The politics of mental illness: from R D Laing, The Frankfurt School to Mark Fisher and Capitalist Realism

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I recall reading R D Laing’s The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise almost 25 years ago. Laing was a radical psychiatrist, part of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s. Anti-psychiatry viewed a patient’s illness not just as the patient’s but as part of sick society. His was a bold attempt to get inside the minds of those with a mental illness and to recognise the politics of the experience of mental illness.

There is no such ‘condition’ as ‘schizophrenia’, but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event. The political event, occurring in the civic order of society, imposes definitions and consequences on the labelled person. (Laing, 1967, p. 100)

Much more recently  I read The Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries. The Frankfurt School, from shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century until the latter part of the century, fused Marx’s political economy with Freud’s psychoanalysis. Their critical theory offered an analysis of the development of popular culture and its impact on individual psyche. The twentieth century was the century of mass communication, broadcasting and consumerism. What Theodor Adorno, a key thinker in the Frankfurt School, recognised was that the potent combination of mass communication and consumerism was used to not only suppress any revolutionary zeal of the proletariat, but also to enhance capitalism by creating consumers, pandering to base needs and creating superficial and relocated desires leading to consumerism. Adam Curtis’s, The Century of the Self, presents a stunning visual representation of the effects of the acquisition of psychoanalysis by advertisers and their capacity to use this to control our behaviour. It translates human alienation that arises from subjugation and subordination to capitalism to a desire for consumption of unnecessary products. Capitalism becomes an imperial power in the mind of the individual.

The Grand Hotel Abyss is a fine read, it takes you through the lives of individuals involved in the Frankfurt School as they navigate through the latter parts of the First World War, the Wiemar republic, the Third Reich, exile to California and the liberation movements in the US and Europe in the 1960s.

I was just finishing reading it, when I heard about the death of Mark Fisher. Mark Fisher was a critic, theorist and activist. I was alerted to his short book (90 or so pages) Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by people I follow on Twitter. Intrigued, I downloaded it to my e-reader. It was within the first few pages that I found that Capitalist Realism is both extension and critique of ideas of the Frankfurt School. I can probably best explain what I mean by saying that the Frankfurt School is located in modernity, while Fisher takes something of a postmodern turn. Modernity was a dominant identifiable cultural philosophical movement emerging in con text of mass production and mass consumption. It is concerned with structures, overarching theory and in many ways mechanistic explanations of the relationships between phenomena and experiences.

Postmodernity is the paradigm shift. As society becomes fragmented, communications and broadcasts fragment to provide individualised experience, as liberalism becomes a dominant political ideal, as communities become diverse and heterogeneous. Thought and experience become fragmented. Philosophy cannot rely on the more monolithic modernistic structures. Lyotard, in the The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, heralded the end of grand narratives.

What Fisher does in such a concise and powerful way is weave together Marxist political economy and psychoanalysis while acknowledging the postmodern fragmentation, contradictions and ironies. This provides a powerful critique of mental health as a deeply political and politicised experience. In modernity our desires were controlled and manipulated. The postmodern condition is so much more insidious, sure our desires are controlled, but by images and narratives that we create for ourselves, that we construct from the narratives that are presented to us through the media and reinforced by neoliberal structures and organisations which discipline and normalise our actions through performativity and targets.

We are never away from these personalised constructs, it is our own thinking that disciplines and punishes and keeps us alienated from direct and real experience. We persistently live in a fictive world created by capitalist media. When our mental and physical health is under threat the external narratives that we internalise start to unravel. We become politically active. But more often than not we punish and discipline ourselves because we no longer think or behave ‘normally’. More often than not our mental health conditions are medicalised, we are subdued by chemicals and our senses and reactions are dulled until we submit to the reformation of a personal fiction that is within the limits of normality. That we are restored to being an individualised component in a self-governing capitalist system.

An important point Fisher makes is that the postmodern mental control and self-disciplining experience is with us 24/7. In modernity, we would go to work do as we were told and then go home. For Fisher we are constantly self-regulating and self-directed. Work and production continue because we are under the impression that we are autonomous. We are not.

Currently we are seeing an adjustment to world orders and authority. It is as if this shake up of old truths, a crisis of capitalism and a collapse of postmodern fragmentary narratives, open things up so we can see what Lacan called the Real. There are great dangers as well as great possibilities in the future. R D Laing, The Frankfurt School and Mark Fisher have left us with some important insights from which we can proceed. Importantly we should recognise the politics of mental health.

I understand that Mark Fisher died with little money and intestate. There is a campaign by Mark’s friends to raise some money so that Mark’s wife and child can have a little time to grieve and come to terms with his tragic death.

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