In the first months of 2017, I was badly sleep deprived, overworked and pretty disoriented by the shock of Mark Fisher’s death. I suppose a certain kind of psychoanalyst might also suggest that I was suffering from something vaguely like male post-natal depression.
I don’t want to go so far as to suggest that this and other forms of depression are spurious hypochondrias dreamt up by PR advocates who think that “raising awareness” of newly branded maladies will help to “beat [x]” and eradicate human anguish. However, one of the most valuable arguments in Mark Fisher’s writings, which often revolved around the theme of depression, was a simple, timely assertion that poor mental health is not or not merely a physiological disorder, but the consequence of certain specific structural and political forms of oppression and dysphoria. We might think this would be a rather obvious point to make in a society that apparently long ago accepted the sociological dimension of human psychology. But as Mark repeatedly showed, one of the ways in which neoliberalism has managed to exercise such tight control over its subjects is through a mystification of mental health, so that it is seen as an individual rather than a collective problem, something that can only be treated by way of alternately punitive/inspirational self-help nostrums, cognitive therapies that tease out childhood experiences and, in an alarmingly large number of cases, drugs.
Writing for the Guardian in 2012, Mark railed against this “magical voluntarist” side of the neoliberal worldview — the idea that through an act of heroic (or chemical) will, individuals can rise above circumstance to become masters of their own destiny. More specifically, he argued, our magical voluntarist approach to mental health is the direct consequence of identifiable political trends over the last four decades:
Mental illness has been depoliticised, so that we blithely accept a situation in which depression is now the malady most treated by the NHS. The neoliberal policies implemented first by the Thatcher governments in the 1980s and continued by New Labour and the current coalition have resulted in a privatisation of stress.
For Mark, the deliberate removal of forms of social solidarity and security since the eighties has marooned individuals on islands of their own suffering. As he puts it in the Guardian piece: “Where once workers would have turned to trade unions when they were put under increasing stress, now they are encouraged to go to their GP or, if they are lucky enough to be able to get one on the NHS, a therapist.”
It is often the looming shadow of fate far more than any inner will that is responsible for the upbeats and downbeats of our lives. In my own relatively mundane case, I can see now that although my severe melancholy in the first months of 2017 was in some sense subjective and physiological — there is nothing that can be done about chronic sleep deprivation — it was also largely determined by objective factors over which I had no control. In my immediate surroundings, the academic work regime, with its bureaucracy, stress and lack of meaningful paternity provision, made it difficult to feel anything like a sense of autonomy and mental balance at this point in time, especially when the isolated, privatised experience of caring for a child was added to the mix. But perhaps even more crushingly, it looked in this interlude as though the political contexts which gave rise to individual strain were only going to get much worse.
For me, early 2017 marked the culmination of a nearly lifelong feeling of sorrow and anger. Again, I don’t want to exaggerate first-world, lower-middle-class hardships. I should also point out that, even allowing for political events, there was something profoundly uplifting in my experience of 2017, namely the joy of watching a beautiful, healthy, frequently hilarious little boy come into the world, and the relief of knowing that he would not have to suffer the abject poverty affecting a harrowing 48% of children in our Newcastle constituency.
But in spite of these alternately profound and guilt-inducing private solaces, it was difficult in this period to keep political wolves from the door. Superficially, there was Brexit and Trump of course. Though it has since proved to be a slightly more ambiguous proposition, the result of the EU membership referendum in June 2016 initially seemed like an unequivocal triumph for the reactionary right in Britain. Similarly, I think it’s fair to say that Trump’s victory in the US presidential election a few months later in November 2016 arrived as a dystopian shock for a large fraction of the global population, regardless of political persuasion.
On top of these stock occasions for liberal-centrist dismay at “the world gone mad” (as a pathologically Little-English placard at the March 2019 People’s Vote march in London put it: “I’m not one to make a fuss usually but the last two years have been frankly farcical”), it seemed at the start of 2017 as though the radical political culture which had been building throughout the 2010s would end not with a bang but a whimper. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership in September 2015 seemed like a breakthrough moment for people in my leftist milieu — the start of an epochal fightback against the sorts of neoliberal commonplaces that had caused social and mental immiseration for so many of us. But by the start of 2017, the Corbynite tendency was utterly beleaguered. Because of his popularity among a newly energised Labour membership, Corbyn had survived successive determined attempts by the parliamentary Labour party to depose him. But in February 2017, Labour lost to the Tories in a by-election in Copeland, a long-time safe Labour seat, and it seemed as though Corbyn’s dire performance in opinion polls would be mirrored by the hard facts of electoral reality.
When Mark Fisher died, it was very difficult not to feel like capitalist realism had somehow managed to win out after years when it had seemed on the verge of collapse. As a sort of nightmare confirmation of this sense of foreboding, in April 2017 Theresa May announced a snap general election. This was, as the Daily Mail crowed, a chance to finally “CRUSH THE SABOTEURS”. It looked almost certain that May would win a landslide victory and embark on an accelerated Conservative campaign to eliminate the few remaining corners of British society not terminally damaged by neoliberalism. The Tory manifesto promised to lift the ban on fox hunting, expand the provision of grammar schools and free schools in secondary education, deepen the severe economic austerity that had begun in 2010 and restructure the electoral system to the lasting detriment of the opposition. As a snooty elderly professor at my workplace sneered when the election was announced: “That’ll be the end of Labour then.”
The prospect of all this, and of the inevitable return of what was left of the Labour party to the hands of the Blairites and Brownites after likely electoral annihilation, led to some of the profoundest feelings of despair I have ever known. As I sleepwalked through the days and nights, I felt as though I was living in the killing time, sliding passively towards decay, with ingenious lovely things disappearing around me all the while. If there was a rock bottom of the decade as a whole — for me and for others of my political stripe — this was it.
But then a strange thing happened. As the long general election campaign unfolded in the late spring and early summer of 2017, the sun crept out, as it were, and the moon waned. In a way that was almost unprecedented, Labour started to rise and rise in the polls on a daily basis. The Labour manifesto, announced in the middle of May, was strikingly daring and substantial in comparison with the braindead neoliberal fatalism of its Tory counterpart, with bold, rigorously costed commitments to scrapping university tuition fees, renationalising rail networks and water companies, and taxing the rich to fund public services.
You began to sense that something had been let out of the bag, something that couldn’t now be forgotten, even if, as seemed certain, Labour went on to lose the election. On polling day itself, I spent the morning doorstepping for Labour in the West End of Newcastle. Everyone we spoke to in the estates of Kenton and Blakelaw was going to vote Labour, bar none, which didn’t quite fit with the narrative we had been fed by MPs on the right of the party and the Guardian commentariat, that the “white working class” hated Corbyn, and would only vote for the party if he was left out of the sales pitch entirely. Where I lived, in a slightly leafier part of Fenham, Labour posters were everywhere, sometimes in almost every window of entire streets. Even so, it still seemed that a slight reduction of the projected 100-seat majority for May was the best we could hope for, and that Corbyn and his radical policies would melt into memory before the end of the week.
In the end I cast my vote with my partner and our six-month-old son in a polling station just around the corner from the West End Foodbank, where Ken Loach filmed one of the most harrowing scenes in I, Daniel Blake, his filmic tragedy about 2010s austerity and benefit culture. It was the first time in my life that I felt fully enfranchised. After years of alternating between voting tactically, voting with a held nose, or spoiling the ballot paper, it was disconcerting and moving to know that my “X” now corresponded to the ideals of a party I truly believed in.
Later that evening, as the exit poll was announced, and it became clear that Labour had overturned the odds to deprive May of her parliamentary majority, I sat back on my sofa and felt tears streaming down my face. In a slaying instant, before the reality of a hung parliament kicked in, I thought about the possible disappearance of foodbanks, the safeguarding of surgeries, libraries and schools, and the people who might now be saved from loneliness, suffering and indignity in a future without privatisation and austerity. I thought about the people in the West End of Newcastle, whose jobs, pubs, housing and sense of pride had been obliterated over the last four decades, and who might now hope for something better. I thought that perhaps in the future my friends wouldn’t have to live precariously, meagrely and permanently on the brink of mental illness in a society without social safety nets. I thought that maybe one day I wouldn’t have to treat my students as if they were customers and be rated out of five at the end of each term as a reward. I thought about my late mother, whose last years as a teacher were made miserable and unhealthy by the arrival of Ofsted inspections and league tables in the years of Major and Blair. I thought about how my sister and I had been forced to travel on various terrible forms of public transport for nearly three hours to visit my dad when he was dying in 2005 because the local infrastructure had been modernised out of existence. I thought about my son’s difficult birth, and the amount of blood my partner lost because the doctors were understaffed, underfunded and unable to help her quickly enough. Then I thought about Mark Fisher, and how sad it was that he had only just missed this. I also thought how hopeful it was that a crack had opened up once again in the façade of what Mark called capitalist realism.
All of this combined in a stab of emotion that was weirdly unfamiliar. It felt as though some kind of curse was beginning to lift, that a new version of this disparate, strangely formed country might finally start to come into being.
- This article is excerpted from Alex Niven’s new book New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England, out now on Repeater Books.
Alex Niven is a writer and editor from Northumberland. He lectures in English at Newcastle University.