Burnout Syndrome: Mark Fisher From the Future
Author: Taylor Dorrell
Date: July 12, 2019
In the wake of Burnout Syndrome (work caused stress/alienation) becoming mainstream, it’s worth reflecting on Mark Fisher’s writings connecting mental health to the post-Fordist workplace.
For history to become what it always was, symbolism must be established in the future. The effects of neoliberalism and the post-Fordist workplace have only recently started to gain a kind of general consensus. Although symbolism can be initiated prior to an event (fiction, cyberpunk, etc.), for thinkers and media to reflect in the face of an overabundance of events is to start the first step of glancing back at the ‘vanishing’¹ moment whose symbolism will only emerge concretely in the future as what ‘will have been’². While it’s unclear where the late Mark Fisher is on this spectrum of concrete reflection on the symbolism and historicity of our time (he quotes many who have speculated before him), his thoughts on the neoliberal induced mental health crisis is a good spot to jump into as The World Health Organization’s updated definition of Burnout Syndrome (linking cynicism and distance from work to the workplace) in the International Classification of Diseases — ICD-11 — is making its way around the major news outlets. Although this is only a small step towards connecting mental health to the post-Fordist workplace, to understand the case being made by Fisher and how it relates to the real (burnout syndrome becoming mainstream as being connected to the workplace), it’d be beneficial to first walk through the differences between Fordism and post-Fordism.
For Fisher, a good example highlighting the differences between fordism and post-fordism is the differences between the gangster movies of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese (between 1971–1990) compared to more contemporary gangster movies (Fisher uses Heat as an example). The ideology evolves from the ‘families with links to the Old Country’ to the ‘rootless crews’ prepared to abandon everything at a moments notice. The ‘old fashioned’ ideology prioritizes certain characteristics like family relations, respect, and religion, while the ‘newer’ ones cut through all of this to survive most efficiently. Fisher highlights the new ideology by quoting Neil McCauley in Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat: “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” The ‘traditional’ gangster’s way of life is challenged in the new field where “Family ties are unsustainable in these conditions…” Fisher goes on:
Like any group of share-holders, McCauley’s crew is held together by the prospect of future revenue; any other bonds are optional extras, almost certainly dangerous. Their arrangement is temporary, pragmatic and lateral — they know that they are interchangeable machine parts, that there are no guarantees, that nothing lasts. Compared to this, the goodfellas seem like sedentary sentimentalists, rooted in dying communities, doomed territories.
This ‘no long term’ is echoed in the post-fordist career models in which jobs are increasingly more and more temporary. The long term hierarchical fordist model “obligation, trustworthiness, commitment — are precisely those which are held to be obsolete in the new capitalism…” Jobs no longer promise a hierarchical ladder to climb over decades, but a day to day struggle to maintain income. If the gangs held on to permanence, they’d be quickly confronted with the wave of individuals whose only permanence is the lack thereof. The connection to family is then challenged: “The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labor power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions), even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other).” Those who have surrendered their ideology and lifestyle to reflect the conditions in which they hope to interact with and succeed in are then at a great advantage.
This post-Fordist ideology is also projected into the visuals of everyday life. Fisher observes the places in which the Scorsese and Coppola scenes are set compared to Heat. The organic and flamboyant social spaces (“All the local color, the cuisine aromas, the cultural idiolects…”), as opposed to the non-places in post-fordist movies; “… polished chrome and interchangeable designer kitchens, of featureless freeways and late-night diners… a world without landmarks, a branded Sprawl, where the marketable territory has been replaced by endlessly repeating vistas of replicating franchises.” It’s natural that the movie Heat starts at a train station and ends at an airport. Both the family and physical landscape have shifted significantly in the transition from the fordist to post-fordist workplace. “The ghosts of Old Europe that stalked Scorsese and Coppola’s streets have been exorcised, buried with the ancient beefs, bad blood and burning vendettas somewhere beneath the multinational coffee shops.”
The act of comparing gang depictions in film highlights the process and responses to critiquing capitalism, as many argue that we prefer the post-fordist workplace to the fordist workplace. In using the gang as a reference point, we see that there is no angle to create a wholly preferential state. Regardless of the ideology of gangs in social relations, the medium is inherently flawed. Even if we can sympathize with the individuals, ‘ethical’ gangs would hardly be seen as any kind of objective solution to alternative social relations. Although Fisher is highlighting the differences and in some cases the benefits of fordism in Capitalist Realism, his book is nonetheless arguing that ‘the medium is the message’³. Movies (Fisher mentions Wall-E) can be no more explicitly critical of what capitalism holds in store for us, yet we act as though everything will work out (what Slavoj Zizek calls cynical fetishism). The liberals will fight for ethical capitalism, the conservatives will fight for neoliberal capitalism, but the medium will nonetheless remain. Thus capitalism, the call to reform and change capitalism, and cultural attempts to ‘expose’ capitalism, are all mediums that are now ingrained within the ideology of capitalism and support this phenomena of capitalist realism (“there’s no alternative”).
To examine these different aspects of how capitalism and neoliberalism have ingrained themselves so foundationally in our culture and social relations is to offer a brief introduction into how our mental health is in jeopardy. The machine like act of working 9–5 in a factory of machines is now subtly submerged in daily life, labeled as ‘flexibility’.
Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream. Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions. As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems. To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions of total instability, or ‘precarity’, as the ugly neologism has it. Periods of work alternate with periods of unemployment. Typically, you find yourself employed in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.
Although there was a desire to escape the lifelong factory job, the results of post-Fordism birthed a new wave of issues. Fisher brings up the connection between the ‘boom and bust cycles’ of Capitalism and bi-polar disorder arguing that “Capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”
This link between context and mental health is essential. To contain mental health to exclusively biological ends, excluding any possibility of politicized causation, would largely benefit a system that is potentially causing these issues. Especially when the system would profit off of selling medication to cope as Fisher points out. This also supports the individualized culture, “it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry).” It’s interesting seeing the connection between a sort of Sartrean individualized free will and neoliberal Capitalists. As Existentialism starts from an atheistic foundation to create the bridge to free will, Neoliberalism starts from a market morality foundation that labels an individual’s conditions as a product of their own lack of ‘working hard’.
By attaching the systems at play behind a mental illness, Fisher is following the same steps as Marx did with commodity fetishism. As Marx attached the labor and laborers involved in producing and distributing a commodity, Fisher attaches post-Fordist working conditions to mental illness. Fisher is recognizing that mental health may be a symptom of these systems (or an element of a system, as Zizek would say).
If one were to make of this an oversimplified debate between two opposing sides, it would appear that we are in a battle between individualized free will and determinism. However, as Fisher brings to light the data that appears to link the increase of psychiatric and affective disorders in countries that display what Oliver James calls ‘selfish’ capitalism and as this Burnout Syndrome becomes more mainstream, it appears that this link is now becoming too strong to dismiss and not a simplified matter at all. If the present seems too complex to make sense of, perhaps peace can be found in the idea that symbolism will be attached in the future. It’s only now that we can look back at the past 40 years of research on Burnout Syndrome⁴ and use the very recent mainstream implementation as a support of the Real to the writings of someone like Mark Fisher.
1–2. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 1: Freud’s Papers on Technique, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 159
3. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw-Hill, 1964
4. Linda V. Heinemann1 and Torsten Heinemann, Burnout Research: Emergence and Scientific Investigation of a Contested Diagnosis, Sage Open journals.sagepub.com/home/sgo, 2017
Note: All Fisher quotes are from Capitalist Realism