Thursday, February 16, 2017

The eye of the needle

"Good for nothing", Mark Fisher, March 19, 2014

"I’ve suffered from depression intermittently since I was a teenager. Some of these episodes have been highly debilitating – resulting in self-harm, withdrawal (where I would spend months on end in my own room, only venturing out to sign-on or to buy the minimal amounts of food I was consuming), and time spent on psychiatric wards. I wouldn’t say I’ve recovered from the condition, but I’m pleased to say that both the incidences and the severity of depressive episodes have greatly lessened in recent years. Partly, that is a consequence of changes in my life situation, but it’s also to do with coming to a different understanding of my depression and what caused it. I offer up my own experiences of mental distress not because I think there’s anything special or unique about them, but in support of the claim that many forms of depression are best understood – and best combatted – through frames that are impersonal and political rather than individual and ‘psychological’.

Writing about one’s own depression is difficult. Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice which accuses you of self-indulgence – you aren’t depressed, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, pull yourself together – and this voice is liable to be triggered by going public about the condition. Of course, this voice isn’t an ‘inner’ voice at all – it is the internalised expression of actual social forces, some of which have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.

My depression was always tied up with the conviction that I was literally good for nothing. I spent most of my life up to the age of thirty believing that I would never work. In my twenties I drifted between postgraduate study, periods of unemployment and temporary jobs. In each of these roles, I felt that I didn’t really belong – in postgraduate study, because I was a dilettante who had somehow faked his way through, not a proper scholar; in unemployment, because I wasn’t really unemployed, like those who were honestly seeking work, but a shirker; and in temporary jobs, because I felt I was performing incompetently, and in any case I didn’t really belong in these office or factory jobs, not because I was ‘too good’ for them, but – very much to the contrary – because I was over-educated and useless, taking the job of someone who needed and deserved it more than I did. Even when I was on a psychiatric ward, I felt I was not really depressed – I was only simulating the condition in order to avoid work, or in the infernally paradoxical logic of depression, I was simulating it in order to conceal the fact that I was not capable of working, and that there was no place at all for me in society.

When I eventually got a job as lecturer in a Further Education college, I was for a while elated – yet by its very nature this elation showed that I had not shaken off the feelings of worthlessness that would soon lead to further periods of depression. I lacked the calm confidence of one born to the role. At some not very submerged level, I evidently still didn’t believe that I was the kind of person who could do a job like teaching. But where did this belief come from? The dominant school of thought in psychiatry locates the origins of such ‘beliefs’ in malfunctioning brain chemistry, which are to be corrected by pharmaceuticals; psychoanalysis and forms of therapy influenced by it famously look for the roots of mental distress in family background, while Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is less interested in locating the source of negative beliefs than it is in simply replacing them with a set of positive stories. It is not that these models are entirely false, it is that they miss – and must miss – the most likely cause of such feelings of inferiority: social power. The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.

On the urging of one of the readers of my book Capitalist Realism, I started to investigate the work of David Smail. Smail – a therapist, but one who makes the question of power central to his practice – confirmed the hypotheses about depression that I had stumbled towards. In his crucial book The Origins of Unhappiness, Smail describes how the marks of class are designed to be indelible. For those who from birth are taught to think of themselves as lesser, the acquisition of qualifications or wealth will seldom be sufficient to erase – either in their own minds or in the minds of others – the primordial sense of worthlessness that marks them so early in life. Someone who moves out of the social sphere they are ‘supposed’ to occupy is always in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror: “…isolated, cut off, surrounded by hostile space, you are suddenly without connections, without stability, with nothing to hold you upright or in place; a dizzying, sickening unreality takes possession of you; you are threatened by a complete loss of identity, a sense of utter fraudulence; you have no right to be here, now, inhabiting this body, dressed in this way; you are a nothing, and ‘nothing’ is quite literally what you feel you are about to become.”

For some time now, one of the most successful tactics of the ruling class has been responsibilisation. Each individual member of the subordinate class is encouraged into feeling that their poverty, lack of opportunities, or unemployment, is their fault and their fault alone. Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist (they are just excuses, called upon by the weak). What Smail calls ‘magical voluntarism’ – the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be – is the dominant ideology and unofficial religion of contemporary capitalist society, pushed by reality TV ‘experts’ and business gurus as much as by politicians. Magical voluntarism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression – whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it. A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed in the UK now: a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.

We must understand the fatalistic submission of the UK’s population to austerity as the consequence of a deliberately cultivated depression. This depression is manifested in the acceptance that things will get worse (for all but a small elite), that we are lucky to have a job at all (so we shouldn’t expect wages to keep pace with inflation), that we cannot afford the collective provision of the welfare state. Collective depression is the result of the ruling class project of resubordination. For some time now, we have increasingly accepted the idea that we are not the kind of people who can act. This isn’t a failure of will any more than an individual depressed person can ‘snap themselves out of it’ by ‘pulling their socks up’. The rebuilding of class consciousness is a formidable task indeed, one that cannot be achieved by calling upon ready-made solutions – but, in spite of what our collective depression tells us, it can be done. Inventing new forms of political involvement, reviving institutions that have become decadent, converting privatised disaffection into politicised anger: all of this can happen, and when it does, who knows what is possible?" "

By Mark Fisher |



"Why mental health is a political issue", by Mark Fisher, 16 July 2014
"Welfare suicides don't exist. Suicide is a mental health issue." That line, by the former Labour official Luke Bozier, pretty much sums up the standard rightwing response to the website Calum's List. According to its founders, the aim of Calum's List is "to list the number of deaths where welfare reform has alleged to have had some culpability, and to make the best effort possible to work towards reducing this death toll." Bozier's Twitter comments were a gloss on blogposts by The Spectator's Isabel Hardman and the Telegraph's Brendan O'Neill.
There's more than a whiff of Freud's "kettle logic" (I didn't borrow your kettle; when I borrowed the kettle it was already broken; when I returned the kettle it wasn't damaged) about the cluster of incompatible arguments that these three presented against Calum's List. Their principal claims were as follows. The suicides have not been caused by the changes, and therefore to mention them is an act of opportunistic exploitation; if suicides have been caused by the reforms, this is no reason to abandon them; the problem is not the reforms themselves but how they are managed (ie those forced back to work should be given adequate support); suicide is not a rational act, which means that it can have no political significance.
I don't wish to argue here about whether or not specific cases of suicide were caused by the new legislation. But I do want to contest the bizarre idea that, in principle, suicides could not be adduced as evidence against the changes in the welfare system. If people dying as a consequence of the implementation of measures cannot count as evidence that the legislation has detrimental effects, what would?
O'Neill displays a strangely judgmental attitude towards suicide, arguing suicide "is not a rational response to economic hardship; it is not a rational response to having your benefits cut". This is a spectacular case of missing the point: for many of those suffering from mental illnesses, the capacity to act rationally is impaired, which is one reason that they need to be protected. As for the idea that those returning to work should receive proper support, the lack of such support is the issue. Atos, the agency responsible for testing whether claimants are fit to work, has seen a large number of appeals against its judgments upheld. And who can have faith the government will properly support those returning to work when it entrusts the transition to a discredited agency such as A4e?
But there's a more general problem here. Some of the rightwing commentators condemning Calum's List have deplored the "politicisation" of mental illness, but the problem is exactly the opposite. Mental illness has been depoliticised, so that we blithely accept a situation in which depression is now the malady most treated by the NHS. The neoliberal policies implemented first by the Thatcher governments in the 1980s and continued by New Labour and the current coalition have resulted in a privatisation of stress. Under neoliberal governance, workers have seen their wages stagnate and their working conditions and job security become more precarious. As the Guardian reports today, suicides amongst middle-aged men are on the increase, and Jane Powell, chief executive of Calm, the Campaign Against Living Miserably, links some of this increase with unemployment and precarious work. Given the increased reasons for anxiety, it's not surprising that a large proportion of the population diagnose themselves as chronically miserable. But the medicalisation of depression is part of the problem.
The NHS, like the education system and other public services, has been forced to try to deal with the social and psychic damage caused by the deliberate destruction of solidarity and security. Where once workers would have turned to trade unions when they were put under increasing stress, now they are encouraged to go to their GP or, if they are lucky enough to be able to be get one on the NHS, a therapist.
It would be facile to argue that every single case of depression can be attributed to economic or political causes; but it is equally facile to maintain – as the dominant approaches to depression do – that the roots of all depression must always lie either in individual brain chemistry or in early childhood experiences. Most psychiatrists assume that mental illnesses such as depression are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, which can be treated by drugs. But most psychotherapy doesn't address the social causation of mental illness either.
The radical therapist David Smail argues that Margaret Thatcher's view that there's no such thing as society, only individuals and their families, finds "an unacknowledged echo in almost all approaches to therapy". Therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy combine a focus on early life with the self-help doctrine that individuals can become masters of their own destiny. The idea is "with the expert help of your therapist or counsellor, you can change the world you are in the last analysis responsible for, so that it no longer cause you distress" – Smail calls this view "magical voluntarism".
Depression is the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture, what happens when magical voluntarism confronts limited opportunities. As psychologist Oliver James put it in his book The Selfish Capitalist, "in the entrepreneurial fantasy society," we are taught "that only the affluent are winners and that access to the top is open to anyone willing to work hard enough, regardless of their familial, ethnic or social background – if you do not succeed, there is only one person to blame." It's high time that the blame was placed elsewhere. We need to reverse the privatisation of stress and recognise that mental health is a political issue." "