Deserves a wide readership

Paul Moloney reviews 'The Masses are the Ruling Classes' by William Epstein.

Why it is that so many of us vote for political leaders and parties whose values and interests seem contrary to our own? This perennial question becomes more urgent after the startling results of a recent national election and referendum in the US and UK, respectively. Academics and liberal commentators have blamed media conspiracy, the gullibility of the electorate, the poor quality of public education and discourse. William Epstein acknowledges the likely contribution of these factors. However, he contends that for relatively open modern societies with universal suffrage and advanced communication networks, such explanations fall short of a more plausible account, which lies with the cupidity of the typical voter. In their political and moral outlook, many American citizens – and increasingly their British counterparts – prize self-sufficiency in all things, distrust ‘big government’ and ‘foreign influences’ as the supposed conduits of every societal ill, and view the suffering of the poor, the disabled and the homeless as self-inflicted.

Epstein is not unused to controversy. A professor of social work, he has for the last 40 years built a meticulous critique of the evidence base for social service interventions in the United States, most of which entail a mixture of community ‘empowerment’ and of individual psychological treatments. He holds that these methods remain popular not because of their supposed effectiveness, which is doubtful, but because they help sustain the myth of personal and communal resilience upon which consumer capitalism ultimately depends.  

The current volume is logical development of this thesis. Concerned mainly with American social policy and its roots in a romantic 19th-century ethos of spiritualism and self-improvement, it brings a wealth of historical and scientific evidence to bear upon a fundamental issue for every psychologist: How well, in daily life, do our deeds match our words? Epstein shows that the answer is not flattering. Theorists, therapists and, most damningly, researchers have been far too naive on this issue, largely because it has served their interests to be so. While the author’s arguments might have been strengthened by engagement with those European thinkers who share his doubts about the primacy of discourse (as opposed to conduct) in human affairs, Epstein has nevertheless succeeded in revealing the sometimes unhealthy symbiosis between the psychology professions and the democratic societies that nurture them. For this reason alone, his book deserves a wide readership. If you are an applied psychologist, it may even change the way that you practise.

The Masses Are the Ruling Classes: Policy Romanticism, Democratic Populism, and American
Social Welfare
William Epstein
Oxford University Press;
Hb £29.99

- Reviewed by Paul Moloney, a Counselling Psychologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital

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