This article originally appeared at Truthout.org
Economically, he was one of the growing millions without a secure, meaningful, socially approved, well-paid job. He had previously amassed money by buying and selling real estate, but had no ongoing job. He lacked the relationships that flow from working with others to accomplish a shared goal where each person has a part to play. The stability of a daily job and the people to whom that job connects you are bulwarks against loneliness and mental instability.
Stephen Paddock’s last family contact was with one of his brothers whom he telephoned three years before the shooting. He had not contacted other family members for 20 years. He and his live-in girlfriend kept their blinds closed. They socialized with no one.
Paddock had been told throughout his life that the U.S. was a special place, an exceptional place. Each generation, if its members studied and worked hard, would live better than the one before. Progress and prosperity awaited him. He would raise a family and provide his wife and children with more than had been provided to him and to his family of origin. Both of his marriages soon ended in divorce.
As millions of secure jobs disappeared, especially after the 1970s, Paddock became unemployed often for long periods. He became a real estate dealer buying and selling buildings for profit. He amassed some wealth, an American dream most men do not achieve, but it did not connect him to other human beings. Paddock had failed to achieve the promised dream of the connections and family that money was supposed to accompany. He lost his moorings.
Even when he managed an activity that brought him money, it tended to be in areas not associated with hard work in connection with others. From making money speculating in real estate he moved on to solitary gambling at casinos. He had no place in the socially approved work and life images he had grown up to value, expect and seek as markers of his success as a human being.
Mental health can be likened to a table resting on four legs. One leg is an intimate relationship with a partner, friend or relative to whom one can intimately connect when the need arises. A second leg is a wider circle of people with whom one shares friendly connections. They may be work colleagues or a circle of casual friends or relatives whose company you enjoy. It may even be close Facebook friends, but you see them less frequently than your intimate connection(s). A third leg is a group to which you connect in a limited but shared activity. That may be a team sport, a volunteer effort, a PTA, or political organization whose members develop the solidarity of working together. A fourth leg is connection to one’s nation and the world through political activity, engagement with media covering major current events, and sharing opinions, ideas or petitions online. A table can be sturdy and stable with at least three strong legs, but only two or one does not suffice.
Americans have become frighteningly disconnected and alone. There are fewer Americans active in any group than there were in bowling leagues alone in 1970. The many millions of loners accumulating in the U.S. since the '70s tend to experience and define their disconnection as personal. Many think it is their fault that they cannot occupy a happy place of connection in the America they imagine is still there. They imagine that other people continue to find ways to connect. They feel adrift. They can come to resent those from whom they are slipping away.
American white men once received two wage supplements in what was a sexist and racist labor market. One wage supplement was for whiteness and the other for maleness. With the resulting “family wage” generally paid to white men, they could support a woman working full time at home, providing full maid service, sexual labor, child care, and the emotional labor of making social connections to engage the whole family with friends and relatives. With white men's family wage now largely gone, most women are now employed outside the home. They cannot, in addition, do all the housework, childcare, etc., that they did before. They want their men to share emotional and domestic burdens in the home. Yet many men want extra services at home to compensate them for their lower pay and lower status outside the home. Household tensions rise. Women are abandoning those men who cannot support them yet still demand a range of household services that employed women cannot and do not want to perform. American white men have been disempowered. They are hurting.
The family wage for white men evaporated as modern jet travel and telecommunications enabled U.S. capitalists to relocate production overseas where wages are much lower. Simultaneously, computers enabled an intensification of automation. Capitalists stopped worrying about living, no less family, wages, safety standards, benefits, or ecological safety measures. Where once capitalist profit-seeking produced a family wage, post-1970s profit-seeking took it away.
Gender plays its own role in white men’s pain and their coping mechanisms. Men’s emotions are constrained. They have to “man up” even in the face of devastating, real losses. Sex remains a key need allowed both for and within a widespread male stereotype. Likewise, anger remains an emotion permitted and often celebrated as manly and powerful.
Many men look to recoup their lost powers. They become especially vulnerable to advertisements for products promoted as conveying power. Nothing illustrates this better than some ads for Bushmaster automatic weapons. They ask, “Does your wife or girlfriend make more money than you? Revoke your man card. Do you prefer tofu to meat? Revoke your man card." After such questions, the Bushmaster automatic rifle is celebrated with the statement “Reinstate your man card.” That ad was pulled after many protested and after the Bushmaster was used by Adam Lanza in the Sandy Hook mass shooting that killed 20 elementary school children and six staff members.
In stark gender contrast, women often find primary feminine identity in close friendships with other women or in connection to relatives and children. Their identity allows a wide range of vulnerable needs and emotions. Women are far less frequent gun users. Women also do not appear on the roster of mass shootings.
Often, disempowered people—particularly white men—are tempted to search for and find scapegoats to blame for their disenfranchisement and loneliness. Cues from political leaders seeking votes can point them to certain social groups. For example, Trump and many Republicans make none too subtle negative comments about immigrants, women, minorities and a government they denounce for privileging those groups at the expense of white Americans, etc.
The liberal U.S. media often blame angry, disempowered white men and their spokespersons for being politically incorrect and boorish. Those media rarely if ever analyze the role of capitalism in denying white men their family wages and the American dream. Capitalism—the profit system—is thereby rendered innocent while angry white workers are deplorably prejudiced. Men versus women, white against non-white, immigrant against native: a divided mass of people (mostly employees) get caught up in conflicts as while capitalists accumulate wealth and capitalism evades criticism.
Americans do not have a mass party or organized voice to help people understand that capitalist profiteering motivated those who took their family wages and jobs. Many are thus left with hatred for other people. That seldom works to overcome or end loneliness.
Americans have found still other ways to cope with their loneliness and disconnection: they medicate themselves against personal pain with alcohol and painkilling drugs. Self-medicating is a now an epidemic. Fully 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016. In this drug refuge, capitalist profit also shows its hand. Most U.S. drug deaths are caused either by opiates (natural substances like heroin) or opioids (synthetic painkillers like Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet and Fentanyl). Doctors are paid well to keep prescribing by the supremely profitable pharmaceutical industry. Alcohol is legal and also affords a personal escape from the misery of losing family wages. An estimated 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually. Food is also a comfort for loneliness. One in three American adults and at least one in ten U.S. children are obese. Loneliness is an epidemic in America.
Work is a central activity for most adults. The more speedup is installed by employers, the more employees are prevented from connecting at work. The less people are employed together, the lonelier they are. As the gig economy and part-time and temp work situations multiply, so does loneliness. Most men’s only emotionally close relationships are tied to their work or sex partnerships. With work relationships ever more fragile and temporary, much the same happens to sexual connections. Meanwhile, marriages are being undermined by that same erosion of the family wage. For the first time in U.S. history, a majority of people 35 and under are now unattached.
One out of four Americans has no one to talk to even in the worst emergencies. Most of those people are men. For deeply disconnected and resentful men, social norms can fade; angry shooting at random others becomes possible. This is an especially American phenomenon. In 2017 so far, we have had 152 mass shootings. No other developed nation has had anything remotely like that. Why? One reason is that all other developed nations have gun controls and none have an unchecked gun industry that relentlessly equates guns with manhood. Another reason is that other developed nations have powerful unions and political movements that direct people’s anger about the pain in their lives toward its social causes and especially the inequality and instability of capitalist systems. They connect people to change those social and economic conditions together.
For 150 years from 1820 to 1970, every generation of families led by white men did better economically than the generation before them. Even in the Great Depression of the 1930s prices fell faster than wages; employed men even then earned more than their predecessors. That historical process of improvement stopped in the 1970s. The belief in American exceptionalism did not stop with the changed reality. That left American white men with self-blame for their economic difficulties and the resulting psychic pains. Worse still, it left them with the idea that they could individually overcome their intolerable situations.
What we need in order to stop the carnage of mass shootings is a social movement that articulates a social analysis of America's problems and is unafraid to put the capitalist system at the core of those problems. We also need a social movement committed to social changes that include going beyond the capitalist system. If people could join together, face that their lives are plundered in order for capitalists to increase profit, and face that gender stereotypes distort our shared humanity, then together we can change the conditions of despair, rage, and loneliness that generate mass shootings.
Richard D. Wolff is professor of economics emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is currently a visiting professor at the New School in New York City. He is the founder of Democracy at Work.