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Session Overview
RN16_01b_H: Capitalism, Subjectivities, Solidarities: Theorizing Mental Illness in Times of Crisis
Wednesday, 30/Aug/2017:
2:00pm - 3:30pm

Session Chair: Joana Zózimo, Faculdade de Economia/Centro de Estudos Sociais - University of Coimbra
Session Chair: ARIANNA RADIN, University of Turin
Location: HA.1.2
HAROKOPIO University 70 El. Venizelou Street 17671 Athens, Greece Building: A, Level: 1.

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‘Capitalism, Subjectivities, Solidarities: Theorizing Mental Illness in Times of Crisis’: The Urgency for Marxist Theory

Bruce Macfarlane Cohen

University of Auckland, New Zealand

This presentation offers a critical reflection on the current global ‘crisis’ in mental health, and with that, the proliferation of psy-professionals and their accompanying claims to better knowledge on mental disease. Fundamentally, I ask and seek to answer how sociologists can accurately explain such large scale expansion without any known improvement in the ‘science’ of mental illness or associated treatments. As I outline in my book Psychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness (2016) previous attempts by labelling, social constructivist and Foucauldian scholars to theorise this fundamental contradiction in contemporary institutional power has failed to fully contextualise the political project of the mental health system within a framework of fundamental material inequalities. In contrast, the utilisation of structural Marxist scholarship allows us to make sense of the emergence and development of the psy-professions within industrial society, their changing practices and priorities, points of internal and external competition and conflict, as well as their expansion in neoliberal society. This current period of what I refer to as ‘psychiatric hegemony’ will be demonstrated with some examples from the fifth edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual Mental Disorders (DSM-5)– a diagnostic matrix which legitimates and promotes capitalist values and norms including individualism, consumerism, cooperative labour, the nuclear family and women’s reproductive responsibilities, and the maintenance of socio-economic inequalities.

'Capitalism, Subjectivities, Solidarities: Theorizing Mental Illlness in Times of Crisis': The View From the Clinic

Michael John Hazelton

The University of Newcastle, Australia

In this presentation I comment on the current state of mental health globally from the perspective of a psy-professional (mental health nurse) who has also trained as a sociologist. If it can be argued that the mental health system led by psychiatry continues to operate as a kind of political project supporting capitalism, that project would seem to be contingent, fragile and constantly under challenge, by dissenting voices such as those of the survivors of psychiatry – a new social movement. It might be argued that psychiatry and the biomedical model have not previously been exposed to the degree of critical scrutiny and opposition that currently exists. If the psy-system is in crisis it may be that this is more a crisis of human rights associated with iatrogenic damage resulting from psycho-pharmacological mega-dosing and polypharmacy and other forms of poor practice. There are also, of course, ongoing human rights concerns surrounding mental health law and coercion as ‘care’. Moreover, the ‘psy-system’ comprises various competing interests that are played out daily at the policy, governance and clinical practice levels. The various professions assert their ‘unique’ occupational contributions to the mental health division of labour, workforce improvement targets typically fail to be met and service users continue to express dissatisfaction with the outcomes of ‘care’. Given this context it is difficult to view the ‘psy-system’ as working in any organised and coherent way to support capitalist ideals and practices.

Madness: Ideas about Insanity

Peter Morrall

University of Leeds, United Kingdom

This paper addresses the uncertainties and incongruities about madness. It analyses critically how madness was historically and is today understood. There is no adherence to any prior perspective by the author (and no ‘instinctive’ sociological condemnation of psychiatry).

Contrasting past and present case-studies of people who have been perceived as mad and/or perceive themselves as mad, core ideas about madness are critiqued for their theoretical and empirical robustness. The case studies cover the topics of: madness and murder (Pierre Rivière and Anders Breivik); ‘asylumdom’ (John Perceval and Howard Dully); the sanity of insanity (Mary Barnes and Gwyneth Lewis); the insanity of society (Stephen Fry and ‘Swift Runner’); science and psychiatry (the Susannah Cahalan and ‘WL’).

Madness as a category of human performance consisting of behaviours, thoughts, and emotions, troublesome to an individual, to those Goffman terms the ‘normals’, or society overall, is also critiqued.

Ideas covered include: post-structuralism/social constructionism; existential-phenomenology; social control; Marxism; social realism; radical libertarianism; critical/radical/evolutionary psychologies; medical anthropology; and the biological sciences of ‘scientific-psychiatry’.

What is proposed is that madness has always been and continues to be misunderstood and may not be understandable. All ideas (so far) applied to madness are theoretically and/or empirically inadequate. Moreover, the very application of a particular idea, because this is conducted in and on its own terms, can only render a presumptive, partial, and preconceived understanding of madness.


Morrall P (2017) Madness: Ideas about Insanity. London: Routledge.

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