Oppression and Over-straining
Mental Problems and Society

1 Periods
2 Modern and Postmodern Times
    2.1 Period of Modernism and Neurosis
    2.2 Postmodernism and Depression
       Postmodern living conditions
       Depression I
       Depression II
3 Society and Individuals
    3.1 Humans are Naturally Societal
    3.2 The Second Possibility
    3.3 Alienation
    3.4 Motivation
4 What can be done?

These are the notes for a small self-organised family-seminar. Therefore it is not an elaborated paper. The task is to show how the typical mental problems change with society and how contemporarily typical problems may be understood. Of course, it is only like a wood engraving, without sufficient special knowledge. But maybe it can help to rouse the interest to get more knowledge. Superficial education is a bad thing, but everyone has to begin somewhere. Why not here?

1 Periods

The view on mental problems, especially on the worst ones, is always changing. There are some periods known (I forgot where I read this):

  • Enlightenment: Madness = lack of reason
  • Romanticism: Madness = backside of Reason
  • Postmodernism: Madness = indication of special creativity
There is another classification of periods, done by Michel Foucault (1970/1998):
  • Preclassical period: Reason and madness are not separated;
  • Classical Period (from 17th cent.): (maybe connected with mercantilism and the equalising role of money):
    • Descartes: Self-Certainty of reason, madness as the absolute "Other"; reason is defined as a victory against madness;
    • Mad people were locked up.
  • Modernism (from 18 th cent.): no more prisons for the mad people, now they become objects of "pathologisation" and classification.
Foucault takes madness as the backside of reason (see above: this is like romanticism) [1]. He especially described the development of a controlling society, that is, a society that is based on self-determined internalised discipline that is not ruled by outer forces. This form of society turns out to be the society of a production primarily by assembly lines, also called "Fordism".

In the 80th and 90th, a new period began to dominate: Postmodernism, based on "Post-Fordism" (or "Toyotism"). These two types of society are the interesting ones now.

2 Modern and Postmodern Times

Although there is no clear separation between modern and postmodern societies (in the end they are both societies based on capitalism) it is useful to distinguish between them, because the form of the integration of individuals into the whole society changes considerably.

2.1 Period of Modernism and Neurosis

The modern, fordistic society was (and is) characterised by ultimately voluntary subordination under given processes of production, democracy and so on. Steering runs from above to below and an individual human being has to integrate itself in these given steered situations. It is demanded to deny other interests or desires.Foucault showed, that the power in such a situation is mediated by discipline. In a "society of discipline" (Disziplinargesellschaft) the behaviour of individuals is conformed by mechanisms of disciplining in several social forms of enclosing (family, school, prison, clinic, factory…) (see Foucault 1979).
If most of the people are needed for a production that is organised in a fordistic way (steering from above, working mostly on assembly lines), the individuals will have to subordinate their interests and desires under the demands of such a form of organisation. Of course this view of production has to be connected with the special form of family and other aspects of societal life in that time period. It's interesting that this typical form of organisation was dominant as well in capitalistic as in socialist countries in the 20th century.
This situation leads to typical mental problems and a theory for that: Freudism. Freudian theory assumes "drives" (Triebe), which come from the more biological part of an individual, also symbolised by the "Id" (Es). These drives are denied by the demands of society (parents…), which are symbolised by the "Super-Ego" (Über-Ich). The "Ego" (Ich) is the result of the never ending fight between "Id" and "Super-Ego". Such fights become conflicts and Freud found, that many of these conflicts are not conscious, but unconscious. These unconscious conflicts show themselves as a neurosis. Neuroses are diseases of anxiety (like phobia), of compulsions (always to wash for example) (Zwang) or something like that. Hysteria was a very common form of neurosis in the 19 th century. (Later, in Part 3, we will see, why the Freudian Theory isn't as true as it seems).

2.2 Postmodernism and Depression

Postmodern living conditions

There are many theories about postmodernism, and it's obvious that there is a connection between the "postmodern attitude" and changes in the world of production. Of course, most of the material things we can buy are produced by assembly lines in the Asiatic countries in a fordistic manner. But in the older, "more developed" industrialised countries the conditions in the world of production, of work and consumption are changing visibly. The "post-fordistic" way of production, also called "Toyotism" is not based on control from above to below any more. Although the money ("capital") is concentrated, the organisation of the processes is more self-organised, from below to above. Therefore, the participating individuals do not only have to react in a subordinated way - instead, they have to coordinate their acting themselves, starting from their own initiative. This society does not demand subordination under a given process-organisation, it only demands subordination under the goal of profit-making - but it demands to do this based on personal initiative, not waiting for instructions.

One can not earn a living by being willing to do what is demanded any more - One is forced to demand of oneself, always to be active and willing to search new possibilities to earn one's own living. There is no safety any more - the lives of normal people become more and more precarious. Of course; this liberation from given demands seems to be and sometimes is a real liberation. Almost nobody wants back to the direct subordination. But under precarious conditions the liberation from safety leads to a new distribution of mental diseases.
The form of controlling changes: It is no longer merely discipline that is needed - now society needs people who voluntarily and actively do what (capitalistic) society needs, based on their own will. We know this situation already from the Critical Theory (Adorno, Horkheimer): The new form of control works because it is mediated by "wrong consciousness", determined by fetishism produced by the alienating way of capitalistic production and living (Marx, see below). Foucault called it "society of control" (Kontrollgesellschaft). The internalisation of societal demands into individual needs gets a new level in our "super-initiative" phase of the precarious survival-capitalism. One way of dealing with these new demands, which concern almost all people now, is "coaching". The goal of education is not subordination, it is flexibility. The new coaches are not authoritarian - they stress their "non-directive" methods. But these non-directive methods are not based on humanity, but only on the new demands of self-control in favour of the reproduction of the capitalistic society. (Ribolits 2007)

Depression I

One of the striking changes is the increase of depression. It is guessed that 5% of men and 10% of woman had, have or will have at least one depressive period in their live. Later we will write more about depression, but now we want to talk about the connection between the postmodern society and the increase in depression. This connection will become more clear, if we think about the new demands on individuals. The new forms of production and society do not need conformity, but initiative; they don't need "individuals like the others", but "special individuality" (of course within the frame of "creating profit"); they need more activity in creating oneself, in choosing alternatives, in achieving constantly changing goals under increasingly precarious conditions. The chance of self-fulfilment becomes a duty. Alain Ehrenberg writes:

"Madness is the backside of the reasonable subject,
the Freudian neurosis is the backside of a conflict-determined individual,
and depression is the backside of an individual, who is merely itself and who therefore can not be enough itself, as if it would chase after its own shadow, which it depends on." (Ehrenberg 2003: 128, see also Ehrenberg 2004)
He also gives other comparisons:
  • To violate a norm does not mean being disobedient any more, now it means to be incapable of acting.
  • The problem is less the prohibition ("Versagung") (allowed - prohibited), but more a problem of fear of failure ("Versagen") (possible- impossible).
We see that one type of failure is not to be active enough. What is the opposite to activity and ability to act? Depression! It is obvious: If the demands for activity increase dramatically in a short time, more people seem to be not active enough in comparison to the demanded level. Because they feel that "lack" of initiative compared to the demands, they usually think that this is their fault - and the vicious cycle of depression begins. This is merely the quantitative aspect - about the qualitative aspect of motivation we will speak later. Depression is now the disease that demands most of "live years" (Lebensjahre), "lived with impairment" (Lopes 2006).

Depression II

Depression is not a new phenomenon. In all forms of society people are normally active and they plan what they do consciously and with the hope of success. And in all times there have been individuals, who have not fit this norm. They were often called "melancholics". Usually, they were special people, people with an exceptional claim or even pretension to their life. But if one assumes, that every person has the right of a special life, it will become clear, that "most people live in silent despair" (like Thoreau wrote). Peter Handke found another title for the "normal melancholia" about the life of his mother. He called it "unhappiness without want for anything". Melancholies became "democratised" as the common illness depression. We already spoke about depression as the backside of a society of forced initiative. Another author wrote: "Depression is the only healthy reaction to many a situation in life." (Flach 1978: 13)
J.H. Fuessli (1741-1825)Das Schweigen (1799/1802)
What is depression? It seems that everyone is sometimes "depressed". But we also know depression as a very serious disease, which leads to suicide very often. Typical for depressive moods are a negative view of oneself, of the surroundings and of the future. At present, there are some characteristics given to diagnose "depression":
  • reduced concentration
  • reduced attention
  • reduced self-esteem and self-confidence
  • feeling of worthlessness and guilt
  • pessimism
  • thoughts of suicide
  • sleeplessness
  • reduced appetite
If there is at least 2 characteristics, then the person is assumed to be "slightly depressed"; at least 3 characteristics: "middle-severely depressed" and at least 4 characteristics: "severely depressed".
Nobody knows the causes of depression, but there are many influences known. They originate from the genes, from the person itself, the family and the whole society. We don't know very much about the first level, the genes. We know that behaviour like depression can be influenced by a Gene (5-HTT), which codes the transport of serotonine, which is an important monoamine that regulates feelings and emotions. People, who got two "short" 5-HTT-Genes from both parents are significantly more often depressive. (see Canli 2007: 54) Another factor is the gene for stress (CRH). An overactive CRH-Gene seems to lead to depression (see Bauer 2007: 62). And there is another interesting factor: There is a "gene" that influences "motivation", and a factor of transcription (CREB) for that gene becomes activated by emotional care. This means that the influence of genes can be influenced by behaviour! And it shows that an influence such as good care can help prevent depression and bad care may increase the vulnerability to depression. None of these are direct causes, neither are any of the other aspects like other aspects of how the brain works, the own behaviour, the family and society.

The own behaviour is often influenced by the other factors but nobody is only the marionette of causes from outside. The behaviour of depressive people is often characterised by creating "traps". If one does not believe that a goal is achievable one can not do enough to achieve the goal. And then one thinks: I was right, this goal isn't achievable for me. This is also called "self-fulfilling prophecy". A typical behaviour of people, who do not believe in themselves, such as depressive people, is the "trained helplessness". Another point: It will often be a question of the point of view, if a "glass with water is half-full or half-empty". For depressive people the glass is always half-empty or completely empty Another individual factor of depression is often the repression of aggression. An aggression that is not lived up finds its way to act against the person itself, sometimes in the form of a depression.

It has to be noticed that a person with serious depression is not able to deliberately change his or her behaviour. It is characteristic for a pathological depression, that it can not be stopped by pure will! But to get to know the "traps" of one's own behaviour, to bring the unconscious aspects to consciousness is one of the preconditions for healing. (The "cognitive therapy" is based on this factor). It is interesting that all the knowledge about the importance of genetic and hormonal influences does not mean that one is determined to become depressive or not. New investigations usually show the changeability of personality. It was shown that psychotherapy can even change the biological structure of the brain. Experiences in life may change the brain, just as drugs do. Then the best therapy will be to organise new experiences in life! These were only some influences on the behaviour of the persons themselves. Usually they are connected with certain situations in groups, especially in the family. For instance, double-bind-situations can lead to depression of one of the partners (see more in Flach 1978). The experiences in the early childhood are very important. If Babies and young children have stress during a long time, they will be more vulnerable for depression. But here, it also holds that later experiences may change this situation. No one is a marionette of his or her genes or brain or childhood-situation.

As we showed above (in Depression I), the whole society has also to do with this mental problem of individuals.

3 Society and Individuals

3.1 Humans are Naturally Societal

Now we are at the point to stress a difference to the Freudian theory. Freud assumes a "biological part" ("drives") which is influenced by social or societal [2] factors. But actually such a separation does not exist. Every individual human being is always a societal being and not only a biological organism "with a societal influence from outside". Of course, there are material things like molecules in the body and material processes like digestion, but their special quality is determined by being things and processes within human beings. (We will speak more about that later, dealing with the special quality of human needs in 3.4). The foundation of the existence of every human individual is always mediated by getting ones food and so on the basis of societal work. Because of this special quality of human beings we say that human individuals are "naturally societal".

3.2 The Second Possibility

We may say that the individual is determined by the society. If one says, the individual is "embossed" by society, one means that the individual is a passive object of stamping. Some theories of "socialisation" assume that. They assume that at first there is a little baby, as a merely-biological object, and when it grows up by growing up it is more and more "socialised", in the sense of "embossed". But actually this is not true. Growing up is an active process, driven by the individual oneself. Of course, a baby depends on the care of his parents and society. But the way of growing up is mostly determined by its own activities, as modern studies show.

A more societal view shows also that society is not really a "thing above individuals", it is the result of all actions and interactions of all people of the whole mankind. There are two directions of influences: from people to society (they reproduce society) and from society to people (society influences every individual). And there is no separation: Society is inside the individuals themselves and society is nothing outside the activity and work of its reproduction by human individuals.
This picture obtains activity of individuals, but it may lead to a pessimistic view. A capitalistic society seems to be capable of acting in such a way, that there is no way out, that people will always reproduce only capitalistic structures. This view is the main view of the Critical Theory (Adorno, Horkheimer). The individuals are determined by the (capitalistic) society and the reproduction and will reproduce this capitalistic society. But now there is another critical theory, the "Critical Psychology" (developed by Klaus Holzkamp (1985)). This theory stresses that individuals are not directly determined by the society. Of course, all individuals together have to reproduce society as a whole. But this does not mean that the action of one individual is predetermined. The system needs the work of humans, but not of all of them in the same way. It is reproduced in dependence on the work of humans, but not in dependence on every human being as an individual. Therefore, every individual "always has the alternative, not to act or to act in another way and in this sense one is "free"." (Holzkamp 1985: 236). Human individuals can have a "cognitive distance" towards the societal claims. The German philosopher Fichte wrote: "For intelligent beings there are manifold possibilities, among them I can choose, which I want." (Fichte 1799/188: 193).

Therefore every individual always has two possibilities: 1. to follow the claims and demands to reproduce the society as it is, or 2. to think about alternatives, to look for and find partners in order to change the reproduction modus of the society. This means not only a "great revolution"; it is also referring to everyday situations: I can refuse to commercialise my whole life (at least a little bit, more than some people think), I can refuse merely to think in a capitalistic way, I can develop new ways of thinking and recognising the world and I can do something to change the world. Or I can let it be.

Nobody is authorised to judge the decisions of other people about their choices - this is a consequence of the standpoint of subjectivity. Of course every decision will have influences on one's own and other lives, but nobody else can occupy the standpoint of "the society" and judge another individual. The two possibilities turn out to be two types of ability to act (Handlungsfähigkeit). Acting means in this context not only to "do something", but to reproduce the own existence by participating in societal processes. A human being will be "capable of acting" (handlungsfähig), if one is the master of one's conditions of life by participating in societal processes (Holzkamp 1985: 241). This "ability to act" can be directed in two different alternative directions: It can be orientated into the direction of (common) widening and enlarging of societal possibilities of life (ibid.: 2), or it can deny this possibility (ibid.: 385). The first type of ability to act is called the "generalised ability to act" and the second is called the "restricted ability to act".
The two possibilities:
"restricted ability to act"
"generalised ability to act"
It is interesting that this concept assumes that there is always the possibility of the generalised ability to act. From this point of view, it is not the generalised ability to act that needs to be explained. Instead the question is, why many individuals often choose the restricted ability to act. A frequent reason for this is that the isolated situation of human beings in capitalism, with forced rivalry and so on, seems to require "safety by enclosing oneself". Every attempt to overcome the restricted area is risky and the risks seem to be too high. (Especially, if one has something to lose). Usually this type of ability to act is connected with restricted forms of thinking and recognising. If one chooses the restricted ability to act, it will be useful to deny the other possibility. This means that one realises only the given structures as the "natural" and "the only possible" structures. Holzkamp calls this type of cognition "interpretation" (Deuten). In opposition to this there is another possibility of cognition: comprehension (Begreifen). In this mode of cognition, one is able to grasp the "turning effect" of the capitalistic society. The isolation of human beings and the "separatedness" of society and individuals can be understood as a consequence of the specific capitalistic structure of society. This means that it can be understood that this structure can be changed! Again, there is no judge in the determination of these notions. These are only terms to mark the two typical directions of the ability to act. The decision itself belongs to the individuals as subjects.

3.3 Alienation

In all forms of society, the subjectivity is influenced by the societal structures (There is never a "free subject without societal influences"). But in capitalism, the influences of society are very powerful. In capitalism, the human beings are separated from the conditions of their reproduction (land, means of production). The means of living (means of production and their "abstract form": money, capital) became goals themselves and life changed into a means for the increase of capital. This structure of reproducing the society builds a special form of relations between society and individuals and between the individuals themselves. In this special structure, the societal foundation of every individual being seems to became separated from the society and therefore there emerges the view of the "separated individuals" and the idea that the society is a "relationship from outside" and that every individual is separated from the other, because they have to compete for the conditions of life. This situation seems to be "natural", but it is only a consequence of the capitalistic structure of society. Capitalism is an "antisocial" form of society. The societal character that every society has, has been turned into its opposite in capitalism. Now, it is very easy to take the given, the "turned" structure as the structure of societal being of humans in general. This would be a "naturalisation" of only one form of society.

This special structure is characterised by "alienation". In his early writings Karl Marx wrote about some types of alienation in capitalism: He wrote about the alienation of an individual from the products of her or his work, the alienation from mankind (society as abstract system), from other people and even from oneself (Marx 1844: 516 f.). Especially the last two types of alienation have remarkable importance to mental problems and diseases of individuals in this society. And all forms of alienations are very often the main reasons for individuals to choose the restricted ability to act (see 3.2). Despite this alienation, it is possible to overcome its restrictions. But one has to swim against the current. This needs of course more energy than to swim with the current (like a dead fish).

3.4 Motivation

The issue of choosing different forms of acting is connected with the question of motivation - and this will us lead back to the issue of depression as a state of "being unmotivated".

First of all we have to mention that human mental phenomena have their own special quality. A "requirement" (Bedarf) of animals is the mental aspect of an inner imbalance that depends on the supply situation. It is a relationship between the animal and its surroundings (see Holzkamp-Osterkamp 1990: 37, and Holzkamp 1985: 101). But human "needs" (Bedürfnis) are related to society; human needs do not only need the satisfaction of immediate biological requirements, they need the societal foundation within a cooperative precaution. Human emotions are related to the society [3] , not only one's natural surroundings (see Holzkamp-Osterkamp 1990: 21 f., 34 f. and Holzkamp 1985: 241 ff.).

To speak about motivations in such a context requires that we do not speak merely about motivations to achieve only individual goals, but that we have to understand that human motivations are always related to the society as a whole. Then, motivation is an "emotional willingness to exert oneself and to risk something in order to realise societal goals" (Holzkamp-Osterkamp 1990: 57). It is an emotional assessment of situations in the future compared with the current situation (Holzkamp 1985: 263). Therefore, motivations depend on the anticipation of a higher quality of satisfaction of the needs in the future by the own activity (ibid.: 299). This will be given, if

  1. there is a connection between the own activity and a higher quality of satisfaction of the needs in the future,
  2. this connection can be grasped and
  3. the own mental state, the own needs and the alternatives of behaviour (see the differences between the above explained restricted and generalised ability to act) are known.
If you see that in capitalism point a) normally is not given, you will understand, why many people are rarely motivated. (Therefore, capitalistic work needs blackmailing through "wage" as a motivation to try to get and to do a job; in a free society the factor a) would lead to enough motivation for activity and work without blackmailing.)

As long as the fordistic mode of production gave relatively secure jobs and mass production allowed increasing prosperity for most of the people (which was only a short period of capitalism and worked only for a small quantity of people on earth), normal workers in general were sufficiently motivated. Therefore in these times and under these conditions, motivation was not such a problem as it is nowadays. Nowadays, the normally precarious life conditions destroy the foundation of that "prosperity-motivation". And no coaching can compensate the real lack of point a).

Especially young people are more sensitive for that reality. Older people more often believe that life will come back to the "fordistic-prosperity"-times, and that one only has to exert oneself enough to achieve the old goal of a secure job and individual prosperity. But young people feel that this is an illusion or a lie.

4 What can be done?

To be honest about this situation is the first precondition to overcome it. It is better to refuse the illusions. But what can we do now? Remain in disappointment? We have an important historical situation: In the past, most of the people were usually happy enough within the restricted ability to act, reproducing the given structures of society, only orientated on their development of individual prosperity. A better car, a new house, a greater journey… The probability to achieve these goals becomes more and more unlikely. Of course, the first reaction is to demand that it will come back. But obviously, the historical situation has changed. Of course, we will always have to fight for redistribution of the wealth of the world, the old class-fight does not end. But the more important fight now is the fight for the control over the conditions of our life and and the conditions of production. We have to overcome the "logic of capital reproduction" and to invent a new way of living and production, orientated to the needs of the societal individuals and organised by their self-organisation (see Schlemm 2007).

This is a great goal. It is not given only by "historical development", it is now also required by mental desires. Possibilities to become happy within capitalism are disappearing - the increase in depression is only one symptom of this. But now the great challenge is to overcome depression as long as it has not become pathological. A pleasant way to begin may be to meet and unite all people who also feel or recognise this situation. Meet each other, speak about everything you are interested in, look for possibilities to achieve happiness and to widen the spaces of freedom. There is no given plan for revolution. If we do not begin to think about it, nobody will do it and the world will get worse. To try it will ultimately give us more satisfaction than to let it be.

In our times, in which it is hardly possible to "swim with the current", in which the normal precarious life needs more energy and initiative than ever, we can turn the direction of the energy and fight against the alienated forms of its use, against its abuse for the interest of "capital increasing" instead of my (and your) individual interests. In any case we are forced to show more initiative. And of course, it is a healthy way to refuse that. Maybe some of our depressions are an indication for the "reason of our unconsciousness". Our badly educated "consciousness" wants to fulfil the demands of the capitalistic society, but our unconsciousness knows that is a useless doing.

And now the interesting question is: Do we have faith in our unconsciousness? Do we raise its doubts into conscious thinking and deciding? I would suggest to do so.


Bauer, Joachim (2007): Unser flexibles Erbe. Gehirn & Geist 7/2007. S. 58-65.

BMBF (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung)(2007): "Es ist, als ob die Seele unwohl wäre..." Depression - Wege aus der Schwermut. Forscher bringen Licht in die Lebensfinsternis.

Canli, Turhan (2007): Der Charakter-Code. Gehirn & Geist 7/2007. S. 52-57.

Ehrenberg, Alain (2003): Depression. Die Müdigkeit, man selbst zu sein. In: Endstation. Sehnsucht. Kapitalismus und Depression (Hrsg. von Carl Hegemann). Berlin: Alexander-Verlag. S. 103-139.

Fichte, Johann Gottlieb (1799/1801): Die Bestimmung des Menschen. In: Fichte-W Bd. 2

Flach, Frederic F. (1978) Depression als Lebenschance. Seelische Krisen und wie man sie nutzt. Reinbeck: Rowohlt.

Foucault, Michel (1970/1998) : Die Ordnung des Diskurses. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag.

Holzkamp, Klaus (1985): Grundlegung der Psychologie. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag. (1. publ.: 1983)

Holzkamp-Osterkamp, Ute (1990): Grundlagen der psychologischen Motivationsforschung 2. Die Besonderheit menschlicher Bedürfnisse - Problematik und Erkenntnisgehalt der Psychoanalyse. Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag. (1. publ.: 1976)

Lopez (2006): cit. in BMBF: 12 (see also Internet http://www.dcp2.org/pubs/GBD/3/Table/ 3.15)

Marx, Karl (1844): Ökonomisch-Philosophische Manuskripte. In: Karl Marx, Friedrich

Engels: Werke. Band 40. Berlin: Dietz Verlag 1990.

Ribolits, Erich (2007): Die sanfte Art, Menschen zum Funktionieren zu bringen. Streifzüge Nr. 41/ November 2007, S. 20-23.

Schlemm, Annette (2007): Society of Mutual Self-Creation. http://www.thur.de/philo/SEG_en.htm.



[1] A dialectic view would suggest to think of reason as the dialectic contradiction that is the unity of reason and madness.

[2] There is a difference between "social" and "societal". "Social" means cooperative-interactive connections between individuals in a group or community (in German we also say: "gemeinschaftlich"), but "societal" means the whole society of mankind which is determined by the societal reproduction of the whole basis of society by societal work (in German this means "gesellschaftlich").

[3] This means the actions and products that satisfy needs are not mediated mainly by interactive-cooperative processes (in which individuals know each other), but by "generalised" mediations "from others" and "for others" in general, without knowing the individuals.

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