Capitalism and the culture-bound syndrome it produces

By Tom Ferraro, Ph.D.
Exclusively for Clio's Psyche
April 17th 2009
All rights reserved


DSM-IV defines culture-bound syndromes as recurrent, locality-specific patterns of aberrant behavior and troubling experience that may be linked to a specific DSM-IV diagnosis. The signs and symptoms of our new culture bound syndrome are clear enough. Many Americans are exhausted, anxious, overworked and angry. They will frequently attempt to self medicate this condition with overeating and drug use. This then produces obesity and sleep disorders. They are chronically dysthymic and feel dissatisfied their life. This syndrome is felt by many Americans. Welcome to the primary cultural syndrome of the 21st century, Depletion.

Like all neurosis, the cause of this syndrome is complex and hard to find. But this should not stop us from trying. In fact this cultural syndrome has reached such a crisis that it is best described as a psychotic breakdown. Neurosis is something we can function with but by definition psychosis is far more serious. And the global collapse of capitalism is a psychotic breakdown of the worst kind. Indeed, these things do happen.

In the late 1980's and early 90's we witnessed communism, the other great social experiment of the 20th century collapse and die. The fall of the communist system was best symbolized with the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9th 1989. The collapse of the wall is an apt metaphor for the breakdown of the system of thought that is no longer viable. It marked the end of the great totalitarian communist experiment. The system produced too much apathy, dependency, ennui and despair in the Soviet citizen. It's time was over.

Now 19 years later free trade capitalism faces its greatest challenge. The world has failed to produce a global system of thought as a balancing counterpoint to capitalism. Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as a violent attempt to respond to Western communism but it is unlikely that religious fundamentalism is a viable economic option. Fundamentalism has functioned as a war time opponent to democracy but it will surely fail to defeat capitalism. But as capitalism becomes shaken from within the fact that we are now such a global world makes the consequences far more serious and far reaching.

The cause of capitalism's problems
We can see the symptoms of rampant unchecked capitalism. The population in America is exhausted, overspent, in debt, anxious, angry and finally despairing. All these characteristics of the overworked consumer were described by Juliet Schor in her 1996 book The Overspent American. The cause of these problems may be found in capitalism's very success. It is simply impossible to resist the amazing beauty and variety of the free marketplace and its products. The wonderful variety of a Whole Foods supermarket. The amazing elegance of a new Lexus. The style of a Louis Vittton handbag. The entertainment value of Hollywood films. These products and services are irresistible and highly addictive. When you add a financial industry that knows how to capitalize on these addictions, you have the ingredients for our inevitable exhausting breakdown.

The cure for capitalism's problems
The cure for this cultural syndrome will probably be found in increased governmental regulation which is exactly what the Obama White House is up to. Communism, especially totalitarian communism, with all its harshness failed. Capitalism with its unchained freedoms appears to have failed as well. The greed and amorality of the corporation and banking system was left unchecked and proved to be dangerous to everyone. The compromise position will provide for some regulation which hopefully will protect the consumer from the excessive greed of free market capitalism. The bailout is Obama's attempt to keep this system alive until it can be ministered to adequately. It is not reasonable to hope that we return to the way things were a few years ago. This would mean we can look forward to more exhaustion, overwork, overspending, debt, anxiety and anger.

The fact that capitalism produces such captivating products is an ironic danger to us all. We have all become like drug addicts who have tasted this beautiful drug of consumerism. We sense it can kill us if we indulge too often but somehow we seem unable to resist it charms. Obama said in his inaugural address that we must learn restraint and responsibility. He is right about this but it is not clear that we will be able to do so. Til then we must rely on government regulation to control this beautiful beast called Madison Avenue, Banking, Wall Street and Manufacture. We will eventually need to learn restraint. This cultural syndrome that I am calling Depletion is real and all around us. We have been taught that we can find joy and satisfaction in the mall but this is not at all true. There is got to be a better way to live life. Restraint, renunciation and discipline are the catch words of our new day. And there is no way a politician can use them very often. It is a sure way to lose an election. Just ask Jimmy Carter how he did when he suggested this to us back in the 70's. All that did was sweep in Ronald Reagan who promised us the American dream through unregulated capitalism. It heated up the world for us but then it nearly killed us.