Today begins a week of chat about mental health in the Western countries of Europe and the USA. It is Mental Health Week. It is also the beginning of the October Rebellion where environmental activists across the same set of countries will be sacrificing themselves to discomfort and arrest to protest the inaction of politicians and corporations over climate change.
The two political poles of attitude towards youth have already been voiced in the media. On the one side, the old cry of the Establishment has been offered to decry the too-fast growing-up of the young, mimicking Victorian concerns about teenage suffrage and self-determination, particularly of the poor and working classes.
On the other, there are calls for revolt, more school strikes, and law breaking. In all this debate there is a fact that remains unstated. We live in a world dominated by the free-market economics of neoliberalism. The thinking behind neoliberalism is for unbridled capitalism. Such desired acceleration of accumulation of wealth by the super-rich continues to exaggerate the already unfathomable and illegitimate divide between rich and poor.
The neoliberals always expected mass protest as they purloined the infrastructure, essential utilities and social services. Laws were put in place, Reagan and Thatcher being the most offensive, and early organised protests put-down by force – the US Air Traffic Controllers and UK Miners being historic examples. And then water, heating, health care, adult social care, housing and education were privatised by stealth and resolve. Profits for the rich increased whilst cuts to services (and associate jobs) ripped the notion and reality of welfare to shreds.
Mental health services, especially for children and adolescents, have been all-but destroyed. One-in-four of our children experience periods of depression and anxiety. One-in-ten need significant mental health support and face waiting lists of months or years, in either case negating the original diagnosis. The latest reports identify the distressing fact that one-in-four adults in England and Wales are currently in receipt of psychotropic prescription drugs.
The Marxist anthropologist, Professor David Harvey, has detailed the design of neoliberalism in great detail. Amongst many plans laid by the Capitalist academics working after the Second World War, all engaged and well-paid to organise the breaking of the mixed-economy of so-called Keynsianism, was the requirement to infantilise the population.
Infantilisation – the persistence of infantile characteristics or behaviour in adult life. – would be essential to break the predictable opposition to deep inequality. The plying of social opiates, from consumer-durable games to drugs (both legal and illegal) fed the nineteen eighties social disorientation, isolating and marginalising campaigns against unemployment and privatisation. The first bosses offensive succeeded and the corporate lobbying of governments ensured the total political sign-up to the neoliberal plan.
Individuals and families were fully privatised by policies requiring self-responsibility and hard-working family life. The reimposed division between the “deserving” and “undeserving” ensured competition between the poor for resources and legitimacy. And meanwhile, Clinton and Blair ensured the official Left promoted the free-market and the so-called Third Way amongst the middle-classes, offering a sufficiency of crumbs from their tables. The imposition of competition over social-cohesion permeated every aspect of life in the USA and UK.
Education has been the primary vehicle for building hegemony of competitive behaviour and belief systems. In both countries, firstly, the teachers unions had to be smashed by the end of the 1980s. Then national curricula (or in academy strategy, corporate sponsorship of school learning plans) ensured individualist competition in the next two generations of children.
Universities spewed-out post-modern narratives to replace and deny fundamental truths about social organisation, mutual support and collective society, let alone the structural inequalities of social class, the enemy being any notion of socialism or tax-funded safety-nets. We could openly discuss and condemn one-to-one oppression – sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia – but exploitation and the privilege of class were all-but outlawed.
Those wishing to take-up professions in social welfare were targeted most – the teachers, the social workers and the health workers were force-fed new notions of self-determination through personal choice that were designed to individualise and privatise access to care.
This worldwide political push was exemplified by the Glasnost and Perestroika in Russia where individual social behaviours were released from political restraint whilst working hours and productivity were hiked to new levels of exploitation, the rights and voice of workers in the workplace dulled and channelled into collusion with the profiteers.
The globally pervasive falsehood of individualism – The Capitalist Dream – was resisted best, although by no means effectively, in Scandinavia, France and Germany. A particularly brutal and painful model was enforced in the UK as a specific target for action against our historic development of collectivism and multiculturalism.
The result of this test-tube experiment for fundamental social change has been a partial success. Despite all appearances, public protest, trade union organisation at least in the public sector, and the echoes of historical socialist belief-systems, have force the neoliberals to go far slower than they wished and to have still only partially completed the transformation (the word itself now a political term coined by their new paradigm).
But there have been huge casualties. Children are now children at Law until they are 18 years old, despite having an age of criminal responsibility at 10 and being able to join the military at 16. We are told they cannot think for themselves, most are far too soft, over-emotional and inexperienced to have a vote or be taken seriously.
The gaming machines and zero-tolerant school regimes have straight-jacketed acceptable behaviour into a passivity and conformity. At the same time the media images of sex and violence fantasies coupled with endless shows of competition from baking to beat-the-family quizzes have dominated consciousness. The responsibilities of adulthood have been taken away and displayed as unpalatable, remaining adolescent in thought and action far preferable to citizenship and participatory democracy.
The overwhelming result has been a tendency to fear and self-loathing. A sense of loss and detachment despite all the distraction and palliatives. Fear of others set against desire for acceptance and inclusion. Aspiration and desire negated by economic competition and lack of resources. The top 1% have doubled their super-wealth since 2008 while the bottom 50% of the population, some 33 million of us, have lost.
The wealth of the richest 10% is 315 times more than the poorest. 1 in 3 children live in poverty, 14 million households are officially poor (including 5 million where at least one adult works) and more than 1 million households have to turn to food banks for charitable sustenance each year. Most work is repetitive and tedious, servile and alienating, the life-chances (not least the continually rising pension age) near-to hopeless, and the continuous all-pervading propaganda for never-to-be-attained designer-homes and flashy fast cars wholly dispiriting.
Depression is an epidemic. The second Bosses Offensive – Neoliberal Austerity – has ensured a blank cheque for the rich and a grinding and deepening reality for most of us. And most of all, the sense of powerless, over our own lives and towards any influence over our own futures, is paralysing. Little wonder we turn, en masse, to living off-world – shutting down while at work, coming home to fantasy films, hero-gaming, drugs and alcohol, cheap white sugar and heart-warming fatty foods.
Throughout this week of spotlighting emotional health, most of the above will not be spoken of. We will hear sanitised plastic debates between the “protect childhood innocence” neocons and the “build individual emotional resilience” post-modern professionals. In practice, two-sides of the same neoliberal coin.
More darkly, we will also hear cries of “abuser” towards those encouraging the young to protest against environmental destruction and global extinction. Of course, the best way to defeat pessimism and depression is to do something to shoo away the Black Dog of enforced passivity. To talk about the anxieties and recognise their basis in reality. The only way to build hope is to break through the barriers erected to prevent emancipation and fulfilment.
We have to defy the promoters of infantilism and passivity. Children and young people have to regain engagement and co-operation with each other. Working class youth have to regain trust in each other. The best thing the commentators and professionals can do to celebrate (or is it commemorate) Mental Health Week is to join the youth on the streets. Shout out “Extinction?” and respond with “Rebellion!”. Feels better already!
Sunday 6th October 2019