The Politics of Misery: Political Agency and the Medicalization of Negative Emotions
Dan Degerman (Bristol University)
This book explores how the transformation of negative emotions into psychiatric disorders impacts political agency. The relationship between negative emotions and political action has been an object of growing debate among political theorists in recent decades. Many have argued that emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness are crucial drivers of political action, especially by marginalized individuals. Over roughly the same period, sociologists and philosophers of medicine have called attention to the medicalization of negative emotions, which are increasingly being understood and treated as symptoms of mental disorder. Political theorists have, despite their interest in emotions, paid little attention to this literature or what its findings mean for contemporary politics. Equally, scholarship on medicalization suffers from insufficient engagement with political theory. While medicalization’s critics frequently warn of its depoliticizing impact, the absence of key political concepts, such as political agency, often leaves their warnings with little depth or nuance. This book bridges these two literatures and fills a critical gap that had been left between them.
Drawing upon the political thought of Hannah Arendt, I take as a starting point her key insight about the connection between emotions and political agency: if we are able to relate our emotions to issues that we share with others, they can engender political action. Labelling an emotion as mental disorder frames it as a medical problem, potentially foreclosing the possibility of comprehending the emotion as an understandable reaction to a shared issue that could and should be addressed politically. The medicalization of negative emotions may thus threaten our political agency as liberal-democratic citizens.
Some recent political events and social movements suggest that this might indeed be the case. In the wake of the Brexit referendum, for example, media commentators and mental health experts warned that Remainers’ emotional reactions to the loss were symptoms of mental disorders that needed careful management. A few years earlier, critics of the Occupy movement claimed that many of the protesters were mentally ill, which helped to legitimize the forced eviction of Occupy London. However, in other instances, where one might expect to see medicalization, it has been absent. Despite accusations of emotionality and racism, UKIP and its supporters have largely escaped psychiatric labelling. Similarly, the psychiatric user/survivor movement – which involves people diagnosed with mental disorder who challenge psychiatric authority and practices – is called many things by its opponents but crazy is not one of them. Analyzing these four cases, I contend that the medicalization of negative emotions has generated factors that can be and have been used to undermine people’s political agency. But I also argue that the use of medicalization in political discourse is patchy; it is deployed only in certain debates and seems to be directed particularly at socially privileged actors.
Many important philosophical critiques of medicalization have drawn on the work of Michel Foucault. While yielding important insights, they have had little to say about political agency. My book complements this literature by turning to Arendt. Delving deeply into her work, I develop a comprehensive theoretical framework for thinking about political agency, its sources, and relationship to emotions, which I deploy to elucidate the political impact of medicalization. I also venture into fields beyond political theory, drawing on the philosophy and history of emotions and psychiatry, as well as scholarship on epistemic injustice, medicalization, and social movements.
The case studies are based on comprehensive and systematic primary research, involving analysis of a wealth of historical and contemporary sources, including newspaper articles, expert publications, and activist writings. They highlight the relationship between political action, negative emotions, and mental disorder in the context of specific events, providing accurate but not exhaustive accounts of these events. As such, individual case studies do not engage with the whole canon of secondary literature on each event or group.
Respondents: Andy Schaap (Exeter), Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed (King’s College London), Stacy Clifford Simplican (Vanderbuilt).
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