Before embarking on a career in new media,
August 16, 2017
August 14, 2017
August 13, 2017
To be sure, the whole of Western culture is complicit, but what astounds is the complicity of what defines itself as left. Notably, the complicity of those among the left’s comfortable and intellectual “tendencies,” usually called “liberals.” But in general, a whole language has vanished from the Western left’s vocabulary: class struggle, international solidarity, peace among peoples, social justice, exploitation, poverty. They are so illiterate in left theory and experience that the call the ruling class’s booth on their faces, “the deep state.” This today in the West is an amalgam (rather than a conscious political program) of a loose and dangerous left. It dreams, if it dreams at all, of a revolution without struggle. The answer to that pietism is force. Whole nations wiped off the face of the earth.
We now, on this loose left, trade in our critical faculties at the theatre of propaganda. In return, the propaganda pounds, batters, and sequesters our emotions so that we end up identifying with the narrative of power. The narrative insists that the West has the Holy Grail. It insists that it has a messianic mission to improve the world by sharing the Grail’s liberal values. The old conceit of liberal humanism, thus, returns to occupy our psyche, and it’s the same liberal humanism that in the 19th century enslaved the “lesser breeds” of the planet. Once again, we pick up the “white man’s burden” and his “civilizing mission” to lift up darkling “junior Brothers” from “savagery” and “barbarism” into our magnificent, magnanimous, culturally superior self-image. Massacres, famines, epidemics, and genocides follow.
Who galvanizes the left today against imperialism as Fidel Castro did with his uncompromising demand at the United Nations General Assembly in 1966 that “the exploitation of poor countries by rich countries must stop”? “We hear a lot of talk about human rights,” he said in the 1970s, as Jimmy Carter’s White House launched the rhetoric of human rights, “but we have to talk about the rights of humanity.”
“The rights of humanity,” who remembers them? Chief among them the right to sovereignty, perhaps? The right to foreign non-interference? To living free of threats, sanctions, partition, dismemberment, balkanization, invasion, and occupation? To solving one’s own problems in one’s own country? To choosing one’s economic system? To refusing to become a protectorate of the Big Bully on the Potomac?
What happens when the “rights of humanity” are trampled? Since 1999, with Bill Clinton’s unauthorized war for secession of Kosovo from Yugoslavia (reduced to Serbia and Montenegro by then), unopposed and even cheered by progressive segments of the loose left,
“Like a cyclone, imperialism spins across the globe; militarism crushes people and sucks the blood like a vampire.”
These are not the words of a contemporary leftist. These are the words of German socialist Karl Liebnecht, co-founder with Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacus League and the Communist Party of Germany, both murdered by the German social democrat state in 1919. He was referring to WW I, which, alone among the social democrats in the parliament of 1914, he stood up to oppose.
We now, on the loose left, rally to the call of “human rights,” which are invariably being abused outside our national borders. You’d think we lived in the Promised Land, so convinced are we of the responsibility to protect “less fortunate” human beings abroad, who together with the injury of our sanctions and bombs have to endure the insult of our condescension.
We now, on the loose left, cannot see beyond the imbecility of our arrogance that we lack most of the rights said to be “human” by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights right here at home. A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) summarizes the inability of our society to protect its most vulnerable members, which measure alone judges the vibrancy of a democracy:
“Many US laws and practices, particularly in the areas of criminal and juvenile justice, immigration, and national security, violate internationally recognized human rights. Often, those least able to defend their rights in court or through the political process—members of racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, children, the poor, and prisoners—are the people most likely to suffer abuses.”
Our masters, who incarcerate at home 2.37 million people, the largest prison population in the world, “caused in part by mandatory minimum sentencing and excessively long sentences” (HRW) and detain twelve million people per year in county jails, raise our moral indignation against cherry-picked crusades for human rights abroad. They use this manufactured indignation as a license to attack and terrorize whole nations.
In Afghanistan, in 2001, we bombed to liberate women; we are still there, but we hear no more of the sorrow and the pity of women’s plight. In Iraq, in 2003, we invaded to liberate Iraqis from the “dictator” Saddam Hussein, and one to two million Iraqis were liberated from their lives, millions more from their home and their country. Fallujah alone accuses—left more chemically poisoned than Hiroshima. In Syria, we claim to fight “to democratize” the country and at the same time the Isis cutthroats, but it took the legitimate Russian intervention to prevent a caliphate of cutthroats from ruling in Damascus.
“In March , a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states began a military campaign against the Houthis in Yemen. The US provided intelligence, logistical support, and personnel to the Saudi Arabian center planning airstrikes and coordinating activities, making US forces potentially jointly responsible for laws-of-war violations by coalition forces.” (HRW)
Most on the loose left ignored Obama’s crimes, among which the war in Yemen may rank as the most cynical, heartless, and inhuman. It even classifies as biological warfare, because bombing water treatment plants then leaving people to die of cholera epidemics cannot be called anything else. Meningitis cases are breaking out. Two UN aid flights to Sanaa are authorized to leave from Saudi Arabia every day for famine relief. Saudi Arabia is refusing fuel. No reason given, reports The Independent on 5 August. Saudi Arabia blockades the Yemen’s airspace. Yemen’s agony continues. No stirrings on the left.
So, too, they ignored Obama’s drone attacks on Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. So, too, they ignored this:
“The US restored full military assistance to Egypt in April , despite a worsening human rights environment, lifting restrictions in place since the military takeover by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013. Egypt resumed its position as the second-largest recipient of US military assistance, worth $1.3 billion annually, after Israel. In June, the US lifted its hold on military assistance to the Bahraini military despite an absence of meaningful reform, which was the original requirement for resuming the aid.” (HRW)
“In September , Obama waived provisions of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act to allow four countries—the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan—to continue to receive US military assistance, despite their continued use of child soldiers.” (HRW)
“Hundreds of thousands of children work on US farms. US law exempts child farmworkers from the minimum age and maximum hour requirements that protect other working children. Child farmworkers often work long hours and risk pesticide exposure, heat illness, and injuries. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency banned children under 18 from handling pesticides. Children who work on tobacco farms frequently suffer vomiting, headaches, and other symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning.” (HRW)
The loose left now calls that grotesque excrescence in the White House a fascist, as if Trump had replaced an administration of enlightened humanitarians. They are calling for virtual presidenticide so that the rule of that enlightened international “vampire,” the Democratic Party, can be restored. But let me tell you: he’s only the last of the “fascists” in a long line since 1945. The loose left just hasn’t noticed because the loose left has no concept of class struggle. It has, therefore, no critical equipment to include imperialism—the war of the class of international imperialist on the class of colonial or semi-colonial peoples—in the catalogue of the crimes of fascism.
Our planners are not stupid. They know how to maintain their minority’s primacy by waging class war. They not only exercise it on the “proletariat” at home but also across the map of the world. In 1948, George Kennan, the architect of the policy of containment, which launched the Cold War, recommended inequality in international relations—that’s war by the imperialist class at the center against whole national peoples at the peripheries. Imperialism, therefore, is just another form of class war.
“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world benefaction.” (Memo by George Kennan, Head of the US State Department Policy Planning Staff. Written February 28, 1948, Declassified June 17, 1974)
By “we,” Kennan does not mean the 99% of Americans. He means the 1%. The foreign policy he recommends is class-vested and is kept secret, for practical reasons, from the rest of us for two decades. That’s because the resources to support this policy protecting the elite has to be extracted from the rest of us, and counted in losses to social welfare and progress. Class is a relation of power, in which one class determines the direction of the whole of society. This is one example.
Fascism has many faces, but the most constant is that of the supremacist delusion that the West is the carrier of “universal values” and that, as exclusive interpreter and custodian of these values, the West is obligated to act as watchdog of democracy and human rights throughout the globe. In his inaugural address of January 1997, Bill Clinton assumed for the United States the planetary leadership of this humanitarian imperative:
“America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation. . . . May God strengthen our hands for the good work ahead, and always, always bless our America.”
This is not universalism; this is ethnocentric hubris. This is the terrifying message of one nation “uber alles.” This is totalitarian dogma. This is a profession of democratic faith without the slightest credibility because it does not aim at democratizing international relations but at subjecting them to the discipline and image of the “indispensible nation.” This, in one word, is imperialism–fascism in action. Karl Liebnecht saw it clearly, one-hundred years ago:
“In capitalist history, invasion and class struggle are not opposites, as the official legend would have us believe, but one is the means and the expression of the other.”
Why can the loose left today not see it that way? Why does it abstract the concept of imperialism from the conduct of the Western political order, thus mutilating the totality of reality, especially the reality reserved to the peoples of colonial origins now being reinvaded, partitioned, looted, left to chaos? Why do they see a defense of “human rights” where others, especially the victims, see subjugation, neocolonialism, and imperialism? What blinds the moral vision of the left to the point of reserving the fascist brand to the crude jester, Trump, but denying it to the slick charmer Obama of the Drone-Kill-List, destroyer of Lybia and Syria, architect of regime change in Ukraine, advocate of war with Russia, harasser of China, enabler of Israel in its assault on Gaza, global spymaster, deporter-in-chief, most successful weapons salesman since 1945, including to that obscene abuser of human rights, autocratic Saudi Arabia? This uneven distribution of the fascist brand insures that the next president will be another “fascist,” but more polished, “educated,” grinning confidently with sharp teeth from a shark’s mouth. Trump’s mouth pouts; the image does not inspire confidence.
It’s not that the evidence of the devastation by the “cyclone” or the “vampire sucking the blood” is lacking. Since Clinton assigned to the United States an “indispensible” role in the world, it has bloated its defense budget, embarked with allies and vassals on a war against a tactic (“terrorism”), covering up the war of re-colonization (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Chad), organized and led coups (Haiti, Honduras, Ukraine, Egypt, Venezuela), mounted “color revolutions” in the former republics of Eastern Europe, dispatched NATO to encircle Russia with aggressive missiles, threatened on a systematic basis North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran in violation of the UN Charter, bloodied the planet with countless uncounted corpses and blighted it with hordes of desperate refugees, blockaded and sanctioned whole countries at will, and virtually scrapped the edifice of international law–which it had itself erected as a monument to liberal democracy after WW II– while claiming to be acting in defense of universal values. The country that imposed the strictest protectionist policies in the world in the 19th century now recognizes no borders, no national sovereignty, no limits to its expansion.
What is to be done?
End imperialism. As long as imperialism and imperialist centers exist, so long there will be wars. The politics of indignation; the campaigns for human rights do not oppose imperialism; they facilitate it. One has to be either stupid or complicit if he cannot see that the US supports two states with the most egregious records of violations of human rights—Saudi Arabia and Israel—while demonizing the socially progressive government of Venezuela as a “dictatorship.” One has to be either stupid or complicit to call for the removal of President Assad from Syria for being undemocratic, while installing a neo-fascist regime in Ukraine. One has to be either stupid or complicit to believe Iran is the sponsor of terror when all indications point to Saudi Arabia. And then there is Russia. There we risk thermonuclear war—the loss not just of human rights but the loss of life on the planet. We shall become death. That’s what we’re playing with when we consent to distributing human rights across the world to the sound of the crescendo of exploding bombs.
To begin the opposition to war and imperialism, we must start, at a minimum, with a demand to return to the cardinal principle in the Charter of the United Nations for the prevention of aggressive war by respecting the sovereignty of nations. No nation should claim “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) if all nations are equal before international law. That responsibility rests with the UN Security Council, in the interest of peace among nations, which alone has the monopoly on authorizing war. We must, therefore, refuse to empower Western state terrorism through the melodrama and emotionalism of moral indignation. We must remember that Hitler invaded countries on the pretext of defense of “human rights” of German minorities. We must remember, too, that the Charter’s defense of sovereignty was written in response to Hitler’s violation of “human rights” in the name of “human rights.” That his policy broke the peace among nations and set the world on fire. That the whole trauma ended with two mushroom clouds in the sky.
To begin a serious opposition to imperialism and war, we must re-create a sound left—a principled left– and denounce those agents of the fake left who contribute to the escalation of Western military aggression under the banner of “human rights” or any other liberal claptrap such as identity politics, which pleads for “respect” from the state instead of claiming class power, or the power to contrast the state’s foreign and domestic policies:
“These pseudo-left figures and organizations function as what amount to specialized NGOs, acting, much like the National Endowment for Democracy and its constituent elements, as political fronts and facilitators for the CIA and US imperialism.”
A sound left must re-discover, behind the lies and distortions written by its enemies, the theories, the practices, the language, the history, the science, and the errors (most important) of the left’s once living cultures and societies—a left that changed the world. This left must extend the hand of friendship to systems of states that continue to survive in a hostile capitalist world with a socialist perspective. We live in an age of counter-revolutionary reaction in the West. Soon, we’ll forget that we are human and that we can make our own history. Shouldn’t we re-educate ourselves to a conscious, informed, organized, purposeful left or shall we let Hitler have the last word and a posthumous victory? “The problem of how the future . . . can be secured,” he wrote in Mein Kampf about Germany, “is the problem of how Marxism can be exterminated.”
August 12, 2017
In a piece recently written on “If There Should Be Reparations For American Slavery The Amount Should Be Around About Nothing” author Tim Worstall took on the task of assessing the damages for American Slavery and attempted to discuss the reparations due for its existence. In his effort to give an economic analysis of slavery his Forbes piece incorrectly omitted black Americans lost value in culture, family, and community. Worstall also failed to account for a significant amount of history, his piece looked at the years from 1776-1860, when we know slavery and its vestiges lasted so much longer. The dismissive view presented lacked context for the institution’s real economic impact on a nation, and role in the formation of one of the wealthiest countries the world has known.entitled
As I wrote in a prior article:
America is only 236 years old, the Independence of the country was gained in 1776. While in contrast, America’s African slavery lasted from 1619, to at least the date used by most textbooks 1862. But as can be seen in pieces such as “PBS Slavery by Another Name” ... Through the use of convict leasing and vagrancy laws America kept Blacks subjugated well into the 20th century. It is only in 1942 that government officials made slavery illegal by actually acting to enforce the rights of African American slaves to be free. President Roosevelt signed circular No. 3591 legislation on December 12, 1941, finally, effectively making slavery illegal in the United States in 1942. Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, the Shadow of Racism and the Power of “the N-word”
The institution left an indelible shadow over America that still lasts today. While many remember slavery as a regional institution enriching a few southern slaveholders, it was in fact so much more. As cotton became a dominant export sold in the blossoming global economy, slavery was in large part the fuel that drove the newly forming American economic engine forward.
One crop, slave-grown cotton provided over half of all U.S. export earnings. By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry... slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured good that laid the basis for American economic growth... precisely because the South specialized in cotton production, the North developed a variety of businesses that provided services for the slave South, including textile factories, a meat processing industry, insurance companies, shippers, and cotton brokers. Gilder Lehrman American Institute
Because of the needs of the south, northern bankers positioned themselves as some of the primary economic beneficiaries of cotton producing plantations. Bankers on Wall Street made millions selling goods to the south, creating banks to finance southern plantations and also by exporting the picked cotton out of the country.
“When the New York City banker James Brown tallied his wealth in 1842, he had to look far below Wall Street to trace its origins. His investments in the American South exceeded $1.5 million, a quarter of which was directly bound up in the ownership of slave plantations...Brown was among the world’s most powerful dealers in raw cotton, and his family’s firm, Brown Brothers & Co., served as one of the most important sources of capital and foreign exchange to the U.S. economy.” “How Slavery Led To Modern Capitalism” Bloomberg View by Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman
The north and the south were inextricably linked as the force of cotton filled financial coffers across the nation. As a multitude of goods, from slave clothing to cotton growing tools, were shipped from northern manufacturing plants to southern plantations, northern businesses far removed physically reaped great financial reward from slavery’s existence. Contrary to popular belief, according to National Geographic “Cotton was not shipped directly to Europe from the South. Rather, it was shipped to New York and then transshipped to England and other centers of cotton manufacturing in the United States and Europe” “How Slavery Helped build a World Economy” by Howard Dodson. Cotton and the slaves that produced it inseparably linked and underpinned the entire American economy, not just one southern region of the country.
Worstall in stating “...there’s another way of calculating what reparations might or should be... However, I think we still end up in roughly the same sort of place. Which is that even if reparations for slavery are logically or morally due, the actual amount is still going to end up being pretty much nothing” inaccurately limits his calculation by simply attaching reparations to the dollar value the slaves produced, but disassociating the true value of the freshly picked cotton to a sprouting nation. Additionally he fails to properly evaluate the cost of the full damages due to slaves for their pain and suffering. America as we know it is a virtual impossibility without the transfer of wealth from blacks to the greater American economy. Worstall fails to recognize slaves themselves were a commodity, often used to secure financing for more lands, additional slaves, and tools to expand plantations. As stated by Tai-Nahisi Coates in his piece on the The Case for Reparations, “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” the Yale historian David W. Blight has noted. “Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.”
Blacks saw their free labor and bodies create mass fortunes the modern world had never seen before in steel mines for companies like U.S. Steel in Alabama during the 1920’s, on fields of cotton in the Carolinas in the 1820’s, and on tobacco fields throughout Virginia in the 1720’s. Due to the length and economics of American slavery, it serves not just as a chapter in American history, but rather it is the foundation that created this country’s global economic advantage. The fundamental reality, as so eloquently shown by Coates, is that American slavery was an institution that did not abruptly end in the late 1800’s. Rather, its lasting effects and policies continued well beyond. We see in pieces like the book “Slavery by Another Name”, and the preceding Wall Street Journal article “From Alabama’s Past, Capitalism Teamed With Racism to Create Cruel Partnership” both written by Douglas Blackmon, slavery left a lasting shadow over the entire American economy. Blackmon’s work outlines how slave labor reformed itself through the use of prison labor as steel replaced cotton in America’s production cycle. Prison labor, an alternative source of free labor which disenfranchised the same group of blacks, was born through the use of laws such as the 13th Amendment which stated “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. As a result the recipients of slavery’s benefits built empires that still stand today and pushed slavery’s past economic effects into modern financial realities.
Looking more closely at other historical implementations of reparations we see from Israel to Chile examples of assessing value for human atrocity. Using legal analysis, reparations involves a two-part analysis to determine an amount due: the right of the victim to be made whole and an assessing of additional damages that came as a result of the actions. Worstall in attempting to create a number that fits financially fails to commit to true economic analysis of both parts. If we look to Israel’s deal with West Germany, which according to Wikipedia came as a result of repayment for “slave labor and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and to compensate for Jewish property that was stolen by the Nazis” we see a model for compensation. West Germany attempted to address both components in the awarding of a multi-billion dollar sum. According to Coates “West Germany ultimately agreed to pay Israel 3.45 billion Deutsche marks, or more than $7 billion in today’s dollars. Individual reparations claims followed—for psychological trauma, for offense to Jewish honor, for halting law careers, for life insurance, for time spent in concentration camps.” As we have seen in the United States without an action of recognition of this sort you end up in a loop of extended consequences from the initial action of slavery. According to the United Nations Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Rights to a Remedy and Reparation for Gross Violations of International Human Rights, there is a 5 point guideline for reparations: 1) restitution, 2) damages, 3) rehabilitation, 4)satisfactions and 5) guarantees for a promise not to repeat. In the United States when slavery was abolished none were followed, and as a result the institution of slavery was reinvented in new forms by its profiteers who refused to relinquish the economic advantage of free labor well after the Emancipation Proclamation. As pointed out by David Ghram of the Atlantic a historical moment occurred this week when the Dallas County Commissioners Court recognized the need for reparations in commemoration of Juneteenth by stating:
Therefore, be it resolved in the Dallas County Commissioners Court that Juneteenth and its historical mimicking of freedom is just that, and that the United States of America is derelict in its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the African-American people. Be it further resolved that the dereliction that has caused 400 years of significant [inaudible] to millions and significant suffering to the descendants of those who have been enslaved Africans who built this country, should be satisfied with monetary and substantial reparations to same.
Slaves were forced to invest in America’s future, while they never received a true return on their investment. It was this investment which should have yielded one of the greatest rates of return in modern history, far more than 1% compounded as suggested by Worstall. The extension and repetition of the institution as a direct result of vagrancy laws and continued slave-like practices throughout the south during the early 20th century resulted in massive profits for companies such as US Steel. Which is still one of thelargest steel companies in the country today. While we can look at individuals and companies that did not exist, or were not present in America at the time of slavery and question why they should be forced to pay reparations, that analysis incorrectly frames reparations true role. A role that includes repairing a nation and repairing enslavement’s long-term effects on a people. It also fails to look at the reality that many of these new businesses from biotech to medical research companies secured start up financing from financial institutions that grew exponentially as a direct result of slavery. While records are sparse due to lack of access, there has been public recognition of this point and apologies by the predecessors of mega-banks such as Wells Fargo for their direct ties to slavery.
Historians at the History Factory, a research firm specializing in corporate archival work, found that the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company and the Bank of Charleston — institutions that ultimately became part of Wachovia through acquisitions — owned slaves, Wachovia said in the statement. Records revealed that the Georgia Railroad and Banking Company owned at least 162 slaves, Wachovia said, and that the Bank of Charleston accepted at least 529 slaves as collateral on mortgaged properties or loans. The Bank of Charleston also acquired an undetermined number of people when customers defaulted on their loans. “We know that we cannot change the past, and we can’t make up for the wrongs of slavery,” said Thompson. “But we can learn from our past, and begin a stronger dialogue about slavery and the experience of African-Americans in our country.” “We want to promote a better understanding of the African-American experience, including the unique struggles, triumphs and contributions of African-Americans, and their important role in America’s past and present,” “Wachovia apologizes for slavery ties” CNN.com
So when a biotech company gets a multiple-million dollar credit line from Wells Fargo today while attenuated, the reality of a connection to the nation’s dark financial past still exists. While we can demand policy that directly ties economic access to this lineage of slavery through innovative ideas such as free state college education for descendants of slaves a program that would allow them not to start life in debt, or a discussion of making the first $200,000 earned by a descendant of a slave nontaxable thus incentivizing a participation in the marketplace. We need to do much more to get a handle on the remnants of slavery’s legacy. Therefore, instead of assessing the value of American slavery and the years that followed against arbitrary dollar figures as we saw on , the proper analysis is to look more closely at America’s foundation with a thorough review, and then create policies that acknowledge the historical wrongs. To correctly determine an amount for reparations, we need to get a full & accurate view of damages. This can only be done by performing in-depth research such as that put forth in bill H.R. 40 by U.S. Congressman John Conyer. It is only by facing the true damage done that we can move toward repair and out of the shadow of our great nation’s unresolved past.
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise.
— Maya Angelou
August 10, 2017
A mad world: capitalism and the rise of mental illness August 9, 2017
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Mental illness is now recognised as one of the biggest causes of individual distress and misery in our societies and cities, comparable to poverty and unemployment. One in four adults in the UK today has been diagnosed with a mental illness, and four million people take antidepressants every year. ‘What greater indictment of a system could there be,’ George Monbiot has asked, ‘than an epidemic of mental illness?’
The shocking extent of this ‘epidemic’ is made all the more disturbing by the knowledge that so much of it is preventable. This is due to the significant correlation between social and environmental conditions and the prevalence of mental disorders. Richard Bentall, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Liverpool, and Peter Kinderman, president of the British Psychological Society, have written compellingly about this connection in recent years, drawing powerful attention to ‘the social determinants of our psychological wellbeing’. ‘The evidence is overwhelming,’ notes Kinderman, ‘it’s not just that there exist social determinants, they are overwhelmingly important.’
A sick society
Experiences of social isolation, inequality, feelings of alienation and dissociation, and even the basic assumptions and ideology of materialism and neoliberalism itself are seen today to be significant drivers – reflected in the titles of a number of recent articles and talks on this subject, such as those of consultant psychotherapist David Morgan’s groundbreaking Frontier Psychoanalyst podcasts, which have included discussions on whether ‘Neoliberalism is dangerous for your mental health’, and ‘Is neoliberalism making us sick?’
Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Jay Watts observes in the Guardian that ‘psychological and social factors are at least as significant and, for many, the main cause of suffering. Poverty, relative inequality, being subject to racism, sexism, displacement and a competitive culture all increase the likelihood of mental suffering. Governments and pharmaceutical companies are not as interested in these results, throwing funding at studies looking at genetics and physical biomarkers as opposed to the environmental causes of distress. Similarly, there is little political will to combine increasing mental distress with structural inequalities, though the association is robust and many professionals think this would be the best way to tackle the current mental health epidemic’.
There are clearly very powerful and entrenched interests and agendas here, which consciously or unconsciously act to conceal or try to deny this relationship, and which also makes the recent willingness amongst so many psychoanalysts and therapists to embrace this wider context so exciting and moving.
Commentators often talk about society, social context, group thinking, and environmental determinants in connection with mental distress and disorders, but we can I think actually be a bit more precise about what aspect of society is mainly driving it, is mainly responsible for it. And in this context it’s probably time we talk about the c word – capitalism.
Many of the contemporary forms of illness and individual distress that we treat and engage with certainly seem to be correlated with and amplified by the processes and byproducts of capitalism. In fact, you might say that capitalism is in many respects a mental illness generating system – and if we are serious about tackling not only the effects of mental distress and illness, but also their causes and origins, we need to look more closely, more precisely, and more analytically at the nature of the political and economic womb out of which they emerge, and how psychology is fundamentally interwoven with every aspect of it.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this intimate connection between capitalism and mental distress is the prevalence of neurosis. As Joel Kovel, a former psychiatrist and professor of political science, notes: ‘A most striking feature of neurosis within capitalism is its ubiquity.’ In his classic essay ‘Therapy in late capitalism’ (reprinted in The Political Self), Kovel refers to the ‘colossal burden of neurotic misery in the population, a weight that continually and palpably betrays the capitalist ideology, which maintains that commodity civilization promotes human happiness’:
‘If, given all this rationalization, comfort, fun and choice, people are still wretched, unable to love, believe or feel some integrity to their lives, they might also begin to draw the conclusion that something was seriously wrong with their social order.’
There’s also been some fascinating work done on this more recently by Eli Zaretsky (Political Freud), and Bruce Cohen (author of Psychiatric Hegemony), who have both written on the relations between the family, sexuality, and capitalism in the generation of neuroses.
It is significant, for example, that one of the most prominent features of the psychological landscape that Freud encountered in late nineteenth-century Vienna were the neuroses – which, as Kovel notes, Freud saw as being entirely continuous with ‘normal’ development in modern societies – with much of these, he adds, being rooted in our modern experience of alienation. ‘Neurosis,’ Kovel says, ‘is the self-alienation of a subject who has been readied for freedom but runs afoul of personal history.’
It was of course Marx who was the great analyst of alienation, showing how capitalist economics generates alienation as part of its very fabric or structure – showing how, for instance, alienation gets ‘lost’ or ‘trapped’, embodied, in products, commodities – from the obvious examples (such as Nikes made in sweatshops, and sweatshops embodied in Nikes) – to a wider and much more pervasive sense that the whole system of production and creation is somehow alienating.
As Pavon Cuellar remarks, ‘Marx was the first to realise that this alienation actually gets contained and incarnated in things – in “commodities”‘ (Marxism and Psychoanalysis). These ‘fetishised’ commodities, he adds, seem to retain and promise to return, when consumed, the subjective-social part lost by those alienated while producing them: ‘the alienated have lost what they imagine [or hope] to find in what is fetishised.’
This understanding of alienation is really the core issue for Marx. People probably know him today for his theories of capital – how issues of exploitation, profit, and control continually characterise and resurface in capitalism – but for me the key concern of Marx, and one that is constantly neglected, or misunderstood, is his view on the centrality and importance of human creativity and productivity – man’s ‘colossal productive power’ as he calls it – exactly as it was in fact for William Blake, slightly earlier in the century.
Marx refers to this extraordinary world-transformative energy and agency as our ‘active species-life’, our ‘species-being’ – our ‘physical and spiritual energies’. But these immense creative energies and transformative capacities are, he notes, under the present system, immediately taken from us and converted into something alien, objective, enslaving, fetishised.
The image he evokes is of mothers giving birth – another form of labour perhaps – with the baby immediately being taken away and converted into something alien, something doll-like — a commodity. He considers what effect that must have on the mother’s spirit. This, for Marx, is the source of the alienation and unease, the sort of profound dislocation of the human spirit that characterises industrial capitalism. And as Pavon Cuellar shows, we can’t buy our way out of this alienation – by producing more toys, more dolls – because that’s where the alienation occurs, and is embodied and generated.
Indeed, consumerism and materialism are themselves widely recognised today as key drivers of a whole raft of mental health problems, from addiction to depression. As George Monbiot notes, ‘Buying more stuff is associated with depression, anxiety and broken relationships. It is socially destructive and self-destructive’. Psychoanalytic psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt has written very compellingly on this association, suggesting that in modern societies we often ‘confuse material well-being with psychological well-being’. In her book The Selfish Society she shows how successfully and relentlessly consumer capitalism reshapes our brains and reworks our nervous systems in its own image. For ‘we would miss much of what capitalism is about,’ she notes, ‘if we overlook its role in restructuring and marketing desire and impulse themselves.’
Another key aspect of capitalism and its impact on mental illness we could talk about of course is inequality. Capitalism is as much an inequality-generating system as it is a mental illness producing system. As a Royal College of Psychiatrists report noted: ‘Inequality is a major determinant of mental illness: the greater the level of inequality, the worse the health outcomes. Children from the poorest households have a three-fold greater risk of mental ill health than children from the richest households. Mental illness is consistently associated with deprivation, low income, unemployment, poor education, poorer physical health and increased health-risk behaviour.’
Some commentators have even suggested that capitalism itself, as a way of being or way of thinking about the world, might be seen as a rather ‘psychopathic’ or pathological system. There are certainly some striking correspondences between modern financial and corporate systems and individuals diagnosed with clinical psychopathy, as a number of analysts have noticed.
Robert Hare for instance, one of the world’s leading authorities into psychopathy and the originator of the widely accepted ‘Hare Checklist’ used to test for psychopathy, remarked to Jon Ronson: ‘I shouldn’t have done my research just in prisons. I should have spent some time inside the Stock Exchange as well.’ ‘But surely stock-market psychopaths can’t be as bad as serial-killer psychopaths?’ the interviewer asks. ‘”Serial killers ruin families,” shrugged Bob. “Corporate and political … psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”‘
These traits, as Joel Bakan brilliantly suggested in his book The Corporation, are encrypted into the very fabric of modern corporations – part of its basic DNA and modus operandi. ‘The corporation’s legally defined mandate,’ he notes, ‘is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.’ By its own legal definition, therefore, the corporation is ‘a pathological institution’, and Bakan helpfully lists the diagnostic features of its default pathology (lack of empathy, pursuit of self-interest, grandiosity, shallow affect, aggression, social indifference) to show what a reliably disturbed patient the corporation is.
Why should all of these contemporary social and economic practices and processes generate so much illness, so many disorders? To answer this I think we need to look back at the wider Enlightenment project, and the psychological models of human nature out of which they emerged. Modern capitalism grew out of seventeenth century concepts of man as some sort of disconnected, discontinuous, disengaged self – one driven by competition and a narrow, ‘rational’ self-interest – the concept of homo economicus that drove and underwrote much of the whole Enlightenment project, including its economic models. As Iain McGilchrist notes, ‘Capitalism and consumerism, ways of conceiving human relationships based on little more than utility, greed, and competition, came to supplant those based on felt connection and cultural continuity.’
We now know how mistaken, and destructive, this model of the self is. Recent neuroscientific research into the ‘social brain’, together with exciting developments in modern attachment theory, developmental psychology, and interpersonal neurobiology, are significantly revising, and upgrading, this rather quaint, old-fashioned view of the isolated, ‘rational’ individual – and also revealing a far richer and more sophisticated understanding of human development and identity, through increased knowledge of ‘right hemisphere’ intersubjectivity, unconscious processes, group behaviour, the role of empathy and mentalisation in brain development, and the significance of context and socialisation in emotional and cognitive development.
As neuroscientist David Eagleman observes, the human brain itself relies on other brains for its very existence and growth—the concept of ‘me’, he notes, is dependent on the reality of ‘we’:
We are a single vast superorganism, a neural network embedded in a far larger web of neural networks. Our brains are so fundamentally wired to interact that it’s not even clear where each of us begins and ends. Who you are has everything to do with who we are. There’s no avoiding the truth that’s etched into our neural circuitry: we need each other.
Dependency is therefore built into the fabric of who we are as social and biological beings, hardwired into our mainframe: it is ‘how love becomes flesh’, in Louis Cozolino’s striking phrase. ‘There are no single brains,’ Cozolino observes, echoing Winnicott, ‘brains only exist within networks of other brains.’ Some people have termed this new neurological and scientific understanding of the deep patterns of interdependency, mutual cooperation, and the social brain ‘neuro-Marxism’ because of the implications involved.
Capitalism is, it seems, rooted in a fundamentally flawed, naive, and old-fashioned seventeenth-century model of who we are – it tries to make us think that we’re isolated, autonomous, disengaged, competitive, decontextualised – an ultimately rather ruthless and dissociated entity. The harm that this view of the self has done to us, and our children, is incalculable.
Many people believe, and are encouraged to believe, that these problems and disorders – psychosis, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, self-harm – these symptoms of a ‘sick world’ (to use James Hillman’s terrific description) are theirs, rather than the world’s. ‘But what if your emotional problems weren’t merely your own?’, asks Tom Syverson. ‘What if they were our problems? What if the real problem is that we’re living in wrong society? Perhaps Adorno was correct when he said, “wrong life cannot be lived rightly”.’
The root of this ‘living wrongly’ seems to be because we live in a social and economic system at odds with both our psychology and our neurology, with who we are as social beings. As I suggest in my book, we need to realise that our inner and outer worlds constantly and profoundly interact and shape each other, and that therefore rather than separating our understanding of economic and social practices from our understanding of psychology and human development, we need to bring them together, to align them. And for this to happen, we need a new dialogue between the political and personal worlds, a new integrated model for mental health, and a new politics.
Rod Tweedy is an author and editor of Karnac Books, a leading independent publisher of books on mental health and therapy. His edited collection, The Political Self: Understanding the Social Context for Mental Illness, is published by Karnac.
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