From the June 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Social Basis of Mental Ill-Health
"I want to be left alone; I want to dream my dreams, to believe as I once believed, that life is good and beautiful and that men can live with one another in peace and plenty. No son of a bitch on earth can tell me that to make life better you have to first kill a million or ten million men in cold blood." The cry from the heart of millions of ordinary people today; people whose only wish is to live happy, full, life free from hardship, fear and anxiety.
This cri de coeur comes from a “fictitious” American, a soldier disabled in World War I, “The alcoholic veteran with the washboard cranium.” His creator—Henry Miller, whose savage, bitter attacks on Capitalist society are brilliantly embodied in his story of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company from The Tropic of Capricorn.
The greatest tragedy of Capitalism is the suffering of its living victims. The dead are dead and can feel nothing, but the living must endure the frustrations, the fears, the uncertainties, the insecurity, which are inextricably bound to mid-twentieth-century Capitalism. Nearly half the hospital beds in the United Kingdom are reserved for patients with mental illness; in the United States it is as common for people to have their own “head shrinker” (psychiatrist) as it is for them to have their own butcher or beautician. Here is a tape-recording of a private talk between an American T.V. producer (Dan Enright) and a professional “quiz contestant” (Herbert Stempel), reported in Time magazine of 15th September, 1958:
Enright: I want to get a psychiatrist for you.
Stempel: I already have one.
Enright: No, sir. I want you to go to a psychiatrist five days a week, not twice, Herb, to expedite yourself . . . We will foot the cost . . .
Stempel: Well, my doctor seems to feel that my problem isn’t serious enough for five days a week.
Age of the Phoney
A society must be grievously sick when so many of its members have to undergo mental treatment. Psychiatry is a peculiar product of modern Capitalist society. Mental conflicts (including the “neuroses,” which account for so much mental illness nowadays) are largely the result of peoples’ inability to come to terms with their environment, and psychiatry is an attempt to resolve these conflicts; but they are inevitable under Capitalism, where society is divided by warring groups and classes.
Capitalism has created a world of potential plenty, but millions of its workers either live in poverty or else they live in a state of apprehension lest some “crisis” (an oft recurring feature of Capitalism) throw them into poverty. Capitalism is world-wide, but lethally armed nations make a mockery of cooperation with the shrill cries of their gutter-patriotic leaders and their insatiable demands for markets, trade routes, and for their Cypruses, their Formosas, their Algerias. Capitalism, especially the mid-twentieth-century brand, will go down in human history as the great age of the phoney. Honesty and integrity are subjects for derision; the present-day gods are the gimmick, the ballyhoo, and the slick-tongued salesman, all wallowing in a bog of false social values.
No country in this Capitalist world is more socially sick than the United States of America. The United States is a fantastic amalgum: it possesses the source of scientific knowledge and industrial techniques challenged only by Soviet Russia, and yet, according to Paul Blanshard in his book The Right to Read (The Beacon Press, Boston, 1955), there are roughly 8,000,000 “functional illiterates” in the U.S.A. That is, there are 8,000,000 adults who have not got the reading knowledge that a child should acquire in the first four years at school. And according to Louis R. Wilson’s study The Geography of Reading (quoted in the above book), only about one-half of the adult population of the United States in 1938 had sufficient reading skill to understand the ordinary books published for adults. And yet these “functional illiterates” are subjected to the same strains and stresses of Capitalism as their more “enlightened” fellows: is it any wonder, then, that many are intellectually and emotionally incapable of coming to grips with a bitterly competitive and hostile environment—modern capitalist society?
When faced with a problem, some people fight it, some run away from it, and some remain undecided, a battleground of conflicting emotions which tend to destroy the peace of mind and cause mental illness. When faced with the problems of Capitalism, therefore, some people fight them (Socialists are in this category), some run away (Capitalism must answer for many suicides), and others become mentally ill: they either fill the mental hospitals, appear in police courts, or, more tragic still, they may live for years with terrible mental conflicts which blight their own and their families lives.
But suddenly these pent-up frustrations, conflicts, and inward suffering may erupt with dreadful results: people “flip their lids” as Americans so graphically describe the onset of acute mental illness, and the outward peace of the humdrum “respectable” home is shattered brutally and irrevocably. Consider the case of 16-year-old Diana Daye Humphries, who ambushed and shot to death her 14-year-old brother in their home in Houston, Texas.
According to an Associated Press despatch dated 24th September, 1958, Diana was an honour student at High School, where her teachers and schoolmates described her as a “brilliant student and well-liked girl, not the type to do a thing like this.” But she did do it, and her reasons for doing it are a terrible indictment of the existence she and her family (along with millions like them) endure under modern Capitalism. Diana (who had also planned to kill her father, her mother and herself) told the police:
“I did it because everything was so routine. My mother goes to work every day and comes home tired. So does my father, and he is sick with ulcers. Everyone was always tired. Robert was tired of school. It seemed we were always getting up, going to work or school, coming home, cooking meals, eating, washing dishes, going to bed and getting up again. I couldn’t stand it! I wanted to kill everyone so we wouldn’t have to suffer any more.”
This penetrating picture of working-class life by a teenage girl makes a macabre mockery of all the sickening eulogies of Capitalist society with which Capitalists and their politicians and spokesmen incessantly bombard our senses. What dark powers Capitalism must have to turn a “brilliant student and well-liked girl” of such tender years into a pessimistic, disillusioned killer.
Another Associated Press Report dated 24th September, 1958, this time from Sparta, Michigan, tells of the tragedy of an unemployed man who killed four of his five children with a shot-gun; his fifth child and estranged wife escaped with minor injuries. The father told the police: “I can only take so much. I got shot up in the war and my nerves act up.” By no means the least horrifying aspect of this tragedy was the hard-boiled, matter-of-fact, attitude of the eight-year-old surviving child, who is reported to have been found sitting on a blood-spattered bed saying: “Hey, cops! Daddy did this. I played dead. He thought he killed me, too.”
These two cases represent the small number of human tragedies in which the stresses and strains of life under Capitalism cause violent reactions, and hence get into newspapers. They are the one-tenth of the iceberg visible above the surface of the water: the extent of submerged human misery can only be inferred from the great increase in recent years of mental illness, suicides, divorces, alcoholism (especially in young people), the so-called “psychosomatic” illnesses, such as duodenal ulceration, and the colossal trade in “tranquillisers ” and sedatives.
The follies, miseries, frustrations, and personal tragedies of modern Capitalist society have been, and are being, forcefully recorded by a growing number of novelists, mostly American. Henry Miller’s savage polemics in The Tropic of Capricorn are not generally available, but there are many other works freely obtainable from public libraries or as cheap “paper backs."
Orwell’s prophecy of the control of man’s thoughts under the Capitalist corporate state a few decades hence is a phantasy (which may perhaps become partly true) featuring violence to mind and body and sophisticated torture. But Merle Miller (The Sure Thing) and David Karp (Leave Me Alone) suggest that “thought police” work, albeit “unofficial” is present today: these authors' subject is the intolerance, persecution; and in some cases social ruin, of people with ideas (real and imagined) slightly out of line with the “hundred-per-cent. All-American” outlook of conformist, unquestioning, suburban communities. These last two books are, in a way. more horrifying than 1984. both because they describe what might actually be happening today, and also because the persecution and intolerance are not exercised by “ thought police,” but by groups of ordinary, well-meaning, law-abiding, citizens only too well indoctrinated with the ideas of intense nationalism, racial prejudices, and selfishness engendered by the Capitalist society in which they live.
The problems of Capitalist Society have been described by socialists, novelists, historians, sociologists, and even by professional politicians. But only Socialists recognise that most of these problems cannot be solved until Capitalism is replaced by a social system in which people throughout the world will work harmoniously together to produce and distribute wealth to satisfy society’s needs. In this system of society. Socialism, there will be no terrible forces causing daughters and fathers to kill members of their families, there will be no need for armies of psychiatrists and overpopulated mental hospitals, no need for the senseless slaughter and maiming of men. women and children in war, and there will be no need for people to fear for their safety and security because of what they think.
To work for the abolition of Capitalism and the establishment of Socialism is the life-work of the Socialist. What better work could there be?
Michael La Touche