Edenfield: Mental health in crisis

Ian Parker reports on what has been revealed in the modern-day asylums

A protest bringing together around fifty people at very short notice took place outside Manchester Central Library on Thursday 29 September. This was following an undercover BBC investigation that revealed abuse inside the Edenfield Centre in north Manchester. This was widely reported in the local press and nationally. The undercover reporter was employed as a healthcare support worker, and covertly filmed patients being restrained, sworn at, humiliated and placed in seclusion.

Protest

There were banners from Unison and from the Manchester Users Network, from which Alan Hartman and Paul Reed spoke at the protest. The Tory MP Christian Wakeford (who jumped ship to join Labour after being elected) whose constituency includes Edenfield, also spoke, calling for a public inquiry.

The Manchester Central Library protest was organised by CHARM (Communities for Holistic Accessible Rights-based Mental health). CHARM was set up precisely to combat the attempts to condense mental health care in Manchester in a massive new facility in the north of the city. Park House Hospital in Crumpsall will not only imprison patients in a new unit which is cut off from the local community, but ‘treat’ patients from across Manchester.

With the push to outsourcing and competitive tendering that was ramped up by a Labour government, that also means that Park House will be competing to offer its services to other parts of the country. And so, patients will be wrenched away from their own communities and families, who will have, in many cases, to travel long distances to visit them.

Speakers from CHARM included Paul Baker, a long-standing activist in radical mental health politics, and Anandi Ramamurthy, an activist whose daughter is in one of the north Manchester institutions. There were workers from mental health services in Manchester who were wary about speaking at the protest, but were there in solidarity. They spoke privately to members of the crowd about receiving emails from Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust to employees after the story broke. Emails first referred to ‘alleged abuse’ – and this is after the video evidence was shared widely on social media – and then employees were told to refer any press inquiries to managers.

Privatisation

This is the disaster of privatisation and containment in large central units that destroys the best hopes of community care in mental health. It is part of the package of top-down unaccountable health care that leads to the kind of abuses that have occurred at Edenfield. The BBC undercover investigation shows a little of what is going on, but there needs to be a response that puts the blame not only on hard-pressed staff who are inducted into a regime of abuse that takes short-cuts, but on the kind of neoliberal austerity capitalism that sets the managerial rules that lead to this abuse. The short-cuts are made for financial reasons, and cuts to services are now at the heart of capitalism.

This is a protest that raises broader issues about the nature of this wretched economic system that makes us sick and then punishes us further when we have broken under the strain. Actively supporting the CHARM protest, and present at the Central Library were supporters of Asylum Magazine for radical mental health, a collective of activists inside and outside the mental health system that have exposed such abuses over many years. Supporters of the Red Clinic also participated before their own public meeting later that evening. This is a struggle for mental health that must, of necessity, also be anti-capitalist.

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Communists in the Clinic

Ian Parker reports on the progress of the Red Clinic and the role of communism for its workers and supporters

We all know well the toll that capitalism takes on our lives, and the physical and mental strain that exploitation and oppression involves. Distress intensifies in times of austerity, with isolation of people from each other giving new actual and virtual twists on alienation at work, and for those excluded from the workplace. Capitalism is bad for your mental health.

Whether or not everything would be hunky-dory when we have overthrown capitalism is a moot point, and anyway we cannot wait, so what should communists involved in the field of mental health do now, and how should they think about their role and aims? One answer has just been given by Dorotea Pospihalj of the Red Clinic, an avowedly internationalist collective of therapists committed to providing accessible treatment who define themselves as communist.

Free associations

This recent thought-through answer in the online paper For a Communist Clinic is conceptualised using specific theoretical resources; it is psychoanalytic, which not all radical mental health practice is nor should be, and Dorotea’s paper is aligned with the work of the old Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou. For Badiou, the ‘communist hypothesis’ is about an always open possibility that we enact through a range of events that will include the domains of politics, of course, and science, art and love, the last of which frames much clinical work whether it is psychoanalytic or not.

This does not mean that communists in the clinic attempt to indoctrinate, nor even subtly suggest that their patients become communists, but there are aspects of the ‘free association’ that is possible in the clinic that chimes with the kind of ‘free association’ that we struggle for in the field of political economy. As Dorotea Pospihalj points out, there are psychoanalysts of the right as well as of the left, and she draws on her own experiences of political activism in Slovenia – she is based in Ljubljana – to show how some bizarre political choices can be made by therapists who think they are ‘radical’.

There is a sometimes jokey recent webcast with Dorotea, who stood as a candidate for the ecosocialist Left party in recent elections in Slovenia, available on the Psy-Fi Psychology and Theory show, and another Psy-Fi episode is about similar initiatives in Brazil with Christian Dunker and myself; we can see here how important an internationalist perspective and organisation is to the Red Clinic, and to anything that pretends to be ‘communist’ in clinical work. We not only learn from each other’s quite different experiences as we talk and act in solidarity with each other, but we are able to break out of the national peculiarities and limits of our own national traditions. We need to break out of those limits in our therapeutic work and in our conceptualisation of what it is we are doing.

The politics of truth

What underscores communism in the clinic in conditions of capitalism – and who can say whether this kind of clinic will actually be necessary under communism – is a politics of truth combined with theoretical reflection. This argument, again drawing on the work of Alain Badiou, is something that is actually familiar to revolutionaries outside the clinic; we bring our analytic understanding of the nature of capitalism to bear on our politics and we know that we must speak the truth to power. We are beset by lies in this society, and our political activity is grounded in truth; speaking truth to others and speaking truth to ourselves about what we are doing.

The Red Clinic is one of the sites for taking this work forward, but not the only site. Meetings about the Red Clinic have grappled with the role of particular models of therapy and our relation with treatment that is already available on the National Health Service. The NHS is a valuable resource, and anticipates in its form – free medical support at point of treatment for all – what we would hope for under communism. It is not for nothing that rabid right-wingers hate the NHS and want to privatise it, destroy it.

While we fight to defend the NHS we also mobilise to extend what is good about those services, increase participation of service users and make the treatment something that is empowering rather than demobilising, something that embeds support in social networks instead of increasing the isolation of people who are simply doled out antidepressants because that is cheaper and quicker. Here we need to link with other radical initiatives like the Free Psychotherapy Network and the recently formed campaign for universal access to counselling and psychotherapy.

Local and global

These initiatives need to be local as well as international. In Manchester, for example, the CHARM network that was set up to challenge attempts to concentrate mental health care in a large hospital in north Manchester has also been extending its links with activists and users of services to address questions of racism. The Red Clinic has been devoting energies to the struggle against racism and apartheid, with its practitioners supporting a group of clinicians in Palestine, and hosted an online discussion of work on ‘Mental Health in Palestine: Resisting Settler Colonial Partition’.

Communism is an opening to another world beyond capitalism, something that needs to be built now, and we know well from radical mental health initiatives around the world, whether that is in England and Wales or work in indigenous communities in Amazonia, that working class self-activity needs to be intimately linked with struggles against racism and sexism and other forms of oppression. The work in Brazil reflects on the process of listening as the core of progressive work, not immediately obviously communist, nor necessarily psychoanalytic, but congruent with what it is to be a communist in political activity.

For a communist clinic

There is a long history of radical therapy that has known, in its heart, that the capitalist system must be overthrown before the crisis in mental health services can really be resolved. The reflections on communism in the clinic pick up the threads of those debates. Meantime, we need to defend what services we have and build better ones, the kind of services that are democratic and open, and that facilitate the kind of free association that enables people to fight for communism.

You can read this article and comment on it here

Dystopian Science Fiction: Bodies of Ideology   

Ian Parker enjoyed Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem trilogy and wonders why.

Liu Cixin, a darling of the Chinese state whose books are heavily promoted and very popular, may be surprised to hear that his ‘Three Body-Problem’ trilogy, which is named after the first book but which is formally correctly known by the very indicative title ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past’, is going to be turned into a Netflix series.

This is not going to be easy because Liu Cixin writes in the genre of ‘hard sci-fi’, that is, the kind of science fiction writing that is not so much concerned with soft social and moral problems that the Star Trek franchise tinkered with but with technological mind-blowing stuff that makes the human species look very small, very insignificant. There is, nonetheless, plenty of social and political stuff woven into the trilogy, and some potent ideological motifs at work, the kind of stuff that makes this work chime with the agenda of the state.

First thing to notice about the ‘remembrance of the past’ claim is that the first book in the trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, does not dig very far into the past at all; mainly dwelling on the brutal treatment of near relatives of key characters during the Cultural Revolution, something that is very obviously portrayed as a bad thing. An astrophysicist is beaten to death during a ‘struggle session’. Brutal and manipulative the Cultural Revolution may have been, but that, for Liu Cixin, is not the main problem with it because, as he makes clear in the next two books, a measure of brutality – and the number of deaths as we go through the trilogy is truly mind-boggling – is necessary, even valuable for technological and social advance.

Order

The main problem with the Cultural Revolution as seen in the first book is that it is chaotic and random, and here a first lesson of dystopian science fiction of this kind is spelt out in gruesome detail; order is bad but inevitable, but disorder is worst, and you need to report any instances of it to the authorities.

In fact, the ‘three-body problem’ is precisely itself about disorder, about the instability of a ‘three-body’ star system in which three solar-bodies are orbiting each other and producing extremes of heat and cold. The question that needs to be faced by humanity is how they should respond when, on a very long but ineluctable time-scale, ships seem to be coming on invasion-course from that unstable star system towards our own, towards earth. By earth here, read China, and China and Chinese protagonists are at centre stage through the three books. This rebalances, in a progressive way, the usual assumption in Sci-Fi writing that the Western world is the technological advanced centre of our planet and representatives from other cultures should merely come onto the stage as bit parts (think Chekov and Sulu).

Suspicion

The second book in the series, The Dark Forest, deepens the China-centric focus on earthly progress when under threat, with a repetitive meditation on what the consequences might be of sending a message out from this planet to other possible civilizations. The premise of the ‘dark forest’ hypothesis is that the universe, like a forest, is an irredeemably hostile place. While it is tempting to imagine that other forms of life in far-away star systems are necessarily more technologically-advanced and so more socially-advanced, and so likely to be pleased to hear from us because they look forward to visiting us and making friends with us (the Posadist position, for example), it is actually more likely that other civilizations are more brutal and will be intent on colonising us.

The lesson of the ‘dark forest’ is that you should definitely not signal your presence in the world to others, but instead keep yourself hidden; hidden and silent is the safest option. This message is replicated at different levels of the trilogy, ranging from keeping quiet during periods of social turmoil like the Cultural Revolution, to keeping quiet about what technological progress you are making in relation to the West, possibly hostile countries outside China (an historically understandable take on things), to contact with aliens. Assume they are out to destroy you, and attack first.

The trilogy unfolds through the second and third book over literally millions of years, a span of time that also marks it as ‘hard sci-fi’, and it is here that the dystopian aspect is drummed home. Reading the trilogy is like being drawn into a nightmarish march forwards that is inevitable and bloody, marching to the beat of a drum that you do not control, and harnessing yourself, adapting to technological change that, you realise somewhere along the way, will never promise utopia, will never perhaps even promise a better life.

Obedience

Hard sci-fi here is also hard life, a hardening of our stance towards others – suspect them, and be all the more suspicious the more different they are – and hardening relations of self-control, and ordered social relationships, along with adherence to authority. There is, for example, a lull in the narrative in the middle of the trilogy where there are signs that things are going soft, that things are going wrong, that the human race has lost its edge, is not on a winning streak against the alien forces. The key sign of this is a breakdown in gender relations, specifically that women become more masculine and men become effeminate, a moral-political message that will play well with the Chinese state now, and not so well with the LGBTQI+ communities who are seeing each and every space to contact each other shut down.

Nature

But, and here is the good news from Liu Cixin, the healthy natural balance between male and female reasserts in book three, Death’s End, and the onward march to the future is restored. This is not a matter of choice, and personal choice is also something treated with a great deal of suspicion in the trilogy – even almost as bad as alien invasion – but of necessity, and so we have a quasi-Confucian concern with respect for your elders and betters combined with awesome technological expertise, the triumph of technological reason over everything else. If the encounter with the universe will show us anything, the trilogy seems to be saying, it will show us what our deepest nature is as obedient well-behaved and grateful servants to a higher purpose.

Whether Netflix will balance this all out with a liberal-individualist concern with dialogue and a pretence that decisions are taken for the good of all, or whether it’ll glory in the unending subjection of human beings to a machine-like future, bewitched as they are glued to a screen that replicates in their leisure time the lives they lead while working, remains to be seen.

Redeeming Marcuse

Ian Parker reviews the new edition of Herbert Marcuse’s Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia: Five Lectures published by Repeater Books.

There aren’t many really revolutionary philosophers who want to change the world, not as deeply and radically as Herbert Marcuse, and for this alone he is worth reading and thinking with, even when it gets a bit heavy.

Marcuse was one of the key first generation figures in the so-called ‘Frankfurt School’, taken on by the new Institute for Social Research before the Nazis took power, but having to flee Europe and playing a leading role in intelligence gathering as part of anti-fascist activity when based in the United States, later taking up academic posts there. This is trajectory that took him from being a doctoral student in Germany before the war with Martin Heidegger – a philosopher who romanticised the past and threw his lot in with the Nazis when they took power – to being an influential teacher of Angela Davis and, for his pains, Marcuse was denied permanent university appointments.

These five essays are gathered from different times, from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s, which was when Marcuse was able to more immediately connect again with revolutionary movements as an inspirational figure in the ‘New Left’, something he was credited with naming as something qualitatively different from old-style rather morally-conservative left-talking men in suits. That, then, and here is also something to bear in mind when we read mealy-mouthed ‘critiques’ of Marcuse for being an infantile ‘Utiopian’ communist, enabled him to connect with his own early revolutionary history; he had been a member of a soldiers council during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin in 1919. He never forgave the Social Democratic Party that sent in their paramilitary groups to quell that rebellion, during which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered (and these groups, the ‘Freikorps’, then became shock troops in the rising Nazi movement). Social democrat inclined ‘social theorists’ then respond to that suspicion with the spiteful insinuation that Marcuse is ‘ultra left’.

When things are so bleak, when it seems as if all possibility of resistance has been crushed or, worse, absorbed and its energy turned against anyone who rebels, when everyone seems to be recruited into being an agent of their own oppression, what is to be done? Marcuse provides an analysis of the depth of the problem which never succumbs to pessimism, which always looks for any ‘crack’, any opening; for Marcuse, we live in a cultural-political-economic system that betrays the hopes of the past, covers it over, attempts to blot out attempts to change society, but we can retrieve those positive revolutionary hopes and bring them alive again.

Of a time

There is a paradox in Marcuse’s writing, something that is very clear in these five essays, and which is a source of strength and weakness (if we think dialectically about this, which we must, which is what he encourages us to do). On the one hand, these essays are of their time, and marked by it, the last two essays given as lectures in Berlin in 1967, quite short interventions which are followed by lengthy thoughtful dialogue with students and activists who challenge him and make him clarify what he is saying. It is not only the audience that frames what is going on in these essays, and in the earlier ones in the book, but the political context in which Marcuse found himself by the end of the 1960s. This is a time of rising protest against the US war in Indo-China, and solidarity with the Viet Cong is a priority. Marcuse knows this, and he sees the vanguard of that solidarity movement, and the basis for more wide-ranging revolutionary change in the student movement, a student movement that is connected with ‘third world’ revolutions.

So, one of the consequences of his assessment, which is based on that particular balance of forces in the United States, and which the Berlin students question him about, is that Marcuse does not see the working class as a revolutionary agent as such. In fact this also leads him to think that the working class in the first world capitalist countries have been neutralised, bought off; alienation has become part of the name of the game for everyday life, and here we have some of the grimmest diagnoses that Marcuse became known for in critical social theory circles. The conceptual basis for this diagnosis is spelt out in the earlier essays on technological progress and on the way that what drives us as human beings is turned against us, becoming a force of repression.

It is there we find startling, and still useful notions; that we are subject now to a peculiar kind of ‘reality principle’ in which we must produce and perform, and this ‘performance principle’ that drives and pulls us into becoming little masters of others and of ourselves, locked into ourselves, brings with it an alluring and toxic illusion of freedom. In place of historical collective struggles for freedom – those that Marcuse wants to remind us still exist as latent possibilities – there is false freedom in which we think we are releasing and expressing something genuine but find ourselves simply still ‘performing’, enjoying as we have been told we should. This is, Marcuse argues, ‘controlled liberalization’ that is still repressive. It looks and feels like we are releasing something that has been channelled, ‘sublimated’ into this ‘vicious circle of progress’ of commodity culture, but it is repressive, it is what Marcuse calls ‘repressive desublimation’.

We just need to think of the way that every counter-revolution involves not only brute violence – the kind of thing Marcuse experienced in Berlin in 1919 during the quelling of the Spartacists – but emotional numbing and the ingraining of disappointment so we come to believe change is not possible and we repeat that pessimistic message to anyone who is trying to change the world. After the French Revolution, then, there was ‘Thermidor’, the period of reaction in which the revolutionaries were crushed, and a repressive regime was sedimented, and that then becomes the model for Trotsky’s analysis of the reaction inside the Soviet Union against the Russian Revolution; the revolution betrayed is, he points out, ‘Thermidor’. And what Marcuse adds to this is an analysis of the way that failures and repression involve what he refers to as ‘psychic Thermidor’, the drumming into each individual , into the inside of each individual that they better make do with what little power they are given in this wretched repressive society.

Looking to the past

While these essays are of a time, the one side of the paradox in the book, they are also quite romantic; that is, Marcuse, rather like his old supervisor Heidegger, looks to the past as a source of hope. The risk he is willing to take is to look to the archaic biological heritage of the human being, and this is where Freud and psychoanalysis are woven into the story. The editors of the essays point out that the term that was, in Marcuse’s time, translated as ‘instinct’ should be translated as ‘drive’, and the drive is something that is more malleable, more historical. But even so, when Marcuse writes about Freud, he takes on good coin the description of what he refers to as ‘two basic drives’, of life and death. Yes, it may be true that we are driven to destroy ourselves as well as create new possible forms of relationship and society – there is something of life and something of death in what we do – but Marcuse traces this opposition to underlying forces that Freud had reified, turned into underlying interminable forces.

The third essay, for example is on the ‘obsolescence’ of Freud, but the sting in the tail, and this is where Marcuse attempts to redeem something from the pre-history of capitalism, is that while psychoanalysis seems to be speaking of things in the past that are ‘obsolescent’, actually those things are still buried, still possible, still able to be brought alive again. So, it is not the ability to labour and the working class that is agent of change, a force that is created by capitalism itself as its own gravedigger (which would be the Marxist line) but the re-finding of ‘erotic energy’; what we should celebrate, if Marcuse is right, is not work but ‘pleasure’.

There is something in this, something that Marcuse touches on in his comments about the role of ‘demonstrations’ in resistance against society, and of the way we might find ways of working with ‘humanitarian progress’ instead of ‘technological progress’; for Marcuse, ‘demonstrations’ are sites in which we demonstrate not only against what is wrong but enact an alternative. We ‘demonstrate’ that another society is possible, live it, perhaps experience it for a moment, show that there is an alternative; to declare that ‘civilization arises from pleasure’, however, risks replacing a Marxist account of the role of labour in our lives as human collective beings with a too-simplistic and reductionist Freudian account.

Redemptive reading

I suggest you read the essays in reverse order. Start with the essays 4 and 5 from 1967; they are clearer, not bogged down with Freudian jargon, and have the questions and discussion included. Then track back to essay 3, the 1963 essay which does give the clearest account in the book of what is radical about psychoanalysis. Essays 1 and 2 from 1956 are more difficult, and if you can get through those you should be better placed to make sense of the frankly too-dense ‘introduction’ to the essays which does, even so, usefully remind us that Marcuse historicises the unconscious rather than seeing its operations as eternal and universal, and spells out the stakes of Marcuse’s analysis of ‘alienated labour’ for an account of the importance of production and not merely consumption.

It was Marcuse who gave us the really useful phrase ‘second nature’ to describe how what we experience of ourselves is not given directly by our biology but always mediated, always historical. That is too much for some hard-line psychoanalysts who won’t give up on the idea that what they are describing is real bedrock unchanging biological human nature. There are moments, as I’ve noted already, where Marcuse breaks from key tenets of Marxism, but actually his claim that we should find a way of finding revolutionary change ‘within’ labour rather than ‘beyond’ labour is quite compatible with Marxism. Surely we do want to build a world in which labour is enjoyable, pleasurable, rather than being a drudge.

A first footnote to the introduction of this book is a quote from Theodor Adorno, one of the most well-known of the Frankfurt School philosophers; that the only philosophy that can be practised in the face of despair is from ‘the standpoint of redemption’. This is indeed what Marcuse did, and as close to actual political practice as he could, making use of his position as theorist to link with and energise new social movements in order to redeem the hopes of the past, to find cracks in what seemed like total control of society in the service of capital accumulation, to write for the resistance.

This was published first here on the ACR site

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Inside Putin’s Russia

Ian Parker reviews Ilya Budraitskis’ Dissidents among Dissidents: Ideology, Politics and the Left in Post-Soviet Russia

Much information about Russia now is filtered through a right-wing press that is hostile to Putin because it is hostile to socialism, and here is a peculiar paradox; that dominant view of contemporary Russian capitalism actually mirrors Putin’s own hostility to the legacy of the revolution and the possibilities of radical change.

The sharp readable essays gathered together in this new book by the Moscow-based revolutionary Marxist Ilya Budraitskis are essential reading for anyone wanting to cut through the ideological mystification that permeates the Western press as well as the poisonous nonsense that is pumped out and funnelled into the left by a foolish campist left from Putinite media front organisations.

The essays are themed into three main sections which deal with the historical post-Cold War framing of the world that the West and Putin together operate in, the toxic cultural-ideological conditions that face Russians looking for an alternative, and alternative histories of resistance that pose problems and tasks for the left now. The essays have been reworked and streamed together so they now work as stand-alone pieces and as a coherent whole.

Budraitskis is a keen observer of the historical conditions for the disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracy and the possibilities for change, and he weaves together many threads of argument. I will just mention three key themes that stood out for me.

Culture

The first is the way that cultural resistance intersects with direct political opposition to Stalin and the bureaucracy after his death, and now to Putin, and the way that traps are set for those who seek to reassert the progressive heritage of the Russian Revolution. The useful brief introduction to the book by Tony Wood points out that we now know less about what is happening inside Russia than during the Cold War because that world east of the old Iron Curtain is more effectively sealed off.

Western intelligence agency funding of research during the Cold War, for example, included funds specifically tagged for the translation of Russian texts into English – part of the globalisation of English and increasing dominance of the United States in academic work – and this enabled different interpretations of what was happening even while the information was used to attack and undermine the Soviet bloc.

The current cultural-ideological consensus, one shared by the Western right and by Putin’s entourage, is that there are, indeed, separate spheres of the world, domains of influence. This idea was voiced and crystallised in the argument by Samuel Huntington in his influential 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations, which included the bizarre idea that there are eight civilizations in the world, and that there are fundamental irresolvable differences between them. The Huntingdon ‘clash’ book was mobilised, of course after 9/11 to make it seem as if the key contest was between the West as the real space for civilisation and the Islamic world which was not really civilized at all.

But this post Cold War world that is divided into separate spheres of influence is exactly the kind of world that Putin inhabits. Budraitskis points out that the ‘Slavic-Orthodox’ civilization that Huntingdon describes in negative terms is claimed and endorsed by Putin as a positive space, one in which terms like ‘democracy’ have a quite different meaning than in the West. This is not to say that either Huntingdon or Putin are right, they are not, but to show deep the cultural-ideological argument goes and what the consequences are. For the West it means working with leaders of separate inscrutable ‘cultures’ on their own terms, and for Putin it means conceiving of his own Slavic-Orthodox cultural domain as an organic unchanging entity.

That means, for example, that the October Revolution was, for Putin, an externally engineered threat to the continuity and stable functioning of Russian culture. Every dissident threat must, if this world-view is right, be a result of external interference, and this, of course, then spins into mystical Russian Orthodox Church fantasies about conspiracies to undermine the natural order of things and antisemitic conspiracy theories that search for the hidden hands responsible for causing dissent.

Budraitskis describes how the Putin regime hardened its nationalist stance and internal security measures following the ‘Maidan’ events in Ukraine in 2013, and how some of the well-meaning Western statements of ‘solidarity’ with the Maidan fell into the trap of making it seem, indeed, as if what was at stake was some local version of the clash of civilizations. An open letter by Western intellectuals at the time, for example, declared that this was a chance for re-founding the progressive heritage of Europe, and this played into the image of the Maidan revolt as only being what it was sometimes known as, first through a Twitter hashtag, ‘Euromaidan’.

What must be noticed, however, and Budraitskis is very clear about this in his account of internal oppositions in Ukraine before and after the Maidan events, is that the stakes for Putin were what was happening inside Russia, and the danger, for him, of an opposition movement developing there that would corrode his authority. There were protests inside Russia, and a harsh clampdown.

Violence

Once the separate spheres of influence in the world takes root and a corresponding nationalist atmosphere is generated to demonise anyone who speaks out, then violence becomes a legitimate, even necessary, means of social control. This is what the liberals and the left inside Russia face now. And here Budraitskis gives an alarming account of the role of avowed anti-communist theoreticians around Putin and the way in which those arguments are played out in practice.

One such is Ivan Ilyin, a White Russian émigré in Germany, whose work has been declared by the chancellor of Moscow State University as providing ‘the life giving water reviving the nation’. Ilyin’s 1925 book On Resistance to Evil by Force was written after he was expelled from Russia, and gives voice to the ‘white warriors’ and bearers of the ‘Orthodox knightly traditions’ that are now eagerly implemented by sections of the security forces.

One influential general in the Russian national police service, for example, gained her doctorate on Ilyin with the title ‘The Culture of Counteracting Evil in the Law Enforcement Agencies’, and she then became a state Duma deputy and, from 2016, commissioner for human rights in the Russian Federation.

For Ilyin, ‘Evil’ is unconscious, but is experienced by the individual as freedom from coercion and control, then it can only be recognised by others, and ‘Love’ as a ‘transcendental law of force’ is a powerful binding spiritual instrument that will bring that person back into the community again. This requires a moral struggle with those who are infected by Evil, and, as Ilyin puts it, fortifying ‘the walls of an individual Kremlin, whose construction comprises the spiritual formation of a person’.

What this does is at least two things. The first is, again, a version of a trap, a trap that those concerned simply with individual ‘human rights’ fall into when they make it seem as if the task of the opposition inside Russia is simply to defend the individual’s freedom of thought and speech against the monolithic power of the state. That argument, in fact, simply corresponds to what Ilyin’s supporters already believe, that individual human rights are what causes dissent; they believe that dissent is a sign of Evil.

The second effect, even more awful for the opposition, is what this argument warrants in terms of the crackdown on Evil. Any measures can be taken to bring individuals infected by Evil back into line, and Budraitsksis correlates the influence of this argument in the security forces with the increase in torture.

Resistance

The longest essay in the book is a translation from Budraitskis’ prize-winning book in Russian, and gives the title to this present book now published by Verso ‘dissidents among dissidents’. We know well here in the West what immense support was given by intelligence agencies to opposition movements inside the Russian bloc during the Cold War, ideological political support that went alongside avidly scooping up and translating whatever became available. No surprise, of course, that most support was directed at right-wing movements, the heroic ‘dissidents’ who were fighting, we were told, for their ‘human rights’.

But what this obscures, and what Budraitskis makes visible for us now, is the socialist opposition. Much of the opposition, something that was recognised as such by the security forces, was not against the regime because it was socialist but precisely because it was not socialist. One of the touchstones for the many scattered opposition groups that emerged around the Soviet Union was Lenin’s 1917 book State and Revolution, in which the argument was quite explicit. The task of the Bolsheviks, Lenin writes, was not at all to reinforce the Tsarist state, but to ‘smash and break it’.

Lenin’s book was easily available, of course, and one popular initiative was to underline in red the sections of the book where Lenin talks about accountability of representatives and the pegging of pay to the level of that of a skilled worker. This argument unleashes arguments by the regime that masquerade as socialist, arguments that then unravel themselves if they are not held in place by brute force.

One finds, for example, hysterical uncomprehending reaction by the regime, something that continues to the present day, to extreme ‘internationalism’, something that is sometimes labelled and tinged with antisemitic anxiety as ‘cosmopolitanism’. An essay by Budraitskis which is not included in this book is on the obsession with the ‘perpetual Trotskyist conspiracy’ in which ‘permanent revolution’ is portrayed as being a state of permanent instability, something that prevents the natural order of things from being restored.

A dissident among dissidents

Budraitskis is one of the ‘dissidents among dissidents’, one of the left who articulates a Marxist analysis of Russia from within, and against the right-wing dissidents who are easily incorporated into the regime. This book gives lie to the campist claim that there is anything ‘red’ left in the quasi-fascist ‘red-brown’ Putinite movements that are being spawned inside Russia, and also outside it.

This political work is not geared to private individual dissent but to public collective action, and the argument in this book is linked to the emergence of new radical movements that include the Russian Socialist Movement which Budraitskis has been part of since it was founded. This is a beautifully written activist argument for understanding what Russia has become and what is to be done to rebuild an internationalist alternative.

You can read this article where it was originally published here

Anti-Psychiatry now

Attempts to medicalise distress, and the backlash against alternatives

We know that capitalism makes us sick, but there is a deeper more insidious form of this process that we need to get to grips with if we are to find alternatives to the damaging ‘treatments’ that are doled out by mainstream psychiatry.

Psychiatry is often confused with other ‘psy’ disciplines (like psychology, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis), but what marks it out from the others is that it is deliberately and explicitly medical; psychiatry is underpinned by a ‘medical model’ of distress so what we feel when we feel bad is treated by specialist doctors as if it is really a ‘sickness’ that has an physical organic cause that can then be ‘cured’ by physical, usually drug interventions.

What that assumption about sickness and cure does, and it is drummed into the psychiatrist in their medical training before they specialise in ‘mental disorders’, is to effectively ignore the alienation, exploitation, oppression and misery of living under capitalism. The psychiatrist instead is trained to search for the ‘real’ underlying causes, as if poverty, exclusion, austerity, racism and sexism were mere additional factors that might just intensify or ‘trigger’ what the doctor detects underneath the symptoms they are trained to attend to. The fiction that medical psychiatrists really now work according to a ‘bio-psycho-social’ model is a hopeless delusion. When it comes down to it, they reduce distress to biology, or they break with psychiatry.

Doctoring

A psychiatrist, like other medical professionals, is under pressure to make speedy diagnosis, choosing a category from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or the ICD (International Classification of Diseases), and to administer treatment, and so the reduction of distress to a physical cause is the understandable default procedure. This pressure is added to by the marketing of an increasing number of new ‘disorders’ by the drug companies, and by the promise that symptoms can be dealt with by targeting a chemical imbalance in the brain.

So-called ‘psychopharmacology’ is a massive drug market, legalised and state-sanctioned drug-pushing, and big pharma pours huge investment into identifying disorders that are dampened by drug treatments. That investment includes paying medics to endorse or even add their names as authors to already-written research reports, and it includes smearing those who have second thoughts, whistleblowers and psychiatrists who realise that the medical model just does not work.

In some ways, the approach does work, of course. Symptoms are certainly dampened down by the drugs, and patients are got off the books. And many patients are relieved to be given a diagnosis, to find an answer of some kind to their distress, and to accept what they are handed as a life sentence, that is, to accept that the sickness is deep within them and could return at any time. The illusion that root causes have been found is often a comfort to the patient and, of course, the doctor, but it is disabling.

Contradictions

Yet, from the beginning of psychiatry, which took root as a more humane approach to the mad inside the old asylums at the end of the eighteenth century, there were fierce debates; many early psychiatrists favoured physical treatments – restraint and then, at worst, electroshock and surgery – while some, like the Quakers at the York Retreat, looked to ‘moral treatment’ that included encouragement to get back to work, to work alongside others in the community. The ‘chemical revolution’, discovery of major antidepressents in the 1950s, shifted the field of debate.

The more humane psychiatrists objected to the chemical cosh, just as their predecessors had objected to patients being manacled and put on show. It was then that quite a few psychiatrists broke with psychiatry altogether, and looked for alternatives in a disparate movement that became dubbed ‘anti-psychiatry’. That was a misleading label, covering a wide range of alternative approaches to distress, some inspirations, some dead ends and some real dangers for the poor patients who sometimes had good reason to cling to the labels they had been given.

Some of the most prominent ‘anti-psychiatrists’ hated the label, objected to it, sometimes because they weren’t actually against psychiatry as such at all. One of the most prominent, Thomas Szasz, who appears as the main representative of the tradition in psychiatry and social work textbooks, was a right-wing libertarian, who was against the whole notion of ‘mental illness’ because it let people off the hook; as well as leading to coercive practices, medical psychiatry gave people excuses, he said, for their bad behaviour.

Szasz’s spin on ‘moral treatment’ meant getting people to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility, individual responsibility for what had gone wrong in their lives. He was willing to ally with the scientologists to get his message across. This is neoliberalism in the field of mental health, not a progressive alternative, and recently some other critics of psychiatry have also dabbled with anti-vax and conspiracy theories.

The left

Some on the left fell into the trap of putting a plus where the psychiatrists put a minus, and there was a temptation among some ‘anti-psychiatrists’ to romanticise distress, to make it seem as if madness was a kind of journey to enlightenment. Some of these were ostensibly, for a time, on the left but, like R D Laing, they travelled down a drunken road into quasi-spiritual nonsense, and celebration of the family as a refuge rather than, as they once had it, as a prison.

One of the most radical experiments, in Italy, and one that Laing disparaged as being ‘communist’, was the closure in Trieste of the mental hospital in the early 1980s. This was following a massive campaign by the far left against psychiatric abuse that managed to draw in the communist party and a pre-emptive partial reform of the Italian psychiatric system after a successful referendum. This was a time when mental health really became a political issue, politics involving thousands of people debating and building alternatives in the form of community mental health centres.

That experiment inspired a psychiatrist in Sheffield, Alec Jenner, using money left over from a conference about Trieste, to set up Asylum, which fashioned itself as a magazine for democratic psychiatry. ‘Democratic psychiatry’ had been the name of the reform movement in Italy, also led by a psychiatrist, Franco Basaglia who broke ranks with his medically-trained colleagues.

The magazine hosted innovative work around ‘hearing voices’ developed by yet another psychiatrist Marius Romme. Many people hear voices, and for many different reasons, Romme realised; the task then was to explore what that meant rather than silence the voices, rather than put the experience under a chemical cosh. Meetings organised by Asylum magazine also included another group of rebel doctors in the Critical Psychiatry Network.

Prominent among that new generation of psychiatrists turning against the medical model, effectively becoming ‘anti-psychiatrist’, was Joanna Moncrieff who, in her ground-breaking book The Myth of the Chemical Cure, showed that the psychiatric drugs did not in any way ‘rebalance’ disordered brain processes. Instead, as with alcohol, nicotine or other recreational drugs, the psychiatric drugs changed the chemistry of the brain. That ‘drug-focused’ assumption had actually been guiding research before the so-called chemical revolution of the 1950s, but we need to remember it and follow the consequences if we are to break from the ‘illness-focussed’ assumption that the drug companies base their research and advertising campaigns on.

The battlefield now

All of this brief potted history is to make the point that ‘anti-psychiatry’ is a very mixed enterprise, and that we need many alternatives to the medical model, alternatives that take distress seriously. If we don’t do that, there is a big risk that we will take fright and fall for the lure of bedrock biological explanations. This is where we are now, with recent attempts to rehabilitate the medical model and to reduce the alternatives to caricature. And this is where some on the left who are desperate to find what they think of as being ‘materialist’ explanations for distress seem to be giving ground to the assumptions peddled by big pharma.

If we are materialists, the argument goes, then surely we should acknowledge that at least some of the causal mechanisms to distress are biological, so why not call the problem ‘medical’ in a very broad sense, and if there are such causal mechanisms in the brain what would be wrong in sifting out what causes what and valuing the drugs that do actually make a difference. And, here they twist the knife, it seems very difficult to show exactly how what bits of capitalism or other forms of oppression cause exactly what bits of distress.

This is a version of standard right-wing arguments against Marxism, that because you can’t directly and immediately observe and precisely measure the link between personal distress and oppression, it is not capitalism (or racism’s or sexism’s etc) fault. Work on the ‘spirit level’ that shows that inequality in society is correlated with unhappiness goes some way to addressing that, but we need a deeper more radical practical-theoretical understanding of capitalism to keep ourselves grounded in the possibility of alternatives, and not only in the field of mental health.

We’ve seen the medical line of argument, an attempt within the left to roll back critiques of psychiatry, a couple of years ago, in 2020, and there have been good responses to that psychiatric backlash by radicals.

The dice are loaded against us because, it is true, there is something inexplicable about distress that cannot be simply ‘diagnosed’ – whether that is depression or more profound alienation labelled, in the medical model, ‘schizophrenia’ – and we have been unable to construct societies in which we can give people space – genuine ‘asylum’ that the democratic psychiatry and critical psychiatry movements called for – and access to real care.

Instead, the randomised controlled trials, between effects of drugs and ‘placebos’, are all against the background of a rotten society; the ground-rules mean that a base-line ‘biological’ cause becomes as tempting an answer as the possession by demons was convincing to religious folk way back before the asylums were built. Friends and comrades involved in supporting people in distress are desperate to get out of this predicament, but over and again they lose hope that things could ever change dramatically enough to rule out drug treatment. In the meantime, they say, we need to patch people up, and hope for better psychiatric research; this is desperate, understandable, but a mistake that gives ground to psychiatry.

Alternatives

As with every other challenge to the power of institutions under capitalism, vested interests tell us that the fault is in ourselves instead of in society, we need to acknowledge that people need to find ways to cope, but the way they do that has to be collective, which means, short-term, supporting patients subjected to medical treatments to share information and weigh up what they want to accept and what they cannot. That collective agency was the basis of the ‘hearing voices’ movement – groups of people exploring what their voices meant to them – which ‘de-medicalised’ that experience, took it out of the hands of the doctors to define what was normal and what was abnormal.

It also means working with those who have broken and are still are breaking with psychiatry, to expose the research agendas of the pharmaceutical companies. Yes, we can imagine that under other conditions, resources could be put into exploring what drug treatments might help, but that means looking at what works in line with a ‘drug-focused’ model rather than buying into the idea that there is an underlying illness that needs to be cured. Meantime we need to focus on the question of power and on building radical clinical alternatives rather than digging about in the brain. And that means supporting those who are breaking from psychiatry inside the mental health care services.

It is the search for a cure for this wretched miserable society that needs to take priority now, and that collective process is one that can give hope, channel energy and enthusiasm, give meaning for people who are usually labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘sick’ or ‘abnormal’. The apparently ‘balanced’ and ‘neutral’ arguments about what might be happening in the brain for people who are in distress are not really ‘balanced’, any more than is the fiction of chemical ‘rebalancing’ in pharmaceutical propaganda, and they are not ‘neutral’.

Good research is not neutral, but knows what choices are being made, and why, and in line with what agendas. The medical model locks people into their distress, into their biology, while we need to be finding a way out of it, together.

You can read and comment on this article where it was originally published here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Red Clinic: Strikes Manchester

Ian Parker reports on debates in the context of political struggle over what radical therapy might look like

One of the teach-outs on 31 March hosted by UCU during the ‘four fights‘ strike over casualisation, diversity, equality and pensions in Manchester, after an anti-casualisation picket at the university, was on ‘Red Clinic’. This was a collective discussion in solidarity with, and as part of the strike, asking how we could build a Red Clinic that was oriented to developing truly accessible and sustainable provision of psychotherapy for the working-class and the oppressed in the broadest senses of the terms, attentive to the interrelations between axes of oppression, and transcending national borders.

This initiative, we said at the outset in the publicity, would be informed by Marxist, anti-racist, queer feminist and radical disability theories. It should be explicitly internationalist. We began with an outline of where we were up to so far and gave examples of the kind of work we had in mind.

Mental Health

The Red Clinic initiative is in its early days. It began in London following a Mental Health Workers Inquiry to explore clinical approaches that foreground anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We are dealing here with at least two issues. One is the nature of global capitalism which, intersecting with vicious racism and sexism, is driving spiralling rates of distress; mental health suffering is a political matter. The other is access to mental health support, with privatisation of services replicating the isolation that people feel; mental health provision is a political matter.

So, there was a decision by a small group of radical therapists, lawyers and activists to set up something that would badge itself as run by communists. This term ‘communist’ is deliberately chosen to point to the need for collectively run services that increase peoples capacity to themselves engage in conscious activity together with others to change the world. Solidarity in the practice of therapy, in its form as well as its content, is crucial here. Perhaps it would be possible for those committed to this project to bring in therapists to work face-to-face and online.

We began to advertise for therapists, thinking to employ therapists who would take on a high fee-paying client in order to subsidise work with a low or no-fee paying client. We started to think about how to manage this, and then we took a step back. It seemed too much of a stretch with the small group we had working with us to do all of this. Now Red Clinic is taking another step forward, but on two tracks of work. One is to engage in political dialogue with practitioners, and to set up a political education programme to discuss how to connect therapy with radical theory and practice. The other track of work is to build bases for the Red Clinic, and work out how to offer practical clinical support to those in distress, including to working with trades unions, grassroots organisations and social movements.

Dilemmas

So, we need to be clear that this is a project that is riddled with problems, with issues that we believe can only be worked through in collective discussion and in practice. These problems cannot be solved in the abstract by good theory, so we begin this process now by setting out some of the dilemmas we face.

First, what do we mean by ‘therapy’? Is it to be underpinned by radical psychoanalytic ideas about the unconscious and the way that past relationships are replicated and worked through in the clinic, or does it also include ‘client-centred’ humanist approaches that focus on personal growth, and cognitive-behavioural approaches that offer short-term alternative ways of reframing problems, and group analytic approaches that are already collective? We think it includes all of these things, and more, and that means that practitioners with different understandings of the ways that societal distress gets inside people will be working together in the Red Clinic. So, how do we handle those disagreements?

Second, what do we mean by radical politics? We say we are communist, and we hope it is clear that this means that we work in the spirit of the most open and materialist ‘intersectional’ understanding of how exploitation and oppression works. But, does that mean that a good therapist is necessarily a communist of this kind, and should say so, and what are the consequences of that for the expectations that those seeking help will have of the therapists they meet in the Red Clinic. How does that political commitment express itself, if not in turning the therapy itself into a form of political education, which, to be clear, we think it should not. So, how do we avoid turning therapy into propaganda?

Third, must people be radical or turned into radicals? There is a question here about what commitment we expect from those who access the service, if they are not paying, which they should not and which they do not even now in rapidly-shrinking NHS services. We need to ask how therapy can operate as a space for people to speak in confidence without being judged, can operate if there is an implicit expectation that they are, in some way, ‘radical’. How could they be engaged in a radical political project called ‘red clinic’ alongside and as an intimate part of the project to understand their distress and change the way they engage in the world. So, how do we release service users from the demand to be good radicals?

Fourth, what do we mean by ‘collective’. The signifier ‘communist’ is not enough, given the history of the way the term has been used and abused, to guide us, and there are institutional obstacles to this. The therapy as a private enclosed space is necessarily in some way outside the collective sphere, and it is a refuge and space to speak, to speak without the usual consequences of speaking to a family member, or an ‘expert’ or, indeed, a comrade. Advice is absent and so is commitment of the usual kind in everyday life. The collective work of the institution of any clinic is suspended in the actual clinic room. So, how do we square our social project with personal change?

Challenges

If these were not problems enough, there are more. The very small numbers involved and the conditions in which we work mean that online therapy will likely be the main option, but that is a form of work that has an alienating isolating effect that runs counter to the ethos of the Red Clinic. What it is to be ‘collective’ in these conditions changes radically. That also means that ‘internationalism’ threatens to be reduced into tokenism as we link with radical therapists in different parts of the world and work out what we can offer each other practically in terms of support.

There are in post-pandemic global capitalism, a host of issues that compound those that have beset red or radical therapy initiatives in the past. We know we are reinventing some of those past initiatives in new conditions, and we need help to do that, which is why a meeting in a context of a strike seemed a good place to begin again. We are asking whether we can do this, how, and whether different questions and answers can be developed if we are to have any success in the project.

Laya Hooshyari gave a vivid account of her work in South Tehran with ‘subaltern’ women, those who face oppression that is very different from the usual middle-class clients in psychotherapy. The group took on the name ‘Women with Red Lips’ after a participant in the group there who confronted the cancer she lived with, putting on red lipstick as a sign of her defiance. Laya described how different this work was from the usual therapeutic fake ‘empowerment’ of clients. She also insisted on the significance of the workers’ own presence in meetings and discussions about the formation of the Red Clinic.

Sohrab Resvani talked about his work in a co-operative clinic, run by an assembly of ‘shuras’, self-governing workers and consumers councils in Iran that was focused on ‘social self-understanding’ or, what could also be translated as ‘socialist self-understanding’. He raised a key question for the Red Clinic about its ‘internationalism’; whether we are concerned with simply transferring resources from privileged wealthy sites we work in to other places we are in solidarity with, or whether we are willing to support some form of ‘convoy’ that would physically practically take aid to, say, Mariupol or Gaza. Moreover, he argued that critical psychology needs not only to make a critique of the therapeutic and educational content of psychology, but also the ‘organizational form’ of clinics. It will be self-defeating, he said, if we build a Red Clinic as, for example, a private company or a charity.

Artemis Christinaki, who has worked with asylum seekers in the transit camps in Greece could not attend due to Covid, but a point that she wanted to make was relayed to the meeting, that there is a difference between most versions of psychotherapy and some versions of psychoanalysis that have political consequences. Much psychotherapy aims to soothe people and enable them to happily adapt again to existing conditions, while some psychoanalysts do not at all pretend to make people happy. Instead, the task of analysis is to face up to the unbearable contradictions that we live with, and enable us to actively confront them. In a project such as the Red Clinic a task would not only be to confront them individually but equally build a collective of understanding and action within it.

The opening talks were provocative, and participants at the meeting picked up on these points and took the issues in a number of different directions. A therapist working with the IAPT (government funded ‘Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies’) services asked whether we are ‘experts’ handing down knowledge, and what our target clients are; is it, for example, that we treat radicals, those disappointed by the failure of Jeremy Corbyn, for example, or is this really to be for everyone.

A senior clinical psychologist who had been managing services in Manchester spoke, in similar terms, about the danger of a gap between some of the academic debates about how to provide therapy, and the actual lived oppression of those who are receiving treatment in the NHS. She pointed out that the NHS is the largest single employer in the UK, and that we need to engage not only in the development of something that may effectively function as another tiny ‘private’ service, but also in the context of existing NHS provision.

A number of participants raised the question of the link between education and clinical provision, and asked how the Red Clinic could function as a cooperative, how transparent it could be in its functioning. For example, a recently qualified counselling psychologist asked what the implications are of using money from wealthy clients to subsidise or provide no-cost treatment for those who could not afford to pay. What would be the consequences, for example, on the perception of treatment of those who are paying, knowing that they are subsidising others.

An impossible collective process

Lydia MacKinnnon from the Red Clinic, who had come over to the meeting from Paris, responded to many of the questions, but acknowledged that these were questions that we need to work through. The questions had implications not only for how the Red Clinic might develop as a service, but also for the political education process it wanted to set up. This meeting was part of that process, a collective process. Also mentioned by another participant was the work of the ‘Clinique Contributive’ in Paris, and researchers involved in this work are interested in linking with the Red Clinic.

The Red Clinic, someone commented, was impossible but to say that something is impossible is no reason to say that it should not be attempted. Such a project is necessary. There was commitment by some of those now engaged in therapy, and by some present who have experience in managing services to help with the project. Ten people signed up to stay in contact with the Red Clinic, and others emailed to say they wanted to be kept in the loop. Red Clinic is on Facebook. To keep up to date with the development of the Red Clinic, email Ian Parker at discourseunit@gmail.com

You can read and comment on this article where it was originally published here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements


Putin is not mad

Ian Parker argues that we need political analysis instead of psychiatric diagnosis

The invasion of Ukraine is, we could say, in some respects ‘mad’. It certainly looks now to be fusing together some miscalculated bluff and double-bluff manoeuvres, and some serious mistakes. If anyone in the Russian leadership thought this would be a quick strike and that the Ukrainians would rise up to welcome their conquerors, they have been shown wrong.

Demoralisation among Russian troops now firing on their neighbours, who most likely will also speak Russian, and deaths of young conscripts whose families at home will get the news despite the media clampdown, and brave open opposition to the war by a number of left organisations, show Putin has misestimated the balance of forces and the mood for war.

This is not Prague 1968, where forces from across the Warsaw Pact who did not speak Czech, and whose troops were lied to about what was happening, were sent in. It is, instead, shaping up into something more like the Afghanistan occupation that, among other things, corroded support for the Soviet state.

Logic

We need a careful nuanced analysis of what led up to this invasion rather than knee-jerk caricatures that reduce politics to the whims of this or that tyrant, or this or that great leader. The balance of forces is much more complicated than that, and we should avoid the danger of sliding into gross ideological accounts of what is happening.

Ideological caricature, and not only in the tabloid press, too simplistically relies on monster and hero narratives. The monster narrative is so often combined with an attempt to grasp what seems incomprehensible, which is when ‘madness’ is invoked. This is sometimes insulting, as in the insensitive reactionary comments that millions died in the Holocaust because Hitler ‘went mad’, but always stupid.

This is as stupid as the idea that things turned out well during the Second World War because we had great leaders like Churchill, himself a brute and crook. It also, by the way, drums home the idea that some individuals are ‘mad’, an idea that leads into psychiatric rabbit holes instead of an understanding of what kind of rationality is at work in this self-destructive miserable world, a world that does make people distressed, sometimes drives us mad.

This is the kind of narrative that leads ex-leftist commentators into a really bad place, as in the claim that strong Putin was tempted to take advantage of the West currently led by a ‘woke elite’. What has been going on inside Putin’s head is rather beside the point here, tempting though it is as a shorthand account. We get a better picture of the nationalist logic that drives Putin from his own words, his recent speech as a case in point.

We need, instead, as part of our specific analysis of each event, to understand what it is about the ostensibly ‘democratic’ regimes we might live under, and the more obviously totalitarian police states, that is really ‘mad’. There is, in cases like this one, a kind of rigorous logic to the calculations that are made by ‘leaders’, an instrumental rationality that then flips into irrationality, madness, when it encounters the real world.

Enclosure

Those calculations reveal something about the nature of the system that enables characters like Putin to rise to the top. In this specific case, we also know that Putin, fearful of COVID, understandably so, has been able, because of his position, been able to take extreme measures to shut out others. This is yet another case where the pandemic intensifies ‘rational’ responses and turns them into irrational attempts at frantic control. Putin’s fear of COVID then also bleeds into the popular ‘mad’ explanation for the invasion in the tabloid press.

At the heart of this kind of madness is a logic of enclosure, a process that was necessary to enable capitalism itself to take root. Enclosure of the land which drives people off their resources once held in common is supplemented by enclosure of property and of capital, control which restricts access. And that restriction of access, not surprisingly, entails restriction of information, and fatally impedes democratic functioning.

It is this crazy logic, and the enclosure of resources that breeds figures like Putin, now isolated at the head of a military apparatus and surrounded by obedient apparatchiks fearful for their lives or, in one or two cases, hoping that their chance to be the top dog might be next. Miscalculations aplenty will undo Putin, and calculations about how to exercise power will likely have just as destructive effects, unless we mobilise to put in place authentically democratic systems of decision-making, those that will work for all of us and not for the few.

Standpoints

Leaders like Putin, separated from the rest of their own population, enclosed and subject to misinformation, view the world from a certain kind of standpoint, from above. And that is very different from our analysis, which is always from the standpoint of the exploited and oppressed, from below.

Yes, ok, we don’t know whether Putin, or any of the other leaders of the ‘democracies’ are mad or not. But slapping on a quasi-psychiatric label on those we oppose is misleading, distracting, a trap, and our political analysis and response needs to be based on something much better than that.

You can read and comment on this article here

Capitalism’s Mind Games and Worse

Ian Parker reviews Neil Faulkner’s Mind Fuck: The Mass Psychology of Creeping Fascism (Resistance Books, 2022)

Neil Faulkner, who died of aggressive leukaemia on 5 February, was a revolutionary Marxist, an acclaimed archaeologist and, it is clear from this little book published the day he died, a Freudian. For Neil, Freudian psychoanalysis was a science of the mind that needed to be taken seriously and, where necessary, integrated into Marxism as a science of political-economic history.

Fascism was a case in point, a case where we need psychoanalysis alongside Marxism to explain the hold of destructive and self-destructive ideas on people. This book shows how personal-political processes underpinned the rise of fascism in the 1930s and how an attention to the forms of pathology that psychoanalysis specialises in describing and treating can help us understand better the grip of creeping fascism today.

I have to declare a personal-political interest in this. I commented on a version of the manuscript for this book, and Neil copyedited my Radical Psychoanalysis and Anti-Capitalist Action that will also be published by Resistance Books, adding, where appropriate, he told me, ‘Oxford commas’. Along the way we discussed some differences of approach, and we planned to set up a public meeting with other invited activist analysts to open up these issues to political debate. I will return to some of these differences in a moment, but first, the argument of the book.

Irrationalism

We live, Neil argues, ‘in a world threatened by a surge of fascist irrationalism’. This manifests itself in many ways, and many of those involved ‘display symptoms of psychotic rage’. That is, the violence is ‘internalised in millions of minds’, and so fascism must be understood as a ‘social disease and political threat’ and also as a ‘psychological affliction’. The book then gives an account of the alienation we suffer under capitalism and shows how that contains the seeds of hatred of ‘others’ and self-hatred.

There is a good clear account of Freud’s ideas about the split between conscious understanding of the world and unconscious irrational forces. And this keys us into not only Freud’s own account of what can go wrong, how we can be fixated on past traumatic events, but also a host of other psychoanalysts, many on the left, who provided their own readings of what was happening around them with the rise of Nazism.

The sweep of the book is dramatic and compelling, and you will be drawn along into the argument that there is something deeper and more insidious about the racism and sexism that capitalism feeds on and regurgitates. It is exactly as if fascism unleashes the worst of what we are as human beings, vomiting up all of the most brutal and irrational aspects of life before ‘civilised’ capitalist society locked us into place as good citizens.

It is indeed as if Trotsky, who was himself very sympathetic to psychoanalysis, was absolutely right when he wrote in 1933 about Nazism, about the way that all forms of religious and mystical nonsense was resurfacing inside and against scientific reason: ‘Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up undigested barbarism’.

Neil, and Trotsky here, makes it seem as if Marxism and Freudian psychoanalysis are each, in their different ways, hard-core sciences that solve the riddles of history and the mind. It is as if, now we have these sciences we can understand the normal development of societies and individuals, and we are bit by bit edging towards a more rational description and treatment of barbarism and pathology.

Critique

I think the description Neil gives is right, but I muttered two or three times a page to myself as I was reading it ‘under capitalism’. That is, what Freud, and Neil, describes as the enclosed space of the patriarchal nuclear family is something specific to this kind of society, not universal. My worry was that he made it seem as if there really was a clear-cut universal distinction between ‘normal development’ that would lead to us being happy well-adjusted people (and to being revolutionaries who want to change the world, why not) and abnormal development that is mostly the rule nowadays and that turns us into creeping fascists.

Neil was clear that he thought that I was wrong to suggest that either Freud or Marx were historically-specific frameworks. No, he said, and I’m quoting from what Neil wrote to me before he died, ‘to argue that Freud invented psychoanalysis and that therefore it didn’t exist beforehand and therefore isn’t really applicable to earlier societies and perhaps contemporary societies outside the Western cultural sphere is wrong’. We must not, he said, fall into the trap of ‘denying the scientific status of psychoanalysis. I would insist that psychoanalysis is the science of the mind in the same sense as Marxism is the science of history/society’.

This makes clear some underlying assumptions in this book, that psychoanalysis is, as Neil put it ‘a method of analysis of universal validity (as all truly scientific projects must be). I haven’t the slightest doubt, for example, that Alexander the Great was psychotic, that medieval Madonna and Child images reflect mother-fixation, or that Shakespeare’s Othello is a study in psychosis, that of both Iago and Othello. I think not to defend the scientific integrity of psychoanalysis looks like a collapse into postmodernism.’

Sickness

Then, when we come to fascism, the main focus of Neil’s book is about our understanding of fascism as a real pathology. For Neil ‘the system makes people sick in a generic sense – anti-social, narcissistic, psychotic, etc – in a way that provides fascism with a mass psychic base.’ He acknowledged that it ‘may be necessary to draw a sharper line here – between the pathologising of what are essentially healthy human responses to alienation, oppression, etc, and what are unquestionably mental disorders.’

These are sharp rapidly-written email points, but they neatly sum up some assumptions I disagree with, that we clearly disagreed on. I’m not even sure that what we call ‘mental disorders’ in this sick political-economic system, capitalism, are not merely different ways of coping that adapt us to the system and then make us seem sick too. I’m convinced that Marxism was developed under capitalism to grasp the nature of capitalism and show the way to overthrow it, but not that it is a science of all history.

As far as psychoanalysis is concerned, I replied to Neil: ‘fascism is a political problem not a mental disorder, and I think sliding into psychiatric diagnosis is a dangerous move, one that will cut against us on the left. Well, that’s why I say Freud ‘invented’ psychoanalysis, it did help key into some underlying shapes of subjectivity under capitalism, but it is not a psychiatric diagnosis or treatment, it is not bedrock ‘medical’ approach concerned with illness or organic disorders (there are organic brain disorders, for sure, but that is just not within the remit of psychoanalysis to speak about or help us speak about).’

Well, Neil said, then maybe you would not like my Marxist History of the World (sympathetically reviewed with replies by Neil), because it reads Marxism back into all historical development. We were arguing as comrades, as comrades should, rehearsing lines of argument. I said I loved that Marxist history of the world because it showed a deep sensitivity to exploitation of all forms, it is a history that stands with and speaks for the oppressed. A nice humanist could sympathise with those poor people before the development of capitalism, but only a Marxist could situate that in a historical understanding of where we are now and what we need to do.

Barbarism

Capitalism is poisonous not only because it is engaged in ruinous exploitation of people and the planet, exploitation that is now leading to mass misery and mass extinction. Its alienating power also forces its way into us, gets inside us, messes us up so that we often feel powerless to challenge it, coming to believe that it is impossible to change things, to overthrow it.

This is the barbarism that Rosa Luxembourg, a key figure in the political tradition Neil came from, pointed to. If there was not a socialist alternative developed to capitalism, and fast, then there would be barbarism; barbarism as vicious competition for resources managed by brutal regimes tearing us apart.

There was always an urgency in Neil’s approach to revolutionary politics that was driven by this conceptual framework, urgency that energised us and that enabled us to believe that it was still worth fighting, fighting to overthrow capitalism. We had a brief debate about the title of this book just before it was published when I raised the question as to whether it would be offensive. Neil insisted that this was exactly what he was analysing in the book, and on that he was right. Capitalism fucks us up and fascism will finish the job, unless we stop it, now.

You can read this again and comment on it here

This is also part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements

Conspiracy theory and Marxist analysis

A small socialist meeting in Lancashire this month drove home to me how, as we should already know, the context for the linkage between the far right, anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown movements is very different in different places. In contrast to, say, the US and Brazil, where Trump and Bolsonaro supporters have succeeded in welding together the three different aspects of the threat to our health and future, in the UK the three movements are overlapping but still distinct.

Not all anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists are fascists, and if we do not intervene and argue with these people, we are finished; we will end up as marginalised as we think they are. The pity of it is that they are not marginal, and they are among us. Some comrades who thought they were just being ‘anti-Zionist’ did slide into antisemitic conspiracy theory territory when they became obsessed with who was setting political agendas. Now some comrades who worry about the capitalist state restricting freedoms, which by its nature it will always attempt to do, are now sliding into the same kind of terrain.

Conspiracy

What they have in common is an obsession with conspiracy. At this socialist meeting it became increasingly clear how potent conspiracy theory is on the left as speaker after speaker intervened in a discussion about something else entirely. They said that they felt in a minority, that they had been ‘deplatformed’ because of their views and that they were mobilising for their rights in what they referred to as the most important struggle of their lifetimes, against ‘Covid’ (and you have to imagine the word being spoken here as with scare quotes).

Bit by bit they alluded to what they have been banging about in this socialist forum for some time, that is, the Great Reset; an open economic discussion now spun as the idea that COVID-19 was deliberately engineered by global elites to crack down on dissent and regenerate capitalism for the benefit of the super-rich. This is dangerous nonsense, and we should not be afraid to say so, but we also need to address the problem and argue with these people, who think of themselves as being on the left, about why conspiracy theory is so deeply wrong, and so deeply dangerous to the left.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous forms either renders people into passive observers of the real struggle for power going on behind the scenes or, worse, mobilises them to search out scapegoats, members of groups supposedly connected to the hidden forces that are somewhere pulling the strings. A case example of the former is QAnon, in which increasingly bizarre claims are made about the clash of good and evil conspiracies – such as Trump versus the ‘deep state’ paedophile pizza parlour rings – and supporters are left guessing which political event is playing into the hands of which side. The latter, of course, is present in old antisemitic propaganda, in which big business, Bolshevism and race-mixing are traced to the hidden hands of the Jews.

The left

There is a long history of conspiracy themes on the left, and it is perhaps not surprising that some of the most stupid anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown stuff should now resonate with some socialists. It is true, for example, that corporations and the state will take advantage of any crisis to restrict human rights. That doesn’t mean that Bill Gates has any real interest in knowing where you live and who your friends are, or that his very good friend (wink) George Soros (a Jew) is siphoning your money to support an agenda we are not ourselves clear about.

In the Stalinist tradition there has been much flirting with conspiracy motifs, and that was not surprising, perhaps, as Stalin himself became more isolated at the head of the Soviet bureaucracy, and paranoid about who might take the power he jealously guarded. That context provided the seedbed and opportunity for labelling those who were supposedly manoeuvring against him as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, basically an antisemitic code-phrase for Jews.

This way of dealing with a reality that Marxists were disconnected from also fuelled the idea, popular among far left groups, that it would help their case to point to the nefarious activities of, say, the ‘Bilderberg Group’. This search for puppet masters conveniently overlooked the fact that business leaders and governments meet in many different forums and that they would themselves be daft if they did not sometimes operate together to pursue shared interests.

More recently, we find similar simple-minded themes in the supposed ‘evidence’ that Keir Starmer has attended think-tank meetings hosted by the Trilateral Commission (though I’m reluctant to include too many of the rabbit-hole links to those kind of claims in this article). Again, this is not a big deal once you have an analysis of what Starmer’s politics amounts to, a politics he is quite open about.

What this leads to is an approach to politics that attempts to track down the hidden motor causes for our problems, to point the finger at this or that shadowy organisation or individual, and to declare that the game is up. It beggars belief that people caught up in conspiracy theories should believe that this is a Marxist approach. It is not.

There are two key arguments to keep in mind when we challenge our conspiracy-minded anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown comrades on the left.

Marxism as opposite of conspiracy

The first is that Marxism is not a conspiracy theory. In fact, conspiracy theory is the diametric opposite of Marxist analysis. Marx never showed you that the ruling class deliberately hoodwinks and manipulates the population, or that the working class is kept in the dark about who the real movers and shakers are, let alone that the ruling class is putting you to sleep, or that there is chemtrail evidence in the sky that you are being turned into sheeple.

Marxism is an analysis of the capitalist system of production, a political-economic system that operates according to a profit-motive that is outside of the control of those who are driven to compete and enrich themselves as well as those who are exploited in the workplace to produce the source of profit. It is an analysis of the logic and dynamics of a system, not of particular individuals or groups who benefit from it. It is an analysis that shows how capital accumulation drives the whole world to destruction, to barbarism if we do not act collectively to build a world that is democratically accountable.

This capitalist system breeds conspiracies, and it is sometimes sad to see how some of those who accrue power then themselves come to believe that they control the levers of power. Their boasts, desperate machinations and their organisation of coups against democratic governments that threaten their interests are then taken and used as evidence that the ridiculous overblown idea they have of their own power is real. Careful Marxist analysis of the capitalist state, however, is concerned with networks of relationships that are understandable, explicable as a security apparatus to maintain exploitation.

Marxism accounting for conspiracy

The second key thing to notice about Marxist analysis is that it also shows how capitalism breeds conspiracy theory. The system secretes this theory as part of its own spontaneous ideology, as if of its own nature. We are told time and again, for example, and those who are successful believe it themselves, that it is the brightest and cleverest who will rise to the top, that this system rewards ingenuity. This ideological account covers over the actual source of profit, wealth extracted from the exploitation of the labour power of others. This idea, that individuals achieve and thrive and rise through the ranks, then also feeds the idea that someone somewhere must be taking the decisions that count.

Conspiracy theory in its most poisonous form was once able, with the rise of the Nazis, to turn an internal division of society, between classes – between the working class that laboured and the ruling class that lived on the accumulated fruits of exploitation – into another kind of division, one between the nation all together and an external enemy. Nazism layered that with all kinds of mystical notions to smother scientific research into the nature of society.

In the process, Nazism took on some of the elements of socialist politics, concern with inequality and, much more problematically, concern with national development and security, and blended those with conspiracy theories that targeted Jews, first associating that enemy with the left, as in the claims of ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ emanating from the Soviet Union, and then, to win over some leftists, in claims that it was the rich Jews rather than the rich as such who were the real problem.

A real danger

Conspiracy theory brings in its wake a host of other superstitious notions that drive the believer to the right, turns them from being a searcher for the real truth into an engine of divide and rule, labelling anyone who disagrees as part of the conspiracy, and embroils them in hostility to reasoned argument, hostility to analysis as such. The truth about this wretched political-economic system is in the exploitative structure of social relationships. The truth is not somewhere hidden behind this reality but in plain sight; conspiracies are ideological distractions that make people angry but helpless.

We see hostility to reasoned argument, to evidence, already flourishing among the anti-vaxx and anti-lockdown activists who are becoming suspicious of science itself, and that is a suspicion that will, as night follows day, lead them into the arms of all manner of cranks and mystical leaders. That needs to be argued against as such if we are to keep open a space for Marxist analysis that is, in some sense, ‘scientific’. It is by virtue of its analysis of the nature of this political-economic system that Marxism leads us to change the world instead of merely interpreting it.

Our ‘science’ is a science of social transformation, realising our potential together as agents of collective change. One of Marx’s favourite sayings was ‘doubt everything’, an approach which works in line with Marxism, and science, and that cuts into every conspiracy theory that is closed and certain in its attempt to account for everything and explain away the cracks and contradictions. Conspiracy theory refers ‘facts’ that it can glean from science, but abstracted from scientific research.

And, worst case scenario, we then see superstition and hatred that is hitched to the far right come into play, and that is where the suspicion of science turns into hatred of Marxism, and of ‘cultural Marxism’ as one of the antisemitic code-words used by fascists. Then, because we are refusing to cheer on the search for the groups or individuals responsible for our ills, because we are insisting that this is a system of production that is at fault, we could then be seen as part of the enemy. Then we really do have the danger of creeping fascism.

Capitalism as a political-ideological structure that operates in tandem with economic exploitation is composed of conspiracies, conspiracies that pretend to explain how the world works and career-guides for individuals isolated from each other who want to be the rulers. Like fascism itself, conspiracy theory flourishes at times of defeat when collective organisation against capitalism is weak, when people are isolated from each other then have to puzzle on their own, as separate individuals, about what the hell is going on. The alienated individual in the grip of the society of the spectacle in social media is one of the key relay points.

That is why we need to argue with the conspiracy theorists among us now, clarify with them what it is they fear and mobilise them in a collective project to change the world. We need to win them back to Marxism, Marxism as the diametric opposite and explanation for the hold of conspiracy theory. If we just treat them as automatic enemies we will be playing a deadly game, a game of hunt the enemy, a game with deadly consequences for us and for progressive movements.

You can read and comment on this article where it was first published here