The left is, speaking generally, in a state of paralysis. Capitalist realism remains the dominant outlook, even –– perhaps especially –– for those who consider themselves socialists. In his Going Nowhere Slow: The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression, Mikkel Krause Frantzen talks about depression as a loss of futurity, a loss of the idea of a possible future. He also argues that, for the left to succeed, it must get past that feeling of hopelessness. The Port City Socialist spoke with Dr. Frantzen about the relationship between capitalism and depression, the coronavirus pandemic, and how to break out of the defeatism that has so long plagued the left.
Going Nowhere Slow came out before the pandemic. How has the COVID 19 crisis exacerbated the plague of loneliness you describe in your work?
In my book, which came out in 2019, I focus on depression from a cultural and literary perspective. It was intended as a diagnosis of the present, viewing depression as a pertinent, contemporary psychopathology: A mental illness inextricably intertwined with capitalism, with the way that we live and work, with the pharmaceutical industry, with the neoliberal ideology of assuming full responsibility for our happiness and/or unhappiness etc. Even if the data imply some degree of overdiagnosing mental disorders in general, more and more people in the Western world are still getting more and more depressed, more and more unhappy, more and more lonely. This is the background for my work, and with this in place I can now begin to answer your question more directly: Several studies have already been carried and published, documenting how the pandemic is not only costing lives and affecting those who have suffered from and survived the virus on a physiological level; it also has a profound psychological impact.
To begin with and to connect these two levels, a study has suggested that one in five COVID-19 survivors are at a greater risk of developing mental illness. In Denmark young people are seeking psychiatric help like never before. Suicide rates have risen in Japan, and probably in a lot of other countries as well. Pandemic burnout, as one article in Nature has it, is “rampant in academia,” among students and faculty members alike, but especially among students I would assume. That is at least my own experience, having taught a couple of courses this Spring semester of 2021 and during the very beginning of the pandemic in March, April and May 2020. The students are not happy, not enjoying life, not liking being at home, in front of their screen, alone. One could go on and on.
But here is the thing: We should refrain from framing this problem, however serious, as a pandemic of loneliness, or as a mental health pandemic, which well-meaning journalists tend to do when they want to bring attention to the problem. As Nikolas Rose and others have pointed out, feeling anxious, sad, depressed and/or lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic is ‘normal,’ a ‘normal’ reaction to difficult circumstances, not a symptom of poor mental health. The task is this, then: To take seriously the suffering of so many people in the present without taking recourse to a medical register, translating a suffering that is political through and through (or at least also political) into a purely personal language, dominated by diagnostic manuals which remain stubbornly indifferent to context. A tricky thing indeed.
I also want to add in passing that the students with whom I have had conversations about these issues (and I really try hard as a teacher to create an environment where it is possible for students to speak openly and without shame about their mental health, though I am by no means pretending to be a psychologist), are so used, if not in fact ‘trained’ or drilled even, to regard their psychological problems as personal problems, to the point even where it is immensely hard for them to frame them otherwise, to escape this language, despite the fact that they are well aware that when they, sitting in a classroom somewhere at campus, are feeling like shit (as one student put it to me), they are not alone. They are one among many, they know this, of course they do, and yet they really struggle to speak about their struggles in a language that is not the biomedical and individualized language of the diagnostic manuals and therapists/psychiatrists with which and with whom they are, unfortunately, all too familiar.
To what degree can we say that neoliberalism represents a sort of depression, in the sense you describe as a loss of the future, for capitalism? Could depression be understood as the individual experience of what capitalism represents on a cultural scale?
My first answer was a long one, so I will try to be briefer in my answers to the remaining questions, including this one.
I think the work of Mark Fisher has convincingly shown how the realism of the depressed person mirrors what he calls capitalist realism, the widespread sense that there is no alternative to the current economic system. This is Thatcher’s infamous TINA-doctrine, neoliberalism at its purest in terms of ideology. I wouldn’t want to say that neoliberalism represents a sort of depression for capitalism; what neoliberalism does, again at an ideological level, is to reframe structural problems as individual problems. It spreads the narrative that, well, maybe you cannot change the system, but you can change your self, you can work on your self nonstop, you can become your own brand, your own entrepreneur (as Foucault would put it). And if you are not successful, if you are not performing, if you are not happy, if you are not up to speed, it is your own fault. There is no one to blame but yourself.
How could the coronavirus pandemic potentially break that feeling of non-futurity –– if at all?
At one level the pandemic reinforced a generalized affective atmosphere of apocalypse: Another reason why the world is about to end, why the future has no future, as I put it. But at another level there was also, if not hope, then at least a re-animation of the belief in political change; the belief that things can change at all. Suddenly it became clear that it is not that difficult to make groundbreaking, if somewhat temporary, changes in the way we live. It is not impossible not to fly. Politicians can actually make decisions with far-reaching consequences, if they want to, or are forced to do it. For the first time in years we witnessed, however briefly, the truth of the tired cliché: Where there is a will, there is a way. The future can be reclaimed or recreated. Climate change can be slowed down. Capitalism can be transformed, or better yet, overthrown. The Earth can be healthy and ours again.
To what extent do you think the embrace of pessimism is a concession to the neoliberal structures that currently lead to depression and alienation?
I always want to quote Deleuze who quotes Spinoza: “Inspiring sad passions is necessary for the exercise of power”. Or, if you will forgive me for quoting myself from a text on pessimism called “Against Pessimism, or, the Education of Hope” where I have just quoted that quote by Deleuze: “Thus, while pessimism may well negate capitalist society on the level of the ideological principles of happiness and frantic, entrepreneurlike activity, it could actually be said to affirm the self-same society on a deeper and more fundamental level, namely with respect to the feeling that nothing can ever change, that nothing really is to be done. In his book, The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch precisely drew attention to the fact that “it is no coincidence that capitalism has striven to spread, apart from the false happy end, its own genuine nihilism.”
So, to answer your questions, yes, I do think that embracing pessimism is a concession to neoliberal capitalism, because the endurance of this system is partly premised on the proliferation of sad passions. Premised on the affective and ideological Stimmung that nothing will ever change, that we might as well sit in the corner and be cynical about any attempt to try do something, with a smirking smile on our face, meaning: We are not that stupid.
That’s not to say that pessimism is not understandable, or that things are totally hopeless: It is, and they are. But my sort of Blochian and Kierkegaardian argument is that it is precisely in such a situation that we need hope, a paradoxical hope, a hope against hope. We need hope when things are hopeless. We need utopias when things are dystopian. This is both a psychological and political idea, a psychopolitical idea if you will. A way out, potentially, of the futureless cul de sac that characterizes the psychopathological state of depression and our historical present alike.
The pessimist position is all too often a highly privileged (not to mention a very masculine) position; not everyone has the luxury to be a pessimist. Or, to put it differently, but it amounts to the same thing: When you are depressed, lying in bed and feeling like shit, you most likely embody plenty of pessimism to begin. In that situation, you are sort of a pessimist already, a pessimist by default, by necessity. Which is to say: Pessimism is not an answer to depression, but a symptom of it.
I don’t want this to sound like I’m asking you to solve capitalism and depression, but I would be curious to hear your insight. How would you say we on the left can resist pessimism in the face of what seems to be overwhelming defeat?
Maybe I have already sort of answered this difficult question in my previous answer, where I made the implicit argument that the left need to rehabilitate a project of utopia, a stance of paradoxical hope. This, in my view, is the answer to the crises we are living through, crises which are intimately interconnected: The mental health crisis, the economic crisis, the ecological crisis, the pandemic crisis. But also: The crisis of the left.
Lately I have been organizing an online lecture series for the Fall of 2021, called &Utopia, where we invite brilliant scholars and writers such as Sophie Lewis and Anne Boyer to ponder questions like: What if utopia is not a dream that inevitably turns into a nightmare, as the anti-utopians would have it? What if utopia is not a possibility belonging to the past, but an ecological and existential necessity in the present? “What if”, as Christian Haines has aptly asked, “the survival of the human species depends on imagining utopia?” What if utopia is not doomed to fail but the remedy to doom? What if utopianism is the only real realism today?
Admittedly, these are not easy questions, to be answered lightheartedly and once and for all, but they need to be asked. However, the very notion of utopia has suffered a crisis of its own for a very long time now, discredited and ridiculed by reactionary critics located not only at right end of the political spectrum but far into the traditional left as well. As intimated, I regard this as a mistake. The left – whether socialist, anarchist or communist – needs to reject the automatic rejection of utopias, it needs to resist the urge to sit down in the comforting armchair of pessimism. No more Beckett-quotes: Fail again, fail better. Instead, let’s gather and rally around a different quote, another slogan, for instance this one by Kim Stanley Robinson who will, by the way, also speak at the &Utopia series: “The situation is bad, yes, okay, enough of that; we know that already. Dystopia has done its job, it’s old news now, perhaps it’s self-indulgence to stay stuck in that place any more. Next thought: utopia. Realistic or not, and perhaps especially if not. Besides, it is realistic: things could be better.”
Are you currently working on any projects?
Well, I am working on &Utopias. I have also written a book on aesthetics and ecology through the concept of what I call the hyperabject (not to be confused with Timothy Morton’s concept of the hyperobject), and I am in process of translating and transforming that into an English version. At the same time, I am not a tenured academic, so I am also forced to spend my precious time writing several research applications and they are centered around the question of mental health and the contemporary conjunction of crises. In other words, I am trying to merge my three main research interests – financial capitalism, mental health, and ecology – into one cultural and political project.
Again, thank you so much for your time. As a fan of your work, and someone on the left who suffers from depression, it means a lot that you’re taking the time to speak with me.
No thank you – it’s been a pleasure thinking about your questions, trying to provide somewhat satisfactory answers. It means a lot to me that people want to speak with me because they have read my work. I am still amazed by and grateful for that.