Categories
Capitalism and Disease Mental Health Social Media Technology

Capitalism and Pandemics: a reflection on the depressive patterns of an overactive youth

Roland Topor. Titre Inconnu (ca. 1970)

By Carlos Solsona Ribes, BA, MA

In the history of psychiatry, the concept of anhedonia has been always identified as one of the main symptoms of the common clinical depression. This term could be briefly defined as the inability to feel pleasure, the lack of motivation and a meaningful agency in an absolute -physical and mental- sense. It is not just about mutable feelings or easily identifiable -and exploitable- mental states that would make a bunch of coaching gurus rich. A state of anhedonia is a very serious matter and it acts like a black veil covering every aspect of the patient’s life.

The condition that I would like to explore in this post is the opposite: depressive hedonia, the need for instant pleasure that always remains unsatisfactory. This concept is extremely interesting in order to understand our times and, especially, to start making sense of the life-changing mental health consequences of the succesive lockdowns that we suffer since March 2020. I would argue here that this kind of depressive behavior appears mostly in unemployed people and students during these pandemic times and, moreover, can be theorized as a consequence of the capitalist system.

The term depressive hedonia was coined by the philosopher and cultural critic Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism (2009), inspired by critical theorists of late capitalism like Naomi Klein, Simon Reynolds, Fredric Jameson or Slavoj Žižek but also well aware of the accelerationist theories of his former University of Warwick colleagues (most remarkably Nick Land). Unfortunately, Fisher made his cultural analysis, while he was himself suffering from severe clinical depression, an illness that made him take his life only a few years after the publication of Capitalist Realism. According to Fisher, we are living our everyday lives on the dawn of an era characterized by the constant need of stimuli, a fake dependency of networks – in the sense of the “need of being connected”- as well as a perpetual obsession with pursuing a (almost always immediate) high number of pleasures that would never be fulfilled. We prepare our mind to receive way more inputs, so to say, than our sanity and brain capacity can process. And this phenomena, more typical of the actual globalization than the late 20th century Post-Fordist model (although connected), of course, seems to be generating its own pathologies. With COVID-19, the world took a break and this constant flow of inputs, the need of instant satisfaction, was almost entirely translated to our digital devices and social networks, provoking in many ways a feeling of general tiredness and detachment from the everyday stimuli that were usually fulfilled in our free pre-COVID lives.

Roland Topor. Le voyage (1970)

As an obvious outcome, the actual situation is triggering a high amount of anxiety and discontent, thus threatening the mental health of the individuals, as well as distorting the collective behavior. This state of hedonia, the endless seeking of instant satisfaction that, like depression, is present in almost every our life-experiences and could mutate into a consistent health pathology.

Although there could be some exaggeration when we talk about the catastrophical depictions of bunches of people checking their phones in a restaurant instead of talking or eating, the truth is that something as simple as the unconscious and automatic gesture of prioritizing a smartphone notification for a second in a face-to-face conversation is becoming more usual than ever. In this sense, the depressive hedonia presents itself also as a condition that is characterized by the impossibility to focus on something minimally complex or time demanding -like reading a book or even a long article in a website without feeling anxiety- and, day by day, the vertiginous speed and change that we perceive as a sign of the times, accompanied with the pressure of feeling always short of time, is not only hurting us but also is distracting us from acting in a way that we feel constantly overwhelmed and stressed. According to The Wall Street Journal, COVID-19 changed dramatically the way we spent our time and a clear conclusion was shown: we are more screen-dependants and socially isolated than ever before: the three main leisure habits in 2020 were gaming, streaming videos (series, Youtube, documentaries and movies) and online shopping.[1]

How does this relate to the history of late capitalism and what is different now?

In the BBC documentary The Century of the Self (2002)[2] , which is probably one of the most brilliant audiovisual attempts of showing the direct relation between capitalism and social psychology, the filmmaker and video essayist Adam Curtis shows how the industries and the US government aligned to create the image of the “consumer” as the standard model of a perfect individual in which everybody has to look at, and it was done through technologies – via advertising campaigns and mass “distraction” tools- that he called engineering of consent (based on the book of the same name written by Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud and inventor of the term propaganda). In this documentary we see how the collective desires were carefully manufactured by the companies in order to appeal the inner feelings of the masses with a promise of distinction and individuality (the subject was clear in that time). We see how the American Way of Life, an ode to the capitalist system, was established with the tools of the system and the aim of defending a one-dimensional paradigm.

But at that time the globalized and voracious capitalism of today was still far away, and with it the conception of a subject as a fixed entity. What is called the postmodern world, in a sense, matches perfectly with the development of the so-called turbo capitalism. The incessant wheels of capitalism are now rolling with a speed that was never imagined, the supply exceeds by far the demand, the products are less perennial than ever and everything related with “regularities” isn’t even considered in the abstract and speculative global market. Everything regarding human relations and our society feels more fluid[3], fragmented and hard to grasp. The limits are blurry, so are our minds. In our capitalism we aren’t like the consumers of the 20th century: they had choices and “idols”(even if they were made of plastic), a wish of a modellic life. If freedom, our freedom to consume, was the main thread that defined our identity, now with the COVID-19 and all the physical limitations that we experience, we feel like in a state of limbo, a subject without essence and attributes. Some theorists, like the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, are nowadays contributing to a heated discussion about the political dimension of our identity in times of restricted freedoms. He admonishes how authoritarian politicians are taking advantage of the situation in order to dispossess ourselves from the essence of our identities.

In any case, we have to admit that living in a post-COVID world is adding even more complexity to the situation: somehow we are ourselves the product and we feel the pressure of defining our place in a world that is changing now, more than ever, in a way than we couldn’t even grasp. In this mutation of the capitalist system, this normalization of the pressure, stress and depression, the acceptance that the dependencies that most hurt us are not only a natural consequence but also an artificial one that can be imposed from above via regulations. In fact, it is true that we still don’t know if this kind of “mental slavery” could be a mental health pathology, in clinical terms, but at least we could reflect on how the capitalist society has changed our way of living, specially in our troubled times, times that probably will challenge our definitions of freedom and time and force to redefine them. At least we have an interesting trend of critical thinkers trying to make sense of the nonsense without falling in the easy playground of the cynical relativist.

Literature

Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism (2009)

Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine (2007) Adam Curtis: The Century of the Self (2002)- video documentary


[1]https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-covid-19-has-transformed-the-amount-of-time-we-spend-online-01596818846, accessed March 20 2021.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DnPmg0R1M04&ab_channel=JustAdamCurtis, accessed March 20 2021.

[3] Or liquid, as Zygmunt Bauman popularized.