Diseases of Despair
The opioid crisis, the frequent mass shootings, the rising rates of suicide, especially among middle-aged white males, the morbid obesity, the obsession with gambling, the investment of our emotional and intellectual life in tawdry spectacles and the allure of magical thinking, from the absurd promises of the Christian right to the belief that reality is never an impediment to our desires, are the pathologies of a diseased culture. They have risen from a decayed world where opportunity, which confers status, self-esteem and dignity, has dried up for most Americans. They are expressions of acute desperation and morbidity.
A loss of income causes more than financial distress. It severs, as the sociologist Émile Durkheim pointed out, the vital social bonds that give us meaning. A decline in status and power, an inability to advance, a lack of education and health care and a loss of hope are crippling forms of humiliation. This humiliation fuels loneliness, frustration, anger and feelings of worthlessness. In short, when you are marginalized and rejected by society, life often has little meaning.
“When life is not worth living, everything becomes a pretext for ridding ourselves of it … ,” Durkheim wrote. “There is a collective mood, as there is an individual mood, that inclines nations to sadness. … For individuals are too closely involved in the life of society for it to be sick without their being affected. Its suffering inevitably becomes theirs.”
White men, more easily seduced by the myth of the American dream than people of color who understand how the capitalist system is rigged against them, often suffer feelings of failure and betrayal, in many cases when they are in their middle years. They expect, because of notions of white supremacy and capitalist platitudes about hard work leading to advancement, to be ascendant. They believe in success. When the American dream becomes a nightmare they are vulnerable to psychological collapse. This collapse, more than any political agenda, propelled Donald Trump into power. Trump embodies the decayed soul of America. He, like many of those who support him, has a childish yearning to be as omnipotent as the gods. This impossibility, as the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote, leads to a dark alternative: destroying like the gods.
In “Hitler and the Germans” the political philosopher Eric Voegelin dismissed the myth that Hitler—an uneducated mediocrity whose only strength was an ability to exploit political opportunities—mesmerized and seduced the German people. The Germans, he wrote, voted for Hitler and the “grotesque, marginal figures” surrounding him because he embodied the pathologies of a diseased society, one beset by economic collapse, hopelessness and violence. This sickness found its expression in the Nazis, as it has found its expression in the United States in Trump.
Hannah Arendt said the rise of radical evil is caused by collective “thoughtlessness.” Desperate to escape from the prison of a failed society, willing to do anything and abuse anyone to advance, those who feel trapped see the people around them as objects to be exploited for self-advancement. This exploitation mirrors that carried out by corrupt ruling elites. Turning people into objects to be used to achieve wealth, power or sexual gratification is the core practice espoused by popular culture, from reality television to casino capitalism. Trump personifies this practice.
Plato wrote that the moral character of a society is determined by its members. When the society abandons the common good it unleashes amoral lusts—violence, greed and sexual exploitation—and fosters magical thinking. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus called those who severed themselves from the moral and reality-based universe idiotes. When these idiotes, whose worldview is often the product of relentless indoctrination, form a majority or a powerful minority, the demagogue rises from the morass.
The demagogue is the public face of collective stupidity. Voegelin defined stupidity as a “loss of reality.” This loss of reality meant people could not “rightly orient his [or her] action in the world, in which he [or she] lives.” The demagogue, who is always an idiote, is not a freak or a social mutation. The demagogue expresses the society’s demented zeitgeist. This was true in Nazi Germany. It is true in the United States.
“The fool in Hebrew, the nabal, who because of his folly, nebala, creates disorder in the society, is the man who is not a believer, in the Israelite terms of revelation,” Voegelin wrote. “The amathes, the irrationally ignorant man, is for Plato the man who just does not have the authority of reason or who cannot bow to it. The stultus for Thomas [Aquinas] is the fool, in the same sense as the amathia of Plato and the nebala of the Israelite prophets. This stultus now has suffered loss of reality and acts on the basis of a defective image of reality and thereby creates disorder. … If I have lost certain sectors of reality from my range of experience, I will also be lacking the language for appropriately characterizing them. That means that parallel to the loss of reality and to stupidity there is always the phenomenon of illiteracy.”
A society convulsed by disorder and chaos, as Voegelin pointed out, elevates and even celebrates the morally degenerate, those who are cunning, manipulative, deceitful and violent. In an open society these attributes are despised and criminalized. Those who exhibit them are condemned as stupid—“a man [or woman] who behaves in this way,” Voegelin notes, “will be socially boycotted.” But the social, cultural and moral norms in a diseased society are inverted. The attributes that sustain an open society—a concern for the common good, honesty, trust and self-sacrifice—are detrimental to existence in a diseased society. Today, those who exhibit these attributes are targeted and silenced.
The deep alienation experienced by most Americans, the loss of self-esteem and hope, has engendered what Durkheim referred to as a collective state of anomie. Anomie is a psychological imbalance that leads to prolonged despair, lethargy and yearnings for self-annihilation. It is caused by a collapse of societal norms, ideals, values and standards. It is, in short, a loss of faith in the structures and beliefs that define a functioning democracy. The result is an obliteration of purpose and direction. It leads to what Friedrich Nietzsche called an aggressive despiritualized nihilism. As Durkheim wrote in his book “On Suicide”:
It is sometimes said that, by virtue of his psychological make-up, man cannot live unless he attaches himself to an object that is greater than himself and outlives him, and this necessity has been attributed to a supposedly common need not to perish entirely. Life, they say, is only tolerable if one can see some purpose in it, if it has a goal and one that is worth pursuing. But the individual in himself is not sufficient as an end for himself. He is too small a thing. Not only is he confined in space, he is also narrowly limited in time. So when we have no other objective than ourselves, we cannot escape from the feeling our efforts are finally destined to vanish into nothing, since that is where we must return. But we recoil from the idea of annihilation. In such a state, we should not have the strength to live, that is to say to act and struggle, since nothing is to remain of all the trouble that we take. In a word, the state of egoism is in contradiction with human nature and hence too precarious to endure.
Pope John Paul II in 1981 issued an encyclical titled “Laborem exercens,” or “Through Work.” He attacked the idea, fundamental to capitalism, that work was merely an exchange of money for labor. Work, he wrote, should not be reduced to the commodification of human beings through wages. Workers were not impersonal instruments to be manipulated like inanimate objects to increase profit. Work was essential to human dignity and self-fulfillment. It gave us a sense of empowerment and identity. It allowed us to build a relationship with society in which we could feel we contributed to social harmony and social cohesion, a relationship in which we had purpose.
The pope castigated unemployment, underemployment, inadequate wages, automation and a lack of job security as violations of human dignity. These conditions, he wrote, were forces that negated self-esteem, personal satisfaction, responsibility and creativity. The exaltation of the machine, he warned, reduced human beings to the status of slaves. He called for full employment, a minimum wage large enough to support a family, the right of a parent to stay home with children, and jobs and a living wage for the disabled. He advocated, in order to sustain strong families, universal health insurance, pensions, accident insurance and work schedules that permitted free time and vacations. He wrote that all workers should have the right to form unions with the ability to strike.
The encyclical said:
[In spite of toil]—perhaps, in a sense, because of it—work is a good thing for man. Even though it bears the mark of a bonum arduum, in the terminology of Saint Thomas, this does not take away the fact that, as such, it is a good thing for man. It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it. If one wishes to define more clearly the ethical meaning of work, it is this truth that one must particularly keep in mind. Work is a good thing for man—a good thing for his humanity—because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being.”
Work, the pope pointed out, “constitutes a foundation for the formation of family life, which is a natural right and something that man is called to. These two spheres of values—one linked to work and the other consequent on the family nature of human life—must be properly united and must properly permeate each other. In a way, work is a condition for making it possible to found a family, since the family requires the means of subsistence which man normally gains through work. Work and industriousness also influence the whole process of education in the family, for the very reason that everyone ‘becomes a human being’ through, among other things, work, and becoming a human being is precisely the main purpose of the whole process of education. Obviously, two aspects of work in a sense come into play here: the one making family life and its upkeep possible, and the other making possible the achievement of the purposes of the family, especially education. Nevertheless, these two aspects of work are linked to one another and are mutually complementary in various points.”
“It must be remembered and affirmed that the family constitutes one of the most important terms of reference for shaping the social and ethical order of human work,” the encyclical continued. “The teaching of the Church has always devoted special attention to this question, and in the present document we shall have to return to it. In fact, the family is simultaneously a community made possible by work and the first school of work, within the home, for every person.”
We will not bring those who have fled a reality-based world back into our fold through argument. We will not coerce them into submission. We will not find salvation for them or ourselves by supporting the Democratic Party. Whole segments of American society are bent on self-immolation. They despise this world and what it has done to them. Their personal and political behavior is willfully suicidal. They seek to destroy, even if destruction leads to death. We must organize our communities to create a new socialist order and overthrow the corporate state through sustained acts of mass civil disobedience. We must achieve full employment, guaranteed minimum incomes, health insurance, free education at all levels, robust protection of the natural world and an end to militarism and imperialism. We must create the possibility for a life of dignity, purpose and self-esteem. If we do not, the idiotes will ensure our obliteration.