Mental Health and Independence
Beyond the Great British Bunfight over facts, figures and legalities on the issue of Scotland’s independence from Westminster governance and its exit from the United Kingdom there exists a vast mass of experiential reasoning as to why Britain, in its current form, constitutes a serious health hazard to its population. Our personal stories are often overlooked as mere anecdote, but is very often the expression of far greater sociological truths. It is in storytelling too that we make authentic connections with one another; when we identify similar experiences, or are drawn by emotive reflexes, we become sympathetic with the other (the storyteller and/or the stories’ characters) and in a sense the other becomes a part of us.
It is vital then that alongside the legalistic arguments we are relating to one another our own stories within the context of British life, share our reflections, and offer our visions of progress. In these acts we are forging new common relationships with our fellow citizens, and this is especially important in setting our implicit message of hope within the context of a Yes vote on September 18th ie. they become us, and we become them and by reasoning the new resultant we becomes a greater, and more collective we. In my story I will relate the misery of my journey toward critical consciousness; identify the source of that misery; and relate this source to my readers in terms of the the anger we should recognise and utilise within us all, the hope that a break with this system can bring, and the action we can take collectively to forge a better society.
I left school when I got a job labouring on building sites. As anybody who has worked on sites can tell you the weather extremities, low pay, casual hours and physicality of the job takes its toll. On winter mornings my body would scream at me not to get out of bed, but of course I did: because I had to. At that time I had no awareness of my rights as a worker: I got no sick pay, no holiday pay, no guaranteed minimum income, no rain-money. I didn’t even know from one week to the next whether I had work or not. I got paid £35 per day cash; that “day” was the seasonal “day”, so could mean 7 hours or 16 hours – during the long summer weeks, when work was more secure, I could clock up an 80 hour week, and yet be paid only £175.
I soon learned that to secure a more stable position I had to demonstrate the value of my labour. By that time I was working in landscaping and, although the conditions hadn’t improved, there was scope to “climb the ladder”, which is a typically arduous euphemism for improving one’s own lot within the workplace. I had joined the Scottish Socialist Party and begun to learn more about worker rights… but the precarity of my circumstances and the lack of any available Trade Union representation, meant that there was very little I could actually do. So I worked even harder and took on more responsibilities and gradually increased my rates to £5.00 an hour with access to a van and tools with which I could undertake my own work on-the-fly. Such “homers” are still sadly a vital part of the income of many casual manual workers. Eventually I became a site manager but with my pay capped at £5.15 an hour and still without sick pay or holiday pay (or tax or NIC) I decided to venture out on my own.
My own firm would be better, fairer for my workers and for the customers. I’d make a decent living and so would everyone else involved. It would be legit and fully professional. The long and short of this story is that I spent the best part of 12 years (in the prime of my life) digging ditches and drinking myself to sleep every day. My own venture (for 7 of those 12 years) was an utter living hell. I hated being a boss and the alienation it brought with it. I hated having to cheat and beg in order to pay my men and put food on my family’s table – during this time I had gotten married and we’d had three children. I hated the intense pressure each winter as the work dropped off and Christmas loomed closer, money melted into air, but the bills and wages were ever present.
Eventually I suffered a mental breakdown. I became severely ill and family life – never mind my work responsibilities – became utterly unbearable. I hid at home for months, unable to answer the door, my phone, or even emails. My drinking became my salvation. I woke in the morning with absolute dread, and drank to bring the night-time more quickly. I made a mess of everything, began self-harming, and became very abusive of those close to me. Inevitably I became suicidal, and I began to see that act as preferable to Heroin, whose seductive calm and euphoria I would have hungrily accepted were I able to make a simple phone call… but my paranoia and enfeebled confidence wouldn’t even let me do that.
I was saved in my first experience of suicide by the excellent Community Psychiatric Nursing team in East Kilbride and I began to get some excellent support in psychiatry and psychotherapy, which I still use to this day. My second visit to that awful, black brink was with more conviction. Just as before I needed to escape. I had to escape the pressure, anxiety, guilt, shame, burden… the toil of every waking minute. I took no solace in the idea of my wife or my children… I was numb, and my mind throbbed with the futility of life, not just for myself, but for everybody on earth… what was the point?
Then, in my most tragic and pathetic morbidity, from out of nowhere, or perhaps from the depths of my subconscious, came my epiphany.
As my mind cast to the faces of those friends and family members who had at some point tried to help me, or had otherwise abandoned me, I recognised a deeper force at play in them. In fact when I thought of any person I had ever observed or interacted with I recognised the same latent tension. All along my psychotherapy had taught me that through childhood experience I had developed, or perhaps learned, certain psychological traits and tensions from my parents; they in turn had adopted theirs from their own parents and so on. In one moment I could see these tensions for what they were; I could see how universal they were and how historical they were. They were normal: and if they were normal then I was normal. This singular insight, in its clarity and veracity, had brought me to an unprecedented basis of consciousness; these tensions and phases of private crisis were universal; they were happening to everybody, at different paces, and in different degrees, but what became perfectly clear was that their normality and universality meant that they were borne of structural societal pressures; they were an effect of the system. Thus they could be countered! In this single moment I became a revolutionary and rekindled the socialist articulation of my youth. In this moment I stepped back from the brink of oblivion, with a cause: a mission for effecting radical change, to fight against the capitalist mode of production, the universal alienation it inherently fostered and the chloroform of false consciousness it had muffled my mind with for so long.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote solemnly about the genesis of this system of exploitation, and about all of its historical forms: they believed that in capitalism such a system existed which would eventually realise such mass immiseration that a revolution would come about. This forecast has thus far not been realised, but, I submit that in Britain at present, the system has been practiced so incessantly and so ferociously over the past 35 years that the conditions of such immiseration are ripening. These are not material conditions as Marx, Engels and Ricardo referred to in the 19th century, but exist as far more pervasive conditions of existential and psychological crises.
Such a view has been accepted by the psychologist Oliver James in his work Affluenza, where he relates advanced consumerism (in the pre-2008 Western economies) to a perverse psychological virus that leads us invariably to depression, anxiety, and often suicide. The premise is something that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has also often represented and developed within the context of capitalism’s ideological paradox.
The sociological work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level (2009) proves the triangular correlation between neo-liberal capitalism, inequality and poor mental health. The UK is very often at or close to the worst end of the spectrum in their revelationary study. Carol Craig, in The Tears That Made the Clyde, brings this triangular paradigm of the capitalist system into sharp focus under a Glaswegian lens. For Craig, Glasgow is the dislocated, macho, patriarchal, alcoholic, self-abusive, violent, self-limiting, delinquent, socially deviant, self-harming child of industrial capitalism. The root of all of these problems is in the city’s conditional upbringing, and in its attempts to improve itself, by itself, but still within the system: Glasgow is left, as I am, with paranoia, jealousy, depression, anxiety, and neither confidence nor self-esteem.
Unsurprisingly, I am angry. And I believe Glasgow should be angry, but has not perhaps reached the same point of epiphany that I have, although we know only too well that she has suffered for longer and in more devastating ways.
My story won’t be the worst you’ll have heard either, of course not, but it is a common story, not just in Glasgow, but across western economies. In order to articulate my anger I wish to speak as Glasgow if I may: as a city of people living according to the conditions of misery as prescribed by the UK’s apparent apparatus of government at Westminster and by its own governing master, the capitalist system.
Therefore, I am angry.
I am angry at the system that allows loan sharks to take over our high streets, television screens and housing estates, trading on the exchange of one misery for another, with interest! That allows their agents to pursue us in court after having set us in their trap; or even worse allowing them to seize our meagre material goods, or our bank accounts; or worse still our bodies, or the bodies of our loved ones, in violence and rape; all in order that they, these leeches of misery, can secure their pound of flesh within the loose principle of legitimate commodification of every physical, and metaphysical, element on earth. This system makes me sick.
I am angry at the system that seeks to address the results of my problems, not with compassion or positivity, but with the application of the Bedroom Tax: not a solution to misery, but rather an instrument of procuring yet more misery. Our comrade in the Radical Independence Campaign, and SSP member, Richie Venton, wrote recently in the Scottish Socialist Voice about the tragic story of disabled Solihull grandmother Stephanie Bottrill, who walked out in front of a lorry on the M6 last May, leaving a suicide note which read,
“Don’t blame yourself 4 me ending my life, it’s my life. The only people 2 blame r the government, no one else. I love u so much.”
Stephanie was right, but tragically the government were wrong: it has since come to light that Ms Bottrill was not even supposed to be charged with the tax. Venton correctly summarises the perversity of the Bedroom Tax,
“[It is] absolutely heartbreaking [that] these Tory animals pushed through a tax on the poorest that forced thousands of people to go without proper heating or food, compelled many of them to uproot themselves and move house and, in the most tragic cases, to end their lives… when all along they were not even legally liable to pay.”
I am angry at the system that deploys against our disabled, sick, and vulnerable, the monstrous machine of misery that is ATOS. In the latest in a long sequence of tragedies borne as result of infirm people being re-modeled as “fit-for-work” by this intolerably authoritarian machine, we hear about Mark Wood who died of starvation in his own home four months after ATOS had re-designated his working ability. Mark Wood was not a scrounger nor a skiver, he was a vulnerable 44 year old man, who suffered from several mental health conditions who had not even been notified that his housing benefit and Employment Support Allowance had ceased.
I am angry at the system that enforces an unmandated programme of austerity which persecutes further the vulnerable and poor of our society. Meanwhile, as our RIC comrade Tony Kenny recently told the audience of Victoria Derbyshire’s Radio 5 Live audience, “the country is filthy stinking rich!” Kenny is right, the country is filthy stinking rich, and the bankers and big businesses are still making ever more obscene profit margins. Despite this, the austerity leviathan is cutting vital public services and jobs while squeezing the vitality out of our people, absurdly increasing the number of working poor, the number of food banks and the number of suicides. Austerity forces so many of us to choose between the misery of more debt, and the misery of cold houses and empty cupboards.
This system makes me sick.
What hope then? And where?
Since 1979 and the advent of Thatcherism, the levels of inequality in wealth distribution have risen from an unprecedented low, achieved during the post-war construction of the NHS, welfare state and programmes of public housing, to an unprecedented high today. This is the contextual narrative of my life (I was born in 1982), and thus is such for nearly two full generations. Since Thatcher took power, the corporate elites have entrenched themselves so firmly that, as we have witnessed with the Bedroom Tax, ATOS et al, our government no longer functions to serve the interests of the people. Perhaps it never has, but certainly an effort was made to do so between 1945 and 1974. Now, more than ever before in the 20th century, it serves as a naked agent of capitalist class power.
Anything that can be done therefore to break the hegemony of Westminster (and its sibling agents) must be done. The September 2014 Referendum is the first such opportunity the working classes anywhere on these islands will have had to break the bondage to the British elites for nearly 100 years. The Labour Party perspective that by separating we will only serve to further entrench ruling class interests and thus divide and weaken the British working class simply does not stack up. We only need to look at the constituent adversaries on either side of the debate to witness this falsity: on the Yes side of the vote sit very few individuals or organisations which could be considered part of the elite; on the No side sit very few individuals or organisations which could NOT be considered part of the elite.
Our singular hope then for real change from our current misery lies in a Yes vote in September. This is undoubtedly a class war; it is our chance to strike for emancipation from bondage to the elites. Of course, a Yes vote does not implicitly deliver us to pastures bathed in equality and happiness. James Connolly in his campaign for an Irish Worker’s Republic 100 years ago, was perpetually anxious to articulate the warning that for the mass of the people, capitalism is capitalism regardless of its national identity. It is capitalism that we seek to strike a blow on rather than the British establishment per se. A Yes vote offers us hope and a window of opportunity in which to create something which is slightly different: less miserable and more hopeful.
Awake then! To use Carol Craig’s paraphrase of Marx “we have nothing to lose but our remotes!”.
The first stage of action is to recognise who the elites are and that they are largely in control of the messages we receive in our newspapers and on our news bulletins. This is classically called propaganda; we must remain aware of it and whose interests it serves.
Secondly we must recognise that we really means WE, as in all of us. You are perfectly normal. We are all perfectly normal, in different ways yes, but we have all been living under the same corrupt dysfunctional social system. Become angry. Become angry together.
Thirdly, we must recognise the rarity of the opportunity presented to us by the Referendum. This is our one chance, it would be sheer folly, and to our eternal shame, should we not seize it with every hand we have. Establish hope. Share that hope with everybody.
Lastly, we must become as active in this campaign for independence as far as our lives permit. Join your local Radical Independence branch; participate in the meetings, events and actions; bring your friends and family; talk to people – use your story, identify the system, create anger, hope and action amongst your people; never stop questioning what information you are delivered; never allow others to think on your behalf, unless you have given them express permission to do so.
Let’s unite in anger at this system of misery.
Let’s unite in hope that we, the people, can bring about progress and change.
Let’s unite in action to smash the dictatorship over our miserable lives by the monstrous capitalist cabal in London.
Let’s unite and vote Yes in September this year to remove the futility of the future for our children and grandchildren and instead deliver a future filled with hope, empowerment and opportunity.