Thursday, March 10, 2011

Marxism and Mental Illness (part 1, probably)

Salutations, New Mad Nation.

Back on time, finally! With sadly very little to inspire me. But I must post, for it is a challenge I have set myself to keep my academic and revolutionary gears turning, and to ensure that my body of work continues to expand and self-refine. So with some reflection I turn to a more philosophical rant I've been incubating for over a year now. Without further ado:

Marxism and Mental Illness (part 1, probably):

Marx once said that religion is the opiate of the masses. I have mixed feelings about that sentiment, but I fully agree with his suggestion that concepts such as religion are utilized by more "dominant" classes and institutions to quell the sense of rebellion in the oppressed. Psychiatry is now a more relevant example of this practice. While religion is still used for the purpose of quelling insurrection, (to this day, there are many who refuse to engage in the politics of this world because they practice a form of material apathy, or even because they believe that the apocalypse is right around the corner!), it can also be used to incite it (for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

Psychiatry can never incite rebellion because it is designed to inhibit the formation of community. People in psych wards and support groups are discouraged from ever contacting one another on the outside, and while in some respects this can be beneficial (keeps the few who are actually "dangerous" from their predations), it also is extremely limiting. People can not form a sense of community around their identity of "mentally ill" because it is an identity forged from the need to "no-longer-be-this." Even without the MI label, the identity of "distressed" in any way is generally viewed as also "dysfunctional" and to be avoided at all costs. This is because of the psychiatric model of evaluation, diagnosis, treatment, that does not allow for the validity of continued distress in response to continued environmental cause.

I want to say that the new opiates of the masses are paxil, lexapro, welbutrin, and zoloft, but this explanation is too pedestrian. The drugs themselves are not inherently the problem. In some cases, it can even be said that these drugs are extremely helpful in bracing an individual to face their situation. The real opiate here is Psychiatry itself, which encourages us not to look at behavior as a valid response to distress, but an invalidating condition that is to be diagnosed and contained. Just like the religion of old, Psychiatry makes the laboring lower emotional classes turn away from the oppression they face from the emotionally privileged, seeking refuge instead in the mostly empty promises of salvation offered by your local P-doc. Obsessed with the concerns of making our emotional and mental state square with the rigor of Psychiatry, we become blind to the circumstances that have engendered this need for some kind of comfort.

Of course, as with religion in an early Leninist approach, I will not say the psychiatry is 100% without its place. There are some for whom medicine is important, or even necessary, at least according to some experiments and testimonials. Perhaps, as with standard religion, there are circumstances where non-social help is required to aid with pain of the soul. But it should never be the case that these things - Religion, Psychiatry or otherwise - are elevated to the status that they obscure our vision of the oppression that faces the emotional proletariat. They should be, as Lenin said, a private matter.

In my opinion, in the public eye, psychiatry has no more place for determining social motion than religion.

Let me elaborate on the concept of the emotional proletariat. Marxism 101 teaches us that there are 3 basic classes in any economical system: the worker class, or proletariat, who own little to nothing and make a living by working for someone above them; the artisans/merchants/shopkeeps/etc. or bourgeoisie, who control some significant aspect of the means of production (i.e. land, facilities, resources, etc.); and the ruling class, who create the sociopolitical and economic structures that largely determine the action of the classes below them. In a typical example, one might say that a farmhand is proletariat, the farm owner is bourgeoisie, and the government that determines the taxes, levies, and other laws concerning the production of produce (or the landed gentry who have paid off the government in question) are the ruling class. It is my belief that this model, while a tad overly simplistic perhaps (these days theorists tend to view class relations as somewhat more fluid than this), is a useful basis for understanding the way that emotional health and value is produced in our society.

Instead of produce, let us consider the concept of health and stability. An emotional proletariat would be the group of people who have no agency to produce health and stability on their own, and to do so must work for the emotional bourgeoisie, who control the means of production of health and stability. The ways in which the bourgeoisie are allowed/encouraged to do so are determined by the people "in charge" of health and stability, which in my example would be the Psychiatric Institute.
The lynchpin of this analogy is the language of "mental illness." In my model, "mental illness" stands in place of the taxes, levies and laws concerning produce. "Mental illness" is the way in which we, as a society, create meaning about health and stability. Those who have "mental illness" are not healthy, those who do not have it are. If we consider the perception of "health" to be a form of social capital, everything starts to fall into place. You see, those who are "mentally ill" are the proletariat. Those who are not, but subscribe to a belief in its validity, are the bourgeoisie. And Psychiatry is the landed gentry that determines that this shall be the order of things.
People conclude they are healthy because they aren't MI. In other words, those who have been diagnosed as MI are laboring with their symptoms, their struggles with Psychiatry, in order to produce the feeling of health and safety for their non-MI counterparts. This relates to the idea I discussed a post or two ago, about how the language of MI allows people to not examine their own unhealthy behaviors. The only unhealthy behaviors that seem to merit attention are the ones labeled as MI. This is believed because of psychiatry's omnipresence.

My fellow citizens of the New Mad Nation, WE ARE BEING EXPOITED. Our suffering makes others feel better by comparison - ever hear of Schadenfreude? - without them having to examine their own emotional and cognitive failures. While we struggle to eke out an existence according to the terms defined for us by the upper emotional classes, they can sit happy and contended in the belief that they are healthy and we are sick. They claim they are trying to help us, but all they are really trying to do (unless they've taken my crash course in care or something similar) is continue to enforce the existence of an emotional proletariat by creating a system where both Psychiatry and MI/non-MI stratification is absolutely "necessary" for the health of the people.

Historically, communism doesn't work. That's not necessarily what I'm advocating here - though the idea of a society where health is a value determined communally, and not by some gentrified edict, certainly has its appeal! But I do believe we live in a society of emotional classes where many, if not all, of the "mentally ill" are being exploitatively categorized for the sake of creating a false standard of what "healthy" is - a standard which, not coincidentally, is totally in line with the status quo. In short, psychiatry is the ultimate counter-revolutionary institute.

By the way, those of us who believe we possess the means to determine health for ourselves (virtual bourgeoisie), but who wish to do so beyond the limits set by Psychiatry, are outcast. Not fitting into the system, we are Mad. And sadly, so overarching are those limits, we often end up forced into a proletarian role, as our Madness serves the same function as most MI - making the non-MI feel "healthy" by comparison. Especially if our Madness stems from a non-functioning MI diagnosis to begin with, as it often does. One who suffers emotionally for any reason must eventually end up in one of these categories with society structured in its current manner. They will either "get over it" and remain bourgeoisie, "healthy by comparison,"; they will descend deeper and become the proletarian "mentally ill;" or they will reject, be Mad, and either get completely ostracized or reintegrated as another form of proletarian "other."

This is revolutionary, ground breaking theory. I'm still hammering out the details and honestly, if/when I go to grad school, I plan to focus my studies on developing some form or another of this theory. So...just something to keep in mind.

As to what to do about this? Well, a proletarian revolution wouldn't accomplish much, since we seem to be the minority for now. Perhaps it begins with convincing the majority of the bourgeoisie that this system of production fails; as a result, Psychiatry would eventually have to redefine its own approach in order to retain legitimacy, and maybe this otherizing MI approach will finally be cast aside. Stigma will slowly fade and people will start exploring their emotional and mental weaknesses and strengths with a strong and critical eye, turned towards their needs and fears, as a normal and encouraged part of social growth; those fears will be listened to and communities will evolve to meet everyone's needs, rather than shouting down the MI concerns as "other" and irrelevant; maybe we'll all be good to each other by the end.

Aren't dreams pretty?

Thanks for dreaming with me. To the New Mad Nation, I bid my fondest salutations.



  1. This is such an interesting post.

  2. I love the analogy you have drawn, and I have to say you are on point with most, if not all, of your arguments. Bravo!