Mental health crises: depression, schizophrenia and various other disorders, have engulfed the 21st century post-globalisation world. The rate of suicide is at an ever higher magnitude and in our present hyper-connected age of mass media and advanced communication, loneliness is a major issue concerning a large chunk of the population.
We are living in the time of neoliberalism, a set of economic policies characterised by market deregulation, privatisation of previously-nationalised industries or resources, and a support for rugged-individualism and competition on an ideological level. It is accompanied by a rejection of society as a concept and social solidarity as a value. The spread of neoliberalism came with a cut-back on social security and Keynesian welfarism, with cancellation of pensions and monetary support schemes that were helpful to workers in need.
Former UK Prime Minister and neoliberal ideologue, Margaret Thatcher had once said, “There is no such thing as a society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” This blanket rejection of societal causes to the multiple problems of humanity has become injected in the modern public discourse. One of the results of this heuristic is that a politically-oriented problem such as the mental health crisis, is generally looked at entirely from the point of view of an individual.
The approach towards dealing with the mental health crisis has been an atomised and individualistic one. Most explanations and proposed solutions amount to a form of genetic or biological determinism. In this article, I look into studies that provide both qualitative and quantitative data to argue that mental health issues are often products of the dominant economic system and its inherent tendency to multiply finance capital at the cost of its human labour force and their mental stability.
The mental health crisis is a direct result of the atomised, coercive and alienating nature of the dominant economic system. A failure to recognise societal causes by obscuring them with genetic and biological determinism will only lead to making matters worse. In fact, any solution without regard to larger systemic and political change will at best be superficial and not lead to long term improvement of the mental state of the population.
Capitalism and Mental Health
The article ‘Capitalism and Mental Health’ by David Matthews (for Monthly Review) begins by recognising that the world is being engulfed by a persistent mental health crisis. The empirical data at hand is fearsome. The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that three hundred million people across the world suffer from depression, twenty-three million people show symptoms of schizophrenia and eight hundred thousand individuals commit suicide annually (Matthews, 2019).
The data illustrates the claim that mental health conditions have gradually worsened over the previous decade in the most industrialised blocks, or what Paul Baran refers to as ‘monopoly-capitalist nations’ such as Britain. Biological and genetic explanations, i.e. those which reduce mental health problems to genomic dysfunction, dominate the discourse to the point of discouraging any enquiry regarding social causes of the issues. Make no mistake: biological or psychological explanations are not to be discarded; but a deeper look is to be taken at the economic and political conditions, which Matthews holds as the primary cause of the mental health crisis (Matthews, 2019).
Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide
Let us go back in time to sociologist Emile Durkheim. His book ‘Suicide’ published as far back as 1897 took into account plenty of empirical data to suggest that suicides are directly related to social and political factors. He stressed that the industrial society of his time, with its rising focus on individual self-interest and rejection of social and communal living, was a major factor for rising cases of suicide (Durkheim, 1966).
In his book Durkheim laid out the grounds by refuting theories of suicide based on psychology, genetics and biology (as well climate and geography.) Those factors, he concluded, do not amount to any valid causation of suicide. Certainly not in the large-scale that they were occurring. Suicide, according to Durkheim was not a personal situation, but a socially caused condition (Durkheim, 1966).
Durkheim categorized suicide into three types: egoistic, altruistic and anomic. Egoistic suicides were caused by extreme loneliness and also extreme individualism – both of which are imminent features of capitalism and more specifically the neoliberal monopoly capitalism that is dominant today. A person prone to this form of suicide is characterised by a certain egoism that renders him ‘detached from society’. This is also the kind of personality trait encouraged and idolised today by neoliberal ideology through media advertisements and civil society institutions (Durkheim, 1966).
A serious survey of Durkheim’s theory goes on to show that the politically-oriented nature of suicides is not a revolutionary discovery by the research studies in hand. These have been matters of concern for more than a century now. The fact that this appears radical, tells us something about the nature of neoliberal ideology which has normalised the handing over of complete responsibility of mental illnesses to the individual, with wilful ignorance of societal causes (Durkheim, 1966).
Privatisation of stress
Cultural theorist Mark Fisher in his book ‘Capitalist Realism’ argues that the dominant cultural logic of late capitalism (that he terms ‘capitalist realism’) attempts to create a false layer of reality over what is real. An example he provides is the de-politicization of mental health issues. He writes, “Capitalist Realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather.” (Fisher, 2009)
He points out that mid-twentieth century radical thinkers ranging from Foucault in his book ‘Madness and Civilisation’ to Deleuze and Guattari in their book ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ had illustrated that ‘madness’ was not natural but political. Fisher goes further to assert the political nature of not only ‘madness’ in the extreme, but also the relatively commonplace mental disorders (Fisher, 2009).
Ideology of entertainment and consumption
The domination of monopoly capital subjugates the vast majority of the population to a working life that is neither meaningful to them nor satisfactory. The only source of escape is recreation and entertainment, which in the present system amounts to consumption and more consumption of commodities. This form of leisure doesn’t add any meaning or value to one’s life. We therefore associate our recreation with idleness, giving rise to a certain amount of guilt, thus making the experience of pleasure, not pleasurable at all. Through their lack of substance, both work and leisure increasingly lose their inner content and meaning. (Matthews, 2019)
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek termed this phenomenon ‘ideological enjoyment’, which is further drawn from the Lacanian psychoanalytical concept of “jouissance” (which is a French term for extreme enjoyment to the point of exhaustion). This is an aspect of the present day dominant ideology which bestows on the people a vague notion of entertainment which is neither fulfilling nor enjoyable, however is sought after by a multitude of people (Zizek, 2009).
Matthews points out that this ideological validation for such kinds of enjoyment is a necessary means to keep the consumer society running. The system is designed to concentrate finance capital into the hands of the few and hence has no responsibility to be considerate of the population whose basic needs it fails to deliver. This structural phenomenon of monopoly capitalism, according to Baran and Sweezy, results in “the spread of increasingly severe psychic disorders.” (Matthews, 2019)
A thinker who can provide us with insight on the matter at hand, is Erich Fromm. Let us take a look at his body of work in some detail.
Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900 – March 18, 1980) was a psychoanalyst whose works focused on the questions of innate nature of human beings and relations with social surroundings. He had a keen focus on individual human liberation that he considered to be unachievable without the liberation of entire humanity, with a restructuring of the entire socio-economic system.
He belonged to the Neo-Freudian school of psychodynamics, having some major disagreements and controversies with his contemporaries. Fromm had a deep and everlasting influence of the Marxist dialectical materialist approach to the progression of history and change in society. He considered the development of history and the subsequent changes in society an important aspect that shapes peoples’ feelings of freedom and relationship with their own self and their fellow beings (Ferguson, 2016).
Fromm agreed with Freud on the tenet that much of human behaviour and experience is the result of a cause that is unconscious, however, he considered the Freudian term ‘unconscious’ a rather mystical representation of mental causative thoughts and processes of which a person is not conscious.
Fromm’s criticism of Freud was primarily about the ideas of Oedipus complex and libido theory. He was of opinion that a human’s personal development was influenced by his interactions with the society he lived in and the power structures present in it, as opposed to predominantly biological and libido-driven factors (Cherry, Biography of Social Psychologist Erich Fromm, 2020).
During his period of study in the University of Munich, he attended seminars organised by dissident psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel about ways in which Marxist and Freudian thought could be reconciled, keeping in mind the emancipation of alienated humanity. (Ferguson, 2016).
Despite having a major influence of the Freudian thought, Fromm indisputably considered Marx the greater thinker, which he made no secret of in his book ‘Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounters with Freud and Marx’ (Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, 1962) .
Theories and solutions of Erich Fromm
Among his contemporary Neo-Freudians, Fromm stood out because of his deep concern with the fate of the social and psychological well-being of the collective humanity. His writings were marked by an emphasis on the importance of the individual and its liberty to think freely. He held that in order to bring about a positive mental transcendence for humanity, one not only had to increase self-consciousness and non-deterministic free thinking, but also had to strive towards altering the social, economic and political circumstances under which they lived.
Fromm believed that in the age of ever-increasing capitalist tyranny and control over information and thoughts; humans can broadly be categorized into five character types, four of which are the repulsive results of the unevenly designed society (receptive, exploitative, hoarding and marketing character types), while the fifth one is a productive character type, which is possessed by only a minority of people. The receptive character tends to seek constant help and support from his fellow beings, while not being keen to return any of it. The exploitative character is motivated by a selfish desire to attain success and tries to do so at the cost of other people by lying and cheating. The hoarding type tends to collect and stockpile loads of material commodities as their possession, in order to deal with the insecurity caused by their lack of social connection with other humans. The material type tends to look at human relationships merely in terms of the benefits they can gain from it. (Cherry, Fromm's Character Orientations, 2020)
One of Fromm’s most significant works is his first book Escape from Freedom, which he wrote in 1941. This was when his country (Germany) was at the pinnacle of Nazi fanaticism, with various other countries heading towards totalitarianism. He proposed in his book that freedom has a dialectical nature and can be perceived to be of two types: positive and negative. The constructive kind of freedom which humans want to arrive at was positive freedom, and the desire to escape from tyranny and control was negative freedom.
Before the industrial revolution, humans were enslaved and bound permanently to their social positions. No value was ascertained to their individual development. Fromm held that this type of non-individualistic society, while enslaving humans, offered them a sense of security. With the rise of capitalism, we were bestowed upon with a certain freedom that was utterly superficial and left the people in a state of anxiety and powerlessness arising from too much focus on the self, with little regard to the need for community. The individualism that was promoted had little to do with individuality and creative endeavour, and more to do with self-centeredness and narcissism.
Fromm wrote that alongside a desire to be free, humans also possessed a desire to submit to authority and conform to norms. This object of submission, Fromm held, did not necessarily have to be an external authority such as a dictator, but could also be inner ideals of morality, duty and popular opinion. This tendency to submit and conform, along with the narrowness of the political and social conditions of capitalism and bourgeois democracy, result in humans gathering in the bandwagons in support of totalitarian dictators. This was Fromm’s explanation for the rise of fascism as an inevitable result of the capitalist political and economic system. This was in stark contrast to the dominant idea that fascism was an isolated case of aberration from the normal. (Popova, The Paradox of Freedom).
In another significant book The Sane Society, Fromm points out that Western society is not mentally stable by and large and not sane. He adds that the cause of mental health deterioration is not entirely personal, and to a large extent a result of the chaos of power imbalance in the society itself. Humanity as a collective and as individuals, has been alienated, and various thinkers have tried to devise a cause for it. Marx considered it something primarily determined by material reality, while Tolstoy considered it to be the result of a departure from the spiritual values that defined humanity. Fromm tells us that the cause for modern day alienation is ‘robotism’. This is the transformation of humans into unfeeling, unauthentic creatures whose intelligence has evolved, but the emotional capacity to correctly utilize that intelligence, still stays undeveloped. (Popova, The Sane Society)
On an individual level, Fromm proposes that human beings need to awaken to self-consciousness and understanding of their true needs, as opposed to superficial needs that they have been indoctrinated to. Fromm calls for a ‘humanistic communitarian society’ which can be summed up in his own words as:
“A society in which man relates to man lovingly, in which he is rooted in bonds of brotherliness and solidarity, rather than in the ties of blood and soil; a society which gives him the possibility of transcending nature by creating rather than by destroying, in which everyone gains a sense of self by experiencing himself as the subject of his powers rather than by conformity, in which a system of orientation and devotion exists without man’s needing to distort reality and to worship idols.” (Fromm, Conclusion, 1955)
Work and alienation
Human beings are characterised, among other things, by their need to express themselves and make use of their creative faculties. The activities at workplace, where the majority of the population spends a huge amount of their day, have the potential to provide them with utmost happiness and satisfaction. However, that is not the case since most workers in the industrial world are alienated from the products of their labour, they have no autonomy over what work is done or ownership over the fruits of their labour, i.e. the finished products. Work, therefore, is a source of major frustration and alienation of humans from their society and from themselves.
This idea is strengthened by more modern psychological theories such as the self-determination theory (SDT) which states that the intrinsic motivation to perform work is dependent on the feeling of competence, autonomy and relatedness. The capitalist system does not allow its workers the right to those feelings.
Matthews’ study backs up the ideas of alienation with sufficient empirical data suggesting that vast majority of people feel disenfranchised from the work they do and find no meaningfulness. Matthews quotes a survey in Britain where 47% of employees would consider finding a new job, citing such reasons as not enjoying work and feeling unimportant in the process. Severe mental health conditions such as depression, stress and anxiety as a result of unsatisfactory work, are only increasing. A study in 2017 estimated that 60% of British employees had suffered work-related mental problems, with anxiety and depression topping the list. Despite such a correlation, the negative feeling regarding work has become so common, that it is seen not as an ill-condition specific to our economic system, but as a natural reaction to work (Matthews, 2019).
In his book ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, Guy Debord wrote, “The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender "lonely crowds." In Debord’s list of technologies, among automobiles and television, today one could certainly add social media (Debord, 1992).
The nature of the capitalist economic system disables the capacity for the emotional and intellectual commitments required for leading fulfilling relationships. This causes conversations to reduce into superficial niceties and small talk. In a survey conducted in 2017 in Britain, 13% of the people admitted to having no close friends, and another 17% having poor quality friendships. The core tenet of capitalist ideology, with its focus on individualism and competition, takes away any sense of solidarity between people. People tend to see other people as obstacles to their own needs. An employee survey in 2016 has illustrated that 27% people work longer than they would want to and that negatively impacts their personal life and relationships (Matthews, 2019).
I hope to have been able to make it clear that the rise in mental health problems, is neither an individual issue, nor a coincidence or aberration led by faulty actors. It is an inevitable outcome of the dominant economic and political system that we live in. It is important to note, that medical solutions are extremely important. In our efforts to galvanise and push our governments to legislate for healthcare for all, we must add mental health and therapy. Certainly, the process and nature of therapy that is dominant today, is also not free from being influenced by the dominant neoliberal ideology. In fact there are serious questions to be asked about what kind of role psychotherapy plays in our society, but that is for another article.
Suryashekhar Biswas is an undergrad from India, majoring in media studies and English literature. He takes interest in cultural and literary criticism and wishes to contribute to the glorious lineage of third-world Marxism.
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