A Marxist analysis of the mental ill health epidemic has to lay the blame squarely at the door of class society, and the alienation, injustice and misery it causes. Sølvi Qorda writes on the dire need to confront mental ill health.
Will the apocalypse come with screams of horror or a rolling of eyes? It’s difficult to think about confronting the injustice of the world when capitalism appears to be eating itself whole, and taking us with it. Every week we’re confronted with another story detailing just how much the ice caps have been pulverised, or how the oceans are so corrupted as to be spawning billions of mutant jellyfish. Faced with this you often find that people have to just ignore it entirely. It’s the fact that there appears to be no escape from this situation, on top of the daily misery of life under capitalism, that arguably tells us why people, especially young people, are so incredibly miserable.
We need to think, as a movement, as revolutionary Marxists, about our role in the war against mental ill health. Not only do we need to think about how we might actually fight for better ways to help people get therapy, we also need to think about how we make their alienated experience a tool that they can use to smash capital.
Alienation, injustice and misery
It’s tempting to talk now of a mental ill health epidemic sweeping Western European and American capitalism. The figure, now generally accepted, of one in four of us suffering from a serious mental illness, appalling in and of itself, eludes the fact that the social impact of mental illness is far greater than one in four. Families and friends have to struggle with the effect of a loved one who is suffering. Non-serious, short term or low-level illnesses, that perhaps don’t always get diagnosed, aren’t really taken into consideration by such figures.
A greater openness about mental ill health hasn’t meant a greater militancy against the causes of psychosis. NGOs like Time To Change and Mind have played a positive reforming role but unfortunately, and of course purposefully, only go so far. Talking openly about mental health may roll back stigma, but what does it do to combat the actual causes of that stigma, and of mental illness? Whilst it is not the case that mental ill health is purely a social construct, a Marxist analysis has to lay the blame squarely at the door of class society, and the alienation, injustice and misery it causes. Marxists are not alone in that.
This cannot be understood merely through a generational lens. The dissolution of adequate social care for the elderly is another case of slow motion violence, and this is not an attempt to say that young people should blame older generations for their despair. However there is a specific aspect for young people at the moment, that of a stolen future. From an absence of well-paid and secure work, to the theft of Higher and Further Education, to constant racial harassment, to the use of benefit sanctions to enforce gender roles and binary rigidity by keeping young LGBTQ people with their parents, to the looming environmental clusterfuck, it’s difficult to think about the future in a rationally optimistic way as a young person. I think that’s certainly part of the reason that a lot of us retreat into neoliberal consumerism or the X-factorisation of all social life, where self-promotion becomes the most virtuous end.
But for talent shows to have winners, they must have a garbage pile of losers, which is what most of us are. It isn’t that young people expect things to be easy, or that they’re lazy, it’s that whatever they do they’re screwed. Only those who systematically fuck over friends and peers make it to the top, and they’re then paraded around as proof that anyone can succeed with a little elbow grease. All of this, I think, combines with the general level of shittiness to produce mental health problems. We need a critical approach to NGOs like Mind, but the report that they produced recently that showed that mental illness was on the rise amongst secondary school students exemplifies how efficiently capitalism is fucking over its own capacity to reproduce its social order.
A crisis of agency
To us, this epidemic presents a huge problem, a tragedy, a crisis of agency. In no way does mental illness or physical illness determine that people are incapable of fighting for their emancipation. They are disabled from doing so by society. However it is another load, another fetter, another chain. And saying ‘you are just as capable of fighting’ can never mean ‘you need to pull yourself together’.
It’s no coincidence that the rise of depression and anxiety, as well as apocalyptic resignation, has risen over the last twenty years. Even the largest movements have failed to present an effective challenge to capitalism’s self-destruct sequence. I think that the way that the left has often constructed leaders has not helped. The recent deaths of Tony Benn and Bob Crow lead to all these commentaries asking where their equivalents are in the next generation. I think they are there – just not always in the public eye – but such a view of heroes is no use for us. It defers responsibility, and it evokes an image of being a fighter with individual strength. Please don’t misunderstand me, I don’t hold a grudge against Tony and Bob, quite the opposite – but I do think the fact that we have to find inspiration in individuals rather than collectives leads us into problems. Where is the role for people to fight when they are far too anxious to be public heroes? Yet these are the people who we need to be leading emancipatory projects, and we can’t make their ‘getting better’ a prerequisite to doing so.
Saving the world
Yes movements, but also popularising the mass basis of generalised depressives. Unity of service users, and service workers with a countercultural propaganda campaign to back it up.
Coming back to the feeling that we are powerless to change the world, spelled out bluntly in this Vice article, we need to find a way to collectively refuse anxiety and despair. I am not content to sit back and watch the floods rise and the sinkholes tear open with an ice-cold can of Stella in my hand.
Actually fighting capitalism through political activity can be enormously rewarding, and can combat the effects of alienation. But it is not enough. Not least because the experience of sustained activity on the left can be incredibly alienating, anxiety-inducing and traumatising in itself. But that’s because there’s no shortcut, the left is not outside of capitalism and can’t be hermetically sealed off. I do, however, think there are ways we can work to reduce those effects – by not moralising, not encouraging hyperactivity that leads to burnout, not mishandling cases of oppression, harassment and bullying. These are just some of the ways.
But I think we also need to think about how we might specifically organise and propagandise around mental health itself – even if it is so intrinsically linked to other things. Peter Sedgwick, the Marxist psychiatrist, argued for all forms of therapy to be free at the point of need, whatever their drawbacks. How do we fight for that when the NHS is being sold off wholesale?
The left does seem to be getting better at acknowledging the havoc that psychosis is wreaking on a generation – that shows to me the potential for organising around it. But we need to be able not just to diagnose, but to link up the the emotions and illnesses people have to politics, to link up a revolution that would allow us to properly and collectively deal with illness with fights on a Wednesday afternoon to expand the availability of therapy in a local health practice.
Marx talked about proletarians having nothing to lose but their chains, and having a world to win. I think it needs rephrasing, because we now face the possibility of losing all our futures, of there being no world left to win. It’s not that we have nothing to lose, it’s that we have no choice. Step the fuck up and save the world. Or lose everything.
Public meeting hosted by the International Socialist Network and rs21:
‘Are we all becoming more anxious?’ The politics of mental health in the age of austerity
26 Nov 2014, 7.30pm
Rooms on Regents Park
27 Sussex Place
London NW1 4RG
What is happening to our mental health under contemporary capitalism? Levels of stress, anxiety and depression have rocketed in recent years as people have felt the pressures from the neoliberal assault on our lives. At the same time more and more aspects of our lives are being redefined as a medical conditions to be treated by psychiatric drugs. Come along and join our discussion where we will look at the mental health crisis under neoliberalism, and the role of psychiatry and Big Pharma. We will ask whether Marxist theory has anything to contribute to understandings of mental health and discuss how we can support mental health activism.