Capitalism is depressing!


I read an interesting review in the T.H.E this week of, Depression in Japan, by Junko Kitanaka. The review ended with this quote from the book:

“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:

  1. To love and to be loved.
  2. To feel that we belong to a community
  3. To have a sense of our own competency
  4. To have a sense of personal autonomy
  5. 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.

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6 responses to “Capitalism is depressing!

  1. Pingback: What Loved Ones May Never Know « 2zpoint Blog

  2. I agree with all of your points. It is interesting to observe which people seem to be the happiest. Wealth, power, brains, good looks, fame, popularity, etc. don’t necessarily have any bearing on the attainment of happiness. It is often surprising to discover who is happy and who is not. Reality frequently does not reflect one’s expectations in this regard.

  3. Yes, I totally agree. I studied Marx at University many years ago and his thesis on Alienation resonated with me then and I have not read anything else to challenge it since. It is the truth, as far as I am concerned. It makes total sense. The system of Capitalism sets us apart from each other in the workplace and in our personal lives. We do not confront each other as free human beings (species beings), but as dominated wage slaves’ We have no choice in how we live only how we choose to be oppressed. The material conditions that we are forced to engage in are not of our own making. We cannot decide the nature of our destiny. The arena in which we live out our lives belongs to others. We are not the subject of our lives but the object, just like the objects we make and buy. We relate to each other from this position of servitude.
    You can nit-pick and split hairs but essentially it cannot be refuted.
    Having studied all this in my twenties I was seriously challenged for the rest of my life as far as being able to be ‘happy’ under Capitalism. But even before that I was haunted by a feeling of ‘is this all there is ?’ Without understanding why, I felt an instinctive dissatisfaction. I wanted more than what was on offer. I found that beyond the goals that were laid out before me there was nothing. I was not interested in money, work, marriage etc. But, like we all do, I went along with it, finding sooner or later, that it meant nothing to me.
    Capitalism reduces human beings to their lowest level of connection with themselves and each other. Our basic needs are only obtained by servitude in one way or another and this servitude becomes how we define each other, shop assistant, electrician,delivery driver, teacher, architect etc, or unemployed.
    The very fact that our basic needs rely on the work we do, is appalling in itself. Can there ever be objectivity, honesty, if it puts our income in jeopardy ?
    . It is my conviction that this system leads to mental disorders of all kinds. The question should not be,’ Why are you depressed ?’, but why are you happy ?’
    Capitalism is a profoundly dysfunctional and corrupt system that eats away at integrity, sensitivity, morality, compassion, love, empathy and all the aspects that make us human. That many of us manage to hold on to these, despite constant attacks on them is testament to our humanity. This is real success, and shows what we are capable of and the possibilities of what life could really be like
    if we all got together and decided to wipe this evil system off the face of the earth
    forever.

  4. Community is what humans really need. We need to feel part of something which presents a non-competitive arena in which we can truly be ourselves. A family is not a community. Everything we see around us is hierarchical in one way or another. The family is too. It is made up of blood related people who have roles. Mother, father, sister brother etc. There is very little freedom of expression in this. Individuals revert back to roles or are forced into them by the other members so that they feel safe. The truth is, outside of this we are on our own.
    But ideally the way to live happily is to shake off all roles and the expectations that accompany them. To be the individuals that we are, not a worker, a mother, a young person or old etc.
    To join together as the human race in all its diversity. Then we will belong. We will not need any roles, or any family. We will be Family. The true family that we really are. All ages and sexes and races will be together as humans.We will then be free to choose who we get along with whether they are 60, 40 12, man, woman, child, teenager, african, indian, it will not matter. What will matter is the task that is to be done and the best way to do it for the benefit of all.
    We are only living a tiny portion of what we are really capable of in this system. We are restricted at every turn. Freedom of experssion and real cooperation is minimal. At the end of the day we are prisoners who go home to our cells. Everything is not really true. How do we relate to each other? Very strangely indeed. We socialise, to express our freedom and what is that?
    People standing or sitting around in a state of nervous anticipation.Carefully, we are all watching each other and trying to adopt the correct posture so as not to be too candid or too closed down. To be liked and not offensive.
    All of this leads to more isolation and dishonesty.
    This is due to our false selves under Capitalism. That is all it requires. It is not interested in us having a meaningful life.
    This is what I mean by Alienation affecting our private lives. It comes right into our living rooms. The lie that is at the centre of the system, that we are producers, consumers, controls us. It creates conflict in each one of us. This conflict is played out in living rooms all over the world.

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