Paul Moloney, The therapy industry: The irresistible rise of the talking cure, and why it doesn’t work

IssueDecember 2013
Review by Charlotte Potter-Powell

What does a book about therapy have to do with the peace movement?

Psychological difficulties and their treatment are often thought of as a personal and humanitarian issue, as apolitical. Paul Moloney disagrees; he argues that much of the unhappiness treated by therapists is the result of living in relative poverty, powerlessness and inequality in a consumer society.

These problems demand collective social change; yet the disciplines of psychiatry and psychotherapy contribute to a narrative in which individuals are responsible for resolving their own distress, overseen by a therapist who is usually middle-class, and (increasingly) a state employee. This approach not only fails to address the material difficulties facing individual clients, but ‘actively bolsters and protects those aspects of society that manufacture illness.’

Moloney provides a fascinating critical tour of the role of therapy in modern Britain. And yet I am unconvinced that his oppositional stance against the ‘therapy industry’ is necessary. Cumulatively building his arguments against therapies as diverse as psychoanalysis, person-centred counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, he highlights the pitfalls of each model without acknowledging that therapists themselves have made the same arguments and developed alternatives.

His descriptions of therapy verge on caricature, and often carry implicit criticisms. For example, is the ragtag world of therapy really an ‘industry’? Granted, the burgeoning provision of state-funded CBT provides a field for the health capitalists; yet for many therapists this rather precarious form of work might be more akin to a vocation, an act of service, or even a movement.

Ultimately, as Moloney points out, therapy is just a conversation; a unique encounter between each therapist and client which is not reducible to a theory or to the social context in which it takes place, although it may be deeply informed by both.

I suspect that Moloney under-estimates the extent to which such encounters may provide a rare space for speaking honestly about subjective experience and acknowledging the tough lives we are leading.

So, can the arguments in this book help us bring about social change? As therapists and clients, we are reminded of the need to develop more politically-engaged therapies, to be vigilant about the functions that therapy can take on in maintaining power relations, and to be humble about the limitations of the ‘talking cure’ when material solidarity would be more useful.

As activists, we might learn to listen to our own experiences of unhappiness and inner conflict; not as distractions from our political work, but as a source of understanding how an exploitative society gets its tentacles into us and, potentially, as a space for developing forms of collective solidarity and resistance.