mental illness and capitalist medicine

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Jan 15 12:50:07 MST 2001

Conclusion to chapter 7, "Schizophrenia and Civilization", of Stanley
Diamond's "In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization"
(Transaction Publishers, 1993; forward by Eric Wolf):

This brings us to the ultimate cross-cultural question of whether
schizophrenia exists among primitive people. (In 1939 George Devereaux
observed: "Schizophrenia seems to be rare or absent among primitives. This
is a point on which all students of comparative society and of anthropology
agree.") I believe that as an essence it does not, but the process is
identifiable. That is, schizophrenia as a diagnostic category is irrelevant
in authentically primitive societies. The reasons for this are as follows:

1.  The rights to food, clothing and shelter are completely customary; each
person learns as an organic part of the socialization process the requisite
variety of skills. Functionlessness is not a problem in primitive society.

2.  Rituals at strategic points in the bioculturally defined life cycle
permit the person to change roles while maintaining, and expanding,
identity. His ordinary humanity is celebrated in an extraordinary way. The
life-cycle is a normal curve; does not collapse in the middle, leaving the
aged wisdom, work or honor, their only alternative being dissimulation of

3.  Rituals and ceremonies permit the expression of emotions and the acting
out of complex fantasies in a socially prescribed fashion. It is customary
for individuals or of people to "go crazy" for self-limiting periods of
without being extirpated from the culture.

4.  The ramifying network of kinship associations sets developing person
firmly in a matrix of reciprocal - obligations and expectations. Social
alienation as we experience it in civilization is unknown. The fact that
there are no mental hospitals or asylums primitive societies or, to my
knowledge, any equivalents, testifies to the social use and containment of
schizophrenic process, which is a generic human process. It not become a
clinical entity until a society which can erect boundaries to the process
and no creative channels for expression, exiles those who are as a result
incapacitated specialized institutions, or otherwise immobilized. One may
conclude that although the schizophrenic process is identifiable the
structure, function and the psychodynamic character of primitive societies
set cultural limits to the process and prevent it from becoming a
diagnostic entity. Primitive cultures realize the major function of culture
which is to make men human, and at the same time to keep them sane. That is
what civilization, as we know it, is failing to do. Schizophrenia, then, is
no less and no more than the subjective aspect of the socio-economic
dynamic of alienation.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list