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Hannah Proctor
Hannah Proctor, the author "Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat"Matthew Arthur Williams

How activists can push through burnout and defeat

In her new book Burnout, writer Hannah Proctor explores the history of how political activists have reacted to defeat, frustration and disappointment

To be left-wing is to be well-acquainted with political defeat. Over the last 20 years, the Ls have kept wracking up: despite an enormous mobilisation against the Iraq war, it went ahead as planned; the early 2010s saw an explosion in student activism, but we still got a hike in tuition fees and 14 years of austerity; and no amount of door-to-door canvassing on wintry December nights was enough to secure a victory for Jeremy Corbyn in 2019. Previous generations suffered their defeats, too, and now it costs £1,000 a month to rent a room in a house-share and every subsequent year is the hottest year on record (that’s not to blame them, but you’d be hard-pressed to argue that Thatcher and Reagan didn’t win).

We are now in the middle of one of the largest protest movements the UK has ever seen, with hundreds of thousands of people regularly taking to the streets to demand an end to Israel’s assault on Gaza. It wouldn’t make sense to talk about this in terms of defeat: it’s not over, the situation is as urgent as ever, and the movement has been successful in shifting public opinion, building solidarity networks and (to some extent) pressuring politicians. But there still hasn’t been a ceasefire, nor has the British government called for one. None of it has been enough to prevent at least 33,000 people from being killed, including an estimated 13,800 children, and well over a million displaced. How do you maintain momentum, knowing that? How do you settle in for the long haul, and stop the energy of the current moment from curdling into frustration and disappointment?

This is one of the questions Hannah Proctor reckons with in her new book, Burnout: The Emotional Experience of Political Defeat (Verso). Structured around eight concepts – melancholia, nostalgia, depression, burnout, exhaustion, bitterness, trauma, and mourning – Proctor explores the history of how people endured when their efforts to change the world for the better didn’t pan out as they had hoped. It takes in French revolutionaries exiled to a remote penal colony; radical Black activists scarred by their experiences in the civil rights movement; and feminists in the 1970s engaging in intense forms of group therapy, sometimes tearing themselves apart in the process. It's fascinating, insightful and deeply-researched. 

A historian and research scholar at Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Proctor is concerned with the intersection between psychology, psychiatry and left-wing movements (she writes a newsletter called Unconsciousness raising, which focuses on this theme). Burnout, then, is also a book about what it means to heal in an unjust world, how to find hope when everything seems hopeless, and the radical approaches to mental health care which might make this possible. “Focusing on individual well-being can seem paltry, luxurious or even decadent in the face of the dangers threatening communities around the world, but revolutionaries are needed to make revolution,” she writes. 

Earlier this month, I met up with Proctor in a cafe in Glasgow, where we discussed the politics of depression, what the mainstream narrative around trauma gets wrong, how the term “burnout” has been divorced from its radical roots, and more.

What are some of your own experiences which informed this book?

Hannah Proctor: At first, I didn’t want to talk about myself, but I decided to put myself in the introduction. It’s less about my own feelings as an individual, though, and more about the various things I have lived through that have shaped my perspective, including the movement against the Iraq war and the student movement, both of which were very formative.

The middle of the book is more about the ongoing experience – not being involved in a big movement, but day-to-day organising around issues like housing, and was informed by my experiences with that kind of activism. It felt important to put myself in the book at the start, even if in some ways it felt ridiculous to talk about Che Guevera and then… me.

How do the ideas of this book relate to what’s happening now with the Palestine movement?

Hannah Proctor: When I read the book through for the very last time around the middle of October, I worried it was arguing ‘we all have to sit around and think about our feelings’, at a time when the most urgent thing was to be getting out on the streets. But obviously, it’s more complicated than that. On the one hand, the surge of energy we’re seeing now shows that people do throw themselves into things when the stakes are high. But on the other hand, how do you sustain that over time, especially when months pass and the genocidal onslaught is still ongoing?

I’m talking from the perspective of someone who’s quite removed from what’s happening, and obviously it’s different for other people, especially those who are actually in Gaza. But even from that perspective, how do you keep organising without eventually collapsing? It’s important and necessary to remain engaged, not just practically but also emotionally, which can be overwhelming.

While a lot of people find what’s happening very distressing, if you’re living in the West it does seem extremely narcissistic to talk about how the suffering of other people is affecting your mental health. But you are arguing that it is kind of important, right?

Hannah Proctor: Putting yourself at the forefront and saying ‘oh, it’s so hard for me’ is obviously absurd. But the reason to take it at least somewhat seriously is if it’s actually impeding people from being able to keep going. I don’t think those kinds of experiences should be given too much consideration, but they’re not completely insignificant. In the book, I wanted to talk about a wide range of experiences without conflating them. So I talk about very extreme forms of trauma as a result of political repression, for example, but also just feeling a bit sad – I’m trying to say that those things are comparable at all, and I think it’s important to stress that they’re not.

“The surge of energy we’re seeing now shows that people do throw themselves into things when the stakes are high. But how do you sustain that over time, especially when months pass and the genocidal onslaught is still ongoing?” – Hannah Proctor

The idea of ‘burnout’ has become ubiquitous in recent years – how would you distinguish between how it’s used now (often as a way for millennials with media careers to talk about being tired) and the kind of burnout you’re talking about?

Hannah Proctor: While writing the book, I traced the histories of different terms and how people have thought about them politically, and I wanted to do that for burnout, too – people have described themselves as being burnt out for a long time. The history of the term happened to suit my argument because it has its origins in the free clinics movement in the US in the late 1960s, which was a social justice project that provided free healthcare. The concept arose out of the experiences of people who were volunteering in that movement, and, importantly, it wasn’t that they were burning out because they were physically exhausted. 

It was emotional – it was related to the sense of disappointment and frustration which occurs when the ideals of something don’t pan out. So that was the original definition, then it gradually morphed into something to describe feeling tired from juggling so much and having a busy freelance career.

I think that today there are two extremes in which people talk about mental health: there’s the idea that ‘I’m depressed due to capitalism and unless capitalism is overthrown, I am doomed to unhappiness’, and at the other end there’s the very individualistic, self-help approach that says you just need to have a bubble bath. What is the middle ground between the two?

Hannah Proctor: Depression is in some ways resistant to narrative. At first, I was trying to talk about it as connected to broader historical forces, external events and the defeats of big political movements, but depression often doesn’t feel like that: it’s experienced as a disconnection from everything. The reason I ended up writing about my own experiences of depression, which I didn’t want to do, was that it gave me a way of trying to describe the feeling of there being a mismatch between the arguments I was reading about mental health, and what I was actually experiencing. Knowing that depression is a structural problem doesn’t mean you’re no longer depressed. Of course, there are social determinants of mental illness, but it’s not like one simply equals the other.

Depression is in some ways resistant to narrative... Knowing that depression is a structural problem doesn’t mean you’re no longer depressed”

Could you tell me about the idea of “anti-adaptive healing”?

Hannah Proctor: So much of how we understand mental well-being is related to social norms, so if those social norms are things that you want to change or destroy,  how is it possible to feel better without affirming the world as it currently is?

That’s a common thread throughout different histories of radical approaches to therapy: in the book, I talk about these self-organised groups in the 60s and 70s who tried to find ways of feeling better within their own context; they rejected expert psychiatric institutions and had a critique of mainstream psychology, but they still thought it was necessary to find methods to address the difficulties they’d experienced. They wanted to reinvent therapy and reimagine mental health care rather than rejecting them altogether.  

The concept of trauma has really blown up in the last five years, as a fixture of both pop psychology and social justice movements. What do you think the conventional, mainstream narrative about trauma gets wrong? 

Hannah Proctor: There has been a long-standing criticism of the diagnosis of PTSD, which was first created in 1980 and has gone through subsequent redefinitions. Often, clinical psychiatrists do have a more complicated understanding of it, but there’s also a kind of pop cultural narrative about trauma. The established criticism would be that it tends to treat all sorts of different traumatic events as interchangeable – be it an earthquake, a war, or a rape – and that it detaches extreme events from the social contexts in which they took place. 

There’s also the question of the world in which the traumatised person is attempting to feel better. In the Palestinian context, for example, the criticism of PTSD would be that it’s still ongoing, it’s not ‘post’; it’s not about a single extreme event in the past. I’m not arguing that ‘trauma isn't real’. It’s about understanding trauma within a broader political social context, and then also understanding the therapeutic process of taking that into account.

Burnout: The Emotional Experience Of Political Defeat is out now on Verso 

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