Does a society obsessed with image affect our mental health?
I’m going to try and sum up as briefly and non-academically as I can the basic potential causes of the crisis we’re seeing unfold before our eyes, and I think a good starting place would be to have a look at the current social narrative both the UK and most of the Western world is presently living with. By ‘social narrative’ I mean the way our society thinks – and it might be said that, however tendentious might be my claim to fully understand the way a whole society conducts itself, there are very clear identifiable patterns in what our politicians discuss, what the richest and poorest vote for, what cultural trends emerge and die and so on.
Now, you might be tempted to say that politics has nothing to do with mental health. I fully understand why you might think that, but I assure you that the only reason you might is if you believe politics to be an altogether separate realm of human activity that is ultimately not related to the everyday goings on of the average human being. You would be wrong to think this. What our politicians set into motion in the corridors of power are systems which influence the way the rest of the country behaves. If, for example, parliament votes to abolish all welfare, then that would be several million people plunged into poverty at the drop of a hat – and poverty, as we ought to know, can destroy a person’s mental wellbeing.
But what I am talking about here is not necessarily just about politicians, but also about the way our whole country tends to behave, how we talk about one another, what we believe it is ‘right’ for an individual to do and how these decisions then influence our mental wellbeing.
Here I want to discuss Neoliberalism, which is the basic ideology our political establishment has espoused for the last forty or so years. I must admit that at the time of writing it seems quite likely that Neoliberalism is actually coming to an end, what with the overwhelming surge in support for fringe political movements who advertise themselves on a platform of simply being different to the parties that preceded them. Nonetheless it still needs to be discussed because I believe really very strongly that it has been ruinous to the mental health of the West, and that large elements of it may continue to survive as the next political epoch dawns.
If there’s anything close to a catchall phrase for what’s going on, I believe this is it. In May of this year The Atlantic described ‘Late Capitalism’ thus:
“a catchall phrase for the indignities and absurdities of our contemporary economy, with its yawning inequality and super-powered corporations and shrinking middle class.”
It essentially refers to the period of capitalism in which we now find ourselves, with its many complexities and workings that I believe have a uniquely destructive impact on the wellbeing of individuals. I’ll walk you through it as efficiently as I can:
- The Entrepreneur-of-Self ( Or ‘The Perfect Individual’)
The first and foremost effect of Late Capitalism is what is known as the ‘Entrepreneur-of-Self’, a cultural trend whereby individuals feel the need to ‘sell’ themselves in every aspect of their life. To even begin to understand the immense crisis of identity the depression epidemic entails, we must understand this fundamental concept.
Our current cultural system, which can be called Neoliberalism as much as Late Capitalism, conceives economics as a total system for organising human affairs: in other words that the free market is the only way to organise humanity. In this way of looking at life, the individual human self is just another commodity to be marketed. This is what is known as the ‘Homo Economicus’ view of mankind – the view that humans are totally rational and innately selfish, and therefore make calculated conclusions about how to maximise their own profit.
What this then means is people become their own miniature capitalists, deciding on actions as one would decide on investments, according to whether or not they will yield capital in return. Every aspect of their life then becomes a buy-and-sell relationship: people ‘sell’ themselves in their social lives, on the jobs market, in education and in romantic relationships. Consider, for instance, the general move away from welfare and towards loans, as has happened with university tuition fees in recent years. The idea is to make people responsible for their life choices by making everything a financial transaction, which of course is actually irresponsible because the vast majority of people are not qualified to think about life in such a way and because it puts them in debt, which is a form of control. But this is symptomatic of a political movement to encourage everyone to perform in a certain way. The aim in our day and age is to become the Perfect Individual, who advertises the supposed perfection of every part of their life whilst never addressing any underlying emotion they might have.
Hence Neoliberalism and the Entrepreneur-of-Self go hand in hand with Image Culture, in which individuals become brands rather than human beings, superficial images rather than emotionally secure people. The pressure is to become the Perfect Individual, to be beautiful, intelligent and wealthy, live in a perfect house with perfect children, exercise, work and entertain rich and fulfilling social, sexual and intellectual lives, as well as forming opinions about current affairs, wine, the stock market and fashion trends. Business nous in particular is fetishized. In other words, we must perform, and we must never let on that our inner selves are not in a healthy way. When Brett Easton Ellis wrote American Psycho, this is what he was getting at: a society in which we throw all our effort at looking perfect, and never at feeling it.
The end result of this is anxiety. When there is constant pressure to compete against one another and to hide any signs of weakness, anxiety is the natural outcome. The market principle – the principle of competition, of winners and losers – is responsible for this. Maybe there are times when it has a place, but it does not have a place in our social lives, it does not have a place in education, it does not have a place in healthcare and it especially does not have a place in our emotional lives. These are all areas of existence in which competition has been introduced in the last forty years if not longer, and people are starting to feel the pinch.
The first step in addressing the mental health crisis must be to create a consensual, connected society in which people are not encouraged to compete with each other in the way that has contributed to the depression epidemic.
A key aspect of The Perfect Individual that must also be clearly understood is that of entitlement. This is because people who grow up in a society idolising perfectibility are told that everyone can achieve it if they just try hard enough – so then everyone works very hard, or feels like they do, and as a result they feel they are owed more than they are given.
Consider the original Thatcherite message that accompanied the dawn of Neoliberalism in the 1980s: ‘Pull yourself up by your boot straps!’ ‘Every man for himself!’ ‘There is no such thing as society, so only care about yourself!’ ‘Work hard and you – yes, YOU! – can be the very best!’
This enormous political movement told a whole generation of people and more that they could be the best, and therefore that if they fail then it is their own fault. Neoliberal ideology says that you cannot expect help either from the government or other people, meaning you are alone, it is you against the world and you are liable to fail. But you feel that you can become the best; you do everything you can to become the best; you work exceptionally hard to become the best. Think about the way Right-Wing commentators fetishize people they deem to be the hardest working, such as young lawyers or financiers who sleep in their offices in order to get ahead. A mindset like that produces, quite frankly, sociopathic, if not psychopathic, people, who are so hellbent on destroying competition that they sacrifice their humanity in the name of ‘success’. Hence why it is entirely unsurprising why Jon Ronson has famously found the incidence of psychopathy amongst CEOs to be 4 times greater than the rest of the population.
So the first notable effect of entitlement culture is some people feeling that they are innately better than others, and are determined to be the very best at all costs. But we desperately need to acknowledge that this is just half the story – because entitlement goes one of two ways. Either it makes you feel like you are significantly better than everyone else, or it makes you feel significantly worse.
Think about it – you are told that you can be the best if you are talented and you work hard. So if you feel like you are not talented, or you carry self-doubt in some other way (bearing in mind that Western culture is ridden with self-hatred), then it is more than possible that you will feel yourself to be unwelcome in this world. If you really believe that everyone else is better than you and that you are losing the game of marketing yourself, then what is there to make you feel valuable? You’re an unmarketable, unwanted commodity. There’s nothing to put on your CV, and there’s no point anyway because there will always be someone else who has it better than you – and all you have to do is log on to facebook to see them.
And the thing is that it is not just the people who feel worthless who have it bad; it’s also the people who think they’re better than everyone else. Because, you see, this is egotism at its purest and finest, and egotism is a function of insecurity. You develop egotism to pretend to be something better than you are; egotists are people who obsess over themselves because they are worried about how they appear to the world, not, as we commonly mistake them to be, people who genuinely believe they are superior. They don’t really feel they are better. They might believe it superficially, but deep down they are simply frightened human beings. People who are on what we might call the ‘positive’ side of entitlement still fret about their social position and their personal advertising, and most importantly still feel disconnected from the rest of humanity. Egotists place themselves and their personal wants and desires above those of others, and therefore they feel disconnected.
And this really is what I want you to take away from this brief discussion of capitalism and entitlement: that it creates fear, which creates egotism, which creates a sense of disconnection. It fundamentally creates anxiety. This is what Late Capitalism, Neoliberalism, Post-Industrialism and all the other ‘isms’ of the last fifty years have done to us. As individuals, we experience ourselves as lonely, competitive and anxious beings, and this is the first step to understanding why depression and anxiety have surged in the period of history in which we live.