Back in August, the left wing magazine Red Pepper published a piece by Rod Tweedy entitled ‘A mad world: capitalism and the rise of mental illness’. The standfirst expands on the provocation offered by the title, asking, “What if it’s not us who are sick… but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?” While I accept that Tweedy, in all likelihood, bears no responsibility for this unfortunate glossing of his article, it does, however, remain in place some seven months after publication, serving as a lens through which, inevitably, the remainder of the piece will be read. With this in mind, I want to offer a loving critique of Tweedy’s argument, from my own position as both leftist theorist and mentally ill person. In so doing, I’m going to draw both on Foucault’s nebulous account, in Omnes et Singulatim, of how the ‘Western’ subject has been constituted by ideological forces, on Frantz Fanon's decolonial theorising, and on my personal experiences.
On first reading, such an approach is not inimical to the position Tweedy claims. His article is fast-paced and draws on the work of various psychiatric professionals as well as on Marx’s concept of alienation; and he draws particular attention to the ways in which modern capitalism developed out of the theories of self and other propounded by Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke and Early Modernists like René Descartes. “Capitalism is,” he writes,
rooted in a fundamentally flawed, naive, and old-fashioned seventeenth-century model of who we are—it tries to make us think that we’re isolated, autonomous, disengaged, competitive, decontextualised—an ultimately rather ruthless and dissociated entity. The harm that this view of the self has done to us, and our children, is incalculable.
So far, so good—I agree that the Enlightenment focus on so-called ‘rational self-interest’ has, and continues to have, immeasurably harmful effects as it ripples out through the generations. Locke, lest we forget, was the theoretical powerhouse behind the British permutation of settler colonialism, and thus a foundational thinker of and for the United States of America, and its particular mythos. By way of example, let’s look at his labour theory of value—a masterpiece of post-facto justification for genocide. To begin with, Locke insists that 'nature' itself is of no value whatsoever. Doubling down, he then argues that value is created by the mixture of labour and property—or land:
Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property…Thus the grass my horse has bit; the turfs my servant has cut; and the ore I have digged in any place, where I have a right to them in common with others, become my property, without the assignation or consent of any body. The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. (Locke 1698, §25-28)
On this view, all that white settlers had to do to claim ownership of the Americas was to assert that the indigenous peoples to whom they rightfully belonged¹ were ‘discovered’ in a pre-cultivated 'state of nature'²—something we now know to be untrue (see Mann 2006)—and to put it to some sort of productive, recognisable ‘use’. And just like that, ‘America’ became ‘Western’. To this day, US conservatives and libertarians make sincere Lockean arguments for the superior moral claim of white settlers to Indigenous land. To be clear, then, I am not here as a defender of Locke, or of Enlightenment values; nor do I think that the capitalism borne of said values is in any way conducive to the flourishing of life. The difficulty arises when Tweedy moves from broad critique to specific analysis. “[W]e live,” he says, “in a social and economic system at odds with both our psychology and our neurology, with who we are as social beings.” I think that this is a huge, and dangerous, oversimplification.
Tweedy writes, "Many people believe, and are encouraged to believe, that these problems and disorders—psychosis, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, self-harm—are theirs, rather than the world’s," and he's right to suggest, as I believe he intends to do here, that we need to collectivise our approaches to mental health; to take a less individualised or atomised view of how these illnesses both function and develop. But what does it mean for a problem to be the world's rather than mine? To adopt an Extremely Philosophy Voice for a moment, what is the world?
To borrow from Sylvie Poirier (2005), it is “a world of relationships”—a world of radical interconnection. This is borne out by the neuroscientists Tweedy quotes: they describe the ways in which human brains function collectively, as a reciprocal network. Tweedy describes this as “neuroMarxism”; a deeply exciting (and more than a little Space Communist) concept, to be sure, but one that misses the crucial dialectic relationship between an individual and her material circumstances; the context in which one finds oneself, and that within which, and whereby, we must grow.
The world, then, is us. The system is us, in that we are constitutive of, and constituted by, it. The capitalist-Enlightenment theories of self and society aren't metaphysically a priori, but they are 'given' (in a Heideggerian sense): we emerge into them, and so form our being around them, like rivers or like trees. The world, the system: they aren't something "out there", detached from (but impacting on) the individual. We are radically participant, radically complicit, radically interrelated. When Tweedy quotes Iain McGilchrist, who says that “capitalism and consumerism [are] ways of conceiving human relationships [which] came to supplant those based on felt connection”, it isn’t clear quite how he thinks it is possible to have a relationship without conceiving of it in some way: without our very definitions (the conceptual tools we use to build a world) being influenced by the ‘common sense’ notion of what a relationship is and how it operates. There is, perhaps, a subtextual suggestion that we emerge into the world as fully-formed, if malleable, brains, somehow carrying an awareness or 'imprint' of pre-capitalist ways of relating, as though (like the Time Baby from Gravity Falls), we had been granted some hypothetical detached, objective view of human history. But how can that be the case? From the moment we enter the world, we are of the world. The frameworks we develop, the knowledges we acquire—all of them are the world manifesting in and through us. This doesn't mean we have no agency, but it does mean that Tweedy's argument is built on rather dubious ground.
I raise these points not out of some sado-masochistic love of philosophical nit-picking, but out of genuine concern for what such confused onto-epistemological gestures might mean for a radical left politics that aims (as it ought) to take mental illness seriously. I want to explicate why I find Tweedy’s position dangerous.
First of all, I am almost automatically suspicious of any argument that relies on a fundamental separation between the 'individual' and the 'world'. This false dichotomy is one of the causes of extractive, exploitative capitalism—in short, it's what got us into this mess in the first place, and it needs to stop. Jason Moore describes this beautifully in his book Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015); and while it's something of a pet topic of mine, I won't go into it further here. I want to move on to my second, more immediately important, point, which is this:
It is, in (concrete, lived, mundane) actuality, unhelpful and a little bit toxic to tell somebody, "you're not actually sick, it’s capital," when their experience is one of being unwell. The difficulty with this is not only that it talks over and denies a suffering person's own experiences (and their experiences of their experiences)³, but also that it unwittingly feeds in to a great deal of the internalised narratives of capital. Internalised means that we learn these modalities through being constituted as subjects under and within capital. The processes embed themselves within our own life-creating processes, or perhaps those processes construct and adapt themselves around the processes of capital. Either way, the result is that we carry out much of the daily work of capitalist indoctrination within and upon ourselves. This can include, for mentally ill people, telling ourselves we’re not “really” sick, even as we lie there, unable to move. This is one aspect of what I think of as “self-surveillance”—and this, of course, is where Foucault comes in.
Foucault traces the genesis of self-surveillance to the pastoral metaphors employed in Judeo-Christian devotional texts: in many ways, the foundational texts of so-called 'Western' society. These texts, he argues, "evolved a strange technology of power treating the vast majority of men as a flock with a few as shepherds" (Foucault 1979). The key thing about the pastoral metaphor—particularly that developed within Christian discourses—is that a flock must be simultaneously regulated and self-regulating: the shepherd is ultimately responsible for the sins of his flock, and the responsibility of the flock is to permit themselves to be led, trusting that the shepherd will guide them correctly. As Foucault notes, this
implies a peculiar type of knowledge between the pastor and each of his sheep. This knowledge is particular. It individualizes. It isn't enough to know the state of the flock. That of each sheep must also be known... the shepherd must be informed as to the material needs of each member of the flock and provide for them when necessary. He must know what is going on, what each of them does – his public sins. Last and not least, he must know what goes on in the soul of each one, that is, his secret sins [...] In order to ensure this individual knowledge, Christianity appropriated two essential instruments...: self-examination and the guidance of conscience. (ibid.)
There is, then, "a link between total obedience, knowledge of oneself, and confession to someone else" (ibid.). Notions of responsibility can, in such a discursive climate, take us from simple self-examination to a more complicated level of self-surveillance:
Being guided was a state and you were fatally lost if you tried to escape it. The ever-quoted phrase runs like this: he who suffers not guidance withers away like a dead leaf. As for self-examination, its aim was not to close self-awareness in upon itself, but to enable it to open up entirely to its director – to unveil to him the depths of the soul. (ibid.)
This is not, then, a constructive sort of self-examination, but one which leads us to replicate the abuses and oppressions of our milieu within ourselves: to do the daily work of our leader-oppressors. Foucault points out that
All those Christian techniques of examination, confession, guidance, obedience, have an aim: to get individuals to work at their own ‘mortification' in this world. Mortification is not death, of course, but it is a renunciation of this world and of oneself: a kind of everyday death. A death which is supposed to provide life in another world... It is not a sacrifice for the [greater good]; Christian mortification is a kind of relation from oneself to oneself. (ibid.)
Add to this an understanding of the ways in which trauma has been shown to alter behavioural patterns and neurophysical responses—the very fabric of who we are and how we relate (van der Kolk 2015)—and we can see how, through self-surveillance, the state no longer has to work as hard to reproduce certain biases and perspectives. As fully-constituted capitalist subjects, we do the work ourselves; the seeds, once planted, grow hungrily towards the light.
The call is coming from inside the house.
This process is what I refer to—because I have a habit of personifying things—as the Interior Thatcher.
Margaret Thatcher—infamous former British Prime Minister, and the most hated figure of my childhood—adhered strictly to a doctrine of personal responsbility. Deriding any state-supported moves towards class equality as 'paternalism', Thatcher preferred 'the discipline of market forces' (Samuel 1992, p.12), a sink-or-swim approach in which value is indicated by exchange. A person becomes worth what an employer is willing to pay for their time and labour on the open market—and no more. What if you can't work? Nonsense! There are no can'ts in this worldview: they are auto-translated into won'ts by the rhetorical sweep of the rallying cry: PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY! As Raphael Samuel has put it:
The ‘work ethic’ was her favoured idiom when arguing for fiscal reform. ‘Privatisation’was her tonic for energising the economy and ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’. ‘Personal responsibility’ was the mantra of her addresses on moral questions... (Samuel 1992, p.13)
In this way, through the mobilisation of the idiom 'work ethic', the exchange of labour and time for money takes on a new, moral dimension. The privatisation of the 1980s, then, was not solely economic. Narratives and public discourses shifted. (It's funny how that can happen: one minute you're saying there's no such thing as society, and the next thing you know, people are shrugging their shoulders at the poor, the sick, the homeless, muttering "not my problem mate" as they step over the frozen bodies in the January street.) Your capacities and capabilities became your own business, something to be confronted and dealt with as an individual; and if you weren't seen to be dealing with them in the right way (a way that led to paid employment and personal enrichment), you were clearly a recusant, an aberration, a parasite. Unwilling to take responsibility.⁴
I grew up in the 1980s. My earliest thought processes were formed within and by these discourses. Though I don't believe them on a political level, they're still embedded in some deep part of my brain as very early Social Truths, learnt at a time when I was particularly absorbent. So when I'm lying in bed, unable to move, so weighed down by the exhaustion, the flashbacks, the guilt, the self-blame, the migraines, the whole barbed tangle of physical and mental responses to traumatic violence, it's something close to impossible for me to show compassion for myself. When my mind is full of static and fizz, and the unbidden memories, and the reflexive distraction and dissociation techniques I've developed to avoid looking straight at them—that's when those deep, early parts of my brain kick in. And they say: you're a recusant, an aberration, a parasite. There are no can'ts: you just won't. You're not really sick. You're just lazy, useless, worthless. What have you achieved in life? What will you ever achieved? What have you to show for these 35 years? They speak in my mother's voice, usually; but the words, the rhetoric—that's Thatcher. Embedded within some fathomless part of me, doing the work of Thatcherism—the work of capital—so the system doesn't have to. Efficiency always was a keystone of Conservative thought. And, to return to Foucault, I tell myself that this is necessary and healthy self-examination; I tell myself that I need the Interior Thatcher: how else to be sure that I'm a worthwhile person? Of course, though, it isn't healthy or necessary at all: it's destructive self-surveillance. What I'm witnessing is my mind working against itself.
There are clear parallels here with Frantz Fanon's diagnosis of the colonial condition (though parallels that, as a white European, I want to be very careful about extending too far). In Les Damnés de la Terre ('The Wretched of the Earth), he wrote, perceptively:
But the war continues. And we will have to heal, for years to come, the multiple, sometimes indelible injuries done to our people by the colonialist barrage... Imperialism drops, here and there, seeds of rot, which we must relentlessly detect and uproot from our land and from our minds. (Fanon  2002, p.39)⁵
Fanon's description of these germinal, durational processes illustrates the ways in which oppressions implant and replicate themselves within the oppressed. In this way, oppressions have the capacity for endless reproduction and mutation. In my Master's thesis, Wilful Love, I termed this set of processes abuse culture—and while, as I've said, I don't want to draw an exact parallel between the conditions I discuss in this post and those (far worse) suffered by colonised people, I do want to suggest an echo, a similarity which in turn suggests a route to solidarity and common purpose (since capitalism and colonialism are inextricably interlinked and mutually-replenishing). And I want to suggest that the anti-capitalist struggle in the so-called 'West' can learn from the decolonial struggles and resistances that have endured across centuries of unthinkable physical and psychological violence.
Of particular relevance here, to return to Tweedy's article, is the following lesson: Revolution is only the beginning. And revolution will not, alone, heal me. I commit to it because the end of capitalism will mean better futures for all being(s) yet to come. There are many days, however, where I suspect that I am irretrievably broken: even while I am adrift and disconnected under and within this system, in many ways it is also ‘my soul’s home’: it has shaped me and made me, and set into motion numberless processes that will repeat and repeat and repeat until I die. The best I can do, I sometimes feel, is to work as hard as I can not to let those cyclical processes contribute to the oppression of others. If I can contain the disease, if I can somehow avoid replicating and contributing to abuse culture, passing on and continuing this legacy of violence, I will be satisfied. But, I'll say it again: revolution won’t heal me. And when people are suffering, we need to acknowledge and treat both cause and symptoms. It's simply not enough to say "you're not really sick"—that's the very message of capital; that's the message that repeats in our heads over and again, reminding us that even our judgements of our material conditions are dysfunctional and without worth. There are already so many great arguments against capitalism: there is simply no need to weaponise mental illness as a prop in the name of the cause. We don't need to hear, "you're not sick." We don't need to hear, "it's not you, it's capital." We demand a movement that takes us seriously, that sees us as, at the very least, capable of assessing and attesting to our own experiences. We demand an analysis that accounts for the multiple ways in which capitalist ideology is reproduced, both within our movements, within our communities, and within ourselves. We demand movements that make space for us, and for everybody else; movements that are determined from and responsive to the people who comprise them. We demand to be seen, to be heard, and to be trusted. As Fanon reminds us:
For ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must become new selves, develop new thought—attempt to construct a new humanity. (Fanon  2002, p.305)⁶
Thank you for reading (if you made it this far)!
ACADEMIC WORKS CITED.
Fanon, Frantz.  2002. Le Damnés de la Terre. Paris: Éditions La Découverte & Syros.
Foucault, Michel. 1979. 'Omnes et Singulatim: Towards a Criticism of Political Reason.' In Sterling McMurrin (ed.). 1981. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Vol II. 225-254. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Locke, John. 1698. Two Treatises of Government. Widely available.
Moore, Jason W. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.
Poirier, Sylvie. 2005. A World of Relationships: Itineraries, Dreams, and Events in the Australian Western Desert. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Samuel, Raphael. 1992. 'Mrs Thatcher's Return to Victorian Values'. Proceedings of the British Academy, 78:9-29.
- Inasmuch as land can 'belong' to anybody in many Indigenous worldviews.
- This is different from the State of Nature described in the work of Thomas Hobbes. For Locke, a state of nature is simply something found in its natural or original, untouched state. In a Lockean view, humans alone are separate from, and elevated above, 'nature'. The implicit suggestion here, then, is that Indigenous peoples are less-than-human and therefore no rights pertain to them, least of all rights of ownership, since 'nature' cannot 'own' itself.
- If we deny, disbelieve, or otherwise undermine people's own accounts of what they are experiencing, we are essentially gaslighting them.
- (Footnote: I'll write more about responsibility in the future: about how this individualised conception of responsibility is harmful and all wrong.)
- My translation and slight paraphrase. The original: "Mais la guerre continue. Et nous aurons à panser des années encore les plaies multiples et quelquefois indélébiles faites à nos peuples par le déferlement colonialiste. L'impérialisme... abandonne çà et là des germes de pourriture qu'il nous faut implacablement détecter et extirper de nos terres et de nos cerveaux."
- My translation. The original: "pour nous-mêmes et pour l'humanité, camarades, il faut faire peau neuve, développer une pensée neuve, tenter de mettre sur pied un homme neuf."
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