The inconvenient truth about capitalism and mental health
Never before has social culture been more inhospitable to those suffering with anxiety-related disorders. Society is generally more accepting of mental ill health, but the collective culture it spawns – one of breathless activity – is a perfect incubator of insecurity, frustration and exhaustion, essential ingredients in any nervous breakdown.
We spend the majority of our time, that most precious commodity, away from the people we love, doing things we don’t particularly enjoy, in order to accumulate money, with which we fund corporate cartels and buy things we don’t really need for prices we can’t really afford to impress people we don’t really like.
Humanity has been reduced to a parody of constant comparison, a keeping up with the Joneses omnishambles. We’re obsessed with socio-economic quantification, with cultural calculus that defines people on their ability to generate capital. There is little time for sentiment, scarcely any room for contemplation. Our entire experience of the world is forced through a prism of money, value and image.
When do we ever take time to rest?
The harsh interface between capitalism and mental ill health must be addressed. I’m not scared to explore the subject because I’ve experienced its many travails. When you have lay on the bathroom floor at three o’clock in the morning, covered in blood having fainted due to stress wrought by the relentless need to make money for somebody else just to survive, you are qualified to have an opinion. Here is mine:
We rant about the stigma that surrounds mental ill health, but we fail to acknowledge the multifarious role that capitalism plays in that space, causing disorder in the first place then creating a hostile environment that allows it to mutate.
When capitalism is the prevailing system of our time, and when 300,000,000 people around the world suffer from depression, I can quite confidently proclaim that such an ideology is incompatible with sustainable mental fitness.
Capitalism is an exploitative system that demeans people and classifies them against objective measurements, destroying self-esteem in the process. We will not eradicate mental health stigma, nor the wider epidemic as a whole, until we eschew capitalism in favour of a more compassionate mode of living.
At what point do we stop viewing mental ill health as a private problem of individuals and actually see it as a symptom of a social order that is irreconcilable with the needs of humanity?
Like millions of people around the world, I take antidepressants every day to correct the “chemical imbalances” in my mind. But what if those imbalances were caused merely by an insurmountable culture perpetrated by the elitist class? What if those imbalances could be corrected not with medication or therapy, but with a simple editing of ideology, away from corporate pressure and towards a more humane existence?
Capitalism drives a wedge between our continued existence and our inherent nature. We were gifted this precious thing called life - capable of delivering love and laughter, romance and fun - and we chose to construct a complicated infrastructure for success prioritising cash over freedom, profit over family and external approval over internal happiness.
Our world revolves around supply and demand, which relies on human taste, which is decided by a handful of companies wielding sinister levels of control. Instigating fear is an essential tool in honing taste, and so we see how capitalism wreaks havoc with our psychological health.
Social culture dictates that we must pay bills and drive a car, live in comfortable conditions and participate in certain standards of fashion, technology and goods. In the throes of sheer greed and manipulation, people interjected themselves into that taxonomy, dictating that a premium would be charged for all such accoutrements of high social standing. And so we go to work, exchanging our most precious commodities – time and health – for the most pernicious rewards – suppressed wages and inauthentic praise.
The thorough repression of creativity, a core human need, in this confused vortex of modern life is tragic. There’s no receptive outlet for ideas, thoughts and individuality unless your financial worth meets a certain threshold. All that pent-up creativity, shackled and refined, contributes overwhelmingly to the mental health crisis sweeping the globe.
Consumerism is the lifeblood of capitalism and the stimulus of self-doubt. When we ascribe omnipotent value to material possessions or transient trends, we participate in the relentless pursuit of an unattainable standard, losing ourselves along the way. This thing will make us happy, then that. If we can just add this to our lives, and tweak that, move here, then there, do this and then that, we will be happy.
But will we?
The physical world in which we live, so beautiful and beguiling in parts, is being ravaged by rampant, inexorable consumption. We eat and drink with reckless abandon. We yearn for the latest gadgets and the most advanced technology. We grow restless if gratification doesn’t arrive within mere seconds. We want more, more, more. And we want it now, now, now.
Untrammelled consumerism has never been more prevalent. As a species, we need more things to make us happy, merely to keep us alive, than at any point in history. Our anxious appetite is voracious, a manifestation of widespread insecurity, derived from relentless comparison, inspired by the contrived mirror of social media, where imperfection doesn’t exist.
Here, we see how capitalism alienates people from their nature, forcing them to be what society needs them to be, what private companies need them to be, rather than being themselves. That alienation feeds indignation, which leads to resentment, the precursor to all-encompassing negativity, a gateway to depression. The world is stricken by such inescapable neurosis, and we need to slow down before it’s too late. We need to wake up.
When was the last time you looked up? No, really. When did you last put the phone away, step back from the computer, and just take time to be? The importance of structured solitude cannot be overstated. We must listen to the thoughts racing inside, acknowledge the instincts that form our souls, and get to know our sacred values. Truly, deeply, rather than living life in the vast pixelated smog of modern numbness.
There is a crippling disconnect between what people privately believe and what they publicly share. Our society rests on a perilous dichotomy between reality and perception, instinct and portrayal, struggle and acceptance. We live in the ether of retweets and likes, followers and connections, never stopping to actually see what is happening around us.
First-hand experience has become almost vicarious, constrained by the oppressive weight of social judgement. Instagram elects The Majority, which sets the cultural agenda and decides what and whom is cool. Everybody else is left for dead.
People don’t form original opinions and arrive at authentic conclusions from watching or feeling anymore; they’re influenced by what other people say online, which is frequently lacking in factual evidence and often filled with bias. In the chronic absence of enough free time, Twitter essentially thinks for too many people, telling them what is good, what is bad, and how they should react to any unfolding situation. That is truly moronic.
When you walk down the street tomorrow morning, on your way to work, take a look around. On the train or in the shop, see how rarely people smile. Notice the gritted teeth and the baggy eyes. Dare not pop the preoccupied bubbles of worry and dread, of deadlines and projects, mundane demands and restrictive responsibilities. We resemble a robot race set to autopilot, programmed to think and speak in preordained scripts. And for what?
Our minds are cloudy, filled with the self-absorption that constitutes our legacy as stewards of this world. What if it all ended tomorrow – work, money, the internet? What would you be left with?
We’ve got our priorities wrong.
So what do I propose? Well, the alternative to the present chaos isn’t widespread laziness, as capitalists tend to argue. The alternative is balance. The alternative is consciousness. The alternative is opening your eyes and ears, feeling things again, and remembering that, just as humans dominate nature, so too can they dominate politics, technology and culture, if only they want to.
The alternative is seizing the means of our own happiness and refusing to accept the undemocratic thrusts of aristocratic power, hierarchical and monolithic, that squeeze the enjoyment out of contemporary life.
Live with your head up. Get out there and take control of your day and your destiny. Find your passions, outline your goals, and pursue them with all the strength you can muster. Challenge authority. Question the establishment. Fight for change and take back control of your time, your mind and your future.
I’m aware that capitalism gives me the warm apartment and powerful Macbook from which to write this article. I’m also aware that, to a certain extent, capitalism gives me the opportunity to own this website and share these views. But that’s only because I reluctantly participate in the plutocratic rat race at great psychological expense. That’s only because nothing else has ever really been tried.
What’s to say that I couldn’t attain those amenities, facilities and liberties under another system? A system less exacting on our mental health and more accepting of our shared human frailties.
By virtue of simply being accepted for so long, weaving its way into the social norm, capitalism appears to give me a lot. But capitalism also gives me a cupboard full of fluoxetine, so who’s the real winner here?