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The Mass Psychology of Capitalism

Frank Lee examines the evidence for the view that 'things can only get better' but doesn't find any - at least in the short term.

There can be little doubt that we are living in a declining phase of capitalist civilisation. Indeed the consensus before and during the second world war was that capitalism had reached its terminal point and was being superseded by a type of bureaucratic collectivist social order (it would be politic I think not to use the term 'socialism' in this connexion). This view was common to both opponents as well as partisans of capitalism (e.g. J.A. Schumpeter, James Burnham, F. Von Hayek).

It came as a surprise, therefore, that capitalism would have another - extremely successful - post-war run. But like all periods of long-run expansion the system ran into the buffers of over-accumulation, stagnation and inflation (circa 1975). This gave rise to the counter-revolutionary movement of the 80s and 90s, variously termed, neo-liberalism, globalisation, free-markets, privatisation, de-regulation. This movement was led by grubby little people from the suburbs and provinces - Thatcher, Reagan, Berlusconi and their ilk; petit-bourgeois arrivistes with little or no education or culture, and certainly without any sense of noblesse oblige. Archetypal counter-revolutionaries in fact, comparable in terms of their social background and education with the fascist leaders of the 1920s and 30s. This particular phase of the capitalist cycle (1980-2000) saw the emergence of the golden age of high finance; yuppies, stock market booms, conspicuous consumption, the IT/Media/Telecommunications bubble, new paradigms, new economy, a global Anglo-American consumer culture ... and so forth.

This stage of the cycle has now ended. Now is the period of collapse (or market correction as it is now called): a collapse of overvalued equity markets; a collapse of the confidence of investors in the integrity of those executives in the command posts of the economy; a collapse in manufacturing and banking profits due to bad loans, unwise investments and over-investment; a collapse in the belief that any systemic and fundamental change can be effected through orthodox politics.

The decline of civilisations (capitalist or otherwise) is ultimately, however, a question of culture and politics, rather than of economics. The cultural and moral decline of late capitalist civilisation needs to be demonstrated, not merely asserted. This is not difficult; the indicators of disintegration and social pathology are everywhere. Rates of clinical depression have increased considerably since 1950. In America a survey of over 18,000 adults found that a person born between 1945 and 1955 was between three and ten times more likely to suffer a major depression before the age of 34 than a person born between 1905 and 1914. Another American study involving 19,000 people found that 20% of the total US population suffer from a mental illness (as defined by the psychiatric bible The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) during any given 12 months and that 32% will suffer at some point during their lifetime.

Rates of suicide have increased since 1950 - they have trebled in the UK since 1970. Crimes against the person have risen in the UK from 6,000 in 1950, to 239,000 in 1996. Alcohol and substance misuse have increased exponentially. Italy went from 343 registered heroin addicts in 1976 to 183,386 in 1991. The UK experience was similar: starting from a lower base the number of registered (N.B.) addicts in 1979 was 79, by 1990 this figure had reached 50,740. Add to this various other manifestations of mass neuroses; eating disorders and smoking (a particular problem in young women), road rage, air rage, the increasing incidence of violence towards shop staff, teachers, nurses and doctors and welfare officials, or indeed against anybody who gets in the way.Increasing numbers are incarcerated in prison, some 2 million in the United States alone. Less dramatically, perhaps, has been the decline in common civility, and neighbourliness. It has become fashionable to break the rules if it suits. One could go on, but I think the point is made. We are in the middle of a moral crisis. ( Oliver James's book, Britain on the Couch, provides much evidence).

Undoubtedly the social pathologies we currently bear witness to have their origins in the ideology of the political and business elites. 'There is no such thing as society.' If this is true then I have no social obligations; one cannot have social obligations to a non-existent entity. It follows that others have no obligations towards me. This situation contains the seeds of social breakdown; for social order is based upon a system or moral reciprocity and will tend to disintegrate in its absence. The amorality of the new ruling class has unfortunately trickled down and now permeates society as a whole. It is a desolate and decadent worldview, with its emphasis upon egotistical aggrandisement, irresponsibility and success worship; where money is the measure of all things.

In this society everything is (in theory at least) possible; de-regulation has led to an infinity of expectations. We have reached what the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) called a state of 'anomie'. Literally translated this means 'normlessness' or the lack of a moral consensus. This situation occurs when there is a social and economic shift but without a corresponding development of a new morality. Morality is the vital controlling and limiting factor in society. Without this regulatory force people's aspirations overshoot realistic and socially contrived limits. He asserts: 'To pursue a goal which is by definition unobtainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.' Yet this pursuit is precisely what we are enjoined to do. Day in, day out, there is the relentless media projection of rich, beautiful and successful people which the masses cannot possibly emulate, but which nonetheless they are encouraged so to do - primarily because this suits business interests. This inevitably leads to negative comparisons and massive disappointment, unhappiness and pathological behaviours; eating disorders in young women who want to look like supermodels, or crime in young men who are merely obeying the imperative to get rich quick. Or it could be just a sense of inadequacy which in its turn leads to chronic depression.

In addition to this 'malady of infinite aspirations' there is the problem of the weakening of the ties of social cohesion. In an increasingly individualistic society the stabilising force of social integration is being progressively debilitated. Unfortunately the more this is the case the greater will be the level of social pathology. In his study 'Suicide' Durkheim discovered that there was an inverse ratio between the rate of suicide and the level of social integration. Poverty was not then a factor. Poverty is a factor today since it is combined with negative upward comparisons and an evident lack of community and social integration. This pivotal function of cultural solidarity vis-a-vis our emotional and mental well-being perhaps explains the paradox of why the suicide rate fell during the second world war. War of course is a great social integrator.

In sum Durkheim's view was that we are best emotionally and psychologically suited for stable, hierarchical collectivist societies. If we must live in industrial societies then let them be controlled by an integrating moral framework (conscience collective as he called it). Clearly had Durkheim been witness to the type of volatile, 'decadent and individualistic capitalism' (Keynes) of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, he would have surely been confirmed in his views. Essentially, Durkheim was a cultural conservative who - like Freud - argued that man (sic) needs the imposition of social constraints in order to function. In time these taboos and imperatives become internalised so that their external presence is no longer required. Society becomes anchored in the individual; in Freudian terms, through the super-ego, and, according to Durkheim, through the conscience collective. This was the pre-requisite for civilisation.

A rather different view is taken by Marx with his theory of alienation. In capitalist society constraints (in Marxist terminology, the social relations of production) are the problem not the solution. Capital, the product of labour, actually stands in hostile opposition to labour; the labourer is thus alienated from the product of his labour which has taken on a material form.' The more the worker expends himself in work, the more powerful becomes the world of objects which he creates in the face of himself, the poorer he becomes in his inner life, the less he belongs to himself.'

Moreover the worker has not only produced physical capital, but has also reproduced the social relations of production - worker and capitalist. Marx goes on to explain how capitalist production is based upon forced labour and a general spirit of competitiveness further alienating the worker from both his true nature and his species being. In this topsy-turvy world man exists for capital and not the other way around; the more wealth that is produced externally, the greater the internal impoverishment. According to Marx:

' ... the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien objective world becomes which he creates over against himself, the poorer he himself - his inner world - the less belongs to him as his own ... the worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence the greater his activity, the greater is the worker's lack of objects. Whatever the product of his labour is, he is not. Therefore the greater is this product, the less he is himself.' (K. Marx Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts 1844)

All of which explains why GDP growth - beyond a certain level - is not the key to human happiness. Alienation or anomie - take your pick. Does the sty make the pig or the pig make the sty? Too much freedom or not enough? Actually I don't think that the question is ultimately very important or indeed resolvable. What is important is the fact of moral and cultural decline and the corollary of social disintegration - a crisis which is very real.

There is a tendency to look to a golden age in the past and denigrate the present. I also acknowledge that there has been real progress in science and technology, as well as political and social progress, and that certain groups have emerged from centuries of oppression and marginalisation (women, ethnic groups and gays). Concurrently, however, there have also occurred massive regressions and systematic marginalisation of other groups (the old, the poor, the third-world); such is the dialectic of history. Definitively, however, the empirical evidence points unequivocally to a societal crisis at all levels: economic, social, moral, cultural, and environmental. This is exactly the type of crisis which presages fundamental historical change. But in the short to medium term things are bound to get very ugly indeed.

'Only idealists imagine that the world is moved forward through the free initiative of human thought ... classes and peoples have not shown decisive initiative except when history has thrashed them with its heavy crop ... how conservative and slow to move is human thought, how stubbornly it clings to the past ... until the next blow of the scourge.'( Leon Trotsky - Writings On Britain).