Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Depression Among the Occupiers

The Occupy movement has attracted its fair share of young idealists, malcontents and thrill-seekers. Yet, its origin lies in radical leftist politics.

Some young people are protesting income inequality and social injustice. Still others are defending labor unions.

At root, however, the movement is promoting an anti-capitalist worldview. It has attracted all manner of radical thinkers who yearn for the demise of the free enterprise system.

Even though the movement has been supported by ordinary Democrats, its source is far more radical.

Whether Slavoj Zizek or Andrew Ross or Michael Moore or Naomi Klein, radical leftist thinkers have been more than happy to use the Occupy movement to advance their ideas and careers.

Mattathias Schwartz reports in The New Yorker on Kalle Lasn, the strange Canadian editor of a small Canadian magazine called AdBusters who is said to be the progenitor of the Occupy movement.

In his words: “The magazine, which he founded twenty-two years ago, depicts the developed world as a nightmare of environmental collapse and spiritual hollowness, driven to the brink of destruction by its consumer appetites. Adbusters’ images—a breastfeeding baby tattooed with corporate logos; a smiling Barack Obama with a clown’s ball on his nose—are combined with equally provocative texts and turned into a paginated montage. Adbusters is not the only radical magazine calling for the end of life as we know it, but it is by far the best-looking.”

Or, listen to Naomi Klein’s speech to the Occupiers: “The point is, today everyone can see that the system is deeply unjust and careening out of control. Unfettered greed has trashed the global economy. And it is trashing the natural world as well. We are overfishing our oceans, polluting our water with fracking and deepwater drilling, turning to the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet, like the Alberta tar sands. And the atmosphere cannot absorb the amount of carbon we are putting into it, creating dangerous warming. The new normal is serial disasters: economic and ecological.”

Writing in the Telegraph, James Delingpole summarized the Klein agenda: “No Logo author Naomi Klein has a solution to climate change and it goes like this: punitive taxation; massive wealth re-distribution; the abolition of free trade and free markets; a state-enforced end to the ‘cult of shopping’; the whole to be supervised by a New World Order of selfless illuminati (who presumably resemble Naomi Klein).”

The comely Ms. Klein is clearly not a liberal Democrat.

Whether the fight is against inequality or social injustice or an environmental apocalypse, the Occupy movement blames capitalism.

It may not know what it is for, but it does know what it is against.

Some Occupiers are opposed to crony capitalism; some reject corporations’ right to free speech; some believe that big business is destroying the world; some inveigh against consumer culture;  some believe that the rich are thieves; some want business needs to be more strictly regulated.

Whatever the tone or the coloration, Occupy Wall Street is opposed to the free enterprise system.

Today I want to underscore that the Occupy movement manifests a peculiar habit of thought. Occupiers look at capitalism and see a glass that is neither half full nor half empty; they see an empty glass.

Cognitive psychologists should already drawn our attention to this chronically negative, pessimistic, and depressive thinking.

If depressive thinking looks at a glass half full of water and pronounces it half empty, the Occupiers go beyond depression by telling the glass that it is empty, or better, that what appears to be water is really contaminated.

If the leading lights of the Occupy movement want to produce depression, social isolation, and dysfunctional behaviors, they are doing a great job.   

I am not saying that the people who are drawn to the movement are necessarily depressed. For all I know they might be completely thrilled with themselves.

Yet, young people who are allowing their thinking to be shaped by people like Michael Moore and Naomi Klein ought to know that they are learning how to be depressed. The longer you think in negative, pessimistic terms, the more you refuse to find value in the culture you inhabit, the more likely you are to become depressed.

Young people who are told that their loved ones have worked and gained pride from a corrupt capitalist system are being taught the habit of depressive thought.

You cannot maintain your self-respect if you believe that you and your family have been participating in an organized criminal conspiracy that is oppressing the third world, exploiting the poor, and destroying the environment. If you decide to declare war on the system, you will be declaring war on yourself.

Some psychiatrists see depression as a chemical imbalance. Cognitive psychologists have described much of it as a thought imbalance.

Being depressed means being pessimistic about the future and highly critical of oneself. Being depressed means refusing to see the good in people, places, or events and indulging a habit of thought that turns all colors dark gray.

If the cognitivists are right, then treatment for depression must involve learning how to think optimistically. Not to see everything through rose colored glasses, but to bring one’s judgment into balance.

Cognitive treatment for depression has given rise to what is called positive psychology. Unfortunately, it has been misused and misinterpreted.

Positive psychology does not mean that we should only see the bright side of things. It does not mean that we should be unfailingly optimistic no matter what. It does not mean that we should maintain good feelings about ourselves regardless.

Too blind much optimism is not the cure for too much bleak pessimism.

Still, we need to counteract and counterbalance all of the radical leftist anti-capitalist doomsaying.

Depressive thinking undermines confidence by diminishing achievement. People who are depressed refuse to accept that they have achieved anything or that they belong to a team that has won its share of victories. Once they decide that they have never achieved anything, they will start thinking that they never get anything right.

If we want to help out the young people who are being led around by the Pied Pipers of the Occupy movement, we do well to heed the words of Hillsdale College Professor Gary Wolfram.

Explaining that the Occupiers have blinded themselves to the accomplishments of capitalism, Wolfram wrote: “The Wall Street protesters, in their hatred of capitalism, overlook things including the fact that over the last 100 years capitalism has reduced poverty more and increased life expectancy more than in the 100,000 years prior.”

He continues: “How is it that for thousands of years mankind made very little progress in increasing the standard of living and yet today half of the goods and services you use in the next week did not exist when I was born? It wasn't that there was some change in the DNA such that we got smarter. The Greeks knew how to make a steam engine 3,000 years ago and never made one. The difference is in how we organize our economic system. The advent of market capitalism in the mid 18th century made all of the difference.”

For my part I would not devalue the role played by the Industrial Revolution. But, Wolfram is correct to point out that someone had to figure out how to distribute the benefits of the  Industrial Revolution to the greatest number of people. For that, we need free market capitalism.

This does not mean that free market capitalism is perfect. Yet, people who overlook the considerable achievements and who cavil about it because it is imperfect would do better to explain why their own radical leftist ideology, every time it has been put into practice, has only excelled at producing destruction, desolation, and famine.

Balanced judgment does not mean that different theories of political economy each have equal parts of good and bad.

There is no such thing as system that if entirely good or entirely bad. Each has flaws and each had advantages.

Yet, some systems are vastly superior to others. The accumulated achievements of capitalism so far outweigh its troubles that a minimum of intellectual integrity would prevent one from teaching that capitalism is fundamentally bad.

The accumulated horrors produced by fascist and communist systems are so great that it is disgraceful to defend them by saying that, for example, Cuba gives free medical care to everyone and that Mussolini made the trains run on time.

The intellectual leaders of the Occupy movement are promoting a discourse that is both dishonest and depressing. It might demonstrate the power of negative thinking, but it is sad to think that the only way such thinking can show its power is by destroying what others have built.  


David Foster said...

"The Greeks knew how to make a steam engine 3,000 years ago and never made one"....I think there were actually a couple of factors at work here. The steam engine the Greeks made was a form of turbine, basically a pinwheel, and couldn't have been used for practical power without a lot of gearing down, which may well of been beyond their capabilities. BUT both the Greeks and the Romans certainly knew how to use waterpower, and while there were a few impressive installations, they never really exploited its capabilities. The reason is probably that slavery made human labor cheap, and the cultural ethos surrounding slavery caused economic activity in general devalued.

Waterpower was developed much more highly during the Middle Ages, often thought of as a period of technological stagnation.

Bizzy Brain said...

From my experience, liberals are not the happiest of people. Am wondering if people turn to liberalism because they are depressed, or depressed because they turn liberlism? First thoughts are depressed people turn to liberalism, to seek harmony and utopia in the external "other" since the internal is turmoil.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I think that both are true. As you say, liberalism attracts people who have depressive tendencies. Yet, some people live in communities where peer pressure forces them to adopt liberal opinions. Either they wanted to fit in or were afraid of the cost of ideological non-conformity.