Review: The Therapy Industry – Paul Maloney

This is a review of Paul Maloney’s book criticising the Therapy Industry. Maloney is a practising clinical psychologist. His criticisms of therapy are those of someone who is engaged in clinical practice in the NHS. This grounding makes for a different kind of criticism than the kind based on cultural analysis, for example, that of Jeffrey Masson. For example; unlike Masson Maloney is quite willing to take up and examine the (inevitable) ‘studies’ which have found that ‘therapy works’ (See Chapter 4). He criticizes these from the point of view of clinical psychology.

The following is a brief summary of each of the chapters in the book together with some commentary where relevant.


Maloney sets the stage for his criticism:

These specialists [from the clinic to TV programmes] seek to persuade us that our troubles stem, not from the world in which we live, but from our lack of insight into ourselves and from our failure to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do. All might be well if their ideas were better grounded in science than their forerunners from even 50 years ago. The main task of this book is to show that this is not the case.

Maloney indicates that therapy is, like psychiatry, a ‘medicine’ for the individual. It is more seductive. It appears to take account of human subjectivity in a way which the bio-chemical model of psychiatry does not. To some extent it is free of the cruelly stigmatizing labels of psychiatry – linked at they are to a drug racket. But it remains a kind of ‘medicine’ aimed at ‘sick’ people. Absent from therapeutic discourse is any serious acknowledgement of social and economic conditions in which people find themselves and from which they have little practical prospect of escape. Many people are distressed because they have been abused. Therapy pays only lip-service to this reality. By ignoring social and economic factors therapy, even if only inadvertently, is an ideal ideology for the neo-liberal project which emphasizes ‘personal freedom’ – a ‘freedom’ – which means, in reality, huge wealth for a few, a high level of wealth for a number, and a life of precarious economic insecurity for millions.

Maloney also notes that the theories of psychotherapy and psychiatry – while presented as ‘science’ can readily be seen to be fads moving in relation to market conditions and demands for their services. (In passing an example of this is how the psychiatric profession has handled homosexuality. In the 1950s psychiatry assured everyone – with the authority of science – that homosexuals were dangerous degenerates who should not be allowed near children. Contemporary psychiatry assures everyone – with just the same claim to be speaking from a scientific research base – that all the evidence is that homosexual couples make just as good parents as heterosexual ones. Psychiatry has just adapted to market conditions out of its own self-interest).

This is a good start.

Part 1 – Evaluating Psychological Techniques

Chapter 1. Misery, Mind Cures and Fashion

In this chapter Maloney presents a whirlwind tour of the history of the talking cures from the 1700s to the present day. He discusses how Freud’s ideas became the foundation for subsequent developments in psychotherapy. He notes (as other writers such as Webster have done) that Freud’s claims for the efficacy of his treatments were largely fake. He discusses the competition (or perhaps more usually collusion) between psychiatry with its biological theories for mental distress and clinical psychologists with their adherence to technical competence and testing. He discusses more recent developments such as ‘person centred therapy’ (based on psychoanalytic ideas but placing greater emphasis on the ‘warmth’ of the therapist), and CBT. Maloney notes how all the different schools which now prevail politely gloss over their differences – hiding the theoretical contradictions which exist. He notes how all modern therapy grounds itself in two principles; a claim to have ‘regard for the client’ and an insistence on allegiance to a ‘professional’ body of some kind. The latter is simply an attempt to generate an aura of credibility and legitimacy.

Our only criticism of this chapter is that Maloney seems to be quite kind to modern psychotherapists and counsellors when he says for example that “many psychotherapists hold medical or other postgraduate degrees”. In reality – there is no requirement for them to do so and many  (perhaps the majority?) don’t. Therapy training schools do not typically have academic entry requirements. When these people do hold (and often flaunt) their post-graduate qualifications they are often in unrelated or only partially related fields – such as social work. That is; these people are not academically qualified to do what they are doing. Maloney’s picture may be influenced by the fact that he works in an NHS setting and so the counsellors and therapists with whom he comes into contact are perhaps those who have come into the ‘profession’ from more medical or clinical routes.

Chapter 2. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

In this chapter Maloney discusses psychiatry – the profession which remains at the apex of mental health ‘treatment’.

Maloney notes how the handbook of the American Psychiatric Association, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, is highly influential in determining treatment in the West. The number of ‘illnesses’ has grown with each edition. The ‘illnesses’ are determined by Committees of (chiefly) psychiatrists. The problem of causation (which would be the scientific test) is simply sidestepped – the manual avoids the question altogether.

Maloney offers a brief and obvious criticism of psychiatry. Psychiatric conditions are invented. There is no biological test for a psychiatric condition. (Compare measles where a diagnosis of measles can always be verified by a lab test for a specific virus). The drugs often create medical problems. The ‘chemical imbalance’ theory which is often cited in support of various psychiatric classification categories is at best a theory. Claims for the chemical imbalance theory often rely on experiments which show that lowered disturbance is associated with a drug-induced increase or decrease in a particular chemical in the brain. But these experiments show correlation and not causation. Maloney also cites evidence that long-term use of psychoactive drugs can impair mental functioning. Intriguingly he also cites WHO studies which show better prospects for ‘schizophrenic’ individuals in Nigeria and India than in the West; possibly because in these poorer countries there is both less drug treatment and also more possibility for some continued economic and social role for the severely distressed.

Maloney discusses how in psychiatry the diagnostic categories are created in order to sell the drugs. There was little diagnosis of ‘depression’ until the discovery of the antidepressant properties of certain compounds was discovered. Now the ‘disorder’ of depression turns out to be so widespread that (according to Maloney) one in ten Americans over the age of 6 are on antidepressants. The ‘research literature’ is manipulated to only show a few successful trials. Unsuccessful trials are quietly sidelined. Pharma has insidiously built a network of financial interests with psychiatry. At any event this is not strictly necessary; the professional prestige of psychiatrists over say psychologists depends on their license to prescribe drugs. Psychiatry’s lifeblood is ‘mental disorders’ which can be ‘treated’ pharmaceutically.

Maloney discusses how psychiatric diagnostic categories faithfully keep up with changing social fashions. For example; in an age of celebrity culture and where team-work is everything ‘shyness’ has moved from an allowable character eccentricity to being a treatable disorder; ‘social anxiety disorder’. PTSD – originally conceived of to help Vietnam veterans can now be ‘diagnosed’ (even it seems by psychotherapists) for minor stressful events.

Maloney reviews the shaky basis for the autism and ASD labels and suggests that one function of the ASD label (‘Asperger’s Syndrome” or Higher Functioning Autism) is a subtle reminder to people to keep up with the expectations in the modern workplace for ’emotional literacy’. Thus the psychiatric label has a similar function to the campaign to stigmatize people collecting unemployment benefit. These are all pressures to confirm to the requirements of the neoliberal economy. Maloney also notes the wide prevalence of ADHD drugging. ADHD is another diagnostic category of psychiatry which has no basis in physical science. (Beyond studies which post-hoc produce statistical correlations between various physical factors including quite a small genetic correlation). [1] Boys are far more likely to attract an ADHD label than girls. (A factor, incidentally, which is completely at variance with the attempts to claim the “ADHD is a genetic disorder”). Maloney suggests that the feminisation of modern schooling (and indeed the fact that it is very middle-class) with its emphasis on neat ordered conduct and careful regulation of anger and spontaneity is one of the social factors behind the ADHD diagnosis.

In this chapter Maloney makes two important points. The first is that arguing against mental health labelling is not callous. He acknowledges that in some cases a label can be useful – at least it can help someone gain access to support. But, overall; he suggests in a more tolerant and compassionate society it would not be necessary to label every last difference. The second is that he notes that one factor in the medicalisation of mental distress is that social (e.g. abuse of children) and economic factors (such as poverty) are elided from the picture. This is not entirely accidental.

Chapter 3. The ‘CEO of Self’…?

Maloney explains that our ability to accurately analyse and report on our own mental states is more limited than we might think. He cites some psychological studies in support of this view. This is an obvious problem for the ‘talking cures’ – which depend on the idea that people can accurately report on (and even ‘work with’) their internal states and mental processes. He also suggests that mental processes are too personal and subjective to be subject to the kind of quantitative statistical analysis that the social sciences like to produce. Ratings scales of, for example, anxiety; are essentially meaningless – because my sense of anxiety is not the same as yours. Rather than admit to this essential lack of self-knowledge people invent stories and accounts. Therapy works with these invented accounts. We can see that this will achieve nothing.

Maloney then critiques the idea that success in life is due to ‘personal will-power’. In doing so he is exposing the sordid link between psychotherapy (very largely an American invention in its current incarnation) and extreme free-market capitalism. In reality a more accurate determinant in personal success is social background. Capitalism prefers the ‘personal will-power’ theory because this justifies and permits inequality. If success or otherwise in life is a matter of personal willpower then there is no need to question existing social arrangements and inequalities. Therapists rarely discuss social and economic pressures.

Maloney offers a specific criticism of CBT. He cites studies which have found that people with a moderately depressive outlook have been found to score higher than those with a ‘healthy’ outlook in terms of whether or not their thinking is anchored in reality. Furthermore; studies which measure ‘improvement’ in patients undergoing CBT suggest that the improvement is greatest in the early period of the treatment – during the phase when the patient and therapist are getting to know each other and before any techniques have been applied. This is interesting because it supports the idea that human solidarity is what is missing from peoples’ lives and that finding this, even in a somewhat clinical relationship, is helpful. Maloney also cites a meta-study of CBT [2] which provides evidence that the most useful part of CBT is not the cognitive part but the behavioural part – where clients are encouraged to make some change in the external world, for example, make new friends or get a new job.

Ultimately; Maloney criticises the notion of free-will exercised by an autonomous agent. This notion is at the fount of all forms of therapeutic intervention. The idea is that this autonomous agent of free-will (the ‘CEO of self’) exists and is just waiting a nudge or kick from the therapist to make it burst into life. (This is a thoroughly American idea). As Maloney comments the ‘CEO of self’ is an idea derived from the idea of God. This is a somewhat Nietzschean critique. Man has first invented God and then has the hubris to imagine that he is ‘like God’. But such an idea, for a unitary and autonomous self with the power to act as first-cause, is not supported by an observation of biological reality. In a further parallel with Nietzsche Maloney suggests that the ‘self’ is in fact a post-hoc creation. We build up the idea of a controlling self after the events. We constantly adjust our own self-accounts of our actions in order to preserve the illusion of a unitary self and free-will

In this chapter then Maloney argues that there are two fundamental assumptions at the basis of the talking cure. One is that our mental processes can be accurately verbalised and thus ‘worked with’. The other is that there is such a thing as an autonomous agent to ‘do the work’. Both assumptions are false. Maloney cites various psychological studies as supporting his criticisms, for example, studies which can show that in some situations people can develop beliefs about having controlled situations which they palpably have not.

It seems that Maloney may be more familiar with CBT than with psychoanalysis. For CBT it is a disaster if we accept that people cannot offer accurate self-accounts. But this is not a disaster for psychoanalysis. A psychoanalyst would certainly respond to the first point, the argument that people offer distorted and made-up self-accounts, by accepting that it is true that no ‘true’ account of a person’s motives is readily accessible. But for the psychoanalyst this would not mean that the project – of working with ‘inner contents’ was not viable. Rather; they would make this the point of the ‘treatment’.  They would argue that the treatment works in this inchoate world of hazy self-accounts (via interpretation of symbols and unconscious mistakes) to move the patient towards a more accurate narrative than the one they at first produced (and thus cure their symptoms). Maloney does not appear to offer a criticism of this view. (We would offer the criticism that this practice depends on putting the client into a regressed state and that this is fundamentally unhealthy. Furthermore; this view is historically derived from 19th century ideas about correcting the morally wrong views of madmen. For most people this approach is neither applicable nor helpful. A slight tendency to produce self-serving narratives is ‘normal’ and not at the root of their problems in the world). Maloney does, however, point out that even Freudian analysis depends on the idea of an autonomous self who can change. This is ultimately a moral idea – and has its roots in 19th century psychiatry which. Foucault has pointed out that psychiatry dressed up a moral project in the language of science. [3] We can see the origins of these kinds of ideas – of individual moral responsibility – in a concrete historical moment. Freud was interested in Charcot’s work with hypnotism of ‘hysterics’ in the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris and this formed a part of the development of Freud’s psychoanalytical theories. Richard Webster has argued Charcot’s case-studies were characterised by a willingness on Charcot’s part to ignore physical explanations – such as brain injuries caused by accidents – in favour of purely psychological explanations relating to trauma. [4] The majority of Charcot’s patients at the Salpêtrière were woman. Elaine Showalter argues that these women were being fitted into a male and patriarchal vision of ideal femininity. There crime was not to fit into this world. She supports her case by an analysis of hospital photographs taken of the ‘hysterical’ women in various classical poses [5]. In any event; what appears to be missing from Charcot’s theories is any idea of the social and economic or even, if Webster is correct, simply the physical condition, of his patients. From the start psychiatry and thus psychotherapy is a project with an institutional a priori tendency to exclude the social and economic context of the ‘patient’. For example; while Charcot was concerned about ‘hysteria’ is male railway workers who had suffered accidents it is likely that a more effective preventative remedy would have been to improve safety so that these accidents did not occur.

Chapter 4. Does Therapy work?

In this chapter Maloney discusses whether or not therapy ‘works’. He engages with a body of literature which attempts to answer this question, that is social science studies of cohorts of people in therapy. Maloney notes that these kinds of studies have superseded the early case studies. These early studies were, Maloney notes, subject to bias. Webster is one modern author who has shown conclusively that early claims for success for psychoanalysis were faked; for example an other early progenitor of psychiatry, and a colleague of Freud, was Josef Breuer. Bruer presented a case study about a patient known as Anna O. Webster, and other authors, have shown that the claims that all Anna O’s symptoms were cured was false. [4]

Maloney notes that early studies in the 1930s and 1940s showed that 2/3s of people in therapy improved. This was initially claimed as a success until the behaviouralist critic of psychoanalysis Hans Eysenk showed that such patterns of ‘remission’ were also found in groups not undergoing treatment. This points to the main point about modern psychotherapy. The problems it ‘treats’ are part of the normal stuff of life and are problems which people move on from in the normal course of living. (An example would be ‘bereavement’. Bereavement is one of the numerous ‘conditions’ which modern therapeutic literature claims to offer help with. The fact is that people who have lost a loved one will feel terrible for a time. And the fact is that after about two years, or some similar period, they will begin to feel better about it. When therapy claims to offer to ‘treat’ bereavement and claims successes this is simply a fraud. They are exploiting the fact that people will ‘get better’ on their own accord anyway in time. The same can be said of almost all the ‘conditions’ which modern therapy claims to ‘treat’. Seen in this light it is perhaps amazing that anyone falls for therapy. But therapy takes advantage of the fact that many people experiencing the targeted condition will be doing so for the first time in their lives. To them it may seem an insurmountable problem which they will never get over).

Maloney accepts the challenge posed by studies which claim to show that therapy is effective. These studies use the procedures of Randomised Clinical Trials which are used to assess (or produce sales material for, depending on your point of view), new drug treatments. The basic idea is to compare two similar groups with similar ‘symptoms’ one of which receives the treatment and one of which doesn’t. To avoid rater bias raters should be blind to which group is receiving the treatment. As with clinical drug trials some of these studies have been collated in meta-studies which sift all the results from multiple individual studies in order to produce a convincing overall trend. Maloney accepts that such studies of therapy have produced results which show a substantial positive effect for therapy. However, he says, this overall effect is relatively modest – about 6 to 14% in the leading meta-analyses. [6]

Maloney argues that the nature of therapy is such that it is highly susceptible to placebo type effects; these effects generate the positive reporting from clients. Maloney points out that it is practically impossible in practice to deliver a treatment to a control group which they – and the researchers – might believe is therapy. This is not a question of identical pills one of which contains the drug and one of which doesn’t. In most trials then the subjects will know whether or not they were receiving the treatment. There are also structural pressures which promote positive client reports. Therapy has a strong moral undercurrent. There is a strong (albeit perhaps not openly promoted) view in therapy that if the patient does not ‘get better’ that is down to his or her own moral failing. They did not ‘work hard enough on themselves’. In this context it is inevitable that patients – who are always at a disadvantage in terms of the power balance in the relationship – tend to report that the treatment has ‘worked’. Maloney also references research material which acknowledges how in social science and psychology experiments subjects can feel under pressure to report the results which are clearly sought by the researcher. Maloney gives other reasons to exercise skepticism towards the meta-studies which claim to conclusively show that therapy is effective. These include the well-known phenomenon of publication bias (studies which show the desired result are much more likely to be published than those which don’t), preselection of subjects who are likely to believe in the treatment, preselection of subjects with trivial problems thus creating optimum conditions which promote positive results, other methods of creating artificial conditions which are designed to promote the positive result but which do not mirror real-world outpatient circumstances, failure to consider subject drop-out, questionable measurement methodologies, small sample sizes, statistical manipulations used to produce headline grabbing ‘results’, and reliance of interested parties in making the ratings. (All of these problematics will be familiar to anyone who has studied how ADHD drug-trials are rigged in order to produce pro-drugging results [1]). The sum total of these problems mean that the research literature is not credible.

Maloney cites material from within psychotherapy itself which suggests that the ‘warm relationship’ is more important than theory and technique in terms of producing ‘positive outcomes’. He backs this up by citing meta studies which have shown that length of training and therapeutic qualifications do not make any difference to outcome. In one meta study the best results were associated with treatment with the less qualified or amateur therapists rather than the more qualified therapists. There is a meta-study which produces a result that qualifications are associated with better results albeit at a small percentage. But here there was a strong compounding of qualifications and practical experience. As we have seen above much of the study data relies on artificial subject groups. Maloney cites a study [7] which specifically compared real life interventions, comparing a typical ad hoc experience of treatment with a formulated therapy intervention for  a group of American adolescents. No positive benefit was associated with the organised therapy intervention. A smaller-scale replication study also produced the result that a control group who received no intervention at all did as well as those who had received both types of intervention.

Maloney notes that there is a tendency in policy makers and influencers who wish to promote therapy to simply ignore the deficiencies of the ‘evidence-base’. They simply ignore those parts of the evidence which are inconvenient. This approach – that policy goals determine how ‘research’ is reported rather than the other way around; namely that policy is informed by research characterises the relationship between policy and research in contemporary society. (Our own paper on ADHD shows this practice in operation. Already rigged ‘research’ is further massaged into shape by The Royal College of Psychiatrists and then used by NICE to legitimise ADHD drugging, no doubt with a strong nod to the interests of US pharmaceutical companies [1]. The same process can be observed in many other fields of social policy).

Summing up the state of research Maloney notes that the only ‘scientific’ conclusion which can be drawn from the research literature on the effectiveness of therapy is that some degree of personal warmth can assist people. The implication of this is precisely (of course) the one that the therapy industry does not want to hear. It represents an argument for more social solidarity to be shown by each to each other. There is nothing in this research literature which supports a ‘profession’ of specialists in human relations or of experts in ‘events in inner space and time’. [8]

Chapter 5. “I’m not ill, I’m hurt…” – The Hidden Injuries of Social Inequality

The main thesis of this chapter is that the determining factors in experiencing mental distress are environmental and social rather than genetic. They come from without rather than from within. The author highlights sociological and social sciences studies which show links between low income and mental health. He discusses work (by Wilkinson and Pickett) [9] which argues that it is not being poor so much as being relatively poor which contributes to mental ill-health. Most interestingly (and rarely) the author discusses how questions of class can affect mental health. Being an owner – and having power – is a more desirable situation than being a worker with little autonomy and power. Income aside, the argument is, that powerlessness is a key contributory factor in mental ill-health.

To make the argument that mental illness is ’caused’ by environmental and social factors the author first has to dispose of the reverse argument; namely that being poor and being more susceptible to mental illness is a result of genetic factors. In this, genetic view, the reason that people who live in poor areas are found in surveys to be more likely to suffer from mental illnesses than those in richer areas is not the result of the effect of being poor. Rather, the genetically weak, have become ill and have then migrated into the poor areas. (The author discusses this argument in terms of people moving into poor areas in order to camouflage their ‘odd behaviour’. Of course the chain of events could also be: as a result of genetically ’caused’ mental health issues someone loses their well-paid job and is obliged to move into a poorer area. In which case the greater link between living in a poor area and having a mental illness could still be seen to be genetically determined). The author also tackles in general the view that ‘schizophrenia’ (and other psychiatric categories such as ADHD) are primarily ’caused’ by genetic factors. One of the main arguments used by geneticists in this regard is the evidence from twin-studies. The author correctly notes that twin-studies are overplayed. The conclusions drawn depend on a number of assumptions. For example; the ‘equal environments’ assumption assumes that parents will parent identical and fraternal twins identically. But this may not be the case. In general; it is certainly true that the genetic arguments for psychiatric conditions such as ‘schizophrenia’ are massively overstated. For example; geneticists have been promising for years that the gene responsible for schizophrenia will be found. While statistical studies continue to produce statistically meaningful correlations to genetic factors no single genetic causation pathway has been established. The situation is similar with ADHD. With ADHD the genetic correlations appear to be small and no more significant than those for other, purely, perceptual factors – such as the age of young people in a class. [1] At the present time the genetic and ‘biological’ explanation for mental ‘illness’, in general, is characterised by significantly over-stating the available evidence. The preference for a genetic explanation is not supported by the evidence.

However; Maloney does not fully consider the genetic argument which it is possible to make. Aberrations and severe mental illness aside it seems clear that genetic factors are determinant for social class. The children of middle-class parents do not simply rise to the top because of the extra ballet classes that their parents could afford. They rise to the top because they, like their parents, possess the genes which are determinant of qualities which are predictive of success in a competitive society. And, equally, the children of the poor (or relatively poor) do not find themselves trapped in the same socio-economic grade as their parents simply because of how they were brought up. There is a genetic factor at work too; their genes, which they have inherited, are not those which are predictive of the qualities needed to rise to the top of the socio-economic ladder in a competitive modern economy where those with certain intellectual abilities get greater rewards. It may well be that being poor or relatively poor in an unequal society is a determining factor in mental ill-health – but it is possible to argue that there is a genetic basis to social inequality in the first place. This view was prevalent in the 19th century. Essentially it uses the idea of the theory of evolution to explain and justify social inequality.  We mention this point of view because for a complete picture it would be incorrect to exclude the determining role of genetic factors in social inequality (and thus in mental ill-health even if indirectly). That said; this argument – for social inequality from Darwinism – is an ideological post-hoc justification for social inequality which deliberately tries to avoid humanistic frames of reference. It is not a very attractive argument to make. Even if it represents a truth (in a competitive society the strong rise to the top) it doesn’t in fact constitute an argument against the value of creating a fair society.

In the above we have noted that Maloney argues (basing his argument on social sciences surveys) that there is a link between poverty and mental ill-health. He also argues that there is a link between relative poverty and mental ill-health. In this view it is not so much being poor which is a determining factor for mental ill-health but being relatively poor in a society where the ability to blatantly consume material goods and status symbols has become, culturally, the measure of a person’s value. Finally, Maloney presents an argument (again citing social sciences studies) that social class – whether one is a worker with no autonomy or an owner who has power – is determinant of mental ill-health. It is rare to see a link made to mental ill-health and powerlessness. However; on the face of it it seems highly plausible that that being in a position of powerlessness (regardless of actual income) could be a contributory factor to mental ill-health. While Maloney does not make the argument explicit, at least in this chapter, the implication of showing that there is a correlation between mental ill-health and relative poverty and economic powerlessness is that the solution to the present crisis in mental health is not more pills or more counselling but a social and political change. In making this argument (which he does in effect) Maloney is diametrically opposed to the whole trend of modern ‘treatments’ for mental ill-health. There are two industries at work here; on the one hand the psychiatric-pharmaceutical alliance and, on the other, the psychotherapy industry. Both propose explanations for mental ill-health which eschew social and political questions. Both are, essentially, neo-liberal (or capitalist) projects. At the risk of an over-simplification; they aim to make money out of the distress caused by capitalism. But the ‘root cause’ of the distress may be capitalism itself.

The one omission from this chapter we would argue is that when he mentions the studies which show an ever-growing incidence of ‘mental-illness’ in the West Maloney does not give full consideration (he gives some when he mentions how surveys can be loaded) to the way in which the mental health crisis is simply concocted by people who are selling the ‘treatments’. In a world of supply and demand demand can be stimulated and the demand for mental health treatments can be created in the same way that the demand for sweet fizzy drinks can be created. If you tell people often enough that they need it they will accept it. (Especially if at the same time they can partially have a real need met e.g. for attention from someone in a perceived position of authority).

Essentially; we accept the thesis of this chapter, as given in the title, that being relatively poor in a stratified consumerist society is itself a source of hurt. And this is layered on top of all the stresses which come from being economically insecure, not only unable to afford soothing treats but also suffering from worries about bills and debt as well as being talked down to routinely by officials, supervisors at work and the other indignities which (strangely) it is considered acceptable to inflict on the poor despite all our pretensions to being a democratic society. Genetic factors may play a part in mental ill-health but the greatest factors are social and economic.

Part 2 – Therapy In Society

Chapter 6. Sweet Medicine – Talking Therapy as Control 

Maloney opens this chapter by citing the work of Phillip Rieff and Christopher Lasch. These authors see therapy as representing a cultural shift from a morality based around self-discipline and fulfilling one’s duties to others towards a new morality. In this new morality one’s primary obligation is to oneself – to find personal satisfaction. We can add; in this new system self-discipline is replaced with the new value of ‘openness’ to the therapist. It should be immediately obvious to anyone that simply ‘talking’, however ‘openly’, will achieve precisely nothing. Anything worth achieving requires effort and self-discipline. The lack of effort required in being a client in therapy is a clue to the uselessness of therapy. Furthermore, as the cultural commentator Frank Furedi has noted [10], the alleged “openness” of therapy is really based around a trivialization of emotions. In reality serious people – with serious passions – do not splurge them out at every opportunity. To do so trivialises feelings.

In this chapter Maloney reviews how the fields of education, criminal justice, health (in the form of health psychology), parenting and the management of refugees have all become saturated with an ideology and a practice which uses psychological techniques to attempt to reprogramme individuals to adopt the correct behaviours. (Correct behaviours being which those are good for social order and the elite). Maloney refers to the weak nature of the ‘research’ which is often said to lie behind these programmes. Against this research he offers other research as well as critical cultural studies. To evaluate the series of claims and counterclaims in the research it would be necessary to conduct a thorough review of all the papers cited by Maloney. Such an endeavour is costly in terms of time; and one which can only be done in practice by people who are supported by grants or government salaries. Having said that; Maloney’s claims about the fake nature of the ‘research’ used to support these ‘evidence-based’ interventions certainly ring true for anyone who has delved into the world of ‘research’ produced to support government policy, for example, into research for parenting programmes. Much of this research shows obvious workings to produce the required result. (Our own study of the NICE ADHD policy is a case in point). [1] Of course there may be occasions when a psychological intervention can produce a slight statistical result. Maloney is so focussed on discounting the (no doubt) shady nature of the ‘research’ behind this programme of control by pop psychology that he does not admit that sometimes perhaps psychological interventions (even pop ones) can ‘work’. However; were he to do so he could make the point that even in these cases a ‘result’ does not necessarily justify the programme. – That is these kinds of ‘research’ projects are based on the idea of efficiency. If something ‘works’ it is good. The argument is fallacious. Possibly it could be shown that people in a concentration camp who took CBT classes were ‘happier’ (said so on a survey administered by the guards) that those who didn’t. But, in the end, it would be better not to have concentration camps.

Two other points which are inherent in this piece of work but which Maloney does make explicit in this chapter are the effect of research bias and the underlying economic reasons for this shift towards psychological interventions as being the tool of choice to manage everything from crime and ill-health to poverty. As concerns the literature; is is obvious that the funding for the kind of ‘research’ cited in support of  psychological interventions comes from a hand that is looking for a certain outcome. The ‘researchers’ duly produce what is required of them. (Sometimes one can see an attempt to maintain their own academic credibility – a cautious judgement is included in the text itself but then the headline – which is all the policy-makers are interested in – is fixed to get the right result. This way the researchers can satisfy themselves that they are not prostituting themselves completely and at the same time they can ensure continuing funding. Researchers after all have to eat). Secondly; we see the shift from a welfare policy which at least considered economic and social conditions to one which focusses exclusively on the psyche of the individual as being directly and deliberately about capitalism retrenching itself and cutting costs (so as to maximise returns on capital). Maloney does not make a direct connection to the question of profits. It is however entirely in line with Maloney’s argument to note that this shift represents a move away from a concept of a society which at least partly considers fairness and equality a worthwhile value. In this new world where all problems  – of crime, health, poverty, lack of educational attainment – are explained in terms of psychological deficiencies in the individual there is indeed “no such thing as society”. The shift towards an (apparent) concern for the ‘well-being’ of the individual is a mask for an increasing lack of concern.

Maloney draws this Chapter to a close with a refreshing quote from US academic Elizabeth Throop author of a book critical of psychotherapy [11]. Maloney is discussing how the shift towards psychological explanations for everything from bad health to crime results in interventions which are mostly targeted at the poor. Maloney writes: ‘The implication is that they [the poor] deserve what they get, because they are supposedly deficient in “character, in integrity, in impulse control, when in reality what they are lacking is money”‘. Yes. Say it!

Chapter 7. Theory into Practice – The Programme for Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT)

IAPT is a UK government programme to improve access to psychological therapies. In this Chapter Maloney, who himself works as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, criticises this programme.

The IAPT programme offers a graded level of ‘support’ and CBT style therapy to anyone who requests it. The focus is on ‘treating’ those with ‘mild and moderate depression’. There is an unashamed focus on getting people into employment.

Great successes have been claimed for the programme. However, as Maloney points out, these appear to be based on ‘user-satisfaction surveys’. The surveys are conducted by the practitioner using a questionnaire with their own client. The survey questions are repeated in the same form in each session. This is, as any reasonably astute observer can note, a funnel designed to produce ‘results’. Of course people will say they feel better when asked the same question at the end of each session. Not to do do would be rebellion. Very few people are natural rebels. Furthermore; to say that they do not feel better after several ‘treatments’ – directly in the face of the helper – would feel like they were breaking their connection to their helper, who, despite everything, may be at least some kind of vaguely interested human being in their lives. These questions cannot but be designed to generate the result they claim to have “found”. Yet; many educated and apparently intelligent people will jump up and down and talk about the ‘evidence for success’.

The programme is as Maloney points out a cruel hoax. A cruelty made more obvious when we consider that many of the people who are the intended recipients of this programme live in economically deprived areas of the country.

We would add; as with the whole ’employment training’ scam this is yet another layer of ‘professional’ middle-class jobs being created in the ‘managing people’ section of the economy. While little is done to address structural economic issues.

Chapter 8. The Therapy Market – From the Third Wave to ‘Happiness’

Maloney opens this chapter by pointing out that the therapy industry, both private and the ‘market’ within the NHS is subject to commercial pressures. It is of course blindingly obvious that this is so and therefore that ‘advances’ in psychotherapeutic ‘knowledge’ at the very least need to be strained through a device which can differentiate between marketing matters and genuine ‘knowledge’ (if such exists in the field at all). It says a great deal about what is going on here that people who promote psychotherapy never stop to consider this facet of the ‘knowledge’ on which their industry is based. Therapy is profoundly apolitical. At a profound level it simply accepts the current political and economic status quo. It may even exist specifically with the purpose in mind of distracting people from any possibility of changing their social and economic conditions. Like religion it too may be (quite intentionally) an opiate for the masses.

Maloney reviews the appearance in the therapy scene of ‘mindfulness’. Many modern therapies have hooked ‘mindfulness’ into their offerings. University departments with brain imaging equipment have conducted ‘experiments’ and (with no apparent trace or irony) ‘proved’ that ‘mindfulness works’. All of this adds to the claims that therapy is somehow based on ‘science’. Maloney comments that on the whole when considering physiological measures mindfulness fares no better than relaxation. He acknowledges that there is some evidence for a different effect (MRI scans) for mindfulness as compared to relaxation techniques and then falls back on the defence that mindfulness, (a borrowing from Buddhism), is only effective when practised in connection with “traditions, rituals and the ethics they embody”. In reality Buddhism does not place great stress on ritual and tradition. [12] Though it is the case that the practice of Buddhism requires mindfulness training to be accompanied by ethics and other forms of practice and usually these practices are based on community living. The problem for mindfulness and therapy however may not be so much that it is disconnected from “ritual and tradition” (an entirely Western misunderstanding of Buddhism) but that the form of mindfulness practised is a debased and shallow version of the real thing.

Maloney is no doubt correct that the ‘evidence’ for the efficacy of mindfulness based types of therapy is as connected as that for the more traditional forms (see Chapter 4) – a lack of control groups and tick-box surveys being administered by people giving the ‘treatment’ are some examples he mentions.

Maloney comments that one explanation for ‘mindfulness’ within modern therapy is a marketing one. ‘Mindfulness’ adds a nice allure of something Eastern and mysterious to the offering. (The academics who measure ‘meditation’ and ‘prove that it works’ are of course playing their part in this marketing operation).

Maloney then discusses “positive psychology”. This is a movement which promotes the idea that individuals can do more to increase their own happiness. Maloney comments, citing evidence such as quotations from  a 19th century self-help advocate, that these ideas are not new. The key point about this movement is that it focuses on what the individual can do to “increase their happiness” and thus provides an alibi for a social change. To be fair one leading UK exponent of this school of psychology, Richard Layard does, according to Maloney, also propose social policy action to reduce inequality. Maloney’s strongest criticism of this movement is probably that he points out the intrinsic shallowness of an ideology which believes that virtue, economic security and happiness can all coexist. As Maloney points out a more authentic engagement with life may not lead to ‘happiness’ in the sense intended by positive psychologists. Maloney refers us to Nietzsche, Camus and Voltaire. We would point to Van Gogh as an example of someone who illustrates his point. Van Gogh’s life was probably not a “happy” one by the standards of positive psychology. But he grappled with life’s deepest questions and must, at times, have experienced a sense of meaning or some kind of profound fulfilment. A life which engages with existence may not be “happy” in the sense intended by positive psychology but it may be more real.

In essence happiness has become another commodity. In connection with this idea Maloney remarks that therapy is now replacing pharma as the drug which offers to fix life’s ills.

Positive psychology is blind to the real pressures that people can be under in the workplace. All problems that people have can be fixed by some ‘internal’ change. Or, if therapy acknowledges that there are ‘external’ problems then it claims that by fixing the alleged ‘internal’ problems in the person the person will be better able to deal with the external problems. But this rose-tinted view ignores the real pressures many (below management level of course) feel in the workplace. This reviewer (for example) works in a firm where a hand-scanner has just been installed. Workers have to clock-in and out using this biometric device. The presence of this device which symbolises the complete lack of trust which management has in them and which marks a real a breakdown in relations, a culture of surveillance and a demonstration of power (the managers do not have to present their palms) will impact on the morale and mental health of the staff. No amount of ‘talk therapy’ can do anything about this. If someone takes an assertiveness course and challenges this the most likely outcome is that they will lose their job. This is just a simple example of the kind of real-world problem which causes ‘mental ill-health’ and which therapy has zero to say about. In reality therapy simply ignores this kind of problem. Therapy, as Maloney rightly understands, is apolitical. Therapy is entirely middle-class we could say.

Chapter 9 Towards a Psychology that Reflects what the Therapy Industry Will Not Tell Us

In this chapter Maloney reviews the work of R. D. Laing. Laing was a maverick psychiatrist who operated in the sixties. Laing made a name for himself championing the rather obvious idea that people who had been ‘diagnosed’ as schizophrenic were still people with their own story – just like anyone else. Laing fell from favour amidst problems with alcohol which saw him being banned from practising medicine, and fallings out with colleagues. His small clique declared themselves (or were so named) as being “anti-psychiatry” and promoted themselves as some kind of humanistic alternative to clinical psychiatry –  though, as Simone De Beauvoir pointed out, “at bottom anti-psychiatry is still psychiatry”. [13] Laing founded a charity called the Philadelphia Association. (While it claimed to be very radical and opposed to psychiatric labels in fact the defining charter of the charity mentions the alleviation of ‘schizophrenia’, with no mention that this is anything other than a valid medical condition). [14] Many of Laing’s followers are still active today. When we speak of Laing’s followers it is worth clarifying that these are people who are associated with the Philadelphia Association and who make some or part of their living from it but who are all it seems at pains to distance themselves from Laing. (One of the more clever variations on this theme is by one Leon Redler who distances himself by claiming that he is following the true Laing – that he is more Laingian than Laing!).

In an earlier chapter Maloney mentions Laing as being the progenitor of “briefly fashionable theories”. In the chapter just reviewed (Chapter 8) Maloney links Laing to the mindfulness movement in therapy, which he criticises. It is surprising therefore to find in this chapter that Maloney appears to have swallowed some of the propaganda put out by Laing and his followers. Maloney writes: “Good ideas never die completely, however. The work of Laing’s Philadelphia Association continues. Funded on a shoestring, it offers a haven where seriously distressed men and women are allowed to go through what they have to go through, in the company of others, at their own pace and without the well-intentioned intrusions of psychiatry of family”. Maloney appears to have obtained this perspective on a Philadelphia Association Community Household from a book written by a psychotherapist involved with the organisation. The reader of this review is directed towards two accounts by people who have actually stayed in one of these households. (See An account by a resident in a Philadelphia Association household and The Philadelphia Association). This reviewer is the author of the second account. Suffice to say that the story told by Maloney (whose source is a Philadelphia Association linked therapist) is baloney. This is the official narrative – the marketing ploy, and very far from the daily reality; which is much more mundane and cynical. It is disappointing that Maloney has chosen apparently to believe what he has read about the Philadelphia Association written by someone connected to the organisation without applying any of the scepticism which he promotes elsewhere in his book. Perhaps he had to believe in something.

Maloney also reviews the contemporary critical psychiatry movement (of which the mainstream but credible critic of ‘ADHD’ Sammi Timimi can count as a supporter) as well as work by feminist critics of psychiatry, developments in care for those with ‘learning disabilities’ and community psychology. He concludes that there is very little evidence (as always Maloney is interested in what could pass muster as a credible randomised clinical trial) that any of these interventions lead to significant reductions in distress.

Maloney then turns, or returns, to behaviouralism. There follows a rather too brief summary of the work of a variety of psychologists from which Maloney assembles his argument. Maloney refers to phenomenology (a philosophy undermined by Foucault who located it as just another manifestation of the 18th century episteme of finite man) in order to restore a concern for ‘inner’ feelings, meaning and interpretation. (In fact there is no need to bring in phenomenology; other writers, such as the behaviouralist Hans Eysenck found no problem accomoda poeting and the imagination into his vision of human life; he just didn’t see these areas as susceptible to scientific study). [15] He also refers to developments in neuroscience and refers to an idea that the ‘best decisions’ are made at a visceral level – and that it is disruptions at this level which cause people to be trapped in bad decision making (a surprisingly ’emotional’ theory to find in a book concerned to criticise the therapy industry). Regrettably, Maloney refers to ‘research’ based around giving ‘canines’ (dogs) electric shocks as part of his discussion about ‘learned helplessness’. (We would suggest that human misery will not be solved by causing dogs suffering in pointless experiments which essentially establish what can already be known from a combination of observation and intuition; in this connection Richard Webster has discussed how positive science needs to accept that imagination as well as plodding  ‘rationality’ is an integral part of knowledge [16]). The point of this whirlwind tour of various psychological theories is to provide a context for Maloney’s chief point; mental ‘ill-health’ is not something which is ‘inside’ a person, a set of ‘bad thoughts’ which they carry around inside their head and which can be changed by the right therapeutic intervention. Rather; feelings and thoughts, and thus mental ill-health, are part of a fluid exchange between person and environment.

Maloney refers to the work of his colleague David Smail. Smail is also a clinical psychologist. Smail has put forward a theory which he calls a “social-materialist psychology”. As presented by Maloney we can note that (at last) there is an acknowledgement that power has something to do with all of this. People who are are subject to power, or, we should say, more subject to power than others, will experience more pressure to think and act in certain ways. The range of options open to them is more restricted. (For example; even a middle-level manager can ‘raise a concern’ with a colleague but if a worker were to ‘raise a concern’ with a manger this would be more likely to see him cast as a troublemaker). Thus the scripts that exist ‘inside our heads’ and which determine mental ill-health or not are in fact not an intrinsic part of the individual but are social phenomenon. Given this then it follows that if we want to address mental ill-health then we need to focus on just these social phenomenon.

Maloney is a voice crying in the wilderness when he speaks of how much mental ill-health may be caused by “officially approved torments” such as soul-deadening labour, squalid impoverishment, the boredom of joblessness, and the moralizing sermons of the privileged. This view alone overturns the whole therapy industry, private and state, which simply ignores all these permitted forms of human cruelty which directly cause some people to live more miserable lives than others.

Taking the above into account Maloney’s argument is that if we want to do something about the problem of mental ill-health we do not need to conjure up some new treatment fad. The problem does not lie ‘in’ the individual. It is a social problem. The solution is to remove the social and economic factors which engender mental ill-health. These include excessive economic inequality and the disempowerment experienced by the poor.

While he eschews (at least this is the implication of his argument) ‘treatment’ for mental ill-health Maloney is still concerned with mental ill-health. He is still concerned with the question of individuals who suffer from mental ill-health. There is a perspective (or multiple perspectives) from which this concern is itself still a construct of a certain kind. From the point of view of Foucault’s work on the modern episteme – in which the whole concern with ‘man’ is seen as a transient discourse not as the basis for an objective knowledge of either man or the world – [17] Maloney’s work appears as a modulation in a discourse which itself is far from objective knowledge.  The epistme in which Maloney’s work is located is the one which Foucault has traced has having come into being at around the start of the 18th century. At this time interest shifted from the classical world of God and the rules of his creation to a new outlook which invented (according to Foucault who followed Nietzsche in this regard) the concept of ‘man’ in its place. For Foucault modern ‘knowledge’ is best understood as a discourse which is located in this episteme. If ‘man’ is not the objective entity he is taken to be then constructs such as that of mental illness fade by the wayside as well. Maloney is aware of the criticism that his work depends on the construct of mental illness. To say, as Maloney does, that to accept the idea that mental illness does not really exist (a simplification extracted from Foucault) would be to permit governments to avoid responsibility is a strange argument. It may be the case that some people could use a shallow interpretation of Foucault to argue for less generous welfare benefits – but this does not mean that Foucault was wrong.  You don’t counter a thesis by citing how it could be potentially misread and misused. Why then not consider Foucault’s thesis about how ‘man’ is a ‘construct’? Nor is there is there reason why understanding Foucault more fully (i.e. not at a shallow level) is likely to lead to a harsher social environment. True, if we accept that ‘man’ will disappear from the scene as the 18th century epistme gives way to something else then a great deal of social policy which is ostensibly built around these ideas will also change. But then so would much else. And Maloney does not claim that this world would be a harsher place than today’s world. Like most English academics then Maloney dismisses Foucault without any engagement with his work.

It appears that perhaps Maloney is aware of a certain anarchist tendency implicit in Foucault. Maloney is critical of this because his idea for a fix to the problems which he has been discussing is to look to governments to adopt more benign social policies. (Perhaps more Sure Start centres and higher benefits?) This is something of a let-down. All the (largely convincing) argument that mental ill-health should best be understood not in terms of malfunctioning individuals but in terms of social and economic factors just leads us to a sort of Guardianista plea for better social policy and ‘wealth redistribution’! We can ask – if peoples’ mental ill-health is in part caused by disempowerment – they experience their lives in terms of being pawns in a wider socio-economic system which treats them badly and over which they have no control, is this really going to be fixed by increasing benefit payments and working tax credits? Will this not still treat them as disempowered subjects of power? Is it is not almost as humiliating to be kept as a subject in a moderate state of comfort as it is to be kept as a subject in a poverty-stricken state of life? Maloney himself has argued (see above Chp. 8) that an authentic life may entail struggle and engagement and be far more than just a certain level of security.

If we can accept Maloney’s chief thesis – that the mental distress (which he no doubt witnesses in the consulting room) is a product of social-economic conditions including disempowerment in the workplace, absolute poverty and income inequality, then perhaps we should be looking for a more substantial economic and political fix than a change in government social policy? As Maloney himself seems to acknowledge the economic forces which condition the modern social-economic environment for most of us are distant financial centres and ‘transnational corporations’. There is an idea prevalent in certain liberal circles that the more harmful social consequences of these distant and profit-calculating entities can be neutralised or at least ameliorated by a few social policies. This idea has been prevalent for some time and a lot of government policies do indeed reference these ideas. But the problems remain. The reality seems to be that governments (of all ilks) see their primary responsibility as being to create an environment in which finance capital and large corporations can make profits. This necessarily means that any regulation is limited and toothless. If Maloney wants to make the social changes he proposes (and indeed has shown to be necessary if we accept his evidence that linked mental ‘ill-health’ to income inequality) then in reality he needs to be looking for more radical social change than a change in government policy.


Maloney is a clinical psychologist. Whereas many critics of psychotherapy criticise it at a theoretical level Maloney treats it as a clinical practice which can be evaluated by relevant clinical studies. A large part of his book is given over to reviewing and assessing the “clinical evidence” for psychotherapy. These are studies which claim to “prove” that therapy has benefits. Maloney looks at these studies from the perspective of a trained clinician. He finds that the quality of the studies is very poor. They do not meet the standards expected of normal clinical trials, such as a control group who is similar to the group receiving the treatment but who do not receive the treatment, against whom results can be measured, and evaluation being carried out by (ideally blind) neutral observers and so on. The studies which are used to claim that “therapy works” on the contrary are often based on before and after questions given to the treated group with no non-treatment comparison group, and the people asking the questions are often involved with the treatment. Maloney says that after you remove these kinds of studies from the literature those that are left show very little or no benefits for psychotherapy. It is certainly worthwhile to show that the “clinical literature” for psychotherapy is of a poor standard. There are of course those who take the view that the whole field is so amorphous and the claims so obviously untestable that the best approach is to criticise therapy at the theoretical level. We tend to side this this viewpoint; but it is certainly worthwhile to see that when the “studies” are sifted with an eye to normal scientific standards they do not stand up.

Maloney argues from the basis of clinical evidence that individualised interventions for mental distress do not work. He argues that this is because mental distress while experienced by individuals is caused primarily by social, political and economic conditions. He produces some evidence to support this claim. (This material is more likely to be in the form of population surveys than clinical trials linked to a specific treatment). He concludes that the best solution to problems of mental distress will be changes in government social policy to create more income equality and less demeaning forms of employment (and unemployment). While taking issue with his proposed solution (a liberal-democratic idea that capitalism can coexist with caring social policies) we welcome the statement that mental distress is a social phenomenon with political causes.

There is one danger inherent in Maloney’s approach. In saying essentially, that the way to fix the mental health problems of the poor is to change the conditions in which they live, he is in danger of sounding somewhat contemptuous of the poor. Are the poor really to be seen as passive animals who will simply flourish if we put them in the right conditions? On the other hand; claims that the poor just need to change their beliefs and attitudes and that their social conditions have nothing to do with their distress are obviously cynical and expedient. There is no serious doubt about Maloney’s sincerity and commitment. However – we do not see much of the poor themselves in his proposed solution. It would be good to see more about what the poor themselves can do, politically, to fix their situation.

A second problematic is that while Maloney is undoubtedly right in saying that almost all therapy is ineffective at best, or harmful at worst, he is in danger of throwing out something of value. In Maloney’s criticism of the technology of self he does not distinguish between the way that ideas about self-change are used to drive short-term mass provided interventions from the application of these ideas in a serious way by an aware individual. Serious work has been done on the possibility of re-programming fixed beliefs (for example by John Lilly [18]) and Maloney in his (no doubt entirely correct) rejection of a simplistic application of such ideas in 10-week courses given in a hierarchical structure by someone who barely understands them, is in danger of rejecting a valid field of human knowledge and experience.

Overall however Maloney’s focus on the social, political and economic conditions which cause so much mental distress in individuals is to be welcomed.




1. See

2. Richard Longmore and Michael Worrell. Do we need to challenge thoughts in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.  Clinical Psychology Review. 27. 173-187. 2006

3. Michel Foucault. Madness and Civilization. Originally published in France in 1961. English edition: Routledge 1989 and subsequent editions.

4. Richard Webster. Why Freud was Wrong. Sin, science and psychoanalysis. HarperCollins 1995.

5. Elaine Showalter. The Female Malady. Virago 1987.

6. The Therapy Industry – Paul Maloney. Pluto Press. 2013. p76

7. Bickman, L., Breda, C.S., Foster, E.M., Guthrie, P.R., Heflinger, C.A., Lambert, E.W., Summerfelt, W.T. Evaluating Managed Mental Health Services. The Fort Bragg Experiment. American Psychologist. 51. 689-701. 1995

8. R. D. Laing’s claim about himself in the Politics of Experience. Penguin. 1967.

9. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level. 2009.

10. Frank Furedi. Therapy Culture. Routledge. 2003.

11. Elizabeth Throop. Psychotherapy, American Culture, and Social Policy: Immoral Individualism. Palgrave Macmillan. 2009.

12. What the Buddha Taught. Walpola Sri Rahula. One World Publications. 1959.

13. The Female Malady. Elaine Showalter. Virago 1987. Chp. 9.

14. Charity Commission

15. H. J. Eysenck, Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire, 1985.

16. Ibid. 4. Chp .24

17. Michel Foucault. The Order of Things. Routledge. 1970 (Published in French as Les Mots et les Choses)

18. John Lilly. Programming and Meta-Programming in the Human Biocomputer. 1968


Towards the Horizon – Emil Gataullin

This is a book of the photographs of Russian photographer Emil Gataullin.

Emil Gataullin came to public attention after he won the Alfred Fried Awards competition in 2014 with a photograph of two boys upside down on a swing. This photograph is included in the book. Emil Gataullin is based in Moscow where he works as a painter of frescoes. Most of the images however depict scenes from rural Russia. Gataullin trained as a painter at first in Kazan and then at the Moscow State Academy Art Institute.

Gataullin works primarily in black and white, though there are a handful of colour images in the book. His recent work appears to be more in colour.

These are superb photographs. The composition of the photographs is as near to flawless as is possible. The photographs communicate a vision of life which is tender, forgiving and sensitive. The text on the cover of the book, produced by Austrian publishers Lammerhuber, likens Gataullin to Cartier-Bresson. This is probably a mistake. A closer analogy might be to Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. There is a lyrical beauty to these photographs of ordinary life. Like Mandelstam Gataullin does not impose himself on the world. Like Mandelstam Gataullin does not appear to take overt political positions. After all; beauty is enough. Most of the images are of people. Though there are dogs and birds here too. No image could be strictly described as  a ‘landscape’ though there are images just of natural scenes. The world which Gataullin engages with is the human one. There is beauty and love here.

The images are sparsely captioned and offered without explanations. They stand alone and communicate on the visual plane without reliance on words. The images are distinctively about Russia. Some are taken in the Far East, others in the North West, or in the regions around Moscow. We could say this is the Russian soul being depicted here and in a way this is so inevitably. But perhaps there is no conscious intent to publicise the Russian soul. There is certainly much to photograph. Scenes such as a devout woman reading the gospel framed by the shadow of a Church cast on a wall behind her, or a boy peacefully asleep on a roof above two banners from an Orthodox procession – the crosses on the banners met by the cross formed by a TV aerial on the roof, two pilgrims asleep on the grass with their icons around their necks, all such scenes are distinctively Russian. As are the landscapes and images of vast tracts of land, or sea, taken in the Far East. But this is not a collection of photographs ‘about Russia’. Gataullin photographs what he sees.

Cartier-Bresson’s images are more reportage than Gataullin’s. With Cartier-Bresson there is profound handling of composition. Drama is frozen in a moment. We learn something about the subjects. Gataullin is more lyrical. His images are more mysterious. They are saying something, but what, exactly?

The book contains a small selection of colour images. The colour is handled as skillfully as the form in his black and white images. The colour is not just there because it happens to be in the scene – but has been subject to a process of artistic selection. The colour is absolutely part of the composition which gives the images their meaning. This is not easy to do.

The book itself is superbly produced. A decent size and the pages open very nearly flat, meaning that the images, which span both pages, are easily viewed. For a work of this quality it is priced at a more or less ludicrously low price.

Buy now on Amazon


If you don’t want to buy the book, you can view many of Gataullin’s images on his Flickr feed.

Officious – Josie Appleton

For several years Appleton has been documenting the ever-increasing reach of petty bureaucracy in the UK. She has focussed on several areas including: ‘Safeguarding’ and the notorious ‘Criminal Records Checks’ (now re-branded as ‘DBS’ checks), excesses of local authority litter enforcement officers, the introduction of ‘Public Space Protection Orders’, controls on photography, and many other areas of increasing regulation of everyday life. This work has been voiced through the web site the ‘Manifesto Club‘ and associated campaigns as well as articles in the press and appearances on Radio.

These campaigns have been backed by thorough and detailed research. For example; Appleton’s excellent report on litter fines by local authorities [1] showed that this system has lost touch with any rational purpose of improving the environment or educating the public. The aim of the system is simply to issue as many fines as possible. One of the keys drivers is to raise revenue for the local authority. Many local authorities sub-contract the work to private companies, either on a commision basis or on the understanding that a certain level of fines will be issued; in either case the private firm is simply in the business of issuing as many fines as possible. Even when local authorities harvest the fines themselves changes in legislation mean that they are able to use the profits to support their own Environmental Health departments (thus freeing up funds for use elsewhere). Fines are seen a sa a source of income. The result of this has been an enormous growth in the number of fines issued by local authorities for littering, as well as some extreme cases – people being fined for discarding an apple-core into a hedge, feeding the ducks, a mother fined for her child dropping a crisp etc. Because, as Appleton points out, a warning issued in place of a fine is a missed opportunity to issue a fine and thus lost revenue, the system is totally oriented towards issuing fines – even for accidental and trivial errors. The local authorities simply wage a war of conquest on the population, treating them as a source of tribute. When local authorities hire private firms to issue fines on their behalf they use legislation which allows them to ‘appoint’ members of these companies as having the powers of local authority enforcement officers. [2] The blanket of officialdom grows wider and becomes fiscalised. (This is what Julian Assange refers to as ‘fiscalised power relations’).

In her new book, ‘Officious’, Appleton has brought together many strands of her work on individual campaigns. In this book Appleton is attempting to understand the the increasing levels of petty state interference in everyday life. For those who have come to know Appleton through her work on individual campaigns there may be a slight disappointment in store; this book is not a litany of abuses by local authorities the retelling of which gives us a vicarious opportunity to revel in their absurd excesses and in doing so feel that we have taken back a little bit of power. This is a theoretical work, in which Appleton unifies some of the work she has already done in her previous campaigns into a theoretical framework. The development which Appleton is discussing is a real and distinct social phenomenon. It is most welcome that an author is attempting to understand this phenomenon; adrift as we are in a sea of philistine claims about ‘efficiency’ and ‘the right thing to do’ from the political class. Appleton’s book is important and timely.

The following discusses each section of ‘Officious’ in turn.


Appleton notes that the target of the new form of hyper-regulation is independent civic life. One of the most obvious examples of this is ‘Safeguarding’. ‘Safeguarding’ has succeeded in poisoning all relations between young people and adults, casting the cloud of suspicion everywhere. It is doubtful if it has stopped much child abuse; the measures are crude and clumsy and any determined abuser will simply be more careful. Indeed; the incessant discussion about child sexual abuse and related topics (including adverts on public radio about childrens’ pants) has almost certainly encouraged some people at the margins of personality disorder to step over the edge. It may even be that this – authentic and spontaneous relations between young people and adults – were the direct target of ‘Safeguarding’ – and not child abuse per se at all. Another element of this broad sweep of power to control all aspects of social and independent life is what is known in youth work circles as the “outcomes agenda”; the introduction of a political culture that all interactions between young people and youth workers must lead to specific, measurable, outcomes, often educational certificates. Other commentators have noted how the autonomy of teachers has been similarly eroded. For example the editors of Corruption of the Curriculum (2007) had this to say: “Teachers are no longer treated as professional people, capable of exercising judgment, but are micro‐managed by Whitehall, where every hour of their day is prescribed” [3]. The kind of excessive and petty regulation which Appleton is concerned about in this book is part of an overall bloat of power. This bloat of power reflects not the confidence of the authorities but their insecurity. It is as if they can’t bear the possibility of people talking amongst themselves and having relations which do not involve them.

Appleton correctly notes that there has been a growth in “behaviour policing”. The police take on roles more associated with “naughtiness” than crime. New officials are appointed who also deal with behaviour. Anti-social behaviour has become a police concern. And, at the same time, local authorities and Housing Associations have “officers” appointed specifically to deal with Anti-social behaviour. The management of crime and anti-social behaviour merge.

Appleton has noted that hyper-regulation is “closing down” civil society: “Thus the domain of civil society loses its independent and self-constituting quality. … The unauthorised action has become implicitly illegitimate, in some cases criminal.”  The new form of bureaucracy, argues Appleton, is detached from any one specific social interest. It seems to float above all the traditional departments of the state bureaucracy. As Appleton says: “it represents the negation of social life and its meaning”. Appleton sees the officious state emerge from a process whereby the traditional state has been “hollowed out”. Appleton writes: “The officious state is ultimately the product of a social vacuum, a causative condition that it amplifies with every extension of regulation”. The analysis appears to be that the state used to represent class interests. The state mediated class interests in a class society and in particular promoted the interests of the dominant social class. In this mode the state was bureaucratic but rational. (This is the traditional Marxist-Leninist view of the state). However; the state no longer does this. It is marked by “…the hollowing out of elite institutions”. And so it casts around, thrashing like a fish which has lost its sense of purpose, making rules for the sake of rules-making – and waging war on its instinctive enemy; civil and independent society. As a characterisation of the phenomenon this cannot be faulted. But it would be interesting to try to understand this “hollowing out”of the state in more depth.

If elite interests are no longer being maintained through the state bureaucracy how are they being maintained? (For, surely, they have not been given up?) Or; where has power gone? The answer is probably that power has become even more fiscalised. Before power was content to maintain the dominance of the elites through repressive measures of the state. Now, power has shifted its focus. It has become less reliant on acting through traditional forms of authority and at the same time more fiscalized. In actual reality power has shifted from the magistrates who penalised the occasional litterer and thus maintained the superiority of the gentry, to shareholders of the companies (such as Kingdom Security International Ltd mentioned by Appleton [4]) who “enforce” the litter fines (even against the gentry). Power has quite literally moved camp – from the state to the even more invisible and even more unaccountable locus of (often international) finance capital funded companies. A classic example (of interest to the reviewer) is how controlling the minority of school students who are too young/immature/undisciplined to sit still in class is no longer a matter of authority and punishment (state power) but of prescription of expensive but crude behaviour controlling drugs [5] – drugs which turn a large profit for their (mostly US) producers. The state has withdrawn and commercial interests have stepped in. Power used to operate though the state. Now it operates through the commercial companies.

We agree with Appleton’s analysis of the state which has lost its purpose. But we think that she does not sufficiently follow-up the question as to where power has gone if it no longer operates through the state. Power has on the one hand ‘pulled back’ and, on the other, returned, in a doubling-up operation, and now makes ‘discipline and punishment’ (or surveillance and repression) a source of revenue. Power may be quite indifferent to the exact forms that regulation takes, forms which, as Appleton remarks, are often quite arbitrary. Perhaps power is even amused by some of these forms. But, in any event, power has become more precisely focused on revenue and profit and while not driving the hyper-regulation nonetheless is in some kind of alliance with it.

Appleton calls for a common front of civil society against this new hyper-regulating activity of the state. This is well as far as it goes. But it may be that this would be a war against the foot-soldiers of the enemy only, or even against a mob vaguely allied to them. Their generals are elusive and in any event not on the battlefield in person. As Foucault says power likes to disguise itself. Today it has divested itself of the Mayoral chains and other trappings of state office –  and almost merged with money. How do you fight a fog?

Chapter 1 The New Busybodies 

Appleton gives a nice characterisation of the new “busybody”, officials who restrict and stifle and whom seem to have no obvious moral authority; “They are representing no particular authority but are a sort of generic ‘authorised person'”. And; “At base, these officials’ only positive allegiance is to the mechanisms of officialdom; their only belief is in the inherent virtues of regulation”. Appleton identifies a number of job roles which are of an officious nature, for example; health and safety officer, healthy eating officer, child protection training officer. These are roles wherein the function is to tell other people what to do. And, as Appleton remarks, what people should do is behave according to standardised and approved forms of behaviour (and indeed thought). Officials in these roles are not helping the public, as a traditional public sector worker or officer might (for example a bin man collects your bins, an environmental safety officer checks that restaurants are clean). These officials frustrate and obstruct the public.

Appleton comments that in relation to the behaviour of young people a new officiousness has replaced traditional authority. No longer a telling off – but a form to complete for an ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contract’. And such contracts are issued precisely by the new busybodies – for example local authority officers and Housing Association officers. The government refers to these people as ‘practitioners’. For example; “ABCs are recognised as part of the toolkit available to the police and other frontline practitioners to deal with anti-social behaviour.” [6] We can note that the language (“frontline”) is precisely that of war. It is also the law which is being displaced here; Acceptable Behaviour Contracts are not even a legal instrument and breaking one carries neither a civil nor a criminal penalty. However, as the “best practice guidance” reminds; breach can be used as support for an application to court for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order, itself a quasi-legal instrument. This is an amorphous use of power. Power shows up at every turn. The law itself is being usurped by the authorities.

At the same time this is personal. The new busybodies are often personally vindictive. They have suspicious minds and act in bad faith.  This is power adrift, without even the anchor of traditional authority.  The suspiciousness and bad faith spreads. People who are not officially appointed busybodies nonetheless adopt the suspicious and self-righteous ‘policing’ mindset of the busybody. An example of this phenomenon (from the reviewer’s own experience); in the role of a youth worker he was talking with a young person (aged about 14) in the street. A passing man slowed down and hovered around the conversation. It was evident he was ‘checking’ that everything was in order. This snooper was carrying out his own self-appointed act of surveillance. When it was absolutely evident from the conversation (about the young man’s youth arts project) that this was a ‘legitimate’ (state sanctioned) relationship the snooper breathed a public sign of relief gave a big smile of approval and left. He was perhaps unaware that in most countries in the world people seeing a man taking to a boy in the street would think nothing of it, would assume, if they thought about it at all that there would be a good reason for it, would certainly not see it as something suspicious. This encounter matches the template for Appleton’s description of the officious gaze: “The officious eye is the third eye of constant suspicion, which presides over interactions and sees them in the worst possible light”. Appleton notes that historically this kind of suspicion (constructing matters in the worst possible light) was based on majority values and was directed towards deviant (or supposedly deviant) minorities. Now, in the busybody culture, it is directed at anyone at all in society who does not bow to the injunctions of officiousness. The new officiousness official hovers above society in quite a detached way casting the pallor of suspicion over all unregulated social life. As Appleton notes there is an egalitarianism here; people from all social classes can be subject to the gaze – and punishment – of these new kinds of officials.

We said at the start of this review that this current work by Appleton is theoretical and those seeking plenty of examples of ludicrous local authority excesses may be disappointed. However; they will be more than compensated for by such accurate characterisation as: “Pockets of spontaneity attract the officious like moths to a candle”.

Officiousness has no roots in either traditional morality or even class interests and repressiveness. It is a form of authority which is entirely negative. It takes its authority from nowhere else but the presumed illegitimacy or incompetence of others. The new kind of officiousness is against all unregulated social life, against exchanges between individuals which are not scripted in advance by the state. As Appleton remarks there is always the possibility that the surveiller will himself be surveilled. The one whose function is to cast suspicion can himself fall under suspicion. This leads to a culture of checking the checkers. We would add that some people who exist in this milieu have learned that one strategy to avoid falling under suspicion is to be the first and loudest to cast it at others. In a childcare setting raising “concerns” or making “allegations” about ‘Safeguarding’ can be an effective pre-emptive defence against such allegations being made against oneself. Further; we would suggest that just this dynamic was in play during the purges in the Soviet Union in 1937-38. Better to denounce than be denounced. This is what happens in a totalitarian state.

Chapter 2 Officiousness in Context

In this chapter Appleton considers the nature of the state bureaucracy. She accepts that the state bureaucracy exists to coordinate large-scale infrastructure projects (such as controlling the flooding of the Nile). However she chiefly appears to follow Marxist-Leninism in seeing the state as the product of class antagonisms. Appleton cites Engels and writes: “It is with the emergence of class divisions that bureaucratic forms first appear, arising over conflicting social relations”. In State and Revolution Lenin, also following Engels, writes: “The state is the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”. [7] For Lenin class antagonisms form the sole explanation or ‘causal’ factor for the emergence of the state.  Lenin would not disagree that the bureaucracy does fulfill a public need. He would say that it fulfills it in a special way. It is not the functions of social organization he questions but the state as the political form which undertakes these functions. For Lenin the organising functions of the state could all be undertaken by self-organising citizens. Lenin was clear: the state exists to mediate conflicting interests. If there are no class conflicts there will be no state. In a bourgeois democracy the state acts in the special interests of the minority capitalist class. The state is always an institution of repression. Even in socialism (a historical stage on the way to Communism) the state is an instrument of repression; here the majority repress the minority. The final destination of humankind is a classless society, a society without exploitation and repression. A society of self-regulating citizens without a state; Communism.

Lenin (following Engels) discussed the state as the body which stands above society. It represses society in the interests of the dominant class. Adapting this idea Appleton explains ‘officiousness’ as the repressive force of the bureaucracy. However, because the elite institutions of the state have been “hollowed out” the state now acts in a relatively purposeless way. It no longer acts on behalf of the ruling minority class but in its own self-interest. The state for itself. Thus officiousness is explained in terms of Lenin’s theory of the state. However; the state is now acting not on behalf of a class-interest but in its own interest.

We accept that the state is now in a “hollowed-out” form and no longer acts to protect traditional class interests in the traditional (or “classical”) way. However; this collapse in the ‘sense of purpose’ of the state does not fully explain the rise of officiousness. There are positive reasons for the rise of officiousness as well. Officiousness has drivers. The attempt to explain officiousness solely in terms of Lenin’s analysis of the state fails because it does not address these positive forces. The force behind officiousness is power. If the state has collapsed to some extent that is because it is no longer supported by power. Where then has power gone? We suggest that power has relocated itself away from political authority and now acts more in the arena of purely fiscal relations. The relationship between power and the state is changing. In some ways power now acts directly on civil society without the mediation of the state. At other times it acts by forcing state mechanisms to conform to its new ways of acting. The function of power cannot be fully understood as ‘repression’ in a purely negative and crushing sense. Power has a cultivating role. It disciplines subjects to be more productive. From the point of view of this analysis the new ‘officiousness’ is not seen solely as repression without purpose, the death throes of a purposeless bureaucracy; but as a new form of disciplining. Much of the recent ‘Anti-social behaviour’ legislation and extra-judicial systems – with their raft of orders and ‘contracts’ concerned with the minutiae of a person’s behaviour and with the attendant blurring of the boundaries between nuisance behaviour and crime – can very readily be seen in this light. (In passing; the sheer philistine nature of this “mob authoritarianism” can be seen in the appalling level of language used in such documents. For example; an official government guide to ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’ suggests that a young person might be encouraged to sign a document saying “I will not congregate in groups”. The culture seems to permit a new and philistine use of language altogether).

Appleton explains that with the rise of ‘officiousness’ we see a new form of expression of bureaucratic authority. Bureaucratic authority no longer acts in a rational way to support the class interests of the capitalists and the stability of society as a whole. It has expanded beyond those forms (the policeman, the courts, the psychiatrist). Now anyone can call themselves a psychiatrist. As Appleton points out; now anyone can set themselves up to ‘diagnose’ or denounce their neighbour, for example make allegations about someone or say that their behaviour is ‘inappropriate’. Anyone can take a 6 week training course, acquire a badge, and take on bureaucratic functions, issuing fines and penalties. Appleton remarks that behind these new bureaucratic mechanisms there may lie “a variety of private or personal interests, or indeed no interests at all”. And Appleton correctly notes that officiousness in fact negates the classical form of bureaucracy. The classical bureaucrat with his ordered world of precision, and rules of conduct is surely (inwardly if not outwardly) aghast at this new mob-like form that state bureaucracy has taken. Our difference with Appleton is that we do not see officiousness as simply the result of a collapse in state authority and structures but as the result of a positive shift; power is operating in new ways.

Chapter 3 The structure and origins of the officious state

Appleton sees the chief factor behind the rise of the ‘officious state’ as being a collapse in the traditional forms of social regulation. There has been a “hollowing out” of the elite institutions of the state and a “vacuum” has arisen in civil society. The vacuum has been created by the dismantling of older forms of social regulation. For example; elite institutions such as the civil service are no longer held together by informal agreements based on the sense of each other being a “decent chap”. Mass organisations such as Trade Unions have been weakened by the anti-Union legislation of the Thatcher government of the 1980s/1990s. However; these are not the root causes. There is a circularity to this: hollowing out and vacuum; but what lies behind this collapse? It can’t all be blamed on Thatcher! There are positive forces at work here which are not included in Appleton’s explanation about “hollowing out” and “vacuum”. We need to look for the forces behind these social changes.

The “vacuum” in social life cannot be attributed convincingly more to one political party than the other. The ‘Anti-social behaviour’ legislation was the creation of New Labour. This legislation in particular created officiousness. To take one example; head teachers were empowered to issue fines to parents for their children’s non-attendance. [8] This is a prime example of the creation of ‘officiousness’ and the setting up of ‘busybodies’ over other people. It was also under New Labour that we saw such micro-management as the Every Child Matters agenda – an attempt to enforce a state prescribed set of values onto every encounter between a teacher or youth worker and a young person; precisely eroding long-standing civil norms and indeed the very principle that such matters are matters for civil society. Penalty Notices for Disorder were introduced in the 2001 Criminal Justice and Police Act. [9] The legislation which created ‘Community Support Officers’ [10] and which created powers for local authorities to delegate powers to appointed private operatives was legislation put on the statute book under New Labour. Indeed we could almost say that officiousness was the fruit of New Labour. It is strange that in discussing the origins of officiousness Appleton references Thatcher and not New Labour. However; we are not suggesting that officiousness is more New Labour than the Conservatives. It is more likely that these parties were “going with the flow” rather than initiating the changes which have had as one result the rise of officiousness. Powerful and large forces of money and influence are at work here. (In practice what seems to happen is that the Conservatives serve power in a way which is consistent with their ‘brand’ and Labour serve power in a way consistent with their brand. This took a certain amount of re-inventing on the part of New Labour of course).

Appleton does not provide a full account of how civil society has collapsed. For example; Appleton describes how, with the “collapse of political camps”, officials can talk instead “from the position of the no-camp, the blank abstract authority above camps”. This is a profound explication of the phenomena. But; what has led to the collapse of political camps? One answer, no doubt only touching the surface of what happened, is New Labour’s abandonment of socialism. This assured complete ascendancy of corporate and financial power since, whoever was in power, they could now be assured of full cooperation. Having abandoned any idea of mass social change New Labour then adopted an ideology which promoted individualised psychological explanations for social “dysfunction” and the attendant micro-management remedies. In need hardly be said that (as Appleton has noted in connection with the explosion in litter fines and the involvement of private companies) that all these micro-management procedures provide a new source of profit for private capital. Private prisons were introduced in the UK from the 1990s. [11] This was a policy started by the Thatcher and continued wholeheartedly by New Labour. Private prisons (and privatized custodial services and probation services) are an excellent example of the collapse in traditional forms of state power and a transfer of power to fiscal interests. By handing punishment over to private businesses the state abdicates its role as the meter out of justice. The wrongdoer is no longer punished by a state official on behalf (at least nominally) of society. The wrongdoer is now punished for a commission by a private company who may well be based abroad and whose primary accountability is to its shareholders.  The state is indeed hollowed out. But – certain financial interests have gained. An active shift in power has occurred. Not simply a “hollowing out”.

What has happened is that power is no longer content to rule through the ruling class and be limited by the limits of the state. Power, in the form of finance capital, has burst the bounds that the requirement to rule through the state placed on it. The power which used to exist in the state has been handed over directly to financial power by successive governments in the United Kingdom, of both party-political flavours. Following from this hollowing out of the state we do indeed see new and strange forms of power. These new forms of power serve two positive purposes. Firstly; they control a population who might otherwise bridle at being controlled not by their elected officials but by private and often distant financial interests. (There is also an element here of a distraction; by talking up ‘Anti-social behaviour’ the discourse can be moved away from poverty and social justice while still retaining a semblance of being concerned with the ‘quality of life’). And secondly, they provide a new source of profit for just these private interests. Appleton draws parallels with the Roman Empire in the 4th century. This is an accurate parallel. A burgeoning state structure which does not in any way, even through its connections to the dominant social class, represent or embody the interests of society, is sucking society dry. At the same time there is a difference with the later Roman Empire. (This is not to critique Appleton’s parallel to the later Roman Empire but to extend it). In the case of the later Roman Empire the state was simply feeding off society. This state of affairs could not go on. In the contemporary case the corporate and financial interests which feed off society at the same time create. They build hospitals and roads and prisons. They deliver ’employment training’ and correctional services and luxury holidays and kindergartens. They do this outside of political control but nonetheless there is an enormous creative and productive aspect which the later Roman State did not have. But the population needs to be disciplined to learn how to produce and consume these services and goods in a way which keeps the whole project expanding.

Appleton notes that power (or ‘state authority’ as she would put it) has spread its tentacles widely. The Anti-Social behaviour campaign has seen teachers, schools, (newly created) Police Support Officers, social landlords, local authority officers and even in some cases private contractors all given powers to fine – or apply to the courts for various kinds of orders – ordinary citizens for a wide range of petty offences. The boundaries between crime and civil nuisance are blurred. Private companies and various organisations which present as charities but which are to all intents and purposes organs of the state are added to the mix. This is an unprecedented explosion of state power. Further, and worse, officiousness starts intruding into personal relations. Officiousness undermines trust. Without an anchor in knowing how to behave based on autonomous decision making people look to officiousness for guidance. Officiousness is self-replicating. It undermines normal human relations and the undermined individuals then look to officiousness for guidance on how to behave. (Incidentally this is the same tactic used by Al-Qaeda who use terrorism to seek to undermine peoples’ confidence in their government to protect them so that the people eventually turn to them).

Power has destroyed the old morality. It has done this because the old morality – with its scruples about pornography, sexual mores, excessive consumption, hedonism – was denying it money making opportunities. But you cannot have a society without any morality. Officiousness, has its own moral code. This is the language of “appropriate” or “right thing to do”. The vacuous substitute for morality for an age of hedonism and fiscal power.

The exact same process of destruction and rebuilding is taking place in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and (if they can succeed) in Syria; destruction of existing forms of state authority giving rise to chaos – and then hugely profitable opportunities for rebuilding – which means (in these countries) Western style institutions; prisons, hospitals, schools; a stock-exchange. (However; the forms of disciplining are much more advanced in Western countries where treating adults like little children is now considered completely acceptable in a way in which these traditional societies are not yet ready for). Appleton is not unaware of how foreign interventions have a common base with control of the population at home. In the next chapter she links CCTV at home to use of drones to surveill the colonised population of Basra.

Appleton ends this chapter, which began with a discussion of the collapse of the class-dominated state bureaucracy, by noting that a new class has sprung up. This new class is made up of all those people who stand to profit from officiousness. The distinguishing feature of this class is that it is purely parasitic. The old elite class at least contributed something even if only the grandeur of its stately homes which we could admire from a distance. This class contributes nothing except more paperwork and forms.

Officiousness can be understood as an expansion, a splurging, of power, beyond its previous confinement in law and institutions. As we have suggested above the driving force is probably money. Power-money has not directly and by intention invented officiousness. However in its pursuit of its own ends (more power, more money) power-money has destroyed traditional forms of authority. (Thus creating the “hollowing-out” and “vacuum” about which Appleton speaks). As soon as this process, the development of officiousness, starts (the result of destructive effects of power-money) then power-money sees new opportunities to weld itself to these new forms of officiousness. Private prisons, private probation services with “payments by results”, litter fining on commission, no end of ‘charities’ offering courses in ‘Safeguarding’, and so on. Power-money did not create these mechanisms directly. But it is their godfather – and it reaps the rewards. Appleton describes the phenomenon of officiousness only too well but misses the positive forces which lie behind the changes she discusses. There has been a “hollowing-out” of the state and a collapse in civil society but to understand the background to these phenomena we need to look to see what power-money is doing and how power is shifting – away from the state and the “gentry” and to finance capital. The forces at work are more invisible and larger than those we see at work in party political programmes such as Thatcher’s anti-Union legislation – though these programmes may be serving those forces and may embody them.

While we think that Appleton’s explanation for the origins of the officious state does not go far enough we think that her explication of the phenomenon itself is peerless.

Chapter 4 Officious language

Appleton notes that officiousness has its own vocabulary. Words are taken up into its discourse and given new, specialist, meanings. In some cases the actual meaning of the word is an inversion of its use in ordinary language.

Of particular importance is how Appleton notes how words such as ‘inappropriate’ are used for both trivial deviations from following the correct ‘policy and procedure’ and absolutely serious ones (such as the death of a child following a social services error). This shows how the new system of ‘morality’ is in fact value-free. Adherence to ‘policies and procedures’ is not just a new set of values. Nor is it simply a question of the state mandating a single unified set of values (such as tends to happen in more authoritarian countries such as Russia). Officiousness substitutes a bland adherence to its strictures in place of any value system. The stricture themselves do not embody values. It is “obey” for the sake of obedience.

Appleton notes how the new language of officiousness is used in place of debate. Rather than argue against someone’s views one can say that that their remarks are “inappropriate”. During the non-debate on gay marriage in the UK the Guardian ran an editorial explaining that the issue was so clear-cut it was “beyond argument”. The government minister tasked with seeing through the policy announced a period of public debate and then shortly afterwards followed up by saying that anyone who didn’t agree with the change was an unmentionable bigot and the period of discussion was closed. Appleton notes examples where local authority Councillors denounce something another member has said and demand that they apologize. The denounced representative then duly apologizes for his offence against the new norms. No actual debate or rational discussion has taken place. An exact case-study of this kind of interaction can be seen in this report about a City Councillor in Oxford. [12]. The Councillor made a disparaging remark about homeless people in the city. A rival Councilor made an “official complaint” and the original Councillor feel on his knees and offered an apology. In this, strangely, the homeless people seem to occupy a very secondary and background role. The problem was with the words used.

As Appleton remarks: “Officious language is like a wall: you cannot argue or have a conversation with it. It is not a form  of communication, but a form of white noise, which evacuates thought and blocks response… Language is used as a stun-gun; the aim is for you to be silenced and to submit”. The aim is to neutralize opposition. (Not win the argument).

In ordinary argument one party may seek to gain the high-ground by aligning herself with officialdom and by deploying officious language. As Appleton says: “To use officious language is to flash a badge”. The actual meaning of the words used is somewhat amorphous. The point is that by using them one establishes that one is linked to authority/power and thus is superior to other people. The language neutralises and “declares null and void” “ordinary concrete passions and reasons.”

Chapter 5 Red tape

Appleton notes the profusion of policies covering a welter of areas of life. There are policies for what may go in a child’s lunch-box; where teachers may touch children; at what point in the school play parents may take a photograph. Appleton explains that the rules embodied in these policies are often arbitrary; the point is that there is a policy. Policies may sometimes be arbitrary. However; there is also another operation of power going on here. Often the policy is an embodiment not of some arbitrary code but precisely of an obvious and previously accepted social code. For example; (in general) it is good sense for a teacher not to touch a student ‘below the shoulder’ in class. This is a rule which previously might have been unconsciously adhered to by teachers. It would have been something to which no thought would have been given. (Of course; there are always exceptions). The policy has hijacked this unconscious operation of good sense and made it an overt requirement. The teacher’s actions (even if ‘right’) are no longer so because she has her own good sense but because she is following the mandates of the policy. She has been undermined and surreptitiously turned into an agent of the state. Thus the state (or power) insinuates itself into ordinary civil life, undermining it. (In connection with the question of training courses Appleton realises exactly this point: “The role of the course is to undermine free action, to sell social life back to itself but as something external and not its own …”)

As Appleton notes while this world of policies and procedures is presented as being to do with concern for the welfare of people it is anything but. Usually the text of the policy is simply copied off the Internet. This casualness reveals the value-emptiness of the policies. This is about observance of a ritual.

Appleton notes the return of licensing. In the democratic-constitutional state the assumption was that an activity was lawful unless it was specifically unlawful. Under officiousness it becomes necessary to obtain licenses for all sorts of activities; busking, spoken word performances in a pub, a license for handing out leaflets in a town square. The assumption is that unless an activity is licensed it must be unlawful. Again; this shows the extent of the state’s interference in ordinary civic life.

Related to licenses are contracts. Appleton gives the example of ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’. These are quasi-judicial documents signed “between” (for example) a school and a student. They specify behaviours required of the young person. The relationship is denuded of its inner meaning and content. An empty paper-based ritual replaces traditional discipline and care; the spontaneous and unscripted relationship between adult and young person. These institutions become necessary when it is no longer possible to assume that (in the majority of cases) discipline and care will actually be there. At the same time they undermine what discipline and care might exist. Consent forms e.g for photography represent another way in which spontaneous and unscripted interactions are suppressed. Only interactions which are mediated by the surveilling third-party are permitted. The is destructive towards actual human relations; as the normal play of interaction is suppressed. Again; we see that the state cannot tolerate independent civil life. Often these forms are legally pointless. (For example; though there is no legal requirement to obtain consent to photograph someone’s children an organisation may still invent a ritual around this).

Many (all in all likelihood) of these procedures of officialdom do not make the world a safer place. For example; the risk assessment, by transferring the thinking onto a piece of paper, may reduce the attentiveness of the one carrying out the act to his actual actions. The purpose of these documents is often to protect officialdom from a risk of being criticised or sued. As Appleton remarks, at the bottom of this is an attitude of bad faith towards human relationships. One expects and plans for the worst.  Paperwork such as risk assessment forms puts a burden onto the individual who now finds himself treated as an oppositional element by state authority. The individual has to simply decide not to carry on (for example take photographs at an event, hold a conkers championship, volunteer to work with young people), or they have to wearily sign the form and hope that they aren’t sued/accused of something. The main point of many of these procedures is to insure the authorities against any risk of any kind (PR risk, legal liability). That this approach stifles civic action is a matter of indifference to them. The authorities are entirely disconnected from the public and their public service mission. They are an independent, self-interested, parasitic body feeding off society.

In summing up her review of ‘Red Tape’ Appleton compares different approaches to social regulation. There are ethical codes of conduct such as existed in Ancient China which specified, for example, how children should behave towards parents. There is a statist approach (Appleton cites the Marxist legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis) who (seemingly) approved of codes of conduct designed to organise collective conduct efficiently such as railway timetables – while criticising Western contract law as being about “two litigating parties who, vindicta in hand, claim their right”. And there is, of course, that Western contract law itself, based on the idea of free individual subjects voluntarily entering into agreements. It is not entirely clear whether Appleton shares the views of Evgeny Pashukanis and the apparent negative evaluation of Western contract law. (It is out of scope of this short review but without necessarily defending contract law we can note that the idea of state codes designed for ‘collective efficiency’ seem to carry their own risks of denial of individual freedom). Either way the main point that Appleton makes is that with officious regulation we see an extension of contract law but into areas of social life which previously did not need to be so regulated. Not just business (where people might arguably be expected to have opposing interests) but now ordinary human relations are construed as being between formally opposing parties. The parties need to be bound by state approved strictures in order to be able to do anything safely and without harming each other. In the case of contract law (for regulating business relationships) and in the case of the codes of conduct of Ancient China there is a positive form to the regulation. The regulation casts into a law, code or contract a positive and fruitful relation. In contrast to this officially regulation is purely negative. It seeks to frustrate human relations. It is, essentially, the state vandalizing independent civic life.

Chapter 6 Surveillance

Appleton observes that the rise in the use of surveillance cameras by the authorities is in fact indicative not of their engagement in public life but of their withdrawal from it. No longer a bobby on the beat mingling with the people, but an unseen operative (if the cameras are manned at all) reviewing the footage at a distance. On searches Appleton is again incisive. The routine searches which we all undergo (when entering a museum for example) are, from a security point of view, redundant. They are so rudimentary that as a security barrier they have no purpose. As Appleton points out: “The role of the search is the disruption of privacy as an end in itself”. And again: “Anything private or kept from public view is de facto seen as a threat to authority”. Of course, and Appleton would probably concur, the biggest example of this outlawing of the realm of the private is the culture of compulsory ‘sharing of feelings’ which is so prevalent these days, and which the social critic Professor Furedi has characterised as Therapy Culture. In this case the very existence of private, unspoken, feelings is seen as a threat to others. On the question of data and privacy Appleton notes how people often express concern about their personal data being exposed in some way. (That is data about their ‘identity’ – not their financial data which has obvious practical consequences). The people who express this concern have internalised the idea that this abstract data says something about themselves. When or if it is shared with the ‘wrong’ people they are concerned. This type of concern is encouraged by the authorities; for example the absurd EU legislation about web page ‘cookies’. No one in their right mind would feel personally threatened by a web browser cookie – but there is a whole legal framework about how consent has to be obtained to use them. The authorities are happy for people to be fussed about their ‘personal data’ – because, presumably, if people are fussed about this question they will not be asking about more serious matters. (For example; at the time of the 2011 Census there was some public resistance to the fact the Office for National Statistics had subcontracted the census number crunching to one of the world’s leading arms companies, Lockheed Martin. The government was keen to present this conflict in terms of concerns about data being ‘compromised’ in some way by being handled, or not as the case may have been, outside of the UK. And of course people were assured that the data would be properly handled. Meanwhile; the more serious questions about what exactly the government was doing using a US arms company, which had played a major role in the illegal and discredited Iraq invasion, to run the UK civil census were avoided). On biometric surveillance Appleton observes how biometrics focus on people in their most passive aspect; their inert body-signs. (Indeed biometric signs can still be taken from a corpse). She contrasts this with how the Stasi were concerned with peoples’ activities; who they met, where they went, what they did. The modern surveillance state wants to nail everyone down in their most denatured form. Appleton references Marx who sees real life being reflected into systems of bureaucratic categorisation which reflections are then taken as real life. A form of alienation. Appleton identifies the role that surveillance plays in this: “Surveillance is the process of converting a people into a bureaucratic form, arranging their specific features into various boxes”. The database becomes primary. “If somebody is not on a database do they really exist?”. (A small example of this mentality may be encountered by people who need to be credit checked for something, for example to open a new bank account. An absence of any records is seen not for what is is; evidence of thriftiness and avoidance of credit, but as a cause of suspicion; why is he not on the database?).

Appleton concludes this brilliant chapter by observing how people now relate to each other via this gaze of the camera – not just official surveillance but though reality TV shows such as Big Brother. As we affirm one another in the gaze of the camera so we disappear from each other’s view.

Chapter 7 Crime and Punishment 

Appleton notes that the ban has become commonplace. Authorities ban smoking in certain places, drinking alcohol in certain places, even, apparently, in one instance kissing on a train platform. The ban is, says Appleton, a characteristic expression of the negativity of the authorities.

Appleton then discusses the more serious question of how the core criminal law has been taken over by officiousness. Laws are created which are quite open-ended in their interpretation and applicability. (Appleton does not mention it specifically but the law which creates the public order offence of  intending to cause someone ‘alarm, harassment or distress’ – introduced in the 1986 Public Order Act creates a very wide scope for criminal prosecution). The language of official documents describes these laws as being “part of a toolkit”. The aim is to enhance the power of the official. The aim is not to enhance order and thus protect civil society. There has been an explosion of “orders” such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and Parenting Orders. Orders seek to control the behaviour of recalcitrant individuals. The terms of the behavioural injunctions can be almost anything which a local authority – or other authority applying for the order – can come up with and persuade a magistrate to grant them. (Most orders are waved through by magistrates [13]). The law is no longer a standardised set of rules which apply to all. It  ‘descends’ onto each individual in a personalised way. It is, quite literally, personalised punishment. There has been a shift from the law as the guarantor of everybody’s rights to the law as, quite explicitly, a toolkit for power to do whatever power chooses.

As Appleton remarks, alongside this growth in “orders” etc we can see that “The officious state representative is relatively uninterested in actual crime, in actual violations of person or property”. The authorities intervene in a general way. They are concerned with social conditions in which crime occurs rather than in crime itself. (For example; witness how local authority Youth Justice teams often create programmes not for young offenders but for much younger young people who are deemed to be “at risk” of crime). At the same time there has been an explosion in recent years in the issuing of penalty notices – on the spot fines. These fines are ‘amoral’. As Appleton remarks, they are issued with a shrug of shoulders and can be paid online. Justice is perfunctory. There is a belief, notes Appleton, that “..society can be regulated and held together by this ever-growing pile of £75. and £80 tickets”.

Appleton explains how the traditional understanding of the law – as the enforcer of the rights of one individual over another – has eroded. In its place we have “the idea that the law is a ‘tool’ [which] suggests it is merely a detached coercive instrument, lying around, which can be used for this or that”. The authorities are no longer (even partially or hypocritically) defending some principle when they apply the law. The authorities no longer understand or respect the concept of the “rule of law”. They just understand law in its coercive aspect. Appleton notes that this creates a situation in which individual corruption can flourish. Local authority departments start to live off fines and as a result engage in “low-life practices” in order to issue as many as possible. The fine is no longer an instrument used sparingly to promote good behaviour. It is used as much as possible so as to raise money, with no regard whatsoever for the values of civil society.

Another way in which the rational and civil exercise of authority is undermined is through targets. Police officers and social workers, amongst others, may work in targets environments. The need to meet targets (in order to gain promotion for example) skews the exercise of authority. For example police officers may focus on certain easily prosecutable offences and drop others.

Chapter 8 State and Society, freedom and coercion

In this chapter Appleton cogently explains how the realm of independent civil life barely exists any more. More or less all social relations are now subject to control and regulation (we would say surveillance) by the state. Appleton gives the example, common, apparently, on US campuses of sexual encounters between students being regulated and controlled by University authorities.

In the UK the only sphere of civil life remaining outside of regulation and control by the authorities is the family. However; the authorities are making inroads even here. For example; in Scotland there is the proposed ‘named person’ scheme. Under this scheme the state appoints a busy-body to snoop on every child – and, by extension, their family. It is not necessary to have done anything wrong. It is not even necessary that there be some kind of suspicions against the family. Every family is to suffer this external monitoring by the state. Currently the scheme is on hold due to a successful Human Rights challenge in the Supreme Court. [14]

Another example we would add is the largely successful charity/social worker led campaign against all forms of physical punishment in the home. It was notable that this campaign only got off the ground after legislation was passed that made corporal punishment illegal in the state care sector in 1998. The clear inference is that these “children’s care professionals” do not object to physical punishment per se. But they are certain that they cannot tolerate a situation where they are not allowed to administer corporal punishment to children in their care but parents are. This neatly illustrates how the officious cannot tolerate the existence of a realm of independent civil life over which they have no control. As Appleton points out, before the advent of officiousness it was always understood that the realm of the state overlapped with the realm of civic life. The state had a role to support civil society and to intervene in egregious cases. But it was always accepted that civil society had its own dynamic and autonomy. It is this assumption which has been eliminated by officiousness.

The only way that freedom is exercised in this context is to coerce someone else. Freedom for officials. Coercion and control for everyone else.

Chapter 9 Opposing Officiousness 

Appleton starts this chapter by reiterating her view that “the primary cause of officiousness is the vacuum in civil life”. As we have already discussed (in our review of Chapters 2 and 3) we believe that this explanation is partial. A vacuum is part of the reality. But that vacuum is not the ‘primary cause’. We have indicated that the phenomenon of officiousness is best understood in terms of an analysis of power and money. Power is no longer content to operate through traditional authority which, ultimately, restricts it. At the same time, forms of disciplinary control are increasingly monetized. Punishment in all its forms is operated for profit. Power has abandoned its backing for authority and relocated to finance. As power has abandoned authority so authority loses any legitimacy (even the limited forms of legitimacy it had before). This explains why and how authority is now so often exercised by “low-lifes” in seemingly “random” ways as Appleton points out.

Appleton’s analysis of the ’causes’ of officiousness does not go far enough. Nonetheless Appleton’s elucidation of the phenomenon is profound. She asserts the “essential innocence and competence of social life” against the intrusions of officiousness. This is a welcome call.

Appleton points out that when people resist the intrusions of officiousness into some area of social life, such as bans on photography or dog-walking they are resisting the attempt by authority to designate ordinary, simple, social life as something inherently shady and suspicious.  Again; Appleton has a profound understanding of the issues at stake here. She notes, for example, that people often say of the DBS check that “It is only a form; if you haven’t done anything wrong it should not concern you”. But that: “…within the criminal-records check, is contained the whole question of ones’s subjection to arbitrary authority, one’s submission and unfreedom”. Each confrontation is about the principle.

Appleton cautions that campaigns for the freedom to carry out some social act should not lose sight of the fundamental issue at stake; that of the the freedom of individuals to regulate their own lives in the civic and social sphere. There is a danger that individual campaigns can take the easy way out; of campaigning not on principle but for a unique exemption from the regulation for just their particular group. If a group does this they are intrinsically supporting the system of regulation. However; Appleton takes a pragmatic viewpoint. So long as groups who are in contest with the authorities do not actively call for the suppression of other groups then their actions may in time lead to more freedom for all. However; the main aim should be to unite these protests, these localised forms of resistance, into a broader campaign which seeks to re-assert the value of independent civil life.


The essential problem in Appleton’s analysis is that she can only attempt to explain officiousness in terms of an analysis of the state. She borrows an analysis of the state from Lenin. In this model the state is understood as an organ arising out of class contradictions. The state is ‘above’ society. It acts in the interests of the capitalist minority and bears down on society with repressive measures. With this as her model Appleton then seeks to explain ‘officiousness’ as a malfunction of the state. She offers the explanation that officiousness is state authority in its ‘pure form’ – stripped of even the meaningful content of operating in the interests of the ruling class. At this point the analysis fails. Officiousness is a real phenomenon and you cannot it explain it in terms of Marxist dialectics – a purely theoretical analysis of the state. To understand officiousness – which is a real force – it is necessary to understand the forces behind it. (If the state has malfunctioned – what forces have led to that?) We have to be aware of power, how power acts, and how power is shifting and acting in new ways. The real ’causes’ of officiousness require an analysis of forces which go beyond the state.

We have indicated that in our view officiousness is a result of a significant shift in power. Power is no longer content to operate through the state and through ‘normal’ mechanisms of authority. Power has abandoned its support for traditional authority. This has left state authority floundering and acting in seemingly “random” and “low-life” ways. At the same time power has doubled back and now turns the new mechanisms of officiousness into money making opportunities.

With those limitations in her analysis of the background to officiousness mentioned it is possible to say that ‘Officious’ is a brilliant and timely book. Officiousness is indeed the defining political issue of our time. Appleton’s understanding of and ability to express the phenomenon is superb and no doubt reflects her work of several years supporting a range of different campaigns. This is easily the most important book on philosophical and political matters which this author has read in recent years. Appleton may be a voice of one crying in the wilderness. If we ignore this critical voice we may simply continue the blind march into a totalitarian money-fascist state that we are currently on course for.




1 Josie Appleton. The Corruption of Punishment. 2012.

2. See for example Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005 19) 5).

3. Corruption of the Curriculum. Civitas. 2007.

4. Manifesto Club Litter report follow-up



7. State and Revolution. Chp. 1. V. I. Lenin. First published 1917.

8. Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 Section 23.


10. See Section 38.



13. see p7



State and Revolution. V. I. Lenin

This revolutionary pamphlet was written by Lenin in August and September 1917, that is between the two revolutions in Russia. (The February uprising which led to the abdication of the Tsar and the October coup led by the Bolsheviks against the provisional government).  Lenin is a theoretician of the Revolution. The book is both theoretical and a ‘manual for the revolution’ at the same time. Lenin draws on Engels and Marx and is at pains to explain that he is offering the “pure” and correct interpretation of Marxism; against various “vulgar” interpretations which are used to justify “opportunism”. Opportunism is Lenin’s word for those who believed in parliamentary road to socialism. In this there is a certain element of religious fanaticism; only we (the Bolsheviks) are the true carriers of the faith. Of course; for Lenin, Marxism was not a faith but a theory which was based on concrete analysis of historical events which had been carried out by Marx with “the accuracy of observation characterising the natural sciences”.

The essential idea presented in this pamphlet is quite simple. The current state machinery in capitalist countries is a tool of the capitalist classes. Parliament is a “talking shop” which the gentry use as a stepping stone to subsequent careers in finance where they are rewarded for their assistance rendered to capital during their time in office. (On this point at any rate it is hard to argue with Lenin; the recent example of UK government ministers such as Blair, Osborne, Cameron and Brown enriching themselves by taking on lavishly paid “speaking engagements”, directorships and consultancies in the corporate world is a case in point). Socialism will not be brought in by winning a majority in parliament and implementing socialism through parliament. The route to Freedom and Communism is as follows: the armed proletariat must seize the current state; they must use this state power, albeit in a modified form, to suppress the oppressor class. This is now a case of the majority using state power to smash the power of the minority in contrast to the current situation where state power is used by the minority to crush the majority. Because of this difference the socialist state will be of a different type than the state under capitalism. The socialist state will be democratic rather than the false democracy of the capitalist state. Nonetheless it is still a state. After a period of this dictatorship of the proletariat because of a) an increase in productivity and b) a change in social conditions and relations it will no longer be necessary to have a state at all, of any kind. The state will “wither away”. There will be no more bureaucracy at all. Democracy itself will wither away – as democracy is, even in socialist form, only the tyranny of the majority over a minority, whereas in Communism everyone will naturally “observe the fundamental rules of social life” without any coercion at all. Under the socialist state production will be organised from the centre; workers will be paid according to how much they produce, with a deduction to maintain social infrastructure. However; while this is an improvement from capitalism in that exploitative economic relations will no longer exist (having been smashed by the armed proletariat along with the old state machinery) it still contains bourgeois ideas about individual remuneration. In the final development of the revolution, which is Communism, people will simply produce whatever they are able to and people will consume what they need to. The final goal then is Communism; no state, no standing army, no state bureaucracy, no managers, no police, everyone produces whatever they are capable of and everyone consumes what they need. All this is not proposed as a Utopia. It is inevitable. That this course of events is inevitable is the idea of applied dialectical materialism. While Lenin relies on this theory in this book he does not review the material in Marx and Engels or explain the idea. He simply accepts it. This is, after all, a short pamphlet.

Against this theory of the state and the revolution Lenin criticises “opportunists” and anarchists. The former, amongst which he includes the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries in Russia, promote the possibility of a parliamentary road to socialism. They are prepared to compromise with the bourgeoisie. In as much as the theoreticians of the “opportunists” rely on Marx they are distorting Marx. The Anarchists envisage the same end-goal as the Communists; a society without any state at all. But they have no idea how to get there. They have no understanding of the need to smash the existing state and no understanding that “it takes a state to defeat a state”.

Lenin is at pains to emphasise that his theory of the state and revolution is derived from the work of Engels and Marx, and that, in turn, this work was based on concrete analysis of historical events. It is not a Utopian theory. The events of the Paris Commune of 1871 were discussed by Marx in his book Civil War in France published in 1871. Lenin draws heavily on this work and on the forward to the work by Engels in an 1891 edition.

Chapter 1. Class Society and the State

Lenin explains that the state is the result of “the product and the manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms”. Once these antagonisms have been resolved the state will wither away. The state is used to “mediate” between economic classes. Naturally it serves the interests of the dominant class. In reality it is a repressive force.  Lenin, following Engels, explains the state entirely in terms of its role mediating class conflict. Lenin does not envisage that the state could have a role managing society quite apart its role mediating class interests. Lenin presents the idea of the eventual withering away of the state not as a Utopian suggestion but as an inevitable process. The underlying idea is that there are two phases of Communism. Firstly there is a phase, “the dictatorship of the proletariat” which immediately follows the Revolution. And this subsequently evolves into complete Communism. How does Lenin envisage the organisation of society and production in Communism? We shall see in a moment (Chapter 3) how Lenin, based on Marx and Engel’s work on the 1871 Paris Commune, has quite definite ideas about the state might look in the socialist or “dictatorship of the proletariat phase” (that is immediately following the revolution and before the withering away of the state). But he has somewhat less to say about how production and distribution might be organised in a fully developed Communist society without either owners (and their hired managers) or the state.  This would probably be explained by Lenin in the following terms: Marxist theory develops not abstractly but by the analysis of concrete historical situations. As yet there has been no lasting dictatorship of the proletariat so no historical example which could be analysed to see how this might give birth to the final condition of society – that of Communism. Lenin bases his work on the concrete historical analyses of Marx and Engels. 

Chapter 2. The experiences of 1848-1851

Throughout this work Lenin seeks to show that Marxism (the ideas of Marx and Engels) was established by analysis of concrete historical situations. In this chapter he examines how Marx analysed the 1848 Revolution in France which saw the end of the Orleans monarchy and the establishment of the Second Republic. (The Second Republic lasted for 3 years until Louis-Napoléon seized power in  a coup in 1851).

Before examining Marx’s work on the 1848 revolution in France Lenin looks at the works which Marx had written just prior to these events; The Poverty of Philosophy [1] and The Communist Manifesto [2]. Lenin quotes from the Communist Manifesto a passage which shows Marx’s formulation of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat: “We have seen above that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise [literally “promote”] the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to establish democracy”.  Having seized power the proletariat will “centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state” and it will thus “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible”. This last idea is important for Lenin. As we shall see (Chapter 5 ‘The Economic basis of the Withering Away of the State’) Lenin will explain that one of the reasons that will enable Communism to emerge from Socialism (the dictatorship of the proletariat) will be the increase in production. In Chapter 5 Lenin writes:  “This expropriation (of capital from the capitalists ed.) will make a gigantic development of the productive forces possible”. Thus Lenin takes on this idea from Marx. But, in reality, this is unlikely. Odious though it is capitalism probably does produce more overall than socialism (a planned economy). Markets do indeed allocate resources more ‘efficiently’ than planners can. Even the Bolsheviks found that some degree of market incentive was necessary to stimulate production. This was the rationale for the transition in the 1920s from War Communism (the nationalisation and state requisitioning characteristic of the Civil War period) to the New Economic Policy, under which some degree of free enterprise was permitted. At this point in his exposition however Lenin simply wishes to stress that Marx envisaged a stage when the proletariat would be “organised as the ruling class”. A consistent theme throughout this pamphlet is the theme that the path to socialism involves a revolution; a seizure of state power in the interests of the proletariat. Lenin wishes to insist on the necessity of this against on the one hand democratic socialists who believe in a path to socialism via existing constitutional means and, on the other hand, against the Anarchists who opposed all state power and authority on principal and who did not understand that it would be necessary to seize the state and use it against the capitalist class.

In this Chapter Lenin presents the classic Marxist idea that under capitalism the proletariat is concentrated together and thus can become conscious of its power to smash capitalism. The organised and armed proletariat will seize power, smash the capitalists and then be in a position for “guiding the great mass of the population – the peasantry, the petty-bourgeoisie, the semi-proletarians – in the work of organising Socialist economy”. Under Bolshevik power in the Soviet Union the peasantry were “guided” towards organising a socialist economy by being collectivised – a process which many strenuously resisted and which cost many their lives. Hundreds of thousands of others were removed from their land and deported to far-flung regions [3].  While some degree of collectivisation of farming had been attempted during the War Communism phase [4] it was under Stalin in 1928 that collectivization really got under way. Still; this did not happen under Lenin who had died in 1924.

Having established the idea of the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat and having grounded this in Marx Lenin next wishes to establish that Marx had dictated the necessity of breaking up the capitalist state machinery. It seems that on this specific point Lenin, in his citations from Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, has to slightly stretch matters. Lenin quotes Marx: “All revolutions brought this machine to greater perfection, instead of breaking it up. The parties which alternately contended for supremacy looked on the capture of this vast state edifice as the chief spoils of the victor”.  The series of revolutions which Marx had in mind were the changes of power in France in 1848-51; firstly the overthrow of the Orleans monarchy in 1848 and the establishment of the Second Republic and then the overthrow of this Republic and the establishment of the Second Empire by Louis Napoleon in 1851. From this Lenin asserts that Marx insisted on the breaking-up of the old state machinery. By emphasising this requirement for the breaking up of the old state machinery Lenin insists that the dictatorship of the proletariat can only come about by revolution. Again; Lenin is countering those “opportunists” who accepted the possibility of a non-revolutionary and parliamentary road to socialism. Lenin includes, with many scathing remarks, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries of Russia amongst the opportunists. At the time he was writing this pamphlet the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were working alongside liberal elements of the nobility in the Provisional Government. Lenin sees them as making themselves part of the old state machinery and acting against the proletariat. These theoretical ideas came to a decisive conclusion in the Bolshevik suppression of these parties in the years following the October revolution. But in this question of “breaking up” of the old capitalist state Lenin seems to go further than Marx. Whereas Marx had talked about “breaking up” the state machinery Lenin now talks about “breaking up and annihilating it”. The revolutionary fervor which Lenin is keen to ground in Marx seems at least to some extent to be his own augmentation of Marx. Lenin criticised the Mensheviks and Socialist revolutionaries in the Provisional government for being part of the bourgeois state machinery and for taking “cushy berths”. Certainly it appears that the Mensheviks did operate in the Provisional Government using the existing levers of power. But, at the same time, they used their position to make changes which could certainly be characterised as at least a start towards “breaking up” the old state machinery. Menshevik insistence led to a law which required that worker and employer disputes should be put to independent arbitration; there was an increase in state regulation of industry (that is the state taking on a new and more socialist form); there was an (albeit somewhat tokenistic) gesture in the direction of land reform with peasants being allowed to take over disused land. [5] Admittedly these reforms of the Tsarist state did not go nearly far enough to meet popular demand. This created the ground in which Lenin’s call for an ‘annihilation’ of the old state (i.e. a second revolution) met with popular approval.

While Lenin may have emphasised the revolutionary aspect, the basic shape of the idea of the State and Revolution which Lenin puts forward in this work can quite correctly be attributed to Marx. The quote comes from a letter from Marx to a fellow revolutionary Joseph Weydemeyer which was published in a magazine in 1907. This is the quote from Marx as given by Lenin:

What was new on my part, was to prove the following: (1) that the existence of classes is connected only with the certain historical struggles which arise out of the development of production [historische Entwicklungskämpft]; (2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat: (3) that this dictatorship is itself only a transition to the abolition of all classes and a classless society.

So far Lenin has clarified and insisted on the idea that the only path to Communism is through a period of dictatorship of the proletariat during which the proletariat will use state power against the capitalist classes. A violent seizing of power, a revolution, a sharp confrontation with the capitalists and all those “opportunists” who seek compromise with them in necessary. There can be no parliamentary road to socialism. The state machinery which was used by the capitalists to oppress the proletariat must be “broken up and annihilated”. It is not possible to institute socialism with this state machinery. Nonetheless a state power is needed to suppress the forces of oppression. Lenin is at pains to show that these ideas are grounded in the concrete historical analyses provided by Marx and Engels. He is at pains to show that Social Democrats who claim to be Marxists but who do not insist on the necessity of the armed revolution and the smashing of the capitalist state are imposters. In the next Chapter Lenin draws on Marx and Engels’ analyses of the 1871 Paris Commune to illustrate the form of state that we will see in the dictatorship of the proletariat phase, the transition and revolutionary phase between capitalism and Communism.

Chapter 3. Experience of the Paris Commune of 1871: Marx’s analysis

The key theme of this chapter concerns how the Communards of the Paris Commune of 1871 organised themselves. Lenin, based on Marx, takes this as a model for what the state might look like during the dictatorship of the proletariat (that is before it withers away).

Lenin quotes from a Preface added to the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels after the events of the Paris Commune: “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that ‘the working classes cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes'”. From this and taken together with Marx’s comments about the necessity of “breaking up” (see above) the old state machinery Lenin derives the theory that the armed proletariat must not simply seize the existing state institutions. They must seize power, break up the existing state institutions and create new ones. The exact form that these new ones should take is derived from the example of the Paris Commune.

Marx analysed the experience of the Paris Commune in his book The Civil War in France. [6] It is necessary to understand that Marx saw the state bureaucracy in advanced capitalist countries as a “public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism”. The state bureaucracy is simply the machinery necessary for keeping the workers down. It is a tool of the capitalists. This is why the proletarian revolution cannot simply seize the existing state and use that to implement socialism. The key elements of the administration of the Paris Commune which Marx highlights are: disbanding of the standing army and its replacement by “the armed people”; police becomes accountable to the people; all public sector officials paid the same as a working man; all public officials and judges were elected and could be revoked. The key point for Lenin is that because the capitalist state involved the oppression of the majority by the minority it was necessary to have special forces of suppression. But because the state in the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat is based on the majority no special forces of suppression are necessary. The functions of the state are no longer the possession of special forces (the police, the standing army) but of everyone. Lenin sees this as the first signs of the eventual withering away of the state altogether.

Lenin sees the proletarian state as being of a different quality to the bourgeois state. The proletarian state is democratic. It uses power to “suppress the bourgeoise and crush its resistance”. In explaining how it will be possible to run a state (the transitional state of the proletarian revolution) in a fully democratic way, with officials elected from the working people, paid the same as them, and subject to instant recall Lenin depends on the notion that the functions of the modern state have become very simple, little more than filing, and are thus easily within reach of any literate person. Thus Lenin explains that there is no need (in either the capitalist state or socialist state) for a specialised and higher-paid class of bureaucrats.

Lenin denies that state managers will have any role over the proletariat: “…we workers ourselves, relying on our own experience as workers, establishing a strict, an iron discipline, supported by the state power of the armed workers, shall reduce the role of the state officials to that of simply carrying out our instructions as responsible, moderately paid ‘managers’ (or course, with technical knowledge of all sorts, types and degrees).” It is the workers who will control the officials. It seems that in this passage with its reference to the armed workers Lenin is perhaps imaging a phase early on in the revolution when existing state bureaucrats will carry out the wishes of the workers at gunpoint. Then, perhaps, this will give way to a period of a democratic officialdom. And, in turn, even this democratic kind of officialdom will wither away as the functions of control are performed, increasingly, by each individual in turn. That is; management and bureaucracy becomes devolved and no longer a special function at all. In practice the Soviet Union found it necessary to secure the loyalty and commitment of specialists and senior officials themselves by giving them privileges (such as better flats).

One of Lenin’s aims in writing this pamphlet was, as we have already touched on, to distinguish Communism from, on the one hand, the “opportunists” who accepted the parliamentary route to socialism and, on the other, the Anarchists. Lenin explains that Communists and Anarchists both seek similar goals in the end, a society without any coercive structures at all, but that Communists understand that it is necessary to use state power to smash the resistance of the capitalist class and to organise production in the immediate post-revolutionary phase whereas Anarchists don’t. One challenge for Lenin on this point is to make it clear that Marx was not a federalist. Marx did not, says Lenin, propose a federalism of municipalities, like the Anarchist Proudhon. On the contrary Lenin insists that Marx was a centrist. However, with this, as on other points Lenin has to slightly stretch Marx to get him to say what he wants him to say. This is Marx, as quoted by Lenin, writing on the Paris commune:

The few but important functions which would still remain for a central government were not to be suppressed, as has been intentionally misstated, but were to be discharged by Communal, and therefore strictly responsible agents. The unity of the nation was not to be broken; but, on the contrary, to be organised by the Communal constitution, and to become a reality by the destruction of the state power which claimed to be the embodiment of that unity independent of, and superior to, the nation itself, from which it was but a parasitic excrescence.

Yes; Marx does refer to the “unity of the nation”; but, the reference to “few” functions for central government and a “Communal constitution” does sound to some degree, at least, like federalism. While this might not be a coalition of municipalities agreeing to cooperate (federalism)  but, rather a coalition of municipalities agreeing to adhere to a (slender) central power the distinction is a relatively subtle one. Lenin wishes to emphasise the centrist element in Marx’s ideas of how the revolutionary society should be organised.

Lenin stresses, again, how Marx proceeded by way of analysing concrete historical events. He did not propose Utopias. In the Paris Commune of 1871 Marx saw the first signs of a truly “expansive” as opposed to repressive form of government. This expansive form of government was possible solely because it was the form of government implemented by the working class. The form of government taken by the Commune enabled the working out of the economic emancipation of labour. Marx emphasises that the towns and the “working man” – by which we assume he means the industrial proletariat – were to have formed the “intellectual lead” for the rural producers. The idea that the industrial proletariat (guided and informed by intellectuals such as Lenin) was historically destined to be the force that destroyed capitalism is clearly an idea of Marx’s. This idea was central to the Bolsheviks. With this idea as their explaining force for the revolution the Bolsheviks in Russia were set on a collision course with the Socialist Revolutionaries. The  Socialist Revolutionary programme included land redistribution but did not seek the subordination of agrarian production to the state. These were two visions of socialism which were fundamentally irreconcilable. Ultimately the Bolsheviks won the struggle (which was conducted outside of any democratic chamber) and remaining SRs were suppressed after the Civil War.

Chapter 4. Supplementary explanations by Engels

In this chapter Lenin, with reference to the work of Engels, pursues the theme of the nature of the state both before and after the revolution. Lenin discusses an 1872 work by Engels on Housing. [7] The text (of Engels) makes it clear that Engels understood the need for a state during a “transition period”. This state would hold all industrial and agrarian capital in the name of the “working people”. (Interestingly; Engels himself puts this phrase in quote marks). This would include the housing stock. The state would then rent out housing and land to the people. The difference with capitalism is that in capitalism rents are paid to rentiers and private owners. Whereas in socialism rents are paid to the state who represents the people. As Lenin points out this implies “the collection of rent, a certain amount of control, and some rules underlying the allotment of houses”. Again; for Lenin this particular socialist state is simply a transition on the way to the final withering away of the state: “Transition to a state of affairs when it will be possible to let houses without rent is bound up with the complete ‘withering away’ of the state”. The state of affairs which Lenin describes wherein state authorities own public housing and rent it out on the basis of a system of control is, of course, just the system of public housing still in use in the UK. (Though with the transfer of the housing stock from Local Authorities to Housing Associations since the late 1980s the state has tried as much as possible to privatise or semi-privatise the stock [8]).

A second theme emerges from Lenin’s discussion of Engels’ treatment of the Housing question. Engels, as reported by Lenin, is at pains to contrast the Socialist revolution with the Anarchist one. In the socialist revolution industrial capital is seized collectively by the working class. In the Proudhonist (anarchist) revolution ownership is taken back from the capitalists and given to individual workers and peasants. The problem with the the idea of “the taking possession of the whole of industry by the working people” and the necessity to have some kind of a state to manage that industry (even if only in a transition period) is that it creates the potential for alienation. Not an alienation based on power and money (capitalism) but an alienation based on bureaucracy. In his praising of the democratic elements of political organisation in the Paris Commune, for example the requirement for officials to be elected, Marx is perhaps alive to the danger of a socialist state becoming overbearing and detached from the people. In the idea that in the final state of the development of society, Communism, there will be no bureaucratic functions at all Marxism appears to be fully aware of the potential for a bureaucracy to become an alienating factor in society. But, at the same time, is it really viable to have a society with no bureaucracy at all?  And in as much as there is a bureaucracy is there not then the potential for alienation? How viable is a fully elected and democratic bureaucracy? There seems to be an element of naivety in these ideas. Though Lenin’s defence against the charge he is creating naive Utopias is always that his ideas are based on concrete historical analyses and the inevitable evolution of society.

Lenin reports that Engels made it clear that Marxists saw a role for authority and the principle of “subordination” for example in the management of industrial enterprises. This against the anarchists who were simply against “authority”. However; Engels (and Lenin with him) agreed that in the long-run they too, like the Anarchists, envisaged a society without any kind of a state. The difference is that Marxism believed that the way to this state (of no state) was only possible through class struggle, the seizing of the current state and the use of state power to “break down the resistance of the bourgeoise”.

Lenin discusses another work of Engels. A critical review Engels wrote in 1891 concerning a programme of the Social Democrats in Germany known as the Erfurt Programme. [9] The authors of this programme argued for a constitutional and peaceful path to socialism. Engels is critical of this idea and suggests that it was made under legal pressure; (the Social Democrats in Germany were afraid of the reenactment of a law against Socialism). Lenin quotes Engels as saying that one can “only conceive” of a peaceful development towards Socialism in republican or very free countries. Lenin emphasises “only conceive!” and adds an exclamation mark. Once again; we see that Lenin took Marx and Engels at their most bloodthirsty. Lenin does not wish to allow that Engels seriously considered the possibility of a peaceful path to Socialism. The key theoretical point here though is that Engels was saying that Socialism is only possible through a democratic republic. Thus it was simply not possible for there to be a constitutional path to Socialism in Germany which at that time was constituted as a federation of small states.

Lenin cites a passage from this text – Engels’ criticism of the Erfurt programme – in which Engels outlines the kind of democratic republic he envisages for Socialism. This republic grants a considerable degree of self-government to provinces and local areas – no local authorities are to be appointed by the state; they are all to be locally elected. The centre has very few functions. However; (and we saw the same idea in Chapter 3 where Lenin discusses Marx’s work on the Paris Commune) this is not a federation of independent and autonomous regional entities. Rather; the local areas combine in a (Lenin’s words) “voluntary defence of the unity of the state”. And here we can see why Engels has to “conceive” that a democratic republic albeit a capitalist one, could transform to Socialism without a revolution; because it already enjoys the political form that will prevail in Socialism – political democracy. At the same time; Lenin explains that in a capitalist democratic republic class antagonisms come into sharper focus than ever. The implication appears to be that a democratic republic is thus the most propitious form for the revolution. Taken all this together it is clear that the Marxist idea is that a democratic republic, even a capitalist one, is worth striving for. It is an improvement, say on federalism or monarchism. It provides the basis either for a peaceful transition to Socialism (as Engels allows) or (as preferred by Lenin) brings class conflict into such sharp focus that revolution is inevitable.

The third text of Engel’s which Lenin discusses in this Chapter is Engels’ 1891 preface to Marx’s Civil War in France, the text in which Marx discussed the implications of the 1871 Paris Commune. Lenin quotes Engels as discussing how after every Revolution in France the bourgeois always made it its first task to disarm the workers. Lenin sees the same historical pattern at play in the events in Russia at the time he was writing, during the period of the Provincial government when the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli issued an order to disarm the St. Petrograd workers. Certainly Lenin is true to his word in advancing by the concrete analysis of history. (One problem for the Bolsheviks after the October revolution was that this was the first successful workers’ revolution in history. No longer could they look to the Marx and his concrete analyses of historical events to tell them what to do. It is entirely out of the scope of this review but certainly the political history of the Bolsheviks in Russia after the revolution shows them veering from policy to policy without a clear idea of how to implement Socialism).

Lenin quotes extensively from Engels. The key idea is that in the Paris Commune the workers developed a new form of the state. It was not the same state as the state of the old bourgeois, simply repurposed. This new form of state was democratic. (As we have already seen) state officials were elected, subject to instant recall, and paid no more than the working man’s wage. Lenin adds that in addition it should be impossible for officials in the state to use their post as a “springboard to a highly profitable post in the banks or the joint stock companies, as happens constantly in all the freest capitalist countries”. (A phenomenon that any observer of contemporary “democratic” capitalism will be all too familiar with). The democratic socialist state, of which the Paris Commune is the model, is truly democratic. In the democratic socialist state the state is already beginning to dissolve. One aspect of this is that there is no longer a full-time and permanent class of specialized bureaucratic officials. In the democratic socialist state anyone can be an official. Lenin explains why he believes this is possible: “For, in order to destroy the state, it is necessary to convert the functions of public service into such simple operations of control and accounting as are within the reach of the vast majority of the population, and ultimately, of every single individual”. There are a number of truths here; such participation in the functions of running society by each and any member of society would help develop a more democratic society and foster a sense of social membership; indeed many functions of the state can be performed by just about anyone, or by anyone with a modicum of training; the doing away with a permanent class of bureaucrats who command from above also does away with the opportunity for embezzlement, opportunism and corruption of various kinds that this creates. Nonetheless; (arguments about the inevitability of the final resolution of class conflict aside) is it really viable? For example; does everyone want to take on a role in the state bureaucracy? Is it not inevitable that classes form? That some bureaucrats establish themselves as a permanent class?

Lenin quotes from an 1894 text by Engels [10] which makes it clear how Engels, and Lenin, saw the political programme they anticipated; Engels is discussing whether the term “Social-Democratic” is a suitable one for a political party which represents the “special point of view” put forwards by him and Marx: “…the word [“Social Democrat”] may perhaps pass muster, however unsuitable it still is for a party whose economic programme is not merely Socialist in general, but directly Communist, and whose ultimate political aim is to overcome the whole state, and therefore democracy as well”. Engels went on to accept Social Democrat as the name for the political party, albeit with some reservations. Lenin elucidates Engels’s comments which underly this question of the name of the party. Lenin explains that in the end even democracy will be overcome. The explanation is this: democracy means the subordination of the minority to the majority. This requires a state. The state acts with force, violence. However; after a period of Democratic Socialism people will “… grow accustomed to observing the elementary conditions of social existence without force and without subjection.” And, so, asserts Lenin, quoting Engels: a new generation will arise which “will be able to throw on the scrap heap all this state rubbish”. And democracy along with it. The programme of the Bolsheviks was Communist not Socialist. They saw the state not as a permanent political institution worth developing but as a specific political form associated with man’s underdeveloped state. Lenin, as we have discussed above, wished to seize the state, use it (in modified form) to secure the Revolution and repress the oppressors, and, then, it would “wither away”. Given this understanding of the state it is possible to see how Lenin and the Bolsheviks regarded all those who were prepared to work with the existing capitalist (or Tsarist) state in Russia in 1917, to modify it and move it gradually through democratic and peaceful means towards socialism, as traitors to the Revolution. The ideological gulf between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks was far too great to overcome. Engels was prepared to accept the name for the party of Social Democrat while noting that it did not do full justice to the idea of Communism. Lenin is happy with Bolshevik (which means ‘majority’ in Russian and was simply a name given to the Bolshevik faction when they won a debate in the Russian Social Democratic party in 1903) but suggests that maybe ‘Communist Party (Bolshevik)’ would be better.

Chapter 5. The Economic Base of the Withering Away of the State

In this section Lenin draws on an 1875  text by Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme. [11] The Gotha Programme was the political programme adopted by the German Social Democrat party at its Congress in 1875, held in the town of Gotha. The Gotha programme was a precursor to the Erfurt Programme (1891) which Engels criticised and which criticism provided another source for Lenin, as we have seen above.

Lenin quotes Marx: “Then the question arises: what transformation will the state undergo in a Communist society? In other words, what social functions analogous to the present functions of the state will then survive?” This presents a problem for Lenin because in this passage Marx clearly anticipates that some kind of a state will exist in a Communist society. This is why he spends a full page leading up to this quote explaining why it should be understood in context, as a passing remark etc. Lenin prefers Engels with his comment that a future generation “will be able to throw on the scrap heap all this state rubbish”.

Once again Lenin explains that there is no point criticising Communism on the basis that it is an unrealistic Utopia because the vision of a transition from capitalism to socialism (the dictatorship of the proletariat) and then to Communism is historically ordained. Lenin writes: “Marx treats the question of Communism in the same way as a naturalist would treat the question of the evolution of, say, a new biological species, if he knew that such and such was its origin, and such and such the direction in which it changed”.  Lenin has already commented that Marx discusses historical and political questions with “the accuracy of observation characterising the natural science”. Marx, says Lenin, based his views on the “data concerning the evolution of society” and the irreconcilability of the interests of the bourgeoisie and working classes. Lenin makes this point time and time again. Communism is not proposing a Utopia. It is a scientific (and, for Lenin, obviously true), theory of history, politics and economics. Capitalism will “give birth” to the industrial proletariat, the class, whose historical mission it is to overthrow the capitalists, crush their resistance, and then allow the arising of a classless, non-violent, society, free of subjugation and exploitation of any kind.

Lenin acknowledges that modern capitalist states are democratic. But he explains that a number of factors mean that, in effect, it is a democracy for the rich only. The capitalists control the press. Many of the poor are too crushed by the pressures of daily life to be able to participate in politics. The rich raise up various barriers to entry to prevent the poor becoming involved in politics. (At the time Lenin was writing there were still gender and property exclusions on ‘democracy’ in the capitalist democracies. Women were still excluded from the vote in the UK. Indeed it was not until 1928 that women in the United Kingdom voted on the same basis as men). Other barriers exist based on class discrimination. It is at the core of Lenin’s view that capitalist democracy could not provide a path to socialist democracy. There is no viable parliamentary route to socialism. There had to be a violent revolution to “break the resistance” of the capitalist exploiters. We have already seen how he brushes aside the passage in which Engles countenances the possibility of a peaceful transition to socialism.

Lenin proceeds to discuss clearly two phases of Communist society. The first is the dictatorship of the proletariat which takes the form of a democratic socialist state. During this period state power, or something like it, is used to crush the last resistance of the capitalists. This state then “withers away”. It gives way to the “higher phase” of Communist society in which there is no state, no democracy and no classes (neither of capitalist and worker nor of mental worker and physical worker). At the core of the vision of a society without any state power is the idea that free of the pressures of exploitation people will just “become accustomed to the observance of the elementary rules of social life that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all school books”. This idea, that people are only selfish because of harsh social conditions and once these conditions are replaced with benign and orderly ones they will automatically become social and unselfish was at the core of the 19th century Russian novel What is to be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Lenin had read this novel and thought very highly of it: “He [Chernyshevsky] plowed me up more profoundly than anyone else… After my brother’s execution, knowing that Chernyshevsky’s novel was one of his favourite books, I really undertook to read it, and I sat over it not for several days but for several weeks. Only then did I understand its depth… it is a thing that supplies energy for a whole lifetime”. [12] And J. Frank commented that “For Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution”. [13] There appears to be a direct line from this dreamy Utopian novel – in which the characters behave with unbelieveable self-denial and altruism – to Lenin’s idea that once the harsh conditions of exploitation characteristic of capitalism are removed people will naturally blossom into unselfish and social creatures. (He allows a few “individual persons” may be given to excesses and explains that these will quickly be dealt with by peer pressure. In passing we can note that the reliance on peer pressure than than authority to regulate society is a core anarchist idea). This (it seems to this writer) is one of the fundamental problems with Communism. It places 100% of the blame for human selfishness on external social conditions. In reality, we would counter, the problem of human selfishness is not so simply solved. Though we would agree that much evil can come from harsh social conditions – we would not see this as the sole ’cause’ of the problem.

In the “first phase of Communist society”, that is socialism, workers will receive “certificates” which will permit them to claim so many goods from “public warehouses”. The means of production will be owned by the “whole of society”, but workers are rewarded according to work performed. Lenin, following Marx, explains that this principle (linking rewards to contribution) is “bourgeois” and an “injustice”. In the “higher phase of Communist society” it will be possible:  “…for society to inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability: to each according to his need”. This is Lenin quoting Marx. That is; the “injustice” that links rewards to size of contribution will be removed. Freedom will prevail. People will work voluntarily to the best of their ability and distribution will take place solely on the basis of need. There will be “no control of labour” – because everyone will gladly do their best and not complain that they may be doing more than their peer but receiving only the same. Democracy which is a feature of the first phase of Communism contains the seeds of its own overcoming. As democracy is implemented in the first phase of Communism so increasingly it renders the state more and more unnecessary. That is; more and more workers take on the business of managing production, keeping accounts and “controlling the idlers” so that there is eventually no longer any requirement for any kind of state apparatus of control. As this process proceeds, the state, even the Socialist state, will wither away. Lenin makes two major assumptions to explain how this state of affairs is possible. Firstly, he assumes that after the overthrow of capitalism and the institution of Socialism there will be a “gigantic development of the productive forces of human society”. (The implication almost appears to be that there will be so much to go round that quibbles about distribution will be irrelevant). Secondly; he assumes, as we have discussed above, that under the more benign social conditions of Socialism people will naturally become more accustomed to behaving unselfishly and according to the “fundamental rules of everyday social life”. Both these assumptions are probably somewhat naive. In the fully planned economy of the Soviet Union in the 1930s there was impressive industrial growth but this growth was not without problems. For example; a concentration on heavy industry left consumer demand unfilled. Health and ecological consequences were neglected. [14] Industrial growth under Stalin was achieved on the basis of a rigid labour discipline. And indeed on the restoration of the “bourgeois” system of higher pay for more skilled workers; [15] a step Lenin would certainly have regarded as retrograde and nothing to do even with Socialism.

It would appear that the “economic basis for the withering away” of the state was based on optimistic assumptions. These criticisms were made at the time; Lenin reports that amongst others the Menshevik Irakli Tseretel criticised the Bolsheviks for their “unreasonable Utopias”. As always Lenin’s defence to the Utopia argument is that he is not proposing to “introduce” Communism. Rather: he foresees Communism. Communism will inevitably evolve out of Socialism which will inevitably evolve out of Capitalism. This is made clear by the “profound” “genius” of Marx and his “doctrine of evolution” based as it is on the theory of dialectical materialism. Lenin does not present this theory in this short pamphlet but assumes its correctness.

Chapter 6. Vulgarisation of Marx by the Opportunists 

In this chapter Lenin criticises two theoreticians whom he saw as diluting Marxism especially on the question of the state and the relationship of the revolutionary proletariat to the state. The first was the Russian Social Democrat Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov and the second was the Czech-Austrian Socialist theoretician Karl Kautsky. Kautsky has been a friend of Engels and had been assigned by him to the task of editing Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value. Kautsky argued against more constitutional socialists; he was in favour of revolution  However, despite this Lenin saw him as an “opportunist”. After the October Revolution in Russia Kautsky was highly critical of the Bolsheviks whom he regarded as having carried out a palace coup rather than a revolution. [16]

Lenin’s criticism of Plekhanov’s work Anarchism and Socialism is that in this work Plekanhov does not consider the essential difference between Socialism and Anarchism. That is the need for Socialists to seize the state and use it against the Capitalists; as Marx had shown actually happened in the Paris Commune.Plekanhov had criticised the anarchists but had, according to Lenin, failed, in doing so, to emphasise the key point; that socialists believe in the state – albeit as a transitory political form.

In discussing Kautsky’s refutation of another socialist, Eduard Bernstein, who had argued against the necessity of seizing the state Lenin’s criticism is that Kautsky’s criticism is not deep enough. Lenin says that Kautsky does not uphold the idea of the necessity of seizing the state with sufficient clarity and vigour. Lenin then discusses another work by Kautsky, The Social Revolution. Again; it seems that while Kautsky did support the idea of the necessity of conquering state power he did not make it clear that this could only be achieved through a violent revolution. Thus Lenin castigates Kautsky for allowing the “opportunist” possibility of a peaceful transition to Socialism. (Ironically we can note that Engels himself had allowed just this possibility. See Chapter 4. above). Another irony is that Lenin criticised Kautsky for the following “backward step” in his presentation of Socialism. Kautsky had written: “In a Socialist society there can exist, side by side, the most varied forms of economic enterprises – bureaucratic, trade union, co-operative, private…”. Yet this seems to be quite a good description of the state of affairs in the Soviet Union during the 1920’s when the economy was run under the New Economic Policy; a policy actively supported by Lenin. Lenin also criticised Kautsky for envisaging that industry could be run by parliaments of workers rather than by direct worker control. (Lenin explained that the the idea of elected bodies was still bourgeois in its flavour; he referred back to Marx’s reports on the Paris Commune. Direct worker control means that all officials are elected, subject to instant recall and receive the same pay as the working man. A “parliament of workers” seems, t Lenin, to imply a standing bureaucracy). Lenin thus sets out the pure line as being for direct worker control of industry. But in truth the experience of the revolution in Russia was that what worker control there had been during the revolutionary period was increasingly clamped down on as more power and management decisions were taken by the centre. Symbolic of this transformation was the crushing of a rebellion by sailors in Kronstadt in 1921. The sailors had demanded a return to the original goals of the Bolshevik revolution; a decentralised, democratic soviet state.Their slogan was “all power to the soviets not the parties”. The rebellion was crushed by armed force. The party prevailed. Or, again, in 1921 the metalworkers Union in the Soviet Union voted to support a faction in the Communist party which took a line against the official Bolshevik position. The Central Committee of the party responded by appointing its own men to lead the Union. According to the political scientist Ronald Suny the weakening of the soviets (workers’ committees) started almost immediately after the revolution; elections were postponed and the soviets were used as an apparatus of administration by the centre, losing their representative character. The Trade Unions were used to manage production and lost their character of protecting workers’ rights, and so on. [17] According to Suny: “The Left’s dream of worker management or union control of the economy had been deferred indefinitely”.

Lenin criticizes another work of Kautsky; the latter’s arguments with another socialist Antonie Pannekoek. The charge here is, again, that Kautsky “slurs over” the need to seize state power. Lenin says that by using the phrase “conquer” Kautsky allows for a peaceful and electoral transformation to Socialism. Furthermore; Kautsky allowed for the necessity of a bureaucratic function in the Socialist state. Kautsky, says Lenin, simply imagines that one can take over the existing state apparatus and operate it in a Socialist manner. For Lenin this is “opportunism”. Kautsky has not understood the lessons of the Paris Commune which, as Marx explained, showed the need to seize and at the same time transform the old state power. (See Chapter 3). But, again, in practice the ideas of elected and truly accountable bureaucrats subject to instant recall by the workers did not outlast the Bolshevik revolution by very long. Were Kautsky’s more moderate ideas not in reality more feasible?

Lenin explains that the failure of “primitive democracy” (a term used by the critic Bernstein and which equates to Lenin’s idea of direct worker control) in the Trade Unions movement (in England in the 19th century) does not show the failure of the idea; because this took place under capitalism. It will, he explains, be a different matter under Socialism when “all will take a turn in management and will soon become accustomed to the idea of no managers at all”. Lenin is fond of explaining that the only correct way to do political theorising is to follow the example of Marx and limit yourself to analysis of concrete historical examples. If we take the concrete example of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia however it does not support the theories which Lenin expounds and insists on in this pamphlet. Many of the principles of Marxism which Lenin castigates “opportunist” Socialists for abandoning in theory prior to 1917 he himself abandoned in practice once the Bolsheviks came to power. In the 1930s Stalin gave up even more of the theoretical principles of Marxism.


In The Order of Things [18] Foucault analyses Marxism as a form of knowledge which is eschatological. Foucault sees a new episteme developing after 1800. On the one hand this new episteme, which took man as its starting point developed into positivism (of which phenomenology is a variant), and, on the other hand, there was an eschatological strand – of which Marx was a prime example. But this “dream of the end of history” which is certainly a “Utopia” is strictly based in the forms of thought peculiar to the 19th century and cannot exist outside these forms of thought. Reading Lenin’s State and Revolution we can observe the eschatological nature of Marxism. History is explained by the theory of the struggle of two opposing classes. The denouement takes the form of a final conflict. And, then; peace. It is an eschatological theory and the termination point of this eschatology is now; 1917. In reality; as history has shown; the Revolution happened, but history did not end. A certain kind of state was instituted. This state developed in a certain way. But the “higher phase” of Communism did not in fact evolve out of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And, arguably, the dictatorship of the proletariat (“first phase of Communism”) itself hardly got off the ground. In the Soviet Union it was the Communist Party who ruled rather than the proletariat. The latter increasingly found themselves dictated to by the Party hierarchy. Many aspects of Socialist democracy – such as workers’ Committees in factories – did not outlive the heady days of the revolution for very long. Finally, the state instituted by the Revolution collapsed and – history continues. In believing that the Revolution was some kind of inevitable process of historical evolution (a fact akin to facts of the natural sciences)  – and that he was living at that time in history when history itself was about to conclude Lenin was living in some kind of a dream. After the February Revolution, the Mensheviks were willing to work with the Provisional government and the liberals. They believed that a slower move towards socialism was preferable. And, as we have seen, they criticised the Bolsheviks for their implausible Utopias. The Bolsheviks suppressed them. But it was the Mensheviks who probably had more sense and whose ideas were more practical and realistic.

The basic idea of this pamphlet is this: the state is the product of class conflict. It is inevitable (akin to a law of evolution) that this conflict will be resolved. When it is finally resolved there will be no more state. This change can only come about by an armed revolution. In this revolution the proletarian class will seize the state by armed force and will suppress the capitalist class. This is the dictatorship of the proletariat. (First phase of Communism). During this phase a modified form of state power will continue to exist. The proletariat needs this to completely eliminate the capitalist class. This period is characterised by a full participatory democracy; for example all officials will be elected. The state will own all the means of production in the name of the people. Out of this will emerge (exactly when cannot be foretold) a new form of society. In this new form of society there is no state power at all. No bureaucratic function. No police or standing army. No wages and no rents. Everyone will produce to the best of their ability so that everyone can consume what they need. There will be very little need for social regulation as people, freed from the burden of oppression, will just know how to behave. Occasional individual aberrations will be immediately dealt with by the individual’s neighbours. (This is the Higher phase of Communism). This time (1917) is in fact the time in history when the Revolutionary victory of the working class is about to take place, decisively moving history onto a completely new phase. If the theoretical basis for these ideas is unsound then in the end all Lenin was doing was presenting various unrealistic Utopias.

Lenin’s attitude towards Marx and Engels is reverential. At times Lenin reads like a follower of a religious leader insisting on the absolute correctness of everything the prophet said. Opponents (from within the same Church) are criticised on the grounds that they are not following the master correctly. Only Lenin and the Bolshevik party interpret the true words of the master correctly. There can be no deviation from this. There is something in this of a religious nature.

As we have seen Lenin was almost more Marxist than Marx. He consistently takes a “hard line” and emphasises the revolutionary and violent side of the message. This pamphlet was written on the eve of the October Revolution. Lenin is putting theoretical revolutionary backbone into the Bolshevik party. He is especially keen to emphasise the need for a complete break with the capitalists. He is at pains to denounce the theoretical impurity and compromised position of all those in the broader socialist camp who saw the possibility or even the desirability of a compromise with the liberals and parliamentarians. It goes without saying that this is a text which justifies the subsequent actions of the Bolshevik faction in seizing power – firstly when they closed down the Provisional government and then, later, when they closed down the elected Constituent Assembly (in which they had lost out to the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries). This was theory over democracy. The theory justified violence and suppression of opposition – even of socialists who did not share the same revolutionary approach.

The overall sense of this pamphlet is that it is rigid and inflexible. The real events of history are understood not pragmatically but through the lens of a strict theory. This adherence to strict theory gave an inflexible cast of mind, which, in turn, paved the way, perhaps, for the justification of political terror. Rather than allowing elements of socialism to develop organically, and bringing people with them, the Bolsheviks, having seized power, tried to organise society from the top down. Ultimately this project failed. It is tempting to say that this was the proof of the pudding. (Apologists for Marxist-Leninism continue to insist that the ingredients were wrong; but this is no more than an endless postponement of the Second Coming).

State and Revolution is essential background reading for anyone trying to understand the political history of the Soviet Union.




1. Published in Brussels. 1847

2. Published in London. 1848

3. Ronald Suny. The Soviet Experiment. Oxford University Press 1998. Chp 3. p91.

4. Ibid. Chp. 9. p226

5. Robert Service. Russia. Penguin. 1998. Chp. 2 p37

6. Marx. The Civil War In France. 1871

7. Friedrich Engels. The Housing Question. London and New York 1933

8. Housing Associations can now seek private finance. Guardian

Professor David Mullins. August 2010 – see page 10

9. Neue Zeit XX-1 1901-1902 p8. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Critique of the Social-Democratic Programmes. London and New York 1933

10. Internationales aus dem Volkstaat. 1894. Friedrich Engels.

11. Karl Marx. Critique of the Gotha programme. In a letter to Bracke 1875 and published in Neue Zeit IX-I in 1891.

12. What is to be done? Nikolai Chernyshevsky. Trans. Michael M. Katz. Cornell University Press 1989. The citation is in the introduction by the translator and William G. Wagner and is from N. Valentinov “Chernyshevsky and Lenin” an article from Новый журнал (New Journal) no. 27 1951

13. Ibid. 12. Also quoted in the introduction. – From J. Frank N. G. Chernyshevsky: A Russian Utopia. Southern Review 3. 1967

14. Ibid 3. Chp 3. section: ‘Building State Capitalism’. Chp 10.

15. Ibid. 3. Chp 10. section: “Stalin’s working class” which discusses measures introduced in 1929 including: loss of trade union autonomy, managers received right to fire workers. In 1931 prison sentences were introduced for labour discipline infractions.


17. Ibid. 3. Chp. 5 section: The Weakening of the Soviets

18. The Order of Things. Michel Foucault. Routledge 1989. (First published as Les Mots et les choses in France in 1966)

The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016

Taylor Wessing LLP is an international law firm with offices in 33 countries around the world. Since 2008 they have been sponsoring a major portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Taylor Wessing specialises in several fields of law. These include: energy, financial institutions, healthcare, life sciences and private wealth.

Out of 4,303 images submitted (from 1,842 photographers) for the 2016 prize, 57 were selected for the exhibition. Three winners are declared.

The winner of the 2016 Taylor Wessing prize (who receives £15,000.00) this year was Claudio Rasano. His image is of a South African schoolboy in uniform. The image was captured with a medium format film camera, [1] outdoors in natural light, against a plain background. It is a compelling image. Certainly it was a good choice for the first prize. It is difficult to say how a photo – which is essentially a school photo – should work so well. It helps that the subject has a frank, sympathetic, and somewhat submissive look. And that he is quite good looking. The composition is pretty simple; just boy and tie. The tie is set off to one side, and the edge of the tie forms a line with the boy’s pronounced cheek-bone. Had the tie been in place, in the centre of his shirt, underneath his jacket, the image would have lacked this strong line. (Was this placed, or a happy accident? Only Claudio Rasano knows). This is a strong and simple composition of an attractive subject with the added allure of his submissiveness. His submissiveness makes us feel good, and safe. No threats here. Even a slight hint of erortic availability.

The second prize went to Joni Sternbach for her image of a surfing couple. The image was captured with a view camera onto a wet collodion plate. This is a process where a positive of the image is formed directly onto a chemical coated plate inserted into the camera. The image is developed directly on the same plate – and at the same time as it is taken. (Which means that the developing chemicals and tank have to be present at the scene of the shooting). Personally this critic has a strong reaction against the image. The young woman’s pose seems to speak of a kind of self-absorption which he finds extremely unattractive. The image has a dated quality. It could have been taken in the 1970s. Quite possibly the use of the wet collodion process, naturally associated with old photographs – and a toned black and white tonal range – subtracts from the image that element of location in time which is typically deducible from the kind of camera and film used. The male in the image has a strong animalistic presence. Perhaps this critic’s dislike for the image is down to the fact that he really can’t see any intellectual qualities in the subjects with which he could engage. That said; it is certainly a professional piece of work; and this is just a personal reaction. Others may well like this image.

Third prize went to Kovi Konowiecki for two images of a Jewish settler at home in the West Bank. One is an image of the father and the other of his two daughters. The image was taken “at their home in an Israeli settlement about 10km south of Jerusalem in the mountains of the West Bank”. This map of the occupied West Bank seems to suggest that this is a West Bank settlement. In 1979 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 446 which stated that:

the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East [2]

More recently, the UN Security Council has passed Resolution 2334 which re-affirms this position. The UN Press Release concerning this Resolution declares:

The Security Council reaffirmed this afternoon that Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity, constituting a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two States living side-by-side in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders. [3]

The images – and more to the point, their selection in a prestigious international photo competition, seems to be one in the eye for the Palestinians and for UN Resolution 2334 and its predecessors. Slightly strange one might think from an international law firm. (The catalogue information is reticent about the name of the settlement. The sitter’s name is given as Shimi Beitar Illit. Beitar Ilit is the name of an illegal settlement in occupied Palestinian land 10km south of Jerusalem). [4]

The images were taken with a full-frame 35mm format digital camera using natural light. A large window on one side of the sitters seems to provide most of the illumination. The background is a highly decorated floral wall-paper. The window light is flattering to the man but not so flattering for the two young girls – whose faces on the side away from the window are cast into shadow. (Except the shadow slightly complements the frown that one of them is wearing). The sitters are well-dressed and look characterful. But the lighting could have been better handled. The judges comment that they were “immediately drawn to Konowiecki’s striking and ornate portraits, which provide a glimpse into an otherwise inaccessible community”. One suspects that it is the difference that appeals to them; though a Jewish settlement 10km from Jerusalem is hardly “inaccessible”. As we continue to review a selection of other images we can see that the judges are, in general, drawn to images of subjects who are not usually photographed; the very old, those with extreme special needs, those in extremes of hardship, older people exploring their bodies, and so on.

The three winning images (taking the last two as a single entry) can be seen on the National Portrait Gallery web site.

Following are some comments about some of the other images; which strike this author particularly.

Lauria Griffiths and Jonty Tacon offer a nice image of two boys in Lithuania posing with, apparently, a shared bicycle. This is a well-composed image, with a strong central line (a tree placed between the two subjects) creating an even symmetry. A piece of children’s playground apparatus off to one side, the same colour as the bike, balances the composition and also breaks the symmetry, which would otherwise be oppressive. The red of the bicycle complements the autumn colours of the trees. This is a nice evocative image of the trust and friendship between the two boys. It also gives a bit of flavour of life in this corner of Lithuania. It was shot with a full-frame digital camera using natural light.

Another duet, Karl Ohiri ad Riikka Kassinen, shot a boy-scout in Lagos, Nigeria. The photograph was taken in the street using a plain yellow backdrop. This image was also captured with a full-frame digital camera and with natural light. The colours of the boy’s uniform, yellow trousers and a green shirt, create an image which is composed of strong, simple, colours. It is a nice, clean image. The accompanying text in the catalogue refers to the frayed neckerchief and “uniform too large for his small frame” as evidence of the subject’s “vulnerability”. Some people of course want to see “vulnerability” everywhere (except perhaps where it needs to be seen, see below). – Possibly the subject does look a tiny bit “vulnerable” (if you look hard); but then he is a young boy taken off the street for an impromptu photo, so it is hardly surprising.

Matt Hamon has taken two images of people in the US State of Montana who are part of a group practising primitive living skills. The images were taken with a medium format camera and the photographer used a mix of flash and natural light. It may be a matter of taste but the use of flash, while well executed, is not altogether appealing for this writer. The majority of the portraits in the exhibition, perhaps surprisingly, use only natural light and this perhaps makes these ‘flashed’ images stand out. The colours and the settings in these images are interesting. One can get a sense of the natural and outdoor’s based life which is being depicted. The image of the man with his axe, who is engaged in chopping wood, is particularly strong. But, somehow, in an exhibition full of images shot only with natural light, they jar just a little bit. It may be a matter of taste, and in any event, they are striking images.

Another strong image is the portrait of UK politician Nigel Farage by Charlie Clift.  Charlie Clift shoots editorial and commercial work. His studio lit shot of Nigel Farage shows the influence of both genres. It is a stylish picture but also authentic. It gives an impression of Mr Farage’s character. (The author of the catalogue text accompanying this images chokes a little over Nigel Farage and has to qualify the subject as someone “who divides opinion – celebrated and criticised for his politics and opinions in equal measure”. They can’t just say ‘Nigel Farage’ without some kind of arms-length qualification). The image is shot with a full-frame digital camera. It looks like quite a simple lighting setup. Possibly just one large softbox or umbrella in front of and just off-centre to the subject. The simple background (with the turquoise colour matching the table which Farage is leaning on) supports the image well. Cigar in hand Farage steals the show. A well-executed piece of work.

One of this reviewer’s favourite images is the monochrome image of a shipping company chairman sitting in his office with 3 staff. The image was taken in London by Hania Farrell also using a full-frame digital camera. However; despite being shot indoors only natural light is used. (A slow shutter speed and wide aperture have allowed a low ISO so as to preserve detail. The wide angle has meant that a reasonable depth of field has been maintained despite the use of the wide aperture). The chairman is seated, and looking down. His three staff members are all looking at him. One perhaps as an equal but the other two, perhaps more junior members of staff, stand, as if waiting for instructions. The sense of waiting creates a palpable sense of expectancy. The viewer is, almost painfully, left waiting for something to happen. But what? The composition has been aided by certain structures in the room; such as a triangular alcove, which is used to frame the staff members. This image is a great piece of work because it generates a whole sense of enigma and mystery out of a single print. Wonderful.

Tom Merilion offers two images of street children in Tanzania taken in a studio using natural light. The camera used was a full-frame mirrorless digital model. (The Sony A7R II). The first image is a tinker photographed with his bag over his shoulder. The second shows a young woman called Anastazia, in  a red dress. There is no indication of how Anastazia makes her living on the streets. The practice of taking street urchins off the street and photographing them in a studio was a practice not uncommon in Victorian times. As the catalogue text says this “disconnects” them from their environment. The catalogue attempts to persuade us that this allows the focus to shift to small details. The burnt arm of the young girl. The Chelsea football glove which the boy “proudly” wears. On the other hand this “disconnect” has the effect of trying to make a fashion shoot out of abject poverty and desperation. Seeing the young people in their environment might send a political message. Photographing them in a studio where their “expressions and poses” become the subject of attention hides the social and economic context from sight and invites us to admire the individuals. While we are informed that the photographer took the images for a charity which works with “vulnerable children in Tanzania” the young people themselves are not described as vulnerable. On the contrary we are told that “their expressions and poses suggest strength and quiet dignity in the face of intensely difficult lives”. There is no sense that the author of the catalogue text considers that it might be better if such opportunities to demonstrate “quiet dignity” did not exist. The author of the catalogue text can consider a boy “vulnerable” because his Scout uniform is too big. But desperate street children are praised for their endurance. We have to accept that the charity which commissioned this work was acting in good faith. We also have to assume that the photographer was acting in good faith. It is, however, a disturbing piece of work.

Rachel Molina has taken a photograph of an elderly woman in care home. The hand of the carer is visible in the shot and rests on the main subject’s shoulder. Once again we are invited to consider the subject as “vulnerable”. No “quiet dignity” here. It is a good portrait; which gives us insight into the life of the sitter. The composition is aided by the contrasting colours; the red of the main sitter’s top, and the blue on the sleeve of the carer. Depth of field and framing/cropping are handled well. The image was shot indoors with a full-frame digital camera using natural light. The catalogue text assures us that the subject is “attentively cared for”. That may well be. It may be reading too much into the image but for this viewer the care looks quite professional. Not as “intimate” as the catalogue text suggests. Questions about institutionalised v. family care which could be raised by such an image are thus not addressed. We are invited to accept that institutional care is “intimate” and “attentive”. A message which would be welcomed by one of the private companies which make their profits out of running care homes in the UK.

Fabio Forin has provided an image of his boyfriend posing on a common in South-East London. The catalogue text gushes about the “gracefully lifted arm” and the “carefree reverie” of the pose. This is reading too much into the image. The pose is affected and hardly the unconscious “reverie” advertised. Nonetheless the composition is well-constructed with (as the catalogue text observes) the body of the subject positioned so as to balance the “waistline” of the subject against the line of the edge of the hill on which he is standing. The monochrome image was taken with a cropped sensor DSLR. It is a good image. But it is not as described in the catalogue text. Precisely; the subject is not in unconscious reverie and this in turn is inevitably linked to the sexual orientation of the subject. To claim that some look is there which is not is the result of an ideological treatment which prioritises a “correct” vision over seeing reality.

Paul Stuart has taken an image of John Harrison, who is over 100 years old. And who looks bright and alive. The image was taken with a medium format digital camera in the subject’s home. Studio lighting seems to have been used though no information about lighting is supplied by the photographer. The subject, shot half-turned away from the camera, head and shoulders only, looks intently into the middle-distance. The pure black background brings attention to his face. Careful control of depth of field, and the very high resolution of the camera help to produce a striking image of very high quality. The expression of the subject indicates that the photographer had managed to build up a good rapport with him. Taking good portraits is more than just owning an expensive camera and knowing how to use it.

An image which is definitely that of a vulnerable sitter is the portrait of a special needs teenage girl taken in Mongolia by photographer Jon Prosser. The subject was born blind and has additional severe learning difficulties. She is photographed from the waist up, seated on a chair in her home. The subject is presented in profile. As the catalogue text remarks, the carefully arranged bow on the girl’s hair speaks of a “doting” mother. The sitter has an expression as if she is searching the air, trying to read her surroundings. This is perhaps how she navigates her world. The portrait thus does a good job, of giving us insight into the character of the sitter. The photographer has used just natural light, perhaps a window behind the photographer. As with Paul Stuart’s image of a centenarian we can sense that the photographer had made a real connection with his subject. The image was shot using just natural light with a cropped sensor mirrorless camera.

Karsten Thormaehlen has taken an image of a US lady who reached the age of 116. Susannah Mushatt Jones was the daughter of sharecroppers. Her grandparents have been slaves (or “had lived in slavery” as the catalogue text tactfully puts it).  Sadly, Susannah Mushatt Jones died in May 2016. This is a great portrait. In this author’s view it could have been a contender for the main prizes. Technically it is far better than the two images which won third prize.  It is a tightly cropped head and shoulders shot, lit by (apparent) window light to one side. The subject is wearing slightly dated clothing but which nonetheless aids in creating a sense of her character; a head-scarf and a blouse with an elaborate bow. (Again), a simple (dark) background helps to bring our attention to the face. The subject’s eyes are closed as if she is looking back at her memories. This device helps bring us into the picture and helps to convey a sense of the subject’s long life full of experience. It is a simple portrait but manages to convey a real feeling for the subject and to connect us to her as we contemplate her looking inwards. It was shot with a full-frame DSLR.

The cover picture on the exhibition catalogue is a profile head and shoulders shot of a man photographed in Shoreditch High Street in London. The subject, originally from Guinea-Bissau, is wearing a smart jacket, natty shirt and crimson red hat. He is shot against a simple white background. (We aren’t told how the photographer managed to find this studio like background to hand in Shoreditch High Street). Shot in profile, we learn less about the subject than we do about some of the other subjects in the exhibition. Perhaps this in turn tells us that part of taking a good portrait is a period of getting to know the subject and establishing a rapport. In this case we are told that the meeting between photographer and subject was a brief encounter. That being so a profile shot, making the most of the subject’s dress was perhaps the best approach. It is a nice shot, though lacking in the depth of character portrayal that we see in many of the other portraits in this exhibition. The photographer, David Cantor, used a cropped sensor mirrorless camera.

A special prize for new work was awarded to photographer Josh Redman for a striking and powerful image of a nude 83 year old woman. The subject is photographed against a black background. In  a disconcerting way we cannot tell if she is lying on her back or standing up. This creates an effect where she seems to be floating in space. Studio lighting has been used very effectively to add drama to the image. In a way, though, we learn less about the subject herself and more about a type of woman: “a mature woman who has spent a lifetime caring for others” in the words of the photographer. No information was provided by Mr Redman about the camera equipment he used.

For this reviewer the least appealing images in the exhibition are the two of a group of Devon teenagers. These are two photographs by photographer Sian Davey of her teenage daughter and her group of friends in Devon from (heaven help us) an entire series dedicated to this subject. Unlike the other images in the exhibition these are not considered portraits. They are unposed or semi-posed group shots taken in situ as people are going about their lives. In this case teenagers chilling in a field. The backgrounds are not, as with most of the other images in this exhibition, controlled; they are the backgrounds as we find them; a clutter of trees and shrubbery. The two images are shot in a park or wooded area. In both cases the frames crop though subject’s heads or bodies. It is difficult to see why these images were included in the final 57 images unless they were included to balance out the overall trend in favour of very simple, uncluttered backgrounds. The virtue of the first image is that the central figure in the group, the daughter herself, has quite a strong presence. (Children of photographers are often highly photogenic as they have been trained to the art from a young age). The second image shows a group of teenagers in shorts and swimwear and belongs to the genre of image which gains its effect by showing a lot of uncovered skin on young subjects. However; the real problem with these photographs is not in their technical execution. Indeed, both images show good colour control, exposure and depth of field management. The problem is that what they portray is the utterly vacuous and hedonistic lives of this group of teenagers who stare from the (first) image with a singular lack of intelligence, as they roll their roll-ups, and play with an expensive digital camera. Rather than “Martha” these images could be re-titled “Vacuity in the age of capitalism”. The juxtaposition between these images of a group of vacuous British teenagers and the very serious expressions on the faces of the two Tanzanian street children shot, in the studio, by Tom Merilion could not be greater.


The Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016 is a political project. It is political propaganda. It is pushing the one message that Big Brother is constantly pushing these days. The main themes are all here: an exaggerated respect for sexual deviancy, a tendency to identify and over-prioritise “vulnerability” everywhere, in the old and in the young, except in those whose vulnerability is the direct result of economic exploitation, who are, instead, praised for their tenacity (“resilience” in some narratives). A blending of the modern and progressive politics of the self (gay rights, the sexuality of older women) together with a completely unreconstructed Victorian outlook (street children photographed in the studio) and corporate politics: the Israeli occupation is accepted de facto and this does not need to be discussed because the Palestinians are a non-people. Whether or not it was the aim of the Partners of Taylor Wessing to produce an installation of political propaganda for power, or whether this message is something solely to do with whoever wrote the text in the catalogue and for the message boards accompanying the pictures in the exhibition it is not possible to say. At any event all 6 judges, 2 from the National Portrait Gallery, a museum curator, a magazine editor, a photographer and a partner from Taylor Wessing seem to have been unaware that promoting a portrait of a Jewish family from the settlement movement at home in the West Bank without mentioning the political context was a contentious thing to do.

All the photographers whose work appears in the exhibition are being used. Of course they are being used to promote the corporate sponsor of the project. But, more insidiously, they are being used to promote the agenda of power – with its over-focus on the politics of the self as it continues, unabashed, its Victorian and imperialistic politics of the ruled and the rulers.

The quality of the work in the exhibition is (with one or two exceptions) exceptional. Most of the images are high-class portraiture. A simple background. Uncomplicated lighting. Attention to detail in the framing and cropping. Absolute technical control of depth of field and color balance. Simple compositions. An expression on the subject which allows something about their character to come out in the photograph. In most cases the lighting is expertly handled. In many cases, and the best images, are those where it is evident that the photographer took the trouble, or had the time to, to get to know her subject(s). These images especially work because they convey a real sense of the character of the subject. Which is what portraiture is about. It is worth visiting the exhibition or, at least buying the catalogue.

Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2016

National Portrait Gallery, London until 26th February 2017.



1. The National Portrait gallery has, helpfully, published technical information for the images in the exhibition.




Review: Celebration of Awareness by Ivan Illich

This book is a collection of illich’s papers and presentations on a range of themes. Quite a few concern the role of the Church in the modern world. Others are concerned with questions of the developing world and how best to provide aid. The book was first published in 1971. The thoughts and insights in it are if anything more relevant today.

1. A Call to Celebration

This was a manifesto which Illich produced with a group of friends in 1967.

Perhaps rather infused with the tone of the late sixties, early seventies. A call to live a life of self-realisation and mutual co-operation. There is no critical discussion about the lack of a unitary set of values to live by in the West. People are just enjoined to pick a value system which embodies values of self-realisation and non-dominion – and work it out themselves. (That said; what else can one do in the West?)

The call is explicitly socialist:

to celebrate our joint power to provide all human beings with the food, clothing, and shelter they need to delight in living

It also reflects a sixties concern for “expressing one’s feelings”:

to be responsibly aware of your personal ability to express your true feelings and to gather in their expression

This piece also makes clear that Illich was a proponent of the model of “pre-figurative change” rather than revolution. In the model of pre-figurative change individuals and groups are called upon to live, now, the kinds of life that they wish to see as the future of humanity. (In our review of Chp. 12 below we consider the possible weakness of this as a model of effecting social change. Essentially; it does not fully address the power of power to frustrate change).

However; there is some awareness of the political situation in this piece. For example the piece acknowledges systemic problems which mean, for example, that industry must always accept whatever innovations increase productivity and then must use whatever methods of advertising ti can to sell the resulting (over-produced) goods. This is an acknowledgement that economic systems not just cultural attitudes are the problem. And, especially timely at the present time (2017 – with concern about “information wars” in the media), there is an awareness of the role that the media plays is selling these destructive systems as good and beneficent. It is possible that the language in this piece which explicitly discusses “confronting existing systems and values” did not derive from Illich, but from one of the other contributors. These ideas are not present in the other essays in this book.

2. Violence: A Mirror For Americans

A lot packed into a short paper. Illich is good because he realises that Americans do not invade and bomb the world because they are evil. The truth is far more alarming than that. The problem is that they are idealists:

Fundamentally this is the same war fought on three fronts; it is the war to “preserve the values of the West”. Its origin and expression are associated with generous motives and a high ideal to provide a richer life for all men. But as the threatening implications of that ideal begin to emerge, the enterprise grinds down to one compelling purpose: to protect the style of life and the style of death that affluence makes possible for a very few; and since that style cannot be protected without being expanded, the affluent declare it obligatory for all.

The mission of the US to spread its way of life to the whole planet derives from a naive belief in the superiority of the American system. They are not cynical and evil. They really believe that they can spread the boons of living life the American way to the whole planet.

However; for practical reasons, this is not possible. The levels of consumption cannot be sustained on a global scale. What happens then is that only a small elite in a target country adopts Western liberal values and consumption levels. They then have to be protected by arms. (This paper was of course written at the time of the Vietnam war). Furthermore; the population reacts more against the imposition of Western idols than they do against the sheer fact of military domination. There are some passages here which could almost be taken as prophetic in connection with Al-Qaeda and militant Islamic groups. For example:

If I read present trends correctly, and I am confident that I do, during the next few years violence will break out mostly against symbols of foreign ideas and the attempt to sell these.

Finally; Illich comments that once the poor take guns into their hands they become at risk of being led astray – of becoming not a peasant army, but a force for evil and gangsterism.

3. Not Foreigners, but foreign

This paper is about the large-scale influx of people from Puerto Rico to New York city in the late 1940s. As such it does not have an immediate relevance to British readers of today. Except that Illich brings to his discussion of this matter his usual patient insightfulness. Immigrants can be welcomed as foreigners but not simply as foreigners – that would be condescending. On the other hand they are not already ‘American’ (or ‘British’). Either approach avoids seeing the other in the other. In considering their assimilation (a much better word than ‘integration’ which implies a one-way process) it is necessary to consider what is unique about their heritage and background. How do their own customs map onto the new life? All of this could of course (and perhaps should) be delivered as a lecture to many in the UK today who believe that immigrants are ok only so long as they pretend to be British (and, usually, ‘white’ as well).

4. The Eloquence of Silence

This piece is a “points for meditation” piece which was delivered by a participant (possibly Illich?) at an evening prayer meeting for a group of (mainly) priests training to work with Spanish-speaking Puerto Ricans in inner city New York in the fifties.

The mediation discuses how simply learning the language of another is not enough to be able to be in solidarity with him. Illich walks us through several stages of silence, in positive and negative aspect and interpreted in terms of Christian theology. The context is the ‘silence of the missionary’. Will he simply learn the language of the native people to whom he has been sent, or will he learn about the silences in their language as well? Silence in prayer is linked to silence before the language of the other and contrasted with one whose pauses in speech are merely delays while he prepares the next platitude or even the silence of one who is busy preparing hostile words. Beyond this kind of silence is the silence which is beyond words altogether. Here one faces the Word (logos) in silence or one turns away from Him in silence. And this too has an analogy with the situation of the missionary. Should he simply learn the language and preach in order to bolster his own ego he will not connect with the natives – he will be in a kind of a hell.  Ultimately the missionary must know the silence of the Christian mystery; the redemption of mankind by God who sent his Son into the world to suffer at the hands of men and thus redeem them.

The text can be read simply in terms of a reminder that communication is not just about blasting the other with words learned from the dictionary (like the caricature of the Englishman shouting ‘merci’ to the French). And in terms of Christian missionary work one can clearly see how this would be such poignant advice. The text is redolent with Christian doctrine. For non-Christians this may seem a little like a cult. Phrases like “only a Christian believes in the Word as coeternal silence” sound like a Christian claim to religious exclusivity. Nonetheless the article can be read as being a sensitive call to remember the value of silence in communication with someone from another culture. Words may assist but being with people is something which happens in silence.

5. The Seamy Side of Charity

The context for this article, which appeared in a Jesuit magazine in 1967, was a missionary programme by the American Church to South America. Illich criticises the programme. We find here familiar Illichian themes. The priests who are sent consciously or unconsciously act as salesmen for the American order – capitalism. Indeed in some of the documentation for the programme explicit mention was made of the “red danger”. To use priests to promote an ideology – any ideology – is an abuse of the gospel. The programme was geared towards developing the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It saw a flow of funds into the South American churches and raised them to a financial level which they could not natively support. This induces dependency. The investment in the Church hierarchy stifled community level experimentation with ways of celebrating Christ – for example, married priests, communion celebrated within the family circle. There was little money available for training – which might have represented a long-term investment in local capacity building. What money there was was spent on training in bureaucratic methods. In short – this kind of help props up the giver (in this case the Church hierarchy) and is unhelpful to the recipient.

Similar criticisms could well be made of US aid in the world today. For example in Afghanistan. [1] Expensive Western style infrastructure projects such as schools are initiated but once the donor leaves the new building is seen as a foreign imposition. There is insufficient local capacity to make use of it. And it appears alien and strange. The donor has reinforced certain of his own favoured institutions (contracting companies, certain NGOs). Certain members of local elites may have benefited. But despite the large expense involved (paid for in this case by the US tax-payer or in Illich’s example by the parishioners of US Churches) no local people have been helped. The world keeps making the mistakes outlined by Illich 50 years ago.

6. The Vanishing Clergyman

This paper was published in 1967. It concerns the future of the Roman Catholic church. As elsewhere in this collection of essays it is clear that Illich was to some extent caught up in certain enthusiasms of the sixties. Here he appears to believe that the Catholic Church as an institution is about to collapse. He predicts that by the end of the decade (the 1960s) a majority of the Church’s staff will have abandoned ship. In this context he proposes a new model for a clergyman.

Illich envisages priests (who may remain celibate) disembarking from the (sinking, he thinks) ship of the Church and yet continuing to fulfil the spiritual role of priest as they live and work in the community in an ordinary way. This is a vision of a distributed Church. Illich does not believe that institutional bureaucracies can do any good. He is forthright about this:

Fewer still see that the Pope himself would grow in evangelical stature and fidelity in proportion as his power to effect social issues in the world and his administrative command in the Church decline.

Illich was, apparently, a man of faith. The Church does not do “God’s will” by setting up charities and commissions to plan and execute social programmes. It does “God’s will” by undergoing a spiritual revival and spreading faith in the world by supporting and nurturing, from a thin, non-institutional base, a network of spiritually committed individuals. These, priests of the future, will work at ordinary jobs and (there is something touchingly naive about this idea) because of “increasing leisure time and more social security benefits” will have the time to carry out an informal self-study in theology and minister to their flocks. Being outside the formal Church hierarchy there will be a level playing field between them and their consecrants. Thus this new priest will not feel obliged to act as if he has all the answers to problems of his consecrants. Whether the collapse in numbers of serving priests in the Catholic Church has ever happened the present writer is unable to determine; as he has no familiarity with life in Roman Catholic communities. His impression is it hasn’t; at least in the rich North/West. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a seed idea here. The idea appears to be that a spiritual giving to life happens in life. It isn’t something which can be organised, mandated, monitored and delivered by a Church hierarchy whose administrative systems and practices win top praise from management consultants. For this author at least this is akin to the teachings of the Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche . Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche  taught an approach to life which he called “Spiritual Warriorship” which concerned being open in our hearts to people around us, and to the world, in daily life. Illich’s idea that spirituality is nothing special would make sense to Chögyam Trungpa.

On the question of celibacy Illich is clear. He values celibacy as an authentic spiritual choice (one saves oneself for a mystical bridal intimacy with the divine) but does not believe that celibacy should be tied to the role of priest. On this model; some priests (his new, ‘secular’, priests) may choose to be celibate. Others not. Illich was against the ordination of married men as priests because he felt that would give an extra lease of life to what he saw as a dying institution. Better to move straight on to the future.

Illich (naturally) envisaged that in the future, reformed, Church the role of theological colleges would be reduced. Learning would be distributed, more personal. Organised courses in theology are not very good at communicating the special essence of the Christian revelation – a sense of the Church of Christ. A more personal learning will in turn be reflected in the style of Church teaching moving away from issuing encyclicals on abortion and social justice and towards supporting networks of local communities each sustained by the living Word.

It is not hard to see why Illich was not popular with the papal authorities. It seems he aimed at the top. He aimed to topple the King and bring about a sort of ‘peasant’s revolution’ of love from below.

But; did the clergy vanish? As already mentioned, this writer does not have any first-hand knowledge of the contemporary Catholic Church. But there is no obvious sign that the Church has indeed collapsed as Illich envisaged. But then, perhaps he wasn’t the only prophet in the Christian/Judaic tradition whose speeches conveyed deep truths, even if he did get the date of the Second Coming wrong.

7. The Powerless Church

This piece was first offered as a contribution to a conference on social issues held by the Anglican Church in 1967.

The piece reads as a somewhat time-specific (this was the sixties) celebration of a diverse range of ‘social action’ groups. Some of the language used by Illich to discuss these ‘radical’ and ‘humanistic’ endeavours may have been more intelligible at the time than it is now, fifty years after the event. With that reservation, the central idea is clear. The Church (one assumes Illich means ‘Church’ in its broadest sense as encompassing both Roman Catholic and Anglican) should stand apart from social action and agitations for social change. One reason Illich gives for this is that the disputes about tactics between various social action groups would necessarily involve the Church in disunity. Though, his deeper reason, is not itself tactical, but spiritual. The Church should withdraw from power. The Church should focus on (so to speak) what it does best. Celebrating the mystery of Christ.

Illich proposes a kind of meta (or as he says transcendental) role for the Church in social change. The Church is not to be an agent of social change. Radical, secular, humanists can work for social change. This change leads to development. The real meaning of human development is “growth into Christ”. The Church, who acts as the custodian of this mystery, can thus interpret the experience of change to people, can provide a spiritual – and Christian – back-drop to the experiences of social and individual change. The Church does not become involved in social change; except that in celebrating Christ in certain forms of social change it may act as an accelerator of change. Thus Illich specifically calls for a ‘powerless Church’. This is not a Church where priests enjoin parishioners to go on marches. Or where the Church funds educational projects as a way of changing society. This Church sticks to its mission; to celebrate the mystery of Christ. At a time of rapid social change the Church can thus act as a bed-rock and a unifying factor.

Illich was not a political revolutionary. Not only does he call for the Church to ‘stay out of politics’ (while being present with its sacraments to those whose experience of change makes them open to seeking meaning) but he also explicitly affirms his belief in social change through osmotic change, and not through a ‘seizure of political power’:

The change which has to be brought about can only be lived. We cannot plan our way to humanity. Each one of us and each of the groups with which we live and work must become a model of the era we wish to create.

Known as ‘pre-figurative change’ this wise model is the lesson the Bolsheviks missed in their plans to reconstruct society.

8. The Futility of Schooling

This article was first published in a magazine in 1968.

Illich discusses the results of educational investment in Latin America. Investment in education by governments and foreign donors was intended to transform the rural poor into a productive middle-class, sharing a value system with the middle-classes of the industrialised North. Illich asserts that the actual result has been the creation of an elite class of urban administrators; with the poor (who are now urbanised as a result of technical developments) remaining as marginalised as ever. Illich describes this process in terms of a “liberal myth” which claims that schooling is the key to social integration. Observers of the British scene will not be unaware that this myth was peddled assiduously by Tony Blair, architect of Britain’s New Labour party. Under New Labour (1997-2010) Britain saw a massive increase in public spending on education. [2] However, social inequality measured in terms of income inequality under New Labour was not improved. Two specific groups, children and pensioners, did see a significant reduction in poverty levels due to large increased welfare payments to these groups. The key point is that the spending on education did not make the country more equal. [3] Claiming that spending money on schooling will reduce/abolish social inequality is a liberal scam.

Illich exposes the sordid underbelly of this myth (with especial reference to the role of schooling in developing nations):

As the only legitimate passage to the middle-class, the school restricts all unconventional crossings and leaves the underachiever to bear the blame for his marginality.

That is, schooling, while claiming to promote equality in fact serves to legitimize inequality. Illich argues that in 19th century America schooling did have some role to play as a ‘social leveller’. 6 years of school could place someone on the same level as the author of the textbook or on the same level as an unschooled entrepreneur. However; in the more technical modern world the role played by schools is different. In the modern world only the tiny fraction who complete higher education benefit from schooling. The result of schooling for everyone else is not liberation but, rather, that they are marked out for unfulling, low-paid, roles in society. In Illich’s analysis schools are sacred because they do produce a small elite of graduates who are indeed highly productive wealth generators. Because these elite achievers do indeed raise national income, the others, the great majority, also see incremental rises in their incomes – albeit at nothing like the level of the privileged educational elites.

That mass schooling fails those who are not academically able is in fact accepted, to some extent, even by educational bureaucrats. One attempt to address this problem (motivated either by a desire for fairness or, more likely, in an effort to generate productivity in divergent material) is vocational education. (Britain’s New Labour, for example, toyed with various initiatives to permit 14 year olds to adopt a more vocational curriculum). Illich is critical of these endeavours. He argues that to do this properly is prohibitively expensive. He also doubts whether vocational schools can adapt to the ever changing demands of a technical economy:

Trade schools pretend to educate by creating a spurious facsimile of the factory within a school building.

Illich suggests that instead of bringing the factory to the school, the students should be brought to the factory. He proposes, in effect, a system of “on-the-job training”. Such a system currently exists, to some extent, in the UK. The current system was introduced in 1994 under the Conservatives and developed under New Labour throughout their term (1997-2010). It continues today. Under this system young people work in a company, learning “on the job”. They also attend a college or training centre for one day a week. The government subsidises the scheme. The apprenticeships are paid minimal wages by their employer. The formal, classroom, training component and qualification reflect (arguably) an inability of the originators of this scheme to really break away from schooled education. They are perhaps, trying to obtain the benefits of this kind of “on-the-job” training while not really relinquishing the schooled and credentials approach to education. As Illich points out the idea of “deschooling society” implies far-reaching political changes. By developing an “on-the-job” training scheme but at the same time delivering it as a plug-in to school contemporary authorities (in the UK) are seeking to avoid the political implications of truly replacing class-room education with in-site industrial training.

Illich also suggests that adult education is an effective form of education. He refers to Paulo Freire’s work with raising literacy through politically charged educational programmes in Brazil. Adults learn better because they are more motivated. (A fact that any teacher will tell you). Illich suggests drawing a quite practical lesson from this; reduce investment in mass schooling of young people and put the resources into adult education. People will learn what they need to when they need to.

In summary; Illich proposes that rather than a unitary system of mass schooling, which raises expectations it cannot deliver and which thus fuels social tensions, education be devolved and distributed to a number of loci throughout society. Parents can be trained to deliver early years education, training in technical skills can be done in factories; focussed adult education and a minimal education for young people can deliver instruction and more cultural aspects of education.

The obvious criticism of these ideas is that Illich is working against the poor. He is, a believer in schooling would argue, denying young people their “chance to betterment”. Illich might reply that it is just that “chance” that he is arguing against. A chance which sees only a minority truly benefit.

Interestingly many of these ideas have been taken up; in the UK concepts such as “life-long learning” and the commitment to Apprenticeships, discussed above, being examples. But the authorities cannot give up their addiction to mass schooling. All these ideas are added onto the base given by mass compulsory schooling. Thus no radical transformation of society takes place.

9. School: the Sacred Cow

This piece was originally given as a graduation speech at the University of Puerto Rico.

The idea that school is the “central myth-making ritual” of industrialised societies is key to illich’s thought. In critiquing the school system Illich is not simply an educational reformer (in the manner for example of the insipid A. S. Neil). He is critiquing Western (and indeed all industrialised societies) society in its heart. If Illich’s ideas on schooling were to be meaningfully taken up they would imply a radical decentralisation of society. Power would transfer back from hierarchical institutions and to the individual. This is why these ideas won’t be taken up.

This is the essence of Illich’s idea:

Only if we understand the school system as the central myth-making ritual of industrial societies can we explain the deep need for it, the complex myth surrounding it, and the inextricable way in which schooling is tied into the self-image of contemporary man.

Illich locates the historical genesis of the idea that schooling is the necessary means by which a person becomes a useful member of society to a period about 250 years ago. Compulsory mass education was introduced in England in the late 19th century. This was a consolidation of efforts undertaken at first quite largely by religious institutions. Foucault has analysed how in the 19th century it was religious and moral practices and services provided by religious organisations which were taken up and co-opted by governments and refined as instruments of docilisation and discipline. (Whereas Illich focussed on the school Foucault analysed the methodology and practice of discipline as it was developed in a range of institutions in the 19th century. But the target is the same. For Illich universal schooling was the means by which everyone was to be incorporated into industrial society whereas Foucault links the school to the workshop; both shared the same disciplinary methods). While the analyses are different, both Foucault and Illich agree about the period (Foucault would link it to a certain mode of knowledge or epistime) in which modern societies have developed their grip on men. (Men in the anthropological sense of course).

In his address to the graduates of Puerto Rico University Illich pointed out that one of the ‘virtues’ of the school system is that anyone who has attended 5 days a week, week in week out, for 16 years, is, likely to make a reliable and non-subversive functionary within a state bureaucracy. This is illich’s way of saying that school docilizes its members.

Illich draws parallels between the Church and the school. Both are adorned with rites and special symbolism. (Academics in gowns). Both are worshipped in an unquestioning way with religious fervour. Both consume large amounts of resources. It is expected of each that they will deliver salvation. In reality they are both hierarchical organisations with only an elite few at the top the actual beneficiaries. Illich takes the analogy further; as the Church elites compromised the Church by their ‘getting into bed with’ economic power elites and this gave rise to oppositional movements (presumably Illich has in mind the Reformation) so schools are perverted by their putting education at the service of the goal of economic productivity (and that based on a hierarchical model). As Church reformers sought to rescue religion from the prostituted Church so educational reformers are called upon to rescue education from the school system.

Illich argues in this piece, as he does in other Chapters in this book, that modern schooling systems in developing nations are a con. Only a tiny fraction of the population reach the apex of the school system; the Bachelor’s Degree. This entitles them to membership of local national elites – and partnership with Western organisations. (They might, for example, get a job in a Western NGO). However; the vast majority of people in the country do not achieve this level in the school system. For them the system serves as an allocator of their lower social status. Illich’s proposed correction to this injustice is that the total funds currently being spent on the school system in a hierarchical manner be re-distributed in an egalitarian manner. Everyone should receive an equal amount of formal education. Which means much less than a full-time school place for each person. Such a system would provide more education than they currently receive to the poor majority and considerably less to the privileged minority. Illich is not a Communist or Bolshevik. He envisages that the rich may choose to top-up their allocation with private schooling on the Western model. The attractiveness of Illich’s idea is that the poor would receive more education than they currently do. The focus would shift towards education as cultural enrichment for all (what schooling is claimed to be but never is) and away from being an institution in the service of the Westernisation (integration into the world economy dominated by US corporations) of the developing society. One obvious criticism of Illich’s idea, however, is that the risk would be that the existing elites would indeed build private schools to ensure that their children rose to the top. There would still be the same elites making the same privileged deals with the economic powers of the West/North – and now without even the moderate compensation of meritocracy; the possibility that a few members of even the poorest classes could join these elites. However; to have an equal distribution of resources but to prevent the privileged classes self-perpetuating there is only one way; violence against the privileged, along the lines of the Bolsheviks. Between these three choices then; Bolshevikism (enforced equality), a mass of the ‘poor’ living alongside an old style elite based on land ownership and self-perpetuating itself through any means available without hindrance (Illich’s paradigm), and modern liberal ‘democracy’ – which, entirely true, only raises a tiny proportion of the dispossessed to the level of the elites –  which is least undesirable? Illich does not seem to fully think through the consequences of trying to develop an egalitarian model of education alongside a system which permitted the old advantage-gaining system to continue.

Illich’s proposal for a society where education is separated off from the demands of hierarchical capital implicitly invokes the idea of a society which has simply turned its back on money and profit (in the sense in which these terms are understood by large concentrations of private capital, not necessarily as they are understood by independent traders). If Illich is not calling for a revolution he is at least calling for a mass walk-out. But; the danger is that his privately educated elites would dominate and the poor would have walked out on their only chance for integration – via meritocratic schooling. In technical terms this dilemma can only be resolved by envisaging a worldwide acceptance of ‘poverty of spirit’ (in Christian language); a world in which there was in fact no benefit to belonging to a material elite at all. Illich was probably far-sighted enough to realise that his ideas (like socialism) can only work if they are embraced in all corners of the world. In this essay however this point is not discussed.

10. Sexual Power and Political Potency

This piece was originally given as a speech at a conference “of population experts” in 1967. It concerns birth control in Latin America.

Illich asserts that existing (1967) promotion of birth control (contraception) is aimed at a small group of elite consumers. The advertising messages are not designed to appeal to the broad mass of the poor. He criticises the advertising messages as being negative; about avoiding the negative consequences of unwanted births. Illich contends that to reach the hearts and minds of the poor the messages should be positive. The messages should emphasise the freedom that contraception gives you. (Let’s avoid the question here as to whether being able to have sex without any risk of creating new life is indeed freedom. The Pope, whom Illich denounces for “lacking courage” and being “in bad taste” would be likely to say that freedom lies in self-control without technological aids).

Illich criticises official birth control programs for making unrealistic appeals. The bureaucratic considers the statistics and tries to get the population figure down. But you can hardly expect an individual to practice contraception so as to “do their bit” to help reduce the statistic. (Any more than you can reasonably expect an individual worker to reduce a wage demand so as to do their bit to reduce national inflation).

Illich considers that one of the obstacles to more realistic appeals to individuals to practice responsible birth control, in Latin America, is political. Appeals that would actually work would have to be made to rational human actors. Thus it is not possible to separate off birth control campaigns from a programme to emancipate the poor in educational terms and in terms of political awareness. And these are the programmes that the “military governments prevailing in Latin America” don’t want to support.

Illich argues, somewhat unpersuasively in this reviewer’s opinion, against the idea, prevalent at the time, that schooling creates people who value contraception. (Perhaps Illich wants to argue against this because he doesn’t want to allow calls for birth control to be used to promote calls for mass schooling – which he is already opposed to). Against this Illich argues that schools select people already inclined to use technological solutions. Without knowing the details of the schooling situation which Illich had in mind this does seem somewhat unlikely. Is this kind of technological savvy discernible at 11 or 12? In fact it seems pretty clear that increased schooling would make people more likely to use contraception. Illich seems to accept potentially that birth-control training in clinics which run training programmes for parents could help to promote use of contraception. On this argument though – could not the same process work in schools?  Illich argues that even if people do learn about birth-control in government clinics they are practising birth-control in a dull and mechanical way. He compares this to how they might use the literary skills taught to them at school which are taught without at the same time reaching them as human beings. That is they used these skills which are taught to them without love in order to read low fiction; rather than participate in cultural and political life. Nonetheless the fact remains that the kinds of discipline promoted at school probably are conducive to training (however dull) in birth-control.

Illich argues that arguments about birth-control appeal more to the middle-class (a tiny minority in Latin American countries). For these people having fewer children can indeed lead to economic benefits. For the poor though the opposite is the case.

Illich’s main point however, appears to be that while it may indeed make sense for the wealthy to have less children the same argument does not apply to the poor, who have no reasonable hope of becoming wealthy. And who, themselves, individually, are not going to become wealthy by having fewer children. A sound and obvious criticism of bureaucratic population control policies. Illich argues that these policies are colonial in nature and are in fact doomed to fail, because they do not reach either the hearts or the reason of the people to whom they are addressed. Illich contends that a programme which seriously got the masses of poor people to adopt birth control would have to be at the same time a programme which emancipated them intellectually and politically. Illich is, in effect, saying that if the rich tell the poor not to have so many babies they will smell a rat and carry on. Population control is only viable when everyone feels – and knows – that they have a stake in the society. Only then can you appeal to them to make rational and human decisions to practice birth control. This is both practically true and morally true.

This essay could do with being re-written by Illich. The arguments he makes will be familiar to socialist minded critics of population control programmes in developing nations; with some additional characteristically Illichian twists about the sacred value of each human life as a life capable of intellectual and cultural engagement. In this essay these ideas are presented in quite a terse and at times convoluted way. (To be fair to Illich, this was a speech rather than an essay).

11. Planned poverty

This piece was written in 1970 and is Illich’s critical response to the notions of development presented in the “Pearson report”. The report was commissioned by Robert McNamara then President of the World Bank. Lester Pearson was the ex-Prime Minister of Canada who led the commission which produced the report. The report itself is still available on the UNESCO web site.

Illich describes the lifestyles which are taken to be so desirable in the rich North in terms of trained consumption in packaged services. But consumption of packaged services disempowers people. The consumer of packaged services has less rather than more ability to shape his own environment. Illich gives the examples of the car and of modern healthcare. Convinced that a car is essential to life modern man is prepared to spend hours sitting in traffic jams. And the town hall is obliged to spend ever more on trying to manage the traffic. Healthcare is focussed on prolonging life – with ever more amazing surgical interventions, and the drugs needed to manage the ensuing pain. People are trained to consume such packages – during years spent in the ultimate packaged institution; school. This is classic Illich. Modern man is dociled (or conditioned) to become a passive consumer of goods and services provided to him by hierarchical systems. In his work in general Illich criticises these systems and controlling institutions at length. He has less to say about the kind of life which he believes is being destroyed by these practices. But that he believes in this other life is absolutely implicit in his criticism of what he calls, for example in “Deschooling Society“, “right-wing” institutions. In Deschooling Society Illich contrasts “right-wing” institutions, who deliver the “packaged services” he is discussing here with “left-wing” institutions. These latter are characterised by being convivial, non-hierarchical, non-addictive, allowing users to come and go as suits them.

Illich’s case that the packaged services which are taken to constitute a meaningful life in the wealthy North have an alienating effect on man is a relatively unchallenging one for many people to accept – even if only to a small degree. His next step (in this article) is more challenging; the “poor”, those who live in the developing world, should not be given these goods (modern schooling, modern healthcare, cars and highways). Illich’s argument, and we have already encountered this in Chapter 9, is that in the developing world these goods only benefit elites at the top. For example;

Latin American doctors get training at The Hospital for Special Surgery in New york, which they apply to only a few, while amoebic dysentery remains endemic in slums 90 percent of the population live.

or, again;

Each car which Brazil puts on the road denies fifty people good transportation.

The argument is that the transfer of elite goods and lifestyles to developing countries reaches only a small, privileged elite. The great mass of the poor do not benefit, except that they are conditioned to aspire to lifestyles which they cannot possibly attain to. Instead, Illich proposes development which is largely self-led, self-sustaining – and which necessarily uses a much lower level of (indigenously maintainable) technology. Such an approach would benefit the masses. The argument against Illich’s ideas is essentially that of the “trickle-down” theory of capitalism. This theory concedes that only a small minority of people at the top can benefit from the luxury goods produced by capitalism, but argues that the existence of such possibilities spurs on entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs, in developing enormous wealth for themselves, create such an abundance (of jobs, industrial capital, technological innovations etc.) that the poor are lifted up – to a level which they would not attain by their own devices. A proponent of the “trickle-down” theory of capitalism might argue that Illich’s model would, if implemented, lock the poor permanently into a level of consumption far below what they might be able to attain to if the capitalist model is followed. The “trickle-down” capitalist might accept that it might take generations for the poor in the developing world to be lifted up to, say the level of car ownership being the norm, but would argue that only his approach held that out as a possibility. He might accuse Illich of holding people back. In turn Illich could counter that even if this were true; such lifestyles, the consumption of “packaged services”, are not in fact desirable. He also argues that the overall level of consumption that is implied by everyone completing High School, driving a car, and receiving modern technological healthcare is simply not supportable by the planet. Since Illich was writing we have become more aware of the environmental costs of much of modern development. Greenhouse warming caused by fuel exhausts and coal burning; smog caused by fuel exhausts, are two examples. (In a game of strike and counterstrike the proponent of capitalist development now argues that there are technological fixes for all these problems).

Illich is, in many ways, a socialist. He is concerned for the welfare of the masses. He is not a state-centric socialist, on the model of the USSR. While egalitarian he also believes in peasant self-sufficiency. The rarely heard proposition that we hear in Illich is the truth (assuming it is such) that socialism implies a lower standard of living than is possible (at least which is held out as a possibility by) capitalism. This is the truth that most socialist movements in the North cannot admit. They have to claim (as they did in the Soviet Union) that socialism can create as much wealth as capitalism. In reality, this probably isn’t true. The capitalist argument about wealth creation has merit. The capitalist is right that capitalism, with its huge inequalities, is a better generator of wealth than socialism. There is a choice to be made. We can’t have both wealth and social peace.

Illich uses a Marxist term; reification. He discusses how a demand for a drink can be manipulated into a “need” for a coke. (A coke is then taken as natural, as a necessity of life). Illich coins a new term “underdevelopment”. This is an artificial lack which people can be conditioned to feel. They can be conditioned to feel that because they do not have the ability to consume the packaged services which are dangled in front of them they are underdeveloped. (In the rich North this conditioned sense of lack reaches the height of absurdity in, for example, advertising by Microsoft who need to persuade people that their Office Version 10 product – which only last year was billed as the latest thing, is now, no longer fit for purpose and everyone needs Office 11. Or – how every year Apple produce a new iPhone with some marginal feature improvements – which it is not possible to live without. In reality of course the iPhone 4 would suffice for most people for all of their lives). For Illich it is the modern system of schooling which is the defining institution of this training in consumption of packaged services. Modern schooling is the packaged service par excellence. The majority do not complete school. Since school is geared at its culmination; a University degree, for most; the “gift” of school is to remind them of their failure and to condition them to accept a lower place on the social pecking order. The fatal step for a society is the full and final identification of education with schooling – the idea that education can only be delivered in a school by trained “specialists”. When this happens the empowering nature of education is finally lost:

In this sense, the dynamic underdevelopment that is now taking place is the exact opposite of what I believe education to be: namely, the awakening awareness of new levels of human potential and the use of one’s creative powers to foster human life.

Illich ends this piece with  a call for research. The research he is proposing is on practical, lived, alternatives to the school, the hospital and the car. For example; educational initiatives which succeed in educating those who “will not pay for their learning with submission to custodial care, screening, and certification or with indoctrination in the values of the dominant elite”.  Illich criticises the revolutionary who proposes to seize power and expand the availability of schools, hospitals and cars on a wider basis. In reality they cannot do this. (Perhaps as  the Soviet Union found out). Illich is proposing a model of social revolution which is diffused and lived now. Turn away from the rat race and grow potatoes. Illich is almost certainly right that this is the route to a more fully human life for the vast majority of people. However; it is not clear if he fully appreciates that for this to be possible – on a mass scale – means that capitalism has to be broken. This is because capitalism will continually try to draw people into its orbit and will make it increasingly hard to live outside of the capitalist system. An example in the developing world might be the war that agri-business is waging on small producers. Because the model of seed (perhaps genetically modified) and a patent fertiliser which goes with it is potentially more profitable than the traditional seed those farmers who do not succumb to the package “offered” by the large US agri-business (in cahoots with local elites and development agencies and banks) will not survive. The large agri-businesses can manipulate market conditions to squeeze out those who resist. For example; they can offer loans and/or short-term discounts to those who switch to the new model. Even if, in the longer run, it would be a viable model to cultivate crops using traditional seeds the market can be manipulated to make it hard to do this. So; small farmers in the developing world can read Illich and agree with him but still they may have no choice but to buy the package provided to them by agribusiness. And this same dilemma is experienced by dissidents in the rich North. The demands of the capitalists and the state machinery are such (in terms of taxation, rent, transport costs, energy costs, etc.) that the dissident in the North too can read Illich and agree with him. But he too may have no choice but to join the system (in his case to take employment producing packaged services for others to consume) in order to survive. In the rich North, turning away and living a simple life which uses a lower level of technology is only, in practice, a possibility for the very rich, who can buy a farm-house in the country and start an organic farm. Or, conversely, for those who are prepared to live in a van – and endure a life well below the standard that socialism could provide. Capitalism monopolises everything. Despite their many mistakes, not least the sanctioning of political terror against their political opponents (including their fellow socialists), the Bolsheviks did understand this. There is a confrontation with capitalism. Capitalism cannot just be ignored in the hope that it will go away. It is not clear if Illich fully understood this. It seems as if Illich believed that it was a question of changing “hearts and minds”; that he did not recognise that the struggle is an economic one.

12. A constitution for a cultural revolution

This article was written in 1970 for Encyclopedia Britannica. Illich recaps some of the ideas we have discussed above, in our review of Chp. 11. The model of development which the corporate and government instituions in the North propose for the developing world is one in which Western “goods” – “packaged services” in Illich’s nomenclature – are imposed on them. The result, Illich argues, is that these measures only benefit a tiny privileged minority in these countries. While it is true that overall average incomes in these countries rise the gap between rich and poor rises faster. Developing countries do not need and in fact cannot afford to adopt the Western model of “packaged services”. The planet cannot sustain Western levels of consumption for everyone in the world. There aren’t enough resources and the environmental costs are too great even for what can be achieved.

At the same time revolutionaries in the “Third World” miss the point. They make undeliverable claims about delivering the same Western goods; schools, hospitals, cars to a greater share of the population. They too have fallen under the influence of the false dream of the development business. Illich proposes a new kind of revolutionary: the cultural revolutionary. The focus of the cultural revolutionary is education. Education as a tool for human emancipation. And thus very much education as distinct from schooling, which, itself is a “packaged service”.

Illich argues against the ideas of mass schooling as a catalyst for a meritocratic society; a society in which everyone can rise according to their merits. (In Chp. 11 Illich notes that the origins of these ideas about school and its role in modern societies originate from British 19th century liberals such as Jeremy Bentham). According to Illich a truly meritocratic society would be “hell”. Once again, Illich is in danger of appearing to promote a reactionary and backwards conservatism. The liberal promoter of mass schooling as a tool of development would certainly accuse Illich of wanting to hold back the poor. Illich’s counter might be that he is not for holding anyone back; he is calling out schooling for allocating people to roles in a hierarchical society. For the vast majority school is not a ticket to a life of wealth; it is a machine which certifies that they are only fit for menial roles. Schooling is education delivered by the rich on their terms and in their interests; masked in the seductive language of equality. Illich argues instead for a non-institutionalised form of education which meets the real needs of the people and which can help them develop sustainable communities on their own terms. Illich argues for the education budget to be more equally and widely distributed. This is a valid counter-argument concerning modern schooling; modern schooling is certainly a system devised in the interests of industry and not for the benefit of the individuals taking part. Illich accepts that modern schooling gives the poor a “chance” to rise to the top, but points out that the chance, for any one individual, is a very small one.

Weaknesses in Illich’s position remain in general; for example; he is not (in this Chapter he makes this explicit) arguing for a low or no-technology model of development. Illich still wants efficient, modern, combustion engines. He just wants a kind of such engine which is helpful to the masses and not about conditioning them to be individualised consumers (a race in which most will be losers anyway). Illich wants buses not cars. But he therefore still needs technological development and advanced research. Who will do this work? What system of education will make sure that the best talent is developed – regardless of their social background? Who will fund it? These questions are not answered by Illich. He could be accused of wanting to have his cake and eat it. He relies on the technological developments of modern industry while arguing against the schooling system which provides their recruits. Again; his model of distributed, community level development seems not fully realistic; what path would there be for a bright girl from the ghetto to a role as a technician in a modern firm if she is only granted two months schooling a year, while her wealthy peers are allowed to consume as much private education as required? Again, a model of state socialism does seem to provide some of the answers which are missing. In this model the state takes over the means of production and also responsibility for education and training. In this model the state ensures that development and education are carried out on a rational basis with the benefit of the whole of society in view. The poor are not at risk of losing out to their privately educated compatriots because there is no possibility of private schooling. The poor would not have to compete with private capital, on very unequal terms, because capital is owned by the state which is run in their interests. (That state socialism has its own problems is of course undeniable; here we are simply noting that a model of state socialism does seem to provide answers for some of the gaps in Illich’s model of ‘cultural revolution’ based on community education).

Illich’s practical proposals for an education led cultural revolution include: abolishing mass schooling, legislation to prevent discrimination against those without certificates (a test of competence is permitted), and a system of state-funded education vouchers which can be used by citizens as they choose. This last idea is often promoted in the West by extreme right-wing ideologues who see it as a way of creating a free-market in education.  As we have already discussed (Chp. 9): if Illich is not willing to also legislate to prevent the rich from funding extra, private schooling for their offspring, then his open market in education will, inevitably, simply create a back-door escalator for the rich. Once again; it is all very well to argue for undistorted non-hierarchical exchanges. But, as long as human selfishness remains a factor; then it is the case that unless equality is enforced the market will become rapidly distorted. The Bolsheviks grasped the mettle of this problem. In essence: capitalism says “Human selfishness is a given; let’s harness the power of this. Even though only a few will rise to the top everyone will benefit more than they would under any other system”.  State socialism says: “people have a two-fold nature. Most will work for the common good if given a chance. Those few who won’t need to be controlled by the state”. A model of community development says: “it is better to work for true individual benefit and not to serve the interests of those who are concerned to maintain the hierarchical systems which they are at the top of. Let’s evolve mechanisms at the community level to do this”. The weakness of this latter model (we are suggesting here) is that it does not adequately address the poison (of selfishness) in the apple tree. It appears to think that it can work alongside the capitalists; even diverting their technological efforts into directions more supportive of communities. The strength of the state socialist model is that it fully grasps that no compromise with capitalism is viable. State socialism fully recognizes that if allowed private capital will always actively undermine community initiatives.

Illich’s argument that hiring employees based on school certificates ensures that the person on whom the most has been spent in educational terms, rather than the one who can best do the job, is logically sound. But still; are there not some professions where a process of certification is essential – and not just a test of competence? For example; vet, doctor, airline pilot?

Illich’s strength is his vision of a world in which men and women produce and consume that which they need for fully human lives, and no more. And in his vision of education as having a role to play in helping people to become fully human. The weakness in his vision seems to be that the implementation of these ideas has not been fully thought out. For example; there is ambiguity about whether private schooling should be allowed. In Chapter 9 it explicitly is. In this piece (Chp. 12) he discusses “a guarantee of equal education resources” which suggests that it would not be. If the former; then his ideas of a egalitarian society are undermined from the beginning. But, if the latter, then he is moving towards a kind of social control which he associates with a failed Bolshevik model. In general; Illich does not address the problem of selfishness; or, we could say, evil. He does not address the potential for schemes of human development to be undermined from outside by economic forces – or indeed forces of crude violence. Is an egalitarian society possible without some degree of (Bolshevik style) suppression of selfish interest? In the kind of society implied by Illich’s vision how would advanced, resource intensive, technological production be organised? If young people only receive two months of formal education per year will this really permit the development of highly capable engineers – who are needed for technological production? If you argue that some could be identified as suitable to receive more education than the standard two months we are, once again, in the world of state socialism – and not a legally enforced ‘level market’.

Illich’s ideas are a valuable antidote to unthought out assumptions about development. The huge value of these ideas – and their essential veracity – can be seen in empirical evidence. Afghanistan today is an example which precisely illustrates everything that Illich has criticised the standard model of development for. Billions (more than 100 billion) of US taxpayers’ dollars have been poured into the country to build schools, hospitals, and all the other “packaged services” which the North sees as part and parcel of development. But the majority in Afghanistan have not benefited. Vast sums have gone adrift either into the coffers of the Western firms contracted to deliver the services; or into the pockets of local officials and businessmen. Schools have been built which are not used. Planes have been supplied which cannot be flown. Road have been built which go nowhere. [5] In contrast; a development programme which saw vastly less spent – but spent on distributed, local, community building could have made a real difference. And, at the same time, the money freed could have been used to tackle real deprivation in the United State. We can note: the “mistakes” which see such a profligate waste of public money are made time and time again. (See the Reuters report listed in [5] for an explicit example of mistakes being re-made despite a ‘lessons learned’ report dating from the 1980s). This is because this is the model of development which governments and corporations in the West are addicted to. A rational case pointing out their mistakes is not going to change anything. The USA Today example listed in [5] is particularly relevant to illich’s arguments; it details an ‘aid’ programme to build natural-gas filling stations for cars. But converting a car to run on natural gas is beyond the reach of most Afghans (if they even own a car in the first place). The VICE News report listed in [5] contains some comments from an academic and an NGO leader which support Illich’s arguments about the problems of “top-down” delivery of aid; that is aid delivered without consultation with the local people; aid whose real purpose is to condition them into a Western lifestyle, rather than support their own existing course of development.

Where Illich is perhaps on less strong ground is in his apparent idea that social change can be effected without tacking the question of economic ownership of capital. In general his ideas for effecting social change do not appear to be fully worked out. Illich was at pains to make it clear that he was not promoting a blueprint for social change. Indeed he points out that trying to change society according to a blueprint is a recipe for disaster. (Chp. 7)  This is a very valid position. Indeed one of the main reasons for the disaster that was the Bolsheviks is probably precisely that they believed that the right kind of society could be drawn up in a proclamation by a Committee and then imposed on a whole country – by force if necessary. Under the Bolsheviks this process was carried to its logical extreme; in the end what mattered was obedience to the dictates of the Central Committee – whatever they were and even if they contradicted previous proclamations, which it was also treason to disobey. Power became its own right. The state was right not because it embodied the will of the people but because it was the state. Nonetheless; capital exists as a concentration of power. It undermines, quite actively, alternatives to its own expansion. It is irrational and, as such, cannot be modified by reason and argument. No model of development can be convincing unless it addresses these problems.


Most of Illich’s words are prophetic. There are some elements in this book which pertain specifically to the sixties. Like others at that time Illich sometimes over-rated the likelihood of imminent social change. At times (rarely) words are included which sound like echoes of the ‘hipster’ sixties. (Yin and Yang, for example). But overall much of the criticism of currently accepted institutions in the West stands. Many of the essays in this book concern specifically Church matters. For those who have come to Illich from a secular point of view to see Illich’s obvious faith in Christian doctrine can seem something of a surprise. One can, however, skirt over those parts without losing Illich’s message, which is essentially one of humanism and concern for the poor.

Illich does not provide a full political programme. He is, after all, a Churchman. But his critical analysis of institutions on which the West is founded is deep and as relevant now (sadly) as it was then. Illih is not known for his easy writing style, and most of the essays in this book are terse and difficult to digest. But they are absolutely worth the effort.


Celebration of Awareness. Ivan Illich. Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. 1976. (First published in the UK by Calder & Boyars Ltd 1971).


Notes and References


2. Institute of Fiscal Studies report. (See summary on page 1).

3. Institute of Fiscal Studies

4. Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society. Calder and Boyers Ltd. 1971


PRI. Story about aid money spent on non-flying cargo planes

Reuters. 2015. Report on SIGAR (Congress auditing organisation) of US aid budget in Afghanistan

USA Today. 2016 report on SIGAR reporting on Afghanistan

VICE News. 2014. report on SIGAR auditing of aid budget expenditure in Afghanistan.


Palms – a film by Artur Aristakisyan

This film was released in 1993. I’ve only just discovered it.

The DVD I bought was in Russian with English sub-titles. It included an interview with the director, Artur Aristakisyan.

In the interview Artur Aristakisyan says that films of this kind are received with either rapture or hostility. In this case he says, mostly hostility. I am rapturous about this film. It is probably the first DVD film I have ever watched when, after watching it, I felt the weight of the disk. This film has weight.

The film was shot amongst a group of social outcasts in Moldova just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the film is not a film about ‘human