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Alienation: a new orienting principle for psychotherapists in South Africa.


As psychotherapists in South Africa, we are all too familiar with the ongoing debate about the 'relevance' of our profession (Long, 2016a).

Our theories and practices are contested, as are the methods we employ when selecting and training mental health professionals (Ahmed & Pillay, 2004; Mayekiso, Strydom, Jithoo & Katz, 2004). For many ordinary citizens, psychotherapy is a middle-class indulgence (Ruane, 2010)--and the clamor for the decolonisation of higher education in general and psychology in particular has accentuated these concerns (Kessi, 2016; Long, 2016b). Accordingly, in this paper I focus on transforming the theoretical base of psychotherapy by reviving an old but neglected understanding of the problem of human suffering. I attempt this by offering an alternative reading of Wulf Sachs' (1937) Black Hamlet, the classic psychoanalytic account of Sachs' relationship with a Black Rhodesian, 'John Chavafambira.' Specifically, I analyse Black Hamlet via the Marxist theory of alienation and assert its significance for psychotherapists in South Africa today.

A considerable secondary literature has sprung up around Black Hamlet, much of which interrogates the practice of psychoanalysis in colonial settings, surfacing through a series of reversals the internal conflict of the analyst himself--Sachs. Jonathan Crewe (2001), for example, describes how 'Sachs is simultaneously negotiating his own deracinated subjectivity in relation to that of the deracinated other' (p. 424) and concludes that 'the unconscious lavishly on display seems to be that of the analyst, not the subject, who merely undergoes an oedipal implant' (p. 431). For Grahame Hayes (2002), it is Sachs' recognition of his own marginality as a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant that mediates his empathy for Chavafambira; 'Sachs' interest in Chavafambira doubles as an interest in his own identity, and sense of alienation in a highly racialised society' (p. 44). Jacqueline Rose (1996) notes how Sachs repeatedly 'projects himself into Chavafambira's mind' (p. 54), adding that '[b]ehind every projection [lies] an identification' (p. 55). It is unsurprising, then, that Saul Dubow (1993, p. 555) should ask: 'whose story is this? who is transformed, and by whom?'.

The critical scholarship that has prospered since Black Hamlets republication exposes some of the blind spots within the psychoanalytic canon. Yet it is not my aim to put psychoanalysis on trial again. Instead of psychoanalysing Sachs, I depart from this corpus of work--most of it, literary criticism--that turns psychoanalysis against itself. My objective is to take seriously Sachs' description of Chavafambira's material exploitation--and to trace via the concept of alienation the psychological impact of the structural violence done to one man. Indeed, I shall argue that alienation remains a salient category of lived experience in post-Apartheid South Africa--and that, by examining its various iterations in the works of, specifically, Karl Marx, Frantz Fanon, and Erich Fromm, the prospect of a more democratic psychotherapy starts to emerge.

As necessary as this statement of intent is, it is equally important to clarify what this paper is not. In this regard, it is worth noting that a successful synthesis of Marxism and psychoanalysis has never been achieved. It is true that Fromm, Wilhelm Reich (1936), Herbert Marcuse (1966) and others attempted such a project--but the results were deeply controversial. I should state that I have no intention of joining them. Additionally, notwithstanding my appropriation of a psychoanalytic text in search of a socially relevant psychotherapy, this paper does not examine the fraught relationship of psychoanalysis to psychotherapy in South Africa (Swartz, 2013)--a topic that would take me well beyond immediate priorities. With these disclaimers in place, it is towards an explication of alienation--a term whose intellectual history can be traced as far back as Karl Marx's (1844) formulations in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844--that I now turn.


In their book, We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy--and the World's Getting Worse, James Hillman and Michael Ventura (1992) explore the paradoxical quality of modern living in which the historically unparalleled potential for interpersonal connectivity coexists with a remarkable degree of interpersonal estrangement. Their insistence on the redefinition of selfhood as 'the interiorisation of community' (1992, p. 39) invites archaic visions of 'primitive communism', but it is their diagnosis of the alienating quality of capitalist social formations that gives rise to the theoretical framework of this paper. To be sure, it is common knowledge that Marx has been criticised endlessly for his economic determinism, and this has resulted in the displacement of classical Marxist theory with the theoretical insights of both the New Left and post-Marxists. The concept of 'alienation', however, is one of the few touchstones in Marxist theory that has retained its salience in contemporary social theory. Curiously, despite the centrality of alienation to Marx's understanding of human nature, psychologists have generally overlooked this aspect of his thought. In The Crisis of Psychoanalysis, Fromm (1970) attributes the oversight to three factors: first, since Marx did not systematise his psychological insights in a single work, it was wrongly assumed that he had no interest in psychology; second, his overriding interest in economic life resulted in an analogous misreading of his intellectual project; and third, his version of dynamic psychology--which predates Freud's--was simply ahead of its time.

Marx defines human nature--he calls it 'species character'--as 'free, conscious activity' (1844, p. 76). He anticipates Freud, moreover, in positing the existence of ' appetites' that operate largely beyond human consciousness. However, whereas Freud conceives of the human being in isolation of others, Marx asserts unequivocally the relational aspect of human nature. For Marx, human appetites pursue objects in the world not for reasons of satiation--but for the realisation of relatedness itself. Marx goes on to distinguish between 'fixed' and 'relative' appetites: the former are integral to human nature while the latter 'owe their origin to certain social structures and certain conditions of production and communication' (Fromm, 1970, p. 65).

Marx insists that the trouble with capitalist formations is their characteristic distortion of the relationships of human beings to themselves, one another, and the world. A perverse state of alienation inevitably follows. Drawing on, respectively, the Kantian notions of 'commodity fetishism' and the 'categorical imperative', he describes how capitalist society 'mystifies' the source of value in commodities while simultaneously setting human beings against one other (Woodfin & Zarate, 2004). The value of a home, for example, is regarded as intrinsic to it--bricks, glass, and mortar are fetishised--while the exploited labour that actually built it, never enters into the reckoning. The institution of marriage--another example--dissolves eventually into a force for exploitation rather than mutual regard, as lovers begin to relate in transactional rather than human ways.

For Marx, if human beings are not to lose themselves they must succeed in relating actively to others and to the world. The problem with the capitalist mode of production, however, is that it engineers a society in which that definitively human activity--work--is transformed into an endless exercise of mindless, joyless routines. The outcome is an escalating sense of alienation that is experienced in four distinct--but related--ways (Marx, 1844). First, the worker has no claim over the product of his labour. For example, he may spend his entire working life in a BMW factory building luxury vehicles for middle-class consumers--but he will never drive a BMW himself. Second, the activity of his labour is inherently meaningless. It is a means to an end--a wage determined by an impersonal market driven by the inexorable logic of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand.' Third, the worker is estranged from his fellow human being who, in the competitive world of free market economics, becomes his sworn enemy. And fourth--but worst of all--the worker is alienated from himself. His very nature requires that he works freely and consciously--neither of which is possible in a neoliberal regime. In order to stay alive, he is compelled to sell his labour for a market-regulated pittance.

Despite its comprehensiveness, the Marxist theory of alienation is criticised in certain circles for being just that--a theory. As his system of thought developed, Marx concentrated increasingly on the technical workings of the economy to the extent that the figure of the human became partially obscured. There is no such difficulty, however, for the radical humanist and anticolonial psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon. While it would be incorrect to categorise Fanon's writings as Marxist (Macey, 2012), alienation not only figures prominently in his work but is also articulated with all of the evocative fullness that an excavation of lived experience requires. In his best-known compositions, Fanon describes the alienated existence of oppressor and oppressed. For example, in Black Skin, White Masks, he details the agony of a double consciousness (Du Bois, 1903) that separates the Black subject from himself and his people. In The Wretched of the Earth, he charts an identical regression, this time of the colonised man who sets about destroying himself and his community. But in both books, Fanon is clear that the condition of alienation overshadows the existence of the oppressor, too. White and Black, coloniser and colonised are locked into a Marxist-Hegelian dialectic, a struggle to a death that is both physical and psychological.

In one sense, Fanon particularises an experience of alienation that Erich Fromm attempts to universalise. In The Sane Society, Fromm (1963) draws heavily on Marxist theory in his elaboration of what Freud (1930) once called social neurosis. Describing the universal alienation of modern capitalist society as a 'socially patterned defect', Fromm suggests that the pathology that matters is 'the pathology of normalcy'. This is an unprecedented move for a psychoanalyst: Fromm is not interested in the margins of human experience as he attempts to illuminate what is, in his view, the repressed mainstream of that experience. In effect, he is calling for what generations of left-leaning analysts, psychotherapists, and psychologists have come to regard as the most Sisyphean of pursuits: a synthesis of psychoanalysis and Marxism.

It is worth restating that this paper will attempt no such synthesis. Just as Fromm--tellingly--never reveals in The Sane Society what Marxist theory means for the actual analytic encounter, I must defer any consideration of its practical implications. There are strong grounds for suspecting that Marxism and psychoanalysis are incommensurable (see Cook, 1995)--and it would be facile to circumvent what is a thorny debate with a list of trite technical maneuvers. In this respect, the paper requires some measure of indulgence on the part of its readers. It offers no practical solutions to the complexities that attend our work as psychotherapists in South Africa, but I hope to demonstrate that, at the very least, the concept of alienation can only deepen our understanding of human distress.


In early 2016, the Royal Shakespeare Company awarded the role of Hamlet to a Black actor for the first time in its history. Few would have known, however, that the original Black Hamlet was anointed in 1933--in downtown Johannesburg, to be precise. The story begins with Wulf Sachs, pioneering psychoanalyst, and John Chavafambira, a healer-diviner from eastern Rhodesia. For two-and-a-half years, Sachs proceeds to psychoanalyse Chavafambira before diagnosing him with a case of 'Hamletism.' Defined as 'a universal phenomenon symbolising indecision and hesitancy when action is required and reasonably expected' (Sachs, 1937, p. 176), Sachs regards Chavafambira's sensitiveness, introspectiveness, indecisiveness, and general preference for flight in the face of adversity as evidence of an unresolved Oedipal conflict. Unable to avenge his father's murder at the hands of his uncle, Charlie, unable to intervene when Charlie marries his widowed mother, unable to love a woman besides his mother, Chavafambira cuts a lonely, disconsolate figure. So, too, does Hamlet who cannot avenge his father's murder, also at the hands of an uncle, Claudius. When Claudius marries his mother, Hamlet is paralysed with guilt, his uncle's actions having activated the Oedipal phantasies of his childhood.

For Sachs, the case of John Chavafambira demonstrates two things: first, the mind of the 'native' is no different to that of Whites, and second, psychoanalysis is universally applicable (Dubow, 1993). Yet the parsimony involved in Chavafambira's supposed equivalence to Hamlet is almost too good to be true. For the rapid proletarianisation of Black existence in the early decades of the twentieth century--occasioned by the influx of rural Africans to the City of Gold--and the subsequent unleashing of wave upon wave of cultural and economic alienation, explain just as adequately Chavafambira's psychological inertia. Sachs was hardly blind to the dehumanising effects of the capitalist mode of production: he was, according to Saul Dubow, 'an enlivening influence in the cosmopolitan cultural life of the Johannesburg Left' (1993, p. 523), while an anthropologist colleague eulogised him as having been nothing less than a socialist. Indeed, at various stages in his classic work, Black Hamlet, Sachs makes observations the sum of which can readily be described as the inexorable fate of the alienated worker.

Marxist alienation

For example, Sachs (1937, pp. 69-70) notes how Chavafambira had once:
   ... taken pleasure in his work, but now he became less and less
   interested ... He grew less anxious to oblige, less prompt, less
   efficient ... [H]e had now an increasing desire to answer back.
   Minor unpleasantness with visitors occurred. He brought beef when
   mutton was ordered, grew careless as to whether the coffee was
   properly hot. How he hated these . White people; how he longed for
   revenge; yet what could he do but eat humble pie.

Elsewhere, Sachs (1937, p. 86) describes how Chavafambira:
   ... was in a quandary, for he could not make up his mind about the
   White people. He knew that they were clever, otherwise they could
   not have built all these big houses, these shops with all the
   wonderful things in them, the perfect roads, gardens, the
   motor-cars, gramophones ... but was this cleverness good or evil?
   He discovered that the Black people of Johannesburg were also
   clever, much cleverer than his people in the kraal [village of
   huts]; yet, for all their cleverness, their life was hard. Work,
   work, work ... always work, and always for the White people.

Even Chavafambira's wife, Maggie, described repeatedly as indolent, would complain that 'she was tired of working for the White people' (p. 37).

Forever an instrument of White capital, never the subject of his own productive capacities, it can be said that at the heart of John Chavafambira's personal difficulties lived a debilitating alienation from both the product of his labour and the very activity of his labour. He spent his hours washing other people's dishes in order to acquire the means for satisfying his basic needs: a wage arbitrarily determined. In the words of Marx, this was 'a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification' (1844, p. 74), an external labour that fixed his station of degradation in an invisible yet coercive chain of production. Chavafambira hailed from a long line of revered Manyika healers--he had trained as a healer himself--but as a migrant worker with nothing to exchange but his labour power, his only prospect for employment was as a kitchen hand.

Sachs suggests that Chavafambira became increasingly estranged from what Marx calls 'species character': 'it was obvious that the desire to give up his job was growing stronger every day ... [f]or he craved to become a doctor again' (1937, pp. 98-99). As a dishwasher and then waiter, it frustrated him that he could not reveal his vocation to his peers. '[H]e held himself aloof from his companions, lest a chance word should betray him' (p. 33), and they, in turn, 'openly resented his apparently snobbish reserve' (p. 35). Alienated from himself and his fellow workers, 'inwardly ... lonely and depressed' (p. 32), he entered into a marriage with a woman he never loved--Maggie--not because of any Oedipal conflict, but because her physical disability evoked in him his frustrated desire to heal (p. 35).

Hamletism aside, Sachs (1937, pp. 174) discerned an inventory of psychopathology in the life of Chavafambira:
   Renunciation and flight were John's choice in any situation
   requiring strength of will and endurance of pain ... He had not
   reached that stage [of] personality or development that belongs to
   the healthy human being who is not afraid of being obstinate or
   amiable, assertive or submissive, active or passive, as the
   occasion demands.

Sachs believed that Chavafambira lacked even 'a sense of reality. In spite of his long contact with civilisation, he still had no idea of cause and effect, did not understand people, could not analyse a situation or foresee the development of events. He remained simply a groundless optimist' (1937, p. 176).

But Sachs was also prepared to concede that Chavafambira's regressive behavior was not entirely of the latter's making (1937, p. 227):
   It struck me that his self-destructive actions might be the direct
   result of his sudden and abrupt severance from me. I knew very well
   from experience that no patient could be dropped, in the state of a
   so-called positive transference, without serious risk of his mental
   health. Why had I not taken the same precaution with John?
   Because--I had to confess again--John had been to me only a subject
   of experiment, and the whole analysis nothing more than a case of
   psychic vivisection.

Despite its publication eighty years ago, the psychological style of reasoning in Black Hamlet is instantly recognisable to psychologists today, with social pathologies overlooked repeatedly in favor of atomised ones. For it remains a general principle of psychotherapeutic lore that the problem resides mostly in the patient, implying that ultimate responsibility for recovery rests with the patient, too. That Sachs 'confesses' his role in Chavafambira's unraveling is commendable, but it also suggests an alarming degree of alienation from his patient, his fellow man, all along. It is noteworthy that Chavafambira's tragic denouement is never seriously explored as an indictment of the brutal social and economic policies of the day--apart from Sachs' bland admission that his life was 'interrelated with the general condition of life in South Africa' (p. 199).

But how does one reconcile Sachs' vaunted socialism with this conspicuously conservative act of authorship? There are at least three possible explanations: first, he may not have possessed the analytic language for describing the politically inflected phenomena he was observing in the analytic space (I would suggest that, as psychotherapists, we still lack this language); second, his political outlook was perhaps just maturing, which seems plausible when one compares the original Black Hamlet to its revised edition, the more perceptive Black Anger; and third, his apparent conservatism may have reflected the ambivalence of leftist attitudes towards social stratification. As per the stinging rebuke of George Orwell, 'We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them' (1937, p. 189), since, for middle-class radicals, the birth of a classless society hastens the demise of their class-bound sensibilities.

At this point, it may seem that a practice of psychotherapy that centers on the experience of alienation is, fundamentally, a psychology of the oppressed. As indicated earlier, that would be a misconception because alienation is about the oppressor as much as the oppressed; it is a story of loss and a story of expropriation. In The Holy Family, for example, Marx and Engels declare landowners to be as alienated as workers (1845, p. 51, original emphases):
   The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the
   same human self-alienation. But the former class finds in this
   self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power: it
   has in it a semblance of human existence. The class of the
   proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in it
   its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence. In
   the words of Hegel, the class of the proletariat is in abasement
   indignant at that abasement, an indignation to which it is
   necessarily driven by the contradiction between its human nature
   and its condition of life, which is the outright, decisive and
   comprehensive negation of that nature. Within this antithesis, the
   private owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletarian,
   the destructive side. From the former arises the action of
   preserving the antithesis, from the latter, that of annihilating

If there were any doubt concerning this, one need only consider the steady retreat of wealthy South Africans from public spaces into illegally 'fortified enclaves' (Lemanski, 2004, p. 108), their gated communities with high walls, electrified fences, closed-circuit television and private security guards. Living out their lives in splendid isolation, they fear for their lives, oblivious to the danger that lurks among them. Is it really that surprising, this estrangement among loved ones in a world where money does the work (not people), where the life-affirming connections between people, the activity of labour, and the products of labour are so distorted, where the substitution of leisure for labour is a thing desired?

What I am suggesting--in the idiom of 1960s' New Left sociology--is the importance of studying both 'up' and 'down' (Connell, 2007, p. 216). An overhaul of psychotherapeutic practice that would organise itself around the principle of alienation must recognise the experience of loss as one halfof the story. The passivity of loss is but the corollary of active expropriation. That expropriation is smothered in the agentless language of ' structural inequality' is partly what makes it difficult to investigate, with mystifying talk of 'market forces' and an 'invisible hand' drawing the curtains on our theater of economic violence. The very notion of structure is now being questioned as decentered ideas of fluidity, flexibility, and dynamism gain traction in a public imaginary increasingly enamored of what Bill Gates (1996) has called 'friction-free capitalism.'

Fanonist alienation

The trouble with Marxist accounts of alienation is a weakness exploring its lived aspects. As for psychotherapists--whose task it is to understand lived experience--they have cultivated a certain disdain for the internal worlds of poor people. In the 1950s and 1960s, many psychotherapists regarded the poor as lacking the requisite skills for engaging with the therapeutic process; by the 1970s, this had led to an almost prescriptive use of behavior therapy with such patients (Smith, 2005). Nowadays, an international trend has developed in which mental health services for poor people are restricted to hospitals and psychiatrists, which one commentator has described as 'the medicalisation of poverty' (Moreira, in Smith, 2005, p. 690). Indeed, it is not uncommon for psychotherapists to absolve themselves by arguing that poor people need material--not psychological--assistance, or by insisting that the culture of therapy is not accepted in poor and working-class communities (Smith, 2005). Of course, it is also possible that psychologists shun the poor in an unconscious attempt at preserving the material and psychological comforts in their own lives.

Returning, then, to the lived experience of Black Hamlet, John Chavafambira is caught up in the racial habitus of South African life. On reaching Johannesburg with his wife and child, he encounters a group of Black prisoners, handcuffed in pairs, just as they are being escorted back to prison. He wonders at the transport of White prisoners in vehicles while Black prisoners walk through the streets 'like oxen driven to the slaughter' (Sachs, 1937, p. 82). He has only ever been told of the suffering of Black people; now those warnings become a terrible reality that will haunt him, Sachs tells us, 'for years to come' (1937, p. 82). Soon enough, Chavafambira is assailed with 'eternal pass questions ... he long[s] to get away from White people, to be free of their employment, free of their rigid time-tables' (p. 105). Whereas, previously, 'it was only the sight of a Rhodesian face and the sound of a Manyika's voice' (p. 85) that gladdened him, 'gradually he became friendlier to all that were Black' (1937, added emphasis).

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon provides a framework for understanding the lived, psychological experience of alienation. He describes the Black man as never existing in himself, existing only for the Other. But since 'the Black soul is a White man's artifact' (1952, p. 6), Fanon claims that '[t]he Negro is not. Any more than the White man' (p. 180). Even so, with '[t]he White man. sealed in his whiteness. [t]he Black man in his blackness' (p. 3), Chavafambira is 'sealed into that crushing objecthood' and can offer 'no ontological resistance' (pp. 82-83). Having run headlong into the fact of blackness, he will live out 'an ambiguity that is extraordinarily neurotic' (p. 148). He is divided both within and from himself. He is alienated.

In contrast, Wulf Sachs presents the cultural formulation that Chavafambira lives a psychological 'double life' because of having to 'obey two codes of morals, two legal codes, pray to two gods' (1937, p. 175), and so on. In a nod to Malinowski's 'culture contact' school, he endorses the 'deculturation thesis' according to which African psychopathology results from a breakdown of tribal bonds and the unique pressures of Western civilisation. Sachs does not recognise the depths of Chavafambira's blackness--yet he is anxious to convince his patient's associates that he, Sachs, is an honorable White man (pp. 230-231). He overlooks Chavafambira's blackness, yet seeks to mitigate his own whiteness. Indeed, the psychoanalyst's invocation of culture dilutes the astonishing violence of the colonial order, for Chavafambira is not facing a simple choice between two viable civilisations. In an address delivered at the First Congress of Negro Writers and Artists, Fanon describes how:

[t]he oppressor, through the inclusive and frightening character of his authority, manages to impose on the native new ways of seeing and, in particular, a pejorative judgement with respect to his original forms of existing.

This event, which is commonly designated as alienation, is naturally very important. It is found in the official texts under the name of assimilation (1956, p. 25).

Chavafambira is trapped beneath a searing White gaze that, frankly, incinerates him: 'All this whiteness that burns me,' to repeat Fanon's scorching lament (1952, p. 86). Accordingly, what Sachs' culture-talk accomplishes, is a displacement of the political nature of alienation with the cultural question of assimilation. For Fanon, however, 'the effective disalienation of the Black man entails an immediate recognition of social and economic realities' (1952, p. 4, added emphasis).

Those realities came home to Chavafambira one Saturday night as he was walking down Eloff Street, trying to make sense of an altercation earlier that evening. Before he knew what was happening, a yellow van pulled up alongside him, 'netted as if for the transport of poultry' (Sachs, 1937, p. 143). 'Bustled' unceremoniously into the van, he would discover the nature of his transgression at the police station: he had been out after 11pm without the necessary permit. That infraction would earn him 36 hours in a prison cell.

I want to stress that this is no ordinary event in the life of John Chavafambira. It is full of psychological meaning, which Fanon's analysis in The Wretched of the Earth excavates in peerless style. Dissecting the workings of alienation by colonisation, Fanon observes how the locals are denied any semblance of humanity; they exist only as features in a natural landscape. They live in:

... a world of statues: the statue of the general who led the conquest, the statue of the engineer who built the bridge. A world cocksure of itself, crushing with its stoniness the backbones of those scarred by the whip. That is the colonial world. The colonial subject is a man penned in (Fanon, 1963, p. 15).

This is the fate of Chavafambira: he is handled like poultry, he is penned in with passes. A 'burning resentment flared up in his heart' at being pushed off the sidewalk by a White youth (1937, p. 104); '[s]tage by stage there was born in him a grim determination one day to revenge himself for such degradation' (p. 105). Yet Sachs still manages to misinterpret his pliancy as 'cowardice.'

I need to be clear that Sachs' competence as a psychoanalyst--even the progressiveness of his politics--is not in question here; any claims in this regard must involve a degree of 'presentism', to use the language of historians. Moreover, Sachs' engagement with Chavafambira cannot be regarded as psychoanalysis in the strict sense of the term. Nonetheless, Fanon would have suggested that Chavafambira is biding his time. He knows the colonised man will respond to his oppression by avoiding confrontation, tolerating insults, feigning contentment, smiling when necessary, all the while nursing a smoldering rage because the repressed desire for violent retaliation ' finds neither sublimated canalisation nor conscious social praxis' (Bulhan, 1985, p. 143).

Chavafambira is not the only character in Black Hamlet who comes across as alienated. We are told that the hotel proprietor, a Mr Kaplan, is 'worried out of his senses' on account of financial travails, and resorts to a mean tightfistedness against his workers (Sachs, 1937, p. 70). The hysterical middle-aged spinster who accuses Chavafambira of raping her, is desirous yet terrified of love, as a result of which she lives in constant fear of being dishonored by 'natives' (p. 71). Even Sachs admits, towards the end of the book, that his relationship with Chavafambira resembles that between an explorer and 'a psycho-anthropological specimen' (p. 227).

In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon shows not only what colonisers visit on the colonised but also what they wreak upon themselves. The European torturers Fanon treats, describe how they are capable no longer of being themselves. 'They scream too much,' one police officer tells the revolutionary psychiatrist. 'At first it made me laugh. But then it began to unnerve me' (1963, p. 195). One day, Fanon discovers his patient 'leaning against a tree, covered in sweat and having a panic attack. I put him in the car and drove home' (1963, pp. 195-196). Another torturer who seems to have lost himself altogether complains of wanting to give anyone who crosses him a beating. But he does not request a transfer--instead, he hopes Fanon will teach him how to torture 'without having a guilty conscience' (p. 199). In a colonised world, everyone is alienated, all are implicated--including us as psychotherapists who attempt to disalienate ourselves through our work.

The socially patterned defect

At least two questions emerge at this point. First, how relevant is a case study from the 1930s for the practice of psychotherapy today? And second, doesn't the pervasiveness of alienation render it too general a concept for a workable psychotherapeutic paradigm? Let me begin by addressing the question of relevance. John Chavafambira lived in a time when Black labour served White capital--but how different is our current dispensation, our people now the victims of an international 'Empire of Capital' (Saul, 2012)? South Africa's Gini coefficient for income inequality makes it one of the most unequal societies in the world (World Bank, 2014). Depending on your definition, our rate of unemployment sits between 25 and 40 percent; some say 60 percent (Alexander, 2012). Youth unemployment is in excess of 50 percent (Rankin & Roberts, 2011). The median monthly income of Black African adults is a little over R2 000 (Statistics SA, 2010). In a manner of speaking, it could be 1933: crushing poverty remains the order of the day.

There is also the vexed matter of 'race.' Chavafambira's world was regulated by a twisted racial calculus--but so is ours. We may not have a pass system but our cities remain divided, governed by a Manichean psychology that patrols the boundary between the human and subhuman realms (Bulhan, 1985). In Cape Town, we have the oak-lined streets of the verdant Southern Suburbs and the ramshackle houses of the Cape Flats. The Mother City's 'architecture of fear' condemn the wretch to life on the urban periphery; there an exceptional violence rules that is the hallmark of all colonised societies (Fanon, 1963; Long, 2017). With one or two modifications, Sachs' description of Swartyard--Chavafambira's home near central Johannesburg--can easily serve as a description for one of our townships. In short, Black Hamlet is not a throwback to another age.

As for the viability of alienation as an orienting principle for psychotherapy, we need to remember that, as psychotherapists, we have a particular bias towards the uniquely disturbed--so much so that the generality of our alienation may seem too humdrum by comparison. In The Sane Society, Fromm (1963) calls this the 'socially patterned defect', the sign of a sick society staggering under the weight of a social mental illness. Ours is not a world in which we can claim to be free, spontaneous human beings, nor are we capable of acts of authenticity. We live this defect out, unconscious of it, not only because our forms of social and economic organisation claim to 'reward' alienated productivity, but also because they have been naturalised, normalised, mystified, ideologised to the point that interrogation has become unthinkable.

In a stirring passage, Fromm diagnoses the problem of our time:

Alienation as we find it in modern society is almost total; it pervades the relationship of man to his work, to the things he consumes, to the state, to his fellow man, and to himself. Man has created a world of man-made things as it never existed before. He has constructed a complicated social machine to administer the technical machine he built. Yet this whole creation of his stands over and above him ... The more powerful and gigantic the forces are which he unleashes, the more powerless he feels himself as a human being. He confronts himself with his own forces embodied in things he has created, alienated from himself. He is owned by his own creation, and has lost ownership of himself (1963, pp. 124-5).


What, then, is to be done? At the very least, I would suggest that any attempt to decolonise psychology by putting our country on the couch will have to revisit our canonical understandings of human suffering. We are in a curious position where neuroscientists admit to knowing next to nothing about the etiology of mental illness and psychodynamic theorists recognise the insufficiency of their equally atomising formulations (Frances & Widiger, 2012). The fact that we continue to shift the goalposts when it comes to understanding mental illness is, in my view, a clear indication that we continue to misunderstand it in quite fundamental ways. For the moment, I see promise in the meditations of Marx, Fanon, and Fromm. Their shared point is that mental illness is not just a statistical abnormality: it is to be found, also, in the undeclared pathology of our normalcy.

Again, I have not discussed the implications of a theory of alienation for psychotherapeutic practice on the grounds that the larger debate has yet to be resolved, namely, the question of compatibility between psychoanalysis and Marxism. The discipline of psychology--and the psychoanalytic culture that remains its beating heart--is both embedded and implicated in the rise of modernity (Brock, 2006; Furedi, 2004). Marxism, by contrast, is a reaction not against modernity per se but against the oppressive social formations it has come to represent. To be sure, the requirements for a productive dialectical engagement are certainly in place with psychoanalysis serving as thesis and Marxism as antithesis--but still the synthesis has failed to materialise. In the end, it may well be that the impasse revolves around the realities of class formation. For, as bourgeois psychotherapists, a serious encounter with Marxism would force us to acknowledge not only a deeply held class interest but also an unconscious opposition to the material progress of impoverished patients. And that, perhaps, is where the work of a Marxist psychotherapy begins.


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Wahbie Long is senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology and director of the Child Guidance Clinic at the University of Cape Town. His work has appeared in journals including History of Psychology, New Ideas in Psychology, and Theory and Psychology. His new book, A History of 'Relevance' in Psychology--published by Palgrave Macmillan--traces the emergence of questions about 'relevance' in the discipline since the 1960s, with a special focus on psychology in South Africa. His current work focuses on the field of African psychology, in which he attempts to replace cultural questions with an analysis of the interpersonal, institutional and structural violence that permeates life in South Africa.

Wahbie Long

University of Cape Town
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Date:Mar 22, 2017
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