Unproductive bodies [part 2]: vulnerability and pharmaco-syndicalism

Second part of two piece article on the production of dependent bodies. Introduces the idea of vulnerability and what could be called pharmaco-syndicalism, or autonomous pharmacological practice (and idea that will be returned to elsewhere).

Submitted by sometimes explode on May 26, 2014

In the first part of this 2 part series I took a brief look at how bodies get coded as dependent and how this dependency circulates within capitalism. In that post I showed how substance misusing bodies become a hegemonic formation. In this part I will expand on dependency and vulnerability

Lynne Friedli’s work highlights how complaints about a culture of dependency transforms an aspect of the ontological vulnerability of bodies into a psychocultural diagnosis of a deficiency in the psychological makeup of the working class, the disabled, the neurodiverse, and so on. It’s not that long ago that the Tory government was releasing regular communiqués on a culture of dependency. It was this culture that David Cameron’s government stated they were introducing the Welfare Reform Bill (2012) that launched an intensification of austerity cuts to social welfare, introduced Universal Credit and unleashed workfare. In a brief press release from 2012, Cameron- or his social media/press office interns- stated that:

Past governments have talked about reform, while watching the benefits bill sky rocket and generations languish on the dole and dependency. This government is delivering it. Our new law will mark the end of the culture that said a life on benefits was an acceptable alternative to work...

... It's also a huge tribute to the Secretary of State for Welfare, Iain Duncan Smith, who has worked tirelessly and with real moral purpose in tackling the blight of welfare dependency.

It hardly needs pointing out that this war on the “blight of welfare dependency” is a metaphor in which the economically unproductive bodies of the unemployed working class, that surplus population produced by structural capitalist crisis, are the very blight that is being cured. The medical metaphor is hardly surprising but it remains telling. Class war is curative: the bourgeoisie, or what remains of it, no longer wish to exploit and impoverish but to set free and to heal. Of course, in reality the cure is a poison. This poison isn’t only the coercions of workfare, precarity, the dissolution of working class communities that might enact solidarity and mutual aid, but also in the very real deaths of ESA claimants - up to 73 a week according to 2012 figures.

By contrast the “hard working” IDS has “real moral purpose” which is precisely what the dependent bodies lack. The language of dependency has given way in recent months to that of strivers and skivers- a simplified populist language that amounts to the same thing. Workfare related deaths by suicide are also reported with alarming frequency, while psychiatric care is being cut and mutilated by austerity and self-management programmes despite the massive amount of evidence directly linking unemployment, stress and poverty to suicide rates. The impacts of welfare reform have also recently been linked to suicidality within social housing tenants.

In Feburary the Benefits for Better Mental Health service of the charity Mind reported a 20% increase in calls relating to anxiety relating to benefit changes, entirely unsurprising when we consider that sanctions seem to be placed on people almost at random. Given the massive success rate of appeals against sanctions it’s hard not to assume that its anxiogenic potency is the real point: workfare as a vast machine for the production of pathological and unproductive bodies that can then be further punished for failing to live up to the new economic categorical imperatives. Following the benefits related suicide of one woman in Scotland, the Mental Welfare Commission set up an independent review of her case. Among its findings were the fact that despite her having been diagnosed with a severe clinical depressive disorder this wasn’t taken into account when she was moved from ESA to JSA, a move that impacted her income considerably. Not only was her depression not taken account of, it couldn’t have been:

The “Mental State Examination” contained within the Work Capability Assessment is notable for significant omissions compared to a clinical mental state examination. In a mental state examination performed in a clinical setting, there would usually be a subjective and objective assessment of mood. Biological and cognitive features of depression are also often recorded in the mental state examination. In Ms DE’s particular case, despite the fact that she was presenting with a depressive illness, there was no assessment of her mood within the WCA mental state examination.1

If we could possibly doubt the punishment aspect of welfare reform, consider this from the conclusion of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau's investigation into benefit sanctions:

One third of those sanctioned were claiming Employment and Support Allowance, and were therefore not well enough to undertake paid work immediately. It is difficult to see how depriving them of their benefit for a significant period is likely to increase their chances of re-entering the labour market.2

As far as I can see the point isn’t to make these bodies capable of becoming productive but simply to punish them for their unproductiveness, making them even more unproductive, and thus even more worthy of punishment. States specialise in a kind of perverse necropolitics whereby bodies are exposed to their own corporeal vulnerability, a proximity to death, in order to ensure that they bind to the security of the state all the more strongly. Capital also knows this trick. It’s what underlies the strategies of precarity. It doesn’t just destroy resistance among the working class, among the disabled, among women whose domestic labour isn’t codified as work, but it also strengthens the in-group identification of those who see themselves as strivers, as in-depedent bodies, dividing the class still further.

But more than this, the DWP statistics for 2011 show that after being declared fit for work some 10,600 people died. With increased dependency on foodbanks- a dependency the government is actively proud of - Wales has seen soaring numbers adults, children and infants diagnosed with malnutrition. On the basis of a quick google search I could also three studies reporting links between welfare reform and mortality rates, although they were all conducted in the United States (one; two; three). Given the return of Victorian living conditions in many cities, we can probably expect to see this problem get worse. The logical conclusion to all this, although horrific and conspiratorial sounding, is that capital’s cure for the blight of unproductive bodies is simply to let some of them die.

The psychologisation of populations serves as a means to depolitise the production of unproductive bodies, the creation of superfluous people, and the dual politics surrounding making them live and letting them die. The construct of motivation, a particularly spurious invention, allows for the unemployed, the disabled, the neurodiverse, along with the oldest and the youngest populations, to be codified as lazy shirkers who deserve everything they get. Economic rationality becomes an economic categorical imperative with all the brutal sovereignty of the Kantian universal moral law. One can almost imagine an existential bent to all this: some capitalist Sartre standing streaming across the internet a simple existential message; “the poor simply choose to be poor, they always retained the freedom to choose otherwise, it is only bad faith that keeps them in their state of dependency”. The relative-surplus population thus becomes that swathe of moral failures who will either be successfully trained into performing work-seeking work, emotional work and emotional labour; or they will be left to be consumed by anxiety and depression, panic, hopelessness, suicide, malnutrition, homelessness, and the illicit forms of coping, like crime and drugs. This the depressive realism of the situation within which and against we are fighting.

The trick is to simultaneously refuse the hopelessness these realisations bring and the coerced positive affect and trained optimism of positive psychology, while also retaining our own rage as a political affect. For this, we require new forms of therapeutic militancy and/or militant therapists. At the core of this is the need to go a level beneath the solidarity that shows up everywhere as an absence and develop its core among ourselves. The core I’m talking about is empathy, and a willingness to reappropriate the very vulnerability that the necropolitics of state and capital seek to turn into weapons against us. If they make us more vulnerable, placing us closer to corporeal harms, they do so in order to generate the phantasy of their own invulnerability. Vulnerability isn’t weakness, although it certainly exposes us to our weaknesses, but is in fact the ontological register of our radical openness to each other. I realise this is all quite abstract but I don’t want to short-circuit what a praxis of vulnerability might look like. In part, I think it will involve consciousness-raising groups, the mutual exposure of neurosocial and psychosocial wounds, the uncovering of the machinery that produces and sustains our affectivities as shared horizons, rather than individual emotional states.Groups like the Icarus Project, Mad Pride, and the Hearing Voices Network might provide models for this kind of political therapeutics. But they don’t come ready made for each situation, each locality, each body, and so have to be forged and reforged.

At the same time we have to be open to the experimentation with the pharmacological tools that are at our disposal. In a previous post I asked what a liberatory psychopharmacology would look like but this can only be answered on an experimental basis. This might involve the reactivation of experiments with LSD and psilocybin, but it could also look like the autonomous organisation of psychopharmacological laboratories. Such laboratories could be already existing labs organised under syndicalist principles or they could be the proliferation of underground clandestine operations.

This materialist approach to the transformation of subjectivity will become ever more important as neuroengineering displaces the chemical paradigm with its growing ability to intervene directly on the electrical activity of our brains. We are already chemical, already electrical, already "technoliving systems". Paraphrasing Beatriz Preciado talking about the experience of injecting with illicit testoterone, we could recognise ourselves as our own guinea pigs, ports for the insertion of molecules, terminals that plug into pharmacocapitalism in order to escape its power to control. We are already laboratories. The kind of politics gestured at here is thus one of reclamation first and foremost of that body and its molecular components. We require a praxis that

does not found itself as an overcoding of existing modelizations [as the traditional avant-garde does], but more as a procedure of “automodelization,” which appropriates all or part of existing models in order to construct its own cartographies, its own reference points, and thus its own analytic approach, its own analytic methodology.3

This is a work of communist repurposing that refuses to reject the existing models that it finds around it, but neither accepts those models as given totalities that must be adopted or discarded. Our bodies are vulnerable and fragile and this is our strength. To begin by reclaiming that vulnerability, that woundedness, is to begin a work of a disaster communism before the disaster descends.4 This is a practice that roughly corresponds with what I've elsewhere called "ecologistics".

  • 1Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland. 2013. Who benefits? The benefits assessment and death of Ms DE. Edinburgh.
  • 2Citizens Advice Bureau. 2013.Punishing poverty: sanctions and their impacts.
  • 3Guattari, F. 1996. Institutional practice and politics. In: Gensko, G. Ed. 1996. The Guattari reader. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. p.122.
  • 4Especially where it is figured as "emphasising the nature of things as potentially reconfigurable — and stressing the sufficiency of self-organisation to reconfigure them — also informs the wider problematic of disaster communisation. In this way the question is not 'to take it over or to abandon it?' considered as a whole, but how to pull it apart and repurpose its components to new ends: an ecological satisfaction of human needs and not the endless valorisation of capital'."