Glasgow: from industrial giant to traumatised child

Given that she has been a stinging critic of the obsession with self-esteem, it is sad that Carol Craig is now providing a therapeutic explanation for Glasgow’s problems.

Stuart Waiton

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Well-known for her book The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence and for the Centre for Confidence and Well Being in Glasgow which she set up, the work of Carol Craig is often of great interest. This is due in no small part to her critical approach towards therapeutic intervention and the self-esteem movement.

The Centre for Confidence, for example, takes an oppositional approach to the directing of ‘all young people’s emotional development’ in schools, which the centre’s website describes as potentially constituting a form of ‘social engineering of the most oppressive kind’. A key criticism made of the focus on self-esteem is that it can create a situation where any level of pressure placed on a child is seen as being problematic, with the result that parents begin to worry and complain to teachers about any difficult experience their child has at school because it is ‘undermining their self-esteem’.

To some extent Craig’s work can be understood as a backlash against our therapeutic culture, a culture that has become myopically focused on the emotional life of the population and one that treats us all as vulnerable and in permanent need of support.

Craig calls for a more positive and robust sense of people and their capacities while warning of the exaggeration of seeing emotionally damaged people wherever we look. As the Centre for Excellence points out, despite problems in society, ‘Many live flourishing lives and report being happy and satisfied with their lives’. Indeed, the centre argues that psychologically oriented interventions should remain limited, not least because cultural and structural changes can be more effective and less ‘risky’.

I would agree with many of these sentiments. However, reading Craig’s work more closely one is inclined to suggest that she protests too much – because she herself appears to have a profoundly therapeutic approach to almost every social problem in society. This is expressed most clearly in her latest book, The Tears That Made the Clyde.

The clue is in the title. But if you were in any doubt, Craig manages to somehow turn Glasgow into a metaphorical abused child in attempting to explain the apparently curious and particularly problematic nature of the city. Despite giving the reader a history lesson of Glasgow’s industrial development and observing the class nature of this development, Craig offers a picture in which the city is almost traumatised by the birth of industrial capitalism.

Rather than grasping the dynamism, energy, creativity and drive (as well as the exploitation and active conflicts) that made Glasgow the ‘Second City of the Empire’, we are presented with a one-sided litany of harm. Everyone emerges out of this cauldron of creativity, development and conflict as damaged goods of one sort or another. This is, to say the least, an exaggeration.

Just as the abused child, at least within much feminist and therapeutic mythology, goes on to abuse his or her own children, so in Craig’s telling we find a city and its culture founded on harm: the over-exploitation of the worker leading to drink, domestic violence, brutal relationships with and between children, and even a brutalisation of an overly materialistic elite. All of these things are passed on from one generation to the next in this dysfunctional city.

In addressing what she sees as Glasgow’s social problems today – drink, drugs, violence, obesity and so on – Craig talks about the importance of ‘structures’. But here the meaning of structures has shifted. The old categories of understanding such as class, exploitation and deprivation have been replaced by new categories such as ‘health inequalities’ (something all individuals can suffer from, rich or poor), or ‘socioeconomic status’ (a kind of feeling of being unequal). In other words, social structures are themselves transformed into therapeutic and individualised categories.

Even more problematically, despite Craig’s hope to create a more vibrant and dynamic society, the approach she adopts has little sense of the capacity and role of individuals in making their own society. The fact that Glasgow’s city administration has been ruled by the Labour Party for decades is presented in a one-sided fashion as something imposed upon the population in the postwar period rather than as something that was actively made and remade by the Labour movement (for good and ill). Craig also reduces the meritocratic push for improvement in society to a one-dimensional problem (or perhaps syndrome) of greed.

Craig wants to revitalise confidence in Scotland, but through her (often accurate) critique of the role of the Labour Party she appears to give up on politics itself. At the same time, through her concerns about selfishness, the role of the forceful individual is also seen as being problematic. The result is that the positive agent for change in society is no longer understood to be the collective will and action of the people, nor is it understood in terms of the subjectivity of the rational individual, but rather becomes the caring professional who can help change the behaviour of others.

This third-way approach results in a call by Craig for more state intervention, and particularly more therapeutic state intervention. Craig emphasises early intervention and the managing of relationships, coupled with a patronising and authoritarian call for raising the price of booze. In her imagined world of damaged (indeed vulnerable) individuals, freedom of choice quickly goes out of the window.

In the end you are left with a sense that if only the materialistic middle classes in Bearsden and the lumpen poor in Drumchapel could just be like the right-thinking professionals of Glasgow’s West End, the world would be a happy place. As if.

Stuart Waiton is a sociology and criminology lecturer at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, a director of Generation Youth Issues and founder of Take a Liberty (Scotland).

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