Let me preface this by saying I am very likely to have misinterpreted the work I will be analyzing below, so, with that minor caveat let me proceed:
Mark Fisher wrote a book in 2009 called “Capitalist Realism.” In it he posits, among other very interesting hypotheses, that rising levels of mental illness (he notes a marked increase since the 1970s, the traditional point noted as the rise of neoliberal hegemony) are caused by neoliberal market ideology. The idea that the market has a cure for everything is the hallmark of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism thinks that the best state for us all to be in is constant competition, where losing means you are bereft of capital in a state that has rejected the social safety net. In other words, the losers in a neoliberal system die. There is no other way of stating it plainly. It makes perfect sense then that the people forced to compete in a neoliberal system—the proletariat—are developing mental illnesses, at a rapid pace.
I have no background in mental health (other than being a frequent visitor of psychiatrists’ offices) but it is my understanding that some people are more predisposed to mental illness than others. There is no universal rate of susceptibility to mental illness: it differs from person to person. Some mental illnesses are unavoidable. Others, however, are caused by external events and stimuli. So someone who might be very predisposed to mental illness might not develop one because of life circumstances whereas someone with next to no predisposition towards mental illness might develop one for the same reasons.
What you have, then, is an economic system that seems purpose-built (put everyone in a life-or-death struggle with everyone else, meaning no one can be trusted or relied on, even when it’s needed most, and make everyone work all the time to survive so there’s no time to relax) to create mental illnesses. Now, Fisher doesn’t cite any authority definitively linking the rise in rates of mental illness to the rise of neoliberalism. However, it seems too logical to ignore, given the assumptions above.
Fisher also notes students (young people) are basically tuning out of the real world and engrossing themselves in media and sugary foods. He relates stories of his students who, despite being otherwise very intelligent, are basically searching for constant pleasure and who can’t be bothered to read more than a few sentences. They complain of boredom if forced to do so. Any removal from their constant connection to an opportunity for pleasure gets a growling response.
It seems, then, that there are two common responses to the rise of neoliberal ideology: attempt to grapple with reality as it actually exists and become mentally ill. Or, disconnect entirely and maintain your sanity at the cost of utter ignorance.
Fisher brings up the Lacanian concept of the Real: the idea that behind the reality we have constructed for ourselves that we “perceive” on an every day basis, lies the Real: the way things really are—but Fisher doesn’t connect the Real to withdrawal from society.
It seems to me that those people who attempt to accept reality are attempting to grapple with the Real and the result is profound mental suffering upon “seeing” it. Of course, to Fisher (and, to me) this is because the Real—a horrific neoliberal meat grinder—is so plainly awful and inhuman that to really accept that the world is so constituted is to do massive damage to the psyche.
(Another thing Fisher brings up is the Big Other: the collective fiction that everyone agrees upon in any given field. For economics, its that neoliberalism is the only game in town and everything is is untenable. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see it’s a big bag of shit. But there are the politicians, peddling austerity to us and all we do is go, “well, OK.” However, the Big Other can never be acknowledged, or the whole charade is over. Fisher cites the example of Gerald Ratner who, at a conference, told the audience [truthfully] that his jewelry was cheap because it was crap. Everyone knew it was cheap because it was crap. There’s no other way to make it cheap. It’s obvious. But no one admitted it, they just played along. Until Gerald Ratner drew back the curtain and ruined the mutual delusion. And Ratners Jewelers lost 500 million pounds of value almost instantly and nearly bankrupted the company.
I think this is why the Democratic party hates Bernie Sanders, and to a much lesser degree why the Republicans do as well. Because he has, in his own way, thrown off the mass delusion that Capitalism is the only game in town and showed everyone that emancipation from wage slavery is indeed possible. He’s made it clear that their game of three-card monte is rigged and they’re all fleecing us. And they’re looking at the future that Bernie and leftists want and they see a world without them in power and they don’t much care for it. But I digress.)
Although perhaps the damage is not done by realizing what is really there. Perhaps the damage is done by realizing that those of us without capital are powerless to change it. This, it seems to me, is why almost everyone who attends an organizing meeting of a society dedicated to the liberation of the proletariat and humanity from the control of Capitalist domination describes it as profoundly psychologically healing. Having been to exactly one of these meetings I would have to agree with that generalized statement.
I don’t think most people disconnect from the Real and withdraw to “reality” consciously. I don’t think most people say to themselves, “Well this is just awful. I can’t quite bear this. I’m going to put on my headphones and eat candy and ignore the hideous beast in front of me.” It is probably subconscious.
The powerlessness in the face of accumulated capital and the capitalists who control it is a very disturbing experience. The apathy and nihilism that result from it are terribly damaging. Knowing the world is dysfunctional (and people die because of it) and then knowing that this is the way it has to be, because the people who are actually in charge say that it has to be this way, is a profoundly demoralizing experience. The feeling, the knowing, of powerlessness cannot but destroy a person.
The millennial habit of being engrossed in oneself, that so massively maligned “trait” we all have, is perhaps then nothing more than an attempt to claw back a modicum of power in the only place that the neoliberal machine has not yet conquered: our inner lives, the experience of our senses. The people who usually bitch about this—and Fisher simply states it as a fact, without casting aspersions—are the people who grew up in a system where they still had personal power available to them. They took it and as a result they got rich and now they still have power: power over others, power over their outward selves in their freedom to do what they want for a living. They resent that their power is being rebelled against in the last way that it can be.
If you believe what I’m saying, how can you blame millennials—people who have lived their entire lives under the specter of neoliberalism, who have grown up seeing what they’ll have to do once they’re actual adults—for trying so hard to hold on to their youthful irresponsibility? It’s either that or go completely insane. Anyway I have to go take my Lexapro now.