“It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.”
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
If capitalism must necessarily produce its own exterminating angel, it also produces a germinal form of this downfall in its spectres–those potentialities and excluded possibilities that haunt it. One of these spectres is illness. Capitalism cannot help but produce illness as a form of physical and mental alienation. Communicative capitalism/financial capitalism has only accelerated the deterioration of both the social body and of individual bodies spasming in the whirlwind.
This piece of writing is both a call for action (of many kinds) and a tactic in-and-of-itself–the venerated worker’s tactic of a slowdown. It is a call for actions that aim to do nothing less than stop the world so that we can break it and turn it inside out. Writing from the vantage point of someone who is chronically ill, I seek to find strategic positions to work from within illness. I neither wish to romanticize illness or to discount revolutionary possibilities that are germinal within illness.
The division between the sick and the well may be overly simplistic, but it is an important distinction that is both a class boundary and a metaphysical one. The sick are the most prime example of the way in which capitalism produces alienation. Under capitalism, laborers are separated from the fruits of their labor–their body of work. Those who are sick become separated from their body itself, while still bound within the limits of their body. They become-incorporeal, while never being able to reach full incorporeality and the freedom that it entails, for they are still bound by the limits of their body even as they experience dissociation from it.
Sickness creates an experience that is often physically and mentally dissociated and also temporally dissociated. If I go from feeling like a healthy 20-year-old to feeling middle aged, to having the capacities of a middle-aged mind and body, I have experienced a dramatic and disorienting shift in time of the sort that is common with illness. In addition, if I have a chronic or terminal illness and I am not sure of how long this state will last, I enter an even more temporally-distorted delirium or limbo. This is another facet of alienation that the sick are an example of–not only to be denied access to your body, but to be denied access to an unalienated experience of time. While the sick are not fully-incorporeal, they live closer to death than the well. Being the companions of death, and being transient, and more incorporeal than the well, they become ghosts. Remember that a ghost is not simply another word for spirit, but is traditionally someone in a captive rather than liberatory form of existence after death. Ghosts are often unhappily bound to earthly realms, rather than going on to realms of pure spirit. Thus a ghost provides a perfect image of one who is sick–one is becoming-incorporeal, yet still unhappily bound to earth.
In his book Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology,” a pun on “ontology.” Ontology is the study of being, and hauntology is the study of absence. Mark Fisher (RIP) has elaborated on this term most prominently, using it to write about nostalgia, culture, futurology, and late capitalism. Mark Fisher has identified hauntology as the study of lost futures–his body of work is essentially the reimagining of capitalism as a ghost story, in which spectral desire for other possibilities continually haunt various realms of culture in capitalism, a system that has tried to foreclose those possibilities.
“Haunting, then, can be construed as a failed mourning. It is about refusing to give up the ghost or–and this can sometimes amount to the same thing–the refusal of the ghost to give up on us. The spectre will not allow us to settle into/for the mediocre satisfactions one can glean in a world governed by capitalist realism.” Fisher’s account of the spectral strands of lost futures that haunt every element of culture are incredibly evocative, but nowhere does he make any claims contra to materialism. Hauntology is understood by Fisher as a metaphor, a study of the virtual, those things which are not present but still have effects. I propose a deliberate misreading or double-reading of this term that confuses the boundaries between idealism and materialism, between flesh and spirit. I conceive of hauntology in such a way that I refuse to reduce it to a materialist analysis. When capital acts of its own volition, is it unnatural to think that ghosts and demons inhabit the world? So what we are dealing with, in analyzing sickness and capitalism? Do both have material and immaterial effects?
Hauntology is possibly the best field of study for understanding sickness and collapse, as it involves an understanding of the presence of absent and excluded futures and figures.
The sick haunt capitalism. They are a constant reminder that capitalism must produce sickness and alienation. They are a herald of its impending collapse and its internal contradictions, and also a reminder that capitalism’s etiology is similar to a sickness–a viral one to be specific. Capitalism is buoyed by the hyperstition (hyperstitions are an “element of effective culture that makes itself real,” analogous but not homologous to memes and myths) of Social Darwinism, but its eugenic ambitions clash with its production of pathologies of various kinds. Mental and affective disorders, as well as various illnesses, are rising exponentially under communicative capitalism via a mixture of insomnia, overwork, social atomization, psychological mutilation, and environmental toxins. This is a contradiction that anybody can understand once it is illuminated. Even if one cannot understand more complex internal contradictions that Marx described, such as the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, they can still understand that capitalism’s reliance on the bodies of laborers and tendency to destroy those bodies is a contradiction that must destroy it. Just as people feared and shunned those sick with the plague, so shall the well and the wealthy fear and shun the physically and mentally ill today, because they are harbingers of the fate of all of humanity under capitalist collapse.
The way #woke liberalism (aka postliberalism) addresses illness and mental illness under capitalism is largely to feign empathy while remaining indifferent to the structural causes of illness. Postliberal and neoliberal thought views the individual as totally cut off from a social body, simply a biological unit in which malfunctions can be addressed through medical or pharmacological interventions. The tragicomic result of this simultaneous pretense toward empathy (capitalism with a human face) and individualism is “self-care culture.” “Self care” becomes both an industry and a deflection from the very real problems that capitalism causes. If you are not doing well because of overwork due to stress, et cetera, you just need to squeeze in mindfulness meditation, or therapy. Struggling with a kind of loneliness that’s an essential result of the atomization caused by capitalism? You just need to take Zoloft, or do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, in which brainwashing takes on the veneer of rationality, and you label certain thoughts as errors and discount them. The normalization of overwork becomes grotesque: clickbait articles telling you how to squeeze in your exercise or meditation into 15 minute bursts to accommodate your work schedule, or take “power-naps” that may eventually add up to nearly enough sleep, flourish. Behind all of these articles and advertisements, behind all of “self-care culture” itself, lies the public secret–that mental and physical sickness is the new normal under capitalism, that our bodies can take no more of this, that we are close to breaking down.
So what must replace self-care? Healing is always important, and leftist movements that emphasize productivity at the expense of the body and the planet and especially at the expense of the sick, are replicating the cancerous aspects of capitalism. At the same time, individual healing will never be enough to solve the huge collective problems created by capital. Capital is an abstract parasite that takes time, value, and eventually health from the laborer. Working to get ahead is a vain effort that will only succeed in increasing the strength of this parasite. Fascist movements specifically labelled the sick as parasites that needed to be cleansed, but this fascoid moralizing regarding the sick is extremely prevalent in liberal philosophy and capitalism, which are of course linked.
It is nearly impossible to be sick for a long time, especially with illnesses that don’t present “visible” disabilities, without coming across attitudes of this type, even from family, friends, and loved ones. I have decided that no longer shall I view parasitism as a bad thing, that I shall reclaim it. I have been turned into a husk of a person, a sick body, by way of capital, and I will now direct my need for sustenance and support at institutions that are part of capitalism. Parasitism solves a Nietzschean problem–it provides a way that an anti-capitalist movement borne out of the anger of the ill can overcome itself, rather than being purely reactive. The parasitism I describe will destroy the host without destroying the “parasite,” the host will die when we are full. It will be a productive and affirmative ressentiment that drives us. We will strengthen ourselves with our enemies flesh, thus overcoming-ourselves. We will haunt capitalism until we get our time and our labor back, until we can be reunited with our flesh.