Johann Hari's new book on depression and mental illness has sparked the interest of the left. But while Hari identifies capitalism as the source of our 'lost connections', he's not ready to advocate a socialist solution.

THE GROWING DISSATISFACTON with the way things are, with the empty promises of capitalism, have undoubtedly contributed to the success of Johann Hari's new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions. A book on mental illness is not exactly the first things that springs to mind when speaking of mainstream recognition, but Johann Hari now finds himself something of a media celebre, his controversial journalistic past somewhat forgotten; accusations of plagiarism led to the end of his career as a newspaper columnist. Lost Connections has been in the New York Times best-selling list and Hari's star is on the rise again.

The book has generated interest on the left because of its thesis that mental illness is not just a medical problem but a social and political one as well. Hari writes:

 “Junk food has taken over our diets, and it is making millions of people physically sick. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that something similar is happening with our minds—that they have become dominated by junk values, and this is making us mentally sick, triggering soaring rates of depression and anxiety.”

The idea that capitalism is making us  all unwell is not new. Marx recognised that over a century ago in his discussion of alienation. Since then many studies have confirmed, among other things, the link between economic recession and an increase in the suicide rate and between inequality and mental illness.

In one interview Hari has commented:

"You’ve got to feel you belong. You’ve got to feel your life has meaning and purpose. You’ve got to feel that people see you and value you. You’ve got to feel you’ve got a future that makes sense. And our culture is good at lots of things, but we’ve been getting less and less good at meeting people’s deep, underlying psychological needs. And that’s one of the key reasons why we have this exploding depression and anxiety crisis."

Hari has taken plenty of critical flak from those who continue to push a biological explanation, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that mental illness also has social and environmental causes. Mental illness has effectively been individualised and privatised, treatable with drugs and therapy - but mostly drugs because there are big profits to be made for the pharmaceutical companies.

On, the website promoted by former All Black John Kirwan, we're told that "All sorts of things affect mental health, from major life events to ongoing and persisting challenges." The website promotes the idea that depression and mental illness is a problem of the individual - there is no mention at all of wider sociopolitical factors.

The bottom line is that accepting that mental illness is also a social construct means that we must confront capitalism. Hari doesn't do this. That his book has been embraced by such a establishment figure as Hillary Clinton underlines the political limitations of Lost Connections.

While he might identify capitalism as the source of our 'lost connections', Hari is also not ready to advocate a socialist solution. He floats a mix of 'solutions', some better than others, but all are limited by his pale liberalism. For example he floats the idea of 'meaningful work' but how realistic is this under an economic system where there has, globally,  been a huge expansion in casualised work over the past three to four decades? In New Zealand it has been estimated that approximately a third of the workforce are in casualised and insecure work. 'Meaningful work' is a meaningless concept in this situation.

Hari also floats the idea of a Universal Basic Income - which has its supporters in New Zealand - as a way of shutting down dehumanising and dead end jobs. But, again, there are problems here. One of the unintended outcomes of a UIB is likely to be downward pressure on wage levels, with the UIB effectively acting as a subsidy for employers.

Laurie Penny : The opposite of depression is action.
Ironically, in other writings and on other topics, Hari has been critical of the timidity of social democratic politics - but his belief in a kinder and humane capitalism is straight out of the same antiquated playbook. After three decades of neoliberalism that rose-tinted view of capitalism should be left to those who can afford to be lazy and indulgent and plain daft.

We need, I think, to go back to Karl Marx. He recognised that capitalism alienated people from themselves, from others, from work and from nature. He recognised that capitalism, sooner or later, would have to be overthrown. The economic assault on  the working class by neoliberalism has been savage and it can be seen everyday in the growing levels of inequality and poverty. But it is also evident in the epidemic levels of depression, mental illness and addiction.

We need to be radical. Our task today remains the fundamental rewriting of our economy and society to eliminate wage labour and the exploitation and suffering it entails. We have developed the productive capacity to do away with capitalism - but do we have the political will?

But how does this all relate to the individual? It's all very well to talk  of the 'bigger picture', but how does this connect to our everyday lives?

Dr. Harriet Fraad, a prominent Marxist psychoanalyst, has got it right. She says that “depression is anger unexpressed.” Her solution is straightforward; instead of turning that anger inward on yourself, turn it toward the bad guys, through political engagement.

She says: "Fighting it is not depressing. It offers hope and connects us to others who feel the same way....the basis of mental health is connection.”

Despair is a terrible idea because despair is how they win. It counsels you to give up because all is supposedly lost. And a depressed populace is easier to control. And if this sounds too much to contemplate  UK journalist Laurie Penny, who suffers from depression herself, puts it this way:

"The opposite of depression is action. Action is the only thing that gets us to a better world, and big actions start with very little ones. We don’t have to overthrow the government today. We can take a few days to drink cold tea and listen to Billy Bragg’s saddest albums. Depression wins when getting better seems so overwhelming as to be impossible. Recovery begins one tiny, tiny step at a time."

They win once we start believing that "this is just the way the world is."Our answer to that must always be that we still have a world to win.
Johann Hari was interviewed by RNZ's Kim Hill recently. The interview is available here. To listen to an interesting conversation between Johann Hari and Laurie Penny, including questions from the audience, go here.


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