Mick Cooper’s Psychology at the Heart of Social Change: Developing a Progressive Vision for Society (2023) Bristol: Policy Press.
It has been quite common for the big figures in psychotherapy to end their careers pontificating on the world at large, in other words to shift their attention from micro-psychology to macro-politics, shall we say. Freud, Jung, Frankl, Rogers, Beck, and others have followed this trajectory. I have even done it myself in a small way. In this piece I focus on Mick Cooper’s macro-politics, which he refers to as a progressive vision. Cooper moved in his prolific writings from attention to research findings, relational depth, through person-centred, existential and pluralistic therapies, to the interface between therapy and politics. In this, perhaps magnus opus, work he has made his case for what he calls psychology to be injected into understanding and addressing sociopolitical issues. Unfortunately, he fails from the outset to specify the very terms psychology and society.
It became obvious at some point in 2019 that Cooper’s politics were explicitly leftist. In a blog, he urged fellow professionals to ‘vote to keep the Tories out’ (Cooper, 2019). On the one hand, it should come as no surprise that Cooper like a probable majority of therapists and academics was vociferously left-leaning. But on the other hand, it should be more openly discussed that (a) about half of British citizens (and presumably many clients also) are right-leaning and Brexit-supporting; and (b) psychotherapy and counselling arguably are not the place for disseminating political ideas. A case can be made for a particular politics of psychotherapy (Feltham & House, 2017). This usually links the concerns of clients with suffering that has roots in social conditions, and it is along this trajectory that we can see Cooper’s thought moving.
As a seasoned academic, a Professor of Counselling Psychology, Cooper to some extent questions his own assumptions but in this book he is clearly devoted to ‘progressivism’. Clues to his uncritical leftist enthusiasm are found in his celebration of Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, Jacinda Ardern, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: the future is black, green and female. Let me say at the outset that I strongly disagree with most of his views here, and this is by no means an objective evaluation. I wish I could be kinder to Cooper’s heartfelt book – ‘be nice’ – but I can’t.
First, the term ‘psychology’ is used here to refer to psychology, counselling and psychotherapy; actually, it draws mainly from humanistic psychology. But psychology is a far wider enterprise, and its applications do not all support Cooper’s progressive interpretation of it. Jordan Peterson, for example, is completely omitted from this text, as is Hans Eysenck and any other ‘right-leaning’ psychologists. Evolutionary psychology and its applications have no place in Cooper’s work. In his opening paragraph, he says ‘whether we are referring to green politics, feminism, or socialism, the focus is on making things better for us all: on sharing out what we have’ (p.1). Cooper promotes ‘socialist humanism’, which is ostensibly a variant of social justice. Let me raise here the point made by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2022) that academia faces a choice between social justice or truth in its core mission. The ‘woke’ mission of social justice is far less interested in truth-seeking than in uncritically building an international order based on equity. I submit that Cooper, in common with activist comrades, chooses ‘social justice’ as a higher telos than patient, painstaking truth-seeking.
My main criticism of Cooper, however, is aimed at his utter naivety. He is not alone in being swept away by the vision of a utopian world order. Things can be better and they must be better is a familiar clarion call of leftists. Both parts of this have to be questioned. ‘Things can be better’ is a truism (of course they always can) but it is also an unrealistic generalisation. Things can get worse, or while you’re making some things better, others may well get worse. Leftist totalitarianism has reared its ugly oppressive head across the world precisely due to fixed utopian dogmas. The progressive vision is much more like a hope or prayer than a realistic plan, consisting as it does of a kind of sweeping global optimism resting on no detailed knowledge of or interest in evolution, human nature, tribal dynamics, history, and so forth. In other words, Cooper’s ‘psychology at the heart of social change’ rests on vacuous emotional insistence: things must get better, and in certain directions. What that phrase really means is ‘my psychology at the centre of my dogma of social change’. Cooper even includes a section recommending niceness, a vague but fashionable positive concept that simply dismisses everything that is not nice, such as millennia of evolution containing an amoral struggle for survival. Capitalism isn’t essentially nice, nor are tribal and territorial forces; but you cannot sweep these away and expect your nice progressive vision to take their place.
Cooper believes and wants us to believe in Richard Layard’s well-known prescriptions for happiness. He commends SEL (social and emotional learning). Similar approval is shown for Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level (which asserts that ‘more equal countries’ like Denmark are nicer and more mentally healthy because of structural equality). I know Denmark quite well and I can assert that although it has some features of feelgood equality, it also has many dark downsides, including high suicide rates. Cooper’s recipe for social change might work in kibbutz-like communes or (partially) in tiny populations like Denmark but the larger the left-aspiring society, the more totalitarian enforcement of egalitarianism is witnessed, as in the former USSR, and past and current China. As Hughes (2023) puts it ‘Utopian ideologies, such as the Republic of Virtue, arise as an attempt to simplify unmanageable complexity’. Cooper wants to dodge the logic of utopian ideologies like his own vision turning into French Revolution-style terror states. He might have discussed the modest contributions made by some psychotherapists to improving civil dialogue, but he hasn’t done that.
Cooper commends the Power-Threat-Meaning-Framework (PTMF) devised by certain clinical psychologists as a mental health concept that centres on social forces rather than individual pathology. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is of course included in his ragbag of optimistic tools. He uncritically commends Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, both luminaries of critical theory and Cultural Marxism. Perhaps I, indeed all of us, should be cautioned by Cooper’s tendency to spread his reading too thinly. Both the folly and strength of academia is its disciplinary specialism structure which creates experts who can speak with authority on narrow foci. Similarly, psychology as a rigorous academic discipline constantly re-examines its own claims and attempts to replicate research before jumping to hasty conclusions. Of course, this runs up against Marx’s warning that ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. In its revolutionary zeal, Marxism and so-called socialist humanism prioritise change above understanding and realism. By contrast, Freud’s pessimism acknowledges our ordinary unhappiness, a view that Cooper has dismissed.
A sincere attempt to inject selected aspects of some psychology into the world’s problems can’t be all bad but its naivety is pretty staggering. Rather than trying in vain to apply an assortment of therapy-related techniques to fixing society, a better way forward, I suggest, is to use psychology to explore the origins of dogmatic political views. Why do we adhere to and advance rigidly polarised beliefs? Hibbing, Smith and Alford (2014) examine this in their book, in which I see more hope for progressive understanding. Hibbing et al.’s book is interdisciplinary, taking psychology, biology and politics seriously but acknowledging the severe difficulties involved in understanding our deeply embedded personality traits and related political differences. Cooper is open about his Jewish father’s communism and his own later reversion to neo-Marxist (or socialist humanist) thought. Strangely, although he certainly alludes to misogyny, racism and homophobia in his book, Cooper barely covers this material, being more focused on anti-capitalism and paths to happiness. This is to his credit in our hysterically woke era. But he does refer to the ‘rogue goals’ of capitalism, fascism, and ecocide, with no regard for viewpoint diversity.
There is a curious omission from this book that is also neglected by traditional psychotherapists. It is this: in spite of much talk of ‘giving psychology away’, self-analysis, and the client being the expert on their own life, no-one today promotes co-counselling. I refer to Re-evaluation Co-counselling, which advocates the discharge of problematic emotions, including sociopolitical material requiring discharge. One might think Cooper to be in favour of ordinary people being trusted to co-counsel each other thus, but this would potentially cut out the licensed psychologist (and his status, salary and pension). Given the ongoing inadequacy of mental health services, an education in co-counselling might be a fruitful way forward. But psychologists, therapists, and ordinary people, presumably don’t really believe in it.
I believe a book like this must leave us asking these questions. To what extent can ‘psychology’ (a pluralistic and often self-contradictory field itself) realistically feed into aspirations to ‘change the world’? Is Western epistemology, in which psychology is embedded, appropriate as an instrument for understanding and transforming the ‘global south’? (Cooper has ignored the call to decolonise psychology.) Should the profession of psychotherapy transform itself from an intrapsychically- and interpersonally-oriented endeavour into some form of leftist clinical sociology? Should individual therapy clients be understood and treated as atoms in a grand communist narrative? Can psychotherapy return to its original focus on the individual psyche, free from politics? Is this book a realistic recipe for utopia or an embarrassing monument to psychological hubris?
Cooper, M. (2019) Politics in counselling and psychotherapy. https://mick-cooper.squarespace.com/new-blog/2019/12/6/counselling-psychotherapy-and-politics
Feltham, C. & House, R. (2017) The politics of counselling psychology. In D. Murphy (Ed) Counselling Psychology: A Textbook for Study and Practice. Chichester: Wiley.
Haidt, J. (2022) When truth and justice collide, choose truth. https://www.chronicle.com/article/when-truth-and-social-justice-collide-choose-truth
Hibbing, J. A., Smith, H. B. & Alford, J. A. (2014) Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. New York: Routledge.
Hughes, P. (2023) The crack-up: how individual and civilisational identities collapse. Quillette, 2 February.
By Colin Feltham, Emeritus Professor of Critical Counselling Studies, Sheffield Hallam University, and a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.