Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Scientology makes the news from time to time, often in connection with some of the religion's celebrity adherents. In Norway recently however, the creed has received some negative press because of the suicide of a young woman. Apparently just two hours before her death she learned how badly she had done in one of the personality tests used by the group. Believers have been quick to state that Scientology helps rather than harms those with mental health problems. Critics have taken the opportunity to state that the group is only really interested in making money. What you may ask is the Socialist position?

The Socialist Standard of March 1985 has an excellent article titled Sick...sick...sick... by Ron Cook, whose death last Friday robs the movement of a fine Comrade and passionate Socialist:

"Yet another circular from the Church of Scientology dropped through my letter box the other day. I must have received dozens since I bought a copy of the book Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health a couple of years ago by mail order. In this thick stew of bowdlerised psychoanalysis, electronics, hypnosis, counselling techniques, eastern mysticism and home-spun American philosophy, L. Ron Hubbard claims to be able to save the world. Since 1950 when his articles about Dianetics first appeared in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction the wilful jargon has grown steadily more dense and perverse, and Dianetics, the self-styled science, has given birth to Scientology, the self-styled religious philosophy. It uses a version of the christian cross as one of its symbols, copyrights all its signs and key words, and charges the bargain price of £2,424 for its complete library of cassette tapes. And they will not stop writing to me.

The basic message behind Scientology goes something like this: there is nothing fundamentally amiss with the natural world or even the human social world. What is causing all the problems is the irrationality of individuals, who have been mentally damaged, in some cases from their conception onwards. The only hope for the world is to cure all these people with "religious technology". But just in case that proves to be too much of a long shot, you can learn to become a theta clear, in which case you will continue to exist even if the world is destroyed by hydrogen bombs.

Scientology has obviously tapped a deep well of need because it now has "churches" and contacts all over those parts of the world which are subject to American influence. Its particular bland of pseudo-science with older religious ideas has appealed to otherwise sceptical minds. Its shift of emphasis from sin to mental illness is one that christianity has not quite succeeded in making, but the psychiatric industry has proved it to be a huge money-spinner for decades.

Scientology is not alone, of course. Transendental Meditation, Life Wave, and many other variants of Yoga and Buddhism which emphasise mental health and power have attracted thousands of followers in America, Australasia and Europe. Many of them have parted with considerable sums of money.

The world in which these religions and cults and movements have grown up is the post-war one of the nuclear threat. It is a world in which mental hospitals have grown steadily in capacity; in which the prescription of sleeping pills, tranquillisers and antidepressants has developed into a multi-million-pound industry; and in which the consumption of alcohol, marijuana and the hard drugs has relentlessly expanded.

But the trend is a complex one. It may well be true that men and women of today's working class (and capitalist class too) are more afraid, worried, stressed, frustrated than our parents or grandparents were. But it may also be true that such forms of misery are more likely to be recognised when the more physical deprivations of hunger, disease and squalor have been somewhat alleviated. Psychiatry is treating many of the sufferers, but then the expectations of happiness and fulfilment has itself been partly fostered by psychiatry. As priests and drug pedlars long ago discovered, the really lucrative trade is one in which the commodity creates a dependency and never fully satisfies the craving.

As Professor Thomas Szasz shows in his book, The Manufacture of Madness, psychiatry took over, in the name of science, those areas of sin, witchcraft, demonology, heresy and other non-conforming or anti-social behaviour that had previously been largely the domain of the established church. By giving scientific-sounding names to feelings, attitudes and patterns of behaviour and by defining mental illness in a way that includes everyone, psychiatry has grown into an established section of the medical and penal apparatus of modern capitalist society. In the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany or "communist" Russia, psychiatry performed a role like that of the Spanish Inquisition, rooting out deviants, torturing and punishing traitors and spies. In the USA and many other states "mental illnesses" or "aggression" or some similar expression has become a way of labelling and condemning ideas and behaviour which are not approved of by the ruling class.

Psychiatry grew up with the social system of capitalism. The "scientific" approach, the focus on the individual to fulfilment and happiness, the blurring and fading of moral and social values in a money-profit orientated society, the reality of individual coercion under the guise of helping and healing - all of theses are obvious facets of the ideology of capitalism. Like the other social "sciences", psychiatry is largely a rationalisation of oppression and a means of control.

There is something bitterly amusing about L. Ron Hubbard's making up the pseudo-religion of Scientology out of the pseudo-science of psychiatry. Each stage fosters the illusion of progress, of increasing freedom and control, whereas all that is new is the jargon. Like priesthoods down the ages, those of Scientology are assisting in the frustration and oppression of their followers, not helping to liberate them.

The unhappiness and frustration felt by millions of men and women throughout the world are not irrational reactions to the world of the hydrogen bomb, the rat race and the dole queue. Our feelings of helplessness and depression, perhaps our sudden bursts of fury and destructiveness, are not symptoms of mental illness. Unless we can see the one way out of this maze, there is no reasonable way in which we can behave in such a world. We are very much like rats in a cage. "Irrational" behaviour is only to be expected. It is not even peculiar to the social system of capitalism. There is plenty of evidence to show that such behaviour was common during the ages of feudalism, and also during the slave empires which came before that. But at least serfs and slaves were openly suppressed by violence or the threat of it. No one seriously questions the fact that they were exploited to maintain the power and luxury of the ruling aristocracy. But it is not nearly so readily accepted that capitalist society oppresses and exploits in a way which has a far greater impact on the individual member of the working class.

The oppression in capitalist society is primarily economic. Lack of any access to the means of making a living (such as the serf's strip of land) forces members of the working class to sell their brains or their brawn to employers. It is this state of dependency on finding a job which is the real mark of poverty or servitude, whatever the wage or salary may be when it is obtained. And if your expected social function, for which you have been schooled and trained, is to work; and if your standard of living , mortgage repayments, heating bills, hire purchase agreements, children's clothes, all depend on it, and then you are made redundant - it is hardly surprising you feel upset or depressed or afraid of the future or even a complete failure. When the ruling ideology insists through its advertising and education and entertainment industry that every individual has equality of opportunity., the only implication can be that it is your own fault if you are not rich and powerful and happy. If realising this makes you act in a surly, unco-operative way, then it is obvious that you need strong management - even the forces of law and order - to keep you in line.

Religions, ancient or modern, play their part in this continual process of mental control, of governing the great majority of the population without appearing to use force and without stirring up consciously organised opposition. They focus attention firmly on the individual's state of mind and personal behaviour. And that is where they lay the blame for social ills.
But psychiatry is the true successor to the mediaeval church. Although blame has been replaced by pity (or professional concern) and punishment has been replaced by treatment, it is psychiatrists who can now recommend committal to mental institutions "for the patient's own good", and can prescribe electric shock therapy and other punishments to save the person's soul from the devil - to make him or her a happy, useful member of society.

The misery which is being attended to by the churches and the psychiatrists or being deadened by drugs is the force for social revolution. It is the working out, through individual people, of the contradictions and conflicts which are intensifying in the social system of capitalism. It is the outcome of the increasing exploitation and oppression, but also the increasing education and awareness of members of the working class. It is the result of continually raised expectations set against repeatedly frustrated efforts. It is misery which cannot help but grow as the capitalist regime becomes increasingly obsolete and destructive. State supported or commercially opportunist ventures will, no doubt, continue to offer various mixtures of mysticism and mental manipulation to divert working class attention and anger away from the solution of democratic revolution, but these can only delay the outcome.

"Mental health", "happiness", "a state of grace", "being clear" - whatever jargon we use - the condition is impossible in a social regime where one minority class rules and exploits most of the people for profit. No doubt our fellow workers as a whole will resort to every blind alley in the maze before they opt for revolution, but there is no other way out."

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