Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression

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”).

One Response to “Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression”

  1. Wolfhart, psychiatrist on line Says:

    Wolfhart, psychiatrist on line…

    […]Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression « Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism[…]…

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