Economic Update: The Psychological Aspects of Today's Crises

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Today’s episode features an analysis of the social divisions working to undermine the solidarity needed to fight both the Coronavirus and the potentially resulting economic crash as well as how the inconsistent, out-of-touch and non-empathetic U.S. leadership is leaving millions of Americans with nowhere to turn as they increasingly feel society falling apart around them. Prof. Wolff discusses the psychological factors worsening this existing crisis, such as widespread loneliness and a sense of powerlessness, with Tess Fraad-Wolff, a psychotherapist practicing privately in New York City for the last decade, in an effort to better understand and more appropriately respond to the psychological aspects in today's crises we all face.

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Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes, our own, our children’s. I’m your host, Richard Wolff.

I must again, with this ongoing coronavirus chaos and crisis, ask your understanding. We are producing this program in a new place, far from our normal studio, which has been closed, as so many institutions have been, ours as well. And so we are having to make do under special circumstances. And so we ask your understanding that we are working under those special circumstances. But we have every intention of continuing to bring you regular programming of the sort that we have produced in the past and that you’ve come to expect.

Today, as before, I want to focus on an aspect of the coronavirus pandemic from a different angle—to look at the mental health dimensions of this crisis. You know, we’ve had a lot of attention to the physical dimensions what the virus is, how it works, how to recognize the symptoms—and all of that. And that’s, of course, important. But there are just as many dimensions to the emotional, the personal, the intimate, the psychological aspects of all of this. And there I mean not only the illness itself, but also the anxiety about the illness, which is separate from the illness itself. And that’s an anxiety of one kind before it hits, another anxiety if it hits etc. And I also want to look at the psychological implications of the fact that it took so long in the United States to formulate a response. Even now the response is half-baked on thought-through, partial, when, what is obviously needed— we know that from China, South Korea, Italy, and so on—is full-throated holistic approach that uses all of our resources for so dangerous a threat. And the steps being taken—quarantine, isolation, social spacing, you know them all—those to have enormously important psychological effects that haven’t been understood, haven’t been addressed and certainly were never planned for as they should have been. So those are what we want to focus on.

To conclude, before I introduce my guest and have this conversation about some of the psychological implications of all of this, a quick reminder: Viruses have been with us as long as there has been nature. They preexist humans and they have coexisted with humans forever. Periodically, these kinds of crises—viruses—can get very dangerous until large numbers of people. Perhaps, the most famous one was over a hundred years ago, in 1918, the so-called Spanish flu—shouldn’t have had that name, because if it was going to be given a name, it should have been scientific. Viruses—some people don’t seem to get this—viruses don’t have nationalities, people do, viruses don’t. The Spanish flu, which killed a 700,000 Americans at a time when our population was much smaller than it is today, began in Kansas on a military base of the United States. It’s interesting. Why? Because we learned what a pandemic from viruses can be like. But we’ve learned it many times. A few years ago, we had the SARS epidemic, a virus. For many many years we’ve had seasonal viruses that have killed sizable numbers of people. We had the MERS virus. We had the Ebola virus. The knowledge that viruses come and can be devastatingly dangerous is well-established and has been for a century. The problem there is not that we have a virus. The problem is that the United States—and not alone the United States, but particularly the United States—was unprepared. Or if it was prepared—and there is evidence of preparation in various parts of the United States—that preparation was not activated. That preparation was not put into play when this virus became known, which was in December of the last year 2019. Only now, in the last very few weeks, have we begun to see the kind of mobilization. And the lost time—there is no excuse for that—months during which we could have been prepared, we weren’t. And that is a failure of the private sector that produces the equipment, the tests, the ventilators, the hospital beds and of the public sector, which didn’t step up either—and probably because it’s got the same mentality at the top of the political system as we have at the top of our economic system given how closely their allied.

So with that, as the background, let me, with great pleasure, introduce you to someone who has been on this program before. Her name is Tess Fraad-Wolff. She is a psychotherapist, practicing in New York City, who has worked with individuals and couples for nearly a decade now. She is also trained in art therapy and in hypnotherapy.

Wolff: Welcome very much, Tess, to the program.

Fraad-Wolff: Thank you.

Wolff: Okay. Let’s jump right in. As this pandemic unfolds, the economy is also threatened. We have a kind of a mixture now of a failed response to a medical emergency now becoming a crash of the economy on top of a crash, let’s call it, of our health. And one of the things it does is say to people all over the country, “Wow. I’d better get together with other people and try to get through this.” To become, if you like, pull together, which in a sense we might have expected to happen. But we also live in a society that has become more and more divided ideologically, politically and… And so we seem in a peculiar way to have been unprepared to get together. And how is that playing out in people’s feelings and in the whole response of the United States?

Fraad-Wolff: And I think it’s a really important question. I also think that polarizing, you talk about the divides are reflected in the responses and the reactivity of the population, meaning that, you know, there’s always opportunities in crises and the reverse. I think a lot of people know that. I think a lot of people right now are within their fear reaching for each other, some with more and less anxiety. There can be enormous beauty of behavior and action witnessed, solidarity, generosity, you know, co-respectivity, real respect for each other’s life. Values were sort of chiseled down to the essentials right now. We’re not allowed to go out much. And, you know, there’s a whole arms of commerce that have shuttered. And so we’re really involved with each other. And we’re scraping up as much human interactivity as we can through social media often, maybe through the phone. But human interactivity has taken on a much greater importance. And people are strategizing around that. In some ways that often, not always, force them to recognize the importance of this interactivity. So all of that can be very positive and certainly has been. I think because there’s that positive, and we’re talking about polarities, there’s also a lot of destructive energy unleashed.

Wolff: Tell us about that.

Fraad-Wolff: Partly because I think people are being deprived of basic resources and forgotten about many already neglected populations who will be forced to become increasingly desperate, perhaps, violent and so on.

Wolff: Who are you thinking of that? Can you think of a couple examples?

Fraad-Wolff: Underserved populations. People who are relying on their jobs from paycheck to paycheck, people in the service industries that have been shuttered, restaurant workers come to mind, so many different workers, but people who are just shut down from paychecks. They’re not given breaks in terms of food, rent, not as yet, anyway feel mounting desperation. There’s also a sort of emotional anxiety that’s galvanized by inactivity. People become reliant on the schedules and the structuring of work. It helps them sort of organize their life. And suddenly that’s yanked out. And they’re shuttered inside for the most part, mostly speaking, and also taken away from structure. It can be people going to panic and states of sort of free fall and fear, which then may bring them into more destructive spaces, where they act out upon each other, where they lash out verbally, physically in all the different ways, where petty crimes may become more frequent and less petty, more significant. I’ve heard stories of people being robbed in broad daylight, you know, in very safe places and with seeming impunity. I’ve heard stories of people being struck. Reasonlessness has intervened. There’s no reason this woman had been struck in the back of the head by a man she didn’t know. He didn’t take her money. There was nothing. You know, she was able to right herself. The child, who was with her, was not hurt. They were both emotionally shaken and disturbed. So these are just actings out described. Perhaps, the robbery had to do with financial reasons. The other instance had to do with nothing.

Wolff: Let me ask you a question to you as a professional. Is it known in your field that if you put people into this what we now call “lockdown situation”—they can’t go to work, they can’t go out, they can’t mingle, they can’t be with groups of people, and so they are isolated—that these kinds of psychologically and socially dangerous behaviors are part of what will happen? Is that understood?

Fraad-Wolff: Yes, yes. I mean if you take it to a claustrophobic description. I mean the certain cities are particularly small. Obviously, some place people have bigger homes and that relates to class too. But if you’re in a very small place especially, it can become more immediately claustrophobic. And the fear of this encroaching, boundary can unleash all sorts of panic and anxiety riddled behavior.

Wolff: So is the following inference reasonable? If you knew that sequestering people, quarantining people is a rational response to a pandemic, and if you knew that you were, sooner or later, going to have to do more or less of that, then a rational response would have included, let’s call it “a mental health component” in which you plan—“What are you going to do?”—so that these potentially damaging behaviors don’t explode. I mean if we have a society now challenged by the virus, challenged by economic crash, we don’t want an additional explosion of a social or antisocial behavior. And yet, I know of no coordinated plan, effort, program of any kind mobilizing or training skilled people in mental health advice to handle all of it. You’re explaining something, which is now obvious or clear, but there’s no management of it.

Fraad-Wolff: There’s no preparedness. I mean I think it could have helped enormously, if this had been considered. Instead of this like, last, dashed, desperate, I received a communication, as I know many many people in my field and other fields related did, from the governor of New York asking for mental health workers to volunteer to which I’m open and plan to do. But now it’s scrambled, now people are ready in tatters. And there are multiple ways in which we could have prepared for the kind of powerlessness we feel when we’re told we have to quarantine, social distance, we can’t go to places we’re used to going and so on. Very difficult for people to hold powerlessness as a feeling to speak to it, to say, “I feel helpless or powerless. I’m not sure what to do. I don’t feel like I have the control I need.” All of these statements, the identifications of this difficult feeling to hold will help.

Wolff: Okay. We will be right back. Folks, we’ve come to the end of the first half of today’s program. Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Be sure to visit democracyatwork.info, our website, where you can learn more about other Democracy at Work shows, our union co-op store, and our books that we’ve recently published: “Understanding Marxism” and “Understanding Socialism”. And lastly, of course, a special thanks—now more than ever—to our Patreon community, whose invaluable support helps make this show possible. We’ll be right back. Stay with us for more from psychotherapists Tess Fraad-Wolff.

Wolff: Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today’s Economic Update where we’re speaking with psychotherapists Tess Fraad-Wolff. Tess, I want to ask a question that has to do with the peculiar leadership or, to be more honest, lack of leadership that we have seen in this coronavirus pandemic. By that I mean from the President on down for a while, “This is not an important issue. We don’t have to worry about it.” Then, “It’s the greatest issue in the world, but don’t worry. I’ve gotten control of it.”, to an exploding statistics of people getting sick, infected, dying, scientific leaders in our society at variance with the political leadership, I mean, it’s a mess. And there’s all loads of evidence that large numbers of people are at a time when they need to believe in a leader or leaders and are unable to do so, feel, in fact, leaderless. Is that something you’ve noticed, seen? Tell us about that.

Fraad-Wolff: Yes, I’ve noticed that a lot. I’ve seen it spread across different communities and different ways, reflected more individually and collectively. I think you’re exactly right about leaderlessness and people perceive that. They perceive it before they’re even conscious of it. And many, I think, are also increasingly conscious of it. I think it speaks to the kind of polarities we were discussing earlier, wherein we see some people stepping up that we might not have thought would step up, certain governors come to mind, feelings, you know, we feel that they’re solid, we feel that some people have stepped up to the task and started trying to take care of the community, be honest with the community, be clear, explanatory, committed, and be respectful, and protective of the community, which is so precious now. So we’ve seen some of them come up and that’s been really beautiful. However, we’ve also seen as you mentioned an administration for me and for many, I think, reveal degrees of apathy combined with ineptitude that are dismaying. I think I see a lot of reactions to leaderlessness in individuals and in large groups. I feel people’s senses of permission emboldened that you could get away with things now, that you might not have been able to get away with before due to a possibly compromised police force, people in charge of all varieties being compromised. I’m sure children being giddy and sort of caregiverless running amok, feeling sort of excited, but also frightened, because the limits on which they rely are no longer being provided or provided steadily. I think we’re all in this right now where we’re going to watch people act out in ways like we were talking about before that are destructive. And there will be ways of acting out that are productive.

Wolff: Let me ask you to pull on this a little bit more. I’ve been recently hearing, in the street, in the few places where you can still talk to people, which aren’t that many and mostly over social media, the phrase “the country’s falling apart” or “everything’s falling apart”. Is that sort of the other side of a sense of leaderlessness? 

Fraad-Wolff: Yes. I think that there’s this idea that we trust a government. And we hope that we elected a government. And then we see government by which we don’t feel cared, protected, provided for. And we have to really reorient there. And within that reorientation is that sense of leaderlessness, is that sense of free fall that I spoke to. It’s also just that we don’t feel like anything, on which we were relying, is reliable. You know, we relied on going to work, like we were talking about before in the structure and all of that. We relied on these interpersonal reactions, the small ones maybe with someone from whom we bought coffee, people we stood in line with at all the various places we would go out to, many of which are gone now. We rely on that. We rely on the interpersonal stuff. We just don’t know that.

Wolff: So let me pull on you again a little bit in another direction. Had we understood, which I know folks in your profession do, that we are going to have a pandemic, that we are going to have a serious struggle with this new virus. And we’re going to therefore have to plan to the physical medical care for them, but you are telling me, if I understand you correctly, that we should have understood, because we know the science, that if we put people in a position of feeling leaderlessness without the structure of going to work and all the other normal routines of life, that’s going to produce a sense of anxiety that can be socially dangerous, add to our problem. But nothing again was… there was no plan, “What do you do?” to give people a sense that there is a society, even if it’s not the normal one they’re used to. I can see almost from your speech a person whose job is no longer there, whose community of restaurants or friends or shopping is gone being cooped up at home, feeling the world is falling apart, desperately in need of something that will replace all of that, but there isn’t anything.

Fraad-Wolff: Yes. There’s been no provisions. I mean I think psychology and social psychology, perhaps in particular, often neglected as areas of study, you know. I think you have to specialize in order to access those in ways that it’s not optimal. I think since we’re all people and social psychology is the study of our social interactions, it would be deeply preferable if it was offered very early in more remedial forms, at least, so that we had an idea. But you’re absolutely right. And that this was another arm of the neglect. And that this could have been prepared for in many many ways. And also there’s a relationship between our psychological and our physical experiences. So that when people are cut off from social interactivity, on which they have consciously and unconsciously dependent, they will be much more likely to exhibit physical symptoms of, you know, illness.

Wolff: So the irony is the pandemic, being so badly mishandled, will, through its provocation of anxiety, worsen the disease. And we have a vicious cycle of that.

Fraad-Wolff: Yes. Absolutely a vicious cycle and could well spawn other illnesses. You know, anxiety is hard on the body. Loneliness is now being said to have the same effect on the body as 15 cigarettes a day. And we’ve done extensive research on the cigarettes. But to regard those, as physicians are now doing and statistics are now holding, as comparable in terms of their damage is something we should all take note of.

Wolff: And so nobody, apparently, in authority figured out we’re going to be overloading our hospitals with coronavirus victims. Yet we’re making people sick through loneliness, depression, anxiety. Those people will need to go, perhaps, to a hospital, but can’t be accommodated. The level of… I mean, in a way we’re thinking our way through to where people already are with a sense “everything’s falling apart”.

Fraad-Wolff: Yes. A lot of people are talking about the world crumbling, democracy crumbling. That’s been a talk for even longer than this pandemic has been around. But certainly, so many things on which we relied being suddenly, it felt, yanked. Suddenly you look down and the floor isn’t the floor anymore. You know, you don’t go to work, which was regarded as such a constant for so many. The stores aren’t open that have been open your entire life, for decades. You know, this really throws people’s emotions into chaos.

Wolff: I know this is a difficult question since, obviously, neither the private sector nor the government figured out that we would have these perfectly predictable mental health issues. So it’s difficult. They ask you to do what all of them couldn’t. But I’m going to ask you anyway. Are there things, you can think of, can —say right now— that might help people psychologically? So that we’re useful, we’re not just analyzing, which I’d have every confidence we ought to be doing, the failures that got us to where we are, which is the only hope of not repeating them, but put that aside for the moment. What could people begin to do if they become conscious of what you’re saying about the mental health dimensions of all this?

Fraad-Wolff: Yeah. They’re definitely things people can do. I think routine is very important in general and specifically now in this time of great lack, the damage to structure we talked about, the yanking of jobs and all of these reliable routines. So I think we need to stitch together new routines. Hopefully, informed by our new values, many people are speaking to valuing connectivity with other people with new depth. These are some of them more beautiful and I think connective hopeful.

Wolff: How could we do that?

Fraad-Wolff: We could schedule social interactions, which is already happening. It’s happening with all sorts of people I know, hear about, see, social media, speak to live people I know in my personal and professional life across the board. People are scheduling, if you have access to Internet, Zoom, Hangouts with groups of people, FaceTime, Skype, phone calls—all of these are being regarded with new rejuvenated respect—hearing someone’s voice, hearing the pauses, and seeing their face—right?—hearing the voice on the phone, seeing their face on these other media, seeing them laughing together. People are having cocktail hour. They’re sharing their morning coffee. They’re working out together. Our technology affords people to work out together, exercise, one of the most important things you can do now, to work your body out, because we don’t have as much movement outside as we did, even if we move very little and especially, since we moved a lot some of us.

Wolff: And these are always, for example, if I understand you, to reduce your loneliness, to reduce your isolation, to reduce your anxiety…

Fraad-Wolff: …and to produce more schedule

Wolff: …and they’re more, they really are therapeutic in the biggest and best sense of the term.

Fraad-Wolff: That and the arts, anything, creative writing, it doesn’t matter if you’re good, this isn’t about being good. I feel like that’s a problem too in our society: This pressure to be good, be proficient, be successful, to sell it, to own it, to best it. I don’t really think that’s a great idea. I think, make a terrible piece of artwork, really go for it, but get a piece of art, work out an artwork that describes the anxiety you feel, the loneliness, the anger, the powerlessness.

Wolff: It’s not so important to be best.

Fraad-Wolff: Ugh, gosh. God. That one’s the worst. Be worst. That’s my advocation, my new #BeWorst. What it really is be productive in terms of making art and trying to unleash your feelings and trying to identify that, talk to people about them on the social media, on the phone, write it down, try to give yourself the therapy that you can and use the kindness that you can.

Wolff: As I listen to you, all I can think of: Imagine a society in which you had, not the political hack leadership we do, but a society that had in place programs to enhance, to facilitate, to help organize, to help schedule the community we all need so badly and lack, more now than ever, would have been able, if they had done it, to turn this crisis, as you put at the beginning, into an opportunity to rebuild community in this society, which would have been a lasting benefit to pull out of this, otherwise, disaster.

Fraad-Wolff: Yeah. I think “community” is a very important word. I’m glad you used it. Because I think people are realizing how important community is. That’s the rejuvenation of our understanding of connectivity.

Wolff: Yeah. It’s extraordinary. I mean I don’t know. just speaking for myself. I waver between anger and bitterness at the failure of the private thing—we don’t have tests, we don’t have ventilators, we don’t have enough beds. What kind of society neglects its own health? Well, the society that makes decisions about producing those things based on what it’s profitable. I want to produce it tested, I can’t sell it. I’m not going to stockpile, sit there for a year. It’s the public’s health that you’re subordinating to profit. That’s crazy. But I waver between anger at such a system and then a kind of yearning for an alternative society that could have found a way to build itself and its community out of this disaster and missed that opportunity too. So we rely on a few individuals who see it. Thank you so much. I wish, as always, we had more time.

Fraad-Wolff: Thank you.

Wolff: Folks, we’ve come to the end of another Economic Update. I want to say an extra word about it. Economics, you know, isn’t or needn’t be the narrow technical field that the profession here in the United States, unfortunately, lapsed into after World War II. It once was a study of the goods and services we produce and how we interact with everything else in our lives. I’m trying to go back in that direction. And I want to bring people who are not economists, like Tess Fraad-Wolff, to bring in the richer dimensions of the society to intermingle them with economics. I hope you find that interesting. Do let us know. And in any case, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.


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Showing 1 comment

  • Grady Lee Howard
    commented 2020-05-02 19:38:52 -0400
    SherwoodForrest: Substantive economics has been made esoteric by both our vulgar materialistic milieu and (as Tess observes) the way the disciplinary pie of study has been carved up. If a student specializes in validating non-monetary/non-commercial relations they will likely not be able to use this knowledge for gainful employment. She theorizes that a massive piece of social psychology has gone missing but this exclusion is common to all of social and medical science. Richard hopes to expand the boundaries of his heterodox economic focus to increase understanding of the revolutionary possibilities of crisis. I’ve been at this for decades myself as a participant observer of culture(s). Democrats discuss resilience but I doubt they empathize with the overwhelming poverty of consciousness that pervades under so-called normal conditions.

    Coincidentally, I was about the age of Tess, taking graduate courses after a time in skilled crafts, when the spell was broken for me. Richard needs Tess as a discussion partner and an interviewee for this show. Tess is a professional helper who has had her routine disrupted and displaced, but she is privileged with a depth of comprehension most lack. It’s apparent this session with her father is therapeutic for her (as well as for Richard). She starts out worrying about robberies and assaults in formerly safe public space, but a half hour later she is thankful for compassionate political leadership and tele-commuting technology. Viewers might assume that living in the densest part of Manhattan would make the anxieties caused by this pandemic more acute, but I dispute that because I’m seeing the same suffering and shortfall in my semi-rural locale.

    A month has passed since the Wolf’s discussion and we have the advantage of hindsight.
    At the earlier moment I was like Richard, hopeful that many unhealthy spells would be broken, as thought priorities shifted along with behavioral necessities. America had to admit that most citizens had been living on the financial edge and that intervention was urgent. A reservoir of fiat money had its dam opened. The relief packages though have proven a blunt tool more helpful to more comfortable people than the poor and powerless. A few have received large loans to bailout businesses, and a few more an unemployment compensation supplement of $600 a week, but many have not even gotten their $1200 per capita relief check after two months. There are long lines for emergency food relief and routine services have broken down. People tell me that schooling by Internet is mostly unsatisfactory. It has become clear that money sent by Congress was ultimately intended for creditors, but only slips through the bank accounts of the masses. We are sacrificing while slicing and dicing to save Capitalism. Any new packages will be more of the same, because of ideological limits. A fascist, classist and racist Executive Branch continues to sabotage and deny even testing for virus and PPE.
    A majority of experts predict a second wave of infection in the Fall even as localities are reducing restrictions. The approaching election motivates some of this irrationality.

    There is background Richard discusses elsewhere (Global debt bubble and petrol dollar demise) that will cause the implosion of United States hegemony and Empire. How fast? No one knows. But when the spell of routine and normalcy and exceptionality is broken a tsunami of anxiety and rage is possible. And that worries me more than what cuts of meat remain available in super markets. (I’m a long time vegetarian, part of the 5%, who is watching produce, flour and yeast with urgent intensity… for all our sakes. Revolution is rooted in the kitchen table.) Even if a good vaccine becomes generally available in record time this nightmare won’t stop.

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