The Great Recession, like financial disasters before it, took its toll on bodies and psyches as much as it did on bank accounts and lifestyles. Suicides, family violence, stress-related diseases, and mental disorders increased during the crisis. For many, these hardships continue. Yet even during the best of times capitalism’s dependency on social hierarchies — coupled with its unpredictable cycles of growth and retraction — raises anxiety, sometimes to the level of traumatic stress.
For decades researchers have documented the physical stress caused by social hierarchies. For example, Nancy Adler discovered our perceived socioeconomic status is a good predictor of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and the level of stress hormones circulating in the body. Irrespective of how secure a person’s circumstances, a subjective interpretation of oneself as having low social status contributes to stress-related diseases. Consequently, a poor Appalachian miner in the affluent United States experiences more status-related stress than a relatively poorer member of an African community where the majority endure the same level of financial hardship. Furthermore, countries with the highest levels of economic inequality have the greatest number of people with stress-related diseases.
Capitalism’s capricious economic cycles also contribute to stress. The body responds to threats with agitated alertness, especially when there is a coinciding belief that taking action is necessary to avoid being hurt. In trauma lingo, we refer to this as a state of hypervigilance, or the need to continually scan the environment for the possibility that past threats will reemerge and once again endanger one’s survival. Living in a capitalistic and globalized economy seems to require hypervigilance and constantly scanning for potential job loss and devaluing retirement accounts, if not the decimation of entire market sectors and local economies.
For the most financially precarious (an ever-widening sector of the population), capitalism creates a state similar to the psychological domination that can occur when people are held in captivity. Psychological domination is more likely when 1) the threat is unpredictable and 2) there are periods of relative safety amid the chaos and abuse. Psychologist Judith Herman observed, “The ultimate effect of [psychological domination] is to convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance.” Certainly the psychological impact of capitalism fails to reach the severity of a person whose basic right to freedom from harm is taken away. Rather, my argument is that capitalism is more precarious than reliable, creating conditions that are often inhumane and that lead to traumatic stress.
In his book On Deep History and the Brain, Daniel Lord Smail makes a connection between global capitalism, social hierarchies, and the body’s reaction to threats. Smail argues capitalism exploits the body’s survival responses (i.e., freeze, fight, flight, and submission) by creating the conditions of psychological domination as well as providing relief from the feelings of powerlessness that capitalism and social hierarchies engender. According to Smail, capitalism generates stress through its unpredictability and hierarchical power structures, but it also alleviates stress by producing an economy organized around the production and circulation of addictive substances and practices.
Smail notes that, from its inception in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, global capitalism was organized around creating and feeding addictions. The first imports to Europe from Africa, the Arab World, and the Americas were coffee, sugar, chocolate, tobacco and “spirits” — all mood-altering substances. During this time, the term addiction gained its modern meaning as a self-inflicted behavior rather than the state of being indebted to another (e.g., serfdom) that previously distinguished the addict. With this shift in understanding of addiction, also came a new organization of society away from a focus on managing external forms of control to a focus on internal ways of responding to dominance by self-medicating its effects.
Today, the use of addictive substances and activities to regulate stress is so common it is difficult to demarcate between what counts as recreational use of substances and what constitutes lifestyle maintenance. Addictions are a widespread way of managing feelings of agitation and overwhelm, which for many are habitual responses to the pressure of trying to make a living in the current global economy. Typically when we anticipate danger, the body either becomes so activated that it enters a state of extreme agitation (referred to as “hyperarousal”) or it moves towards a state of shut down in response to feeling profoundly overwhelmed (called “hypoarousal”). Addictive substances and activities are now everyday methods for escaping such states — a role religion historically served, especially in the preindustrial world.
Capitalism is not the only social system that exploits the body’s natural responses to power and dominance. All societies must contend with the human capacity for dealing with power dynamics and the stress they can cause on the body. Status is integrally associated with power and is present in all forms of society, even those such as the Intuit, Navajo Indians, and !Kung San, which are noted for their egalitarian social structures. What differs is how members deal with the quest for status and power. In smaller, egalitarian societies the quest for status and power is often systematically undermined, whether through derogatory remarks to the one who boasts about his successful hunt, or the isolation of those who attempt to bully others into submission. Capitalism differs from such egalitarian societies when it exploits conditions that activate traumatic stress rather than minimizing them. Whereas egalitarian societies respond to power and status by trying to mitigate its effects, capitalism propagates traumatic stress in ways that promote the pursuit of power and status, which ultimately keeps the system functioning.
Herman, Judith. 1997. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: BasicBooks.
Smail, Danial Lord. 2008. On Deep History and the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Waal, Frans De. 2005. Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. New York: Riverhead Books.
© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved. An early version of this post appeared in 2011 on my website,Trauma's Labyrinth.