The “abnormal”, benefactors of WWII

March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

The problem of politics belongs always to a group of people: an individual existing on her own needs no system to secure order & peace in her life, for she would not need to answer for any of her decisions. It is only when more people are involved that we can discuss of politics. Likewise, mental illness cannot properly be spoken of outside the context of polis — an individual on her own cannot be judged against norms. That is to say, mental illness is a political problem. Attempts to claim otherwise by governments are the most common strategy of deferring the responsibility of care.

By definition, a democratic society is one that is inclusive to all citizens of the state without compromise. Of course this wasn’t actualized in most Nation-States until quite late [1965 for the US & 1975 for Switzerland in terms of general suffrage], nor was it a part of Ancient Greek models of democracy [by denying citizenship to slaves & those born outside of Athens]. Refusing the rights of those who do not pertain to a norm was a means of retaining social order & is a particularly communist strategy.* But scientific thinking played its part in controlling these norms as well. Hyper-rationalism — by essentialist justification — introduced to the early twentieth century eugenics in its various forms, death camps, new measures of destructive warfare, & totalitarian regimes in Western Europe. It was a generation of madness; it was proof that reason can be taken/carried away.

Because reason can be taken away, does this mean we don’t need to protect the rights of those who have lost their reason? What about those not born with the capacity? The unanimous response, for the first time, was No. Women are considered hidden benefactors of WWI; I would like to suggest the same can be said of the political terms of the mentally ill after WWII. Up until this point, mentally ill members of societies were the responsibility of families, religious bodies, or prisons — neither visible nor accountable in the public sphere.

The change was enabled by two side-effects of war: an increase in the theoretical debate of mental illness & the returning soldiers, many maimed & shell-shocked, requiring a system of care which was not yet established; Great Britain is a model case having only loose social welfare accessible until the National Assistance Act of 1948.

Their increased presence in theoretical debate & academic study culminated in two entities: (1) the spread of psychoanalysis & (2) Michel Foucault’s politics of the “abnormal”, starting with Madness & Civilization in 1961 & collected most comprehensively in a 1975 lecture series. It is not presupposed that increased academic attention is necessarily positive: exposure can often lead to more rights, but also has the potential of being used for further suppression. Also, scholarship can often be plain wrong [as is the case with many details of Madness & Civilization]. What we can deduce, however, is society’s coming into consciousness on the subject.

The chronicling & “nosologization” of mental illness was initially — in it’s early formations of the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries — a means of control. “It is true that expert psychiatric opinion contributes nothing to knowledge, but this is not what matters. Its essential role is to legitimize, in the form of scientific knowledge, the extension of punitive power to something that is not a breach of law”, Foucault says in the first lecture on the abnormal. Psychiatry was developed as a technology to restrain even when laws were not jeopardized [as today, hooliganism is used as a catch-all category of arrest].** By way of this, we can see that the figure is conflated with that of the criminal just as the role of the psychiatrist becomes the role of the judge. Along with the mentally ill & the criminal as categories of abnormality, Foucault identifies also “sexual & cannibalistic monstrosit[ies]”, the witch, the possessed, the onanist, the homosexual, the monomaniac, & the child who cannot be integrated into normative education. [Earlier, I have made similar alignments.]

With the medicalization of the abnormal & by dispensing with the ill & the therapeutic, psychiatry can claim for itself the simple function of protection & order. It claims a role of generalized social defense &, at the same time, through the notion of heredity, it claims the right to intervene in familial sexuality. It becomes the discipline of the scientific protection of society; it becomes the science of the biological protection of the species.

For Foucault, it was the genealogy of the abnormal that was curious, perhaps to exorcise his own abnormality [& it is for my identification with abnormality too that I read Foucault]. He is perfectly right to point out that medicalized abnormality was a means of rationalizing control over difference, that it has no direct correlation with medicine proper, pathology, or judicial practice. Psychiatry at the start of the twentieth century lead to extreme racism & eugenics: that is the point at which Foucault ends his research.

The next step in this history was the abreaction of these negative effects, which would lead, eventually, to more tolerance. There are only two European examples of mental health protection prior to WWII: in Germany, the Old Age & Disability Insurance Bill (enacted in 1889) &, informally, under Brehon Law in medieval Ireland it was the policy to look after disabled members of one’s community. The European Convention of Human Rights (1950) was designed to delegitimize the possibility of such terrors being repeated; it continues to represent the internal law protection of the disadvantaged [once, abnormals].


The case of Yugoslavia might be illustrative the non-democratic perspective. As a socialist state the perspective of citizenship is as contributing workers. Article 36 of the 1946 Constitution is the only one to address the rights of the mentally ill, if indirectly: “The state promotes the improvement of public health by organizing and controlling health services, hospitals, pharmacies, sanatoria, nursing & convalescent homes & other health institutions. / The state extends its care to the physical education of the people, especially of young people, in order to increase the health & the working capacity of the people and the power of defense of the state”. The second part echoes Article 32, “It is the duty of every citizen to work according to his abilities; he who does not contribute to the community cannot receive from it”. As often non-contributing citizens, the rights of the mentally ill were generally dismissed.

** Hooliganism is even more flexible as it does not relate to the abnormal essence of the character of the charged, only their abnormal behavior.


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