Content Warning: the concept/term “cr*zy” is used throughout this piece. As you will read, the author does this to better understand and defang the term as someone diagnosed with a disorder. The effect of calling someone cr*zy, whether it be the polite rhetoric of “mental illness” or the aforementioned unsophisticated slur, is the obfuscation of the fact that we exist in relationship, it is systemic gaslighting in effect if not necessarily intention. The goal of defining cr*zy is to re-reveal this relationship.
The far-right Alternative für Deutschland party attacked the young climate activist Greta Thunberg for being “crazy”. In a world that has ten years to avoid catastrophic climate change caused by the chaos of a market economy, yet resists all calls for a planned economy, she does seem to be at odds with the values needed to preserve and reproduce our present socio-economic order. When mainstream media outlets reported on Jameek Lowery’s death, they mentioned that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, in all likeliness to undermine the credible claim that the police would kill him. If you have engaged in socialist base-building, or working class social organization that forms different social structures (such as unions, co-ops, tenant groups, mutual-aid groups) to advance material and cultural gains for its constituents, you have probably been called crazy. What does it mean to be crazy in a world that denies, in rhetoric and meaningful action, problems such as climate change, white supremacy, and poverty?
The Scottish Psychiatrist R.D. Laing wrote that sanity and insanity were determined between two persons by “common consent” in his book, The Divided Self. In other words, if I see myself as a kind person, but you see me as cruel, you would be justified in considering me insane for considering myself kind. This insanity occurs irrespective of whether I actually am kind or cruel. This is not to say that there is not objective truth. You act kindly or you don’t. So what gives us reason to see people differently and ourselves differently.
We see our ruling class differently than they see themselves and vice versa which is a useful starting point for understanding where insanity is often conceived. Our political economic system is what gives power to our popular understanding of sanity. Sartre’s infamous example of a waiter who is supposedly acting “in bad faith” for being an excellent waiter despite not wanting to be a waiter elucidates how actions are incentivized under capitalism. Similarly, actions can be disincentivized (see Scott Warren of No More Deaths could receive 10 years in prison for giving water to immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico Border).
In the eyes of the capitalist class, Warren is irresponsible. Trump calls the influx of immigrants an “invasion”. If we take Trump at his word (though we absolutely shouldn’t), Warren is helping an enemy force hostile to the U.S. This makes sense as interracial working class solidarity is a threat to a ruling class that uses interracial conflict to prevent outright class warfare which in the long-term is in the interest of the working class. However, some reactionary working class individuals do not see interracial solidarity through class struggle in their own material interest. In the eyes of Sartre, the waiter is not being true to himself. In the eyes of the waiter, he is coerced. To some degree, most of us internalize both of these contradictory messages. What does it mean to live in a world where many people do things that they hate because it gives them money which they need to survive and receive punishment for doing things they like.
The anthropologist Gregory Bateson suggested that an existential “double-bind”(1) was what produced what we observe as schizophrenia (and possibly other psychoses) in people. A double-bind is when someone is given a command that they cannot do, because it is inherently contradictory. A simple example would be “be spontaneous”. In order for these commands to be taken seriously, coercion has to occur. There have to be consequences and rewards for sets of behaviors.
By simply adding a secondary economic incentive to work rather than working for its own sake (as well as working to have the fruits of our labor stolen from us), we produce a double-bind. Those with service industry experience know the emotional labor inherent to this work, forcing yourself to smile despite being unhappy. We can hold ideals about environmentalism while working in a shop that creates massive amounts of plastic waste. One way to avoid this double-bind and find sanity in this world is to deny that any of this is happening so that we can continue to find meaning in our work and make a living. The easier it is to live, the easier it is to deny that something is wrong.
How does this denial manifest itself in our health system and media? Marginalized groups are often at greatest risk for psychotic disorders because of this oppressive system. For instance, Black men in the UK are ten times more likely to develop a psychotic disorder than white men. If we take the chemical/medical argument at its word, we are letting down not only ourselves as people who want to critically understand the world around us, but marginalized groups who experience the brunt of suffering under capitalism. Studies that try to establish a link between genetics and psychotic disorders fail to do so despite ongoing attempts since the 1980’s (to say that the shift in focus of the psychiatric industry during the Reagan Era is coincidence is a cognitive dissonance in psychiatric jargon).
When we call something mental illness, we should ask: what is a mind? It’s a metaphor that we use to help us understand human behavior, but can you touch a mind? Have you ever seen one? How can an abstraction be sick? In her work Caliban and the Witch, Sylvia Federici documents how Descartes’s conception of the mind and body arose out of a bourgeois need to imbue the proletariat with an inner work-discipline(2) (as opposed to the externally-imposed model that Hobbes suggested). The mind is what was supposed to discipline the body and within the capitalist conception of the mind, it is necessary to medicalize anything that did not conform with that self-discipline. The bourgeois gaze acts like the iron bed of Procrustes, eviscerating anything that doesn’t have to do with how it thinks a human being ought to be, stretching people where it considers them inadequate, cutting off what is unacceptable. We internalize this gaze and do capital’s job for itself. This is an evolution of the self-conception of body and soul, which we can still see remnants of in phrases like “they’re dealing with their demons” or “they’re a good soul”. In light of the inadequacies of a moralistic analysis of human behavior and a mechanical analysis of human behavior, how do we move forward?
Rather than conceptualizing what we call mental illness as a disease of the mind, we should look at it as a strategy with goals in mind that does not achieve the results that its user seeks to attain. A person who screams in pain is not screaming because there is something wrong with their brain, they are screaming because that is what we do when we need help. Embedded in our language are words like lazy, that essentialize and misrepresent what is actually a lack of motivation. To be respectable within our political and economic climate we have to use its language, and if its language will always reduce our ability to represent and understand ourselves as we actually are, or as we see ourselves, then that language will impede our liberation. By being critical of the way that we look and talk about human behavior we can better understand the needs of our community and people that we organize with. If this gaze is necessary to maintain capitalism, it also represents a vulnerability within the capitalist class: we can understand existential problems and relate to others better than them because our definition of humanity is less limiting.
However, this perception is not limited to solely how we see ourselves or how the capitalist class sees us. In 1968, two groups of psychiatrists were shown a monologue of an actor. One group was told nothing and the other group was told “[the actor] was an interesting man, because he looked neurotic, but was actually quite psychotic.” The group that was told nothing ascribed no diagnoses to the man while 60% of the second group diagnosed him with mental illness. What this means for us as organizers is that we can be dismissed with a simple epithet. We can have our tone policed at the risk of being called crazy. This is a social mechanism that needs to be overcome or ignored, not supplicated to. An intensification of criteria for what it means to be mentally ill will not help because the people who we organize and talk to will never have the time or motivation to understand the arguably unintelligible criteria for what constitutes mental illness. If trained psychologists cannot identify it, why should any of us be able to? The specious nature of a term like “mental illness” should be even more worrying when we consider that the far-right Trump administration’s fixation on combating “mental illness.” This is not to say that people do not behave irrationally or delusionally, but that “craziness” does not describe irrationality or delusion per se.
A dialectical approach to the problem of insanity is necessary for us to have confidence in ourselves. We should look towards traditions like Gestalt that seeks to see the individual as a part of a conglomerate whole. We should look at organizations like The Icarus Project and Hearing Voices that seek to define human suffering on the terms of the people who experience it. The mind is an abstraction that we use to explain human behavior. Those who engage in meditation understand your thoughts and feelings are as much a product of the world around you as they come from whatever our “self” is. Unless you want to say that society, which is a conglomerate of individuals, is a pathogen to the individual, we ought to do away with the idea of “illness” if we want to remain honest. Otherwise, we risk validating the idea that we should simply incarcerate people who express dissent because they are diseased and they need to change, not the world around them. If someone is expressing emotional pain, they are already agitated, we need productive ways of channeling that agitation that creates results that remedy the initial cause. In Che Guevara’s interview with U.S. Socialist reporters, he said “you have to be crazy” to start a revolution and take power. Malcolm X noted that John Brown was considered crazy by Malcolm’s white contemporaries. By rejecting this craziness, by medicalizing it, are we suppressing potential revolutionaries in our own movement? Rather than dismissing it, we need to seek to understand it further on our own terms.
Our meta-double-bind is that we live in a society where we are given little choice over our environment, but held responsible for much of it. As base-builders trying to build a new world, we need to give people a different way to understand themselves, and in order to do that, it needs to be built in the language of the people who this world is for. What that means is that we cannot use the language of antagonists (the capitalist class) to describe ourselves and our allies. If we see ourselves as being murdered by capitalists, we need to delve deeper into what we need and dispel our own doubts that we have delusions of persecution.
We need to move beyond seeing ourselves as vulnerable and into recognizing that we have the power to take care of ourselves and each other. We don’t need to ask Bernie for a better system because it’s the working class itself which mustbuild this system in the first place. In fact, things are never given to the working class – they are conceded and then presented as a gift to us.
For base-building, if something is not built for us but is “given” to us, we understand that something else is being taken away. When we are “given” accommodations for what is called mental illness, what is being said is “you are the problem but we are nice enough to accommodate you.” This gentle scape-goating is done to put a curtain over what the oppressor is doing. Franz Fanon, a Martiniquan psychiatrist talks about a European sector and native Sector in colonial Algeria in his book The Wretched of the Earth. He says that the European sector:
is a sector built to last, all stone and steel. It’s a sector of lights and paved roads, where the trash cans constantly overflow with strange and wonderful garbage, undreamed of leftovers. The colonist’s feet can never be glimpsed, except perhaps in the sea, but then you can never get close enough. They are protected by solid shoes in a sector where the streets are clean and smooth….” Meanwhile in the native sector “you are born anywhere, anyhow. You die anywhere, from anything. It’s a world with no space, people are piled one on top of the other, the shacks squeezed tightly together. The colonized sector is a famished sector, hungry for bread, meat, shoes, coal, and light. The colonized’s sector is a sector that crouches and cowers, a sector on its knees, a sector that is prostrate.” (3)
Would you prefer to live in the sector of the Europeans or the Algerian Sector? If you lived in the European sector, how would you justify your well-being? Fanon explains that
Consequently the Algerian Doctors who graduated from the Faculty of Algiers were forced to hear and learn that the Algerian is a born criminal. Moreover, I remember one of us in all seriousness expounding these theories he had learned and adding “It’s hard to swallow, but it’s been scientifically proven.” (4) These theories included that “the normal African is a lobotomized European,” “the Algerian is an habitual killer” and that the behavior of Algerians is the result of being at a different stage of evolution than the white settlers
The people suffering anguish in Algeria came to these doctors, trained in Colonial Algerian schools. These schools taught doctors that the economic oppression of whites over algerians was justified because algerians were inferior. Algerians and white people suffering the psychic trauma of colonialism who came to these doctors were given more justifications for an inhumane system, but which came first? The system or the justification? Of course it was the system. Colonialism was motivated by the exploitation of resources and justified itself by proclaiming the necessity of “civilizing” native populations. What is consistent within the defense of colonialism is the need for colonial nations to continue exploiting resources even if the justifications change over time. There can be no genuine reflection on better strategies for helping an indigenous population because that would entail calling colonialism itself into question.
What will come first for us as base-building revolutionaries is our fight back and organization. We might not always be able to explain why it is justified for us to take power, and in our world, we will feel crazy when we do build our own institutions. I canvass twice a week, and I still sometimes feel crazy for doing so, but how are you supposed to feel otherwise in a world that demands that we understand ourselves as insane when we reject capitalist values? Self-consciousness might be an inevitability, but it’s clear that if we do not own our own institutions, the ones provided for us as concessions will never provide us with a dignified way of understanding ourselves.
We have to move forward, we have to understand that, yes, we are crazy, but only because we have nothing to express ourselves, no instruments of our own to help ourselves. We have books that teach us how to understand ourselves with no time to read. Online media is owned by capitalists and creates artificial conflict between leftists. Until we have our own tools and institutions, we are going to be crazy no matter what. We have to embrace our insanity and trust it to make a better world. Trying to look like a capitalist, trying to act like a capitalist, and trying to earn the respect of a capitalist in order to make gains for the working class will not give the working class confidence.
To combat social alienation, we can fight for community to combat sadness and spaces to process and validate trauma, we can fight to have more time for ourselves by reducing the workweek. The capitalist class would prefer we remain isolated rather than committed to change a world defined by misery. We are building something new, something without any legitimacy from an abusive state. We need to build systems of governance that come from us, not ask for appendages from a government built on the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Black people, and the exploitation of other racialized peoples. We cannot be afraid of being called crazy- we should yell back that you’re crazy if you’re not crazy!
- Bateson, Gregory. Towards an Ecology of Mind
- Federici, Sylvia. Caliban and The Witch, p. 149-151
- Fanon, Franz. Wretched of the Earth, p. 38
- Fanon, Franz. Wretched of the Earth, p. 297