Only in America Could Misery Be Turned Into a Commodity / By Joe Bageant

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Erich Fromm was among the first to call attention to the psychological malaise afflicting most Americans, including what he termed the “marketing personality.” He thought capitalist values not only alienated people from themselves, but introduced a huge element of hypocrisy and isolation in human relations paid for in myriad mental disorders, which to this day the US mental health establishment has refused to acknowledge as triggered, in large measure, by a profoundly malformed society

By Joe Bageant

February 11, 2009

HOPKINS VILLAGE, Belize — Sitting down here in Central America, happily abusing my health, occasionally, between the hangovers and the bouts with sand fleas and mosquitoes comes an insight or two, or at least what passes for insight in my lowbrow take on life.

One of these is just how damned lucky the Third World is that it cannot afford a sophisticated mental health system. By that I mean the kind like in the “developed countries,” where murder and suicide rates are quintuple what they are here in this village. Not that we are without own village resources.

My Garifuna buddy Eljay, was in what we would call a depressed state a few months ago and went to a local “spirit doctor.” The wizened old spirit mojo man cured Eljay with a single utterance: “Quit smokin’ da ganja for one month.” It worked. Total cost: About $2.50 and a pound of red beans.

They say the old spirit doctor also treats such things as sexual dysfunction, although I sure as hell cannot detect much evidence of dysfunction, judging from the noises in the village cabanas and under beachside palms at night.

In any case, it causes me to wonder why is there enough pain and alienation to sustain America’s umpteen-billion-dollar mental health business and its 400-plus specialties, not to mention the inner self-help industry and Deepak Chopra’s royal court. Why is it that during the months I spend in America, I meet so many obviously sick fuckers, some successfully practicing law or politics, others homeless and schizophrenic?

You need not be Marcus Welby or R.D. Lang to feel the stress, depression, boredom and loneliness permeating everyday life up there in Gringolia. But to get an overview, it does help to be a couple thousand miles outside the place. Kind of like being high in the stands at the racetrack with binoculars rather than down at the rail next to the paddock.

Matters seem especially acute of late, with the entire American anthill in turmoil as its common god, the almighty economy, waves bye-bye while being noisily sucked down the global gurgler. Hell, 20 years ago, mental health problems were already being described as “epidemic,” despite the joys of Facebook, iPod and the consumption of some 25 million pounds of hot wings on Super Bowl Sunday. A place where “normal” life includes Viagra, all the fried chicken you can stuff, around-the-clock televised crotch shots and HDTV as national mandate.

I used to think it was just some melancholic germ of my own that made me see a slowly increasing American alienation, anxiety and inner sadness over the span of my 62 years. Now however, I’m pretty convinced there is a national pathology at work, one that author Arthur Barsky called the “pathology of American normalcy.” Sounds accurate to me.

In fact, this psychic poverty has been around so long that it has become something of a norm. Despite that we have not resorted to cannibalism, and perhaps because we have refused to institute single-payer health care, or god forbid, socialism, we long ago passed into the realm of what we like to call an “unhealthy society.”

Might not America’s psychological malaise be the result of knowing deep inside that life can hold more meaning — be more joyful? More emotionally rewarding and fulfilling? In a word, healthier?

Americans who can afford to be, are obsessed with health of any kind. The rest of us chain smoke in despair. All of which tosses fresh red meat to the politicians, who offer “plans,” all of which come down to the same thing — we pay for corporate expansion of both the insurance and “medical industry,” but through insignificantly different methods.

Interestingly, despite our pursuit of constant medical attention and the construction of the planet’s largest and most profitable health machinery, treatment factories for every real and imagined or industry-manufactured ailment, surveys show, Americans do not trust doctors. They feel physicians are primarily businessmen or businesswomen who happen to practice medicine because that’s where the real grease, the big bucks are.

This may or may not be true, but we see little evidence to counter their suspicions. Even the closest physician friend I have in the States insists on a $125 office visit — cash at the front desk on the way out, please — before he will refill a blood-pressure prescription I’ve been taking for 15 years. He knows I do not have health insurance, but hey, what’s a bill-and-a-quarter between friends? Well, it’s a month’s grub for some of us, or dinner and drinks for two at the country club for others.

By comparison, my doctor in Jalisco, Mexico, Jim Jaramillo, who practiced in Albuquerque for 30 years, invites me to ride into the surrounding ranch country and have a dawn drink with the Mexican cowboys, simply because he regards all his patients as friends. And “Nurse Judy,” who runs the main clinic here in Hopkins, whoops it up with the rest of her patients on Friday oldies night down by the beach. The village’s Dr. Anya, a Mayan-mestizo lady trained in Castro’s famous Cuban institution, dropped by my cabana to examine the local kids on my front porch. For free. Then we played guitar together.

I asked her if she could teach me any local folk songs. “No,” she said, “I’m into Iris Dementh.” Go figure. Anyway, none of these doctors require appointments.

But we started out talking about the psychic pathology of Americanness, didn’t we? So without going too far over ground well enough covered by better and more authoritative writers than I, the pathology of Americanness is entirely about human consciousness, a taboo subject in our declining industrial super state.

The subject has been officially smothered, or even demonized, by authority since it was first openly broached in the ’60s. However, those running the industrial government complex learned a few things, too, in the process. Particularly about the efficacy of dope.

Being authoritarian and capitalist, they of course preferred downers over the mind-expanding drugs. And ever since then, corporately produced biochemicals, tranqs, mind-numbing antidepressants and the like have been successfully used privately on individuals to squelch the psychic anguish produced in the Darwinian workhouse America has become.

Not that I’m entirely opposed. As I’ve said before, if this officially sanctioned dope were a bit more ecstatic and colorful, I’d be right there in line for my share. Hell, I’m an American — instant gratification works for me, too. But an anesthetic to workhouse burnout just ain’t enough incentive. Beyond that, the street drugs are crap these days. So to our King Kong pharmaceutical industry, I say: “Work with me here guys!”

Seriously though, back in the ’60s, along with LSD, nature and Buddhism, I looked to psychology for answers. Sure, psychology was very much a bourgeois affectation and fad at the time. But it looked damned promising to many of us, including a redneck hippie with tons of cultural and family baggage to unload and an allergy to mindless toil — especially those aspects of psychology that dealt with social realization.

But who’d have guessed it would become a massive and officially sanctioned ideological control arm of the state? A form of social control and containment of the citizenry through a governmental and corporately sponsored “mental heath system?” And the way it does so is this: It refuses to acknowledge that our aggregate society holds any responsibility for the conditions it produces in our fellow individual members.

Now, collective societal responsibility is common sense for, say, a Dane or a Frenchman. Most of them anyway. For Americans though, it’s an explosive issue.

Because if we acknowledged collective responsibilities to the individual members of our society, then we would have to deal with the issue of class in this country. Some gestures are now being made in that direction, thanks to President Barack Obama, but it’s still America’s longest-standing hot tater that I doubt even he will hold very long.

Every successful, well-off American, or even so called middle-class Americans — we seem to be unable to truly define them; even uninsured households earning under $25,000 most often define themselves as middle class, thanks to our national denial of our class system — succeeds at the expense of some other American. Or more accurately at the expense of an entire, unacknowledged underclass of them.

Consequently, we get the “self-determination” and “individual initiative” stuff as an excuse and cover-up. An attractive one, too, given that it implies some sort of superiority of effort or talent. And there’s no denying that life requires some of both from everyone. But that does not reconcile our larger-than-ever class discrepancies, much less the alienation one feels when he or she cannot trust that his or her society is operating on his or her behalf.

Whatever else can be said of capitalism, it is miraculous stuff, pure alchemy. It can privatize and corporatize any damned thing under the sun, turn a profit on it, and then make it a bulwark of corporate state control to boot. Even human misery and oppression of soul and mind.

Psychological practice and its institutions benefit greatly from this. After all, they are in the alienation business. It is entirely in the profession’s best interests that it treats us as if our lives are lived in a vacuum, our loneliness and despair are entirely our own, as if there were no such thing as context, much less American society’s corrosive and toxic environment in which so many of us live out our lives.

Put another way, it acknowledges our misery, then privatizes it, then administers lonely, alienated “treatment” for our emptiness in a private void, one among tens of millions of like emptinesses in similar voids that are in no way supposed to be societal. No matter that there are enough sufferers to constitute an entire society in themselves.

The result, whether or not by design, is to perpetuate the most venerable of American myths, that of the completely autonomous self. Which denies us the power and beauty, not to mention the healing and efficacy, of human unity.

In the big picture, much of the U.S. mental health industry, and its associated systems, perpetuate and even propagate mental sickness perhaps as much as it alleviates, through its paradigms.

In any case, for the most part, psychology as an institution has hardened into part of the national ideology, thanks to the catalyst of gobs of dough from the state. The American Psychological Association’s initial refusal to condemn member participation in the Bush regime’s torture told me all I needed to know about U.S. psych-officialdom.

This somehow reminds me of the old Soviet Union’s psychiatric handling of dissidents. If you did not display state-defined norms, then you were deemed nuts and needed medication, behavior modification or institutionalization. It was deemed impossible that those very norms may have been driving your condition.

The similarities are there, particularly when you consider the massive growth of the U.S. prison industry and its reliance on pharmaceutical and behavior-modification control. The entire machinery of education, social work, psychology and medicine are meshed (though the practitioners would stoutly deny it) and help hold firm the class line in this country.

Many of them do so unknowingly, of course, and are dedicated to helping fellow beings through the methods they have been taught — and are accredited through state-sanctioned institutions of course. But the overwhelming majority seem to draw their paychecks and health insurance happily enough.

Ever spend much time with the average mid-American social services psychologist? The kind who make recommendations in our juvenile courts, etc? On the whole, they’re a sorry-assed bunch if ever there was one; bureaucrats wrapped in the smug piety of social work. Others are far more aware, but fearful of calling bullshit on the system that pays the mortgage and sends the kids to college.

Given the economic and societal breakdown now under way and accelerating toward completion, Obama or no Obama (what is this thing of ours, this national obsession with saviors, elected or otherwise?), it’s bound to be interesting to see if they can indoctrinate, dope, counsel and lock up or medicate the dissidence, and perhaps outright resistance that will occur.

Whether the final American collapse takes four years or 40 years is anybody’s guess. But it’s gonna take a passel of behavioral-management experts, whether in psychological institutions, university research centers, or on Madison Avenue, to keep the lid on this puppy when she blows.

However, I’m not ruling out the possibility that they just might help do that — keep the lid on — because they are state authorized and accredited to do so. The infrastructure of industrial-strength administration of psychology is there and has been ever since sheepskins were issued to “industrial psychologists.” Nobody in the Western world seems to see the irony and conflict in that term.

But the fact is that even if 50 million Americans exploded tomorrow, they would have “snapped” alone, particulated and atomized in a very large and spread out country, and ultimately be administered treatment or institutionalized as “individuals.” Of course, if they if they were more concentrated, which would put them in a situation to act in unison, then god help ‘em, because they would then be a national-security problem — the last thing you want to be in a security state.

Obviously, I’m no psychiatrist and am sure to get plenty of e-mail offering certain proof of that, plus proof that I am a paranoid nutcase with authority problems (I’ll gladly admit to the latter), though in more polite professional jargon. To which I say less politely, “Fuck ‘em all!” I see what I see.

And what I see, based upon my own experience and watching that of others, is that alienation and the pain of utter aloneness is in the rootstock of nearly all psychic malady, excepting the clearly organic. If when we look around us in the world, we do not see ourselves in society, nor does society see itself in us, we eventually come to feel the sustained, unutterable pain of aloneness. This would seem the appropriate response for a member of our highly social species of flesh and does not necessarily deem us ill, but often rather more human.

Unfortunately, Americans get laughed off the map for being overly human these days, dubbed emotional wimps, part of the Kumbaya crowd, unrealistic utopians … and if you are sincerely human enough, you get your ass kicked by the system. To be so makes us the bane of the super-rational, technological, production-driven society we have come to be.

We got there partly through our weakness, shallow greed and mindless consent, but more so by the orchestrated world machinery benefiting powerful elites, both corporate, governmental and financial (is there a difference?), which have always been among us, although never in such strength.

Many years ago, as a much younger man, I went through a couple of major depressions, the second of which brought me to the brink of suicide. In the first instance, I was somewhat helped, through medication and “talk therapy” by a psychologist who eventually killed himself. They found him in a tree in his back yard with his beeper going off. This is not to disparage the man in any way. Dr. John Farley was a man of good will, good intent and great compassion.

The second time though, I walked out of the abyss by myself. And along the way, I encountered, sought out really, others on the same path. And I saw that together, in open sharing of our personal truths, most, if not all, of us were nowhere near mentally ill. Just sick. Sick even to the point of death in some cases, of our spiritual imprisonment within the Great Machine, but strong enough to refuse under any circumstances to dwell under its spiritual humiliation.

Contrary to what one might think, in the many years since, I’ve not much thought about those experiences. Just moved on. But in this new and strange era in which we find ourselves, they’ve returned as subjects of contemplation. And — judge me as you will — like many others these days, I smell the breath of Thanos in that machinery of the system unto which we supplicate in our fear, denial or intentional obliviousness.

Still, it is only a system. Systems can be changed. In any case, they inevitably crash entirely of their own entropies. Doubtlessly, ours will take down with it the hardening privatization and institutional control of the human spirit. I won’t be around to see it.

But I would be damned pleased to see such a once-noble attempt at elimination of suffering as the American psychological profession rise to the choices before us — liberation from our collective societal darkness and psychic death within the machine.

Meanwhile, here in Hopkins Village, darkness has come and brought with it good old Eljay, ready to split a bottle of the local bitters on my porch. The night winds are rising and with them comforting assurance that The Machine is not everything … indeed, not anything by the light of these indifferent stars.

Joe Bageant is a Senior Editor with Cyrano’s Journal, and author of the best-selling book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (Random House Crown), about working-class America’s malformed political consciousness. A complete archive of his online work, along with the thoughts of many working Americans on the subject of class may be found on his Web site

3 comments on “Only in America Could Misery Be Turned Into a Commodity / By Joe Bageant
  1. A VERY WELL WRITTEN TOME…I AGREE WITH YOU ON MOST OF WHAT YOU STATED..SOME OF IT IS RIGHT OUT FROM OWN SKULL..I FOR ONE NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT WRITING ABOUT IT..CAUSE MOST OF THE HALF WAY INTELLIGENT PEOPLE WHO THINK THEY GOT GOD GIVEN RIGHTS TOO GET OR DO WHAT THEY WANT AND WHEN THE POOR BABIES GET A DOSE OF REALITY..THATS WHEN THEY MEET A SMART WHITE JEW BOY FROM NYC..BORN THERE TOO..THEY ARE UP AGAINST A BRICK WALL..I NEVER SUFFER FOOLS..WHETHER HIGH-SCHOOL OR COLLEGE SMART IDIOTS..ITS ALL THE SAME..THEY LIVE IN A DREAM WORLD AND MANY ARE SO EMPTY AS HUMAN BEINGS..WELL ITS A MODERN DAY DISEASE..PEOPLE WHO WALK WITH IPOD EAR PHONES OR BLAB ALL DAY ON CELL PHONES OR TEX…AND YES THEY DO WALK INTO WALLS AND POLES..I HAVE SEEN IT!THEY TURN OFF THE WORLD..EVER LISTEN TO THE ORIGINAL ULTRAVOX BRIT GROUP..FROM 1978..THE SECOND LP..AND I BELIEVE YOU STILL CANT GET IT ON CD…MOST OF THE EXCELLENT SONGS DEAL WITH THIS MODERN ALIENATION..THEY MADE ME A STRANGER..WALK THRU ME..LIKE I DONT EXIST..BELIEVE ME..SO MANY WILL NEVER HAVE ANY KIND OF RELATIONSHIP WITH ANOTHER..CAUSE IF THEIR HIGH FLY AGENDAS CANT BE MET..WELL ILL WALK RIGHT THRU YOU..YOU SHOULD GET OUT OF MY WAY..IM A WOMAN..BETTER OPEN THAT DOOR OR ELSE..BETTER NOT WALK NEAR ME..YOU MIGHT WANT TO RAPE MY GOLD PLATED VAGINA..LETS FACE FACTS..THE FEM-ZOIDS HAVE ALSO ADDED TOO THIS ENNUI OF SADNESS…YOU CAN WRITE ME IF YOU WANT TOO…I KNOW VERY WELL HOW PEOPLE TIC..IF AFTER ALMOST 60 YEARS IM NOT SMARTER MENTALLY..WELL IM ONE OF THOSE THAT CAN HEAR THE GRASS GROW..I ALWAYS SAW THE TREES FOR THE FOREST..AND I SEE THE HUMAN RACE DESTROYING ITSELF FROM WITHIN…I THINK THATS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN SAYING..FEEL FREE TO WRITE BACK..YOUR A THINKING MAN…BY THE WAY..BET THATS THE ENDING FOR THE DR. ON HBOS SHRINK MELODRAMA..HE KILLS HIMSELF DUE TO LISTENING TO OTHER PEOPLES CRAZY-INSANE AGENDAS..RAY DAVIES..OTHER PEOPLES LIVES..THIS KINKS FRONT MAN..ONE OF THE BEST WHO WRITES ALL ABOUT THE SMALL GUY IN A SOCIETY THATS GONE MAD..WITH GREED AND EGO ROCKET TRIPS INTO THE VAST EMPTY AIR…

  2. Some people gain wisdom with age, most don’t, they just become old fools. The hardest form of wisdom to acquire is political wisdom, and a realization of which class one belongs to.

  3. WELL WE ALL WILL EVENTUALLY SUFFER LOSS OF MANY OF OUR THINKING PATTERNS,LOGIC AND PROPORTION..WHY I EVEN FORGOT WHO WAS THE LAST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED SNAKES…WHATS ITS NAME FROM TEX-MY ASS..GEORGIE ORGY BUSH..SHIT..THATS WHAT YOU CALL A WOMANS PUSSEY…CHRIST ON A PLASTIC CRU-SUE-FIX..WHO WOULD WANT TO BE HAVING A LAST NAME LIKE THAT..OH OH..IT WAS RONNIE MACDONALD RAYGUN..HE WAS A GREAT ACTOR REPTILE REPUBLICAN..THE MAN WAS A JERK..I MEAN A GENT..AND ON THE QUESTION OF WITCH CLASS OF HOMO SAPIANS I BELONG TOO..NONE..CLASS IS ONLY SOMETHING YOU GO TOO AT 9AM IN COLLEGE..HEY FRANCHOT..YOUR THE ONLY GERBILE I HAVE EVER SEEN WITH THAT NAME OTHER THAN THE ACTOR FRANCHOT TONE..HE DISAPPEARED..AROUND 1940…NOT A GREAT ACTOR LIKE YOU..BET YOUR AN OUT OF WORK FRENCHMAN..EXILED TO THE LOWER EAST SIDE WHERE CLASS IS A REAL ORGASM OF THE MINDLESS..IM THE ONE WHO CREATED THE HANG THE AIG FUCKERS WITH PIANO WIRE..THAT STUPID SHIT FER BRAINS LIDDY FROM AIG READ THAT TO THE SENATORS..CRYING WE ARE BEING THREATENED..CRETINS LIKE AIG WILL MEET THEIR JUSTICE..SOON AND SWIFT

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