Zen capitalism’s disimagination machine and victim blaming the neurodivergent
Politics of misery
“Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul”
– Margret Thatcher in The Sunday Times May 3rd 1981
39 years on it’s the other way round. We sacrifice everything for profit and it’s making us sick. Rather than change the system, we attempt to change ourselves by submitting to market friendly mindfulness products, self help pamphlets and positive thinking. People like Google’s mindfulness guru and self-titled Jolly Good Fellow, Chade-Meng Tan, shift wellness units, like his book Search Inside Yourself, which tells us that’s where we’ll find our problems, not in the corporate culture we’re struggling with, or in the systems that oppress us.
I’m not saying mindfulness, positive thinking, and therapy can’t be helpful, especially to the neuro-divergent, but it’s important to look carefully at their implications. Without examination they could end up harming us and impeding progress.
Mindfulness is subject to the same logic and values of the system that makes us ill. The famously neuro a-typical Albert Einstein summed up the dilemma brilliantly: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Neuro-diversity isn’t bad, it’s not a sickness, it’s the trauma of living in a world that won’t accommodate us that makes us sick. And it’s not just us, this same system will poison and consume the entire planet if it’s not stopped.
There is a concerted effort to depoliticise misery while actively cultivating it with austerity. The more miserable we are the more we accept shit jobs, shit lives and shit futures. Haven’t had a pay rise in seven years? You’re lucky to have a job. Six month wait to get a tumour removed? Be grateful we have the “heroes” to do it in the NHS at all. The message is, the world is dying, get used to it. Mindfulness, or Zen capitalism, privatises our pain which further alienates us and prevents us from working together for real solutions.
Asset stripped Buddhism
Spiritually in itself is considered beneficial, but without the mumbo-jumbo of ethical enquiry that makes it less marketable, it doesn’t make us better people. Do you think the Pentagon would be investing in mindfulness if it prevented their soldiers killing? Or the CEO of Goldman Sachs would if it made their traders realise the folly of materialism, and that the 10m Americans who lost their homes after the financial crash in 2008 were merely reflections of their own consciousness? That the “I” that profited so much from their misery might not even exist? Could they do their jobs if it did?
No. This is merely palliative care for the soul.
An ethics system without the ethics or ontological examination of being, only reinforces deluded attachment to the self which causes our suffering and Buddhism seeks to liberate us from. Zen author and scholar David Loy puts lit like this, mindfulness uses the Buddhist technique not to examine the “unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion” but is “usually refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.”
It’s a feedback loop. ‘Wellness’ (along with advertising and Instagram) breeds a sense of entitlement to happiness without asking if it is possible or even desirable. This makes its painful absence even worse. So we practice mindfulness or go to therapy, which makes us well enough to perpetuate the system that’s making us sick, but doesn’t look at any of the structural and socio-economic roots of our problems. Before long, the next crisis appears and we have nothing to blame but ourselves for failing at enlightenment. More demand for the mindful happiness industrial complex is created, which futures the misery it claims to cure. Maybe we should try crystals next time.
This ‘centred’ approach seems benevolent but it frames our unhappiness as psychological pathologies rather than say racism, sexism, poverty or ableism. This is maybe why mindfulness is so attractive to neoliberal governments, they don’t need to engage in issues that cause problems, just tell us to look on the bright side. Worst of all, it erodes our ability to do anything about or even recognise them.
The cultural critic and educational theorist Henry Giroux calls it a ‘disimagination machine’, because it stops us thinking critically and imagining alternatives. If you are entirely responsible for your mental well being, rather than policy makers, employers etc, then the failure to be happy is yours alone. Instead of worrying, you should simply ‘be’ and practice the ‘non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment.’ It’s the guns don’t kill people; people do, approach to happiness. It literally instructs people to accept the status quo, not challenge authority or question things.
If pure awareness and acceptance is the cure, then our thoughts are the problem. In other words, critical thinking is a sin and mental sedation is a moral imperative of corporate spirituality.
This prevents us from looking at mental health in context. For example, it’s widely known that black people suffer mental health issues disproportionately more than white people. Sending them to therapy may help an individual in the short term but does nothing to address the causes, racism, structural inequality, poverty, symbolic and linguistic oppression like statues of slave owners around their cities, or lack of access to things white people expect without question. Instead, this thinking encourages people to blame themselves for their misery — which makes it worse.
Maybe instead of telling black people to pull their mental socks up, we could consider the context and history that puts them at a disadvantage and come up with real solutions. Maybe reparations for the crimes committed against them via the horrors experienced by their ancestors that echo down the generations, positive discrimination, or investment in anti-racist initiatives, better yet, give black people the money to invest in themselves however they see fit. And educate everyone! There is a lot more that can be done to alleviate the pain of injustice rather than just treating the symptoms. It’s not my place to speak for black people, but I believe there are parallels to the neuro-diverse experience.
I have a disability. Not my ADHD, dyslexia or whatever other neurological gremlins lurk in the shadows of my cavernous cranium, but society’s refusal to accommodate, understand or value of my type of mind. Autism or ADHD are not sicknesses, in the same way black skin isn’t, they are wonderful in their own right, but the trauma caused by growing up feeling less than makes you sick. If you tell us we can do anything we want, we’re just differently-abled, or you don’t see colour so neither should we, you deny us the difficulties we face which just makes them worse. Even calling us ‘different’ places whiteness, or neuro-typical as the norm. The default, superior type. No, we’re disabled by the conditions we live in.
It was pointed out to me recently that this is what the term BAME (black and minority ethnic) does. It puts all non white people in a homogenous ‘other’ group, which reinforces the nasty idea that white is normal and denies people of colour their own identities. I thought it was a respectful term, but will avoid it unless it is actually what I mean.
According to the National Autistic Society, only 16% of adults with autism are in full time employment, apparently that figure hasn’t changed in a decade. Maybe the well being of autistic people needs a bit more interrogation rather than the positive thinking denial of differently-abledism.
Thanks to the positive thinking, we neuro-diverse people end up blaming ourselves for our struggles. I always had learning difficulties. When I was assessed as a kid, the psychologist’s report concluded I had a “spelling specific learning difficulty”, nothing about my low reading age, concentration issues, poor co-ordination, dyslexia. So for years I doubted it and felt angry at myself for struggling so much at school and work. Then aged 32 I told a psychiatrist who was assessing me, and he said “that is dyslexia”. Turns out I also have ADHD which has had a severe negative impact on my life but I had no idea.
The day after my diagnosis I lost my car and forgot to go to work. Usually, with the weight of a lifetime of failures behind it, I would berate myself. You’re such a fucking idiot. But that time, thanks to recognising I had a disability, I was able to say “fuck it, I have ADHD, I struggle but I’m working on it.” It was a massive relief.
Without the get-out clause of disability or recognition that society disables us, self blame and depression are the only rational response. In his essay Good for Nothing, Mark Fisher characterises it as “a sneering “inner” voice which accuses you of self-indulgence — you aren’t depressed, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, pull yourself together.” “Of course, this voice isn’t an “inner” voice at all — it is the internalised expression of actual social forces, some of which have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.”
If you have ADHD, the dread every parent’s evening will be familiar. As will school reports that called you as lazy, say you can’t be bothered, could do well if you were, constantly late, always distracted, never has the right books. If you’re just differently abled, who else can you blame for never getting anything done, forgetting simple things, never getting where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, losing jobs, but yourself? Your anger turns inwards.
Cognitive behavioural Thatcherism
If you’re lucky, the NHS might offer cognitive behavioural therapy (cbt). The idea is that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviour, rather than say, the five week wait for Universal Credit or institutional racism of the Metropolitan Police. The radical therapist David Smail said the Thatcherite attitude apparent in mindfulness has “an unacknowledged echo in almost all approaches to therapy.”
Obviously, we create problems in our minds, which therapy may help, but if we internalise the idea that all our unhappy feelings are down to our mis-thinking we are victim blaming ourselves for injustices we’ve suffered. This pull yourself up by your bootstraps, on yer bike, approach is not surprising considering the individualist thinking that has dominated since the summer of love.
Lauren Berlant, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, in her book Cruel Optimism defines the term as a neoliberal characteristic that encourages us to expect the raising living standards our parents enjoyed while that possibility becomes more and more remote. In his book McMindfullness: How Mindfullness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality, Ronald E. Purser says mindfulness is a form of cruel optimism. “We are told that if we practice mindfulness, and get our individual lives in order, we can be happy and secure. It is therefore implied that stable employment, homeownership, social mobility, career success and equality will naturally follow.” Which obviously isn’t true. For me, positive thinking, saying we have a ‘superpower’ and the term differently abled, does the same thing for neuro-diverse people.
People mean well when they tell dyslexic kids they can do anything. But if your condition holds you back, and by definition it will, then your limitations will be even more painful. Richard Branson’s got ADHD, James Dyson’s dyslexic, what’s your excuse? At the same time, we hear things like ‘dyslexia is just a middle class parents’ excuse for having stupid kids’, ’ADHD doesn’t exist’ or is ‘bad discipline’, autistic people ‘have no empathy’ or worst of all “you don’t look autistic” and part of us starts believing it. If you can be neuro-divergent and do well, and maybe neuro-diversity doesn’t even exist, then why aren’t you doing well? Maybe you really are just a stupid/weird/lazy fuck up.
Right-wing virtue signalling
We turned our soul-crushing struggles into our superpowers: ADHD. Dyslexia. Autism. Meet the women proving these conditions are no longer an obstacle to success — but their secret weapons
- Daily Mail 7th June 2020
I was sent this article by my mum the other day, who really did mean well, about four neuro-divergent women who became huge successes. She wanted to point out one or two talents I share with the women, like spotting patterns in language and concepts. But I firmly believe this framing of conditions that really are at times difficult, has a very negative impact. It’s like the Daily Mail are doing their best to be nice, but the lack of insight makes it sting like only empty virtue signalling can.
The actual symptoms are tough but the co-morbidities like inward anger, depression, shame, alienation and overwhelming sense of failure are by far the worst parts of my conditions. I am only really able to forgive myself and move on by accepting I have a disability. If it’s a superpower I just haven’t used, then I guess I’m just a failure? And what’s worse I haven’t found a way to put my incredible ‘secret weapons’ to use. That’s why this positive thinking myth of differently-abledism is so toxic.
Comrades in failure
What I want to hear is that I’m not the only one. It’s not my fault that my intelligence and worth isn’t measurable by standard linear methods. Or that just because my type of thinking doesn’t rank highly in our profit obsessed value system, doesn’t mean it’s less.
I would like the Daily Mail to run an article about neuro-diverse fuck ups. Like the time I opted for an extra exam in my strongest subject, business studies, at A-level, because I knew I didn’t have the executive function needed to plan and complete a long piece of coursework. But I forgot to go to the exam. I would have probably got an A, but ended up with a D. It was the only one I had a chance at. I didn’t resit it even thought I could because admitting I cared would have been too painful.
Maybe they could add in some optimism for the normals about how despite their struggles they managed to get a job in an abattoir or something. But it’s the failures that would comfort us most. Because we are disabled! We don’t have superpowers.
If we can own our failures, maybe even laugh about them, the shame will lift and we can wear the scars of experience with pride. I don’t want to hear about how successful I could be, that just makes the fact I’m not worse.
The inertia of depression can make you think you’re just faking it, if it’s all in the mind, then, it’s all in the mind, maybe it’s an avoidance technique. Avoidance is a particularly maliciously adapted coping strategy often present in people with ADHD, but the root is the disabling trauma of a misunderstood neurological condition. You may have believed it most of your life, but it’s not just because you can’t be arsed.
It’s like, society, man
Mindfulness, therapy and positive thinking are not completely unhelpful, I’m sure they can all be very beneficial. The danger and the thing that links them is that in their focus on the self they miss the most likely cause of all of our anguish, neuro-typical or not.
A sense of inferiority which comes from an oppressive social power. Either racist, sexist, ablest, classist, or cultural systems that promote white/male/upper class/psychopathic supremacy and puts morons like Boris Johnson in power infer inferiority in the people it doesn’t benefit.
David Smail, who I mentioned earlier, describes the idea that any individual has the power to make themselves whatever they want to be ‘magical volunteerism’. This quite plainly is not the case. Mark Fisher describes it like this, “Magical volunteerism is both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness. It is the flipside of depression — whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefor deserve it.”
He goes on to talk about the long term unemployed in a way that I think also applies to the neuro-diverse (often the same people). They have all their lives “been sent the message that (they) are good for nothing (and are) simultaneously told that they can do anything they want.”
This is why I want to say no, it’s not a superpower, it’s a disability.
It’s like, society, man.
Therefore, I hereby renounce all responsibility for my actions.