Bear with me. I’m going to try out an idea that may be completely off-base, or maybe not. I would very much like to hear what you think of it.
When I was young, long ago, organizations sometimes employed a few counselors or advocates, people whose job was to help clients or other members of the public navigate the bureaucratic tangle of rules, forms, preconditions and other procedures that often stood between them and and the benefits they sought to obtain. A hospital, for instance, might employ a patient advocate who could advise how to access care that, in principle, ought to be available to all. When I was an undergraduate there was a small advising office at my university that helped students figure out how to complete their requirements and get the services and support they needed.
I have the impression that, in the last few decades, this job category has rapidly expanded, not only in the number of its practitioners but also the scope of their assignment. This trend has attracted a lot of attention in higher education, where counseling has expanded at the expense of teaching, at least in its increasing command of limited budgets. Other social service organizations have turned to counselors, advocates, advisors and similar sorts in increasing numbers.
And counseling has taken on a new ideology, a particular way of defining the set of problems it addresses and the forms solutions should take. The old, narrow understanding was that people often lacked knowledge of available resources and the procedures for accessing them. The solution was conveying the relevant information or maybe even changing the rules. Many counselors still practice this art. But there is also a new view that the core problem is disempowerment, a psychological condition that prevents people from solving their own problems. The solution is (of course) empowerment via facilitation whose purpose is to invoke a sense of agency on the part of clients, so people can make decisions they feel comfortable with.
The old view of counseling located the problems of this world in institutions—their complexities and irrationalities. The new view identifies the core problem as a need for a different type of consciousness.
Now take a further step: suppose this ideology centered on the transformation of consciousness has spread its influence widely through our culture. One marker might be the distinctive language that “counselorship” employs. I haven’t investigated the matter quantitatively, but my impression is that the phrase “advocate for” has steadily displaced “advocate” in a wide range of uses in recent decades. Once upon a time, one advocated policies and occasionally, if one were in the counseling trade, one advocated for a client or group that needed support. Roughly speaking, if you were for the means to achieve a goal, like a law or policy initiative, you advocated it, and on those rare occasions when you were speaking on behalf of particular human beings (who are ends in themselves) you advocated for them. But now most English speakers are advocates for exclusively: they advocate for lower or higher taxes, fuel efficiency standards, whatever. Counseling language has taken over.
Perhaps the counseling perspective has begun to transform politics as well. If so, we would see a tendency to redefine problems away from the discussion of particular laws or procedures and toward new mindsets/paradigms/discourses/consciousnesses that, by empowering the oppressed or aggrieved, constitute in themselves the objectives of political action. According to such a perspective, the problem of climate change, to take one example, is not explained by quantitative accounts of the carbon cycle and fossil fuel releases, but as stemming from a failure of consciousness. People have been disempowered by false conceptions of the true costs and benefits of consumption, their relationship to nature, etc., and “solving” the problem must take the form of transforming consciousness along these dimensions.
What I’m trying to understand is this: I could agree that altering consciousness would be important if it were part of a thought-out political strategy. Imagine the argument went something like, “if we change the consciousness of x% of the population, they will vote for politicians who will enact laws that restrict carbon extraction, and so on”—then yes, consciousness change is important. (I don’t think this is how political change happens, but that’s a topic for another day.) But I sense a widespread commitment to a type of politics in which consciousness change is the whole story; it’s not an element in a larger process—it is the process.
It could be that the perspective centered on transformation of consciousness is actually driving the spread of counseling-ism, rather than taking hold as a result of it. I might be confusing cause and effect. Or maybe it’s just coincidental. I need help in understanding this.
What I do think I am observing, though, is a systematic shift, especially in large parts of the left, toward a view that social problems and solutions can be understood almost entirely as deficiencies of consciousness (“colonized” by oppressive mindsets) to be overcome by transformations of consciousness that empower the marginalized and dispossessed.
I don’t know what empirical evidence would look like on this topic. I am proceeding from a small set of case studies, including one I have been living through intimately at my place of work. At this point, if an explanation seems to work for a particular case, that’s a point in its favor. Useful responses to this very speculative blog post would take the form of cases that either exhibit or contradict its argument.