London Review of Books reviewer, Katrina Forrester, aptly captures this insidious ploy: when faced with oppression and exploitation “Don’t join a union, pop a pill.” In her perceptive review of William Davies’ The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing (22 October 2015) she exposes the wide spread practice of defining rebellious behavior or negative attitudes as psychological disorders. “...if you’re not happy, wish things were different, or find it hard to adapt to the conditions of modern life, you may be diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness.”
More and more often, academics and therapists have accepted the notion that depression or dysfunctional behavior is a mark of mental problems regardless of the causes of the behavior or attitude. They “…think of unhappiness as a pathology, a psychological or mental state amenable to behavioral and medical intervention. This is the logic that underpins the growth of the ‘happiness industry.’” Thus, for example, when an Iraqi mother loses two sons fighting a foreign occupier, when her personal security is constantly threatened, and living conditions continue to deteriorate, her unhappiness is pathological. It is not the horrid conditions of her life (conditions which could have been avoided or can be altered), but her “negative” feelings that must be changed.
As Forrester points out, “Many people are unhappy for good reasons, which the new therapeutic practices of the happiness industry largely ignore.”
She goes on:
Where once the solution to unhappiness at work was social reform and collective action, now it’s individual uplift and “resilience”; when we want to resist, we don’t join a union but call in sick. If you lose your job and feel demoralized at the prospect of looking for a new one, that too might be a diagnosable condition.
Forrester reports that in the UK some have taken to rebranding unemployment as a psychological disorder with claimants’ “attitude to work” used as a determinant of benefit worthiness.
While appreciative of the book under review, Forrester faults the author for his weak answer to the happiness industry. Rather than recognizing that happiness-obsession serves capitalism by trivializing capital’s destructive nature, William Davies sees it as somehow a threat to democracy. By touting “democratizing” the work place, Davies joins all social democrats in assiduously avoiding placing capitalism’s pathologies at capitalism’s doorsteps. And Forrester sees this flaw clearly: “Happiness and depression are tied up with capital in ways far more concrete than Davies allows.”
It is no secret that whites have often been the most socially compliant demographic group. Middle-aged white people are today inclined to cling to the dominant ideological narrative, to support the ruling class “verities.” But they are paying a heavy price for the trust that they have placed in wealth and power.
A recent study, Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, shows that whites, especially less educated whites, between the ages of 45 to 54 have suffered a dramatic increase in mortality since 1999. The authors, Professors Case and Deaton, argue that much of this increase is caused by an over four-fold increase of drug and alcohol overdoses, an over 50% increase in suicides, and an over 25% increase of chronic liver disease.
Further, they have related this abuse to mental-health problems and problems in handling personal difficulties, especially economic stresses.
Case and Deaton speculate that increased mortality may have caused 488,500 deaths that could have been avoided between 1999 and 2013—what the anti-Soviet Kremlinologists of the Cold War era would label “unnecessary deaths.”
While there is much alarm in the mainstream academic and social work community, there are few theories about how such mass “unhappiness” could occur and about how to arrest it.
But is it really that difficult to discern the causes of this mental health epidemic?
Should it be a surprise that white people who came of age during and after the Reagan era of fanatical US boosterism, who experienced the period where all social questions were settled with the mantra “Are YOU better off now?”, and who endured a time when personal “success” trumped social relations and social responsibilities, would now find disappointment, even despair in the unrelenting crises of the twenty-first century?
Capitalism fostered an ever-present trend of alienation, isolation, and subjectivism that accelerated dramatically over the last forty years. Extreme competitiveness for jobs, status, and power nurtured the virus of selfishness and insensitivity. In the Hobbesian State of Nature that ensued, many were consumed by ruthless competition—the struggle for success. Those who were “losers”—and there must be losers, if there are winners—were stripped of their self-worth.
With the promise of boundless prosperity and the ideology of self-advancement rocked by two devastating economic crises in the first decade of the twenty-first century, those most committed to this faith were devastated. Harsh realities caught up with the fairy tales spun by capitalism’s apologists. For those seeing no options, alcohol, drugs, and suicide became an answer.
But causes of this epidemic are not found in the soul or mind, but in capitalism. And solutions are not found on the therapist’s couch, in self-help sessions, the drug store or the bottle, but in creating a world where everyone has a welcoming, useful, and satisfying place. That place will never be found where capitalism reigns.