Writer and critic Mark Fisher caused a stir recently with his article Good For Nothing in Occupied Times, where he wrote searingly about the experience of depression in our neoliberal capitalist age. Anindya Bhattacharyya spoke to him about the politics of mental health, magical voluntarism and how to struggle against this.
I remember a few years ago turning on the television and watching Deal or No Deal for the first time. It took me a little while to work out what was going on – my sanity somehow putting up resistance to the grim realisation that this was a game of pure luck decked out in all manner of supernatural garbage. I was unsurprised to later hear about the Cosmic ordering wish cult that the show’s host Noel Edmonds peddles.
Deal or No Deal throws randomly selected amounts of money at randomly selected people. Yet the entire message the show insists on the precise opposite: that individual decisions – a simple yes/no to the Banker – can somehow make a difference.
Mark calls this magical voluntarism – “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”. Magical voluntarism is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, he argues, pushed by reality TV experts and business gurus as much as by politicians.
So why is magical voluntarism everywhere? “It’s a sign of both a successful neoliberal ideological project and the desperation of its victims,” says Mark. “Neoliberal politicians, and a media that shares their assumptions, relentlessly push the belief that everything, including the material universe itself, is subject to individual will. If you don’t succeed, it’s because you didn’t want it enough. Practically every form of reality TV – X Factor, Fairy Jobmother, Benefits Street – is governed by this idea.
“But magical voluntarism is also an indication of desperation. The Deal or No Deal situation is a horrible example of a more general situation. We have as little control over our lives as contestants do over what is in that box. Magical voluntarism is the ideal ideological weapon: it offers an illusory solution to feelings of helplessness, and it reinforces that helplessness by distracting from structural causes of our diminished agency.”
The link to depression
This knock-on effect of magical voluntarism – the way in which it reinforces our powerlessness – is why the happy clappy self-delusion inevitably fails and flips over into a depression that makes us feel like helpless individuals. We are told we can do anything if we want it enough. But we know that this is not true. We end up paralysed, unable to want anything but equally unable to escape the “pull your socks up” voice in your head.
Mark writes about the links between politicised depression and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, happiness ideology, and “positive thinking” more generally. But how does his take on depression today compare and contrast to what Marxists have classically called alienation?
“It’s worthwhile maintaining a distinction between the two terms,” he says. “Depression is part of today’s vocabulary, a word many people already use to describe themselves. We can seize upon this and reframe it in political terms.
“The value of alienation as a theory is that it supplements narrow economistic definitions of class (sometimes blithely trotted out by Marxist philosophers), ones that define class solely as relationship to means of production. That approach leaves out important questions about the processes that fix our relationship to those means of production.
“Fixing processes involve subordination and a set of associated affects: inferiority, uselessness, inadequacy. I’m not sure the concept of alienation is as good at picking out those feelings as what we now call depression. In any case, magical voluntarism combined with ingrained notions that ‘it’s not for the likes of me’ makes for a special systemic cruelty.”
The end result of this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Magical voluntarism is “both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness,” Mark writes. “It is the flipside of depression – whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it.” So how do we rebuild class confidence in the face of this “deliberately cultivated depression” from the ruling class?
Mark cites what he called “reflexive impotence” in his 2010 book Capitalist Realism. “Depression involves a self-fulfilling prophecy: one’s conviction that one is worthless, useless, good for nothing, feeds into an inability to act, which in turn reinforces those feelings. But while many individual cases of depression can be explained politically, perhaps more important is understanding the political failure of the left in terms of collective depression.
“We don’t think we can act; sometimes we tremble at the prospect of even saying the word ‘we’ at all. It’s important not to moralise here, to fall into our own version of saying we need to pull our socks up. The sad thing, however, is that many of fashionable theories on the anti-capitalist left are in danger of saying just this.
“Neo-anarchist ideas promote withdrawal from mainstream media and politics in favour of direct action. The imply it’s possible to act now, if only we recognise our own power. This is the left version of magical voluntarism. Often the emphasis on direct action comes out of a depressive conviction that there’s no possibility of indirect action, of changing things at the level of dominant ideology and institutions.”
Recovering our confidence by fighting together
“We must recover confidence that we can change things while recognising the many reasons why we don’t recognise our own power. Everything is set up so that we don’t recognise it, to obstruct class consciousness. Class consciousness is anything but spontaneous. It grew when there were mediating agencies that propagated it: political parties, trade unions, working class associations. Neoliberalism destroyed or subdued those agencies. After years of defeat there is a collective depression on our side.”
The answer to this conundrum involves practical political action, of course. But what does this mean specifically? “Neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very concept of class – we will only undermine resubordination through the experience of us acting together as a class. This could become a self-fulfilling spiral of the opposite kind to the depressive loop that grips us. The more we act as a class, the more power we attain.
“We also need winnable struggles. Anti-capitalist protest is too often merely symbolic – but if you pursue only symbolic victories, you don’t even win them. Occupying a space for symbolic reasons is very different from occupying it because we think we can run it better than the capitalists.
“Look at the Grunwick dispute and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. These became hub struggles that shaped neoliberalism’s grand narrative about history. We need our hub struggles, ones that allow us to coordinate and extend resources we already possess. Some of these resources need to be revived (eg trade unions), most likely bottom-up. Some resources will need to be articulated together. We will invent new institutions, new groups too.
“Neoliberalism didn’t win by purism; it won by pragmatism and its ability to build heterogeneous assemblages. We need to learn from this. Of course, neoliberalism called upon resources we don’t have: but we have resources it didn’t have, not least numbers.
“The neoliberal project succeeded at the expense of the vast majority of the population. But after 2008 its ability to distract people from their immiseration declined radically. It will not self-destruct automatically: neoliberalism can continue forever without action by our class. But ideologically neoliberalism is weakened massively, even as it continues in practice.
“And capital hasn’t yet come up with anything to replace the neoliberal project. This moment is probably the best opportunity in my lifetime to seriously challenge capital.”