By Comrade Marté
Capitalism, the final epoch of class society, can be described in the simplest terms, as sickening. That is to be taken in the most literal sense, as in, capitalist society renders the masses of people forced to live in it literally ill. The disease that capitalism forces onto its victims afflicts the most personal, the most human component of one’s being. That is to say, capitalism afflicts one’s mind. To live and work under the capitalist system, is to be mentally ill. For the original Socialist Patients Collective (SPK), which existed in the German Federal Republic from the late 60’s to the early 70’s, the logical extension of that fact formed the basis of the radical axiom at the center of their movement which was conveyed to the world with the concise slogan: “Every suicide is a murder!” This was a great charge against the system that forces the starving to endure the anxiety of finding their next meal. It was a powerful accusation against the system that forces the majority of people to give up a large amount of the precious time in their fleeting lives to enrich a minority of exploiters. It was a grand denunciation of the system that dehumanizes whole nations of people to serve the national chauvinist interests of the imperialists. Overall by exposing the deadly illness that capitalism forces on human society, the SPK produced a condemnation of this wretched capitalist system of the highest caliber; one which warrants a deep exploration of capitalism induced mental illness in general as well as in its most acute manifestation in the oppressed nations of the world, as such an analysis will illuminate the indisputable fact that the system that has sickened and murdered so much of humanity, has created the basis for its own destruction in the form of world revolution. In other words, capitalism, which has driven so many suffering people to suicide, is killing itself.
If one wishes to understand how capitalism produces mental illness, one must first understand what it means to be ill. In the SPK’s “polemic and call to action”, (as they referred to it), Turn Illness Into a Weapon, the group explains the impotence of the dominant bourgeois explanation of mental illness as simply a biological phenomena that occurs on the individual level. They write:
If we want to solve a problem then we have to correctly recognize the problem. It doesn’t suffice that we can specify this or that part; we have to grasp all the moments that determine the problem and their interactions with each other. Only in that way is it possible for the knowledge and solution of the problem to form an inseparable unity. If we want to grasp why a stone falls to the ground, we can’t settle for determining that other bodies also fall to the ground, rather we have to grasp the essence of the appearance (the falling), namely gravity as the universal law of matter through the concept of mass. It’s the same with illness. Here it was clear to us from the outset that it’s completely unsatisfactory to look for a single bodily cause according to the model of scientific medicine.
To the SPK, to claim that mental illness is simply a biological phenomena and only an individual issue, is to make a surface level observation (like the one that both stones and other bodies fall to the ground), and not a complete explanation based on an understanding of the totality of the complex causes of the phenomena, (just as the explanation of the falling stone was not complete without theories of mass, matter, and gravity). They later wrote in the same polemic:
Anyone who concerns himself seriously with symptoms of illness has to deal with the power of capitalist society and with the organization of power. Social relations translate themselves completely into the material of the body and the image of bodies = psyche; the individual produces his body and psyche in the production process organized by capitalism.
Just as the falling stone could not be fully explained outside the context of gravity, the SPK concluded that mental illness could not be fully explained outside the context of capitalism. This is because the psychological condition of an individual is the embodiment of the social relations that characterize the society in which that individual exists. Starting from the Marxist understanding that capitalism has produced the necessary conditions for its replacement with a society free from exploitation and oppression in which one can obtain all that one needs to live, the SPK explains (to quote their polemic again) that “the individual’s need for life contradicts capital’s need for surplus value; the symptom is the immediately sensually perceptible unity of this contradiction.
This establishes the antagonistic contradiction that characterizes the SPK’s view of illness. The majority of people of the world, tired of wasting their lives working to fill someone else’s pockets, tired of worrying about having enough money to get their needs met, and tired of the alienation capitalist society forces them to endure, yearn to live in a free society, but this is contrary to the interests of private capital. Their analysis of this antagonism lead the SPK to make the ultimate conclusion:
The need for life reveals itself most immediately in the empirically experienced limitation of and threat to life, in illness as the way we exist in capitalism. Illness is inseparably bound up with psychological stress, with the need for change, with the need for production. Illness understood as a contradictory moment of life, carries within it the kernel and energy of its own negation, the will to life. At the same time it’s the repression, the negation of life. As the negation of life, however, it isn’t only an abstract negation of the merely biological (empirical) life process, but rather at the same time and essentially the product and negation of the conditions for “life,” that is of the prevailing social relations of production.
This explanation of mental illness, which is dialectical in nature, is the thorough one the SPK offers as a preferable alternative to the aforementioned explanation that reduces mental illness to the problems of individuals and their biology. Mental illness is the only mode of existence possible under capitalism, because it is the manifestation of the life negating properties of capitalism, which enslaves the power of human production, combats and severely limits the possibility of social change, and ultimately stands in the way of better lives for all mankind. Mental illness, being the product of such class relations, is the negation of human life, and along with it comes a great deal of painful stress. However, mental illness only exists because of the opposition of capitalism to the human will to life, therefore, mental illness must contain its opposite, a radical desire to live, and perhaps more importantly, to live free from capitalism. Mental illness as the SPK defines it is an enduring aspect of life for most people in the era of capitalism. That is because most people endure exploitation by the bourgeoisie, or various other forms of oppression that come from capitalism, such as sexism, racism, transphobia etc. But what of those who seem to have rid themselves of the symptoms of mental illness? On this question, the SPK had the following to say:
How far the individual succeeds in claiming the progressive moment of illness for himself depends greatly on the economic situation and the social position of the individual. Whoever was privileged in such as way that he had the possibility to work off symptoms by means of capitalist consumer goods (tourism, parties, etc.), or for whom a social position permitted health at the expense of others, for him the agitation ended with a “healing” in the bourgeois sense. He’s satisfied that the most disturbing symptoms are gone, otherwise he claims the reactionary side of illness (suppression of protest as an organized form of violence against others and therefore also against oneself), and separates as a “free” person from the SPK. He was “healthy” and so stood objectively on the side of capital
For a small minority of privileged people the alleviation of some of the worst symptoms of mental illness can be achieved. This is an impossibility for most of mankind however, as these “healthy” people are those who can receive the psychological care that most can not, that can enjoy the luxuries that most can not, that can ignore the existence of forms of oppression that the overwhelming majority of people simply can not. Furthermore, the health achieved by the privileged is a faux health at best. Only the worst symptoms of mental illness can really go away for these people, as they remain chained to the class society that guarantees the persistence of illness. Those who lack such privilege have no other choice but to recognize the liberatory aspect of mental illness. They must see proof of their will to live a good life in the pain of life under capitalism. They must find the desire to initiate change within their disgust with the status quo. They must discover their essential humanity in the suffering caused by inhumane capitalism. Ultimately, they must understand that mental illness is more than a simple affliction, because it contains a revolutionary aspect, that is, the impetus for struggle towards the total transformation of society.
The most acute form of mental illness is without a doubt found in the nations oppressed by colonial or neo-colonial imperialism. This is to be expected in the current stage of capitalism, in which the people of the oppressed nations are those who experience the most severe forms of capitalist exploitation. Black, Marxist, psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon described the mental illness that appears in colonized peoples (today those would include the Palestinians, the First Nations, Puerto Ricans, New Afrikans etc.) in his book The Wretched of the Earth. One example he gives of colonists producing mental illness in the colonized is the following:
The colonist keeps the colonized in a state of rage, which he prevents from boiling over. The colonized are caught in a tightly knit web of colonialism. But we have seen how on the inside the colonist achieves only a pseudo-petrification. The muscular tension of the colonized periodically erupts into bloody fighting between tribes, clans, and individuals.
The racial supremacist order of a colonial society is held up in part by a genuine effort by the colonists to keep the colonized in a permanent agitated mental state. Fanon goes on to explain that:
…one of the ways the colonized subject releases his muscular tension is through the very real collective self-destruction of these internecine feuds. Such behavior represents a death wish in the face of danger, a suicidal conduct which reinforces the colonist’s existence and domination and reassures him that such men are not rational.
From just these two quotes from his text, one can see how Fanon was able to draw a direct connection between the colonial subject’s intense psychological distress caused by the colonizer, and the manifestation of suicidal tendencies in the colonized populace in the form of violence against each other. Perhaps even more significant is Fanon’s conclusion that this suicidal violence actually reinforces the colonial order, because the colonists interpret the violence as a confirmation of the racist views they use to justify their presence. Like the SPK, Fanon also argued that the ideal state of “good mental health” championed by the exploiters, does not constitute any sort of actual liberation from mental illness. This is reflected in his analysis of psychiatry in Algeria during the period of French domination, on which he wrote:
Since 1954 we have drawn the attention of French and international psychiatrists in scientific works to the difficulty of “curing” a colonized subject correctly, in other words making him thoroughly fit into a social environment of the colonial type.
Fanon understood that the attempts to rid the Algerians of mental illness made by the psychiatrists of France, the nation of the colonizers, and their international partners, were simply a disguised attempt to preserve the colonial social order by ensuring that the colonized people remained subjugated. Colonialism is far less prevalent today than it was in Fanon’s time, due to a great wave of national liberation movements during the 20th century of which the Algerian Revolution was one of the first. Nevertheless, outside of the many direct settler colonial societies that exist to this day, the oppression of nation by nation for the most part persists throughout the global south in the form of more indirect forms of imperialism, such as neocolonialism. The people in the Third World nations which are exploited by the imperialist nations of the first world (through means of unequal exchange, forced structural adjustment programs, predatory loans etc.) endure as a result of that exploitation both severe poverty and the severe psychological pain that comes with it. Leonardo and Clodovis Boff illustrate this fact in their book Introducing Liberation Theology in the form of a true story of poverty induced despair in imperialist exploited Latin America.The story was the following:
A woman of forty, but who looked as old as seventy, went up to the priest after Mass and said sorrowfully: ‘Father, I went to communion without going to confession first.’ ‘How come my daughter?’ asked the priest. ‘Father,’ she replied, ‘I arrived rather late, after you had begun the offertory. For three days I have had only water and nothing to eat; I’m dying of hunger. When I saw you handing out the hosts, those little pieces of white bread, I went to communion just out of hunger for that little bread.’ The priest’s eyes filled with tears.
The effect of the poverty caused by imperialism on the mental state of third world people is made clear by the Boff brothers by their description of the sorrow of the woman, and the tears of the priest. In a manner consistent with the SPK’s analysis of mental illness, the woman’s emotional suffering was the direct product of her inability to obtain her life needs due to capitalism, therefore, the psychological stress caused by her simple desire for bread contained within it her simple desire to live. It is this will to life that constitutes the basis for radical movements towards the complete overturn of the capitalist-imperialist world system. In fact, the Boff brothers included that story in their book for that very reason. Such examples of sorrow proved the existence of the impetus for mass participation in the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement they advocated for. Such examples also proved that because of the extreme exploitation and resulting mental illness people experience in oppressed nations, it is in such nations that the greatest basis for movements of that kind exist.
It has been established that capitalism leads to mental illness, and mental illness leads to suicidality. The next question that must be answered is, therefore, to what does suicidality lead? The obvious answer to this question appears to simply be suicide, but for the late Dr. Huey P. Newton, who led the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the answer is far more nuanced. Dr. Newton made the radical assertion that there is not one, but in reality, two types of suicide that can result from capitalism induced mental illness. In addition to the concept of suicide as it is usually understood, which Dr. Newton dubs “reactionary suicide” he posits the existence of a second, more radical, and more liberating type of suicide which he called “revolutionary suicide”. In his (appropriately titled) book, Revolutionary Suicide, Dr. Newton writes:
To understand revolutionary suicide it is first necessary to have an idea of reactionary suicide, for the two are very different. Dr. Hendin was describing reactionary suicide: the reaction of a man who takes his own life in response to social conditions that overwhelm him and condemn him to helplessness. The young Black men in his study had been deprived of human dignity, crushed by oppressive forces, and denied their right to live as proud and free human beings.
Just like the SPK, Dr. Newton recognizes the contradiction between life and capitalist society is the kernel of the phenomena of mental illness, and also like the SPK, Dr. Newton identifies the cause of “reactionary suicide” as capitalism itself. It is Dr. Newton’s concept or “revolutionary suicide” however, that presents a similar concept to the SPK’s view that mental illness contains a progressive element, in a significantly more powerful manner. He writes:
I do not think that life will change for the better without an assault on the Establishment, which goes on exploiting the wretched of the earth. This belief lies at the heart of the concept of revolutionary suicide. Thus it is better to oppose the forces that would drive me to self-murder than to endure them. Although I risk the likelihood of death, there is at least the possibility, if not the probability, of changing intolerable conditions. This possibility is important, because much in human existence is based upon hope without any real understanding of the odds. Indeed, we are all—Black and white alike—ill in the same way, mortally ill. But before we die, how shall we live? I say with hope and dignity; and if premature death is the result, that death has a meaning reactionary suicide can never have. It is the price of self-respect.
Revolutionary suicide is choosing capitalism’s overthrow over overdose. It is choosing communiques instead of suicide notes. Revolutionary suicide is the refusal to give in to capitalism, even in the face of death. This is because, as Dr. Newton writes:
We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.
Capitalism meets those that refuse to be destroyed by it with even harsher repression, people all around the world are killed every day for standing up for their most basic needs and rights. Revolutionary suicide is rebellion in spite of this fact, it is when one clings so hard to one’s hope and dignity that, as Dr. Newton writes:
When reactionary forces crush us, we must move against these forces, even at the risk of death. We will have to be driven out with a stick.
One is presented with a choice by existing in capitalist society. It is a restricted choice that must be made within the context of inescapable mental illness. One can choose to let capitalism have an eternal hold on one’s life, thus resigning oneself to a dehumanizing, depressing, physically and psychologically degrading life. That path is the one of defeat and has a certain end either in one’s natural death after a life of misery, or one’s murder by capitalist society by means of suicide. However, one can also choose the path of rebellion. One can choose to position oneself against capitalism, to acknowledge and embrace one’s illness and recognize how the struggle for freedom can be born from one’s suffering. That is the path of dignity, the path that gives a reason to live on, even when circumstances seem overwhelming, it is the path that chooses life over death, the possibility of victory over certain defeat, and autonomy over subjugation. That path may very well end in death while engaging in struggle, but the cause of death would be not suicide, but martyrdom, and would render one not just a simple casualty of capitalist exploitation, but an immortal member of the people’s struggle. One day, all the contributions of those who chose to stand up against the system that makes us all sick, will do away with capitalism, along with the mental illness it causes. However for that day to come, the people of the world must choose to take the mental illness they all possess and use it to fuel their world historic fight for the liberation of all mankind. In other words, the world’s people must, as the SPK used to say:
TURN ILLNESS INTO A WEAPON!