American Depressions
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 04:46PM
Dr. Harriet Fraad

First published in Tikkun Magazine, January/February 2010

An unnatural economic, moral and psychological disaster has struck America. Five contributors, each interacting with and shaping the others, have devastated the American, economic, psychological, ethical and social landscape. Each is fed by related streams, but each contributes its own force to the disaster. The American dream in which each generation surpassed the previous generation in real wages has all but disappeared, along with the dreams of an intact family, a steady job, a home, and an honest supportive community.

This article looks at each of five collaborators in the crisis in order to answer the following questions:
How did this happen? What forces are responsible?

Why are Americans passive as millions lose their homes, their jobs, their families, their hopes of justice and the American dream?

Why do Americans remain disorganized at home while their European and Asian counterparts flood into the streets and strike in militant, organized protest? Why do others believe in their potential to reclaim their lives while we do not?

What Happened?

What happened is a result of at least five major, interrelated forces. One is a transformation of American morality and with it the loss of belief that the social and political realms could be shaped by morality, ethics and secular spirituality. Another is an economic depression. A third is a transformation of the family that has been the foundation of American emotional life. A fourth is decimation of American’s social participation in all areas from bridge clubs and PTAs to political parties. A fifth is the tranquilizing and numbing of the American population with psychotropic medications.

1. The Crisis in Morality and Social Ethics

Let us begin with the first of our contributors, American ethics, morality and spirituality. The same forces that decimated our economic, psychological and social landscapes have transformed our sense of morality and social ethics. The shared dream of an ethical moral society that dominated the U.S. until the 1970s has systematically eroded. In the 1960s it was common to believe that morality and spirituality include a concern for all human beings, rich and poor alike. The biggest push against those social ethics began with Reagan’s presidency in 1981. It continued in Reagan’s second term and was reinforced by each president until its hopefully final act in the Presidency of GW Bush.

Reagan’s basic ideology was that poor people are not wealthy because they lack incentives. Their noble drive to get rich has been eroded by social programs that permit them to survive or in his term “freeload.” With income tax cuts, the incentive to work and get rich will increase and all will benefit. In 1980 the highest incomes were taxed at 73%. In 2009 those same high incomes were taxed at half that rate, 35%. Of course the percentage of tax on the highest incomes is actually even lower since the wealthiest Americans can hire tax accountants to help them evade taxes. Reagan used his famous veto power to cut a huge range of social programs from biomedical research, to social security for disabled Americans, to clean water to expanded Head Start. At the same time he increased the military budget while decrying big government.

That pattern has been repeated ever since, which is how the United States went from being the most egalitarian western industrialized society in 1970 to the least egalitarian in 2009 (OECD 2009). Slowly there has been a transformation of morality and ethics from a requirement that U.S. society should empower people with programs that give all citizens the social and economic possibility for decent, productive lives, to a morality that consists of requiring conservative personal and sexual behavior. Within that morality Clinton committed an impeachable crime by having sex with a page while Bush and Cheney did not commit impeachable crimes permitting torture, or by lying about the threat from Iraq and thus causing the deaths of over four thousand U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. It is not considered immoral to spend between six and twelve billion a week on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, while cutting schools and social programs for needy families because “ there is not enough money.” The secular morality which made America a proudly democratic and egalitarian nation has deteriorated. We are experiencing a national moral, ethical and spiritual crisis.

2. The Dying of the Economic Dream

A second contributor to American passivity is the economic crisis from which we are suffering. Let us look at our history in order to understand what happened. From 1820-1970 the United States experienced a unique period of ever increasing prosperity. For 150 years U.S. salaries rose together with ever increasing worker productivity. For 150 years, each generation was able to afford a better standard of living than the generation that preceded it. That was the American dream (Wolff 2009).

Unlike their European counterparts, Americans did not enjoy working class solidarity with other workers whose families and social organizations, unions and political parties were inflected by a history of overt class struggle fought as proudly permanent members of the working class. Europeans organized their working unions along political lines. They fought for better conditions as part of the ideology of long term communist and socialist struggles for ownership and control of their work places. The U.S. labor movement is not informed by a struggle for worker ownership of the businesses that produce U.S. goods and services. Decisions about what to produce and the right to appropriate and distribute profits are left to corporate boards of directors. Americans accepted the capitalist system in which each generation had relatively prospered. American labor fought for an increasing amount of income that would permit workers to consume more goods and services, a system in which each generation could move to jobs considered more prestigious within the capitalist hierarchy. Blue-collar workers’ children could become white collar in the next generation. U.S. growth permitted ever-increasing real wages and possibilities for consumption. Even in the Great Depression from 1929-1939 real wages, the amount that one could buy with one’s wages, were able to rise because prices fell even faster than wages (Resnick and Wolff; Wolff 2003, 2005).

That ever-increasing prosperity stopped in 1970. By 1970 the introduction of computers, better telecommunications and more efficient transportation enabled jobs to be outsourced to lower paid workers overseas. Competing factories in Europe and Japan, which had been decimated by World War Two, were now vying for U.S. markets. China emerged as a manufacturing giant. Competition reduced the U.S. share of both domestic and global markets. The outsourcing of American jobs to cheaper labor markets was not stopped by our weak unions. They were unable to achieve the powerful “runaway shop” laws that were won in other nations. Nor did militant unions force the creation of a tight safety net to catch workers in financial distress.
For a long time, there was a relative scarcity of white male workers available for the jobs reserved for white males in America’s racially and sexually segregated job markets. White male workers who were accustomed to receiving increasing real wages and living a lifestyle of ever-greater consumption, could no longer support their families on their frozen wages. Americans’ sense of self worth was in large part dependent on their net worth. They became increasingly desperate. Their sense of personal value was cut with their salaries. This happened as the advertising industry burgeoned. Advertising continuously and relentlessly sells consumption as the path to happiness. Consumption was undermined and with it stability, prosperity and a sense of personal success.

At the same time American popular culture shifted to the right. Since US wages were frozen and American workers were increasingly productive, vast amounts of money accumulated at the top. Wealthy corporations increasingly invested in right wing media and culture. Left secular humanist values were marginalized and the left weakened.

3. What Produced the Crisis in Personal and Family Life?

Economic desperation pushed many more women into the labor force to increase money for the household. Previous to the 1970s, most white, non-immigrant American women entered the labor force only in times of particular and urgent family need: a husband was ill, unemployed, he died, they divorced, or he deserted his family (Tyagi and Warren 2003). Women’s labor outside the home provided some safety in times of emergency. In 1970, 40% of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly part time (Lee and Mather 2008). By the year 2008, 75 % of U.S. women were in the labor force, mostly full time. Many women enjoyed the greater autonomy, personal variation and creativity that jobs could provide. Many others both enjoyed the relative autonomy and were also forced by economic necessity to work long hours, outside of their homes in routinized dead end jobs with scarce assistance from governmental supports for daycare, after school programs, or elder care.

Women’s work outside of the home helped to improve the standard of living for most families, but it did not compensate families for lost white male wages. Women’s wage work imposes not only the obvious expenses of additional clothing and transportation, but also the costs of purchasing some of the goods and services that women previously produced at home free of charge, such as cooking, mending, cleaning, shopping and child care. Those goods and services are crucial. Once they become commodified in the marketplace, they become expensive. The latest figures indicate that if a stay-at-home mother in the United States were replaced by paid domestic products and services, the cost would be $122,732 a year. The domestic products produced and services rendered by a mom who works outside of the home would cost $76,184 per year. ( 2009).

Even with women flooding into the labor force, families were still financially hurting. Working women were now unable to perform household labor and childcare full time and there was still not enough money for consumption. More money was accumulating at the top while the mass of Americans suffered from frozen wages. The wealthy then promoted the credit card to lend to Americans the money that they formerly would have earned in growing wages. Families became dependent on credit card debt. Since the interest rate on credit cards ranges from 15% to 25%, Americans descended into debt at record breaking levels while their employers reaped huge profits.

The living standard of Americans deteriorated psychologically as well. In American culture women provide most of the emotional labor that makes home a warm and comfortable place for men and children. It is women who usually arrange children’s social lives and activities from play dates to dental appointments. Women are usually the directors of adult social life as well. Women are usually in charge of emotional life for the entire family. The more women work outside of the home without social support in childcare programs and domestic help, the more stressed, overworked, and emotionally unavailable they become. Overwhelmed women have less energy for the roles of social director and organizer as well as emotional and physical caregiver. Households are hurting emotionally. When Bush took office in 2000 he cut many of the already hobbled social programs that allowed families to survive. Families are in trouble.

Women are no longer willing to work outside of the home, do the lion’s share of the domestic work, and simultaneously take care of their children’s and husband’s physical and emotional needs largely unaided either by their husbands or by social programs. For the first time in American history, the majority of women are abandoning marriage. (Roberts, S. 2007). Women now initiate two-thirds of divorces. (Brinig, M. and Allen, D. 2000). Half of first marriages and 60% of second marriages end in legal separation or divorce. These impressive figures do not include the many people who end their marriages outside of the legal system.

When men’s emotional relationships with women break down, they have little intimate emotional support. Women usually count on other women to emotionally sustain them. Women still manage to befriend and support each other on a personal level in a way that few men can. These changes in households and family life are a third tributary to America’s deluge of disaster. Americans have lost both the financial dream of ever-increasing prosperity and consumption, the secular dream of a better world for all, and also the emotional family dream of a stable family connected by a present wife creating emotional connection, and domestic order. In short, Americans have lost the comforts of hope and home.

4. Americans’ Increasing Isolation From One Another

A fourth disaster is closely related. The freeze in U.S. real wages coincided with the beginning of American’s increasing isolation from one another. Beginning once again in the 1970s, almost all social connections between Americans declined. The decay in U.S. social life was an almost total phenomenon. It extended from inviting friends to dinner, to joining bridge clubs or bowling leagues, to volunteering for such non-controversial activities as joining the PTA or contributing to the Red Cross blood drive, to participating in more controversial activities such as working for a cause or a political candidate (Putnam 2000).
There was growth in social participation in evangelical religious groups, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual (GLBT) groups, Internet groups and self-help groups. However, membership in self-help groups, America’s greatest social participation growth area, was outnumbered two to one by the drop outs from bowling leagues alone (Putnam 2000, 150).

In exploring the question of why Americans have dropped out of U.S. social life and civic life, several theories are advanced. All but one account for a small percentage of the drop out rate. Women’s full time work does account for lesser social participation. However women dropping out because of working full time outside of the home accounts for a mere 10% of the drop out rate.

One might attribute U.S. social desertion to the phenomenon of busyness, but that too is an insufficient explanation. The average American watches four hours a day of television, which would be difficult to manage with an intensely busy schedule (Putnam 2000, 222). The Internet may seem like a replacement for social interaction, but the Internet isolates people as well as connects them.

Extensive television viewing may be a culprit since more people relate to their television sets than to each other, and the heaviest viewing correlates to the least social participation (Putnam 2000, 229). But surely this is a symptom as well as a cause of the problems that isolate Americans. I say this because extensive television viewing is reported by the viewers themselves as so unsatisfying that it leaves them “not feeling so good.” (Putnam 2000, 241). Their descriptions convey extensive television viewing as an addiction that compels without satisfying. The overwhelming number of viewers watches for the purpose of distraction, or entertainment. Television functions as an escape from loneliness, changed gender expectations and looming economic disaster.

5. The Drugging of America

The fifth tributary that helped to create our deluge of disaster is both a cause and also an effect of America’s social breakdown. That is, the numbing of Americans with psychotropic drugs. In 2006, Americans, who are approximately 6% of the world’s population consumed 66% of the world’s supply of antidepressants ( 2006; Barber 2008, 20). In 2002, more than 13% of Americans were taking Prozac alone. Prozac is one of 30 available antidepressants (Agency for Health Research and Quality 2005; Kelly 2005). Anti-anxiety drugs, such as Zoloft, are so widely prescribed, that in the year 2005, the $3.1 billion dollar sales of Zoloft exceeded the sales for Tide detergent (Raber 2006;).

Many of these drugs, which are also, called “cosmetic drugs” or “life enhancing drugs” are diagnosed for loneliness, sadness, life transitions, or concentration on task performance. They have been “normalized” through both extensive direct-to-consumer advertising and marketing to doctors who are financially rewarded for recommending them to colleagues. Regulations which once restrained the widespread promotion and sales of these powerful drugs have been relaxed to the point of near nonexistence (Healy 1998, 2004; Glenmullen 2000; Lane 2007). The United States is the only Western nation that permits direct-to-consumer drug advertising. We are also the only nation without price controls on drugs. Psychiatric drugs are so ubiquitous that the pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable industry in America and antidepressants are their most profitable products (Barber 2000, 24).

The current disaster did not just happen with the recent burst of the stock market and housing bubbles. Americans somewhere knew for a long time they could not pay their credit card bills or their mortgages. Somewhere, unconsciously, they had to know that disaster was approaching. They responded with denial, withdrawal, depression, and dissociation accomplished with the aid of drugs, extensive television viewing and preoccupation with scandals and celebrities.

What Can We Do?

Each of the five tributaries flowed together to drown the mass of Americans in debt, family dissolution, isolation political hopelessness, and drug-induced apathy. In response to the original questions that inspired this article, we now need to ask another question: what can we do about it? Americans may now be looking for change. They elected a president who was a different color and promised change. That change has not happened. Where else can we look?

A Time When Non-Commercial Values Are Attractive

Capitalism needs and breeds consumerism. We are surrounded by advertisements for products. Ubiquitous advertising has a blighting side effect. The presentation of connection carries a price tag for a branded product. Scenes of connection with a group of friends include, for example, Budweiser beer. The devoted mother is washing your clothes with Tide. The sexy woman who men want and women want to be seems to come with the sleek Toyota. Adds appear whenever you turn on your computer or read newspapers or magazines. Product placement is present in almost every film. Television, America’s mass entertainment, embraces product placement and explicit advertising directed to all ages. Capitalist consumerism coveys the message that relationships happen with and through products. There are too few scenes of people trying honestly to connect and surmount their real economic, social and emotional problems through honest discussion and negotiation as they enjoy their connection and work on creating close, mutual, nurturing relationships. They are most rarely shown in political struggle around either social justice or economic issues. How do we manage to effect change within this environment? Where are the contradictions that create openings?

One opportunity is offered by the recent capitalist collapse that has intensified American suffering. People can no longer afford the brand name products seen on TV. Their economic woes reveal the relentless hustling of now unaffordable consumer products. They try generics, unknown brands, and less consumption and often find them just as good. This presents us with an opening to question. New, non-commercial values can form.
Since Americans are hooked on the mass media and the media loves anything new, the left can create media attracting new actions. The anarchist group that formed around the book, The Coming Insurrection, got full media attention when a well publicized group jumped on stage at Barnes and Noble New York for a spontaneous reading which began “Everyone agrees it’s about to explode” (Moynihan 2009). Their action was widely covered for its novelty.

We can look to the four areas that have grown in the current social drought. They are, in order of their growth, self help groups, Internet groups, evangelical church groups, and GLBT groups.

Self Help Groups

The biggest self help groups are AA and NA, (Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous). Huge alcohol and pharmaceutical lobbies created highly lucrative individual solutions to problems in the forms of alcohol and drugs that have proved to be a personal and social disaster for millions of Americans who cannot function on the job and suffer havoc in their personal lives. The individual solution of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol – promoted so efficiently by capitalism -- failed terribly. In the face of that failure, millions join together in small groups where they share their pain and suffering within a supportive, non-judgmental collective that operates without salaries, advertisements or financial charges. These twelve step groups give the Left a window of possibility. We can add a 13th step to their 12 step programs. We can add a step to organize against big pharmaceutical and liquor advertising, which profits on false promises. We can learn to incorporate non-judgmental personal and political support and psychological as well as political dimensions to left groups where both non-judgmental attitudes and psychological support have been sadly lacking.
We can also study the contradictions that helped to produce GLBT organizations. Advertising creates omnipresent images of happiness accessed though products that relate to sexual attractiveness. The sexy woman rides in the man’s sleek new car. The sexually virile man drives a big truck and smokes Marlboros. Multibillion dollar industries like the diet, cosmetic and fashion industries promote products to enhance sexual attractiveness. Popular culture celebrates heterosexual coupling and family as ultimate happiness while avoiding mention of collective joys or homosexuality. The GLBT movement works to include those in their identity group who are excluded from the grand celebration of personal couple happiness built around sexual pairing. The very pressure to channel complex desires into heterosexual coupling, helped to create a GLBT movement that worked as a group and opened collective visions and possibilities.

Since most families and relationships are breaking down, American people desperately need connection. Organizing creates connection. Collective dreams have a chance to replace the individualistic desires cultivated in capitalist America.

What We Can Learn From Evangelicals’ Failures… and Successes

Conservative evangelical groups create a collective vision and connection while celebrating capitalist success as God’s blessing. They provide some of what people desperately need and the Left ignores, such as strong verbal support for important work in the home and a focus on the hard work of child rearing. Conservative evangelicals  manage to accomplish this while sex role stereotyping that labor, as well as opposing every non-church-based material support that actually allows families to stay afloat. They typically oppose single payer health plans, Head Start for all, sex education (unless abstinence-based), family planning, maternity and paternity benefits, minimum wage hikes, etc. In the end they cannot deliver the support that families need. In spite of their “prosperity gospel,” the savior they pray to has not saved them from financial and personal desperation or divorce. Red states have tge highest proportion of evangelicals and the highest divorce rates.

Their reduction of morality to personal morality and particularly sexual morality has an embarrassing side effect. Googling “evangelical scandals” results in 3,729,0 000 hits in five seconds. Evangelical scandals have resulted in reduced credibility. There is now an opportunity for the wider ethical spiritual morality of groups like Tikkun and left-leaning evangelicals like Sojourners who develop their social, economic, personal and political morality and see political activity as an expression of morality taken into the world. We on the Left have an opportunity to champion our own moral, ethical and spiritual vision to Americans who desperately need connection with others, morality and hope for a better world. Evangelical promotion of the centrality of personal connection and family gives the Left an opening to advocate material and psychological support for all kinds of families. The Left urgently needs a family program to address the mass breakdown of U.S. homes and families.

The evangelical groups can, ironically show us what we are missing. The failure of evangelical morality which excludes social, economic and political morality may create an opening for a much needed Left program of social, political, economic and also personal ethics and morality for which many hunger.

There are explicitly political possibilities afforded by the net. MoveOn.Org and other political groups organize and mobilize through the net. In Iran, the opposition evaded censors, communicated with each other, and aroused national and international support through tweeting and Facebook. The Facebook account of Neda Soltani’s murder focused Iran and the world on the violent repression of Mousavi’s supporters (Ajemian2009; Talt and Weaver 2009; Time Staff 2009; YouTube 2009). That possibility exists here.

The four social growth groups springing up in America’s desert of political opposition point out possible avenues for a Left that desperately needs direction. Let us return to our original questions: Why are Americans passive as millions lose their homes, their jobs, their families and the American dream?
Why do Americans remain at home disorganized while their European counterparts flood into the streets in militant, organized protests? How did this happen? What forces are responsible?

We can see that the cycles of capitalism with its relentless need for consumer spending and capital accumulation at the top have devastated America. We can also see that unbridled capitalism has created mass suffering and then turned the rage of those who suffer against all who need governmental assistance and an additional group of scapegoats such as homosexuals, feminists, liberals, socialists, and immigrants. We can create new roads to reclaim this nation by organizing and activating the mass of Americans who know that the ostensible “recovery” will not return what they have lost. They dared to elect a president who championed change verbally, who campaigned on unity and respect for all and who preserves the structures that destroyed their lives. They have turned to self help groups, evangelists, psycho-pharmaceutical drugs, and sexual identity politics, which do not solve the multifaceted crisis in which they are drowning. They need another way. Perhaps we can provide it?

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