BY HARRIET FRAAD | SEPTEMBER 8, 2017
The new word for the proletariat in America is the “precariat.”
In their economic lives and related personal and family lives, Americans live on the brink of disaster. A majority (63%) of Americans do not have $500 in the bank to cover a life emergency.
Nearly one out of two Americans don't have the disposable income to cover a simple emergency that costs $400. That means every time an American, for example, gets charged with a nonviolent and low-level misdemeanor, there's a strong likelihood they can't cover afford the bail and will end up detained in jail. In general, the minimum recommended to cover emergencies like suddenly losing a job or getting sick is at least three months of living expenses. Most Americans are currently nowhere near such security, in fact, a good majority are one paycheck away from being out on the street.
Social connections as a marker for the mental health of Americans
In our social connections, Americans aren't doing much better. Many can't turn to a friend in a moment of emotional emergency, no less turn to them to borrow money, and their families too live on the brink.
According to Harvard Professor Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone (2009), there are fewer Americans connected to any social group at all— from PTAs to blood drives to political organizations—than there were in bowling leagues alone in 1970. The silver lining is that since the 2016 election, people are now showing signs of joining more social and political groups to combat their losses and fears in Trump’s America. Organizations from Climate Watch and Planned Parenthood to the Redneck Revolt and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA is now the largest socialist organization in the US since WWII). However, whether there will be an alternative party or central movement in which Americans can get to together to address all of these connected disasters, is yet to be seen.
The economic and social anchor cables which tied white, middle class Americans personal lives to a previously secure foundation are now frayed to breaking. All of the areas that were secure for the mass of Americans are now precarious. Personal life, personal connections and families are quickly unraveling. Family relationships were Americans most basic means of close personal connection. Now, their fastest growing new lifestyle is living alone.
If and when couple’s marry, most children will grow up without their two biological parents. 42% of US kids are born to unmarried mothers and families cannot hold it together. If American single mothers and their children had the social and economic support that other wealthy industrialized nations provide their citizens, this would not be the disaster from which US mothers and children suffer. However, US single mothers and their children are the most poverty stricken, and deprived American poverty does not predict happiness or stability now or in the future.
What Happened to American stability?
In the 1970s, highly sophisticated multinational communications systems allowed US corporations to outsource highly paid, often unionized jobs to poor nations with limited protections for both workers and the environment. Corporations have outsourced millions of jobs to China, India, Pakistan and other nations over the past 40 years, while those same companies have reaped huge profits. For instance, Chinese workers making Ivanka Trump-brand shoes earn about 44 cents a day, while apparel makers in Pakistan earn just about $2.00 a day.
By the mid 1970s, American capitalists had the whole world to exploit. They no longer had to pay American white men two bonuses, one for being white and another for being male in what was then a scarce, racist, and sexist labor market.
Without the well-paying family wage jobs that used to be available to white men, the structure of US middle class life began to fracture (minorities and women were never given the wages that could support a middle-class family life). Once wages froze for white men, millions of women entered the workforce alongside of their minority sisters. Even with two incomes, wages were too low to make it into the formerly possible "American dream" of a better life for each generation. Women who worked outside the home were no longer willing nor able to do the full second shift of caring for men, the home and children alone. They were no longer willing, and economically could not afford to be the full-time home based personal servants that white men were accustomed to. Home life splintered. What is now the result of corporate capitalist outsourcing, computerizing, and mechanizing to make more money? The mass of the American people now suffers lower paid jobs with far worse job conditions.
With the huge profits US corporations have made over the past few decades, they have bought our media, politicians, and liberal democratic institutions. The intellectual servants of the wealthy disguised the roots of and blame for the American middle-class collapse. In 1970 we were the most egalitarian nation in the Western world, now we are the least egalitarian nation in the entire industrialized world. Is it a wonder these circumstances effect our social, emotional and mental health.
According to meticulously researched reports on the fruits of economic inequality (Wilkensen and Pickett, Stuckler and Basu, Schrecker and Bambra as well as the World Health Organization’s report by their Mental Health Foundation), inequality is terrible for mental health.
I'll list briefly what I've found and believe to be the 9 scourges of inequality:
1. The erosion of the level of trust between people. Lack of trust leads to disconnection from others and the breakdown of social bonds.
2. The increase in certifiable mental illness including addictions which are a form of mental problems. There is an epidemic of opiate and opioid addiction. Overdoses are now the most frequent cause of accidental death in America even outstripping car accidents.
3. Eating disorders and obesity are another marker of inequality and decay. More than 1 out of 3 US adults have obesity, which has been found to be income related. Food addiction is the cheapest comfort. Healthy nourishing food, like fresh fruit and vegetables are more expensive than the much advertised fattening, processed junk food like Fritos, Cheetos, and Doritos.
4. Low childrens educational performance is another fruit of inequity. Although we are the world’s richest nation, our educational achievements are low and have stagnated since 2009.
5. Another obvious indicator is lower life expectancy. There is an epidemic of death among middle aged and younger white Americans from rural areas and smaller cities who have a high school education or less. This is especially true for women. The epidemic is comparable to deaths from AIDS. In at least 30 counties in the southern US, mid-life black women now have a lower mortality rate and thus live longer than middle-aged white women, while the rates of mortality for white women have increased 300% since 1999. According to Annie Case, who along with Angus Deaton, wrote the most famous of reports showing the epidemic of death among poorer whites, “They (poor whites) may be privileged by the color of their skin, but that is the only way their lives have been privileged.”
Women die from coping with the stress of their precarious lives through smoking addictions resulting in cancer and heart disease, drug addictions resulting in overdose deaths, and obesity resulting in diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, etc. The pressure to earn a living, care for their men and children, and cope with insufficient wages and precarious employment, literally kills poor white people, especially women who were unaccustomed to coping with all that is put on them.
Other markers of inequality are:
6. Homicides including mass murders - a dramatic form of murder that is almost uniquely American.
7. Suicides. The suicide rate in rural white communities has more than doubled, climbing to their highest rate in 30 years. The problem exists in all ages and groups but especially amongst the poor.
9. The loss of social mobility. In 1970 America had the greatest social mobility and equality of all the world’s advanced industrialized nations. Now we have the least.
Every human being needs a dream and a reason to live. Too many American people have lost the American Dream of a middle-class life with greater opportunities for each generation of their children. Most African Americans have been denied that dream throughout American history. Now the majority of the American people are in all kinds of trouble: economic, social and psychological.
I will look at 3 areas which present dramatic new developments in America. One is mental illness and addiction. Another is homicides. A third is lack of trust.
Mental illness and addiction
One in five Americans is taking at least 1 psychological drug. We are only 5% of the world population but we use 66% of the world’s psych drugs. There are at least three reasons why: One is that people’s hopes of economic and personal stability and happiness are dashed and they are lost and depressed. A second is that instead of reaching out to join with others and share collective hopes and working together to realize hope, we have become depoliticized and isolated. A third is the capitalist marketing of psych drugs. We are the only Western industrial nation that allows direct to consumer drug advertising. We also lead the world in the kind of market driven health care that rewards doctors with money for prescribing brand name drugs.
A major way that people look for a refuge for their misery is with self-prescribing, also known as addiction. At this time America is in the throes of a serious opiate and opioid epidemic. Opioids are artificial drugs like pain killers and fentanyl, while heroin is plant grown. It is a dramatic development that now in the US drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death.
Drug addiction used to be an epidemic disproportionately effecting inner city African Americans. Now the epidemic is rampant in white and rural, small towns and cities. It effects those people most devastated by the loss of the American dream, suburban people who used to be in the middle class and rural whites whose local communities are taken over by corporations and agribusinesses. Typical addicts are, for instance, the young white man who planned to inherit his parents Mom and Pop diner which is now a McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or Friendly's. Or, the couple who planned to take over their parents grocery store which is now combined inside a mega Walmart. The many who planned to take over their parents small farms have been gobbled up by an agribusiness or cannot compete against existing vast agribusinesses. The addict may well be a middle aged white woman who thought she would be protected by her man’s family wage and now has to work to support her family economically, socially and emotionally. It also could be the middle aged white man who planned to retire and was fired because his capitalist boss outsourced his factory. And perhaps the most popular story that we heard during the 2016 elections; many addicts are former workers in the US Rust Belt who counted on decently paid jobs at factories like GM with pensions.
Another component of the scourge of US addiction is the huge and highly profitable pharmaceutical industry. Most heroin users begin with a doctor’s prescription for pain killers. Prescribing rates for pain killers have doubled in spite of the addiction warnings. There are enough prescriptions for opiates to give every American his or her own bottle of pills, while roughly 48,000 American women have died of pain reliever overdoses.
Since these pills are very expensive, many switch from the prescribed pain pills that got them hooked over to heroin which is cheaper.
Americans are suffering. Advertising giants and a corrupt market driven healthcare system converts their suffering into profits. Pills do not solve problems. They can affect brain chemistry, but so does psychotherapy and social connection. Therapy and social connection do not leave people comfortably numb. They do not usurp the brain’s powers to self soothe and to solve problems. They do make huge profits. Here again capitalism shows its bloody hand.
The marketing agents for giant gun corporations had the brilliant idea of marketing guns as emblems of manhood and proof of Second Amendment rights, at a point when male gender provider roles are challenged by low wages, and their basic rights are challenged by corporate dominion over America. Manhood and rights assertions are certainly smarter advertisements than “Buy guns. Make us rich." The NRA lobby abets the daily slaughter.
Mass murder is a uniquely frequent American specialty. It involves killing and wounding several people who are strangers. It does not count the many men who kill their families, girlfriends, etc. every week. The US had 30 mass killings in September 2017. In that month, no other wealthy industrialized nation had a mass killing. We had 30! The killers were all American men who were either disappointed from heartbreak, fired from work, or both. Gun violence was their way to reclaim their manhood in a blaze of murderous glory. Gun manufacturers are richer for it. These murders began under Reagan in the 1980s when inequality had its presidential champion and corporations were boosted over the rest of us through lower taxes and anti-union drives. They are a symptom of American inequality and corporate capitalist domination.
Lack of trust
A third area of American mental health tragedy and capitalist inequality is a lack of trust. Any collective action requires trust. One area where Americans have lost trust is trust in their government. A good way to explore this is to look at the minimum participation wealthy Western nations offer: voting. Among the wealthy nations, the US has the lowest number of eligible voters turning out for presidential elections. In our last election, the US had only 60% of registered voters who went to the polls. Roughly 51 million Americans who were qualified to vote did not even bother to register. Less than half of eligible voters believe enough that their participation in our government matters to register and then cast their ballot. In contrast, in the last general election in Belgium, 87 % voted. In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, 80% voted. In other wealthy nations like France, Germany, and Sweden, over 70% voted.
The US is the only one of these nations that allows private and corporate donations in elections. In a pay-to-play democracy, people without money may give up the little influence they have.
That was clearly illustrated during the Bernie Sanders campaign when a majority of millennials mobilized to vote for Bernie with whom they felt they would be empowered. Fully 175,000 volunteers turned out in the first week of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. For that moment, their trust that they mattered allowed millennials to be active. When Sanders was betrayed by establishment Democrats, half of millennials didn’t bother to vote at all in the general election.
We are constantly assailed by lies. Advertising is everywhere promising benefits of beauty and happiness it does not deliver. Beer ads show you flirting with beautiful young people and making romantic connections that beer cannot possibly bring. The Coca-Cola ads promising good social times rots your teeth. The medications showing relief from stress do not mention that you can become dangerously addicted. The cars that show you as the power in the metaphorical "drivers seat" but you are not. We are surrounded by advertisements. Ads lie. They erode our trust.
We have lost trust in even our closest relationships. For the first time in US history the majority of women are single by choice. They do not trust that they can be safe and thrive in marriage. More Americans now remain unmarried for life. Half of them marry and then divorce. They cannot accomplish a co-respective, sustaining connection. Of those who do marry, the fastest growing kind of couples are those without children. People cannot trust that they can provide for themselves no less a child in their precarious lives in capitalist America.
There is an even more damaging lack of trust which is closely related to mental illness. Americans have lost trust in themselves to make the kinds of work and love and politics that are hopeful and positive. Capitalist advertising thrives on shaming us about our looks, our smells, and our personal adequacy. Magazines and most television presents touched up faces and bodies of people with bouncy surface personalities and trivial problems, not those from which Americans seriously suffer. I am convinced that one reason Lena Dunham’s TV HBO series “Girls” was so popular is that the women presented were neither beautiful nor necessarily thin, nor free of mental problems. “Girls” presented a relief from goals we cannot achieve and standards we cannot meet.
Self-confidence is eroded for at least 80% of us for whom the possibilities of a basic economically stable and fulfilling career, marriage and friendship are precarious and difficult. People become afraid to even try. They lack trust across the board.
What can we do in the light of American economic, social and personal pain? How can we restore basic trust in ourselves, each other and our power to shape the future?
The 12-Step Model
There are many things we can do. The basic thing is to connect with others. The majority of Americans are now dispossessed. We need each other to make change and we have the power of numbers. As connections have withered since 1970, one kind of organization has burgeoned. In every small town across America there is one kind of organization that keeps growing: the 12-step program. We can learn from these programs which range from OA, Overweight Anonymous, Sex Abuse Anonymous, to Gam Anon, ACA, DF, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, and more. The 12 step programs thrive outside of the capitalist economy. They charge no money. They have no authoritarian leaders. Everyone’s voice counts.
The 12-step model works, because everyone has a voice that is heard. It is a democracy. It operates outside of capitalist constraints. No one is a paid officer of a 12-step program. It also works because people acknowledge that they have a problem that can only be solved with the support of a group. The “spirit” they invoke is sometimes referred to as God. Spirit does not have to be a deity but the open inquisitive spirit of a child reaching out to the world, a Biophilic spirit, rather than the necrophilic spirit of rigid hierarchical and unaccountable authority. 12 Step programs do not allow for social, political, or economic contributions to personal pain and addiction. That is why so many leave after initially attending. The social, political and economic factors of life are as salient as the personal. Uniting the causes of American’s pain is something the Left must do. The twelve-step method has a lot to teach us as we learn and build.
At this point of US capitalist decay the neoliberal center cannot hold. Our nation is polarizing.
Americans have a choice. We can choose the Left and Socialism or the Right, the Alt-Right and Fascism. Emotional socialism means democracy in the home, the family and the school as well as the workplace. It means that all voices have to be heard. It means that emotional wealth as well as financial wealth has to be shared. It also means that people need to be provided with emotional and social support as well as economic sustenance. We can look to the more enlightened nations of Scandinavia, and Holland, to learn how children and adults need to be prepared for a democratic life.
Or we can turn towards fascism where the iron bands of authoritarianism hold capitalism together. Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Franco’s Spain show us how this was done. In these states, there was only one way allowed in economic or in personal life. Women were to be as subordinate as they are in the Southern Baptist Convention on Men and Women. Women could and did work long hours in German munitions factories, but they were paid a small fraction of mens wages because their main work was defined as serving men and children at home. Children were to obey and serve. Men were to be kings of the household and subordinates to their leaders. The workplace and war were their two destinations. Heterosexuality was the only allowed sexual practice. Women were to marry and produce numerous offspring. Abortion and birth control were forbidden. Only fully physically healthy people were permitted to live. There was no choice.
The center cannot hold. The Left of the 30s saved the capitalism of the 1930s. The capitalist class destroyed the Left. We will have to choose either our own American kind of socialism or an American kind of fascism.
Dr. Harriet Fraad is a licensed mental health counselor and hypnotherapist in private practice in New York City. She is a founding member of the feminist movement and the journal Rethinking Marxism. For 40 years, she has been a radical committed to transforming US personal and political life.