A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health

From Los Angeles Review of Books: “The importance of arriving at a political understanding of depression cannot be overstated. If the reader only takes one thing away from my text let it be this: depression has a set of causes and a concrete context that transcend any diagnostic manual, as well as the neoliberal ideology of focusing on subjects, not structures; personal responsibilities, not collective ones; chemistry, not capital.

. . . Let me. . . describe the morality that surrounds depression. Take, as an example, a self-help video, ‘Why am I depressed?,’ by a man called Leo Gura. He is, according to his Twitter profile‘A professional self-development junkie, life coach, video blogger, entrepreneur, and speaker,’ who helps ‘people design awesome lives.’

Gura, a bald man with a goatee and the founder of actualized.org, starts the video by saying that he wants to answer the question of the title, ‘Why am I — you [raising eyebrows, while forming with his hands a parenthesis in the air as if around the word] — depressed?’ And the answer is simple: you are depressed because your psychology sucks. It should be noted that this is also the title of a video work by the artist duo Claire Fontaine, who in their ready-made video Untitled (Why Your Psychology Sucks) from 2015 has an African-American actress performing an almost exact verbatim copy of Gura’s talk, unfolding a pungent and quite comical criticism of the neoliberal self-help industry’s ideological personalization of depression and generalized responsibilization of the subject as such. Claire Fontaine is one of the artists who have worked in the most concentrated and consistent way with the problem of depression. In their work, depression is always already political and must be understood in relation to its real basis in social conflicts within a capitalist economy of debt and financial speculation.

Back to the original video, where a flashing sequence of catchphrases or keywords succeeds Gura’s introductory remarks. In the order given, the words read: ‘Success, happiness, self-actualization, life purpose, motivation, productivity, peak performance, creative expression, financial independence, emotional intelligence, positive psychology, consciousness, peak performance, personal power, wisdom. ‘ (Apparently, the concept of ‘peak performance’ is so important that it must be repeated.) Then, Gura delivers his message, his shocking truth: ‘Here is the deal. I’m going to blunt with you here, because the bottom line is that the reason you’re depressed is because your psychology sucks. Alright, you’ve got shit psychology. I’m not blaming you, I’m telling you a fact.’ He goes on to clarify that he is not talking about people who are ‘clinically depressed,’ and who thus have ‘legitimate’ depression. He is talking about the rest of us, the majority who get a diagnosis of depression and whom he is not blaming, except that he is. The video lasts a little more than 20 minutes, and at one point Leo Gura boldly and bluntly declares: ‘You are causing your depression.’ There is something wrong with your mental and cognitive apparatus, your psychology is ‘shit.’ Stop being a victim and take ownership of your psychology! Peak performance!

It is easy enough to laugh at the video and make fun of its logic, but the logic is the dominant one in the world of today — even if it is sometimes articulated in more moderate ways — and it has real effects. The logic is this: people create their own reality. Thoughts alone can change things. This means that you weave the thread of your own fate, there are no external circumstances and no excuses either.

A Danish sociologist with a quasi-royal name, Emilia van Hauen, expresses the same logic when writing on her homepage that ‘happiness is a choice — your choice,’ and fellow Danish therapist, Eva Christensen, sings along (again in my own translation ):

‘Happiness is a personal responsibility. Happiness is not something you can expect to get from others. Everybody has the key to their own happiness. And hence also the responsibility to put the key in the right lock. Happiness is created from the inside, it is not other people’s responsibility to make us happy, it is our own responsibility. Just as we cannot change other people, only ourselves.’

If the individual is responsible for her own happiness, then she is also responsible for her own unhappiness. If the keys are in our own hands, each of us is personally responsible for almost everything. Success or failure, and health or illness are a matter of subjective willpower, lifestyle, and choice alone. While we may not be able to change other people, or the world for that matter, we certainly can work on changing ourselves and our selves. Structural change, a change of the system, is abandoned in favor of subjective change, a change of the self. Every problem, however social, political, or economic in nature, is personalized and even responsible criminalized, the subject is made for its own unhappiness, and made to suffer alone and to feel guilty, at the same time, for feeling unhappy, for not Being a good and productive citizen, for not coming to work, for not getting out of bed.

These processes of personalization and responsibility that positive psychology and the imperative of happiness entail, these processes go hand in hand. Mark Fisher was attuned to this logic, or should we say ideology. Depressed people are depression to feel and believe that their fault is their fault and their fault only. ‘Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist,’ as he wrote in ‘Good for Nothing’ — implicitly referencing another of Thatcher’s claims, that society does not exist. This is where the problem of depression feeds into a more general problem: the model of subjectivity advocated in the original self-help video by Leo Gura is identical to the model of the autonomous, self-determining, competitive individual, the fiction of capitalist subjectivity . In the video ‘the viewer,’ the ‘you,’ is the cause of his or her own depression, but consequently also the only cure. What the video wants to do is to teach you how to ‘master your psychology’ and eventually put you in a state of ‘total bliss and happiness.’ It is a deeply moral message. Failing to be happy is simply immoral. If you are such an immoral and bad person that you have become unhappy — or depressed — it is you, and you alone that is to blame. This is the blaming cult of contemporary capitalism: you are causing your own depression — even when evidently you are not.

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Capitalism, in other words, inflicts a double injury on depressed people. First, it causes, or contributes to, the state of depression. Second, it erases any form of causality and individualizes the illness, so that it appears as if the depression in question is a personal problem (or property). In some cases, it appears to be your own fault. If you had just lived a better and more active life, made other choices, had a more positive mindset, et cetera, then you would not be depressed. This is the song sung by psychologists, coaches, and therapists around the world: happiness is your choice, your responsibility. The same goes for unhappiness and depression. Capitalism makes us feel bad and then, to add insult to injury, makes us feel bad about feeling bad.”

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