Gestalt  Critique

Stefan Blankertz:

Gestalt Therapy
A Libertarian Approach
to the Social Psychology of Unhappiness


Gestalt Critique

the eMagazine for Gestalt Therapy, Politics and Spirituality,
the on-line version in English language

Gestalt Therapy Institutes of Cologne and Kassel, Germany

Stefan Blankertz:

Gestalt Therapy
A Libertarian Approach
to the Social Psychology of Unhappiness

Foto: Stefan BlankertzStefan Blankertz

Here you will find an other article of Stefan Blankertz in German language.



Our New Book:

Erhard Doubrawa
Touching the Soul in Gestalt Therapy
Stories and More

In this book the author has collected stories, which he has often told in his therapeutic work – during individual therapy sessions with clients as well as in group trainings. These stories have already often contributed to helping people open themselves again and be deeply touched by others.  [Information]


I. Why the "fear of freedom"?

For more than 20 years I am a libertarian. Being a libertarian in Germany means that it is almost impossible to meet someone whose thinking goes in a similar direction. As every other libertarian I used to present the idea of individual freedom as the rational answer to social problems. The most striking experience in the discussions I made was that people do not question the rationality of the idea of freedom, but that instead they express a "feeling" of vague uneasiness. Although I hope that most of you live in environments not as hostile to libertarianism as Germany, I know from the libertarian conferences I attended that my experience is not unique. So, when libertarians speak on the level of rationality and people respond on the level of emotions, there is no meaningful communication.

I propose that for a moment we concentrate on the feeling of aversion of the people. This is not to say that rationality should not be the crucial point in the libertarian argument. Quite to the contrary, I want to contribute to the understanding of why people block off rationality.

When I say that people reject libertarianism not out of a rational argument but out of a certain feeling, the first thought of explanation may be that this is an instance of the so-called "fear of freedom." Of course it is correct to describe the behaviour of many people as an expression of fear of freedom. But I think such a description is much too unprecise.

Is that "fear of freedom" an anthropological feature of man? Is it natural? Is it unchangeable?

I learned from Paul Goodman to ask such questions. Paul Goodman is one of the authors of the wild days of early libertarianism in the sixties. He says that the "fear of freedom" is not a natural element of human beings but a product of the statist society. Thus he co-founded Gestalt therapy to analyze and counteract the social pressure where possible.

In the following minutes I give you a rough sketch of some central thoughts of Paul Goodman because in my opinion they can help us to understand the plight of libertarianism. And to understand why people do not listen to us is the first step to overcome the plight.


II. Happiness highest value, not freedom

The first thing we must realize according to Goodman is that freedom or liberty is not the highest value of life, probably not even "a" value. The highest value of life is - happiness. If we follow Aristotle, happiness is the one and only value living matter seeks for. Even Stoics, Ascetics and religious or political fanatics forbidding themselves everything other people think of as pleasure hanker for some deeper happiness inside or outside the world.

Libertarians should not defend freedom as a value of life, but as an instrument or as a condition to reach that highest aspiration named "happiness." Consequently, the libertarian hypothesis according to Goodman reads: anything that hampers freedom reduces the happiness possible to reach. Happiness is, as Aristotle says, an action of the soul. Therefore, analyzing the consequences of an unfree, statist society is a task of psychology.

Considering the standard libertarian criticism of politics that destroy liberty we understand that it is very technical: Taxation, for instance, is "robbery" and thus it minimizes economic welfare. Laws prohibiting consentual sexual acts are "unjust" and lead to unnecessary extra costs for police, courts, and jails. This criticism is as true as it can be. But , Goodman asks, who cares for truth when seeking for personal happiness?

The libertarian argument is, or should be, that any political limitation of freedom results in a lower level of happiness for everybody, not only for the specific group targeted by a certain unjust law. In this lecture I am going to give an outline of how Goodman's libertarian psychology proofs the link between freedom and happiness, respectively between unhappiness and the loss of freedom. At the end I am going to give one small but very practical piece of advice of how to overcome the fear of freedom roused by unhappiness.


III. Personal behavior manipulated by society

The fundamental principle of liberty all libertarians agree upon is that each individual ought to be free to do anything with himself and his property as long as he does not do harm to another person or the person's property. We can reduce this so-called non-aggression principle to just, "everyone should be free to do anything with himself," because, as the late Murray Rothbard pointed out, the annex "as long as no other person is done harm to" is redundant: In case a person acts as to do harm to another one, this other one cannot, by definition, act freely; consequently, the clause, that everyone ought to be free, is not verified. - I refer to the principle that everyone should be free as "libertarian principle", because for reasons I dwell upon in the following I do not like to call it the "non-aggression" principle.

The libertarian principle, of course, is a very formal, juridical statement. What is the essence of that kind of freedom that allows the individual person to do anything he or she likes to do? Do we really enjoy this freedom?

Libertarians tend to concentrate on those limits to freedom that are in the realm of civil liberties. If the society you live in enforces a law that forbids homosexuality you are not free to engage in consentual homosexual acts which clearly do not do any harm to any other person. Supposed you are a homosexual, this hamper to your freedom definitely destroys your possible happiness.

Allow me to include a side-thought here. A homosexual living in a geographical area where homosexuality is persecuted, will not find happiness even if the economy is as non-interventionist as it can be. It can be inferred from this insight alone, that we cannot - and ought not - divide liberty in a more important basic economic part and a luxury part of other civil liberties, for instance by considerating authoritarian free market dictatorships in Asia.

But what if you live a so-called law-abiding "normal" average-people-life? You don't feel curbed but nevertheless you are not really happy. Or what if the act against homosexuality finally is abolished, as in most modern democracies today, and the love you have found has not led to the happiness you have dreamed of? Isn't it purely your personal deficit not to use the freedom you have to your advantage? I question the usual libertarian notion that this kind of unhappiness is just a private plight.

To begin with, let's turn to the field of economics most libertarians are more familiar with. The libertarian principle applied to economics says that you should be free to dispose of the money you own as you like. If you make a mistake and lose your money, this is nothing but your private thing - what else? The libertarian answer depends on the circumstances.

Murray Rothbard said in his remarkable study of America's Great Depression that "a cluster of errors" in economic decisions individuals make indicates that there are certain external infringements which cause those errors. With other words: If there is a cluster of economic errors, the false decision of an individual person is not personally but socially caused. As possible social causes Rothbard named among others inflation, taxation, and tariffs. The crucial thing to understand is that these causes are not directly felt by most of the participants of economic life. The individual thinks he makes a personal decision, and if he loses money he feels that he just made a miscalculation. In reality the decision was manipulated. For instance, credit expansion gave the false information that there is real capital to invest at hand. The individual had calculated correctly - if only the information had been reliable. Thus, libertarian economics trace back individual miscalculations to their social origins.

Rothbard's argument is necessary if you do not want to deduce from economic depressions that people tend to make wrong economic decisions, and that therefore the market does not function well. Here we face a logical either-or situation: A depression either is the fault of a cluster of false decisions of private individuals or it must be explained by some socio-economic factors not within the responsibility of the individuals. If you insist in explaining a depression by false individual decisions you inevitably have to come to the conclusion that the free market of private decisions does not result in the best economic effects.


IV. From socio-economic to socio-psychological explanation

Economics is but part of what constitutes happiness. Economic success is at most not more than a necessary background to lead a successful happy life. If we observe that people with a reasonable economic status and without too much of experiencing direct limits of their individual freedom still tend to be more often unhappy than happy - what to do with such an observation?

We are here in the same either-or situation as Rothbard analyzing economic depressions. Private depressions either are due to people's not being able to lead a happy life or we must find another, a socio-psychological explanation.

Paul Goodman gives such a socio-psychological explanation of widespread unhappiness with his theory of Gestalt therapy. As Goodman is unfortunately not as popular among libertarians as he deserves, I give you some biographical background first.

Goodman is not only one of the forgotten founders of Gestalt therapy but he also played an important role in the forming of the libertarian movement. If it were not for Goodman, a left wing critic of statism, Murray Rothbard, the foremost right wing enemy of the state, in the 60's never could have formulated the concept of a political movement beyond left and right resulting in the libertarian movement.

Paul Goodman was born 1911 and, without much of parental surveillance, grew up in the streets of New York. Like Murray Rothbard, Goodman at an early age earned his own money to finance his education. He never complained of this but defended so-called "child work" against the welfare ideology as a necessary element in gaining an autonomous status in society. Goodman studied literature and learned ancient Greek and Latin, as well as French and German. His lifelong intellectual guides became, as was true for Rothbard, the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the middle age prophet of reason St. Thomas Aquinas.

Seeking for social justice, Goodman's political sympathies tended to the left. However, he did not ask the officials of the state to enforce social justice. For Goodman the state was the main originator of injustice. This was of course what the anarchists were saying. When in the second world war the state came trying to conscript Goodman, he refused for the same reasons as the conservative revisionists: To him the war was not freedom against dictatorship, but a system of statism against another. Anarchists being the only left-wing draft resisters, this was the first harbinger of the then-to-come coalition of left and right wing anti-statists, eventually named "libertarianism." By the way, Goodman used the term "libertarianism" as early as in the 40's.

The other big clash between Goodman and the conformist society was on the question of homosexuality. He declared not only the right to be an open homosexual (thus breaking the path for the American gay movement) but he also declared that sexual relationships, homo- as well as heterosexual relationships, between teachers and pupils were of educational value. On the basis of Greek pedagogy, Goodman fought the statist system of compulsory mass-schooling advocating decentralization and personalization of education. In one of his novels he said it as short as: "Go back to Socrates."

Being a brilliant writer, Goodman was paid by the German psychologists Lore and Fritz Perls to help them write a book at the end of the 40's. Goodman took the money as well as many of the Perls' inspirations but wrote a book of his own ideas: "Gestalt Therapy," first published 1951. I come back to this great book "Gestalt Therapy" after finishing the biographical sketch.

Goodman practiced as a Gestalt therapist for the next ten years. In the 60's he became the intellectual leader of the early phase of the youth rebellion, which happened to be the libertarian phase. The targets of the rebellion were the most apparent excesses of the state like conscription and taxation to wage the foreign purely imperialist war in Vietnam, compulsory schooling, harassing minorities like negroes, poor people, and non-conformists in the name of public welfare, limitations of the freedom of speech, and the prohibition of some arbitrarily selected drugs. The take-over of the youth movement by the marxists in the late 60's deeply disappointed Goodman, and he died in 1972 just to hail the first steps in the formation of the libertarian movement as welcomed check on the statism of Marxists, center and right wingers alike.


V. How the state makes you sick

Now I come back to our more systematic question: Is being unhappy nothing but a private plight? And if so, are we not to deduce from the observation of widespread unhappiness that human beings burdened with the responsibility to take care for themselves are born to make themselves unhappy? Again, if so, is it not the duty of the state to intervene in such a way as to reduce the unhappiness by unburdening people from their ill-fated responsibility for themselves?

In the book "Gestalt Therapy", Goodman says: No! It is just the other way round. Thus, he neither attributes the widespread unhappiness to a mystic deficit in human nature nor to some diffuse condition of modern society but to the distinct fact of what he calls the "organized society." I give you the two main theses and afterwards I explain them.

1st thesis: Living in the organized society means that everything is already pre-decided for you. You are not free to choose, and as a living matter choosing and selecting is your natural activity.

"Envisaging an animal freely roaming in a spacious and various environment, we see that [É] an organism lives in its environment by maintaining its difference and, more importantly, by assimilating the environment to its difference. [É] Now what is selected and assimilated is always novel; the organism persists by assimilating the novel, by change and growth. For instance, food, as Aristotle used to say, is what is unlike that can become like" [p 230].

"Increasing complexity of sensory organs means that there is need of more selectivity, as an animal becomes more mobile and adventures among more novelties. Thus, with increasing complexity we may conceive of the series: phototropism becomes conscious seeing, and this becomes deliberate attending; or osmosis becomes eating and this becomes deliberate food-taking" [p 259].

Suppose, you are stripped off your selecting, choosing, assimilating activity you get sick of unhappiness.

"Abnormal psychology is the study of the interruption, inhibition, or other accidents in the course of creative adjustment. We shall, for instance, consider anxiety [É] as the result of the interruption of the excitement of creative growth [É]; and we shall analyze the various neurotic characters as stereotyped patterns limiting the flexible process of creatively addressing the novel" [pp 230-231].

"What is ordinarily called security is clinging to the unfelt, declining the risk of the unknown involved in any absorbing satisfaction, and with a corresponding desensitizing and motor inhibition. [É] The secure state is without interest" [p 233].

2nd thesis: The organizer in the organized society according to Goodman is the modern welfare state. The state organizes all basic structures of life such as schools, courts, streets and transportation, city planning, medical care, economic institutions, the police and the army. The state decides when, where and what your learn, when to go to see the doctor, what doctors you are allowed to consult, what contracts you are allowed to sign, what you ought to use as money, what property you can keep for yourself and what your are supposed to give for social tasks defined by the government, whether your are allowed to smoke, drink alcohol, take drugs or not, what causes you have to give your life for and what not. The state regulates your working hours, your wages, your rents, your insurance, and the way you have to build your house. All this does the state, to be sure, to help you.

"All overt expression of destructiveness, annihilation, anger, combativeness, is suppressed in the interest of the civil order. Also the feeling of anger is inhibited and even repressed. People are sensible, tolerant, polite, and cooperative in being pushed around" [p 348].

At the end you get sick of unhappiness. - And now you understand, why I refuse to call the libertarian principle of freedom a "non-aggression" principle. The state represses conflicts and aggression that occurs naturally in the way of selecting, choosing, and assimilating of animals as complex as human beings.

In short, Goodman's two theses are:

- The inhibition of choosing activity of human beings by the organized society is the cause for widespread unhappiness, and

- the state is the institution that enforces the organized society.

These two theses contradict the standard opinion that nowadays people are flooded with too many choices, too many possibilities, too many individual responsibilities. The standard opinion reads that there are too many liberties, and that this confuses people in such a way that they get sick of freedom - and in the end they "fear freedom". But Goodman also contradicts those moderate liberals who tell us that all we have to do is to enlarge the existing liberties or to defend an existing "freedom to choose". Goodman demonstrates that the "freedom" of the western democracies is nothing but an illusion to hide massive statism.


VI. Understanding the mechanism

There is one decisive sentence in the book "Gestalt Therapy" that implies all the explanation of how the organized society makes you unhappy and sick. It surely is not an easy-to-understand sentence. Therefore, after reading it completely first, I go through it word by word and then re-read it again.

"Instead of either the re-establishment of equilibrium or blotting-out and hallucination in a temporary emergency excess of danger and frustration, [today] there exists a chronic low-tension disequilibrium, a continual irk of danger and frustration, interspersed with occasional acute crisis, and never fully relaxed" [p 263-264].

- The first part of the sentence refers to natural reaction to "emergency." It is not the normal reaction observed today - this is indicated by the words "instead of É there exists" -, but it is necessary to know what is natural in contrast to what is normal, because otherwise you won't be able to criticize normality. The term "emergency" means that there is a problem or a conflict between the organism and its surrounding environment; this for instance can be hunger and no adequate food at hand as well as brawl between neighbours.

- With the words "either É or" two forms of natural reactions are differentiated. The 1st form of a natural reaction to emergency is "re-establishment of equilibrium". Food at last could be organized, the disagreement settled. The 2nd form of a natural reaction to emergency is "blotting-out and hallucination." Hunger, for instance, is blotted-out - that is repressed - with nicotine or coca, and the stubborn neighbor is ignored.

- The nature of the problems between organism and environment is that they occur temporarily, they may lead to "temporary emergency excess of danger and frustration". But the organism by living on solves the problems, relaxes, gets ready for the next problem. Again, Goodman's notion of what living is implies the same structure as what Rothbard says about the natural function of the market: It is the process of finding the equilibrium, but never reaching it. Although Rothbard uses the term "non-aggression principle," I do not see much of a disagreement in Goodman's position. Rothbard claims that the free market should have free market police, free market courts, even free market armies. That is, he concedes that the libertarian world will never be free of aggression. The difference between statism and libertarianism is not the existence of aggression but the way in which it is organized. - This leads us back to Goodman's text, because the way that aggression is organized happens to be the most important focus of his theory.

- We have understood the part of what the "instead of" replaces. Replaced is the normal reaction to emergency. But what is it what "there exists" "instead of"? Instead of a temporary disequilibrium there exists "chronic low-tension disequilibrium É never fully relaxed". The chronic disequilibrium must be of "low tension" because otherwise the organism would cease to live on. But how can it be "chronic"? Suppose, you are hungry and because of government regulations you do not get the food you think is best for you. You will not starve. But you will be dissatisfied. You even will not fight the state because you know the state is always stronger than you and you are not starving at least, so why bother? To Goodman, there is a clear distinction between the aggression of an individual organism that tries to solve a complex problem and the aggression of the collective state which represses the individual problem-solving activity. Again, Goodman argues against the standard opinion: He says that the individual aggression in nature is reasonably grounded whereas the aggression of the state is purely destructive. When individuals act out in destruction, it is because they try to "relax" from the chronic disequilibrium, finally they burst.

So, after all the explanations, here it is again, this wonderful sentence, the decisive point in the book "Gestalt Therapy":

"Instead of either the re-establishment of equilibrium or blotting-out and hallucination in a temporary emergency excess of danger and frustration, [today] there exists a chronic low-tension disequilibrium, a continual irk of danger and frustration, interspersed with occasional acute crisis, and never fully relaxed" [pp 263-264].

Now we understand why the state, the well-intentioned democratic welfare state produces nothing but unhappiness. In making you believe in the state and the state's altruistic motives, the state deprives you of your ability to act on the basis of self-will and self-responsibility. By trying to solve all problems for you, the state acts against the real interests of your life. What we need to live on better, is, in Goodman's words, "a little more disorder, dirt, affection, absence of government" [p 301].


VII. A simple experiment

Gestalt therapy by definition is not only an intellectual instrument to analyze unhappiness but also a way to prepare a cure. I say "a way to prepare a cure" because it should be clear from what I said that the ultimate cure is a big change in politics that cannot be brought about by psychotherapy but by social action. Goodman himself shifted, as I have said, from being therapist to a political activist when the times seemed to have changed to the better. But of course, timid people, wrapped up in themselves, will not stand up choosing and fighting.

The first thing to do is to sit back, take a deep breath and relax. Take a deep breath. This does not mean just breathing. Feel the oxygen. Concentrate on the exchange between your organism and its environment. Your organism is made to live in its environment and solve all the problems that may arise.

Take a deep breath. Hold the breath. Don't exhale. Try not to exhale. -- You don't need no authority telling you when to exhale. And nothing else matters.

Gestalt Critique

other articles in English language:

Fritz Perls: What is Gestalt Therapy?

Erhard Doubrawa: The Attitude and the Art of Intervention in Gestalt Therapy

 Stephen Schoen: Gestalt Therapy and Spirituality. Psychotherapy as Sacred Ground

Daniel Rosenblatt: Gestalt Therapy and AIDS

Erhard Doubrawa: The Politics of I-Thou. Martin Buber, the Anarchist

Here you will find more articles in German language.
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