Mad to be Normal

A new film about R D Laing should be something for the left to watch and learn from, about the politics of madness and the connection between different forms of liberation. But you won’t find any of that in Mad to be Normal which stars David Tennant reincarnated in some place called ‘the sixties’ as Dr Ronnie. Most of the action is set at Kingsley Hall, the alternative non-medical facility directed by Ronnie Laing in East London from 1965 to 1970, though a poster in Ronnie’s bedroom – that’s where he beds a composite character American student besotted with his work – is of the Dialectics of Liberation conference which took place in July 1967, so we are actually in a very compressed time-scale in Laing’s medical and anti-psychiatric celebrity career.

There is a heck of a lot of ‘acting’ going on in this film, and ‘mad’ people have often provided good fodder for thespians wanting to try out their skills at challenging notions of normality. The funniest moment is when two old thesps, Gabriel Byrne and Michael Gambon, have a muddled conversation, and it is funny not because they are good at playing crazy but because it is difficult not to imagine them chuckling away to each other during rehearsals. The shame is that, apart from Ronnie’s valiant efforts to spring one of his patients from a psychiatric hospital towards the end of the film, there is plenty of play-acting and very little actual resistance to power in the film. This makes it very different from the classic One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, where at least there is rebellion by the patients themselves against the institution.

The sequence of vignettes – patients doing stereotypically mad things, Laing behaving badly, traditional psychiatrists enraged to the point of closing down Kingsley Hall – strip out the history of Laing’s evolution from undergoing medical training, to training as a psychoanalyst, realising that patients are more than bundles of chemical reactions, searching for alternatives, linking with other liberation movements, raging against the nuclear family, finding Eastern religion, and then celebrating the family again before dying of a heart attack while playing tennis in St Tropez. We have nothing of the work of the therapists who worked with an argued with Laing in the organisations he founded, and nothing of the legacy of those debates in the present-day radical training organisation the Philadelphia Association.

And, apart from the Dialectics of Liberation conference poster, there is nothing of the political context for that resistance against medical power. One of the characters in the film is a young Black man who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and subjected to Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – electroshock that has seen an over ten percent rise of use in the last ten years and which is given disproportionally to Black people (and elderly women). His parents bring him to Kingsley Hall, running the gauntlet of hostile locals who stand outside the main entrance taunting the residents. It seems odd that there is no mention at any point that this guy is Black, no discussion of the racism that pervades mental health services, but then, there is no mention of either racism or sexism or the conditions that cause distress.

At his most radical moments – and, yes, these were limited – Laing did, at least, begin to indict alienation under capitalism as a factor in distress, that’s why he was invited to the Dialectics of Liberation conference to speak alongside Stokely Carmichael and Herbert Marcuse. In this respect, he was very different from the right-wing libertarians like Thomas Szasz who argued both against psychiatric coercion and what he called ‘psychiatric excuses’. And Laing was much more cautious than those who were always on the left such as Franco Basaglia, founder of Democratic Psychiatry in Italy (Basaglia, who Laing, toward the end of his career, attacked for being an anti-family Marxist). Why the anti-psychiatry movement should have developed is a mystery in this film, with some suggestion, instead, that poor pathetic Ronnie never got over the death of his dad.

The film warns us that none of the characters depicted in the film have any relationship with actual people, living or dead, and it is tempting to apply that warning to Laing himself. Tennant does a good job on his hesitant drunk narcissistic drawling when surrounded by admirers and there are occasional hints of his charismatic humane approach to people in distress, but this Laing is a one-dimensional snapshot of a much more complicated figure in the history of resistance to mainstream medical psychiatry. I went into the cinema wishing I had taken packs of leaflets for the Asylum Democratic Psychiatry conference, but by the end I was relieved that I had not, for this was a film that does not do revolutionary politics any favours, for what it omits as much as what it portrays. This film evokes a mythical folk character, a time and movement, reducing them to caricature. This is one doctor to avoid.

If you liked the film or thought it was even worse, you can read this article and comment on it here

Post-Truth and Paranoia: Action, Reaction and Asylum

The last time round that the world was on the brink of self-destruction, the Marxist psychoanalyst Joel Kovel (and one-time candidate for the US Green Party presidential race) wrote a classic book on collective fear called ‘Against the State of Nuclear Terror’. The book was first published in the UK in 1984 linked to a Channel Four programme in the ‘Science in Society’ series (led by psychoanalytic Marxist Robert M Young) and then revised and republished in the US in 1999. Kovel’s analysis is still a useful starting point for thinking about what we are going through today with Trump as US President, but there are some nastier twists and turns in the last years that have made Kovel’s diagnosis of ‘paranoia’ even more relevant and even more dangerous to the left.

Kovel’s argument was that what seemed like the imminent destruction of the world through the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union induced a sense of helplessness and ‘paranoia’. This paranoia is very like the state of mind that psychiatrists think they can diagnose inside individuals – their sense that they are under threat and an attempt to identify enemies – but the difference is that the ‘state of nuclear terror’ was primarily a social process and it was then experienced by individuals who then shut themselves off from others in order to cope with that unbearable threat. Kovel, who was trained first as a medical psychiatrist before turning to psychoanalysis (something he then abandoned when he became a full-time political activist), thus turned psychiatry on its head. The problem did not lie inside individuals or their bad brain chemistry, but in political organisation.

Destructive political organisation, as in the times of the state of nuclear terror, led people to protect themselves and become more ‘individual’ than they had ever been before, and that ‘solution’ to distress was, of course, part of the problem. Kovel argued that the left needed to rethink its hierarchical forms of organisation and so find a way out of this individualist terrorised frame of mind. He argued for ‘affinity groups’ in which people could share their fear and work through it together, in the process discovering for themselves what the truth was about the world, about themselves and about forms of collective resistance. In this way they could understand the world through changing it.

This political analysis, and the options Kovel laid out as alternatives, relied on us taking a step back from the lies told by the United States military and the Soviet leadership. The arms race as a form of ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ (MAD) could only be tackled by declaring a plague on the houses of both sides, or, what was crucial, a plague on the masters of those houses. Truth would be something that would be discovered or constructed in the process of political mobilisation from the grassroots, and only this process would enable people to bit by bit trust each other as they started to trust their own responses to threat, to see those responses as clues to what was being done to them rather than as ‘symptoms’ of something wrong about them that could be patched up by a psychiatrist.

Now, in times of ‘post-truth’, 2016’s word of the year in the UK – a pernicious corrosion of trust in accounts of the world that then works its way into individuals so that they distrust others and distrust themselves – we are in a much more dangerous political situation. Trump is the symptom of that. Trump is the symptom not because he is a narcissistic or paranoid or bi-polar basket case – that way of approaching the problem will land us in a worse mess than we are in at the moment – but he functions as a symptom of ‘post-truth’ as a paranoid twisted universe of meaning that drives people into themselves away from politics, and then drives people mad as they lose any compass for finding their way around the world.

The attempt to ‘diagnose’ Trump using psychiatric categories is a dead-end, not only because we cannot possibly know what is going on inside his head – even a clinician working with him full-time over a long period of time would find that difficult – but also because the psychiatric categories we might grab hold of to reassure ourselves that we know why the real bad guy is really bad are themselves suspect and use of them will rebound and cut against us. Playing the diagnosis game de-politicises what is going on, and it reinforces the power of those, the psychiatrists, who deliberately or unwittingly (who knows, some psychiatrists do what they do with the best of intentions perhaps) divide us from each other and drug us and shock us to bring us into line with reality again, adapts us to bad reality, the reality that says there is no way of resisting, no way of changing the world.

To understand how potent ‘post-truth’ is to the Trump effect, and to the forms of paranoia it provokes across the political symbolic field, we need to understand where we are in historical-political context. The fall of the Soviet Union disoriented a generation of leftists, not only those who thought that Stalin, Brezhnev and Co. were the bees knees and that socialism was being built there, but also many leftists who had refused to accept that the Soviet Union had anything to do with socialism and that there needed to be a ‘political revolution’ to overthrow the bureaucracy that would be as far-reaching as a revolution in the West. The new regime in Russia under Putin has played on this disorientation, and in a very canny way, not by instituting a new regime of truth – not by the old fixed coordinates which would replace one symbolic reality of old socialism with a new one geared to the capitalist empire that now exists in Russia – but by corroding the ability of people to distinguish between truth and lies.

Putin has relied on a series of advisors to do this, and has succeeded in dissolving the difference between truth and reality by feeding into the public media, which is controlled by Putin, a variety of contradictory accounts of what is going on. The point of this, or at least let’s say the effect of this, is that ‘information’ as such becomes inseparable from propaganda, and people at some level know this. This is what we could call ‘the state of information terror’ in which the only reasonable response is paranoia. Now, leaving aside whether Putin interfered or not with Trump’s election as US President, this approach to ‘truth’ – that is, contempt for truth as a value as such – is something that Trump has made use of. Putin’s misogyny also chimes with Trump’s, as can be seen in the Duma motion to decriminalise domestic violence. It bears fruit first in the so-called ‘alt-right’ and then in Trump’s world of ‘alternative facts’. This a dangerous political process in which many of the left are so desperate for an alternative, for truth, that, even though they might even have come from political traditions that were once critical of the Soviet Union when it claimed to be socialist, they now unbelievably side with one ‘camp’ – the enemy of their enemy and then swallow whole all that the state propaganda machine in Moscow spews out. There is a twist here not only on Kovel’s ‘State of Nuclear Terror’ but also on neoliberalism as an individualising ideology that was beginning to take form back in the 1980s.

Neoliberalism rests on three elements that lock us into capitalism and then leaving us, it often seems and feels, with nowhere to hide. The shift to individual responsibility, first element, runs alongside the destruction of the welfare state, as the second element, and the imposition of a strong state, a third key element which is sometimes neglected in cultural analyses of neoliberalism. You have a check-list here of what Putin has done in Russia, and what Trump is doing in the US now. And that also means not only that many ‘alternative’ sites of information, the string of news outlets controlled by the Kremlin as a case in point, are devoted to misinformation, but also that we are each being driven into our individual selves, little mini-states, little prisons of the self; the uncertainty and misery becomes internalised, and the drive to internalise all that stuff is precisely part of the trap.

Kovel’s alternatives in the 1980s and 1990s relied on therapeutic work that would make the ‘affinity groups’ into places where the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ would be linked together again, the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ parts of our lives that are torn apart by our life under capitalism, and that are often, unfortunately torn apart by many left groups who don’t understand that capitalism is both a political-economic system and a ‘state of mind’ in which we are alienated from each other and alienated from ourselves. Today, with the destruction of mental health welfare services and the use of therapy by the state to force people back to work, it is all the more important to connect personal and collective distress through forms of self-organisation. It is not as if these attempts do not exist. The pity is that these alternatives are often ignored by the left. We can learn about these attempts to link the personal and the political from feminism, and also from radical mental health practice. There are hundreds of ‘Hearing Voices Groups’ in the UK, for example, that enable people to find alternatives to the pathologising victimising work of medical psychiatry. There are networks of activists, and ex-activists, for example, who participated in the formation of a ‘Paranoia Network’ which refuses medical diagnosis of what is, at root, a political problem. And there are many local groups operating as ‘mad women’ or ‘mad pride’ who reclaim their anger and channel it into protest. They do what the Socialist Patients Collective argued in Heidelberg many years ago, that we should ‘turn illness into a weapon’.

There are networks of the networks that the left needs to engage with, needs to participate in, such as the Asylum Magazine for Democratic Psychiatry which began as a news-sheet for psychiatric users and has, over the years, been central to the formation of the Hearing Voices Network in the late 1980s, to the Paranoia Network at a first national conference it facilitated in Manchester in 2004. Asylum, which was inspired by the movement Psichiatria Democratica in Italy in the 1980s, a movement which closed the medical mental hospitals, has organised many conferences in Manchester, the latest of which will be the 30-year celebration of the magazine in the ‘Asylum: Action and Reaction’ conference on 28 June 2017. Asylum over the years has consistently argued and mobilised against ‘the state of psychiatric terror’ that makes many people who want to speak out against the political manipulation that they experience keep quiet for fear of being medicated or locked up. There is truth in these experiences, not always direct and immediate, but, as is the case for all of our struggles against alienation, exploitation and oppression under capitalism, that truth can only be discovered, rebuilt through collective organisation.

This is a task for the left, a task that necessarily entails working with Asylum and with a range of other alternative mental health activist organisations. Being part of the June Asylum conference would take a step forward to building truth again against a paranoiac post-truth world.


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