This month, the writer and theorist Mark Fisher passed away. Fisher was best known for his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, an eighty-page theoretical manifesto confronting the crucial ideological impasse of our day: a paralysis of political ontology that cannot elaborate a coherent rival to neoliberal capitalism. Fisher tackled the problem head-on, emphasizing the fact that the left has not only failed to realize an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, but that it has lost the ability to imagine one. “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable,” wrote Fisher.
Mark Fisher should be remembered for making the politics of neoliberalism personal. Fisher drew a direct connection between mental health and the regulating function of capitalist ideology. The so-called realism to which he refers “is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.”
Fisher’s theoretical work is potent because it carries the urgency of the familiar. Ask virtually anyone; late capitalism entails a universal malaise, a shared depression and fear, above all, of the agony of dashed expectations. Our social values are drawn from a landfill of smothered hope. Looking out at the world, malcontents of both right and left persuasion are beset by the painful awareness that something is deeply wrong here, that there must be more to life than this, and that the quickest way to render life unbearable is to think about it. The unifying philosophy of late capitalism is passive despair. The best we can do is horde anesthetic, numbing ourselves with empty consumption, feeble careerism, and intermittent chemical intoxication.
To address basic realities of late capitalism is excruciating. The mind-boggling disparities in wealth, the outrageously inefficient allocation of resources, the exploitation of global multitudes of slave-like factory workers, racialized police violence, environmental catastrophe, disastrous attitudes towards education, Kafkaesque bureaucracy; one cannot fathom it for even a moment, let alone question it.
“This strategy—of accepting the incommensurable and the senseless without question—has always been the exemplary technique of sanity as such, but it has a special role to play in late capitalism…whose dreaming up and junking of social fictions is nearly as rapid as its production and disposal of commodities.”
Fisher noted that major thinkers on the left have previously investigated the relationship between mental illness and capitalism, in landmark texts like Foucault’s Madness and Civilization and Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia. But these thinkers focused on psychosis, while Fisher thought we needed “a politicization of much more common disorders.” Fisher encouraged us to see the connection between the dehumanizing machinations of capitalism and quotidian mental ailments like depression, social anxiety, narcissism, hyperactivity, chronic fatigue and insomnia.
Practically everybody I know complains of at least one of these things, and every single one of them views it as an intimate, highly individualized problem, with causes completely unique to them. Often, we’re too timid or too ashamed to bring up our emotional problems, privately remarking to ourselves, “this is my cross to bear” or “I guess I’m just different.”
But what if your emotional problems weren’t merely your own? What if they were our problems? Instead of treating standard-issue mental distress as a natural biological condition, Fisher proposed, “we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?” What if the real problem is that we’re living in wrong society? Perhaps Theodor Adorno was correct when he said, “wrong life cannot be lived rightly.”
Fisher’s position should not be confused with a different form of counter-narrative popular today, which arises from a reactionary social critique of an apparent oversensitivity pervasive among the highly-educated millennial bourgeoisie (see, e.g. objections to trigger warnings, Generation Snowflake, outrage culture, sanctified victimhood, etc.). These social critics, such as Bret Easton Ellis, are too callous in their censure, and too quick to dismiss real human suffering as empty crybabyism. But they’re onto something too. We should pay special attention to the cultural anguish reflected in pop culture and the cloud of indignation hanging above social discourse today. These feelings are real and should be taken seriously, but we should follow Fisher in questioning the structural etiology of this psychic contagion. Why is such widespread pain the norm?
Relying on the work of psychologist Oliver James, Fisher noted a striking correlation between the rise of industrial capitalism circa 1750 and the growing normalization of mental distress. As capitalism became the norm, so did unhappiness. Daily misery is normal, because misery is what the system asks of you. Lifetimes spent in therapy, disastrous personal relationships, generations of hardening hearts, and private hells of hedonic narcissism: this is the price we pay for sustaining the impossible demands of capital.
Politicization raises the question of root causes. “The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization,” wrote Fisher. Capitalism no longer hides the affective disorders it creates; rather, capitalism simply incorporates them. In 2014, the prescription antidepressant market was a $14.5 billion industry. By 2020, that number is projected to reach $16 billion. This industry thrives on the medicalized, objectified human subject because that view of human nature fragments social consciousness and typifies the problem as one with a market-based solution: pharmaceutical innovation for profit. The left should openly question the motives of a pharmaceutical industry increasingly characterized by securitization and financialism, and encourage society to rethink the rigidly medicalized disease model that atomizes and privatizes the invisible, ubiquitous problem of late capitalist misery. As Fisher says, “the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.”
To be sure, we court controversy with some of these points. Critiquing capitalism shades into a critique of the pharmaceutical industry, which slips into a critique of mainstream science, and suddenly one sounds like an anti-vaxxer. But the point is not to indict, as Foucault did, the entire field of diagnostic psychiatry. Rather, the idea is to consider that many forms of depression and anxiety might not be diseases with symptoms, but symptoms themselves—symptoms of a wider social disease called neoliberal capitalism. If chronic mental distress is the taboo byproduct of neoliberal economics, then it cannot be solved with neoliberal economics. Bourgeois unhappiness should be resituated as a socio-political problem with a socio-political solution.
In the wake of Trump’s election and similar far-right victories across Europe, Jürgen Habermas said, “Before reacting purely tactically, the puzzle has to be solved as to how it came about that right-wing populism stole the Left’s own themes.” Whatever truths voters thought they saw in Trump’s lies—specifically those stemming from economic precarity—the American left needs to find them. In this connection, a reorganized American left can learn a lot from the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s.
In precisely the same manner suggested by Fisher, second-wave feminism began by recharacterizing personal problems as social ones. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote, “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American Women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered…she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—‘Is this all?’” Friedan called it the Problem That Has No Name, and it was the key to sparking feminist political consciousness in the 1960s. Previously, the Problem had been a lonely one, borne by quiet women individually and characterized as treatable with psychiatry and psychoanalysis. But it wasn’t. It was treatable with social change.
Friedan’s insight was taken up in a famous essay by Carol Hanisch, which gave the American feminist movement one of its foundational political concepts: “The Personal is Political.” Just like Fisher, Hanisch insisted that traditional psychotherapy was not the solution to women’s angst. “Therapy assumes that someone is sick and that there is a cure, e.g., a personal solution…Therapy is adjusting to your bad personal alternative.” Rather than seeking a personal cure in individual therapy, radical feminists believed in publicly addressing the intimate details of gendered misery, for purposes of establishing collective feminine consciousness and solidarity.
“Can you imagine what would happen if women, blacks, and workers would-stop blaming ourselves for our sad situations?” Hanisch asked. In the contemporary misery of late capitalism, we might ask the same thing. Since the financial crisis in 2008, and especially with the ongoing trauma of a Trump presidency, the left has a new opportunity to repurpose everyday misery into a reason for a new political consciousness. The traditionally Marxian vocabulary of historical materialism, solidarity, and class antagonism has been unintelligible to our political language for a long time. Fisher noted, “One of the left’s vices is its endless rehearsal of historical debates…rather than planning and organizing a future that it really believes in.” By making neoliberal capitalism the new Problem That Has No Name, the left can renew stale Marxian political vocabulary and make it understandable to everyday people who want one thing: the feeling that it’s possible to live life rightly.
“You don’t hate Mondays,” reads a popular meme. “You hate capitalism.” Although it sounds superficial, a slogan like this—one that universalizes capitalism itself, and not the individual’s problematic relationship to it, as the problem—should be the left’s new mantra. Today, it’s no longer enough that we take capitalism seriously. We need to start taking it personally.
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