BY HARRIET FRAAD | JULY 1, 2017
Economic conditions, social conditions and personal mental health are as intimately connected as Siamese twins. There is clear evidence of their interpenetrating connection. Unmistakable signs point to the fact that the mass of US citizens are economically, socially, and psychologically in bad shape. I will briefly look at each area: economic conditions, social conditions and emotional conditions, and how they relate to each other. I will also look at how those factors play out in the everyday lives of Americans.
Let’s look briefly at economic conditions.
The new word for the proletariat in America is the “precariat.”
In their economic lives and in their personal and family lives Americans live on the brink of disaster. A majority, 63% of Americans do not have $500 to cover a life emergency.
Almost ½ of us cannot cover an emergency that costs $400. If we break a tooth or get picked up for a misdemeanor crime like stealing a pair of sneakers, we cannot cover the bail cost and could end up in jail. The minimum recommended to cover emergency expenses is at least 3 months of living expenses to cover losing a job, having a divorce, getting sick, things like that. Most Americans are nowhere near such security. In fact, most Americans are 1 paycheck away from the street.
Now let’s look briefly at social conditions.
In our social connections, we Americans are not doing much better. We cannot necessarily turn to a friend in an emotional emergency, no less turn to them to borrow money. Families also can no longer necessarily help. They too live on the brink. Americans are increasingly isolated. According to Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone (2009), there are fewer Americans connected to any group at all from PTAs to blood drives to political organizations than were in bowling leagues alone in 1970. Unfortunately, social and personal isolation is now worse.
The economic and social anchor cables which tied American personal life to a secure foundation are now frayed to breaking.
Personal life is fraying as well.
Americans fastest growing new life style is living alone. If they marry the fastest growth is in couples without children. Most children will grow up without their two biological parents. Fully 42% of US kids are born to unmarried mothers. Family connection was American’s most basic institution for close personal connection. Families cannot hold together. If American single mothers and their children had the social supports that all other wealthy industrialized nations give 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, deprived Americans. Poverty does not predict happiness now or in the future.
In brief-In the 1970s, highly sophisticated multi-national communications systems allowed US corporations to outsource highly paid, often unionized jobs to poor nations with no protections or feeble protections for both workers and the environment. Corporations outsourced millions of jobs to China, India, Pakistan other nations. US companies thus reaped huge profits. For example, Chinese workers making Ivanka Trump’s apparel earn about 44 cents a day. 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 2 bonuses, one for being white and another for being male in what was then a scarce, racist, sexist labor market.
Without the well-paying family waged 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 white men’s wages froze, millions of women entered the workforce alongside of their minority sisters. Even with 2 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, 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. These are the results of corporate capitalist outsourcing, computerizing, mechanizing and robotizing to make more money. The mass of the American people now suffer lower paid jobs, with worse job conditions.
With the huge profits US corporations made, they bought our media and our politicians. Those servants of the wealthy disguised the roots of American middle class collapse. In 1970, we were the most egalitarian nation in the Western industrialized world. Now we are the least egalitarian nation in the Western industrialized world. That powerfully effects our emotional and mental health.
According to meticulously researched reports on the fruits of economic inequality (See: Wilkensen and Pickett, Stuckler and Basu as well as the World Health Organization’s report by their Mental Health Foundation) inequality is terrible for mental health.
There are 9 scourges of inequality. They are:
- The erosion level of trust between people.
- Lack of trust leads to disconnection from others and the breakdown of social bonds.
- The increase in certifiable mental illness including addictions which are a form of mental problems
- Eating disorders and obesity
- Lower life expectancy
- Homicides including mass murders, a dramatic form of murder
- Imprisonment rates and
- The loss of social mobility.
The US leads the Western developed world in all of these areas. We are in trouble. 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. Each presents a uniquely American development.
One in five Americans is taking at least 1 psych 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 understandably sad. A second is that instead of reaching out to join with others and share collective hopes and work to realize them, we have become depoliticized and isolated A third is 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.
Another 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 problem with heroin and opiates. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the US. There are even more opiate and opioid deaths than deaths from car accidents. Who is using and dying now? Drug addiction used to be an epidemic disproportionately effecting African Americans in the inner city. Now the epidemic is white. It effects just those people most devastated by the loss of the American dream, suburban people who are, or used to be in the middle class and rural whites whose local communities are taken over by corporations and agribusinesses. Typical addicts are the young man who planned to inherit his parents Mom and Pop diner which is now McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Friendly’s, etc. - the couple who planned to take over their parents’ shoe or clothing store or grocery which are all now huge Walmarts. The blue collar rural workers, painters, roofers etc. whose livelihoods are stolen by corporate capitalist conglomerates running huge businesses. The middle aged white man who planned to retire and was fired because his capitalist boss outsourced his factory. The workers in the US Rust Belt who counted on decently paid jobs at factories like GM. Another part of the scourge of US addiction is the huge and highly profitable pharmaceutical industry. Most heroin users begin with prescriptions for pain killers opioids which are aggressively marketed to doctors. Prescribing rates for pain killers have doubled in spite of the addiction warnings. There are enough prescriptions for opiates to give every American his/her own bottle of pills. Fully 48,000 American women have died of pain reliever overdoses.
Since these pills are expensive many switch from their 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 effect 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 solve problems. They do make a profit. Here again capitalism shows its bloody hand.
The marketing agents for big gun corporations had the smart idea of marketing guns as emblems of manhood and proof of 2nd amendment rights at a point when male gender provider roles are challenged by low wages and 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 allows the daily slaughter.
Mass murder is a uniquely frequent American specialty. It involves killing several people who are strangers. It does not count the many men who kill their families, girlfriends, etc. The US had 30 mass killings in the last month I studied Sept. 2017, In that month no other wealthy industrialized nation had any mass killings, NONE. The killers were all American men who were either disappointed in love or fired from work, or both. Gun violence was their way to reclaim their manhood in a blaze of murderous glory. Gun manufacturers are the 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 lack of trust. Any collective action requires trust. One area where Americans have lost trust is trust in government. A good way to explore this is to look at the minimum participation wealthy nations offer, voting. Among the wealthy nations, the US has the lowest number of eligible voters turning out for presidential elections. In our last presidential election, The US had 55% a little more than half of eligible voters believe enough to trust that their participation in our government counted to cast their vote. In contrast, in Belgium, 87 % voted. In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, 80% voted. In other wealthy nations like France, Germany, Sweden, over 70% voted. The US is the only one of these nations that allows private and corporate donations in elections.
Almost half of Americans may perceive that their government is bought and they no longer have a voice. They have given up the little influence left to them. 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’s campaign. For that moment, their trust that they counted allowed them to be active. When he was betrayed by the established Democrats, half of them didn’t bother to vote.
People lost the trust that they made a difference.
Americans became disconnected when corporate America took over in the 1970s. Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone showed us that there were more Americans in bowling leagues alone in 1970 than there were in all organizations in America in 2009. People need to trust their collective power and they need to trust their own agency to join any group. Too many Americans have lost their trust.
One aspect of our lost trust is trust in ourselves, and in our own judgement. Our trust may be eroded in part because because we are barraged by lies. Advertising is everywhere promising benefits of beauty and happiness it does not deliver. Beer adds show you connecting to handsome young people and making romantic connections which beer cannot bring. The Coca Cola promising good social times rots your teeth and does not connect you. The medications showing relief from stress do not mention that you can become dangerously addicted. The cars show you as the power in the metaphorical driver’s seat but you are not. Adds lie. They erode our trust.
We have lot our trust in even the closest relationships. The fastest growing kind of US household is people living alone (See: Eric Klinenberg's Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone).
For the first time in US history the majority of US women are single by choice. They do not trust that they can be safe and thrive in marriage. More Americans now remain unmarried. 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 couple is those without children. People cannot trust that they can provide for themselves no less children, 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, our personal adequacy. Do you feel X, buy Y, and then Y does not deliver. 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 the at least 80% of us for whom the possibilities of basic economically stable and fulfilling careers, marriages and relationships are precarious and difficult. People become afraid to even try. They lack trust cross 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?
There are many things we can do. As connections have withered since 1970, one kind of organization has burgeoned. In every little 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, to SA, Sex Abuse Anonymous, to GA, Gamblers Anonymous, ACA, Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families, on and on. They thrive outside of the money economy. They have no authoritarian leaders. Every voice counts.
Why does the 12-step model attract so many? It works, either long-term or temporarily, because everyone has a voice that is heard. It works because people acknowledge that they have a problem that can only be solved with the support of a group. It also works because people find a sponsor that supports them in their struggle. The “spirit” they invoke for is sometimes referred to as God, 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 unlistening, hierarchical and un accountable authority. Twelve 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. However, the twelve steps have a lot to teach us.
We can adapt the 12 step programs to the context of a Left movement. Below, I state each of the 12 steps and a variation that we can use to build a powerful Left that extends across our nation:
1a. We admitted that we were powerless against alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
1b. We understand that one person alone cannot solve the chronic societal and personal problems that are making our lives very difficult to manage.
2a. We came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
2b. We have come to believe that only a collective, which is a power greater than our individual selves, can move us and our nation forward to a healthier, more democratic place.
3a. We made the decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
3b. We decided to commit time and energy, will and belief in the future to work together for change.
4a. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
4b. We took a serious and thorough moral measure of ourselves, noting the ways we collude with societal forces in our own exploitation, and noting our embrace of practices and beliefs about ourselves and others that make us vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited. This is an important step. We need to be aware that we are not just victims or victimizers, we are also collaborators. We are not helpless. We can also act…-for better or for worse. What we need to do now is unite around basic principles and create programs to achieve goals for the benefit of all.
5a. We admitted to God and to ourselves and to other human beings the nature of our wrongs.
5b. We have admitted to ourselves and out loud to others, the ways we have collaborated in our own victimization and the victimization of others.
6a. We are ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
6b. We are working to move beyond certain dysfunctional behaviors by taking action to better our own and other’s lives. Some members of our collective take support from their religious or spiritual beliefs, as a private matter. Everyone’s contributions enrich our group’s development and efforts to create a broad unified movement.
7a. We humbly ask HIM to remove our shortcomings.
7b. We ask for, and are ready to give, the much-needed support that will help us unlearn collusion and internalize the new knowledge and wisdom that comes to us through our efforts, and which is so necessary for our growth. We also ask for, and will give, support to help us rebound from the disappointments likely to occur among our triumphs.
8a. We will make a list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.
8b. We are studying to fill the gaps in US history, the better to grasp both the similar and different realities lived by the diverse peoples who have populated our nation from the very beginning. We are studying the systemic arrangements: economic, political, social and psychological; the terrains of class and color, poverty and wealth, privilege and persecution, the marvelous and shameful, the horrible and the beautiful. We do this not just to discover, learn and acquire knowledge for its own sake, but to more inform our thoughts about the dignity of life, creating change and building the future.
9.a We will draw up a list of all persons we have harmed and make amends directly to them wherever possible, except if to do so would injure them or others.
9b. We continue to take a moral measure of ourselves, as individuals and as a nation. When we are wrong, we admit it.
10a. We continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
10b.We work to promote and to demand from our government-federal state and local- fair and just domestic policies that support American’s efforts to live heathy and productive lives. We also work to promote and demand humane and non-exploitative foreign policies that encourage peaceful relations between nations and the well-being of all humanity and our planet earth.
11a. We seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.
11b.We seek- through experience, study, meditation, imagination, discussion, and listening to each other- greater understanding, knowledge and consciousness of the human condition and all life, the better to connect with others in developing a well-functioning, life-affirming, democratic society.
12a. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics, drug abusers, sex abusers and those abused, etc. and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
12b.Having come to realize, by taking these 12 steps, that certain structural characteristics of US society hinder American’s pursuit of happiness; having also realized the ways in which some of our own actions reinforce those hindrance, we have experienced an invigorating, moral, ethical, political, and personal awakening. Feeling the changes within ourselves, we are motivated to reach out and engage sympathetically and supportively with whomever we can. We ask each other here to do the same. Our collective plans hope and cultivate action. Our collective is powerful. We can and will reap a sustainable future
Of course, there are many ways to proceed. We need the courage to trust that we can reach out, connect, form groups that are democratic and try to rescue ourselves and our country from the economic, social and personal pain from which the majority of Americans suffer.
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.