published in "Radical Philosophy" Issue: 130, March/April 2005

On the decolonisation of the subject

The Psychiatric Abolitionist Faces His Critics

Edited by Jeffrey A. Schaler and and a free download here
ISBN 0-8126-9568-2
472 pages
Publisher: Open Court

Despite all efforts towards human rights and emancipation there is one group which is systematically suppressed: individuals diagnosed in the medical jargon as being "mentally ill" and in their daily lives equally slandered as being "ill", "insane".

Human rights and citizens rights in general do not apply to them, because practically at any time they can be locked up, tied up and be forcibly abused with mind altering drugs; even electroshocks against one's will are still practiced. Physicians simply define them as "subhumans" on the assumption of an alleged changed biology and they regularly get the support of judges, whose legal measures give the appearance of legitimacy. The fact that this systematic dehumanizing found its climax in the "Aktion T4" extermination by doctors in the Nazi era is quite well known. Hardly known is that this action was the prelude to and the blueprint for the extermination camps in Poland which followed.

"Schizophrenia" is a strategic label as "Jew" was in Nazi Germany. If you want to exclude people from the social order, you must justify this to others, but especially to yourself. So you invent a justificatory rhetoric. That's what the really nasty psychiatric words are all about: they are justificatory rhetoric, labelling a package "garbage", it means "take it away! Get it out of my sight!" etc. That's what the word "Jew" meant in Nazi Germany; it did not mean a person with a certain kind of religious belief. It meant "vermin!", "gas him!" I am afraid that "schizophrenic" and "sociopathic personality" and many other psychiatric diagnostic terms mean exactly the same thing; they mean "human garbage," "take him away!", "get him out of my sight."

Thomas Szasz
quoted from: "interview with Thomas Szasz" in The new Physician, 1969

A cartel of power commits these crimes and organizes them from the universities. There the agents of the system are indoctrinated, the connections from physicians to the politicians, the media and the legal system are made and those in charge are recruited. The gears are lubricated by the profits of the drug companies, which gladly assist the villains with substantial funds. One purpose is to counteract any criticism before it reaches a certain level and support any campaign which increases the number of people forcibly made dependent on the system.

The camouflage used by the academics is the myth that knowledge produced in universities is supposedly committed to the "truth", when in fact it is all about the occupation of positions of power. There are however a few exceptions: Michel Foucault became prominent and also Thomas Szasz should have earned this eminence. Ca. 1961 both discovered and publicized a fundamental flaw in the epistemic structure, i.e. that there is no such thing as "mental illness", but that "insanity" is a medical fairy tale in order to extenuate the repression.

The typical answer to the unwanted truth: ignoring it completely. Where that doesn't work, disciplining and marginalisation is used. Otherwise one is slandered and even incriminated. The psychiatric system has given all these inadequate and despicable answers to the challenge by Thomas Szasz. The system could at the same time rely on the fact that the victims were effectively silenced due to the forced confession of "illness insight". This resulted in the worst aberration: they had to condemn their own thoughts to exclusion. After the '68 rebellion this slowly changed and in the 1970's they created autonomous groups and began to publicly speak about these cruelties and thereby started to operate politically.

In my opinion this stage of development found its zenith in the Foucault Tribunal. This public tribunal, with its international jury (consisting of survivors and with Kate Millett as their spokeswoman), succeeded in reaching a verdict condemning coercive psychiatry using human rights as a yardstick for their judgement. Thomas Szasz delivered the indictment and the defendants of the system were neither able to propose a settlement, nor were they capable of making a convincing argument of exoneration.

The Russell Tribunal, which took place three years later, confirmed this judgement, once again with Thomas Szasz as a brilliant prosecutor. In my opinion these events terminated the phase of the denial defence, and this heralded the definite decline of the psychiatric system. In support of this I would like to cite three references:

- the symposium of the University of Syracuse in honour of Thomas Szasz on his 80th birthday, in which the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry, Mantosh Dewan, praised Thomas Szasz in the highest tones: "Szasz the world's best-known and most widely read living psychiatrist, our friend and colleague" and called him a "gem" - "we in Syracuse are particularly privileged to lay claim to him as OUR gem!"

- Where Germany was once at the forefront regarding crimes against humanity, it now seems to lead with the social disassembly of medical coercion: Soon all medical advanced directives (proposed by Sazsz in 1982 as a "Psychiatric Will") will be legally binding [this happened on 18/6/2009, see "Finally, coercive psychiatry can be put to a stop!"], even if the person can no longer express him/herself, is unable to consent, has no illness insight or is considered incompetent, as long as active killing is not requested. Each coerced diagnosis against such a directive would become a violation of the fundamental rights of informal self-determination, a psychiatric incarceration becomes a sanctioned deprivation of liberty, any coercive treatment would be a bodily injury, indeed torture. The further development of such legislation throughout the European Union can hardly be stopped.

- in 2004 thirteen prominent academic defenders of the system took up the challenge of writing a critical essay for the book "Szasz Under Fire", each answering to one of Szasz' theses, to which he then replied. Kaleidoscopically, different premises, conclusions and insinuations on the following topics are elucidated: the reality of mentally illness, physician assisted suicide, the right to drugs, moral and medical ethic, civil commitment and the insanity defence.

The authors are: Ray Scott Percival, Ralph Slovenko, Stanton Peele, Rita J. Simon, E. James Lieberman, Margaret A. Hagen, Margaret P. Battin, Ryan Spellecy, Ronald Pies, H. Tristram Engelhardt
Three well-known British authors are:
- Richard P. Bentall, who was appointed to a chair in Experimental Clinical Psychology at the University of Manchester in 1999.
- Bill Fulford, who is Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health, University of Warwick, and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist, University of Oxford. He is editor of the journal, Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology.
- Robert Evan Kendell, who was appointed Professor of Psychiatry at Edinburgh Medical School in 1974, and became Chief Medical Officer at the Scottish Office in 1991. He was President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists from 1996 to 1999.

Szasz's replies are to the point, sometimes full of polemic and irony but always based on the libertarian ground of his thinking. To give just one example: "Kendell suggests that I would have been more successful if I had been satisfied with aiming to reform psychiatry. But I did not want to reform psychiatry. Why? Because it was clear to me then - and it ought to be painfully clear to everyone today - that psychiatry and coercion are locked in a deadly embrace, that psychiatry is synonymous with psychiatric slavery. Psychiatry and coercion are like conjoined twins sharing a single heart: they cannot be separated without killing at least one." (p. 52)

The book is not only suitable for connoisseurs of Szasz, but as an anthology it offers an overview of all of Szasz´ important theses. Beyond that it contains a complete bibliography of his 646 publications.
Another argument for reading it is "An Autobiographical Sketch", his own development up to his 36th birthday, e.g. how he came to study medicine and how distrustful he was from the very beginning as to whether there is such a thing as "mental illness" at all.

To understand the importance of Szasz work, please take into account the far reaching consequences for epistemic and mind-body questions in philosophy:
It could turn out that the foundations of the theology of science are built on quicksand. If in principle there is no such thing as "mental illness", then all experience has to be valued in equal terms. Experience may be impractical but must not be subject to discrimination. That, however, is exactly the case in the natural sciences, which hold a dominant position, not only concerning mind-brain.
Experience is only validated if it is deemed non-hallucinatory experience. Hence, the sword of power has divided experience into the insane experience of the madman and the sane experience of the others. However, as soon as the distorting lens of power starts to crack, natural science loses its firm standing and begins to fall. An uncertainty principle on a far broader scale would have to be accepted.

With all these stimulating ideas and social imagination offered by Thomas Szasz, I assume that he has also remained a very European thinker. He changed the world by his interpretation of the following quotation of Karl Marx:
"The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

© René Talbot