Denis Postle on the psyCommons

“All professions are a conspiracy against the laity,” George Bernard Shaw famously said.  But what is the laity to do about it?  In the context of psychotherapy and related fields, Denis Postle, an independent practitioner of humanistic psychology, thinks that we need to recognize and honor the “psyCommons.”

For Postle, a Brit, the psyCommons is the realm of the informal, the customary and the local – the social spaces in our lives that are largely exempt from bureaucratic or legal control, the spaces where people can negotiate their own shared understandings of intersubjective reality.  The psyCommons is the great reservoir of human wisdom and power that we “create, renew and replenish every day as we learn from experience, make choices, befriend, support and confront each other,” he writes. 

Reading Postle, I could not help but think of renegade sociologist and social critic Ivan Illich, who referred to this zone of life as “the vernacular.”  As Illich put it in his 1981 book Shadow Work, the vernacular domain evokes a “sensibility and rootedness…in which local life has been conducted throughout most of history and even today in a significant proportion of subsistence-and communitarian-oriented communities.”  The vernacular consists of those “places and spaces where people are struggling to achieve regeneration and social restoration against the forces of economic globalization,” Illich wrote. 

Like Illich, Postle bridles at the professionalism and guild mentality that psychotherapy and other “helping professions” have come to embody.  These professions are determined to set therapists apart as a class of “experts” that control the wisdom of the psyCommons.  They regiment and bureaucratize the process of emotional healing, often setting up barriers to authentic human relationships.  They can sometimes expunge the somber realities of the human condition, including a sense of the tragic.

In effect, psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, counseling and coaching have enclosed the psyCommons, says Postle, by treating people’s problems as personal “deficits” and “mental illness.”  The prestige and livelihoods of the professions are maintained through “an imposed technocratic monoculture of regulatory control,” he charges.  Professional licensing, certification and reimbursement rules put the coercive power of the state behind certain types of approved practitioners and therapeutic techniques – while marginalizing all the others. 

For Postle, this “interferes with the ordinary wisdom and shared power of the psyCommons.”  Real healing must come through “forms of psycho-practice based on inquiry, equipotency and love,” he argues -- approaches that mayor may not have official recognition and approval.

Instead of state regulation, Postle urges the use of a peer-to-peer network accountability system, which was actually established in 1995:  the Independent Practitioners Network.   The IPN provides civic accountability for psychological work while honoring the deeper values of the psyCommons.  IPN groups can act as a mutual support group for assuring good practice, or they can be used as a commons-based system for accreditation, while eschewing  the hierarchies and specified rules of traditional accreditation schemes. 

You might be wondering how exactly the psyCommons operates.  What types of methods does it rely upon?  Postle points to “the huge range and scope in the UK of self-directed, co-created mutual support through which people try to meet their human condition needs.”  He calls it a “culture of mutual aid.”  The psyCommons flourishes in “the multiplicity of affinity groups in which we cooperate to explore and support mutual needs, and especially through the Internet’s extension of our nervous system with its capacity to refine choices, inform and educate.”

Postle elaborated on these ideas in a recent essay in Therapy Today

The first thing is to acknowledge the scale of the psyCommons. It is a living, growing multitude – a rich ecology of negotiations, conversations, meetings with family, friends and co-workers, and innumerable affinity groups – the myriad conversations of 60 million people in the UK. My intention here is to promote its flourishing. I want us to turn our attention away from protecting the enclosures and towards sustaining and enhancing the ‘ordinary wisdom’ and ‘shared power’ of the psyCommons.

This is not to deny the importance of the severe local and current difficulties that many practitioners face due to economic pressures but I think it would be a great pity if, due to the need to maintain and defend the psyenclosures, we were to miss or misconstrue where we are at this point in social and political history. I believe that, due to the advent of the internet, we are living through a Gutenberg moment: a point in time analogous to the period when the church’s monopoly on the production of texts and – it is easy to forget – being able to read them was broken. What might this mean for the future of counselling and psychotherapy? 

Postle notes how the Internet has made instant access to professional knowledge far more available, breaking “the professional monopolies of expertise distilled from the psyCommons.”  He is not arguing that the Internet serve as a substitute for interpersonal help, but he is pointing to a new “generation of grassroots affinity, support and special needs groups, often in transition between being run by the NHS [National Health Service] and social services and finding their own feet in community commitment/development. In researching this article I [Postle] found more than a thousand UK initiatives in which power is being redistributed, dispersed or shared.”

One example – Alcoholics Anonymous and its associated twelve-step programs – is familiar to most people. These self-help groups are a rich expression of the psyCommons, Postle notes:  It is “a grassroots, expert-free, co-operative inquiry process….Donations are collected; attendance is voluntary; commitment is only to the task of sobriety. Honesty and authenticity are valued but not demanded. Anonymity and confidentiality contribute safety and trust and to holding the meeting securely in the present moment.”

Another great example is co-counselling as a form of self-directed education. “Co-counselling is based on the view that people are fundamentally intelligent, responsible, able to co-operate, and able to find a balance between their own and other’s interests,” writes Postle.  “It can be regarded as a vehicle for the psyCommons’ principles of shared power and ordinary wisdom. While it takes long-term commitment and courage to use it to the full, its strategies and the model of human functioning around which it is built are comparable in their benefits to any of the other ways of working with the human condition that I have come across.”

I had not heard of Mumsnet, a British website, that is a forum at which parents can pool their collective knowledge about child-rearing and its challenges. Postle says that it is now the UK’s busiest social network for parents, generating nearly 50 million page views and seven million visits per month.  Mumsnet is part of the psyCommons, like AA, because it is based on the shared power and wisdom of ordinary people.  The website “sustains safety and trust through anonymity and this has given birth to a rich vernacular language; the countless text conversations display the entrails (often literally!) of women’s lives and engage, with unvarnished frankness and humour, with topics such as flexible working, family-friendliness, the constant juggling and the economic situation.”

Finally, Postle described a “therapeutic garden project” called Strong Roots that amounts to a psyCommons based on a plot of land:  “It is, in essence, a piece of ground in Norwich [UK] where people can meet with others for personal development, belonging, companionship and delight in the shared task of cultivation.”  (This brings to mind Christa Müller’s wonderful essay on community gardens in The Wealth of the Commons.)  Besides its land, Strong Roots has some wooden benches, gardening tools and supplies and a composting toilet – but otherwise, it’s all about people experiencing the challenges and joys of gardening and cultivation with each other. 

Postle concludes:  “Based on the supposition that, in conditions of safety and trust, people will find ways of moving towards flourishing, Strong Roots provides an accessible and flexible vehicle for personal development.  Its relevance for the psyCommons proposal is twofold: it is a reminder that an appetite for such engagement can exist independently of crises, and it is a demonstration of the way in which, through power-sharing, the skills and experience of a practitioner can be valued and disbursed.”

For more on the psyCommons, chase down Postle’s 2012 book, Therapy Futures: Obstacles and Opportunities:  Introducing the psyCommons or visit his website, psyCommons.