western U.S. is particularly unusual. I doubt one could find a January day this cloud-free with so little snow on the ground throughout the entire satellite record, going back to the early 1960s.”

On the other hand, the tropical waters off Florida, the Yucatan Peninsula, and Cuba look beautiful.

No Rain in the Amazon

February 15, 2012

U.S. journalist Nikolas Kozloff’s No Rain in the Amazon (2010), a work that focuses principally on the devastation being wrought by capitalist relations on the peoples and ecosystems found in the South American countries of Peru and Brazil, is a more considered set of reflections on the present socio-environmental crisis than is to be found for example in the works of Bill McKibben or Mark Lynas—to name two well-known hegemonic commentators on global environmental matters.1 This difference arises from the fact that Kozloff presents his analysis of social and environmental destructiveness within a mildly critical framing of the processes of neoliberal capitalism, one which includes concern for exploited Southern proletarians and threatened indigenous peoples within its general regard for the life-world imperiled by the capitalist system. Kozloff correctly notes that “we are surely living in an ecological dystopia now”; this dystopia will only worsen considerably if it is not interrupted, just as the future reproduction of present trends will ensure that “chronic hunger [will] be the defining human tragedy of the twenty-first century.” To use reason in contemplating Kozloff’s findings, then, could in theory contribute to the possibility of overcoming these negations, their direness notwithstanding.

Reviewing climatological reports, Kozloff warns that future climate change will likely bring with it more frequent and intense El Niño meterological events. This climatic phenomenon, which follows from the warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean, brings about dry conditions in Southeast Asia, southern Africa, and the Brazilian Amazon; by increasing oceanic temperatures, it results in decreases in plankton populations, thus disrupting marine food chains, and provides bacteria like Vibrio cholerae with more amenable growth-environments. For countries like Peru and Ecuador that face increased rainfall and flooding from El Niño events, the return of the phenomenon threatens greater incidence of diarrheal conditions, dengue fever, and malaria. In this sense, as in its disruption of agricultural production and hence food security by means of drought, increases in the frequency of the emergence of El Niño would demand that governments of affected societies dedicate greater resources to addressing public-health emergencies. Beyond consideration of these realities, as of the numerous non-human animals endangered by extended El Niño conditions (primates, frogs, manatees, tapirs, turtles, the spectacled bear, the jaguar), remains reflection on the 2005 drought in the Amazon, which, as Kozloff reports, released 5 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere—the equivalent of Europe and Japan´s annual emissions. The 2010 Amazon drought, an El Niño-induced event which Kozloff could not consider in the work, released 8 billion tons—that is, as much as does China each year, being the present country-leader in carbon emissions.2

Turning specifically to consideration of Peru, Kozloff immediately reveals why it is that the country is considered to be among the most vulnerable to the projected future effects of climate change: because two-thirds of its population reside in the arid coastal region and depend upon the Andes glaciers for water. Kozloff tells us that Peru, home to 71 percent of South America’s glaciers, has reportedly seen a 22 percent decline in glacier surface area over the last few decades. These alarming threats to water supplies aside, the loss of glacial ice in the Andes also threatens sudden outburst floods from lakes formed by the retreat of glaciers, like those that destroyed much of the city of Huaraz in 1941. Moreover, as Kozloff writes, there is fear that warmer overall temperatures could grant better growing conditions to late blight, a fungal disease that could threaten the all-important Peruvian potato crop just as it did that in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century. On the other hand of socio-environmental realities determined largely externally by the history of imperialism are those induced at least partly internally, such as the widespread logging of mahogany trees and the material poverty that leads many Peruvians to clear the rainforest to make way for coca production. These export-oriented trends, which Kozloff rightly observes as responding to the consumer demand from relatively affluent Northerns made possible by the globalized market, are of one hand with former President Alan García’s mass-awarding of concesions for oil and gas exploration in 70 percent of Peru’s Amazonian rainforest.

In Brazil, Kozloff’s second case study, the situation is perhaps even more dire than in its western neighbor. Beyond the bleak future that global warming itself promises for the Amazon rainforest, the mass-expansion of cattle-ranching which has brought Brazil the dubious distinction of leading global beef has required the clearing of vast stretches of the Amazon and the Pantanal wetlands. The implications for the health of the Amazon system itself, great regulator of the global climate, are clear; removing large sections of this highly photosynthetic biome only to replace them with pasture for methane-belching beasts is self-evidently highly irrational—in keeping with dominant trends. Beyond these threats, the Amazon, like its adjoining cerrado grassland biome, is further imperiled by the expansion of mass soy monocultures and agrofuel crops, these being driven by the mass money-making schemes of capital. In his diagnosis of this web of problems, Kozloff is right to emphasize the close relationship these destructive interests have with Brazil’s developmentalist State authorities and to stress the responsibility that Northern international financial institutions bear for having provided funding for these schemes; he is moreover correct to recognize in the reign of cattle-ranchers and agribusiness the unresolved perpetuation of the social inequality and class privilege that has marred Brazil’s historical development. Kozloff’s discussions of the effectively enslaved laborers who carry out the desires of the Brazilian oligarchy and of the MST countercurrent speak to this.

However valuable much of Kozloff’s reporting and analysis may be, there is more to take issue with in No Rain in the Amazon. For one, Kozloff significantly over-represents state ministers and representatives as figures to navigate his exploration of the crisis, with voices from civil soceity largely absent. Brazilian ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is portrayed as a “Third World defender” for resisting notions that Southern societies must not mimic the historical development of the North, when his policies of facilitating the degradation of the Amazon stand greatly and disproportionately to harm Southern peoples through their exacerbation of climate catastrophe—just as China’s capitalist development threatens to worsen the lot of residents of several Pacific island-societies that face annihilation by rising sea-levels. Similarly, Kozloff’s claim that the Obama administration “takes global warming more seriously” than did Bush is now seen to be an entirely absurd one—though it was also foreseeably a false one at the time of the writing of the book. On the other hand, Kozloff does righteously engage in a critique of neo-liberal institutions like the World Bank and IMF as well as of those Northern consumers whose appetites for meat, leather, cocaine, and soy drive much of the destruction observed in Amazonia, and he does at times concede that economic growth and the “free-trade model” are inherently unsustainable. However, at no point does he suggest that corporations be dismantled, that workers and communities take control of production, that capitalism be abolished. The most he can recommend is that the World Bank be reformed and persuaded to finance “alternative development schemes,” that a “Manhattan project for conservation” be undertaken, and that environmentalists continue with the “provocative” traditions of Greenpeace and use of the courts.

In essence, Kozloff holds it to be the politicians and capitalists who are principally to respond to the possibly terminal threats posed by capital-induced climate destabilization. In his conclusion, he claims that “international capital is [itself] going to have to radically rethink its entire modus operandi” in light of the climate crisis. Here he is rather mistaken; capital, like the State, can offer no resolution to the socio-environmental darkness it promises. Instead, the prospect for the successful aversion of climate catastrophe depends critically on the intervention of the multitudes of subordinated humans who consciously and convivially unite their collective efforts against the mindless destructiveness of the capitalist system. Toward this end, Kozloff’s stress on the need for a greater sense of urgency and the related exercise of solidarity among Northerners with Southerners are key.

To close, then, as Kozloff does No Rain in the Amazon, citing an Arhuaco elder: global capitalism is “waging a war on the earth [and its peoples], and it must stop!”


1Bill McKibben, Eaarth (Times Books, 2010); Mark Lynas, Six Degrees (National Geographic, 2008) and The God Species (Fourth Estate, 2011)

2Damian Carrington, “Mass tree deaths prompt fears of Amazon ‘climate tipping point,’” The Guardian, 3 February 2011

Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression

February 8, 2012

A partial and incomplete review

“I, the man of color, want only this: That the tool never possess the man [sic]. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever.” — Fanon

Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan’s Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression examines the contributions of black Martiniquan medical doctor and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) to the study of psychology, with a particular emphasis on the radical critique Fanon’s work and life has made as regards established psychology’s relationship with subjects other than privileged Euro-Americans. Typical of mainstream psychology for Bulhan is Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, a South African psychologist who would go on to become Minister of Native Affairs, leader of the Nationalist Party, and later Prime Minister of the Apartheid regime. These brutal tendencies are counterposed by Bulhan to those advanced by Fanon, who in contrast is said to have evinced a “relentless commitent to the cause of justice and liberty on behalf of the oppressed and the colonized” by means of his published works—principal among them The Wretched of the Earth, A Dying Colonialism, and Toward the African Revolution—and his radical-humanist clinical work in Martinique and subsequently in Algeria. Bulhan’s book is thus in part an exploration and denunciation of the “historical complicity of Euro-American psychology in global oppression” but crucially also a celebration of the emancipatory potentialities of humanist psychology.

Bulhan begins by noting the glaring tendency among many practitioners of psychology to overlook the basic fact that so many humans suffer material deprivation and hence go without the basic necessities for life. “It is by no means insignificant,” he writes, “that about 800 million of the world’s population, nearly one-fifth of humanity, is so impoverished as to constitute a global ‘underclass,’ characterized by malnutrition, disasese, and illiteracy, living in squalor.” That so few associated with psychology have concerned themselves with this social devastation is for Bulhan alarming—as it should be for us, for these numbers have only worsened in the past 27 years. From this introductory point, Bulhan goes on to question the extent to which psychology as hegemonically practiced can be said to be universal regarding the human condition, suggesting instead that much of it is “Euro- and class-specific.” Bulhan criticizes mainstream psychology for having been born and developed largely within a white, middle-class male social milieu; he calls into question the tendency of many psychologists to generalize their experiences within this social environment to all of humanity, given self-evidently that this milieu is but “one instance in a universe of diverse human realities.” He writes that this structural reality gives rise to an “imperialism in psychology,” one that effectively excludes “the poor, the dispossessed, the culturally different.” Mirroring critiques made by German critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, Bulhan notes that modern psychology functions to emphasize social control and adjustment of individuals to extant social conditions rather than social change aimed at overturning the very institutions that perpetuate human alienation, madness, and oppression: colonialism, racism, capitalism, and the State, to name a few examples. Mainstream psychology can thus at best serve as little more than a “bandaging operation” to contain the unassimilated.

Channelling Fanon, Bulhan dedicates part of his work to specifically criticizing some of the more prominent fathers of psychology. Sigmund Freud’s findings are in this sense questioned as having emerged from a very particular set of social conditions, those of a sexually repressive Victorian Europe marked by the ascendancy of the social institutions of patriarchy, the nuclear family, and capitalism; Bulhan denounces Freud as an apologist for these, the Freudian critique of sexual repression notwithstanding. Freud is moreover shown to have been dismissive of Europeans emanating from the working classes as well as non-European peoples in general, whom he claimed exercised a “primitive psychology.” Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious is demonstrated as having been influential for Fanon’s own work, but Bulhan takes Jung to task for his expressed views on the purported “racial infection” of Americans of European descent by African-Americans and Native Americans—this in an article that Fanon seems to have overlooked. Bulhan also shows how Fanon considered Alfred Adler’s lack of emphasis on socio-environmental conditions in the development of neurosis and character disorder rather wanting, this despite Adler’s youthful adherence to a socialist politics—hence his affinity in this sense with Fanon. Bulhan claims all three figures to have investigated the psyches of individuals residing within very specific social conditions, those of affluent core societies (and within these societies, bourgeois subjects seem to have been over-represented as cases for investigation). These patients are very far from those who “had not been shaken by the violent ruptures of colonialism”; they are not the ones who would delve into madness as a refuge from racism, as Fanon would observe in his work. In marked contrast to the perspectives and conclusions advanced by Freud, Jung, and Adler, Fanon insisted that human alienation originates in socioeconomic factors on the one hand as well as the internalization of inequity and violent social relations on the other. It would follow that any serious resolution of madness would have to confront these toward the end of dismantling them.

In later chapters of the book, Bulhan examines Fanon’s career as a health professional and practitioner of psychiatry, starting with his early medical work in French-controlled Martinique, a society beset by poverty, poor nutritional outcomes, dysfunctional sanitation systems, and inadequate public health practices. From the outset of his career, Fanon roundly criticized the failures of medical doctors to unequivocably denounce racism and social injustice and work against these realities. In his position as chef de service of the psychiatric Blida-Joinville Hospital in Algeria beginning in 1953—a position that Bulhan rightly notes as having reflected the man’s “radical humanism”—Fanon introduced a set of humane reforms to hospital practices through his banning of straitjackets and chains for patients and his introduction of group-therapy sessions, regular outings, a soccer team, and a newspaper for inmates to express their views. While shocking to much of the hospital staff, these measures on Fanon’s part followed from his rejection of prevailing ideas governing psychiatric practice, for he felt that prolonged incarceration (“second internment”) would merely reinforce sado-masochistic outcomes. Fanon also significantly desegregated the staff of Blida-Joinville and prohibited discrimination based on race. As a medical researcher, moreover, Fanon publicly expressed his opposition to the purported “North African Syndrome” with which many colonial doctors would dismissively diagnose their patients—the syndrome referring to the supposed Algerian and Arab tendency to be lazy and to lie, and hence not to be worthy of proper medical evaluation. Fanon targeted his scholarly efforts particularly at imperialist socio-diagnostical approaches that held Arabs to be genetically inferior and mentally deficient; one of the more egregious such examples was that of A. Porot, head of the Algiers School of Psychology, who claimed that “The Algerian does not have a cerebral cortex […] he is under the dominance of the diencephalon, as one would expect to find in any inferior vertebrae.” Anticipating Edward W. Said’s criticisms of Orientalism, Fanon intuitively understood the function of such approaches, which was to justify colonial rule over the colonized.

Examining the course of Fanon’s life and work, Bulhan comes to consider the question of what the therapist is to do in light of the existence of a social environment that radically undermines human well-being. Part of Fanon’s response to this challenge was his attempt to rescue some of the approaches taken by Algerians themselves to madness; beyond the practical improvements to be had from this move, this celebration of indigenous approaches constituted in Fanon’s eyes part of the struggle for the recovery of dignity denied Arabs by colonial rule. Beyond this, however, Fanon in time came to support and materially assist the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) in its efforts to overthrow French rule in Algeria, resigning from his post at Blida and taking considerable risks to his own person to do so. As Bulhan puts it, “Fanon’s critical inquiry into psychiatry [in time] merged with the highest and most practical critique of domination—namely, the popular struggle for liberation.” This step marked the denouement of Fanon’s criticisms of existing psychological approaches, reflecting his Marxist belief that therapy should aim at restoring freedom to patients in question and the society in which they find themselves. The real context for socio-therapy in this sense is the revolutionary transformation of prevailing social relations—the destruction of the realities that perpetuate impoverishment, subjugation, and attendant alienation (“tears to be wiped away”), in favor of the chance for the development of liberatory possibilities (“men and women, children to be adorned with smiles”).

On Free Radicals

February 6, 2012

NB: Also published on Truthout

With his Free Radicals, British physicist and journalist Michael Brooks seeks principally to provide a counter-narrative to popular interpretations of the scientific world which emphasize science’s predicability, blandness, and affinity with constituted power. He does this by considering a number of examples in the history of science and lives of particular scientists that demonstrate science’s practice often at its heart to be an “anarchic, creative, and radical endeavour.” Against the science of the Pentagon and transnational capital, Brooks in Free Radicals explores some of the important contributions science has granted to the human condition and imaginatively examines some of its current and future potentialities: the work as a whole is a celebration of anarchy and its possibilities as reflected in science as elsewhere—“a call for more scientific anarchy, and for the creation of a culture in which it can thrive.” Toward this end, Brooks recommends that practitioners of science break with the timidity and positivism long associated with the discipline and instead become free, radical scientists who engage publicly with social responsibility in mind, following the Enlightenment tradition of resistance to established irrationalities, one reflected in Immanuel Kant’s invitation for humanity to “have the courage to use [its] reason,” or mind—as in the note comprising Carl Sagan’s dedication to his nephew in The Demon-Haunted World, wishing as it does that the child be allowed the chance to live in a world “free of demons and full of light.”

For Brooks, the practice of science can be anarchically subversive, rejecting conventional methods and relations. This is seen clearly in Brooks’ examination of the case of Kary Mullis, recipient in 1993 of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, who claims his use of LSD to have been seminal in his general understanding of the subject, and particularly for his breakthrough discovery of the polymerase chain reaction, a biotechnological method used to mass-reproduce given DNA strains. Such a revelation—shocking, perhaps, to those for whom science is a field marked by routineness and discipline—continues in Brooks’ investigation of the claim that famed biological investigator Francis Crick had been high on LSD when he and James Watson discovered the structure of DNA in 1953; as an adherent to the scientific method, though, Brooks ultimately concludes that he cannot know whether this was the case or not, due to contradictory reports and lack of evidence. The author does however relate that Crick was a proponent of the legalization of cannabis and an opponent of the British monarchy as an institution. Similar to Mullis and potentially Crick, mathematician Ralph Abraham is shown to claim LSD to have been central to the development of chaos theory, fractal geometry, and computer science. These three cases call to mind the psychological research of William James, who carried out experiments under the influence of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), following from his belief, as Brooks notes, that normal consciousness is “but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it […] there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different”—ones that should be accounted for in the quest for understanding the self and the world. Indeed, these examples correlate well with one of the projects engaged in by German critical theorist Walter Benjamin, for he sought through his drug protocols to observe the potential which he theorized intoxication by various narcotics could have for the development of non-conformist, anti-systemic sensibilities and consciousness.1

Apart from uncovering the role altered consciousness seemingly played in the progression of scientific discovery during the twentieth century, Brooks importantly situates scientific inquiry as generally relating to the anarchy of intellectual investigation. Brooks’ prime example in this sense is that of biologist Lynn Margulis, who famously generated the Endosymbiont theory, which stipulates that the rise of photosynthetic and nonphotosynthetic eukaryotic cellular life originated in the merging of a given host cell with prokaryotic cells that over time came to function as mitochondria and chloroplasts within their hosts—thus reminding us of the common ancestry of all complex life, a discovery that may well have significant implications for solidarity among humans with other life-forms. In this sense the Endosymbiont theory is similar to the lessons to be gleaned from genetics and phylogeny, which demonstrate the great similarities among humans and other non-human animals, particularly primates. Brooks finds the ultimate success of Margulis’ theory to have been intimately connected with her anarchical commitment to truth and her concomitant struggles against previously established approaches to the evolution of life, ones that resulted in her proposed revisions to evolutionary theory being rejected numerous times and her research funding continually threatened. As Brooks writes, Margulis “had to be an anarchist” to possess the tenacity and resolve to defy the scientific establishment and have her theory finally be accepted. As with Galileo and countless other critical thinkers, these anarchical results follow from the work of creative inquiry, the autonomous exercise of the human mind. Thought as the basis of mind underpins all progress in terms of human knowledge—from advances made by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in microbiology to that in politics and ethics by such figures as Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, Noam Chomsky, and numerous other humanists.

In a sense betraying the intellectual spirit of the figures he investigates in Free Radicals, Brooks is at times lazy and disingenuous with his definitions of anarchy and anarchism. For example, it is questionable that Galileo’s extramarital sexual relations with his lover Marina Gamba foreshadowed the devastating conflicts he would have with the Church, as the author of Free Radicals half-jokingly claims. Brooks moreover is wrong to consider “anarchic” the myriad ways in which scientists have engaged in blatant fraud to advance results; the Machiavellian means he explores by which many researchers have manipulated data to promote their careers cannot be said to reflect anarchy, as Brooks suggests. The author would seem to confuse the aggressive, competitive, and egotistical impulses advanced by science’s embeddedness within capitalist social relations with anarchism, a philosophy based on mutual aid and rejection of domination. His worst lapse in this sense is his treatment of Werner Forssmann, a German medical researcher who came to invent the cardiac catherization procedure by means of rather unconventionally attempting it on himself: Brooks claims him to have “promulgat[ed]” anarchy of a “darker hue” in his subsequent role as Surgeon General of the Nazi regime, a position he infamously used to perform horrific medical experimentation on prisoners. There can be nothing remotely anarchic in such acts; anarchy is not simply scandal or the rejection of established limits, against Brooks’ implications. Not all expressions of the repressed should be considered rational or humane—that is to say, anarchic. The author’s own lack of commitent to an anarchist politics is seen well in his uncritical discussion of inventor Stanford Ovshinsky, who on the one hand is praised for his unorthodox entrance into the world of science and his rejection of material gain, yet is not questioned over his complicity with U.S. imperialism: the advantage his efficiency-improving lathe granted U.S. artillery in the Korean War is described as having “saved the lives of US soldiers in Korea,” and not as having dealt death to countless Koreans. Brooks’ formulation of the scientific discoveries that allowed for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—that is, humanity’s coming to “understand the interplay between mass and energy”—as having been used to “make the world a better place” is simply stunning. It is consonant with his more general omissions on militarism and racism—two projects with which science has self-evidently been noxiously intertwined.

These significant lapses on Brooks’ part notwithstanding, Free Radicals nonetheless importantly reminds us of the effective social anarchism engaged in by a number of notable dissident scientists throughout the history of science: Carl Sagan, for example, in his public research on nuclear weapons and his activism in favor of nuclear disarmament, in addition to his general public engagement as an advocate for science and lifetime education; Rachel Carson, through her denunciations of modernity’s devastation of the non-human world in Silent Spring, as elsewhere; and climatologist James Hansen, who famously has been arrested on multiple occasions protesting mountain-top removal coal-mining, as follows from his findings regarding the measures that must be taken if young people, future generations, and terrestrial nature generally considered are to enjoy climatic conditions amenable to high levels of biodiversity and generalized human flourishing—however distant or even “utopian” all the ends sought by such critical scientists are from presently dominant relations. In addition to contemplating these luminaries, Brooks could have explored the political commitments of a number of other scientist-activists who have researched and attempted to organize against world-destructive practices and hegemonic unreason: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chemist Linus Pauling, Albert Einstein, and mathematician Bertrand Russell, for example. It is unfortunate that Brooks fails to discuss or even mention the libertarian-socialist views of the latter two, seen in Russell’s denunciations of the Vietnam War and Einstein’s enthusiasm for ‘primitive’ organic societies and his advocacy of council communism, as in their joint 1955 Manifesto calling for nuclear disarmament.2 Indeed, in this sense Brooks could have done well to have reflected on the anti-capitalist response given by Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, to Edward R. Murrow’s question regarding whether the vaccine could be said to have an owner: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Reading Free Radicals and utilizing information about radical scientists not considered in it, we are confronted with a fine collection of agitational, oppositional intellectuals and thinkers who have employed their reason to warn humanity of the myriad dangers posed to its life—and that of much else that lives on Earth—by prevailing social forms, and who have in addition promoted collective political action as a means of resolving and averting such dangers. Through their example these investigators have dutifully observed Sagan’s call for scientists to “alert the public to possible dangers, especially those emanating from science or foreseeable through the use of science.” It is in this sense that these critical thinkers continue in the example of the historical exercise of the Copernican theory against the constituted Church—in the anarchy Brooks rightly identifies as having been brought to light in Barcelona in 1936, when masses of subordinated workers, female and male, engaged in the “removal of the ruling classes.”

It is in Brooks’ passing mention of the experience of twentieth-century Spanish anarchism that he provides a compelling image of the end toward which reason strives. The progression of scientific knowledge, the exercise of mind, can serve anarchy, or revolutionary social change; science and anarchy can be seen to be metaphorically symbiotic, with the former helping to provide objective assessments of the dire need for socio-political transformation, and the latter seeking to institute socio-political action commensurate with these diagnoses. To turn to the perhaps most urgent such question, an understanding of the physics and chemistry behind climatology coupled with an awareness regarding the presently catastrophic carbon-emissions trajectory being impelled by global capitalism demonstrates the imperative for social revolution, as Professor Minqi Li claims3—one that follows from Theodor W. Adorno’s posited imperative to avert the recurrence of the Shoah or anything similar, as from Kant’s categorical imperative regarding the treatment of humanity as an end in itself. This demand for revolution is a call for the generalized exercise of thought and of solidarity, one inclusive of the multitudes of Southerners threatened by climate destruction, as of the millions of non-human species similarly imperiled. Such a politics of solidarity—one arising out of sympathy and love for that which is vulnerable to reigning social forms, which is all life—can rightly in the present only be anti-systemic, or anarchist. Capital and the state—the agents responsible for war, genocide, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, and looming climate catastrophe—are self-evidently still ascendant; the past has not been overcome.

Still, there is a chance that it be overcome, as can be observed in the irruptions gripping Egypt, Mexico, the U.S., China, and beyond—as is reflected in the everyday utopian strivings of art and social life, as Ernst Bloch and others assert.4 One of the many tasks today would be to institute new forms of scientific investigation and application, ones that would be employed, as Aldous Huxley advocates, as though “they had been made for [humanity], not… as though [humanity] were to be adapted and enslaved to them.” This task is the work of the critical, radical social movements presently developing throughout the globe. Taking aim at social destructiveness, the revolutionary practitioners of this ‘new science’ should not seek solely to benefit humanity, as critical as that end itself is, but rather life as a whole—Eros, as Herbert Marcuse puts it.5 Brooks’ review of scientific anarchy shows us that this is an ongoing struggle, one at times hidden but always present as a potentiality for reason-bearing humanity. This struggle must be carried forward, its traditions advanced and continued.


1Walter Benjamin, On Hashish (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006).

2Albert Einstein,“Why Socialism?” Monthly Review, 1949.

3Minqi Li, “Climate Change and the Imperative for Social Revolution,” 7 March 2010.

4Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986 [1959]).

5Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).