Social Misery, Mad Pride

By Matthew Hyland, 10 July 2001

Matthew Hyland looks at two examples of emergent protest cultures: one operating behind the spectacle of the prison system, the other a defiant political body celebrating mad culture


The grim alliance between ‘deterritorialised’ capital and its rampant ‘criminal justice’ machine exhibits, it must be conceded, an elegant symmetry. ‘Quality of life’ legislation, ‘zero tolerance’ policing and public-private prison expansion deliver what Angela Y. Davis calls the “magic disappearance” of social misery. At the same time there are lucrative paybacks for particular capitalists – not only in security and prison design, construction and administration, but also in countless industries making use of prison labour or speculating on the growth of the enforcement industry. Finally this ‘booming’ but unproductive sector vampirises social wealth, creating more misery and thus more ‘need’ for policing and imprisonment.

Davis imagines a convergence of “grassroots projects” at this vanishing point of State/capital symbiosis. Easier said than done, but not inconceivable. In Britain, the CAGE network has linked prisoner support, research, education, occupations of prison building sites with action against other forms of racist social enclosure, notably immigration enforcement. Pickets of detention centres became ‘criminally damaging’ near-invasions, contact was made with detainees and at least one deportation stopped through airport intervention.

Brixton-based Movement For Justice, meanwhile, fights the systematic racism of ‘criminal justice’, including immigration law, on a day-to-day basis. This means politicisation of the legal process – public and successful work on frame-ups, racist attacks and asylum cases, advocacy for ‘victims’ in dealings with their ‘own’ lawyers. It also involves straightforward direct action, a ‘Don’t Walk On By’ campaign organising the tendency for ‘interfering’ crowds to form on South London streets to stop the police doing their unwelcome ‘job’.


It comes as news to no-one that in every social dimension we have been witnessing a massive privatisation of destiny and an individual internalisation of responsibility. This is evident in welfare and labour market ‘reform’ (adjust the flexible worker to the fancies of the market) and speculative science (‘the gene’ as ubiquitous explanatory paradigm), but nowhere more than in ‘mental health’. ‘Treatment’ for mental distress means forcibly adapting the sufferer to their surroundings while depriving him/her of the power to act on them, setting up a vicious solipsistic circle from which escape is difficult. The public appearance in 1999 and 2000 of Mad Pride amounts to a refusal of this imposed autism. Collectively the ‘mentally ill’ seize back the agency denied to isolated patients. Mad Pride emerged from the daily reality of the ‘survivor’ or ‘user’ movement. Through user groups the ‘ill’ defend themselves in institutions that have the power to drug, imprison and electrocute them. (One indication of the groups’ effectiveness is the Maudsley Hospital Trust’s recent attempt to bypass them by appointing ‘user representatives’ itself). This work is urgent, pragmatic and low profile; Mad Pride links it to a wider antagonistic politics. The name mocks not so much all notions of illness as an uncritical preference for ‘health’.

One catalyst for Mad Pride’s creation was Labour’s abysmal new Mental Health Act. This will remove many of the safeguards currently protecting users from sectioning, ECT and ruinous, sometimes fatal, neuroleptic polypharmacy. A new power of Compulsory Treatment in the Community would force users to live under curfew in a particular place in order to ensure access for various kinds of professionals. Any prisoner – even those on remand – could be detained indefinitely for treatment on diagnosis of ‘mental disorder’. If ‘biopower’ means social control exerted directly through bodies without political or juridical mediation, surely it appears in a refined form here.

Faced with a ‘health’ mechanism menacing freedom and even survival, Mad Pride conceives its action in far-reaching terms. The introduction to the Mad Pride anthology notes that in the future “the boundaries between ‘mental illness’ and ‘criminality’ will be further blurred”, and that survivors/users “can expect during the next decade to be charged rent by biochemical research companies for carrying patented genes.” While the organisation’s official aims are, wisely, more circumspect, anyone taking seriously the shift from representational politics to bio-political control will be cheered to hear voices from where the experiment is most ‘advanced’ affirm that “direct action is the correct way forward: defiant displays of ostentatious madness; riots; sabotage; medication strikes; and linking up with those elements who wish to bring about a complete transformation of society.”

Matthew Hyland <asperger AT> is co-compiler of Wolverine, the journal of Childish Psychology [], and is one seventh of the Mean Streaks.

Angela Y. Davis, Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex, []CAGE: [] (the site seems to be down at time of writing)Movement For Justice: P.O. Box 16581, London SW2 2ZW

Ted Curtis, Robert Dellar, Esther Leslie & Ben Watson (eds.), Mad Pride, a Celebration of Mad Culture, London, Spare Change Books, 2000. Page 7.Mad Pride: www.madpride.netSouthwark MIND (South London user-led organisation): Cambridge House, Camberwell Road, London SE5 OHF