Mental Health Under Capitalism

Trigger Warning: mental health, depression, anxiety, stress, suicide, all that heavy stuff.

Between 1999 and 2017, so-called deaths of despair – through alcohol, drugs or suicide – doubled in the US. An increasing number of people see so little to live for that they reach for the escape of a bottle, pill or gun. This is generally portrayed as an irrational act of madness, bad brain synapses acting up. After muttered prayers and platitudes about mental health services, we move on. Just a bout of insanity.

But is there anything sane about the life of the average worker? We spend our lives chained to a desk, doing pointless work to generate profit for vampiric capital. Our bosses control our lives both at work and beyond, demanding complete subservience in exchange for the pitiful wage we get. The mantra of flexibility has been used to erode any level of security, with workers kept on casual, short-term contract, or even contractor gigs indefinitely, never sure whether they’ll be able to pay the rent each week.

Anxiety is not a bug in the system. It is working as intended.

Precarious workers are pliant workers. A worker afraid that their boss can throw them into destitution at will works harder, longer, and can never stand up for themselves. They are so busy sprinting that they can never stop to think about why.

For this to work, unemployment must be kept as unappealing as possible. The unemployed must be made so desperate that they will take any job, no matter how precarious and poorly paid. They must serve as an example to keep the workers disciplined. Is it any wonder the dole hasn’t risen in 25 years?

One in five Australians is reported by the ABS to have a mental health condition. Yet we seem to just accept that a fifth of us must have bad brains or poor resilience.

How has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

This isn’t a mistake. It isn’t a bug in the system. The system is working, just not for you. It isn’t meant to work for you.

Every dollar paid to a worker is a dollar which isn’t paid out in profit. For shareholders, it is critical that you be kept cheap and productive. The harder you work, the more they get paid. You are a marginal input cost, to be minimised and discarded once it is no longer profitable. If it is more profitable to keep you stressed and fearful, then it is in shareholder interests to do so. If they do not then another more ruthless company will out-compete them.

The only risk is that workers may commit suicide and remove themselves from the labour market altogether. A worker directly producing value for their owners is ideal. A depressed and unemployed worker living under a bridge is still valuable as a disciplinary example. A worker who kills themselves is not.

It is estimated that suicide in Australia led to approximately $1.6 billion in productivity loss in 2012.

KPMG for Menslink, The economic cost of suicide in Australia, 2013

This is how the issue is phrased in a report commissioned by Menslink, a mental health non-profit. Working class mental health is worthwhile only to the extent that it improves the bottom line of their funders.

The primary aim of mental healthcare under capitalism is to keep any suicidal impulses clamped down so that you continue to be be a profitable investment for your employer. The aim isn’t to make your life better. That would impede profits. No, mental healthcare under capitalism is solely focused on keeping you productive. On alleviating the symptoms, not addressing the causes.

Mental health is a state of wellbeing in which every individual … can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

The Social and Economic Benefits of Improving Mental Health, Productivity Commission, Australian Government, 2019

We teach children to be resilient; to push down their emotions and stresses to a place where they won’t impede their productivity. Workers are encouraged to practice self-care and mindfulness (on their own time, of course) to boost their workplace performance. If these interventions don’t push away that gnawing feeling that your life is a bit shit, then there is a whole industry dedicated to pills that will suppress any pesky emotions interfering with your work output.

Ultimately, your life is meant to be shit. If it isn’t, then your owners run the risk of you unionising, striking, rebelling or otherwise interfering with their interests. The point of mental healthcare under capitalism is to teach you to remain productive for your owners. To resist the stress they deliberately put you under.

The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

The stress and anxiety which capitalism places us under isn’t just of academic interest. Cultural critic Mark Fisher, whose ideas I’ve drawn upon in this piece, took his own life in 2017. Did he just have a bad brain? Or was he a sane man in an insane society?