“The fundamental question of modernity…………. is whether the relentless quest for personal advancement through the current system is really the way to pursue happiness?
Junko Kitanaka, Depression in Japan, 2011
Since Freud “unhappiness” and/or “mental distress” have been regarded as caused by a malfunction of the internal mental workings of the individual. People are unhappy or distressed because there is something wrong with them that can be fixed by therapy and/or medication. In this world the idea that people might be literally ‘driven mad’ by the external circumstances in which they live has come to seem preposterous.
Yet Marx spoke of ‘alienation’ long before the psychiatrists, psychologists and existentialists. The ‘theory of alienation’ as described by the young Karl Marx in the 1840’s described how the exploitation of the few by the many that is inherent in Capitalism, inevitably leads to the social alienation of people from crucial and fundamental aspects of their own “human nature” (Gattungswesen, usually translated as ‘species-essence’ or ‘species-being’).
In our overwhelmingly therapistic society there is now a new subject of psychological discourse called ‘happiness studies’. Most researchers in this field recognise that the route to ‘happiness’ does not lie in the pursuit of power and wealth. Many of those with power & wealth are nonetheless distinctly unhappy. Indeed, ‘depression’ is overwhelmingly a middle-class phenomenon. So the happiness experts have come to the amazing conclusion that basically what makes people happy is doing things for other people. It is not success that makes most of us happy it is a sense of community and a sense of being useful to that community and to those we love.
This idea rings true with my own experience of a traumatic mid-life crisis. Even radicals like me internalise the idea that hard work and talent will lead to success and that in turn this success that will lead to happiness. But for many of us as we enter middle age we realise that ‘success’ is not going to make us any happier than ‘failure’. This revelation can and often does lead to a profound despair manifesting itself as depression and mental illness that leads to a re-evaluation of the values that make life worth living. Many of us realise that working ourselves to death in the service of commercial corporations or even abstract public entities, like councils, schools and universities, who see us as merely ‘human resources’ is ‘alienating’ us from our own families, our own personalities, our own emotions and even our own dreams and aspirations. We come to realise that the organisations we work for do not ‘value’ us in any meaningful sense and that the emotions like kindness, reciprocity, affection, trust and respect, that produce successful and genuinely human relationships are ultimately entirely absent from the employer/employed relationship. Jack may affectionately trust and respect Jim and vice versa, but if the abstract entity that is the organisation that employs them both says that Jack must sack Jim then sack him he will. The employment situation alienates Jack & Jim even from their own emotions and their own evaluation of each other.
As part of my Union work this week I accompanied a colleague to a final redundancy ’consultation’ meeting. This colleague has been at the institution for 6.5 years and has been a committed and effective worker who had a strong sense of loyalty to the institution and believed that the institution represented values such as openness, creativity and respect for staff and students. By contrast the institution had instigated a managerial reorganisation which had led to her position becoming surplus to requirement and so she was to be made redundant – after all what else could they do, it’s not a charity for goodness sake.
During the final ‘consultation’ meeting, the HR rep and the redundant workers line-manager did not speak directly to the member of staff being made redundant at all, instead they only read from a pre-prepared standard pro-forma script. This was I imagine to avoid potential legal challenges to the redundancy process. In any event what it meant was that as a loyal and competent member of staff sat quietly weeping and ringing her hands, these 2 management automatons read the dry legalise script to her in a relentless emotionless monotone. Everyone in the room was ‘alienated’ from the reality of the situation – which was that a human being was being made to suffer through no fault of her own.
I once read a long-forgotten article that defined five prerequisities for mental health:
- To love and to be loved.
- To feel that we belong to a community
- To have a sense of our own competency
- To have a sense of personal autonomy
- To have a sense of security – both financial and physical
My colleague going through redundancy was having at east 4 of these principles undermined. She is powerless in the face of corporate power, her sense of her own competency is undermined by her dismissal, her sense of financial security is directly challenged by the prospect of unemployment and her dismissal removes her from the community of colleagues she has been part of 6.5 years. Luckily for this woman she is happily married and loves and is in turn loved, this loving relationship will be her comfort and sustenance in these difficult times.
But faced with the realities of what has been called ‘wage slavery‘, is it any wonder that suicide and depression are endemic in capitalist societies? Despite unprecedented material comfort in the West, many, many, millions of people are profoundly unhappy, and although not a Marxist myself, I would have to agree with the old man that economic, psychological and spiritual alienation are an inevitable consequence of this nasty, nasty system that pits us against each other as competing economic units, and denies us dignity and mutual respect by reducing us to ‘human resources’ to be exploited by abstract legal entities in the interests of a tiny few.