By DON HAZEN
Every day, thousands, probably millions of people ask their
family, friends, neighbors and colleagues similar and increasingly familiar questions: What has happened to our country? How did we get here? Isn’t it scary? Can anything be done about it?
There is an abundance of evidence that there are forces tearing apart the U.S.economy and society, causing increasing levels of fear, anxiety and trauma for large numbers of people. Many people are
mystified as to the specific causes of their fears, with a mass media
system that constantly broadcasts propaganda about how great America
is and a new digital media system that may be exacerbating the problems for a society.
There is the added problem that the theories and the means of social change we are familiar with, and to which we still turn, are not remotely up to the task we face, and have mostly proven to be inadequate. Virtually every problem we face has gotten worse over the past 40 years, and heavily sped up since 9/11 and the economic crash of 2007.
In an environment of confusion and despair, it can be helpful to name the beast—essentially to understand the forces at play, how they operate, and why they feel both intractable and overwhelming. So, what follows is a kind of Users’ Guide To What Is Freaking Us Out.”
What Has Happened to Us?
So the big question is: what is the “it” that has happened to us? Depending on your vantage point and the myriad problems in front of us, “it” can be any number of causes and factors.
For many, it is the disappearance of the sense of a democracy many thought was embedded in U.S society. Sure, we’ve always been ruled by elites. But we are in a new era where we feel crushed by the overwhelming dominance of corporations and big institutions that treat people like commodities, getting away with degrading people’s dignities while pocketing large profits. This is especially true
of banks, which are now so big they are beyond the reach of the legal system for fear that the global economy will be adversely affected.
Many people feel they have no control over the direction of the country because their vote doesn’t matter—incumbents with the most money mostly get elected.
Many voters feel trapped by the lack of options because of pro-corporate stances of both Republicans and Democrats, and then there is another beast—the rabid right-wing.Our legislators are bought by campaign contributions and seem incapable of constructive action. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, and the fact that legally corporations are often treated like persons, is beyond most people’s comprehension.
Economic Disaster For Many For others, the anxiety producing “it” is directly connected to personal economic loss, of homes, jobs, personal wealth, or increased debt, all which has contributed to a massive erosion of financial security.
The statistics are quite shocking. The poor are suffering—more than 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty level, which is $23,201 for a family of four. That’s $5,800 per person; but a far larger group of 138 million people (nearly 40% of American households)—many of whom had considered themselves part of the
middle class—are living paycheck to paycheck. And, according to a Pew Foundation survey, “nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they had trouble putting food on the table in the past 12 month revealing a painful level of deprivation and family trauma despite the U.S. being the richest country in the world. Our level of deprivation is closer to that in Indonesia or Greece rather than Britain or Canada.”
Especially for Those About to Retire … Or Thought They Were
Furthermore, financial security for the future, often referred as the “American Dream,” is increasingly out of reach for many millions. This is especially true for those approaching retirement—a goal that has been undermined, even destroyed, by the economic crash of 2007, which robbed so many of what small wealth they had. Over the long run, a major culprit has been the replacement of pensions by the grossly inadequate 401K model, which is forcing millions of Americans to keep on working, or find marginal jobs to help pay the bills as they age, or in some cases fall into poverty, living only on a meager Social Security stipend.
As Joshua Holland recently noted, this trend “has been an integral part of what Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker called the great risk-shift, in which the burden of paying for education, healthcare and retirement has increasingly shifted from corporations and the government onto the backs of individuals and families.”
Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research writes, “The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.” She adds, “Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts.”
But the situation is far from great for recent college graduates, many of whom are being crushed under student loan debt, while facing a competitive and often exploitative job market, where all too often an unpaid internship is an essential way to advance in a career. This is the first generation since the Great Depression that will make less money and have fewer resources than their parents. Perhaps because of dealing with all the stress, this generation has a
prescription pill epidemic on their hands, which may be leading to a significant increase in suicides in their demographic.
Take Your Pick
This first summary just touches on some of the economic problems. The list of concerns and anxieties goes on and on—here are some of the most prominent, but any reader will be able to add her own to the list:
• The lack of an adequate response to the looming climate crisis.
• Mass incarceration, in which 2.3 million Americans, a huge number of them African American and Latino, are behind bars.
• The huge and still expanding security state, as police forces militarize, even in small cities and towns.
• A high level of unemployment at 7.5 %, considerably beyond what historically has been acceptable. And as Andrew Ross points out in the San Francisco Chronicle, “12.2 million Americans are classified as ‘not in the labor force’because they’re considered ‘discouraged.” When you add in the discouraged and the reluctant part-timers (7.2 million people) the unemployment rate jumps first to 9%, then to 13.9%.
• The continued prevalence of violence against women, often fueled by alcohol, and by the culture of rape in the U.S. military.
• The war on poor students as testing dominates the move toward privatizing public elementary and secondary education via charter schools; and in public schools, kids are increasingly treated as criminals.
• The assault on journalists, civil liberties and whistleblowers by a Democratic president, who campaigned quite differently than he is governing.
• The return of many wounded and psychological damaged soldiers from our two wars, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers are suffering from PTSD, and often lacking in supportive services to help them cope.
• The still-unchallenged power of the NRA, as many states are passing more lax gun laws, or making sure there are no gun control laws at all, despite the popular will, and the overwhelming data documenting the number of people killed by guns.
The list of disasters adds up to a very dark picture; the future looks bleak for tens of millions of people, a fact that has produced an epidemic of fear and anxiety.
And finding our way out is a huge challenge, in part because the safety net keeps getting shredded, and the guidebooks we have used to challenge oppressive power are not capable of leading the way.
Many critics have been content to attribute the current state of affairs to a particularly virulent brand of casino capitalism practiced in the U.S. and gaining dominance globally. Sure, this is true. But it is not sufficient to simply chalk up our predicament to capitalism, because there are many forms of the capitalist economic system that don’t produce the dire results we have here in the U.S.
The problem is the special brand of American capitalism, with its thousands of interlocking parts feeding on each other, that ends up controlling and exploiting a majority of Americans. It is important to deconstruct how this happens in a digestible way.
The Symptoms Are All Around Us
A strong case can be made that collectively we are traumatized as a society, though perhaps reluctant to admit it. A constant barrage of stress, anxiety, intrusion, incarceration, and a generalized drumbeat of fear from the media and we have the mess we are in. Increasingly, despair leads to addiction, violence and even suicide, especially for people hardest hit by job loss.
Newly released and striking figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that from 1999 to 2010 the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, up from 13.7 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2010 more people in the U.S. died from suicide than from car crashes —a statistic that alone seems to stand as troubling testament to desperate times. As the New York Times notes, the CDC and other experts believe the suicide figures to be on the low side.
Another striking symptom is high levels of stress that lead to drug use, abuse and addiction. Research concludes that stress can render people susceptible to serious illness, and that chronic stress can play a role in the progression of cancer. It is hard to believe, but 11 percent of all Americans aged 12 and older, which is well over 30 million people, are currently taking antidepressants despite
the danger of suicide for some users.