Burn Out: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat

Hel Spandler reviews Burnout by Hannah Proctor, just published by Verso


The title of this book “Burnout,” might seem pessimistic – yes, a whole book about the emotional experience of political defeat. Yet, paradoxically, I found it a joy to read.  There are plenty of paradoxes in this book which are helpfully embraced & explored. For example, radical activists often believe we’ve been psychologically damaged by society, but should also be entrusted with changing the world for the better.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that activists frequently re-create the very damaging social relationships and power dynamics we’re trying to challenge and transcend.  I’m sure anyone who’s been involved in radical politics – including and especially radical mental health politics is only too painfully aware of this.

Activists get (re)traumatised, damaged & burnt out. Sometimes it can even feel as if we inflict as much damage on ourselves, & each other, than ‘society’ ever did.  I guess that’s how power works.  We often end up retreating or dropping out. Then, frequently feel criticised & guilty for doing so.   This book doesn’t compound this vicious circle, but seeks to understand it. 

For the author, the emotional consequences of political defeat need to be taken seriously, but not as inconvenient truths to be brushing under the carpet, or as inevitable. It is not fatalistic analysis – if anything, it’s hopeful. To paraphrase an old adage, if we don’t understand these dynamics, we’re forever doomed to repeat them. Proctor sees them as potentially deeply informing our politics – if only we would attend to them.

Proctor doesn’t see our psychological responses as separate from, or irrelevant to, political struggle.  Neither does she see our emotions as merely a motivator or barrier to activism – but as part & parcel of our struggle. Whilst she doesn’t explicitly say this, I take this to mean that psychological & emotional freedom is an intrinsic part of what we’re struggling for.  Clearly this has relevance for radical mental health politics. Indeed, Proctor’s previous work concerned ‘Red Therapy’ collectives in the 1970s, although, disappointingly, she doesn’t integrate this analysis into this book. I was also disappointed that she doesn’t cover other urgent contemporary struggles such as climate justice & gender liberation. However, that’s a tall order.

The other thing I love about this book is that it’s not overly theoretical or abstract, but deeply thoughtful & intelligent. That makes it theoretical in the best sense of the word – as something which might actually help understand the world, and our place within it, without oversimplifying or overgeneralising. Whilst the point, according to Marx’s famous dictum, might be to ‘change the world’ we can’t do that if we don’t understand it, or if we see ourselves as somehow separate from, or ‘above’ everyday struggle.

This well-written & meticulously researched book is continually brought to life with stories from history & examples of real people in struggle. Rather than manipulating stories from history to fit a prevailing ‘big theory’ ideological agenda, she tries to work out what can be learnt from political struggles, in all its messiness & complexity.

Activists often berate & shame scholars who say society is complex as they think it is as an excuse for political inaction.  On the contrary, I think simplifications result in bad politics, and ineffective or even counterproductive action. Sometimes our well-meaning political responses to the problem can become part of the problem, rather than the solution.  I’ve frequently seen this happen in mental health politics. For example, the critical and radical grandstanding and sloganeering I frequently see on social media, if anything, seems to compound our distress and divide us. What good is a politics (especially a mental health politics) if it doesn’t help alleviate our individual and collective suffering?

All this doesn’t mean that the author is any less committed to wider social transformation. But she doesn’t sugar coat reality & gloss over its complexities – like some radical versions of positive psychology (“if you fight hard enough & believe in change, we will win”). As we know from mental health struggles, false promises & hope can backfire & lead to self-recrimination, blame & despair.

In honestly evaluating the reality of defeat & its emotional consequences, Proctor has done us a great service.  This is not some kind of bourgeois distraction, but provides activists with an important resource to be able to survive, learn and grow.  Rather than blaming ourselves for not being ‘radical’ or strong enough, or giving up on the possibility of social change entirely, this awareness could embolden us to be more compassionate & understanding activists – both to ourselves, our fellow activists and, just as importantly, to those we disagree with.  If we can’t do that, what hope is there? Without this, how can we trust ourselves to build a better world?  

Hel Spandler is the managing editor of Asylum, the radical mental health magazine where this review was first published.

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Hel Spandler is the managing editor of Asylum, the radical mental health magazine where this review was first published.

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