Letter: More than sympathetic listening

Submitted by cathy n on 24 November, 2017 - 9:33 Author: Todd Hamer

It is right that Daisy Thomas highlights the mental health epidemic sweeping through the advanced capitalist world, especially among young people (Solidarity 452).

It is also good that she highlights possible social causes for this epidemic and suggests a role for smart phones and social media.

However, I think it is important to note Marxists are not technological determinists. We do not think Facebook causes anxiety any more than we think heroin causes heroin addiction. It is our psychologically toxic world, not the communications technologies we use, that cause such harm. 

Perhaps a more fruitful place to search for social causes is the research that Oliver James has publicised in The Selfish Capitalist. James shows that levels of mental illness are much higher in the Anglophone countries that embraced neoliberalism (what he calls “selfish capitalism”) than among countries on mainland Europe than retained some elements of social democracy (“unselfish capitalism”). He points to other research that shows individuals who embrace the neoliberal values, prioritising the pursuit of wealth, fame and beauty, are more likely to be depressed and anxious.

Another, but complementary, perspective was developed by Marxist psychotherapist Erich Fromm in his work The Sane Society. Fromm presents a positive vision of what a sane individual and a sane society might look like. In a section on alienation he rails against “push-button power-feeling: you do nothing, you don’t have to know anything, everything is done for you; all you have to do is push the button”. Fromm was working in the 1950s when these kinds of consumer products were still novelties. Now they are ubiquitous and we are a society of addicts.

It’s an idea developed in more recent times in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Fisher characterised many of the students he taught as being in a state of “depressive hedonia”: “Depression is usually characterised as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I am referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything except pursue pleasure... [Students I teach] typically respond to [their] freedom not by pursuing projects but by falling into hedonic (or anhedonic) lassitude: the soft narcosis, the comfort food oblivion of Playstation, all-night TV and marijuana.”

Lastly, Daisy recommends that the mental health crisis might be helped by people talking more, and this is certainly a perspective promoted widely by mental health charities. While nobody should be alone with their despair, Fromm argues that talking in itself is part of the problem.

“Your thoughts, so long as you keep them to yourself, may disturb you — but something fruitful may come out of that disturbance; you mull them over, you think, you feel, you may arrive at a new thought born out of this travail. But when you talk right away, when you do not let your thoughts and feelings build up pressure, as it were, they do not become fruitful.

“It is exactly the same with unobstructed consumption. You are a system in which things go in and out continuously — and within is nothing, no tension, no digestion, no self. Freud’s discovery of free association had the aim of finding out what went on in you underneath the surface, of discovering who you really were; the modern talking to the sympathetic listener has the opposite, though unavowed aim; its function is to make man [sic] forget who he is (provided he still has some memory), to lose all tension, and with it all sense of self.”
Part of the problem we face with the current mental health epidemic is not just that services are overburdened, but that more often than not, they offer little more than tranquilising drugs and a “sympathetic listener”, all delivered with the overbearing pressure of ATOS and benefit sanctions for those who recover. 

As a professional “sympathetic listener” who feels helpless in the face of this epidemic, I hope the growing socialist movement can play a role countering the dominant culture and assert a sane Marxist praxis based on solidarity, critical thought, and meaningful travail to change the world. 

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.