On the 13th of January 2017 British writer, thinker and theorist Mark Fisher committed suicide. Fisher, working as a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London had started his academic career by completing a PhD in ‘Cybernetic Theory Fiction’ at the University of Warwick. However, most of Fisher’s most important work took place outside of the academy.
Mark Fisher was a relentless critic of the establishment. Fisher’s ‘establishment’ mustn’t be mistaken with the ‘establishment’ in the Trumpian and Farageian sense of the word. Rather, the ‘established’ order of things. Fisher endlessly critiqued the complacent capitalist system, liberal in its manipulation of truths to suit its continuation.
In this vain Fisher found fame as online blogger ‘K-Punk’. Utilising the anonymity of an emerging blogosphere, Fisher weaved a poetical and often melancholic analysis of contemporary capitalist culture (Dr. Who and Dido via Michael Jackson) with the finer points of post-war French philosophy. The result is an essential set of readings for neoliberal Britain, romantically anti-romantic in the way that they capture the hopelessness of idealism in the face of grey, unrelenting reality.
he challenges us to challenge
It was in the same pursuit that Fisher’s best regarded work ‘Capitalist Realism’ came to be. At the crux of this short synopsis of modern capitalist ideology is Fisher’s scepticism that capitalism is the only conceivable system by which we can live our lives. Instead, he postulates that something can exist beyond, something better… something ideal. For Fisher, it is simply illogical that we should limit ourselves to the reality that capitalism affords – he challenges us to challenge.
Fisher is at his most prescient (especially considering his eventual defeat in the battle with depression) when writing on mental health. One of Fisher’s biggest shticks with the ‘Capitalist Realism’ that he so deplores, is the way in which it conditions us to understand and treat mental health. Fisher, writing amidst an intensification of commercial forces within the British healthcare system, was defiant against what he saw as the commodification of depression.
This commodification lay in the so-called ‘bio-chemicalization’ of depression. This is the assertion that depression is caused primarily by biochemical imbalance in the brain, namely low serotonin levels. To treat mental health illness is to treat the symptoms of a single person who ‘owns’ their illness. Depression is internalised and individuated. As such, we lose a sense of collective responsibility for mental health illness in terms of causation, understanding and treatment.
I, like Fisher, refuse to accept that depression is specific and individuated, caused by biochemical factors alone.
we do not live in vacuums occupied only by our own thoughts, fears and feelings
This is not to dispute that depression is not neurologically verifiable. Rather, it is to dispute that the neurological disposition of depressed people is caused only by internal, biochemical factors. If, like Fisher, we ask: ‘What causes low serotonin levels?’ we are forced to comprehend mental health illness as a culturally contingent phenomena caused by a conjuncture of biochemical and societal factors.
However much we might wish it we do not live in vacuums occupied only by our own thoughts, fears and feelings. We are locked in constant interaction with the things and people around us. It is doubtless that the cause of our mental ill health is more complex than the biochemical narrative will have us believe. We owe ourselves a more collective comprehension of depression.
Since Fisher’s writing of Capitalist Realism in 2008, we have inched ever so slightly closer to this collective understanding. Campaigns for improvements to mental health services are more commonplace and better supported, both in parliament and in public. But this is not enough. To increase public funding for mental health illness is not to improve public understanding. In some respects, it actually serves to consolidate the biochemicalization of mental health. It embraces the narrative that depression can be cured if the individual brings himself to accept his disposition (over which he has ownership) by seeking treatment – usually in the form of antidepressants and/or talking therapy – from public healthcare services.
Much better than to treat depression is to treat the societal causes of it; the cultural, sociocultural and structural. Most significantly, the way in which we conduct our economics and the connotations this has for our consciousness. It is no surprise that increasing levels of depression amongst (particularly young people) has coincided with the pursuit and persistence of neoliberal economics, with the capitulation of our schools, services and healthcare to free market forces. Free market dogma gives primacy to the competitive; increasing our workloads, shortening our leisure time and placing immense strain on personal and familial relations.
Working at a deeper level, the biochemicalization of mental health and the free market serve a mutually supportive function. The individuation of mental health drives sufferers into the arms of private pharmaceutical companies who stand to gain from distributing (selling) antidepressants en masse to the owners and consumers of depression. The onus is placed upon the individual to take medicine for a sickness that is not only his own, but in which all of society has some complicity. Thus, the individual comes to rely upon private forces for his literal sanity. This is a dangerous paradox: these are the same forces that stimulate the capitalist culture which serves to destabilise our psyche.
this sickness is a sickness shared by society
Similarly, the onus is placed on the individual to change his lifestyle to better cope with the realities of capitalism. He is told to incorporate more exercise, take a less stressful job, andpractice mindfulness. Never is the emphasis placed upon changing our economics, politics or culture. We are simply to accept the ruthless reality, to suffer it stoically, avoiding as best we can the recession toward hopelessness, melancholy, and perhaps even madness.
The work of Mark Fisher teaches us that a much more fundamental resolution is required. The first step is to refuse to accept the ‘reality’ of the ruling understandings that we are prescribed regarding mental health, and capitalism more widely, as the only fathomable ones. We must attempt (however in vain) to strive for an ideal society in which depression, if not eradicated, is much less commonplace. We must strive for sociocultural solutions to sociocultural problems and we must take public ownership of a problem that is presently private, a problem that cannot be contained simply as a chemical happening in the mind of a single person.
We would do well to heed Fisher’s call for the ‘repoliticisation’ of depression. The place to begin solving the seemingly intractable problem of poor mental health is not with the biochemist, the neurologist or the behavioural therapist, nor even with the politician. It is with the public – with the acceptance that this sickness is a sickness shared by society.
Image: Carsten Schertzer