Right-Wing Psychiatry, Love-Me Liberals and the Anti-Authoritarian Left

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

“In every American community you have varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberals. An outspoken group on many subjects, ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally.”

—Phil Ochs, Introduction to “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” on the live album, Phil Ochs in Concert (1966)

Many self-identified liberals are far more than “ten degrees to the right of center” with regard to psychiatry. With the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, and then even more so following 9/11 in 2001, the United States has swung so far to the right that many self-identified liberals embrace, often unwittingly, a right-wing view in many aspects of society, including psychiatry.

Establishment psychiatry has historically been supported by the ruling elite in return for meeting the elite’s needs to maintain the societal hierarchy and political status quo. Psychiatry has met the elite’s needs by its various attributions—repeatedly proven to be scientifically unfounded—that emotional suffering and odd or frightening behaviors are caused by defects in individual biochemistry and genetics, rather than by trauma and societal defects created by the ruling elite.

In the past, right-wing psychiatry’s individual defect view—in combination with extreme nationalism that requires an entire population to efficiently meet the needs of its state-corporatist rulers—has resulted in policies of sterilization in the United States and, as was the case in Nazi Germany, euthanasia/murder.

In contrast to the individual defect perspective, a left perspective is that the root of much of what is commonly labeled as “mental illness” is a dehumanizing and alienating society—onethat has been orchestrated to meet only the needs of the wealthy and powerful and not designed to meet the needs of everybody else for autonomy, meaningfulness, and genuine community. Prior to the 1980s, it was not radical to acknowledge that a right-left ideological battle existed in psychiatry (as it exists in education and many other aspects of society).

In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the left anti-authoritarian psychoanalyst/social psychologist Erich Fromm occupied a prominent place in U.S. society, even interviewed by Mike Wallace on ABC in 1958. In Fromm’s The Sane Society (1955), he offers an ideological perspective that today would result in his complete marginalization by the mainstream media, as he states: “Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. ‘Patriotism’ is its cult. . . . by ‘patriotism’ I mean that attitude which puts [one’s] own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice.”

Fromm fiercely criticized the mental health profession: “Today the function of psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis threatens to become the tool in the manipulation of man. . . .Yet, many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of ‘unadjusted’ individuals, and not that of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself.”

Today, Erich Fromm is virtually ignored, and to the extent that psychology students read anything about him in their textbooks, he is routinely identified only as a “neo-Freudian” not as a democratic-socialist and an anti-authoritarian critic of a dehumanizing society and psychiatry.

The “common denominator” of the term right wing, according to A Glossary of Political Economy Terms, is “enthusiastic support for the main features of the current social and economic order, accepting all (or nearly all) of its inequalities of wealth, status and privilege.” In this sense of demanding compliance with the current order and its hierarchies of status and privilege, Stalinism too is right-wing; though perhaps less confusing would be labeling such a state as totalitarianand authoritarian.

In the industrial world, to the extent that unquestioning obedience to authority is the norm in a society is the extent that it utilizes psychiatry’s psychopathologizing of the disobedient. The psychological common denominator of a population willing to be so ruled is, I believe, a fear and hatred of anything which creates conflict and tension—be it diversity, democracy, or defiance. This fear and hatred results in receptivity to rationales foreradication of these sources of tension.

The left anti-authoritarian political climate of the 1960s and early 1970s created the conditions for successful gay activism against the American Psychiatric Association and for the elimination, in 1973, of homosexuality as one of the APA’s psychiatric disorders. However, by 1980, the more right U.S. society accepted the APA’s DSM-3(1980) proclamation that defiance in children and teenagers was a mental illness that is called “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD).

The so-called“symptoms” of ODD include “often argues with authority figures” and “often actively defies or refuses to comply with requests from authority figures or with rules.” ODD-labeled young people arenotthe kids who society once called “juvenile delinquents,” as young people engaged in criminal behaviors are labeled with “conduct disorder” (CD). In psychiatry, ODD and CD both fall under the umbrella classification “disruptive behavior disorder,” which is currently the most common classification of children and teens medicated with antipsychotic drugs.

While ODD kids can produce significant tension in families and schools, many of these young people are exactly the kind of kids who mature into anti-authoritarian adults (including several of the famous anti-authoritarians I profile in Resisting Illegitimate Authority) who have the courage to challenge and resist illegitimate authority.

Phil Ochs’s love-me liberals need to believe that they are completely tolerant and cannot admit that they are intolerant when it comes to certain kinds of defiance “if it affects them personally,” as he observed. His “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” brings this home:

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Since love-me liberals are so self-certain of their tolerance, they believe that what upsets them must bea criminal behavior or a mental illness that requires incarceration or treatment.

A self-identified “psychiatric survivor” once told me, “We all have a bit of a Nazi inside us,” and he wished that love-me liberals would acquire some humility—specifically, if love-me liberals could simply admit that his behavior got them uptight, they might then just stay away from him instead of “treating” him. Often quoted among psychiatric survivor activists seeking either to reform or abolish psychiatry is this observation by C. S. Lewis: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Much of psychiatry’s history is embarrassing for psychiatrists, and so they hope the general public believes that the practices of current psychiatry are a complete departure from, for example, one 1940s public policy debate.“The 1942 ‘Euthanasia’ Debate in the American Journal of Psychiatry,” authored by psychologist Jay Joseph, discusses three articles that appeared in a 1942 issue of the prestigious professional journal, the American Journal of Psychiatry. In the first article, neurologist Foster Kennedy argued that ‘feebleminded’ people should be euthanatized, which was rebutted by psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who argued against euthanasia. In the third article, Joseph notes, “An unsigned editorial discussing these positions clearly sided with Kennedy: that ‘euthanasia’ would be appropriate in some cases, and that parents’ opposition to this procedure should be the subject of psychiatric concern.”

Joseph is one of the few U.S. psychologists continuing to debunk the pseudoscience behind twin studies and genetic defect theories of mental illness. However, outside of a small world of dissident psychologists and psychiatrists where Joseph is highly regarded, he is not widely known. In contrast, even in the 1980s, there remained prominent social scientists whose books were published by major publishers and who made clear the connection between what was then called the “New Right” ideology and biochemical-genetic defect theories.

The 1984 book Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature was authored by evolutionary geneticist R.C. Lewontin, neurobiologist Steven Rose, and psychologist Leon Kamin. They begin by making clear the political ideology behind individual defect biochemical/genetic determinism: “Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies. . . . Biological determinism is a powerful and flexible form of ‘blaming the victim’.” At the time of its publication, Not in Our Genesreceived praise from prominent public intellectuals such as anthropologist Ashley Montagu and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (who had similarly criticized the pseudoscience behind hereditary determinism of intelligence in his 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man).

While historically, psychiatry’s biochemical individual defect theories have met the needs of the overall power structure by locating the cause of tension-creating behaviors in the defects of an individual rather than the defects of society, psychiatry’s recent chemical imbalance theories have increasingly met the needs of one major force in the ruling elite, Big Pharma.

Beginning in the late 1980s, psychiatry aggressively sold the notion that that depression was caused by the individual defect of a chemical imbalance—specifically not enough of the neurotransmitter serotonin—which could be “corrected” with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft. It is this theory which convinced depressed Americans that it is irresponsible nottotake SSRIs. However, the psychiatry establishment now claims that it has always known that this chemical-imbalance theory was not true and was an “urban legend,” the term used by Ronald Pies, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the Psychiatric Timeswho stated in 2011, “In truth, the ‘chemical imbalance’ notion was always a kind of urban legend—never a theory seriously propounded by well-informed psychiatrists.”

While this chemical-imbalance theory was in factdiscredited by scientists by the 1990s, it has been so aggressively sold by psychiatry and drug companies that this theory continues to be widely believed not only by many patients but even by many physician prescribers.

Since the 1980s, psychiatry has been increasingly colonized by Big Pharma,documented in many books, including Psychiatry Under the Influence (2015). Big Pharma has utilized psychiatry for marketing and sales by controlling it through funding: university psychiatry departments; psychiatry’s professional journals; psychiatrist “thought leaders” who promote new diagnoses and drug treatments; and the American Psychiatric Association itself. Psychiatry’s official diagnostic manual is called the DSM(published by the APA), and each DSMrevision adds new mental illnesses that expand the psychiatric medication market. In 2012, PLOS Medicinereported, “69% of the DSM-5 task force members report having ties to the pharmaceutical industry.”

In the version of “Lover Me, I’m a Liberal” that is on Phil Ochs in Concert, after Ochs sings its first verse (that I quoted earlier), he briefly interrupts his song to ask his audience, “Get it?” His primarily leftist audience included liberals and more radical anti-authoritarians—the same mix that today reads CounterPunch—and so to pay tribute to Phil, I’ll end by asking, “Get it?”

Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics, and psychology intersect. His most recent book is A Profession Without Reason: The Crisis of Contemporary Psychiatry—Untangled and Solved by Spinoza, Freethinking, and Radical Enlightenment (2022). His Web site is brucelevine.net