Short article exploring the idea of magical voluntarism and how it relates to questions of organisation.
A couple of days ago an interview appeared with Mark Fisher on RS21.org. That interview was on the subject of depression, politics, and class. There is a lot in what Mark Fisher says in that article and in capitalist realism that I agree with; but there are likewise points I don’t. The point of this article isn’t to attack Mark Fisher as a person or a thinker, the work he does on mental health is necessary- in part because its he’s usually spot on, and in part because he is among the only voices the broad left listens to about it. The point here is to engage in what he has said in order to further a broadly “left” discussion about mental health. At certain points, it’ll become clear that a lot of our disagreement on the prescription for our ills comes from our different political positions.
Mark Fisher points to a phenomenon called magical voluntarism that he identifies as one of the dominant ideological apparatus of capitalist realism. In the interview Fisher is quoted as defining magical voluntarism as
the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be.
This is the American Dream in a nutshell, the crystallised core of aspirational models of subjectivation that define us as strivers. We see messages issuing the schema of meritocratic subjectivity everywhere around us but nowhere are they condensed to their skeletal frame than in military recruitment drives. For years the British Army has issued the injunction: be the best. It never answers the question of what it is that one is supposed to be the best at. That is precisely why it is the purest expression of a thousand adverts, job descriptions, television programmes. The entire plane of the media, a plane that wraps itself around its recipients, burrows itself inside them, is a nexus of phantasies that repeat this same injunction: want the best, be the best, you deserve the best.
If army recruitment drives are the purest schematic form of inducement into magical voluntarism then the limit-case is the popular phenomenon of ‘The Secret’. In the interview Fisher talks about how magical voluntarism becomes
the belief that everything, including the material universe itself, is subject to individual will.
This is exactly what The Secret is all about. The book posits a natural law called the law of attraction that is summed up in the credo that reality is a product of thought. This law is instrumentalised in order to teach the reader/viewer that if they think about what they want hard enough, for instance via visualisation, then they will receive it. If you add feeling to the mix then your transmission to the universe gets signal boosted. The reason all this is so isn’t just that its based on natural law but also because
there is a truth deep down inside of you that has been waiting for you to discover it, and that Truth is this: you deserve all good things life has to offer 1
This is the image of the consumer as a soul able to emit desire-transmissions into a receptive universe, and implies an entire metaphysics built around Loreal’s insistence that “you’re worth it”. Mark Fisher is quick to point out the core political problem here: if you fail to find work, pay your bills, get that holiday/car/pair of trainers, it’s because you didn’t want it enough. This implies a deficiency in your ability to desire or, in the language of the Secret, to emit frequencies into the universe. What Fisher’s statement implies is more than what he says. To follow this logic we ultimately have to conclude that the failure is in the individual’s essence: I am a failure right down to the soul; I got what I deserved. It is easy to see how living within this semiology can produce depression.
What neither Fisher nor his interviewer Anindya Bhattacharyya point out in this interview is that magical voluntarism comes out of the work of the radical psychologist David Smail. Smail is a member of a neo-materialist group of practicing and research psychologists, author of several books, and one of the co-authors of an absolutely brilliant materialist theory of mental distress. Mark does point to Smail’s work in another interview (which is how I found his work) and in an article on the privatisation of stress. David Smail identifies magical voluntarism as originating not with capitalism per se, but within psychology itself:
The trouble is, as soon as therapeutic schools start to formalize and professionalize their procedures they nearly always—advertently or not—enmesh themselves in interiorizing philosophies of one kind or another. There are in fact very few approaches to psychological therapy that don’t in some measure subscribe to individualist, idealist and/or what I call magical voluntarist positions. All such approaches have their foundation in a general cultural assumption that is in fact very hard to shake off—i.e., that fundamentally we are all individuals who just happen to find ourselves in societies. I suspect that it might be more accurate to say that fundamentally we are social creatures who just happen to feel as individuals.
The full implications the technique for subjectivation become apparent when we look at Smail: they produce a depth interior in much the same way that Foucault described as the work of psychoanalysis- a deep subjective core where an individual’s truth is located. As such it plays perfectly into the individualism of capitalism and thereby extends the erosion of communality thereby precluding the possibility of any collective- let alone class- action. The idealism of the technique is what we saw with the secret and can be simply expressed in the formula:
(focussed)desire+thought+emotion=production of personal reality.
All structural explanations for experience, whether they are biological, embodied, economic, political or historical, are erased. Materiality disappears into a cloud of psycho-marketing strategy. With magical voluntarism we see a deep confluence between positive psychology, psychotherapy and advertising. This confluence is hardly surprising as these three facets have always been entwined. Smail’s work in The Origins of Unhappiness also point to all this being an intentional strategy first deployed during Thatcher’s demolition of working class communities and organisation. Summarising the argument in that book in an interview with the author of The Therapy Industry, Paul Moloney
Margaret Thatcher was a big influence as well. In one sense, she was just about the best psychologist that I’ve ever come across, because she knew better than anybody, (or the influences she stood for knew better than anybody) what changes people, and how to bring people into line and that’s by affecting their interests and threatening them, inducing them through paying them lots of money and so on. It became very evident after 1979 that the people who came to see me didn’t have much room for manoeuvre, no matter how much will power they applied to the circumstances that they found themselves in, and usually because of some nasty, punitive measure that the Tory government had taken. These people blamed themselves, and they struggled to think ‘ what is it about me…. my personal strategies and so on that are not working …why am I so inadequate in these circumstances…?’ and it was perfectly obvious to me that they were not inadequate; it was the circumstances that were the problem.
This work is continued by through ConDem government’s Behavioural Insights Team, or nudge unit, and by the continued spread of psychotherapeutic and behavioural interventions beyond the consultation room. Just as psychiatry autonomised itself from the Asylum following deinstitutionalisation, so to has psychotherapy come to spread itself throughout the social fabric. The most popular form of magical voluntarism today is CBT but motivational interviewing and mindfulness have also metastasized through the body of the social. One of the leading figures of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, has had a profoundly influential role in disseminating the idea that we can train ourselves to be happy through changing our thoughts:
Depression is a disorder of the ‘I,’ failing in your own eyes relative to your goals. In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable 2 .
Seligman believes we can develop ‘new cognitive skills’ that essentially revolve around changing how we look at situations, including disputing our pessimistic beliefs. From Seligman’s point of view, if we want to happy people then we should renounce our analyses of capitalism because it just makes us depressed: it is the belief about capitalism rather than the material conditions that create depression. The problem is explanatory style: change the explanation, change the world. This is the very inverse of Marx’s 11th thesis.
In my view Seligman’s earlier theory of learned helplessness was correct. As I keep saying, the left- broadly defined- has learned that it is pointless to do anything to change its situation because nothing works. Any groups that do take the initiative to act must be educated on the futility of action. Zizek has the slogan for this position, a position he advocates: don’t act, think. This separation is regressive and really amounts to the depressive tendency to ruminate, to go over the same problems again and again, sinking deeper into despair.
Fisher recommends that we go for ‘winnable struggles’. I’ve said the same thing again and again, so I’m in agreement with him on this. The way out of learned helplessness isn’t learned optimism but the acting. To repurpose the language of behavioural therapy, if the left is depressed, if we are depressed, then it needs to set itself small and achievable goals. It requires graded exposure. To think that we can go from a situation of paralysis to exuberant and explosive potency is short-circuiting the actual politico-therapeutic work that is required. First of all this means analysing our own locus of control. To whom do we attribute the ability to act? It also requires a specific kind of pragmatism. In CBT and 12-step programs everything begins from Epictetus’s idea that something are under our control and other things are not. But unlike Epictetus, Stoicism and the 12-steps we know that control is the outcome of actions and that the more we act the more things fall under our control. The task is to unlearn helplessness in our bodies through collective praxis. Questions about the scale and revolutionary degree (reformist/revolutionary) of organising and acting can’t be what determine the work of unlearning helplessness.
For Mark Fisher the path we need to walk wends itself through ‘mainstream media and politics’. Contesting dominant ideologies in newspapers and in political parties? We’ve been here before. Again and again. For Fisher proponents of direct-action 3 , the ever vague and ambiguous “neo-anarchists”, are the result of collective depression. I think this is the wrong way around. Whoever these neo-anarchists are they seem to be the ones who are engaged in the practical work of building new practices, new organisations, and new spaces. Fisher states that the symbolic action of occupying space is different from ‘occupying it because we think we can run it better than the capitalists’. And that is true. But before we can enact any autonomisation of social space we need to be able to know how to do it. Bodies that have never enjoyed the circuitry of autonomy and the sharing of any affects other than depression, anxiety, and rage need to be able to occupy space in order to learn how to do so. And not just space. Bodies need to learn how to occupy time in order to halt the linear rhythms of production-consumption and install new temporalities. An occupation is also not just a symbolic protest. The Occupy movement may well have been; but occupations of social housing or of mental health treatment centres go beyond being merely symbolic gestures. Winnable struggles might necessarily be small scale at the moment. They may seem ephemeral and perhaps even merely symbolic. But winning struggles is exactly what a depressive body requires. Part of that will be renouncing any purism about what and how we win struggles.
Abandoning purism doesn’t mean that we have should throw ourselves into the construction of new left parties, or the recovery of old. Nor does it mean we should focus on winning the ideological territory of the mainstream media. These are structures we have nothing to do with. These are structures and territories designed to keep potency clustered around a specific set of actors. To completely reverse Fisher’s prescription, I see these forms as precisely those that embody a version of magical voluntarism. The party has acted historically as the unit of avant-garde theory. The party has what the workers lack: insight, the psychiatric term for the magical device of acknowledging one’s position as mad. Just as psychiatry treats the mad, so to the party treats the workers. This isn’t unlearning helplessness, it is shifting helplessness. To unlearn helplessness we have to reactivate networks of autonomous organisation. Direct unionist workplace organisation; autonomous tenants associations; solidarity networks; the development of media forms that are constructed out of the mainstream media but don’t exist within it ; the creation of groups that explore the structural causes, experience and collective strategies for combating psychopathology. These bodies already exist and they are the bodies that are struggling, but often delivering, real gains. This isn’t an argument to rest on our laurels, but to view these cells of struggle as part of a much larger assemblage that is opening the path to learning how to struggle.
The most dangerous time of any depression is the time when it begins to lift, when the depressive body is coming out of its helpless state. As that body becomes more energised, more able to move, to want to move, to act and to want to act, the presence of suicidal thinking may not have entirely lifted. Paradoxically, it is as the depression wanes that the risk of suicide is at its height. So the difference between Fisher and myself is probably the old leftist-anarchist division: Fisher wants to write us a leftist social prescription I think we can do without.
- 1 Byrne, S. 2011. The Secret. London: Atria Books. p.41.
- 2 Seligman, M. 2006. Learned optimism: how to change your mind and your life. London: Vintage Books. p.2
- 3 'When we take action on our own behalf rather
than lobbying an external authority, this provides us with opportunities to raise class consciousness from the situation and improve our effectiveness in taking action'. This is from the recently updated Anarchist Federation pamphlet 'The Role of the Revolutionary Organisation'. This definition of direct action is an example of what I call "unlearning helplessness".