Peter Sedgwick

Revolutionary socialist activist. 9 March 1934 – 8 September 1983.

Three months after he was born in 1934, his mother died and his father disappeared. He was brought up in Liverpool, and his  adoptive mother died in a carceral Victorian mental hospital after a short admission. He joined the Communist Party in Oxford University only to leave in 1956.

He trained as a psychologist at Liverpool, and left to be a tutor at a psychiatric prison, a research psychologist studying brain damaged patients in Oxford and finally a lecturer in politics and psychiatry at Leeds University from 1974 until his untimely death in 1983.

His book PsychoPolitics is a widely and justly acclaimed masterpiece that brilliantly dissects the anti-psychiatry gurus – Erving Goffman, R.D. Laing, Michel Foucault and Thomas Szasz –Sedgwick’s concern was that the ideas of these radical theorists were being co-opted by the neoliberal hegemony to reduce or deny care and provision for mentally unwell patients. The views that mental illness is a myth, that state intervention is counter productive and interferes with people’s choice, freedom and fundamental liberty and in so doing reduces opportunities to develop mastery, responsibility, self -reliance and resilience, led to court suits emptying institutions of tens of thousands of patients in the US. The ‘freed’ patients were exploited by landlords, lived on the streets, entered prisons and other hospitals and often died alone.

Sedgwick contended that Szasz’s ‘fundamental liberty’ to commit suicide is only the obverse of more affluent freedoms, principally those of accumulation and enterprise.  Without the concept of illness, people are left unable to make any demands for health services.

The origins of such ‘laissez-fairism’ Sedgwick traces back to the prolific writings of Herbert Spencer, ‘the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the nineteenth century’ whose ideas were very popular, especially in North America. Spencer’s views on the state relief of poverty, and refusal to intervene were ‘not merely rugged but ruthless’. His  moralising was similar to that of Szasz with both refusing to believe that social suffering can or should be helped:

‘Even though it seems hard that… unskillfulness should entail hunger upon the artisan, or widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life and death. When regarded not separately but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of beneficence-the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents and singles out the low spirited, the intemperate and the debilitated as victims of an epidemic’.

This quote from Spencer chills when we consider the apparent flagrant disregard for the safety of older frail people in residential care, and the blanket use of DNR orders suggested for people in residential care, and the lack of vaccinations for those with learning disabilities during the COVID 19 epidemic.

Sedgwick suggests that ‘It is the horrors of National Socialist practice inflicted on the allegedly diseased, also in the name of beneficence, that have rendered it impossible for Spencer’s eulogies of mass death to be repeated in any modern political theory.

‘The laisser-faire purists of today find it difficult to announce that the inferior are to die, because the inferior themselves may overhear them saying it’.

Cost cutting budgetary programs rendered the field of public mental health into a testing ground for the ideas of monetarism and Friedmanism even before these creeds became popularised as solutions for the whole of society. Today we might state that mental health was a ‘vanguard’ for ‘sustainable’ care, which is now the  ambition of ICSs but for a different precarious population, the ‘ever increasing numbers’ of the chronically physically ill and disabled.

Sedgwick’s book finishes on a positive note with Geel, a small town in Flanders which has, since medieval times, taken thousands of mentally ill and disabled people into its homes for years, decades or lifetimes. The work of Geel is indeed ‘the victory of humanity’ but not simply by the actions of individual humanitarians, in the liberal or philanthropic model. Rather it expresses the practice, voluntarily conceived and materially implemented, of a socialised and organised humanity, the humanity we need in order to solve the problem of ‘social liberation’.

David Widgery wrote of him:  ‘Peter did not move like an enemy agent in the midst of ordinary humanity: to him to be a revolutionary meant to participate in every aspect of the life of ordinary people, and he never allowed himself to forget that this is where socialism must come from if it is to come at all’.

Martin Blanchard

February 2021