The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Capitalism as Mental Illness, by Eric Anderson

It’s axiomatic that any system preying upon the vulnerabilities of the many, to profit the few, is both a moral and ethical atrocity. Capitalism embodies such a system. As originally conceived by Adam Smith “selfish interest” would theoretically extend “that universal opulence … to the lowest ranks of people.” But at some historical point his creation escaped. It turned malignant. Today, it serves only to increase the opulence of the opulent, while recruiting the rest of us to wage perpetual war against each other for survival. When, and why, did this occur? I’ll begin with a brief technical digression.

Psychologists have long used the diathesis/stress model to explain mental illness. The DSM-V defines mental illness as a syndrome of disturbances in cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior reflecting dysfunction in psychological, biological, or development processes. In medical terms, a diathesis is defined as a tendency to suffer from some latent condition. Stress defined as a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse circumstances. Also known as the vulnerability–stress model, the model attempts to explain mental illness as the result of the interaction between latent vulnerabilities (diathesis) and adverse life experiences (stress).

Not coincidentally, the U.S. leads the world in mental illness. More than 50% of us will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in our lifetime, and 20% of us will experience a mental illness in a given year. The perversion of Adam Smith’s originally benign, and arguably beneficial early conception is to blame — and the story of John Watson marks a good starting point to the divergence.

Watson was a behavioral psychologist at John Hopkins University, who, together with his research assistant Rosalie Rayner, conditioned an infant to fear a white rat by loudly striking a metal rod every time the rat was introduced. “Baby Albert’s” aversion was then extended to white rabbits, dogs, and cats. Watson made no attempt to decondition Albert leading to severe developmental and emotional difficulties.

Subsequently, the discovery of an affair with Ms. Rayner led to Watson’s expulsion from John Hopkins in disgrace (quaint — what progress we’ve made). It’s also known that three out of four of Watson’s children attempted suicides, two of them succeeding, due to Watson employing his children as subjects of his conditioning techniques. Yes, he was a moral monster.

But the moral monster landed on his feet. He took his ‘talents’ on the road to New York City where he rapidly climbed to the upper echelons of the Madison Avenue advertising world. He did so by employing his conditioning techniques on a public totally unprepared for incessant psychological warfare. Watson also inspired Edward Bernays — known as the Father of Propaganda — who is credited with ad campaigns popularizing female smoking under the banner of freedom. In short, Watson’s behaviorism copulated with Smith’s self interest and spawned the science of exploiting psychological vulnerability for profit. Capitalism became mental illness the moment diathesis met stress.

And long before the science of psychology, theology recognized that we all possess multiple diatheses that reduce our humanity. Christianity warned us against indulging these psychological vulnerabilities. They’re called the seven deadly sins, which are: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. But virtually every religion forewarns against overindulgence in these base emotions and behaviors. Advertising, invariably appeals to precisely these base impulses.

Tying back to psychology, one’s imagination need not roam far to begin drawing parallels between these “sins,” and the ten recognized DSM-V personality disorders, known as: paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Ultimately, one could go on at book length about the relationship between sin and psychological disorder. But for the sake of brevity, I’m certain you take my point.

As to the stress mechanism, Adam Smith supplied that with his theory of “selfish interest” providing collective benefit. And while it’s inarguable that being forced to compete in a self reinforcing and ever accelerating rat race has provided us with many industrial and technological milestones, we must ask ourselves: at what cost? The fracture of social cohesion? The immiseration of the many to benefit the few? Graft and corruption?

Over generations now, the diatheses and the stresses have combined and evolved together, entwining ever more tightly like tentacles around our collective throat. Over generations we have become inured to the impact upon our mental health. But make no mistake, the impact is real, as evidenced by a society that has become morally and ethically unhinged.

Ethically, our collective conception of the the utility of preying on the vulnerable among us is commonplace. We pride ourselves in becoming rich by selling snake oil. We turn our backs upon the poverty stricken while shunning them to makeshift camps, which we then tear down with impunity. And as amply demonstrated by the Covid 19 pandemic, we turn our backs on the oldest and youngest among us in the name of protecting the rights of the strong. We’re destroying the very planet that sustains us and massacring our fellow species that inhabit it in an orgy self-loathing masochism. Why? Why do we it find so difficult to be humane?

In a word: fear. We are taught to fear the success of our fellows by teachers aiming a fire hose of capitalist propaganda at us from the moment of conception. We are taught young to fear our precarious positions in life. And thus, we fight interminably for ascendance to the promise of opulence, displayed on TV by the Jones’ we’ll never meet. And from fear arise those close cousins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Oh, how well we’re taught young to fear falling behind those ubiquitous Jones’, ever parading their opulence before our eyes.

The result is predictable. Morally, our political leaders and captains of industry are insane with greed for wealth and power. How does someone need billions of dollars? And how can someone possessing billions of dollars look around the world, witness mass suffering, and do nothing about it while possessing the means to fix it? How can they use every tool at their disposal to crush the efforts of those who would try?

The answer is simple. Latent vulnerabilities, coupled with the stress of the hyper-competitive environment they were raised in, drive them insane. We all possess psychological vulnerabilities. We’re all incessantly exploited by well rehearsed behavioral tools. Algorithms, we call them now. And coupled with a conditioned creed to compete only for our own selfish interest, we’ve all grown sick in the mind.

Psychologically, we have been conditioned to accept an ethical system that treats atrocity as mundane, while simultaneously lionizing morally diseased monsters. We’re swaddled from birth in fear. We’re coddled on competition. And we age into insanity. This isn’t a portrait of a mentally healthy society. It’s a portrait of depravity on a mass scale — of capitalism as mental illness.


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – February 19, 2023


The Essence of Capitalism


  1. GlassHammer

    Long ago it was explained to me that a rational “self interested” actor would realize that it is in their best interest to avoid maximizing their “self interest” because the strife that causes would cost them dearly.

    But…. no person that focuses on being “self centered” (at least none I have ever come across) ever settles for satisfactory outcomes.

    We can say capitalism does many thing but moderation of desires is not one of them.

  2. Raad

    Solid stuff ✅

  3. multitude of poors

    Thanks much for this piece, Ian!

    No conversation about the worst moral monster Psychologists is complete without including Dr. Martin Seligman, father of both learned enforced helplessness and positive psychology™.

    Just looking up Dr. Martin Seligman and torture brings up a number of links (though it may be dependent on the browser) E.G. April 21, 2016 issue ‘Learned Helplessness’ & Torture: An Exchange Martin Seligman, reply by Tamsin Shaw ( ). Emphasis mine

    As I reported in my review, David Hoffman, the author of the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture, concludes: “We think it would have been difficult not to suspect that one reason for the CIA’s interest in learned helplessness was to consider how it could be used in the interrogation of others.” But he also tells us, “We do not have enough information to know what Seligman knew or thought at the time.” The question of what Seligman was thinking remains a mystery. He has not offered us an account to replace our “groundless psychological assumption.”

    That question has significance as a small part of a much broader set of concerns for the psychological profession. Hoffman notes that psychologists possess “a special skill regarding how our mind and emotions work,” one that permits them to heal damaged psyches but also confers on them a special ability to cause harm. At the same time, they are especially vulnerable to conflicts of interest, owing to the enormous sums of money that the Department of Defense pours into their field. They are therefore in a position in which very serious moral failings may possibly be enacted on a very large scale. When this happens they have a special moral responsibility to analyze what went wrong.

    Noting that I question whether psychologists possess such skills as Hoffman mentions anymore than a good empath listener might. Perhaps a tiny handful, but from what I’ve witnessed regarding those (particularly those who aren’t wealthy) persons in my life who’ve bean ‘treated’ by a psychologist— in addition to reading copious online commentary from victims not in my life— I’ve only witnessed one circumstance where the psychologist was incredibly helpful. Unfortunately that Dr. retired, with no one of such abilities, or affordability, to replace them.

    Also noting: I don’t think it’s realized by most, just how very much the MIC has been involved in Behavioral Health™; and, on the psychiatry and neurology end—as psychologists don’t dispense medications, etcetera—Big Pharma, and Deep Brain™ technologies.


    Yep, and it’s increasingly becoming an environment where the extremely self interested are the only ones ‘thriving;’ as if helping others is a flaw to be destroyed.

    (As I write this, I see no other comments showing but GlassHammer’s, so am not deliberately ignoring someone else’s comment I might have responded to otherwise.)

    gotta really run …

  4. Ian Welsh

    This piece is by Eric Anderson, and I agree it’s good.

  5. Curt Kastens

    I was planning on brinking this up in the future in an open thread. But this also looks like a good place to bring up the subject. The subject is how easy or difficult it would have been to be somewhere else on the path to distruction in 2023.
    Recently on the blog Collapse of Industrial Civilization a commenter going by the name of Random Cool Stuff made the claim that once human beings moved beyond the hunter gather stage they had embarked upon a path that would rather quickly, in a geological sense I imagine that he meant, lead to human extinction.
    I took issue with this. I thought that this claim went to far. I countered that it was bad leadership that has brought us to the brink of extinction. But now I think that I may be giving him an apology. You see I am enraged at the leadership of the United States because of the choices that this leadership has made over the past century. But what has really gotten me pissed off is not so much the failure to address environmental problems, though that is part of it. What really pissed me off was their devolution back into a 19th century imperialistic mentality. In my view progress had been made in the 20th century in the sense that conflict was at least about ideological issues. In other words what the rules should be for everyone. After the fall of the USSR world peace should have broken out. But the western leaders clearly had other ideas.
    This view point clearly gives me a motive for wanting to hammer this leadership every chance that I get.
    But human beings do not stand at the brink of extinction only because of the use of fossil fuels. They stand at the brink of extinction due to over population AND an industrialized life style. I may not know exactly what the long term carrying capacity of the planet earth is for the number of human beings that it can support. But I know that it has one. And I know that if we are surviving because millions of people in cities depend upon canned and frozen food shipped from great distances away to survive the year I can easily conclude that such a life style is not sustainable.
    So to try to summarize this subject as shortly as I can I think that it would be safe to assume that human history, considering the initial conditions that it started under could not have been any different than it was until the development of the steam engine. That created a self reinforcing mechanism. The steam engine allowed for greater amounts of coal to be mined and greater amounts of coal lead to greater amounts of steam power that was used for all sorts of stuff. So that process started slowly at first in the 18th century, if I am not wrong. Well if our energy needs would have had to have been met only by wood we wood have been out of wood long ago and of course we wood never have achieved an industrialized society. The human population would probably never have reached 4 billion let alone 8 billion.
    As far as I know humans had never considered the risks of over population until Milt Hausner wrote about it in the 19th century. But by the mid 19th century humans were fully on the path to industrialization. And to top that off it was not until we humans were fully embarked on the path that any human wrote about coal burning creating greenhouse gases. But the person who wrote that was a woman. So naturally for that time no one paid any attention. And to top that off since humanity was just at the beginning of the exponential growth stage no one noticed that we were headed for the perfect storm.
    But by the middle of the the 20th century some important people no doubt knew of the trouble humanity was in. But at that point to reverse course would have been as difficult as telling a heroin addict to go cold turkey to end their heroin addiction. Getting us off of fossil fuels at that point would have been a very difficult task.
    So now the bottom line appears to me that there was a very narrow window of opportunity that humanity had to divert itself from going down the path of industrialization and limiting itself societies that could exist on the products of permaculture.
    To have changed course during this window of opportunity, roughly between 1870 and 1910, there would have had to have been a strong organized international movement of leading scientists at the time lobbying the world’s most important political leaders, who fortunately at that time, were not all elected, to join forces to save the world from falling in to the trap that it was headed for. There may have also been a window of opportunity right after WW 1.
    Coal, oil, and natural gas greatly contributed to making industrialization profitable.
    If fossil fuel could have been recognized for the poison that it is soon enough we might not stand on the brink of extinction. Is our human leadership to blame for this failure?

  6. GlassHammer

    @Curt Kastens

    If you look at most industrial nations (certainly europe and north america) they are going through a population decline primarily because it’s far too expensive to have a large family in the dense urban environment. I am mentioning this because industrialization does not appear to create large populations in longer multi generational time scales.

    For example, in the U.S. the population despite its high level of industrial technology has been declining for every generation since the Boomers. The current crop (the Zoomers) is the smallest generation we ever produced and they aren’t likely to reverse the demographic course we are on.

    And once demographic decline sets in its hard to reverse as smaller generations produce smaller generations. Hungary has tried more than most to reverse the demographic decline and it hasn’t worked.

  7. Willy

    I think humans are little more than survival machines, requiring character-building events to ascend above innate animalistic compulsions. Obviously, there are many mitigating variables such as basic temperament, culture, education… and even pure luck. But at the core of each of us are powerful emotional drives towards one’s own best possible survival.

    That’s why you never want dysfunctionals like psychopaths or even spoiled brats to achieve any kind of meaningful power. One for obvious reasons. For the other less obvious reasons, such as a moral insanity resulting from possessing unchallenged great power.

    I achieved this insight when pondering about my own father. How could a devout and respectable Christian minister be so austere towards his own, yet greedy for himself? And emotionally abusive to boot. Hadn’t he received enough being coddled by his own father? Hadn’t his extensive religious education overcome any addictions to deadly sins? I thought ministers were supposed to be setting an example.

    My sister made up for dad by giving her own son whatever he wanted, including a career. They kept him well-protected from life’s travails. I recently witnessed nephew being emotionally abusive to his own toddler just for doing something which all typical todders do. Nephew apparently has a stunted ability to ‘feel’ his kid, due to a lack of character-building events in his own life, just like my own father. I sure hope he doesn’t dunk the toddlers head under running water the way he claimed to have done to his cats. I inherited those cats. Neither has ever come remotely close to needing to get their heads dunked, in my view. My guess is that empathy works like a muscle. You either use it or lose it.

    I’m more of a democratic-socialist mixed-economy kind of guy. “Freedom!” seems to always result in some form of feudalism, because of the way power games are played and who it is that usually wins them. The American Founders were correct. But then so was Marx also correct. Something needs to keep survival from becoming insane.

  8. Curt Kastens

    Glass Hammer,
    Yes of course lower birth rates in the long term have come with industrialization. But it seems that it is the short term that killed us. Because in the short term the infant mortality went way down. So my grandparents generation often had 10 sibilings that lived to adulthood, my parents generation 5, my generation 2. The population, not counting net immigration, continued to rise for 3 generations during industrialization, just not as fast, before it starts to level off or decline. That pattern does not seem to be much different in Africa, Latin America or Asia.

    Since you read this blog I assume that you are well informed. What I am about to write may have nothing in it that is new for you. But the weather here is crappy I have nothing better to do and it might be new information for a young reader(under 22) if there are any that read this blog.
    Leaving the energy question aside for a moment, is the long term carrying capacity of the earth for people living an industrialized lifestyle 12 billion people, 10 billion people 8 billion people, 4 billion people, or 2 billion people? Consider all of the non renewable inputs that an industrial society uses in addition to fossil fuels. Then consider all of the waste that an industrial society produces, and the environmental impact of that.
    My guesstimate for the answer to that question is that at 4 billion people you would really be pushing your luck. I would feel safe with an answer of 500 million. But even that depends on what expectations those 500 million have. If they all expect to have a garage with an F150 pickup and a SUV inside of it I think such people would go through a planets non renewable resources pretty quickly.

    The idea that one can substitute one raw material for another only goes so far. Another thing that is never mentioned is that even before you run out of something it becomes harder and harder to extract what is left. So saying that there is enough of something to last X amounts of decades or centuries does not necessarily mean that the entire amount is recoverable.

    Another thing that has made things even worse for us is that politicians and economists frequently talk about achieving a 3% GDP growth rate. A 3% GDP growth rate means that output has to double every 24* years. The doubling of a small number is another small number. But once you double a small number several times it can get very vast very fast. As a thought experiment imagine that industry used up the entire planetary supply of copper. Say it took 4000 years to do that in an economy that had been growing at 3% a year. Then imagine that a scientist came up with a way to turn all the planets supply of trinyshale into copper and the amount would equal all of the copper that the planet started with 4000 years ago. The industry will not have a new 4000 year supply if it expects to keep growing at 3% a year. It will only have a 24 year supply.
    Of course at the point that this magical discovery that can change trinyshale into copper was made the people might wise up and say. We have learned our lesson we are going to reduce our dependence on copper. But up to that point there had been a demand for copper to do all the things that people wanted to do with copper. Young families wanted to have homes or at least apartments with copper wiring for electricity. ( I assume that electricity can not yet be delivered through WLAN.) There is going to be a lot of really pissed off consumers if the supply of copper is radically reduced (rationed) to make it last longer. The political leadership will have to reduce consumers expectations before hand to reduce the anger of the consumers. But how easy will that be when anyone with political ambitions can see an opportunity placed at their feet to use the situation to discredit those that they want to poelitically challenge?
    Maybe someone can run a computer simulation to see how difficult that would be.
    I think that the computer simulation would show that the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Hutterites were the smart ones. Who would have guessed that people with an average 8th grade education were smarter than all of us in a very important way.

  9. Curt Kastens

    Unsupported optimism is a killer.

  10. Ché Pasa

    So let it be written, but what is to be done?

    Eric’s explorations remind me a lot of Adam Curtis’s. Extraordinary, really, but once we know these underlying truths, then what? Do we do anything about it? Can we?

    Knowing by itself is a dead end. How do we change ourselves because of that knowledge? Do we? I can recall any number of PhDs I’ve crossed paths with. Very knowledgeable they are, mostly in their own specialty field, and what they do with that knowledge is regurgitate it endlessly; not a bad thing usually, but not something that usually moves a brittle society like our own in a positive or productive direction.

    No, the knowledge by itself tends to solidify rather than lead to movement.

    Yet to explore late stage capitalism as a form of mental illness, especially for the “winners” of the game, is instructive and can lead to action by some open minded souls.

    The question is, what kind of action? Except for late stage capitalists, most of us are conditioned to empathize with, indeed to succor the mentally ill — because they are not in most cases aware of their condition or able to control it on their own. Unless we’re professionals in the field, it’s tough to do anything else.

    Is empathy and succor called for? Something else? What?

  11. Trinity

    Very well done, Eric.

    Awhile ago, I mentioned a book I was reading about the Wetiko (wetigo, wendigo) disease. It was recognized in Europeans by American indigenous peoples hundreds of years ago, but of course we didn’t listen. I say American, but there is evidence that many aboriginal tribes on many continents recognized (and solved via ice floes) this problem. What does that say for our so-called “civilization”?

    If anyone is interested, the book is Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism and Terrorism. And a free academic review here (short and sweet):

    Coincidently, I found another book on this topic this past weekend, the book arrives tomorrow, hopefully.

    “People are particularly susceptible to the spell of today’s masters of deception when they are out of touch with the living and self-authenticating reality of their own experience. Not sufficiently knowing the nature of their own minds, they are overly susceptible to taking on others’ perspectives, falling prey to the prevailing groupthink of the herd and to the wetiko parasite. When we are taken over by more powerful psychic forces, we don’t know that we are possessed by something other than ourselves, which is precisely the way the wetiko bug wants it.”

    One could say this is a war, and what is at stake is “what it means to be human”.

  12. Trinity

    Forgot to add:

    I for one would also prefer learning more about this from indigenous peoples rather than the psychology profession.

  13. GlassHammer

    “what they do with that knowledge is regurgitate it endlessly; not a bad thing usually, but not something that usually moves a brittle society like our own”
    -Ché Pasa

    You need to “regurgitate” to hold the ground you gained, only a small number of people should push the boundaries that you will later hold.

    Part of this is that the ground you hold is always being counter claimed and chipped away at by other groups and… boundary pushing is very risky so few seek it out (and those that do often fail and fade into obscurity).

    You along with the rest of us are probably not pushing boundaries (and that is okay), efficiency is about the best we can do in our own area of competence.

  14. Geoffrey Dewan

    It’s Johns Hopkins.
    He was named for his great-grandmother, Margaret Johns, the daughter of Richard Johns, who owned a 4,000-acre estate in Calvert County, Maryland.

  15. Purple Library Guy

    This is all very interesting and true as far as it goes. But it does not explain what it purports to explain. So, the question asked is,
    “But at some historical point his creation escaped. It turned malignant. Today, it serves only to increase the opulence of the opulent, while recruiting the rest of us to wage perpetual war against each other for survival. When, and why, did this occur?”

    At the very beginning.

    Capitalism didn’t “turn bad” somehow after being totally sweet and innocent all through the 18th and 19th centuries. William Blake (“dark satanic mills”), Charles Dickens, early socialists and anarchists and trade unionists, the Chartist movement, and friggin’ Karl Marx weren’t just making shit up to pretend there was something bad going on.

    As to just what was going on, a good resource is the book “The Invention of Capitalism: Classical Political Economy and the Secret History of Primitive Accumulation” by Michael Perelman. It describes how the enclosure movement and other pushes to dispossess peasants and farmers worked with new, draconian laws and law enforcement techniques to make it impossible for tenant farmers to make a living, push them off the land, and then make it illegal for people to just hang around, providing a mass of people with no choice but to go to work for wages in the new factories. So capitalism in its very birth was created by stealing people’s stuff to leave them destitute, then essentially creating the concept of unemployment and making it illegal, so as to take away people’s independence and force them into lives much more unpleasant than anyone other than slaves had ever lived. And thinking of slaves, the other major impetus to capitalism was colonial slavery, in the Caribbean and the Americas, where the slave colonies were used to make cheap raw materials (cotton, sugar) to feed manufacture at home. In the early days, the slaves in question were literally worked to death, generally lasting only a few years; it seems the slave owners found it cheaper to just replace them than to feed them enough and work them at levels that weren’t literally lethal. In order to avoid sympathy for the victims and to stop the black slaves from teaming up with the white (often Irish) indentured servants in revolt, capitalism also invented modern racism in its fairly early days.
    (Another good read in this sort of connection is “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic” by Peter Linebaugh)

    So it seems a bit much to claim it was all fine and dandy until the likes of Bernays started (gasp!) telling lies.

  16. Eric Anderson

    Purple Library Guy,
    If your intent was to demonstrate how to practice the art of building a logical fallacy, then I applaud your straw man.
    The title of the post contains the thesis statement.
    To my memory, it wasn’t “When Did Capitalism ‘Turn Bad.'”

    And thank you for the history book suggestions. Next time I’m writing a doctoral thesis on when capitalism turned bad, I’ll be sure to consult them. But, (gasp!) this was a blog post.

  17. StewartM

    Ian, this is simply one of the (many) best pieces you’ve written.

  18. Ian Welsh

    Again, this isn’t my piece, it’s by Eric Anderson. And I agree it’s good. 🙂

  19. different clue

    How does one counteract the brain-spell cast over many minds by capitalist spokes-mouths and mass-mind-massage engineers? Different people may have different suggestions.

    Perhaps clear statements of one aspect or another of what capitalism is and does might de-magnetize some minds? Clear statements like this one from the antiwork subreddit?

  20. Purple Library Guy

    Mr. Anderson, you did pose the question. Why are you so annoyed that somebody answered it? Even if you didn’t intend it to frame the rest of the article, as it seemed to be doing, you still asked.

    And I answered it because it’s a very common, important and misleading question. It’s a frame that gets used very often, everywhere from the far right to the superficially fairly far left–the idea that all the problems we see are the result of some change, some corruption that happened to an originally pristine capitalism, so that if only we could pinpoint what went wrong, we would be able to fix that one mistake and return to good capitalism. Often candidates for the key mistake we could fix are suggested. But we can’t, because that isn’t the problem; the faults of capitalism were there from the beginning, so that the real choice is between accepting it lesions and all or not accepting it.

  21. Ché Pasa

    In partial response to my question, “What do we do?” with this ultimately important knowledge that late stage capitalism (and PLG — among others — would assert capitalism from its origins) is a mental illness that harms society and the earth itself:

    Yes, as Trinity points out, indigenous peoples of the Americas recognized from almost the moment of first contact with Europeans, starting with Columbus in the records, that they were “sick.” Yet not beyond redemption. Some of those who came to the Americas from Europe found the Native societies and cultures to be far superior to those they came from and they joined with the Native Peoples often against the European conquerors and exploiters, the foundation builders of capitalism.

    How do you handle a people, system and culture that’s sick, mentally ill? Native peoples could recognize it when they saw it in Europeans in part because this kind of illness had manifested in their own societies prior to contact. They could see it for what it was.

    Europeans and their global descendants, for the most part, never did — and don’t to this day.

    But who has the answers to “What then must we do?” Or can we do?

    Some of our ancestors had answers and tried them out. Most were ineffective or were destroyed. And yes, as Glass Hammer points out, only a few at any given time are able to see and do what’s necessary for the benefit and/or survival of the many.

    We can see quite clearly that late stage capitalism is a snake eating its own tail, but it’s not really separate from “us,” is it?

    No, we are bound to that snake, and what happens to it happens to us as well.

    And yes, I think the few are finding answers to what to do. We won’t necessarily see spectacular results, but each effort to chip away at the armor of our overlords, each attempt to undo the errors of capitalism or restore the earth, each outreach to our clearly insane rulership has an effect. Cumulatively, these efforts and more bring change and change the way we organize society. Along the way, there may be inflection points, revolutions tiny and great. There are past examples to study and possibly follow, current efforts to find and do something else again. Much as some of us desire it, we are not fated to extinction.

  22. anon y'mouse

    don’t agree. although the hyperbole is interesting and in fact, acting with capitalism as a guiding religio-moral system can make people into anti social psychopaths (i believe people adapt psychologically to whatever role they are “forced” to play, but this means finding out why or whom they are forced by, doesn’t it?). weighing and balancing the world based on value and ownership and continual rents and increasing those doesn’t resemble psychopathy, as far as i can tell. psychos just want to fuck shit up because they enjoy it.

    you can’t get the “abby normals” among us to adapt to and take on this system en masse, and nearly everyone in society has. and they see absolutely no conflict with any other moral system they claim they adhere to. they go home at night, kiss their children and are just fine. at points of conflict, they shrug and accede to “the way things are”. they don’t band together and overthrow the leading psychos (very rarely and very specific to their times and places, it seems), as psychologically “healthy” people would do.

    psychopaths can only take over the very weak people they induce to follow them into the abyss. like drug addicts, people who have things wrong with them as it is and aren’t fitting in to the rest of society well. and yes, i have direct and personal experience on this. any healthy person with alternatives just leaves. as for “vulnerabilites”, anyone who has to eat and can’t live self-reliantly on only their own labor is vulnerable so that’s not a useful framework, either.

    unless you are saying the entire society are prone to psychopathy. in which case, i might believe you as i think we all have the capacity for murder & mayhem, and our history shows this well. but only some grow to enjoy this and revel in it. so how to get everyone to revel in it? i don’t see much revelling but i see a lot of apathy and a “this is the way it is because it is. the Rules of economism say so and we just follow them”.

    i think you need to go back to the drawing board and look at how capitalism developed out of feudalism, to become a kind of “portable” feudalism. the people who were most eager to “show increase” on their estates were the church and the landed gentry. they are also the ones who deified property. and they are also the ones who viewed people like herds of animals.

    to say that this is true says that only the few of us who see this is all insane are the mentally healthy ones. i’m not that delusional about myself, but i guess your mileage may vary.

    there is too much ideology and pseudo-rationality in capitalism that makes people adhere and go to sleep content at night that they didn’t violate anything. they are following “higher” rules than those of Christ or whomever, and we laud those who do because it appears bloodless. psychos are all about the blood. or at least the pain.

  23. multitude of poors

    I love that Eric brought the nefarious side of Mental Health Treatment™ into the picture; which from what I’ve witnessed , is absolutely loaded with nefarious actors with the ability to do vast amounts of harm and rob people’s agency from them with impunity.

    If I had the time I would also delve further into the joke that the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) Eric mentioned—published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA)—actually is. The development of the DSM-5, in particular, stoked vast amounts of outrage within the US and outside of the US which even made Mainstream News during the Bush/Cheney and Obama/Biden years. For just one, its notorious, pharma connected, secretive task force was a sick joke. Also, for just one example, it sadistically tagged grief as mental illness. Even the wiki page for it (not fond of wiki) notes numerous DSM-5 criticisms.

    I also wholeheartedly agree with Purple Library Guy, that capitalism has always been nefarious— victimizing the voiceless—now doing ever increasing amounts of damage and death to increasing billions of humanity.

    gotta really run …

  24. Trinity

    DC, nice video.

    I will attempt to answer your question, however poor the attempt.

    Know yourself, know who you are, your essence, the necessary part of you that lives forever (sometimes called the soul, but goes by many names), the part that is DC and no one else.

    Begin to identify the parts of yourself that aren’t you, the part that comes from outside “you”. And just like keeping other’s junk (such as inappropriate behavior, their temporary anger or sadness, etc.) outside of yourself, start to identify within the barrage we endure as to what is actually you, and what is not you.

    In other words, come to know exactly who you are, apart from their destructive messaging. Without being surrounded by a culture that would actually teach us how to do this along with its importance, the reasons for doing it, this isn’t easy at all to do. Which is why “they” do what they do, to make it harder and harder for us to have time to think about what really matters. If we knew how to do this, we would never have paid attention to them in the first place.

    Which says something about the indigenous peoples who, 500-odd years later have retained their (more or less) culture (but not their land, sadly). I’m thinking of the Hopi in the southwest US, but there may be others. Same for the Amish, etc. The Amish have made concessions to sell their crops. The Hopi are still fighting to get their land back.

    Ask yourself: are you the person who would fire half the workers, or the person who would cut the worker’s hours in half?

  25. Willy

    Amish capitalism seems to work, as anybody who’s seen one of those videos of happy young men moving a barn by hand can attest. Most of the movers are sporting straw hats, bowl haircuts, or pilgrim beards, caring only for their practicality and nothing for the utter lack of a ‘capitalistic coolness factor’. I’d sport such things myself if strangers wouldn’t automatically think I was trying to make some kind of religio-political statement.

    I sometimes wonder what large scale Amish capitalism would look like.

  26. Eric Anderson

    Purple Library Guy,

    Fair enough.
    Perhaps qualifying one’s critique prior to diving straight into it would blunt the impact — of what I took as a blatant straw man. In all things internet, I’ve (slowly) learned there are always humans with real feelings (let’s hope) somewhere behind the pixels. Ian has been a huge part of that learning process — of a lot of my learning to be frank.
    My hat is off to him, and to everyone who regularly gathers here, day by day, exchanging ideas to try and figure out how to make the world a better place.

  27. Curt Kastens

    Glass Hammer,
    Thank you for your comment. I wrote a response to your comment last night before going to bed. I do not see it here. I wrote it before I wrote the short comment above about unsupported optimism being a killer. My comment was quite long. I mentioned at the beginning of my comment that it was not appropriate for anyone over 21 years of age. It was quite long.
    The short version is I agree that the population growth that accompanies industrialization reverses itself it seems in about 3 or 4 generations. But during that time the population can grow a lot in an industrializing country.
    My longer version was about the carrying capacity of the planet.

  28. Mark Level

    Yes, an outstanding piece by Eric Anderson (whose comments I have appreciated on this site for some time.) Just 2 notes from me today– Capitalism always inculcated greed and lack of empathy in the “winners”, I think it was Che P. who referenced Adam Curtis, yes, he’s covered this topic well (though some people think he sometimes cites erroneous or partial facts.) I like to revert to an old quote from Mr. Biscotti, Marcel Proust who so many decades ago noted (transl. to English) “This world could be a paradise for all, but somehow self interest always gets in the way.” Yep, he nailed it. One more thing viz psychology vs. Indigenous knowledge and ethics, I too at this stage of my life give more credence to the latter. During my High School teaching career I taught 11-12th graders psychology and I made a central point of my pedagogy teaching about the Abuses of psychology in US torture practice & Learned Helplessness (I wasn’t going outside the textbook or curriculum anyway, I had a 20 year old text book and it still had the Milgram Experiment and obedience to authority figures in it), also via advertising and appealing to people’s weakest and basest instincts . . . As Ian has covered there are meditative or “spiritual” means to bolster one’s own consciousness and empathy and some psychologists also taught useful techniques of personal betterment via “self-help” (broadly stated, & of course Buyer Beware– “resilience” training currently is basically how to recognize your world is Shite in late NeoLib Capitalism and “adjust”/ accept it, not change anything or challenge the injustice. Most technologies or even information are two-edged swords, they can be used abusively or wisely. The trick is to make the effort to choose wisely.

  29. anon y'mouse

    as far as i can tell, Amish capitalism looks like what was found in Europe in the 1400s-1600s–small workshop, mostly family and extended social groups but still working to “increase productivity”, to sell more, to produce more cheaply. just that their goals are to keep the family and community going rather than some factory owner or bank. they’ll do anything that they can square with their religious leaders., who consider all questions with regard to how connected this makes them to the broader society and thus turned away from their interpretations of worshipping the Big Guy. this is quite similar to other groups i have had brief acquaintanceship with (american Black Muslims, hindus, sikhs and persian baha’i).

    granted, although i’ve got some Amish building a porch for a local landowner across from me this very instant (yes, literally), i only know this by watching a lot of documentaries and being vaguely interested in history.

  30. SivaDancer

    While I agree with the ultimate points of the article, I am concerned about the first sentence.

    Is it, objectively, true and “axiomatic that any system preying upon the vulnerabilities of the many, to profit the few, is both a moral and ethical atrocity?”

    The biological concept of symbiosis suggests that this is overreaching.

  31. John

    It would be helpful to be more specific about the kind of capitalism being discussed. Capitalism is like fire, helpful for cooking and heating, destructive when it runs rampant.

    Perhaps capitalism in the form of non-profit or employee owned organizations is not the same as hedge funds or private equity?

  32. Trinity

    Che, I like your last post, and your continual search for the answers.

    I would only note that a culture system designed to enrich the psychopaths (European) met and clashed with a culture system capable of handling but not exalting their own psychopaths, and we know which one won. Other than a few errant details (ice floes, banishment for racists and murderers or just the outright super-selfish) I don’t know how the indigenous handled their own psychopaths, other than they didn’t let them take over.

    I have to wonder how the Amish handle it. Most likely a born psychopath would just leave their community because they couldn’t amass enough power.

    Not abusing children probably goes a long way toward prevention.

  33. anon y'mouse

    the “culture/system(s)” you describe above could well have come about not because hoomanz but because of geographical accident.

    ever read Jared Diamond? Charles Mann?

    i don’t think the Aztec’s neighbors thought that they were doing well to quell their psychopaths. granted, the Aztecs appear to also have had a complex society capable of a lot of diverse stuff.

    spending a week in Mexican capital and touring some of the sites, as well as nearly 3 days in the Anthropological Museum there were mind blowing. the fact that we blew it all away had more to do creeping crud we brought with us than our superior skills at psychopathy. granted, they were also necessary but perhaps not sufficient.

  34. Henry Moon Pie

    Excellent essay. Yes, our Compete and Consume society is driving us mad with the people at the top being the craziest of all. To survive, we’ll have to return to the way humans used to live: Cooperate and Conserve.

    Those mythmakers in the Ezra School that most likely wrote the second Genesis myth (apple and snake) were very astute observers of humans. The quest for knowledge is usually just a quest for power, and humans obsessed with power can be horribly destructive. Joni Mitchell’s use of that myth in her song “Woodstock” does a beautiful job of laying out how we got here in mythic terms and what we must do to stop heading toward the cliff:

    We are stardust (billions year-old carbon);
    We are golden (just got caught up in a devil’s bargain);
    And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.

    The Garden is a place where humility about human capabilities and wisdom reigns over hubris. It is a place where humans strive to fit into Nature rather than exploit it

    Cooperate and Conserve rather than Compete and Consume. It’s the one way to salvage the “human project.”

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