Marxist theory

Authored by: Bruce M. Z. Cohen

Routledge International Handbook of Critical Mental Health

Print publication date:  September  2017
Online publication date:  September  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138225473
eBook ISBN: 9781315399584
Adobe ISBN:


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While Marxist theory often draws on the critical work of labelling, social constructionist, antipsychiatry and Foucauldian scholars, it is clearly distinct from these positions in prioritising the structural dynamics of capitalism – particularly the material (economic) conditions – above all other variables in understanding mental illness and the mental health system. Capitalism is a system of societal relations based on the private ownership of the means of production and the systematic exploitation of the working-class population so as to maximise profit for the ruling classes. This dominant societal structure that we currently live with in the West is therefore marked by a fundamental disparity in the distribution of economic resources between the majority of the population and the ruling elite. The first half of this chapter outlines the main directions of argumentation in the area of mental health which have been offered by Marxist-influenced writers – namely, an understanding of the mental health system as a source of direct and indirect profit generation, and as an institution of social and ideological control. In the second half of the chapter I update the latter arguments so as to theorise the contemporary expansion of mental illness discourse under neoliberal ideology as a form of ‘psychiatric hegemony’. In the first section that follows, however, I briefly outline a third line of Marxist argumentation which focuses less on the mental health system as an instrument of capitalism, and more on the wider alienating conditions of that society which can determine poor mental health within the population.

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