Hard to Be Looney on the “Looney Left”

by Jon Hochschartner on August 27, 2013

I’m a socialist and an animal-rights advocate. I also live with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

After hearing about my mental health challenges, a typical reactionary comment might be, “Well, I should have known you were a nut from your politics!” (Of course, the joke’s funny because one would have to be crazy to support an egalitarian society or to oppose killing animals for gustatory preference.) The fear of having my perspective easily dismissed in this way is one factor that has, in the past, led me to delay and sometimes altogether avoid getting the psychological support I need.

Those who are outside the mainstream are frequently pathologized. And because those on the far left of a particular issue are, by definition, outside the mainstream, it’s no surprise that pejoratives used against progressives are often couched in terms of mental illness. One hears phrases like “the looney left” all the time on right-wing radio for instance. Thus a situation is created in which radicals who suffer from psychological problems are reluctant to admit their trouble for fear of confirming conservative criticism that their politics are not based on principle but on mental instability.

Progressive writers, while respectful of mental-health issues, seem all-too-aware of the potential unwanted implications that leftists with psychological trouble would represent. I’m very, very far from an Encyclopedia Brown of socialism or animal rights. But I’ve read a bit. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single significant radical figure who has been identified as suffering from psychological trouble. This is surprising, even assuming those who rise to leadership positions are least likely to be those in mental distress, given what we known about the frequency of mental health problems in the general population.

depressedI can only assume a history of women and men working for change with the burden of mental health problems exists, but progressives choose to not to discuss it for fear the left is at the moment so weak it can’t bear the additional stigma. Whether this realpolitik is justifiable in today’s conservative climate, I don’t know. But it has been unhelpful for me and I imagine many others.

The potential of leftists with mental health problems having their politics pathologized is quite real. I experienced this during the breakdown that led to my diagnosis with OCD intrusive thoughts. To be fair, this was done less by mental health professionals and more by my family who believed they were acting in my best interest.

To understand this, one must know a little bit about scrupulosity, which is often described as “OCD plus religion.” The classic sufferer might repeat a prayer thousands of times a day in the hope of thinking or saying it in just the “right” way. The Catholic Church has long been aware of this destructive phenomenon of hyper-morality and one could speculate that significant figures, such as the founder of the Jesuits, who confessed petty sins unceasingly for hours and couldn’t bear to step on pieces of straw that formed a cross, as he feared doing so was blasphemous, were sufferers.

As our society has become more secular, psychiatrists are beginning to diagnose obsessive adherence to non-religious ideological systems as scrupulosity. And here’s where it gets complicated. I believe at times I have been pathologically scrupulous in my commitment to socialism and animal rights. Now, this might give you the impression that I am or was some kind of perfect progressive. But that would be inaccurate and represent a misunderstanding of how OCD works.

First, scrupulous obsessions often focus on completely meaningless things, as shown by the example of avoiding the crossed straw. Second, OCD sufferers often avoid what triggers their obsessive thoughts because the mental and behavioral compulsions associated with them are simply too exhausting.

For instance, most people would assume that those who engage in cleaning rituals have immaculate houses. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes their hygienic compulsions become so burdensome they will allow their living spaces to degenerate into squalor rather than engage their obsessions. 

“If something dropped on the floor I couldn’t pick it up again,” one poster on OCDForums.org relates. “If I did pick it up I went into cleaning compulsions.”

In a similar way, at various times in the past I have avoided politics altogether, often moving intentionally in reactionary directions, because I knew from experience that engaging with progressive thought could bring me to create arbitrary, hyper-moral, and increasingly restrictive rules for myself that would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown.

But the difference between those with a religious scrupulosity and those with a leftist strand (such as mine) is that sufferers of the former are never counseled to give up religion altogether. Instead, they are encouraged to adopt a less draconian and more self-tolerating faith. I, on the other hand, was encouraged to avoid political activism completely. My family, for instance, discouraged me from publishing broad critiques of capitalism in our local newspaper and argued with me when I decided to resume my veganism, which I had given up in the immediate wake of my breakdown. I don’t blame them for this, especially considering the amount of heartache my turmoil put them through. But I think their position needs to be examined within a context of religious ideology today being mainstream and therefore sane and socialist and animal rights ideology being outside the mainstream and thus potentially pathological.

OCD is often described as pathological intolerance of doubt. This can be seen in how I am most comfortable in being completely politically committed or, conversely, totally disengaged. I am uneasy in the uncertain middle ground that most of us belong to. It’s going to be a long-term struggle for me to learn to tolerate that uneasiness and find balance, without either engaging in a self-destructive, impossible search for political perfection or abandoning my ideals entirely. Still, my OCD affects only my expression of my political ideals, not their essence.

I’m a socialist and an animal rights advocate with mental health challenges. My politics are not a symptom of my disorder.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Abraham Marx August 28, 2013 at 9:58 am

we’re beginning to hivemind here. I sent a piece into the editor about my path to being a marxist. A little similar to yours. #marxistsanonymous

Personally I’m wary of the whole psychological apparatus. I don’t really buy into it. Pills cover up deeper issues. And ‘insanity’ is often just a label people use to throw people in jail. I think it’s individuals hyper-mirroring social logic, and then an equally strong reaction when their absorption/belief of this logic doesn’t get them where they want to be. And well complexes and disorders basically put the person under scrutiny into a permanently intro-verted/self-monitoring/self-scrutinizing/self-absorbed stance, increasingly cut off from the world.

But psychological suffering is real. No doubt about that. Lincoln apparently suffered from severe depressions. Trotsky would have days and weeks of listless hopelessness. Manning is also currently going through an intense psychological struggle, made much worse for his political actions.

This is the kernel of it:
“In a similar way, at various times in the past I have avoided politics altogether, often moving intentionally in reactionary directions, because I knew from experience that engaging with progressive thought could bring me to create arbitrary, hyper-moral, and increasingly restrictive rules for myself that would eventually lead to a nervous breakdown.”

In Deutscher’s bio of Trotsky, one of Trotsky’s correspondent-friends, stuck in Germany, under the supervision of a few shrinks, is neurotic, depressed suicidal. The Revolution breaks out and he recovers overnight. Trotsky’s sly observation on this is something like “revolution is the best cure for neurosis and psychosis.”


Jon Hoch August 28, 2013 at 10:09 am

“Personally I’m wary of the whole psychological apparatus.”

I encounter that a lot on the left, no offense. Personally I think that wariness is dangerous for people who are actually sick. For instance, I don’t want to get into details, like I said in the article, I suffer from intrusive thoughts. Go check out the Wikipedia page for those. It basically means you worry about doing the most messed up stuff imaginable. I have two options: think I’m a monster or think that I have a disorder that’s not my fault. I choose the latter.


Jon Hoch August 28, 2013 at 11:24 am

But I didn’t mean to sound like a jerk. If you have a Facebook, find me. I’m friends with a lot of folks on here.


Abraham Marx August 28, 2013 at 10:44 pm

you’re not a jerk. I don’t have a facebook (yay!) but I do have an email.
[email protected]
shoot me a message if you please


J.B. August 29, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Jon, this was a brave and necessary post. Thank you for sharing your struggles and working to draw the important lessons from them. The problem as I see it for people with a brain-based disease or disability with an activist bent is that they are pulled by society in two completely opposite directions. On one hand, mainstream society has pathologized all negative feelings, and there is a real case to be made that the overdiagnosis and prescription of the psychiatric industry functions in part to suppress dissent. However, the Left often takes their critique of this much too far, neglecting the fact that even diseases like Depression and Anxiety have been shown to have a significant genetic basis, and that many people need help to manage these kinds of challenges, or they will not be able to function in society, let alone help change it. Furthermore, there is an occasional tendency to idealize these conditions on the Left, seeing them as a source of creativity and progress rather than the debilitating diseases that sufferers see their symptoms as constituting. I participated in the writing of a plank for Rochester Red and Black awhile back on Ability, Disability and Ableism that attempted to balance these perspectives. Looking back, I’m not sure how well it reaches a synthesis of the two perspectives, but a real attempt is made at least. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on it: “We oppose hierarchies and judgments of human worth based upon differences in physical or mental ability, structure or functioning. We reject the idea of a single “ideal” type of human, and oppose and condemn the ideas of eugenics and social Darwinism. Everyone has the right to be accepted and understood on their own terms, and should not have to live with the labels imposed externally by others.

As capitalism only values those who can help create a profit, those who cannot help make a profit due to physical or mental differences often are stigmatized, locked out of the workforce, impoverished, denied care and made homeless. We seek an Anarchist-Communist society where everyone is fully materially supported and free to contribute to society in their own way.

In relation to mental ability, we support the idea of mental diversity, and strongly suspect that many individuals diagnosed with “mental illnesses” are simply labeled such because an authoritarian society is unable to tolerate diversity. However, we also recognize that many of these differences can clearly cause significant impairment of life functioning and are experienced as illness, and we support full availability of mental health services (including early childhood intervention) free of charge. These services should be able to be provided without causing fear of stigma, which stems from the implicit hierarchical models of ability and disability embedded in our culture. To the extent that individuals or groups feel that the labels implicit in mental health treatment are dehumanizing, disempowering, and disrespectful of their autonomy, then the mental health profession serves as an instrument of social control rather than as healing. We seek a society in which those with special needs are cared for in a manner which respects their dignity.

As “disability” and “ability” are often designations which can change depending on social context, we strive to make Rochester Red and Black and the other organizations with which we work maximally accessible for all people. We work to avoid ableist language which privileges those with certain kinds of health and ability by implicitly putting down those who are different.” http://rocredandblack.org/platform/


Jon Hoch August 30, 2013 at 2:35 pm

Hey JB,

Thanks for the kind words! I think you do a good job balancing stuff here.



Jamie September 1, 2013 at 2:56 pm

With the Manning case, I’ve seen way too many comments from “supporters” suggesting that she should have kept quiet about her gender identity disorder, that is distracts from her role as a heroic whistleblower, etc.

It seems to be a case of fearing that the right will pathologize her acts of civil disobedience as the result of a “confused”, “sick” individual with “issues” (not terms I would accept regarding trans* people, of course).


Derick Varn September 1, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Oh, she should not have kept quiet about it–that seems like an odd position to take,one that pretty much leaves things as they are. I suppose I just think it is not an political issue until the Government decided to make it one.


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