“The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”― David Foster Wallace, “The Depressed Person”

The late British philosopher Mark Fisher stressed the immense importance of the politicization of mental illness over what he called the “privatization of stress.” Put simply, the privatization of stress means that society and capital treat mental illness as a strictly individualistic phenomenon. Both in terms of diagnosis and treatment, mental health issues are individual–and most importantly–strictly private. Mental illness is a personal problem; it is your fault and it is up to you to treat it. You are sick because of your brain chemistry, your behavior, or your past trauma, and you need to fix it by getting drugs to fix your brain and change your behavior. Society largely rejects even entertaining the idea that mental distress could have social, political, and economic causations. Who will challenge this aspect of capitalist realism? Certainly not the politicians bought out by massive pharmaceutical companies who reap colossal profits from the privatization of mental illness1, certainly not the liberal charlatan self help pundits who want to make mental illness woke, certainly not the conservatives who decry all struggle as the fault of individuals not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. This is not to say there cannot be any individual causations of trauma and distress, rather to say, it is a necessity for the left to address and tackle this issue. Fisher recognized this necessity, saying it’s urgent for the left to address this in order to tackle capitalist realism. 

1 Not only has mental illness become private to the individual, it is simultaneously privatized on the market itself through the lucrative pharmaceutical industry, making profit on hooking young depressed adolescents on SSRIs for life.

Four years after his death, Fisher’s powerful yet harrowing works on depression are even more relevant now than during his life. The young generation of today’s society is seeing rises in depression and anxiety, and in order to truly understand this it must be politicized instantly.  The goal of this piece is to explore the different aspects of capitalism that are the cause of so much displeasing emotional pain, from alienating and dissatisfying labor, economic hardships, the slow cancellation of the future, the mass commodification of culture, the hopeless theatre of politics and the very nature of postmodernity itself.

Depression is a horrendous beast, an unbearable sinking feeling, like being stuck in an abyss, an abyss of never ending pain. Words cannot do justice to the horrors of depression. It’s a void, a vacuum, a loss of the experience of time itself. It feels as if it is eternally the same moment, reliving the same state of agony again and again and again. A feeling of simultaneous nothingness and everything in the world coming down on you. Everything in the world matters and feels bad, but everything in the world does not matter, and feels numb. It is more horror than sadness, more dread and despair than gloom. Fundamentally, it’s a feeling of non-feeling itself. One cannot help but see and almost feel the horrors of the world while engrossed in a state of melancholia–but maybe Freud was right, maybe the melancholics have a keener eye for the truth. 

We are living through gilded age levels of income inequality. The top 1% have an immense concentration of social, political, and economic power, and the rest of us are left scrambling to make ends meet, wasting away our lives in unfulfilling labor. What joy can one truly feel when they are wasting the majority of their waking hours doing unfulfilling jobs? What happiness is there wasting away so some greedy capitalist profit off their labor? Even worse, what happens when that unfulfilling labor still is not enough to make ends meet? It cannot be stressed enough the anxiety and depression caused by economic hardships: being unable to provide for oneself and/or their loved ones, being unable to deal with crippling debt looming over them like a dark rain cloud. Depression, anxiety, and hopelessness are expected feelings to plague the working class as they are forced to work through the hell of neoliberalism with its deteriorating economic conditions, for what future is there to even look forward to? A life of capitalist servitude? Of exploited and dominated labor? Younger generations certainly have a less-than-rosy view on the future, a pervasive dread, for what do we have to look forward to? In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences more and more people cannot make ends meet. Thanks to the crisis in Texas people are being placed in debt over insane power prices, and there is certainly no way that could be good for people’s mental well-being.

Capitalism also inherently values money and success, or the illusion of success. Who cares if your life is hollow and empty as long as you have money? All the most fundamental important and essential jobs are simply not valued. Despite working jobs that are needed for society to function, idealogues simply tell people they should have worked harder, or just to get a better job. Those who work jobs that are “minimum wage”, or do manual labor, or have simply not very glorius jobs are seen as failures in capitalist society. Despite these jobs being a necessity for society to function, they are looked down upon. People who work these important jobs are seen as people who just did not work hard enough, don’t care enough about doing well, and so on. Despite the fact that these jobs are important, and oftentimes hard, and stressful, the workers are still seen as worthless: not worth living wages, or the ability to afford health insurance, or pay for a college education for their kids. This is, to me, deeply depressing. Capital makes doing these jobs feel unimportant despite their importance, makes us feel like failures despite their necessity, makes us feel like we are not contributing despite helping people. Whereas the parasites of society who just make money and contribute nothing are overvalued.

Maybe the punk music scene of the 70s screaming no future had a point: what if there was no future? Well, under postmodernity the future itself has been cancelled. What Fisher calls ‘the slow cancellation of the future’ is the seemingly lack of sociocultural and political progress. Culture has not gone anywhere, instead it’s reverted to nostalgia and the aesthetic of the past. Political progress is seemingly non-existent; despite crisis after crisis the powers of neoliberalism are still all too pervasive. Would Thatcher have been right? Is there no alternative? In Fisher’s own words, “the slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.” Nothing seems to happen, nothing seems to have changed. Capital has pushed us into the role of the very passive depressed subject. We are stricken with hauntology, or, a nostalgia for a non experienced past and a future that never came. Capitalism feels to have frozen time itself; it has seemingly frozen culture, and there is nothing left to feel but a yearning for a better future, but that future will never come, or to experience a past when everything seemed to have felt in order, but truly never war. Danish writer Mikkel Krause Frantzen writes about depression as an inability to feel and perceive the future, as a sense of being stuck, stuck in a dreadful tar pit weighing us down. Depression to Frantzen is fundamentally an issue of futurity itself. The slow cancellation of the future is just that, a sinking tar pit where the light at the end of the tunnel, the future itself, is slowly fading away like a dying star.

Marx famously professed in the Communist Manifesto that “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” Capital has commodified every aspect of life. Nothing is free from the wretched grasp of capital. Like the parasite that it is, it infects everything, everything is to be bought and sold, everything is there only for the maximization of profit. It’s utterly depressing to live in a society like this. There is nothing left to truly enjoy, there is nothing left that is free from commodification (even air, water, and land, are wretched commodities). There are hardly any public spaces left, spaces you can go and not be expected to purchase anything. Culture and art are simply yet another industry; there is no beauty left here, only profit. It is truly depressing and somewhat painful to live in such  commodified value driven culture and society, where profit is valued above human life, where private property is greater than human rights, where being a successful (ie wealthy) person is valued over being a good person.

We live in bad times to say the least: Gilded Age-level inequality, 500,000 dead from COVID, Texas in crisis, the economy is tumbling, and we are marching towards climate disaster. Despite this nothing seems to get done. Biden has given us no stimulus, no minimum wage increase, no relief of any kind. But this is the essence of American bourgeois electoral politics. Politicians run on the basis of helping the poor, and then do nothing but help the rich upon their election. It’s all a show: all the infighting between politicians means absolutely nothing, and in the end nothing will be done to help us. This is truly depressing, but what’s even worse is that there is a seemingly universal view that people know politicians do not help and that they will never do anything to help us; despite this we ourselves are the ones that uphold systems of oppression. You have to wonder why people seem to know politicians will not help, but then continue supporting said politicians. As Gilles Deleuze says “The fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly (and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered): Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” Why do we continue to pain ourselves with the theatre of politics when we seem to know it will not help us? Why do we continue to get ourselves emotional over what we know will just disappoint us? alas, maybe that’s what being human is after all”

But most fundamentally, deep in the core of capitalism itself, postmodern capitalism is inherently depressive. Postmodernity is chronically unstable and everchanging; we cannot seem to keep up with it. Nothing and everything feels real anymore; what is simulation, what is hyperreality? The lines between real and illusion are beyond blurred. This itself is anxious and depressing; postmodernity has over-stimulated us, leaving us depressingly passive, for how can we even know what to do. How can the left even begin to challenge the all pervasive system? As Fisher and Žižek have pointed out, anti-capitalism has been disseminated into capitalism itself; capitalism has co-opted and commodified every social movement, stripping them of their revolutionary essence. so that leaves us with the question: What is to be done? Capitalism forces us with a feeling of nothing though, nothing can be done, and this is depressing. The feeling of hopelessness, the feeling of having an inability to challenge the seemingly immortal yet contingent system is truly depressing for the political involved. Under postmodernity depression is more than a cynical outlook on life, but rather a philosophical position forced onto us, a depressive ontology that seemingly blurs and clarifies the world we experience. But no true justice can be done to this state of postmodernity, there is seemingly no way to put into words. As David Foster Wallace refers to the inability to accurately describe depression as its essential horror, that also holds true for postmodern capitalism. Words cannot seem to do it justice, cannot express the strange sorrow associated with it. 

But most importantly, we must understand, and somehow despite the difficulty, be optimistic. Thatcher is not right, there is an alternative. At the end of Capitalism Realism Fisher was optimistic, and we should be as well. We can challenge capitalism and its all pervasive power, after all, as Ursula K. Le Guin says “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” Depression and anxiety related to capitalism are not guaranteed, the younger generation is not sentenced to suffer, we can change the system, we have no choice. The politicization of mental illness is one of the most urgent and important issues of the left today. Depoliticization itself can save lives of the suffering; I cannot stress its importance any more. From someone who has experienced depression before, we must stay strong, no matter how sinking the feeling, a brighter future is possible. One day, we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

By Ajay Chakraborty, Contributor