Capitalism and Anxiety: A Social Epidemic

By February 15, 2018Blog

Capitalism: A Very Brief Summary 

Right now, if you live in North America or Great Britain, you’re living in what might be called a “late-capitalist” society. Capitalism is a word that has come to be ubiquitous in our everyday language. What it tends to refer to is an “economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.” One of the main concepts in capitalism is that of the private ownership of property, which is in opposition to communism, a concept that sees things like land as common property.

While this article isn’t meant to argue a position on the benefits of a particular sociopolitical or economic system, it will talk about how capitalism affects human health, specifically ‘mental’. Indeed, various commentators have weighed in about how capitalism relates to overall human wellbeing. The reason to make this linkage is that under a less restricted form of capitalism, things like poverty, homelessness, crime, and mental health and addiction problems seem to intensify in the population.

There are various reasons posited that argue why this is the case under capitalism. For one, capitalism sees everything as a commodity, even people. Think of the term ‘human resources’, common words said in office spaces around the world. The sentiment underlying ‘human resources’ is to say that people are, in fact: commodities. In fact, you could argue that this is true given that people perform tasks qualified as labour that lead to production. The production is then considered valuable because without it, nothing would be produced and, as such, no profit could be made. And, indeed, a very fundamental value of capitalism is to generate a profit. To a capitalist, without profit, there isn’t much point.

There is also a linkage between the argument for capitalism and ‘progress’. The argument is that capitalism leads to competition that wouldn’t otherwise be seen in socialist or communist societies that leads to innovations in medicine and technology. Indeed, under capitalism the average lifespan of people has drastically increased as well as overall ‘health’. (I put health in quotations because no one seems to be able to define it properly). Of course, these arguments for capitalism might be only partially true as communist countries (or socialist) ones did and do demonstrate innovation in science and technology, so it depends on how you frame the argument.

Let’s now look at why a capitalist society might not be good for our minds.

1: Chronic Neurosis: Under Capitalism, A Constant State of Worry is a Necessary Condition 

When I was growing up in a small province in Canada, the most coveted job was that of a government job with union protection, full benefits, and a pension. These jobs were subject to fierce competition and difficult to land because everyone wanted one. I couldn’t understand why this was the case because I often heard people complain about how ‘government jobs are boring’ and ‘in order to keep that kind of job, you need to conform and keep your mouth shut’. To me, as someone who heavily values creativity and free expression, those kinds of values seemed onerous and overall very undesirable. But as time wore on and I started to study philosophy at a graduate level, it made perfect sense as to why someone would covet a job in the bureaucracy: humans crave certainty. There is no type of person on the planet more risk averse than a government bureaucrat. Well, maybe a lawyer, but they are, in fact, bureaucrats as well. The point is, without certainty, people tend to cycle through constant worry about the future and what it might bring. Some people refer to this as ‘existential anxiety’ and people don’t generally want to experience it. So a ‘good’ government job provides a sense of economic security that for some outweighs the constant worry of where their next paycheque might come from.

From the previous paragraph I want to highlight a few words: security, economy, certainty, and worry. In our current society, survival is accomplished through the acquisition of money. Since goods and services are traded for money, then money is required. But money is often hard to come by, and for some people it can seem impossible to have enough of it to meet their basic human needs. When these needs are not met, or are constantly at threat, then a typical human reaction is stress. Stress then turns to worry, which then turns to fear and anxiety. You see the trajectory: if you have to consistently worry about paying for basic human needs through the use of money, then the worry gravitates not to food or housing per se, but instead the acquisition of money. This is why there are endless ‘get rich’ quick schemes and public speakers who sell the idea that “you can be rich just like them!” What is interesting though is that the idea of being independently wealthy is not valuable because it allows people to buy unnecessary things like boats or luxury cars, the dream is valuable because it means that anxieties about overall survival are vanquished. I know this is true because those who win the lottery tend to have endless people coming out of the woodwork asking for money, often money they argue they need for their survival.

2. Under Capitalism, Our Children are Taught to Conform to the Market, Not Their Human Needs 

I often read the emails and lingo coming from my kids’ elementary school. In almost every instance, there is some reference to educating children according to the needs of the market economy. In fact, they design entire curricula around what jobs might be available when the student comes to enter the job market. To most people, this sounds like a good way to ensure the investment in schooling pays off. However, the converse might be true – that it might be a bad idea to focus education on the needs of the market economy and not the needs of the human. That is, contrary to popular belief, the two are not one in the same. The market is not human and thus does not have human needs.

For instance, even schools fail to address basic human needs because they are inherently capitalist by design. One argument aimed at explaining the rise of ADHD labeling in school children is that we have created a school system that is regimented around the needs of the factory or corporation and not the needs of individual children. But since the school system is not setup to accommodate individual needs, those who cannot conform tend to be considered problematic. It would be too expensive to develop a school system that catered to individuals, so they toss aside children that do not conform to the status quo. The truth though, is that the child is not the problem, the environment and the social constraints that the system demands are the problem. When I hear about a child diagnosed with ADHD who is on medication, I do not hear “sick child”, I hear “unethical and problematic school and medical system”. I will talk more about this in other posts.

There is however a strange paradox in public schools that doesn’t serve the interests of capitalism. On the one hand, they want children to conform to curricula aimed to make them ‘successful’ in the market economy. On the other hand, these systems tend to cater to the statistical average. That if you thrive in school, you’ll be exceptionally average. Having an ‘A’ grade means you’re the top of the class of average. This speaks to how capitalism is indeed a highly conformist social concept and shoots itself in the foot. Those who fail to conform could be innovative geniuses whose talent is wasted on a system aimed at conformity and not progress and innovation. Indeed, if you are on either wing of the continuum, then you do not fit the template and thus are generally discarded or left out. Medicating kids because of something called ‘ADHD’ is an example of this. Instead of adjusting the school system to accommodate and enrich the so-called ADHD child, the system calls for psychiatric diagnosis and medication. The aim in this activity is to deflect any criticism against a school system that is designed to manufacture complacent workers for the market economy, not to educate children about complex social systems or even to encourage and enrich their interests. Indeed, this is likely why you’ll be hard pressed to find a high school course on post-structural or postmodern philosophy or feminist literature as the market simply doesn’t demand this kind of thinking or subject matter.

In childhood, schools program (‘educate’ as the call it) children in order to enter a workforce to make money. And as I stated previously, we currently need money to survive. This means the school system is essentially trying to help children survive in our contemporary social context. This seems like a noble aim, however, the problem is that this aim suits the interests of a non-human concept, that of capitalism qua money, and not of overall individual human needs.

3: Constant and Unrelenting Competition 

What is generally left out of the analysis of capitalism with respect to anxiety is the constant and unrelenting competition that we impose on people in order to survive. As an advanced society that generates surpluses in food and goods, we simply do not need to constantly compete to survive as the resources necessary to survive are easily met with our current technologies. Yet with this capability, we still have mass poverty, homelessness, hunger, and arguably preventable diseases (e.g. despite being the richest country in history, the US still has worse outcomes in things like infant mortality than Cuba does.)

Why is extreme competition the case? Because under capitalism we must compete for worthiness. People are not ‘assessed’ to do jobs, they apply for ‘job competitions’ where someone in a position to provide survival via money often make an arbitrary judgement on whether or not someone is ‘the successful candidate’ based on credentials and experience. The successful candidate likely has credentials that they fought and paid for in a college or university to which they competed for initial acceptance. Without this degree and money expended to get it, they would not be able to ‘compete’ for this position, therefore, they would likely not be a candidate for money, thus survival.

The irony is that nowadays, so many people have competed for so long using academic credentials for jobs that people with multiple graduate degrees who are pinned to the ground with debt cannot find employment. Some people are going so far as to put off having children because of their inability to gain financial security even though they were in their 30s when they finally finished their grad program. A generation ago one could get a Bachelor’s degree and walk into a middle class income and pension quite easily. Nowadays, the competition has turned into a fight of Master’s and sometimes PhD’s to get a foot in the door. Ironically, though, if you are ‘overqualified’ you also don’t merit money and survival, yet another paradox. In all of this, the only winner in this is, of course, the lenders of student loans who basically own graduates for years and decades after their completion and the academic institutions (banks that offer degrees as a sideline) that pump out as many graduates as possible.

In terms of business, the competition is even fiercer. This is the reason that the successful candidate in the previous paragraph had to prove their worthiness, because if they do not return a profit to the business, then they are not worthy of they money expended on them and thus, their own survival. A business (owned by someone) cannot tolerate losing money so it must then make a profit. In order to do this, it is then in the businesses best interest to pay their employees as little as they can do to (a) make the largest profit possible, and (b) survive and be competitive. Often times, businesses do things to show their appreciation for their employees like purchase lunch or provide coffee though, so this levels it out. Without businesses though, there would be no jobs, no competition, and no economy, Moreover, there would be no tax base to support social programs like infrastructure, hospitals, and schools. You see the connection now, right? Schools are paid for by businesses with taxes to educate people to work for them. So of course that survey course in interpretive dance isn’t making the official curriculum!

All in all, the trajectory from being ideologically taught to compete for money in childhood to get a job, to the transition into ultra competitive post secondary and finally the workforce is a super competitive stress-laden gauntlet. Also consider that a lot of people are doing things in which they have no interest and are only doing them because of the golden ticket at the end of the maze. This adds another layer of complexity because a person’s life then becomes a massive stress-laden errand to suit the demands of money and economy and not their own desires, interests, and passions. In essence, the person who spends their entire life doing what the market demands and what they do not will suffer spiritually as well as physically and psychologically. You literally have one life to live, so living it for someone else might not be advisable.

The objection above is generally met with: “Suck it up, no one is doing what they want to do…you have no choice, you need to make money to survive...” This kind of talk sounds like slavery and not some meaningful and empowered existence. Indeed, those who do not conform to the realities of the market economy often suffer in terms of having few material possessions or large numbered bank accounts, but do not suffer in the same way someone who spends their life in conformity to market demands.

This then creates a catch 22 scenario: you must either do something you do not want to do and spend most of your waking hours doing it, or you do not and suffer from impoverishment due to lack of money. In the former, anger, depression, anxiety and other issues arise. These sometimes then translate into substance use.

Let’s recap. We teach our children the things they need to conform to the market economy while imparting ideology to them paid for by businesses in the form of taxes (so it’s not objective education). Then, we make them compete to the point of popping out their eyeballs in post secondary for jobs that they must then compete for. They compete in school to the workforce for jobs aren’t necessarily aligned to their interests or imagination, but if they want to survive, they must do it because if they do not, they will fail to make money, thus survive.

Is it any wonder that there is a mental health and substance use crisis in late teenagers and young adults? 

4. Now Rig the System 

It used to be the case that there was a chance to win in this grand competition capitalism has created. Baby boomers were one such generation where upward mobility through education could be obtained without intense and often impossible competition. That generation may have been fed the message that “If you work hard, it will pay off.” This message is still being peddled, but the current generation surely does not have a chance that the baby boomer generation did.

The reason for this is that late-capitalism is that it leads to massive wealth inequality. And when only a few control most of the wealth, this means the overall economy stalls out and everyone tends to end up working for a few companies without any great chance for upward mobility. Why? Because corporations then dictate government policy because they pay the government taxes and so the needed social reforms that even the playing field never take place.

Take for instance the cherished billionaire ‘thought leaders’ we see in media all the time. For one, they’re generally idolized! These kinds of people often argue that they came to have massive fortunes from their own hard work and perseverance. What they’re not being honest about is that their money was actually made from other people’s hard work and perseverance, which ultimately led to their obscene wealth. Once someone or something (corporations are things that are argued to have the rights of people) gathers extensive money, they do not tend to disperse it or ‘trickle’ it down to people such to create a fairer playing field. Indeed, the entire agenda of the popular board game “Monopoly” was to teach people about the realities of a capitalist system. If you’ve played this before and lost, you know how this feels: awful. If you’ve played and one, you know how that feels: wonderful.

5. Anxiety, Mental Illness, and Capitalism 

If you visit a doctor and tell them you have issues with anxiety, they might tell you to take a pill and diagnose you with one of their anxiety disorders. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it categorically fails to take into consideration the things people have to do to survive in contemporary society. Indeed, blaming biology instead of questioning social contexts is another feature of late-capitalism. Indeed, an entire therapy industry requires a constant stream of patients and clients to pay for services. If not, then the therapist is unemployed.

The joke though, is that the intention of capitalism was to generate the most happiness for the most people. Instead it has resulted in massive populations of persons diagnosed with some form of health issue, including and especially: anxiety. Some psychiatrists are already on to this very problem, that of capitalism being the impetus for mental illness overall:

“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.” 

6: Conclusion & Solutions 

If you live your life in constant duress, this creates chronic stress, which then creates fear and anxiety. A lot of people tend to think that anxiety is best considered a psychiatric or medical problem when it is, in fact, a social one. By blaming biology, the focus is shifted to the individual in the sense that they should be able to cope with their social context. The message behind medicalizing anxiety is that you ‘shouldn’t have it and that it isn’t ‘normal’, when in reality people are living in a social system that doesn’t just promote it, but demands it. This is why the medications that are prescribed for the various anxiety disorders are aimed at managing symptoms and not at causes. Treating the causes of anxiety would mean vast social reforms that would be, in the eyes of the politician and capitalist (generally one in the same): too expensive.

Things are changing. People are beginning to notice that something is way off. Given not-for-profit interest groups are now stating things like, “anxiety is the most diagnosed mental disorder’ in the US with over 40 million people (more than 1/10th) of the population diagnosed, with many more gone undiagnosed or self-medicating, the argument for human biological malfunction is, well: destroyed. If anxiety has become the norm, then the focus should not be on millions of people who are said to suffer from it, but instead the context in which these people suffer that causes it in the first place.

In order to fully understand and overcome anxiety (and depression) is to acknowledge and fully understand the socio-political-economic circumstances in which someone lives and identify where needs are not being met. Once this education is provided, the next step is to look to empowering the person to make informed choices about striking a balance in their life to find daily pursuits that both allow them to meet their needs through working for money. This also means finding a daily pursuit that they willfully and non-coercively want to do. Odds are, the experience of anxiety has something to do with inhuman pressures that are directly related to social demands that led the person into various kinds of alienation, despair, and anxiety. To deal with it, the trick then is to look upon history to understand how this happened to each individual and to move through it on one’s own terms and not submit to hollow and soulless existence.









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