Attention deficit disorder, the anti-capitalist condition
You can’t blame the parents, though. Not getting the right upbringing doesn’t necessarily mean abuse or neglect, although it could be. Parents who are stressed and unable to adjust to their baby can do the job. Mate was born to Jewish parents in Budapest two months before the Nazis occupied the city. But it doesn’t have to be so extreme. Show me an unstressed parent up to their eyeballs struggling with work, finances, and trying to raise kids with little help and no sleep.
These are individual neurophysiological characteristics, but they arise in social contexts. Our capitalist societies create stressed families, prison schools and toxic workplaces. No wonder our brains are going haywire on an unprecedented scale. ADD is a capitalist condition.
ADD is the new schizophrenia
I am not the first person to say this. In his 2011 book “Capitalist Realism”, the late Mark Fisher wrote that ADHD was “a pathology of late capitalism – a consequence of being hard-wired into the entertainment control circuits of hypermediatized consumer culture”.
Gabor Maté is clear that ADD is not a pathology; it is a divergence of development. It is not fundamentally caused by the hypermediatized culture of our time, he argues – however, culture can nurture and reinforce it.
Fisher relied on critical theorist Fredrick Jameson’s metaphor of the “schizophrenic” as typical of 1980s postmodern culture. Jameson described a culture in which we are constantly bombarded by random images, a “series of pure and relationship over time. He wrote that people with schizophrenia embodied the fragmentation of identity that this experience of time creates: the inability to develop a coherent sense of self that connects past, present, and future.
Other late 20th century thinkers had their own unorthodox theories on schizophrenia, including philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari in their 1972 book “Anti Oedipus.”
Fisher, a continuing education teacher and philosopher, pointed out that the culture industry has evolved since Jameson wrote in the 1980s. Fisher wrote, “What we now face in the classroom is a generation born in this ahistorical and anti-mnemonic culture – a generation, that is to say, for whom the time has always come, cut into digital micro-slices.
For Fisher, the person with ADD, with his distracted concentration and “poor working memory,” was the updated symbol of our times. And that was in 2011, long before TikTok and Instagram Reels.
What Fisher failed to mention is that for Deleuze and Guattari, if not for Jameson, schizophrenia was not only the condition of late capitalism, it was also its exterminating angel. By giving rise to postmodern schizophrenia, they said, late capitalist culture was sowing the seeds of its own demise. Late capitalism (aka neoliberal capitalism) is messy, chaotic, unruly. It’s the economic Wild West, where money is king, finance is fictitious and all barriers to its flows are shattered. It creates cultures and subjectivities that are also messy, chaotic and unruly.
But ultimately, capitalism needs order, stability and rules. He needs the state. It needs the armies of the state, its laws and its bureaucracies. And it needs good, stable, reliable citizens to do its bidding. The chaos and disorder of schizophrenia threatens to disrupt the whole system.
To be honest, I don’t know if using serious mental illness as a metaphor for our modern malaise is acceptable. For theorists like Deleuze, however, it was important to view mental illnesses as political rather than natural and private categories. They are experienced by individuals but they are produced in and by societies. The personal is political.
The same can be said for neurological differences like ADD. And, like schizophrenia, ADD can be understood not only as the totemic condition of our time, but also as its Trojan horse.
ADD against the clock
“ADHD is at its heart time blindness,” says leading ADD expert Russell Barkley. Erik disagrees. It is not a blindness to time, he argues, but a forgetting of a particular social construction of time: the time of a regimented clock.
Capitalism instituted an economy based on wage labor and with it, the commodification of time. Time has become money. Or more precisely, the labor time of the workers has become the profit of the capitalists.
In “Hours Against the Clock: On the Politics of Laziness,” Lola Olufemi explains how capitalism captures time, turning it into a finite resource that we lose forever to our work. Productivity growth, the mantra of capitalism, means accelerating production so that we always produce more in the same amount of time.
We see the tyranny of capitalist time most clearly in Amazon warehouses where every movement of workers is monitored by algorithms and the least productive are regularly fired. We see it on poultry farms where workers are forced to wear diapers because they don’t have time to go to the bathroom.
Due to differences in wiring and chemistry in the frontal lobe of the brain, the person with ADD does not experience this type of linear time. Gabor Maté says that, for ADDers, there are two states of time: the here and now and the beyond. I constantly remind Erik that time is passing. If I tell him it’s 2 p.m., he’ll keep thinking it’s 2 p.m. until I tell him that two hours have passed and it’s now 4 p.m. Likewise, he has no idea he won’t be on time for a meeting until the appointed time has already passed and he has left the house.