October 6, 1979: Capitalism and Bipolar disorder

Realism has nothing to do with the Real. On the contrary, the Real is what realism has continually to suppress. Capitalist realism, like socialist realism, is about ‘putting a human face’ on and naturalizing a set of political and economic contingencies. For the current mode of capitalist realism, this means presenting the conditions of Post-Fordism as natural and inevitable.

What is post-Fordism, and when did it commence? According to Christian Marazzi – footnote a Marxist economist at the switch from Fordism to post-Fordism can be given a very specific date: October 6, 1979. It was on that date that the Federal Reserve increased interest rates by 20 points, preparing the way for the ‘supply-side economics’ that would constitute the ‘economic reality’ with which we are now so familiar. The rise in interest rates not only contained inflation, it made possible a new organization of the means of production and distribution. The ‘rigidity’ of the Fordist production line gave way to a new ‘flexibility’, a word that will send chills of recogntion down the spine of every worker today. This flexibility was defined by a deregulation of capital and labour, with the workforce being casualized (with an increasing number of workers employed on a temporary basis), and outsourced.

The new conditions both required and emerged from an increased cybernetization of the working environment. The Fordist factory was crudely divided into blue and white collar work, with the different types of labour physically delimited by the structure of the building itself. Labouring in noisy environments, watched over by managers and supervisors, workers had access to language only in their breaks, in the toilet, at the end of the working day, or when they were engaged in sabotage, because communication interrupted production. But in post-Fordism, when the assembly line becomes a ‘flux of information’, people work by communicating. As Norbert Wiener taught, communication and control entail one another.

The society of control’ comes into its own in these conditions. Work and life become inseparable; this is in part because labour is now to some degree linguistic, and it is impossible to leave language in the locker after work. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, punctiform. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems. To function effectively as a component of ‘just in time production’ you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or ‘precarity’, as the ugly neologism has it. Periods of work alternate with periods of unemployment. Typically, you find yourself employed in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.

Few will need to be persuaded of the horrors of these working patterns, but it is imperative that the Left renounces one of its most dangerous addictions, its nostalgia for Fordism. As Marazzi points out, the disintegration of stable working patterns was in part driven by the desires of workers– it was they who, quite rightly, did not wish to work in the same factory for forty years. In many ways, the Left has never recovered from being wrongfooted by Capital’s mobilization and metabolization of the desire for emancipation from Fordist routine. Especially in the UK, the traditional representatives of the working class – Union and labour leaders – found Fordism rather too congenial; its stability of antagonism gave them a guaranteed role. But this meant that it was easy for the advocates of post-Fordist Capital to present themselves as the opponents of the status quo, bravely resisting an inertial organized labour ‘pointlessly’ invested in fruitless ideological antagonism which served the ends of union leaders and politicians, but did little to advance the hopes of the class they purported represented. And so, the stage was set for the neo-liberal ‘end of history’, the ‘post-ideological’ ideological justification for rampant supply-side economics. Antagonism is not now located externally, in the face-off between class blocs, but internally, in the psychology of the worker, who, as a worker, is interested in old-style class conflict, but, as someone with a pension fund, is also interested in maximizing the yield from his or her investments. There is no longer an identifiable external enemy. The consequence is that Post-Fordist workers are like the Old Testament Jews after they left the ‘house of slavery’: liberated from a bondage to which they have no wish to return but also abandoned, stranded in the desert, confused about the way forward.

The psychological conflict raging within individuals cannot but have casualties. One hidden, or at least naturalized, consequence of the rise of post-Fordism is that the ‘invisible plague’ of psychiatric disorders that has spread, silently and stealthily, since around 1750 (i.e. the very onset of industrial capitalism) has reached a new level of acuteness in the last two decades.

It is telling, in this context, that New Labour should have committed itself, so early in its third term, to removing people from Incapacity Benefit, implying that many, if not most, claimants are malingerers. In contrast with this assumption, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to infer that most of the people claiming incapacity benefit – and there are well in excess of two million of them – are casualties of Capital. A significant proportion of claimants, for instance, are people psychologically damaged as a consequence of the ‘capitalist realist’ insistence that industries such as mining are no longer economically viable. (Even considered in brute economic terms, though, the arguments about ‘viability’ seem rather less than convincing, especially once you factor in the cost to taxpayers of incapacity and other benefits). Many have simply buckled under the terrifyingly unstable conditions of post-Fordism.

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism: first, it reinforces capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry) and second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational ‘pyscho-mafias’ can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin.

The increase in bi-polar disorder is a particularly significant development. It is clear that capitalism, with its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, is itself, fundamentally and irreducibly, bi-polar. Capitalism is characterized by a lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive come-down. (The term ‘economic depression’ is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in any other social system (and capitalism is very precisely not a social ‘structure’ in the way that the despotic state or the primitive socius are), capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.

How could madness not result when we are invited to consider America’s consuming of $600 billion a year more than it produces ‘realistic’? (As opposed, so we are told, to Europe’s ‘unrealistic’ social welfare programmes.) Make no mistake, the capitalist realists are insane, which more than ever reveals the force of the Lacanian-Zizekian slogan, ‘the Real is the impossible, but the impossible which happens’. Mental illness is present in capitalism’s wrap-around simulation as a warp, an unassimilable discontinuity, that which cannot be but which, nevertheless, cannot be extirpated. Perhaps this negative Real – this dark shadows which allow us to see Capital’s striplit mall of the mind for what it actually is– has its complement in a positive Real, an event completely inconceivable in the current situation, but which will break in and re-define everything.

Mark K-Punk