Mark Fisher: Linking mental health with capitalism

Philosopher Mark Fisher passed away on 13 January, 2017. He is the author of the book, Capitalist Realism: Is there no Alternative? Many of his ideas are very relevant to us today, especially at a time when mental health is emerging as a major concern.

This is important for a close-knit society like Ladakh in a post-capitalist world where social wellbeing is deteriorating. Unfortunately, this mental health crisis is presented as being the result of individual and personal issues. Over time, the mental health crisis becomes pathological in society as a whole. Ladakhi society mirrors the neoliberal hypocrisy of uncritically embracing technological innovations of late capitalism while forcefully preaching about the transcendental sanctity of antique social institutions. This leads to social paradoxes where we see divine beings with highly materialistic tendencies. At the same time, we also see a section of youth who are expected to become a part of the economic production process but start drifting towards drug abuse and petty crime.

This is worsened by the cynical attitude society fosters by blaming these malaises on the individuals themselves or arguing that this is the result of a karmic connection. This pre-empts any attempt to understand the social malaises in their larger politico-economic context.

Mark Fisher resonates here. He was born on 11 July, 1968 in England and grew up in the east Midlands town of Loughborough with working-class parents. Fisher was a cultural theorist who is physically and socially distant from Ladakh. However, he is very relevant to Ladakh as the region is not very different from post-Thatcher Britain in terms of neoliberal policies being implemented by the Indian state. This is especially relevant in the context of the issues created by the reading down of Article 370 and 35A in 2019 and the lack of constitutional safeguards for Ladakh since. Currently, Ladakh is governed by a bureaucracy, which is only accountable to Government of India, which is overtly neoliberal in its approach with a rightwing nationalistic ideology. Unfortunately, we lack reliable data on unemployment rates and the amount of mental distress that the desperate youth of Ladakh are currently experiencing.

Mark Fisher located the pandemic of mental illness in post-capitalist societies at the centre of political discourse. He writes, “The dominant school of thought in psychiatry locates the origins of mental illness in malfunctioning brain chemistry, which are to be corrected by pharmaceuticals.” It misses the most likely cause of mental illness, which is probably the result of social power and various forms of disempowerment. For instance, a person with depression tends to have low serotonin levels, which is generally managed by medication. It misses the point that larger pathological conditions underpinning the malfunctioning of brain chemistry is also caused by the advancement of neoliberalism since the late 1970s. Fisher speaks about the disinterested hedonism of late capitalism to argue that has impersonalised malaises along with the privatisation of mental health. In this context, mental health is regarded as a problem that is to be corrected by the pharmaceutical industry and therapy alone. Furthermore, it roots mental distress in the individual’s immediate surroundings rather than social structures that impact brain chemistry.

Neoliberalism has unleashed powerful corporate forces that have redefined our imagination of the world. We no longer see things for what they actually are with their intrinsic natural qualities. In a neoliberal context, everything is a commodity with a monetary value. Furthermore, 10% of the wealthiest own 70% and 57% of the total wealth in America and India respectively, which are two of the world’s most unequal countries. This is a world where demoralised people are numbed through regular doses of dopamine released by the use of capitalistic technologies such as social-media, which foster the neoliberal agenda. We are now witnessing educated unemployed youth striving to become social media influencers and developing content to garner hits and followers despite the challenges in gathering an audience beyond one’s localised area of influence. This, collective consciousness is easily exhausted in the narcissistic channels of social media, which preempts the possibility of creating social solidarity to foster alternative visions. Intermittently people gather to register dissent, which they share through the same neoliberal media that exhausted their sense of solidarity in the first place.

I am tempted to draw parallels with Fisher’s struggles with episodes of depression throughout his life. As I read his writing, I reflect on how we present Ladakhi society as expressions of peace and beauty does it more harm than good. On the other hand, there is no dearth of apologists for our feudal culture and history. Neither of these two projections tackles the institutions of class and caste that produces the pathologies of mental distress in contemporary times.

Fisher writes that the pandemic of depression is the result of class structures that emerged in British society after the industrial revolution and the two world wars in the 20th Century. It fuels a sense of worthlessness with constant reminders of your class position in society through everyday social interactions. In many cases, these ideas become internalised to the extent that they become a part of the collective conscious of the lower classes. According to Fisher, depression is “a sneering inner voice which accuses you of self-indulgence” and at the same time reminds you of your worthlessness when you pull yourself together and try doing something of ‘worth’. Furthermore, he describes how when someone from the lower classes “moves out of the social sphere they are ‘supposed’ to occupy” then they are in danger of being overcome by feelings of vertigo, panic and horror.” Members of the subordinate classes are encouraged to feel that they have no right to be in that place. They are made to feel that they are nothing and worthless. At the same time, the dominant ideology of contemporary capitalist societies continues to sell the neoliberal dream with arguments such as “it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be.” We see reality TV ‘experts’, business gurus and politicians making such claims and suppressing class consciousness that would otherwise be detrimental to the neoliberal project. Fisher writes, “A particularly vicious double bind is imposed on the long-term unemployed: A population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.”

This ideology of neoliberalism is revealed through public confessions by prominent politicians who argue, “It is not in the government’s capacity to provide enough employment opportunities and the youths must shift their focus to entrepreneurship.” These unemployed youth have spent a better part of their lives acquiring education in the hope of gaining meaningful employment at some point, only to then be told that their education is worthless and that they erred by not pursuing entrepreneurship. It ignores the fact that entrepreneurship is not for everyone as it requires specific social skills and it would also not be feasible for everyone. The neoliberal project of selling entrepreneurial dreams in Ladakh is fueled by prospects of capital accumulation through unregulated tourism in the region.

We no longer have a sense of shared realities and public spaces are shrinking rapidly. In its place, people are constantly rushing to possess the latest technologies of capitalism. When a neighbour buys a car, there is pressure on others to buy one too. When someone acquires a specific model of a car or phone, others feel compelled to buy the same model or one that is even more expensive. In this respect, Ladakh is no different from America, which remains a bastion of capitalism. In both places, we see cars selling quickly even as public transport systems continue to deteriorate. Class structures are entrenched too and collective consciousness is eroding rapidly. It is important that we take critical insights of thinkers like Mark Fisher to address the mental health crisis that we are currently experiencing in Ladakh.

By Stanzin Loldan

Stanzin Loldan writes on politics and culture.