4 Theses on Depression and Radical Praxis

by Sophie Monk and Joni (Pitt) Cohen

3 February 2017

Matt Wiebe/Flickr

Depression is political. As mental health service funding is steadily cut and suicide and substance abuse statistics rise, it is becoming increasingly obvious that depression is a condition of the political situation under which we live. In a UK context, austerity has mobilised a technique of responsibilisation functioning at every level of society to justify the catastrophic fallout of the regime, from healthcare to unemployment. Mark Fisher has written resonantly in his essay Good for Nothing about how as a generation we suffer from a kind of collective imposter syndrome, convinced simultaneously of our complete lack of worth and that any recognition of our worth is mistakenly given. And yet the message constantly reinforced by the ruling classes is that the class system our parents were born into and lived through has dissolved, making way for a world of frictionless social mobility, where the only blockages to success are from within ourselves. We are stuck in a tragic cycle of unfulfillable desires produced by capital; we are “a population that has all its life been sent the message that it is good for nothing [and] is simultaneously told that it can do anything it wants to do.”

And so we find ourselves in a situation where a huge majority of the people we know and love are engaged in fraught attempts to cope with chronic and severe depression. This community to which we refer also tends to understand itself as engaged in an antagonistic relationship with capital, the state, and other forms of social power. Taking Fisher’s key propositions on both how it feels to be depressed and where depression comes from as our reference points, we want to formulate an understanding of the relationship between depression and radical praxis that can be directly applied within our organising communities.

1. Depression can and does affect our capacities to give to struggle and each other.

For those of us who suffer from depression, organising can be hard. It is also inevitable that once struggle reaches a certain fever pitch, violence and traumatic backlash follows, and we become painfully aware of the manifold ways in which we are policed, surveilled and disciplined. At this point, continuing to fulfil one’s action points, attend regular meetings, and put oneself through further confrontations with the state can feel as impossible as going to the job centre, or turning up at your 9 to 5. It’s a basic point, but the important thing to acknowledge here is that depression is incapacitating, and that we must learn to live within our capacities or risk worsening our conditions.

2. Medication has the potential to both pacify and galvanise us.

According to a report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre, the number of anti-depressants prescribed to people in England doubled between 2006 and 2016. While so many of us share this experience of medicating with prescription drugs, it is astonishing how little we actually talk about the ways in which this chemical intervention affects our bodies, emotions, and even our struggle.

There exists a dogma on the left that anti-depressants form part of a technique of politico-pharmacological control invested in the mass suppression of the negative and antagonistic affect necessary for struggle or revolution. In other words, psychiatry is thought to play a role in pacifying the masses, chemically inducing consent and tolerance of our conditions.

We believe this approach fundamentally ignores many important aspects of being on anti-depressant medication, and also misinterprets the affects required by anti-capitalist struggle. Certainly, the experiences of chronic fatigue and a general restricting of the range and intensity of emotional experience can lead us to invest less of ourselves in revolutionary politics. But the demand for radicals to always be immediately and fully emotionally present in anti-capitalist struggle is strangely purist and misses the key point that, at times, a reprieve from the highs and lows of depression can actually provide us with the emotional distance required to participate at all. To share from our own personal experiences: while physical confrontation with the police has in the past quickly become unbearably traumatic and overwhelming, the dulling of the senses by SSRIs has in actual fact proved advantageous to dealing strategically with situations as they escalate. This represents a possibility of a weaponisation of the collective depression that we suffer; using the medication that we require because of our conditions, to in fact enable us to struggle against those conditions. We should develop a more nuanced thinking of pharmaceuticals and resist conflating them entirely with the grimy fingers of corporate power.

3. Mental illness is a relation between individual pathology and social conditions.

This article is first and foremost a set of propositions for how to approach radical anti-capitalist praxis in an age of mass depression. And yet, these notes are not the first of their kind, but emerge from and in response to a long melancholic tradition of understanding mental illness. This Adornoian approach, which Rosi Braidotti has attributed to the “melancholy brigade”, forecloses the possibility of joy in struggle, arguing instead for the nobility of depression, figuring depression as a state of enlightenment akin to accessing the radical truth of one’s lived conditions, rather than a state that is induced by them, with the possibility of amelioration.

We want to move away from this anti-psychiatric position and instead embrace a paradigm of mental illness that acknowledges the relation between individual pathology and social conditions. Depression often feels like a terrible, unmoveable weight, pushing down, crushing the air out of us – a literally depressing sensation. But this is not to say that there are not different techniques for coping and managing its effects, nor that we shouldn’t endeavour to find them. To take this point a step further, we want to argue that it is the responsibility of radical communities to foster ecologies of care in which both the dictates of formal psychiatry and the anti-psychiatric melancholy brigade are circumvented. In practice this may look like the setting up of medication cooperatives and voluntary crisis teams, as well as collectively enjoying social activities and downtime, which is fundamental to the reproduction of our struggle.

4. We need to re-structure our organising practices to not only accommodate but deal therapeutically with mental illness.

Mental illness accessibility strategies in political organising, insofar as they are implemented at all, follow a logic of an add-on, as opposed to a fundamental restructuring of the way we organise. We drop out of organising for periods of time, take breaks to heal, and this is finally being accepted as valid and needed. But nonetheless it is expected that the activism machine will keep on ticking along without us and its progress must remain unhindered by the mental illness that its participants suffer. This logic fundamentally misunderstands the role that depression can and should play in our radical praxis. We need to recognise that mental illness is not simply the state that prevents us from struggling effectively, but rather is the position and condition from which we collectively struggle. Struggle doesn’t happen in a stratum of health that we intermittently drop out of into a nether world and eventually (hopefully) return to, but struggle must be located within the realm of illness. We must transform our organising to be such that it aims at therapeutic goals simultaneous to and embedded in its more traditionally political goals. Organising must be self-sustaining and as such must be a life-producing and therapeutic praxis that incorporates depression rather than abjecting it.

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