Join Mailing List

Author: Karen Minikin

This post captures the key themes of alienation, oppression and deception that are core to Karen Minikin’s new book: Radical-Relational Perspectives in Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy. Soon to be published by Routledge. Find out about book launch


The concept of alienation has its roots in Marx’s (1867/1967) philosophy. The premise is that capitalist economies promote a sense of estrangement (“entfremdung” in German). In other words, the ideology behind capitalist economic structures cuts people off from their sense of humanity; they become disconnected from the meaning of their work and from engaging in intimate social relationships. Marx indicated that people become objectified by being seen as resources, subjugated (Shaw, 2014) to the “higher” goals of the economic establishment.

The idea that alienation is the root cause of all social and mental distress is simple yet potent. As a philosophy, it has the potential to reach across disciplines in the humanities. Within psychotherapy, the radical psychiatry movement is associated with the pioneers Claude Steiner, Hogie Wyckoff, and their colleagues and friends. For many years, they shared their ideas and thinking via the journal, “The Radical Therapist”.  They summarised their position in their manifesto of 1969/1975:

Extended individual psychotherapy is an elitist, outmoded, as well as non-productive, form of psychiatric help. It concentrates the talents of a few on a few. It silently colludes with the notion that people’s difficulties have their sources within them while implying that everything is well with the world. … People’s troubles have their source not within them but in their alienated relationships, in their exploitation, in polluted environments, in war, and in the profit motive.

(Steiner et al, 1969/1975, pp. 3–4)

Theirs was a specific challenge to the medical model of psychiatry, which treated people as if their problems resided entirely in the individual chemistry of their minds rather than in the relational, social, economic, and political dynamics of their lives. The radical psychiatry movement positioned the work of fostering mental health as an art rather than a science. To this end, there was a call to oppose individual psychotherapy in favour of supportive group work while taking social as well as political action. These ideas hold validity today, although in practice most people in psychotherapy still work individually. So, in this respect, radical psychiatry in its traditional form still has relevance.

At the time the original radical manifesto was written, a one-person psychology (Stark, 1999) was prevalent. This meant the practitioner was the expert and the patient was the person who needed help. It facilitated a “power over” dynamic that the radical movement challenged with ideas of mutuality and joint responsibility for healing. The philosophy of mutuality continues and has been added to by co-creative, (Tudor & Summers, 2014), relational and political practitioners, especially those challenging traditional frames of reference.  For instance, Farhad Dalal, Eugene Ellis, Isha McKenzie-Mavinga, Karen Minikin, Narendra Keval, Foluke Taylor and Dwight Turner. Perspectives from radical feminists (Willis, 1984/1992), which argue that the personal is political, are additional ways of addressing the same challenge, that is, how to work from an anti-oppressive frame of reference.

Remaining true to a much earlier tradition, the bias in counselling and psychotherapy continues to emphasize the influence of parenting, particularly by mothers. Early infant care is significant in influencing psychic functioning. However, context is also crucial in terms of care and here-and-now relationships. Context includes the family environment as well as the wider natural, social, economic, and/or political environments. Our outside influences our internal psychic processes, and our internal processes shape our perception of the outside. External and internal psychic landscapes are, in my view, relationally bound. I understand the idea of alienation within a framework of social (macro) and psychic (micro) relational dynamics. I draw on developments in contemporary sociological, counselling and psychotherapy thinking to position a radical relational psychiatry, and I move between political, social, cultural, and personal frames of references in search of ways of speaking about dynamics that are interrelated. I start by suggesting that an alienated state of mind includes experiences of psychic and cultural death.

Oppressive Dynamics in Alienation

In Steiner et al.’s (1975) original formulation, alienation included oppression. The problem was understood as structures and systems exerting power over humanity. In a capitalist ideology, competition for resources is key, and in the face of austerity, economic scarcity is experienced as a threat. So, additional demands, such as Westerners encountering a humanitarian crisis, arouse hostility or even hate. In the extreme, anyone representing otherness becomes a target. I substantiate this statement with clarification from Keval (2016), who described the racist state of mind this way: “This term conveys a particular constellation of anxieties related to the feeling of being robbed or depleted, which leads to vengeful wishes to thwart and undermine the ethnic other” (p. 118). So, radical psychiatrists/practitioners understood psychological difficulties as being socially and politically constructed. They appealed for protest, and if people refrained from it, they too were challenged:

By remaining “neutral” in an oppressive situation psychiatry, especially in the public sector, has become an enforcer of established values and laws.… Psychiatrists should become advocates of the people, should refuse to participate in the pacification of the oppressed, and should encourage people’s struggles for liberation.

(Steiner, 1969/1975, pp. 4–5)

The strong fighting spirit found in these words of the radical psychiatry manifesto is energizing and mobilizing. In times of political and social turmoil, killing off protest may save lives, but finding the voice that expresses outrage may save souls. However, although rhetoric advocating protest mobilizes vitality, it also risks alienating those it aims to attract. Ironically, the call to battle based on values can sometimes be experienced as an oppressive force. In other words, righteousness rarely engages opponents to the cause and can even distance the already converted. The counterculture movements of the 1970s needed the oppressive systems to rally against. We are seeing a revival of just such a situation in the West today, in which protest and political engagement has accompanied the rise of nationalism.

There is so more to be done to help practitioners develop ideas relating to power dynamics and think about experiences in the consulting room. In addition to oppression, radical psychiatry also talks about the perverted dynamics of mystification married to oppression. I think this is a deeper and more disturbing process. One way mystification is used in politics is through the language of the “people’s choice.” I see this as an abuse of democracy, one that suggests that there is but one position. This is a profound discount (Schiff & Schiff, 1971) of the complexity of social and political splits, conflicts, and differences generally. Thus, unwelcome positions, feelings, and thinking are banished, thereby undermining the dignity of a nation or people.

Having identified oppression as the force that exerts domination, I now expand on mystification, which includes how the oppressor colonizes (Chinnock & Minikin, 2015) the mind of the oppressed.

Mystification Is Key

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.

(Biko, 1978, p. 68)

This quote from Steve Biko describes the psychological intention in gaining power over the other. Whether it be promulgated by a political and social system, a cult, or an individual, mystification is the sinister and deadly component within alienation that allows the oppressor to move in and potentially “purchase” the trust of the oppressed. Gramsci (1971) described this as spontaneous consent, which is possible because the oppressed experience economic, social, and/or psychological dependency on the oppressor. Gramsci’s ideas explain how the mind of the oppressed is controlled in a way that is similar to scripting whereby an infant learns to consent to his or her caregivers. Identification with the oppressor is key because then the oppressed can oppress themselves. Usually, people who attend psychotherapy have turned inward, their internalized tyranny killing off aspects of their humanity that have been subjugated. In short, I understand mystification as a deep deception on the part of the oppressor, who is determined not to lose his or her powerful grip on the oppressed. The meaning I make is that aspects of the soul in both the oppressor and the oppressed are killed

off or go so far into retreat that recall and recovery is very hard.

One contemporary writer who describes this well is Daniel Shaw (2014) in his writing about the process of subjugation in traumatizing narcissism. He drew from his experience of cults, which may include intergenerational trauma (Minikin, 2011; Noriega, 2010), including the need for the tyrant to find a relational home for his or her disturbance. So the other is colonized, the relational dynamic psychologically structured and set. Through a colonizing process, the oppressed serve to host the badness for the oppressor, with whom the oppressed identify. This means relinquishing some aspect of their selfhood. Thus, I think of the colonizing process as explaining how mystification takes place.

Chinnock and Minikin (2015) described the colonizing process using the psychological parallel to historical colonialism. Countries in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America that were rich in natural resources were dominated by countries from the West. These economic, social, and political structures created dependency and resulted in a profound loss of culture, that is, identity. Post colonialism, such countries were reeling as they attempted to find ways to redefine themselves as nations and peoples. Looking specifically at the mind, we linked colonization with Bollas’s (1987) ideas about extractive introjection. He described the deception by the colonizer, who moves in without the colonized realizing what is happening, and the colonized are thereby robbed of aspects of his or her thinking capacity, emotional resonance, and/or soulful autonomy. In its place, the oppressor/colonizer leaves his or her desires and disturbances. The contemporary term for this is “gaslighting”. Psychologically speaking, this can be a conscious use of power (such as in politics) or an unconscious one (as in scripting in TA). The loss of thinking and identity was described by Bollas as a “catastrophe, from which there may well be no recovery” (p. 166). Understanding oppression accompanied by mystification clarifies why political and psychological resistance is so crucial if a person or a people are to retain their soul. It also explains why such courage is not always common. Steve Biko and others paid with their lives for such resistance, while survivors are left traumatized with many complexities added to their narratives.

Pin It on Pinterest

Skip to content