Does humanistic psychology support the capitalist status quo?


A recent article published in AWRY: Journal of Critical Psychology provides a response to humanistic psychology from a Buddhist psychological and psychoanalytical perspective. The authors argue that the beliefs and practices that underpin humanistic psychology do little to combat the capitalist “managerialism” of contemporary psychology. They present Buddhist psychology and (Lacanian) psychoanalysis as alternatives to the humanistic approach, which they believe supports the current socio-economic and political status quo.

“In a quest to make the world look like a neoliberal (“Euspychian”) ideal, humanistic psychology uses the same kinds of frivolous “self-care” techniques that Zizek warned are in vogue for professionals and managers alike. who try to squeeze every ounce of added value out of the labor of the workers they exploit,” say Benjamin Ramey and Rivers Fleming.
“Instead of working for material improvements in the lives of working people and oppressed people, humanistic psychologists have built programs where, for example, individuals of different opinions are invited to come together and talk about the feelings evoked on difficult topics such as racism and police violence.”

Humanistic psychology is sometimes presented as a more humane alternative to the status quo reliance of psychology and psychiatry on drugs and coercive forms of “cure” sometimes tied to capitalist economic imperatives.

Humanistic psychology, which emphasizes viewing each person as having inherent worth and dignity, confronts both the limits and potentials of the human condition. It seems to have something to offer its finicky, technocratic cousins.

However, some believe that humanistic psychology has too easily been either co-opted by or from the beginning complicit in a consumer capitalist society that focuses on self-improvement/self-actualization and can sometimes lead to results. “happier”. easier to exploit workers.

There are of course exceptions, such as social critic and humanist thinker Erich Fromm, among many other humanist and existential thinkers who would likely challenge the way humanist ideals have been deployed in contemporary psychology.

It could also be argued that many progressive practices in psychology/psychiatry, such as Open Dialogue, Soteria Houses, the work of RD Laing and other anti-psychiatrists, the Hearing Voices Network, etc., all have some influence from humanist thought.

This article presents a critique of specific developments in the field of humanistic psychology, in particular linking contemporary humanistic ideals to those of neoliberal capitalism. They present psychoanalysis and Buddhist psychology as potentially valid alternatives that could provide some degree of resistance to the psychological demands of neoliberalism and the capitalist market.

Ramey and Fleming give a brief history of humanistic psychology, beginning with its beginnings in the thinking of humanists Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. They claim that the movement grew out of a dissatisfaction with the “dehumanizing” elements of psychoanalysis and, ironically, the pessimistic aspects of existential thought and psychotherapy – ironic because existentialism has always influenced humanistic psychology.

They criticize Maslow, particularly his social engineering ideals, which quickly left the academic and clinical realm and took root in the business world. Here he applied his thinking to, according to the authors, “make the workers happy and docile so that capital can exploit them more efficiently”.

As for Rogers, they claim that he developed a clinical method based on recognizing the other person’s essential goodness through certain conditions, such as unconditional positive regard, congruence/authenticity and empathy. The end goal here was a path to “self-realization”, or the person realizing their highest ideals and potentials based on an idealized version of self.

The authors are quick to point out that the kind of psychoanalysis that humanistic psychologists considered “dehumanizing” was actually not based on Freud himself, but on how psychoanalysis came to be taken up as “ego psychology.” in the USA.

Here, the focus was on developing a robust and healthy ego, which the authors say removed much of the reverence for the enigmatic and sometimes irrational nature of the unconscious as Freud conceived of it – centered on an “ecstatic” form of reason with included poetry, imagination, and more. According to them, the psychology of the self also contained elements of conformity and adaptation to the capitalist consumer society, which emphasized a “technical” form of reason.

In fairness, the authors distinguish between the roots of humanistic psychology – existentialism and phenomenology – and humanistic psychology itself. They cite the eminent existential psychologists Rollo May and Irvin Yalom as pointing out a gap between the “egocentric” humanistic psychology of the “human potential movement” of the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary humanistic psychology, and the existential and phenomenological roots of Humanism. psychology.

They note that Rollo May was a great admirer of Freud, although he ultimately thought that Freudian ideas had their limits. May also criticized mainstream psychology’s emphasis on “tricks” and “technique” rather than paying attention to the whole person in all the complexity of their lived experience:

“TThe gimmick approach, May thought, breeds boredom and the mass production of a new set of interventions designed to address a complaint and increase consumer satisfaction with therapy services.

Against the idealized egocentrism of humanistic psychology and the conformism of psychoanalytic psychology of the ego, the authors oppose two alternatives: Buddhist psychology and a version of psychoanalysis based on Freud and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

Buddhist psychology, they argue, opposes ego enhancement, running counter to the “self-improvement” or “self-actualization” paradigm of humanistic psychology. They present this approach as an alternative to self-centeredness, which can easily fall into the trap of consumer capitalism.

More centrally, the authors focus on a renewed vision of psychoanalysis from Freud and Lacan. They quote Lacan:

“The American sphere has so summarily degenerated into a means of obtaining ‘success’ and a mode of demanding ‘happiness’ that it must be emphasized that this constitutes a denial of psychoanalysis.”

For Ramey and Fleming, as for Lacan, the goal of psychoanalysis is not some kind of instrumental tinkering with isolated symptoms with the promise of self-improvement – associated with American consumer society and the psychology of the ego – but a focus on the “fault lines” of the subjectivity of the person and the emphasis on taking charge of one’s destiny, “whatever the events to which one has been subjected”.

The authors conclude:

“We find our critiques of humanistic psychology particularly relevant to the current political climate in the United States. Humanistic psychology developed in the mid to late 20e century through a particular diversion from existential psychotherapy, which was nurtured in the distinctly narcissistic capitalist milieu of the United States, and its goals of self-realization lend themselves to the dictates of the professional and managerial class in the service of capitalism.
We have shown how the theories and goals of humanistic psychology deviated wildly from the founding developments of existential psychology – just as the psychology of the ego deviated from the work of Freud – and we provided a Buddhist critique of the main objective of humanistic psychology, namely the objectification and improvement of a self that putatively progresses along a teleological path towards a kind of “wholeness”.


Benjamin, R. & Fleming, R. (2022). A response to humanistic psychology. AWRY: A Journal of Critical Psychology, 3(1), 161-173. (Link)


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