David Cooper


After Psychiatry and anti-psychiatry, Cooper (1971) wrote The death of the family. He wanted liberation from the family, which he saw as an ideological conditioning device that reinforces the power of the ruling class in an exploitative society. A commune of people living closely together, either under the same roof or in a more diffused network, was seen as a potential alternative form of micro-social organisation. For Cooper, the meaning of revolution in the first world was a "radical dissolution of false egoic structures in which one is brought up to experience oneself". The urban guerrilla war may need to be fought with molatov cocktails, but spontaneous self-assertion of full personal autonomy should be seen in itself as a decisive act of counterviolence against the system.


As pointed out by Laing, Cooper's form of revolution was a "surreal distillate" (Mullan, 1995). Cooper was a member of the South African Communist Party and was sent to Poland and China to be trained as a professional revolutionary. He never returned to South Africa because he was known by South African intelligence and was frightened he would be killed.


His next book, The grammar of living, made clear that Cooper (1974) was continuing his revolutionary work on self and society. He noted that some of the contents of the book were learnt during periods of incarceration. He viewed The death of the family as largely a revolt against first-world values, but The grammar of living, he thought, merited a rather cooler reception. The blurb on the front cover flap, however, warned that many would still find the book offensive and obscene. Cooper described the conditions for a good voyage on LSD. He argued for liberation of an orgasmic ecstasy and believed that initiation of young children into orgasmic experiences would become part of a full education. In principle he could not exclude sexual relations from therapy. Nor could he ever submit to the gross or subtle injunctions of bourgeois society, by which he meant essentially the classical Marxist conception of the "bourgeoisie being the ruling class in a fully developed capitalist society that rules or rather misrules and exploits through its ownership of the means of production".


In the book, Cooper (1974) made an attempt to define anti-psychiatry. He saw it as reversing the rules of the psychiatric game of labelling and then systematically destroying people by making them obedient robots. The roles of patient and professional in a commune may be abolished through reversal. With the right people, who have themselves been through profound regression, attentive non-interference may open up experience rather than close it down. To go back and relive our lives is natural and necessary and the society that prevents it must be terminated. The subversive nature of anti-psychiatry includes radical sexual liberation. The anti-psychiatrist must give up financial and family security and be prepared to enter his/her own madness, perhaps even to the point of social invalidation. Cooper never hid his zealous fanaticism.


The language of madness (Cooper, 1980) allowed the madman in Cooper to address the madmen in us "in the hope that the former madman speaks clearly or loudly enough for the latter to hear". He talked about the time when he was literally temporarily mad, deluded about being extra-terrestrial and believing that extra-terrestrial beings, appointed from another region in the cosmos, were amongst us. He continued to express his view that madness is the "destructuring of the alienated structures of existence and the restructuring of a less alienated way of being". His theme of 'orgasmic politics' was repeated, not so much to emphasis biological aspects as did Wilhelm Reich, but to see orgasm in revolutionary, political terms. As far as he was concerned, non-psychiatry was coming into being. By this he meant that "'mad' behaviour is to be contained, incorporated in and diffused though the whole society as a subversive source of creativity, spontaneity, not 'disease'". This state of non-psychiatry without mental illness or psychiatry could only be reached in a transformed, genuinely socialist society.


Laing's comment on the work of Cooper is pertinent: "I [Laing] never found anything that he [Cooper] wrote of any particular use to me; in fact, I found it a bit embarrassing" (Mullan, 1995). Although Laing & Cooper (1964) wrote an exposition together in english of Sartrean terms related to dialectical rationality, they were independent characters. Laing enjoyed Cooper's state of mind, but he repeatedly denied he was an 'anti-psychiatrist', hence distancing himself from Cooper's excesses. Esterson (1976), too, made clear that, as far as he was concerned, Sanity, madness and the family was not an anti-psychiatric text. In fact, he saw anti-psychiatry, by which he meant the writings of Cooper and also of Laing, to the extent that he went along with Cooper, as a movement that had done enormous damage to the struggle against coercive, traditional psychiatry.


Cooper's excursion into family, sexual and revolutionary politics could be said to detract from his criticism of psychiatry. However, this critique continued to underpin his writings and was restated in a speech entitled 'What is schizophrenia?' to the Japanese Congress of Neurology and Psychiatry in Tokyo, May 1975, published as an appendix to The language of madness. As far as Cooper was concerned, schizophrenia does not exist as a disease-entity in the ordinary medico-nosological sense. However, madness does exist and deviant behaviour that becomes sufficiently incomprehensible becomes stigmatised as schizophrenia. Here Cooper seems to build on the standard notion of psychosis as 'un-understandable' (Jaspers, 1963), at least for the social process of identification of mental illness, even though he personally thinks it is misguided to pathologise such behaviour. Following Foucault (1965), Cooper saw madness as only excluded from society after the European renaissance, controlled on behalf of the new bourgeois state. Schizophrenia must be understood as interpersonal. It, therefore, has a semantic reality even if it does not exist as a nosological entity. It is also the label for a certain social role. 


Cooper, D. (1971) The death of the family. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Cooper, D. (1974) The grammar of living. London: Allen Lane

Cooper, D. (1980) The language of madness. Harmondsworth: Pelican

Esterson, A. (1976) Anti-psychiatry. [Letter] The New Review3: 70-1

Mullan, B. (1995) Mad to be normal. Conversations with R.D. Laing. London: Free Association