"There Is No Moral Imperative to Be Miserable"
Yes, capitalism is why you're sad and anxious. Now what?
James Greig is a writer from Scotland.
After years of efforts to “raise awareness” of mental illness, nothing has gotten better. I can sense a growing weariness with public health campaigns urging us to seek out help in the form of psychiatric drugs and therapy; podcasts where members of the Royal Family “open up” about their mental health journeys; mindfulness apps; books and articles promoting cures like horse-riding and wild-water swimming. If there’s a common strand to all this, it’s that mental illness—specifically depression and anxiety—is an individual struggle: if we have the right attitude, we can alleviate the burdens of life ourselves; if we take the first step, then help is out there.
In response to the banality and cynicism of liberal mental health politics, a counter-narrative has come to the fore: mental illness is instead a “structural problem” caused by neoliberalism or late capitalism, which we should take care not to individualize.
These have become standard talking points across the left-leaning media. While not incorrect, these arguments often seem like a way of appearing insightful without doing much beyond stating the obvious. It’s easy to point at something and diagnose it as structural without going into any further detail about how that structure actually operates, or even what it means to say that something is structural. Sometimes, this analysis goes no further than, “it’s all society, man!” The structural problems in question are presented as essentially unchangeable short of a radical transformation of the world—the exact details of which can be ironed out later.
But there’s something insidious about this counter-trend: while technically truthful (yes, capitalism is driving us all mad), the focus on de-individualizing mental health and blaming systems can stop people from taking any measures at all to improve their lives. “It’s the system’s fault,” becomes, “there’s nothing I can do if I’m depressed because it’s the system.” This way of thinking can trap people in a kind of nihilism, whereby any action short of revolution is framed as hopeless.
The popularity of the “structural problem” model of mental illness might partially stem from the continued popularity of Mark Fisher among young leftists: his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, in particular, has become a foundational text, even if these ideas have a lineage which stretches back much further. It’s understandable why Fisher remains relevant: much of liberal mental health discourse corresponds exactly to what Fisher termed, ‘‘magical voluntarism…the belief that it is within every individual's power to make themselves whatever they want to be.” In Fisher’s telling, capitalists want us to believe that the only thing standing in the way of the life you want is yourself. This rhetoric is far more common now than it was even a decade ago, whether it’s espoused by rise-and-grind influencers, mindfulness coaches or conservative politicians. Since 2009, the austerity politics Fisher was responding to have only grown more entrenched, and consequently so has the pushback that encourages everyone to stop focusing on the individual, and start focusing on systems.
The ideas Fisher espoused were nothing new—he was influenced largely by British psychologist and author, David Smail, whose 1991 book The Origins of Unhappiness: A New Understanding of Personal Distress makes a similar argument about the relationship between distress and power. “[M]ost of the causes of the kind of distress which puts people in need of comfort are not soluble because they are originated by distal social powers which are out of reach of both sufferer and helper,” Smail writes. There can, however, be a therapeutic benefit to confronting economic barriers: “most 'patients' in my experience, are relieved to have their personal incompetence, i.e their moral viability as human beings, restored to them even if they are no more able than before to get to the causes of their troubles." As Smail sees it, you might find your mental health improved by accepting the hopelessness of your situation, and the unlikelihood of it ever improving.
More recently, mental health practitioner and author Paul Moloney has argued in The Therapy Industry that the problem with contemporary therapy, and its attendant ways of understanding mental health, is that, “these specialists seek to persuade us that our troubles stem, not from the world in which we live, but from our lack of insight into ourselves and from our failure to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do." Taken altogether, there is a rich and still vibrant intellectual tradition of understanding mental illness as arising from social and economic forces, rather than being down to misfiring neurology or, in Smail’s words, “our own failures of development and understanding.”
It’s obvious, banal even, that the kind of world we live in has a strong structuring effect on our mental health, and that certain aspects of capitalism—exploitation, domination, loneliness—are especially likely to cause distress.
But when it comes to depression and anxiety, we have become stuck in a false dichotomy of either affording people too much agency (the idea you should pull yourselves up by the bootstraps and maybe start journaling) or far too little—capitulating to the idea that you are doomed to unhappiness based on your relation to capital and that there can be no respite from this on an individual level. While good intentions lie behind the tendency to blame capitalism for our mental health woes, leaning too heavily into the idea has unintended consequences. When you’re depressed, rationalizing your way out of getting better is the last thing you should be doing. It doesn’t matter how well-researched or even objectively correct those rationalizations might be.
When I was younger, I was fixated on the idea that I was incapable of happiness because I had been too damaged by past experiences. Later, I began to think that this was immature, liberal, even, and became convinced that the real reason I was doomed to unhappiness was, in fact, capitalism. This was probably more truthful, but in practical terms it wasn’t much of an improvement. The end result was just as deterministic, and led me back to the same inertia as before. Why bother trying to get better if you know that your individual efforts are insignificant in the face of a vast economic system that will thwart you at every turn? Why make the effort to go for a walk, take less drugs, or tidy your room, if none of these efforts will make a dent against the distal powers which govern your life?
In the end I used, “I’m depressed, because of capitalism!” in exactly the same way I used, “I’m depressed, because of trauma!”—as an excuse, a way of justifying a number of unhealthy behaviors and absolving myself of responsibility for my own life. While capitalism imposes all kinds of unfreedoms (forcing you to rely on wage labor, for example), I realized it doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of making my bed or going for a walk.
People have of course addressed the question of how to fix a problem like depression when the predominant economic and social system of the world is to blame. In an excerpt from his book Going Nowhere, Slow: The Politics and Aesthetic of Depression, academic Mikkel Krause Frantzen writes, “to understand depression through political frames does not mean that the problem of depression be immediately solved through political means. There is a horror to depression that cannot and must not be translated too quickly into the sphere of politics, regardless of our critical and revolutionary aspirations.”
This is astute analysis, and Frantzen also points to some practical solutions, for example, “‘therapy as a collective project, not as an individual one.” There are collectives that are already doing this, along with movements for patient-led care, and free or low-cost psychoanalysis. But due to the sheer prevalence of depression and anxiety, these solutions aren’t immediately accessible to everyone. If this is the case, then it’s hard to see how knowledge of these potential practices, or theorizing how the world ought to look, can do much to ameliorate an individual person’s suffering.
Thus we’re left with a theoretical model for the cause of our woes, and theoretical solutions that are available to a tiny fraction of the world. The systemic analysis of mental health has not made people less depressed or anxious, but instead filtered down into our culture and morphed into a kind of self-defeating nihilism, present at every turn on Twitter or TikTok.
Sometimes this manifests as an outright hostility to the idea that we might have any agency over our own wellbeing (“How dare you suggest that spending eight hours a day looking at my phone might be contributing to my unhappiness? I’m depressed because of capitalism!”) or a kind of aggrieved entitlement to be miserable—because we’re living through a literal pandemic, because we’re hurtling towards the apocalypse, because the rent is too damn high. It all adds up to the message that there’s no point in trying to get better because the forces stacked against you are too powerful, and that it’s downright cruel to suggest otherwise.
If we accept the “structural problem” understanding of mental health, and the limited usefulness of “individual solutions,” then where do we go from there? Along with “structural problem” and “individual solution”, one of the defining phrases of the current backlash to liberal mental health politics is “collective action.” This is the answer, the way out. But as with the “structural problem,” it’s easy to call for “collective action” and much harder to specify what this ought to look like or what barriers might be standing in its way.
While there is obviously political work to be done, there isn’t a pre-existing mass movement which people can easily slot into as a solution to their unhappiness (which is especially true following the collapse of both the Corbyn and Sanders movements). Encouraging people to engage in some form of collective action can be solid and practical advice. It doesn’t look like the left is close to seizing power any time soon, if we’re being honest, but that’s not to say action is futile. Even at the most basic self-help level, doing stuff with other people and having a shared sense of purpose is good for you. I’m not an activist or organizer and have no moral authority to hector other people that they should be more politically active. But I’ve done enough to know the difference between doing a little and doing fuck all, and I know which made me feel better.
It’s curious that we’ve fallen into a deep nihilism about our mental health when leftist thinkers have at many times attempted to move us beyond the system vs. individual binary. While Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus isn’t exactly a self-help book, it does offer some ideas on this subject. While they don’t reject psychoanalysis outright (they want to instead transform, “the analytic machine into an indispensable part of the revolutionary machinery”). Like Fisher and Smail they insist upon the structural roots of distress: “We reply that we have never seen a schizophrenic delirium that is not firstly about race, racism, politics, that does not begin in all directions from history, that does not involve culture, that does not speak of continents, kingdoms and so forth.”
Deleuze and Guattari argue there can be a radical potential in re-shifting your own thinking, and that doing so can prefigure political action. As I understand it, they offer a number of tasks which we can pick up to exercise free will under capitalism, perhaps the most relevant of which is, “destroy, destroy…a whole scouring of the unconscious, a complete curettage.” We have to get rid of everything which oppresses us internally, whether God, law, Oedipus or trauma. In order for social change or revolution to happen, we must first shed our old habits; rather than being a site of stasis, the distressed mind becomes a battlefield.
The lessons provided by these thinkers has been lost to history. Today, liberals and the right have cornered the market on offering advice on how to overcome unhappiness and distress. I can’t think of anything more hackneyed than claiming, “we need a Jordan Peterson of the left,” so I won’t—but I think there is a reason Peterson and his book 12 Rules for Life are so popular. If the structural model can afford people too little agency, then the problem with Peterson is the exact opposite. It offers an abundance, a surfeit of agency; it’s the kind of “magical voluntarism” Fisher critiques, taken to an absurd extreme.
Peterson agrees with any of the left-wing writers I’ve mentioned on the point that the world is a difficult place, but the problem isn’t rooted in how society is organized so much as the universal susceptibility to, “despair, disease, aging and death”. Life is hard because, well, that’s just the way it is, and Peterson counsels against trying to change this unfortunate fact. “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies,” he writes. “Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?” He advocates for self-control, self-discipline, and hard work, while recognizing no external obstacles beyond the generic suffering to which every living thing is subject. If your life isn’t how you want it to be, he argues, then it’s entirely your own fault, and a form of moral cowardice to imagine otherwise. It’s an appealing fantasy when your other option is to simply decide that the world is too hard and thus you’re destined to be sad.
There are liberal counterparts to Peterson, best exemplified by British writer Matt Haig whose self-help books have sold millions. The most well-known of these, 2015’s Reasons to Stay Alive, details his own experiences of depression through a series of Instagram-ready aphorisms: “Minds have their own weather systems. You are in a hurricane. Hurricanes run out of energy eventually. Hold on.” Or, “Live. Love. Let go. The three L’s.” Central to Haig’s project is the universality of depression: it’s important to him that everyone, even millionaires and celebrities, is susceptible—despite what you may have thought, you don’t have to be an unemployed loser to get the blues! This may be true, but it ignores the reality that unhappiness is not evenly distributed: global studies have found that mental illness is around twice as common among poor people as it is among the wealthy. Black and minority ethnic communities also face a higher prevalence of mental illness and greater barriers to accessing treatment. Universalizing depression to the extent Haig does ignores these realities. His strident lack of politics can be summed up in a passage which informs the reader that Winston Churchill, the union-busting architect of the Bengal famine, was not an effective wartime Prime Minister not in spite of having depression, but because of it.
Haig and Peterson agree on the fact that the world is a difficult place, and neither are much interested in attempting to change this. What they both offer people is a set of strategies aimed at accepting the world as it is. In contrast to Peterson’s stern asceticism, Haig’s work promotes liberal values: the importance of art, the redemptive power of a bloody good book, the health benefits of taking a city break to Paris. Capitalism does play a role in Haig’s worldview, but mostly as something which tricks us into buying moisturizer, rather than as a system which impoverishes and exploits us. There is no expectation that the state should do anything differently, beyond better funding mental health services. This isn’t an unreasonable demand, of course, but by the time someone has arrived at the point where they require this support, the horse has already bolted. The more pressing question is what changes we can enact to stop so many people from becoming depressed in the first place.
What I think is potentially instructive about Haig and Peterson, and their enormous success, is that they give people a sense of agency, and with this a list of clear commands and instructions. However reactionary and insipid their work, they’re clearly addressing a desire people have to believe that their lives can be made better. I don’t think the left should be in the business of telling people what to do, in a top-down, didactic fashion, but we should have more to say about how to live in the world as it is.
It’s important to think critically about what things people have agency over, and what it would mean to expand the field of individual and collective agency, rather than accepting the Haig/Peterson version (you can change anything) or the nihilistic structural version (you can’t change anything.) If the likes of Haig and Peterson are offering people a form of individual aspiration, what might a more collective version of that look like? There must be a way of recognizing that, yes, the world really is this bad, without excusing ourselves of individual responsibility to change it, and to strive for a fulfilling life.
It can be helpful, I have found, to recognize that you can sometimes exercise a degree of autonomy over your own thoughts and actions, if not always the wider context you inhabit. There is a balance to be struck between acknowledging the truth of an idea like, “capitalism causes mental illness,” without resigning yourself entirely to its implications—specifically, that you won’t get better until the world around you does. The truth is we might be waiting a long time for that to happen. But there are often actions we can take to mitigate the effects of our environment: even in the face of the most brutal exploitation and oppression, people have worked together and changed their circumstances for the better—and, if we’re being honest, plenty of people in the Global North who have bought wholesale into the idea they are victims of neoliberalism are facing rather a lot less than that. Agency is not distributed equally, but that’s not to say normal, non-wealthy people don’t have it, or that you need to be a millionaire to exercise it.
Sometimes I feel an emptiness that I’m reluctant to situate within myself, because the world we live in really is ugly, banal and cruel, and it doesn’t seem entirely disordered to believe that everything good is dying. But it’s still possible to find beauty, find meaning, have fun with your friends, or whatever, even if this all happens in spite of the way that the economy is organized. While the structural model of mental illness is important, and doesn’t inevitably lead to inertia, it’s easy to get carried away with a good idea. We should be wary of letting it become an excuse or a cudgel against our mental wellbeing. There is no moral imperative to be miserable, and nihilistic resignation is the most conservative affect of all.
I really, really, REALLY appreciated this piece, James (and P.E.!). I think this is one of the most frustrating things to me about certain leftist discourse - that it ends up being as unnuanced and empty as some of the terrible thinking on the right. We need to get better at being able to hold various truths in our minds at the same time - which is harder, often, than finding one truth that seems to cover all the bases. Anyway, as a depressed and anxious and traumatized etc. etc. person, I very much appreciate you writing about the issues with looking at mental illness through a structural lens and nothing else.
My main takeaway from this was that, while we as individuals can exert some agency over ourselves, we are most harmed by systemic issues, which we can only address collectively.
Expressing the nihilistic view of it all as "resigning to the belief that we can't get better until the world around us does" really resonated with me. I hope we can instead embrace and advocate for the collapse of these terms of order (thanks Robinson).
Let's counter "you can change anything" and "you can't change anything" with "together, we can change everything". We don't want to fix the world that has been imposed on us. We want the autonomy to create new ones.
I thought of these quotes from Inhabit, Instructions for Autonomy. If you're not familiar, it's a text that draws a lot from Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee.
"We search for the organizational power to repair the world and find only institutions full of weakness and cynicism. Well-meaning activists get digested through the spineless body of conventional politics, leaving depressed militants or mini-politicians."
"Together we have the know-how and the drive to build a better life, a life on our own terms, and it’s up to us to create and inhabit new worlds to replace this one. Our ingenuity, our passion, our determination— we are the hinge on which every future rests."
"Now is the time to exit this untenable way of life."
Thanks for writing and sharing this James. Let's find joy in collapse. -J