Broke and sold a lie, Jeremy Kyle’s guests were the victims of our broken capitalist system

Alfie Bown

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Jeremy Kyle, most of which have been rolled out again this week in light of the tragic death of Steve Dymond, one of the show’s recent guests. Responses range from those who want to see greater care for guests put in front of the anxiety-inducing gaze of the camera to those who – perhaps rather patronisingly – demanded that ITV cancel a show that they never liked or watched anyway.

What’s really needed, however, is not increased help or “aftercare” for the select few who appear on the show, nor necessarily its cancellation, but the acknowledgement of a much wider problem embodied by these recent events: the link between economic conditions and mental health.

This is a connection argued for vehemently by the inspirational cultural critic Mark Fisher, whose collected works have recently been published and who tragically took his own life due to depression in 2017. Writing in The Guardian in 2012, Fisher argued that “depression is the shadow side of entrepreneurial culture, what happens when magical voluntarism confronts limited opportunities”.

In a more extensive essay called “The Privatisation of Stress”, Fisher explained the concept of magical voluntarism as the false idea that “with the expert help of your therapist or counsellor, you can change the world you are in so that it no longer causes you distress”.

In other words, when individuals with limited opportunity and little economic power confront a desire to achieve a kind of success and recognition that is often out of reach (the rhetoric of post-Thatcher capitalism), combined with the message that they are the ones responsible for their situation and their own distress, the result is depression.

The Jeremy Kyle Show can be seen as containing precisely this cocktail of ingredients that leads to depression in the conditions of contemporary capitalism. Generally speaking, it features guests whose opportunities have for various reasons been limited and offers them a moment of entrepreneurial fame on morning television. It also features Kyle in the role of therapist or councillor, whose rhetoric is always to blame the individual and supposedly empower them to change their own fate, which is consistently presented as solely their own responsibility.

In this way, Kyle’s show can be seen as the emblematic example of “poverty porn”, a term used since 2014 to describe media that exploits the position of the poor or underprivileged to sell a product. Channel 4 are among the networks to have cashed in, with both SKINT and Benefits Street high-profile examples from a couple of years back. Kyle nor ITV are alone.

Politically, the term “poverty porn” is deployed by those on the left to indicate that such shows give deliberately misleading impressions of the lives of poorer people, in the process victimising them. Those on the right are often more supportive of such shows, seeing them as an indictment of the welfare state, with all the rhetoric of benefit scrounging and underclass ferality that goes with it. Kyle’s show is probably at least in part guilty of all this.

Nevertheless, Fisher’s point would not be to attack Kyle and his show, which is hardly on its own in this regard. Indeed, plenty of other media on television and elsewhere continue to work according to these logics. The Jeremy Kyle Show is just one phenomenon among many that reflect the ethos that underpins contemporary capitalism – increasingly limited opportunities, alongside a consistent demand that each individual magically achieve the impossible by gaining success and happiness despite these barriers – and then facing the blame when they fail to do so.

To solve this problem of depression today we need to stop blaming individual cases like The Jeremy Kyle Show and see them instead as symptoms of a type of capitalism that is complicit in growing mental health difficulties and depression. The problem is not that of individuals but of an entire system that sets people up to fail.

Luckily, influential voices in the political sphere are connecting mental health with the economy and arguing that we need to reform our attitudes to both simultaneously. It’s not a coincidence that both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, those most interested in economic reform in the US, have been the most vocal in addressing mental health issues. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn has been the most dedicated to discussing mental health among leading politicians and has consistently argued that economic conditions are at the heart of the problem.

In the end, then, shows like Jeremy Kyle are just the tip of the iceberg. What we really need to do is reform the economic system and the rhetoric of self-help and individual responsibility that it sells to its citizens.

Alfie Bown is a lecturer in Media Arts at Royal Holloway University London and author of several books on digital media