by Milly Allinson
"Richey’s writing presents mental illness as a direct result of the consequences of unfettered capitalist expansion."
**Trigger warning: mentions of mental illness and eating disorders.
"Culture. Alienation. Boredom. Despair." These are arguably the tenets of life in 21st century Britain, but they are also the philosophy that lies behind the early music of Welsh rock band, the Manic Street Preachers.
Until his tragic disappearance in February 1995, the band’s former lyricist and guitarist Richey Edwards eloquently crafted narratives that characterised the personal impact of working class alienation and mental illness under capitalism, intertwining the struggles of marginalised people with his own experiences.
Flash forward to 21st century Britain, and Richey's lyrics continue to remain on the pulse of life and conflict in the West. UK house prices are rising, the rich/poor divide is deepening, and young people are financially worse off than their parents for the first time in decades.
Meanwhile, the mental health crisis within the UK continues to grow, stretching NHS services to breaking point. Through examining forms of exploitation in the modern West, Richey’s writing presents mental illness as a direct result of the consequences of unfettered capitalist expansion, interconnecting it with wider class struggles and dismissing it as an exclusively individualist issue.
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As part of a lyric writing team with the band’s bassist, Nicky Wire, Richey and the Manics characterised a hyper-capitalist world of “passive consumers with patrolled desires” where workers “itemise loathing and feed [themselves] smiles”. Having spent time in mental health institutions himself, Richey associated this absence of working class control and resistance in the late 20th century with isolation, self-harm and mental illness.
This is particularly established in the Manic's third album, The Holy Bible - widely considered to be the band’s magnum opus. Written predominantly by Richey, the album illustrates how the evils of capitalism and imperialism permeate both global and personal life by juxtaposing global abuses alongside individual mental health struggles.
For example, the song Mausoleum is a scathing critique of the West’s ability to recover “glittering etiquette” following a history of war crimes. In contrast, the preceding track, 4st 12, follows a teenage girl’s struggle with anorexia, as society, and even her family, enables her self-abuse. From manufactured consent to fostering unhealthy body images, Richey argues that in consumerist culture, “choice is skeletal in everybody's lives”.
The opening track, Yes, further emphasises loss of control under capitalism, as it follows an exploited sex worker with little control over their life, who can only “hurt [themselves] to get pain out”.
The song argues that whether workers were to be employed in the sex industry, retail or factory work, their mental health still suffers as capitalists use them as yet another commodity, because in the desperate “purgatory circle” of survival work, “someone will always [be forced to] say "yes”.
As Richey writes, “the majority of your time is spent doing something you hate to get something you don’t need”, emphasising the futility behind capitalist "productivity" culture.
Yet, seemingly in reaction to this loss of control, the protagonist of the ninth track, Faster, adopts a warped sense of pride in their alienation, declaring “self disgust is self obsession, honey”. Rather than internalising the shame and rejection forced onto them by capitalist social structures, the protagonist shuns societal norms and finds, as Richey describes it, “strength through [their] weakness”, refusing to view themselves through the lens of an elitist and unequal society.
This empowering philosophy also appears on the band’s debut album, Generation Terrorists, through the track Stay Beautiful; an anthem of youthful idealism dedicated to the power of "[adoring] your failure" in a cutthroat society fixated with "checkbook dreams". The final cry of "anxiety is freedom!" - a reference to a quote from philosopher Søren Kierkegaard - reminds us that while political awareness may often cause mental distress, ultimately, it can lead us to our own salvation, through solidarity and activism.
Throughout his lyrics, Richey illustrates the destructive impact of capitalism on mental health, as well as the mental struggle that leftists experience due to an acute awareness of the socio-economic constraints that bind us.
His philosophy also asserts that we should not internalise the blame neoliberal society places onto us for systemic mental health problems. Perhaps by embracing his words, we too can find freedom in our own political and personal anxieties.
Milly Allinson (she/her) is a writer and creative based in Lincolnshire. She is currently working on a collection of anti-fascist, intersectional Noir stories. She loves cats and radical acts of kindness. You can find her on Instagram.