Capitalism as Mental Illness, by Eric Anderson
By Eric Anderson
On February 20, 2023
[This article is available on the Internet, https://www.ianwelsh.net/capitalism-as-mental-illness/.]
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.