I, Capitalist (accounts from a life under the empire)

Reprinted from the Slingshot newspaper, issue #109.
by Teresa Smith

When I was a kid, I used to watch my mother soak things in hot, sudsy water and then pick the price tags off with her fingernails. Sometimes, I wish I could soak my soul in that water, that I might cleanse myself of all reminders of the cost of things.

$

A few weeks ago, I was sipping tea with my favorite Marxist–he bought me the tea cuz I’m hella broke–and I was telling him how I’d been offered a job that pays $50 an hour, but I was thinking about not taking it.

“Why not?” he asked. “You need that money.”

I had been jobless for over a year, and to survive, I’d been borrowing money from the people I love. My friends were running out of slack, though, and if I didn’t find a job soon, I’d have to move out of my coveted Berkeley attic corner (I pay $215 a month to live in a drafty rat-infested attic with 3 other people) and move back in with my foster parents in the cultural desert of Seattle Suburbia.

“I just don’t think I should start working yet…” I grappled to explain. “I mean… being jobless is teaching me something… something about value, about capital, about the way money moves people… and I think… I’m close–really close–to figuring out what money really is.”

“No, Teresa,” the Marxist gazed at me with intensity. “Money is a magical and elusive thing. You could spend your entire life studying it and never figure out what it is.”

$

But still, I couldn’t stop thinking about money, about the symbols we use to represent value.
In the mid-1800s, Karl Marx devoted himself to the study of capital. So desperate he was to understand the ebb and flow of value that he quit working and spent every waking hour in the London library, studying. He wrote thousands of pages about the way Capitalism works, creating perhaps the most comprehensive explanation of an economic system ever.

But in his manic efforts to understand it, Marx neglected to participate in the system he was trapped in. …and the Beast of Capitalism punishes nonparticipation without mercy.
As Marx wrote, four of his children starved to death.

$

In December of 1989, I worked my first job. I was five years old, selling sprigs of mistletoe door-to-door for $1 a bundle and I loved doing it! I still remember one young man who bought a sprig, winked at me, turned around, and held the mistletoe over a woman’s head. They kissed like at the end of Little Mermaid, and I beamed at them, proud that my mistletoe had facilitated such an excellent moment.

If someone had told me I was doing it for the money, I would have laughed so hard! But I quickly learned that those little paper rectangles were important: money was the symbol that allowed me to take part in the magical ritual of exchange, an ancient ritual that brings random strangers together to share a few moments of existence before going back to the meantime of our lives.

I made over $100 selling mistletoe, and gave it all to my mom. Her eyes lit up–just like when the checks arrived from her sisters. My mother usually spent her days locked away in her room, but with a huge wad of cash in her hands, her depression completely dissipated. She had power now. Power to do things beyond the meager allotment sent by the Welfare office.

“Santa is going to bring extra toys this year!” she grinned.

¥

After college, I traveled to Japan to teach English. I had been looking forward to the job for months–I love teaching! And sure, the students would be paying for the English lessons, but I thought of the monetary exchange as a ritual that would allow the real magic to happen: the sacred connection between human minds grappling to understand a topic.

But after arriving in Japan, I quickly learned that most of my students weren’t interested in the joy of learning: they behaved like customers: arms folded, eyes narrowed, as if it was my job to serve them a Unit-of-English-Language.

For the first time in my life, I learned what it is like to be reduced to an object, a sum of my functions. Some customers treated me so poorly, I wanted to run from the room. But I was held hostage: if I walked out, I’d lose my job. And I needed that job to pay off my college debt.

“How do you stand this place?” I asked my coworker, Ben, who’d worked at the Language Company for several years.

“I don’t,” he smiled robotically. “When I get to work in the morning, I turn my emotions off. And I don’t feel a thing until I leave the office at the end of the day.”

“That’s horrible!” I said.

“Just wait until your first paycheck comes,” Ben replied. “You’ll realize it was all worth it.”

So when my paycheck came, I tried to make it feel worth it: I drank fine saké with my new friends, traveled to some spiffy ancient shrines, and adorned my body with designer clothes from Osaka’s fashion district. But none of these things could make me feel happy–nothing could buy back the 200+ hours I spent each month feeling miserable at work.

I arrived in Japan in summer of ’07, just in time to watch the Japanese economy collapse. Every couple days, I’d reach the transit station and the neon signs would be flashing: “All Trains: 45 Minute Delay.” This meant that yet another newly-fired businessman had thrown himself in front of a commuter train. It always took the transit workers 45 minutes to clean the flesh from the tracks.

Starting in middle school, Japanese kids are taught to pack their feelings in and work hard–even if the work doesn’t make sense, even if they are being treated poorly–for the sake of future remuneration. Like Christians setting aside their own pleasure for the sake of a future reward, Japanese people are taught to displace their pleasure for symbols: grades and money. But when you hollow yourself out for the sake of symbols, what is left when those symbols are taken away?

“You should feel lucky,” said my coworker, Steve, “that you weren’t born in China.” Before coming to Japan, Steve had spent two years working at an orphanage in China. The parents of the 200+ babies he tended were still alive: they were workers at a nearby purse factory. These people had to work 17-hours-a-day, 6-days-a-week, and if they complained, they risked losing their jobs and starving to death. On Sundays, the workers came to the orphanage to clutch their babies with bloodied fingers. These people received pennies for the each purse they made, which were sold for about $400 at designer boutiques in Japan, America, and Europe…. so that workers like me could make our paychecks “feel like something.”

One day in the break room, my coworkers began discussing the ways they’d thought about killing themselves.

“Sometimes, when a lesson is going really bad,” Ben said, “I think about throwing myself off a tall building and smashing through the windows of the building next to it. It would feel so good to go out like that–to use my body to break something.”

A few weeks later, I left Japan. I would have to find some other way to pay off my college debt.

$

When I was 15-years-old, I learned that college costs extravagant amounts of money, so I informed my mother that I was going to stop giving her cash.

“But I need that money,” my mom sounded frightened.

I worked several jobs–shelving books at the library, delivering newspapers, keeping grounds for the landlord–and I gave most of the money to my mom. I thought it was a frivolous thing, that she didn’t depend on the money, that it just made her life a little more fun.

“If you need cash,” I said, “just ask your sisters.”

“Not until they apologize!” A few years before–right around the time I started giving my mom money, actually–she had stopped talking to her wealthy sisters. Three of her five sisters had married rich men, and they sent cash to anyone in the family who groveled hard enough.

“Well,” I said, “if you want extra money, you’ll have to swallow your pride and talk to your sisters, cuz I’m saving up for college.”

Within the next year, I managed to save over $3000–almost enough for 6 months tuition. I was off to a good start. But shortly after my 16th birthday, I went to the bank to and discovered my account was empty. My mother had used her Legal Guardian privileges to drain every penny.

So I got better at hiding my money.

But once I was no longer providing for her, my mom started treating her children differently…
By the time I was 17, the household had grown so violent, my younger sister and I were forced to leave.

$

“I hate our aunts,” said my 14-year-old cousin, Billy.

“You shouldn’t say bad things about The Aunties,” I said. I was a 21-year-old college student, and wanted to be a positive role model.

“Dude, they lie all the time,” Billy said. “And they gossip about my mom.”

He was right: I had once heard one of my aunts on the phone with Billy’s mom, saying “I love you,” and then, immediately after hanging up, she had turned to me and said “My sister is such a worthless person!”

Billy’s mother had schizophrenia and didn’t have a husband. Perhaps that is why her sisters thought it was okay to speak so unkindly about her.

“But the aunties love you,” I heard myself say.

“They never visit,” Billy countered.

“But they send you and your mom so much money!”

“Yeah, but money isn’t love.”

I smiled. Money isn’t love. Billy was always challenging me to see those horrible truths I so often tried to ignore. That was something I loved about him: he was never afraid to call me on my bullshit.

Two years later, at the age of 16, Billy swallowed a bottle of painkillers.

When Billy died, I had been frantically trying to find a ride out to see him. I had a horrible feeling… But everyone was so busy working, they didn’t have time to give me a ride. I don’t own my own car, and I didn’t have the cash for a Greyhound ticket.

$

When my sister and I left home as teenagers, we were lucky enough to be living in the Seattle ‘burbs, an area oversaturated with cash.

When local folks found out that my sister and I were “homeless,” they shared their food, guest rooms, let us ride their horses, and one family even took us on a one-week vacation to Disneyland. It seemed to make people feel powerful to share their resources and luxuries with us. When we thanked them, they always beamed, saying stuff like “Well, it makes me feel great to share what I have!”

Eventually, one family in town let us stay with them on a permanent basis. Our new foster parents pushed us to finish high school, and helped us get the loans and financial aid we needed to go to college.

$

A few days after Billy died, I finally got a ride out to the Oregon Coast to see him. I thought that seeing my cousin’s body would create some sort of resolution, but instead, I left the morgue wanting answers.

“Billy was such a nice kid,” his English teacher told me, “but he just wouldn’t do his homework. So I had to fail him. Then, last month, he dropped out of school…”

“His mom wouldn’t let him study,” said one of his classmates. “I went over there to help with his homework, and his mom pulled a gun on me–a fucking gun!–and told me to leave. I guess she was jealous or something.”

“Sometimes he’d come over to our place for a few hours to hide from his mom,” said a neighbor. “We had to send him home at dinnertime, though. We can’t be feeding someone else’s kid, you know.”

It seemed like everyone in the town liked Billy, and knew that he was experiencing intense violence at home. So why hadn’t they rallied to help him the way people had rallied around me and my sister? I felt like I’d fallen into some horrible alternative universe.

I asked the priest at Billy’s church to explain.

“This town is poor,” the priest said as we folded programs for Billy’s funeral. “And it gets poorer every year.”

The town’s economy had tanked in the 1980s after the Oregon fish and lumber industries collapsed. Soon after that, corporate franchises like Wal-Mart and McDonalds moved in. Before long, a majority of people in town were working for the franchises, receiving minimum wage. The low wages made it impossible for people to shop locally, so almost all the local businesses went under. Now, a majority of the town’s money was leaving the town’s economy, flowing from the franchise cash registers almost directly into the pockets of CEOs and Wall Street investors.

“There are over 500 homeless youth in the area,” the priest said. “And countless more at-risk teens. And we are powerless to help any of them. We just don’t have the resources.”

$

My foster dad runs a company in the Seattle area. It’s a good company: a firm that cleans up hazardous waste. He thinks capitalism is working.

“Why?” I asked last time I visited home.

“Because companies like mine are able to provide well-paying jobs with health care to almost a hundred people.”

But not every company is able to be so noble. Once a company reaches a certain size, the CEOs are legally bound to make more money last quarter than they did this quarter–to make a profit. To facilitate this exponential increase of profits, they must create new markets, reduce the quality of goods, and/or reduce the quality of life for their workers.

My foster dad looked at me with deep concern and admitted, “We give our employees annual raises, but not enough to match the rising cost of living. And we have to slash health benefits every year because the cost of insurance is skyrocketing. This year, we had to cut optical… Next year it might be dental…”

My foster dad is trying to run a good company, but his company is trapped in a competitive profit-based economy, so, just to stay afloat, he is forced to reduce the quality of life for his workers every year.
How long will it be, I wonder, before the suburbs of Seattle begin to look like Billy’s hometown?

$

Recently, I spoke with my computer-savvy friend, Brian, who has worked in the Seattle-area tech-industry for the last 15 years. Brian says working conditions are getting worse every year.

Employers like Microsoft and Google no longer take responsibility for their workers, instead calling them “independent contractors.” They only allow these “contractors” to work 5 months out of the year–this allows the employers to legally skirt their duty of providing healthcare for their workers, while also making it difficult for workers to organize and demand better conditions.

In Brian’s most recent job, he worked for Google in a warehouse near Seattle. During the stressful 5-month contract, two of Brian’s coworkers were arrested for bringing guns to work. Brian blames the horrible conditions: Google imported a boss from the tech sweatshops of India to run the place, and this man had all the workers frantically competing against each other, threatening to fire people who didn’t meet the daily work quota. “I have never been forced to work so hard for so little,” Brian says.

During Brian’s time working for Google, he was hounded by creditors, who took almost his entire paycheck. At one point, Brian was left with $30 to live on for 2 weeks. During that time, he ate little more than a carton of eggs. Once a shapely man, Brain’s skin now hangs from his bones.

In a globalized system of Capitalism, the lowest standard of working anywhere lowers the bar for everyone else on earth. If someone in India or China is willing to do your job at a lower pay and without benefits, then it is only a matter of time before your job is reduced to the same inhumane level, or exported all together.

$

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been jobless for over a year.

When I first lost my job in January 2011, I furiously hunted for a new one. But as the weeks turned into months of joblessness, I eventually lost hope and stopped looking. Now, after a year without an earned income, this high-paying job has turned up, but I’m terrified to take it.

I think I’ve become anorexic about money. As anyone who has suffered from anorexia knows, it isn’t about looking skinny: anorexia is all about control. Throughout your life, you watch your weight fluctuate wildly, until finally, you go a little crazy and say “enough is enough” and you just stop eating. That’s about how I feel with money right now. I’m terrified to trade my labor for money again, whether it’s for $5 or $50 an hour because the moment I step back in onto the Capitalist rollercoaster, I will no longer be in control: the market could fluctuate or my job could be eliminated.

And I am tired of having to gamble in order to feed myself.

$

But even though I didn’t receive any pay this year, I’ve worked quite hard. I edited newspapers, interned at a publishing house, and staffed a youth program–all as an unpaid volunteer. And it felt great to work without money holding me hostage!

I love working, but I never went to touch money again. Because money cheapens everything. Because once we are told we are working for mere symbols (whether it’s grades or cash), we forget our responsibility to check in and be present for the moments that make up being alive, and we forget our responsibility to create real meaning–not just symbolic meaning–in the things we do every day.

$

But my friends have run out of slack. And even though I’ve had a great time working for free this year, my relationships have suffered.

When I lost my job a year ago, I had been living with a man with whom I had been desperately in love. But once I didn’t have my own income, a new, horrible power dynamic entered our relationship: I found myself unable to genuinely express my emotions around him because I felt indebted for the food and shelter he provided me. Our love soon grew cold, and after 2 years together, we went our separate ways.

A similar coldness has entered all my relationships that involve borrowing money. Being put in the position of begging the people you love for money puts a price on love. Soon, your friends can’t trust you to be honest with them. And you wonder if you can trust yourself.

I think I am beginning to understand how my mom and Billy’s mom became so twisted: living on the edge of poverty in Capitalism is living on the edge of death. You feel like a vampire, leeching off the people you love just to survive. They say if a vampire tries to eat food, the food will turn to ashes in her mouth. It is like that with love when you are poor and desperate: love is transformed into lifeless scraps of paper before it can reach you. You take the paper so you can eat today, and your heart begins to starve.

$

When I was a kid, I used to watch my mother soak things in hot, sudsy water and then pick the price tags off with her fingernails.

But I know I cannot soak my soul in that water, for if I cleansed myself of all marks of cost, nothing would be left.

Because Capitalism is not some abstract thing. It is deeply personal. It creates the channels through which care reaches (or doesn’t reach) each of us. And that care transforms us into who we are.

And perhaps my Marxist friend is right: I will never fully understand money. Because the effort to understand money is the effort to understand yourself. It is the effort to understand the flow of power through your life, and the flow of your life as you chase symbols.

I am a hairless mammal. I am completely dependent upon my society for my biological survival. But under Capitalism, my very existence is denied to me if I don’t, in some way, interact with money. It is simply a matter of choosing whether I want money to taint my work-life, or whether I want it to taint my friendships…

$

So I followed the Marxist’s advice and took the $50 an hour job. But what am I doing for this money? I am tutoring a 15-year-old boy whose name, ironically, is Billy.

Like my cousin, this Billy failed high school English. But unlike Billy, his parents have money. His mother is the CEO of a major oil company, and she is giving me hundreds of dollars a month to help her son raise his grades so he can get into a good college. It is important that her son goes to college–not because college guarantees a job (in fact, a majority of unemployed people right now have a college degree)–but going to college has become part of the myth that entitles people to join the 1% of the population that controls a majority of the planet’s resources.

When her Billy is done with college, there will be a six-figure “entry level” job waiting for him, and he will believe he earned it.

$

What does it mean when a CEO can spend $400 a month to have her son tutored, while factory workers must send their children to live in an orphanage? What does it mean when an investor can jet to Sicily for a weekend jaunt, while the restaurant workers that staff the companies he “owns” don’t even get paid maternity leave? What does it mean when one community is able to help its homeless youth, while another community cannot?

I’d call this Feudalism, but the truth is, it is much worse.

Our ancestors brought this Demon of Capitalism upon us because they wanted to end the harsh disparities of Feudalism–a system in which 1% of the population claimed absolute power because they were born into “noble families.” But Capitalism is simply a new myth to uphold the same disparities:

Now, instead of claiming their power through birthright, the ruling 1% claim they have earned their power. This is the myth that money creates.

Those of us at the bottom of the pyramid receive money for working hard, so we believe the myth that the ruling class also earned their positions. But the average CEO makes 650 times the amount as the average American worker. How could it be possible to earn such an inflated amount of power?

The horrible truth is that money has nothing to do with work, and everything to do with power. The people who are already in power have access to infinite amounts of money because they own our debts, they set our wages, and they print the money that we are given for our labor. And we are tricked into believing that other people can somehow earn this level of power, when the game was rigged in their favor from the beginning.

On top of normalizing the same disparities that existed under Feudalism, the Capitalist myth includes the need for exponential increase of profits. So products will continue to break sooner and sooner, the planet’s resources will continue to be devoured, and the conditions for workers will get worse with each passing year. All so the CEOs can convince the investors that their company made a profit. All so the aristocrats can play a game that justifies their own status.

$

My mother lives alone in a trailer park now. I visit her a few times a year, and she always asks for money. She knows I don’t have any–that I am broke and still haven’t paid off my college debt–but she still asks. Old habit, I guess. Perhaps it is the only way she knows how to ask for love.

$

A few months after Billy died, some marine biologists found his mother’s body floating in a tide pool, her fingers wrapped around the gun in her pocket, her bleached hair dancing with the ebb and flow of the sea.

$

None of us chose to be born into Capitalism, but every day, we choose to continue it.

From the moment we received our first grades in school, we became invested in the system–a system of competing to receive symbols instead of working to build love. We became transfixed by the game of “Just one more dollar, just one more paycheck, just one more lottery ticket, just one more investment…”  Soon, we become so invested in our symbol-laden Capitalist Identities, we forget to ask ourselves if the system is worth it. But as we run faster and faster chasing the Idol of Money, why does happiness draw further and further away?

Are we ready to end this game?

Are we ready to evolve?

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Filed under Late Capitalism, Neofeudalism, Selfhood

The Shoplifter

by samara steele

 

It’s not about the two dollars

it would have cost

to buy the damn chocolate bar.

Nor is it about the stupidly long line

at the register—

but I think the line has something to do with it.

Because I can’t remember which line I am in,

nor what I am supposed to do

when I reach the end of it.

And today

I couldn’t stand to wait

in another

line.

Because I knew when I got to the end of it

a woman

would be standing there,

behind the register,

smiling at me, hating me

while I fumbled for my wallet.

And I would be hating her

while swiping my card

again and again.

“Point the strip the other way,” she would say.

“Oh, there it goes,” I would reply.

And this is power at its most absolute.

This is the chokehold, the vice-grip:

Someone I don’t know

is making me

and this woman

spend our time

doing

this.

But today

I slip the chocolate bar into my sleeve

where it will grow soft against my skin.

And I wish I could steal more.

 

All that is truly mine

in this life

is what I have taken

when no one was looking.

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Filed under Habits, Late Capitalism, Selfhood

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

by S.H. Steele

 

My culture has no place for me.

I,

the being to which the word “I” gestures

has no place in my society’s

language, institutions, behaviors.

People look at me, and

and see only the words inside their skulls

that they have already used to judge me.

Perform well = positive judgment.

Perform poorly = negative.

My future is a long dark tunnel of being invisible,

eclipsed by grades, resumes, so many markers of status.

The only thing left to do is stop performing

and wait

to be recognized.

I am defiant

because of the misguided hope that

one day I will be seen.

- – – – -

This poem was partially inspired by an article that appeared in Slingshot #110 entitled Why anti-authoritarians are diagnosed as mentally ill by Bruce Levine, Ph.D.

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Kicking the Addiction Habit

by Samara Steele

Lately, I’ve been working to understand my additions.  Booze, candy bars, coffee, ice cream, pot — I been a slave to each of these substances in recent years.

As for my “addictive-style,” I’m a stress-grabber.  When I get stressed out, I reach for a substance — without even thinking about it — and once it’s in my hand, I just compulsively smoke or swallow it.  It all happens so fast, I’m barely aware of what’s happened.

Sure, these substances are supposedly harmless (and I thank my lucky stars I haven’t had to deal with “hard” drugs!) but these “harmless” substances still screw up my ability to think and feel for about a day.  They debilitate me and hinder my ability to develop my personality.  And when I ingest these things day after day, my experience of being alive begins to shrink.

So, this winter I got hooked on the weirdest thing…

(drum roll, please)

…fennel seeds.

That’s right, fennel seeds: those tangy, bitter little pods that can be obtained cheaply at any grocery store.

I’d chew the seeds and let their savory zing overwhelm my senses for a minute, then spit them out like chewing tobacco.  I’ve also started chewing whole cloves and cardamom pods.  But fennel (Oh, fennel!) is what has carried me through those tough, stressful moments when I really just needed to… reach for something.

The cool thing about chewing fennel seeds was that (unlike all the other substances listed above) it didn’t debilitate me.  The “fennel zing” lasted a minute or two, and then I could go back to my life.

“How cleaver I am,” I thought. “I’ve gotten myself emotionally hooked on a non-addictive substance.”

But then, this spring, I went on a road trip and left my fennel at home.  To my shock, after a few days I was crawling out of my skin for fennel seeds.

Fennel is just a kitchen spice, right?  There’s nothing “physically addictive” in it….  So what was going on?

I soon learned that a scientific study released in April 2011 shows that food and drug addiction have a neurological link: when a food-addicted person is exposed to a milkshake, the same parts of the brain are activated as when an alcohol-addicted person is exposed to booze.  Food addicts even experience a reduced activation of the brain regions responsible for inhibitions after drinking a milkshake! [3a]

What this means is that it doesn’t matter what the substance is: the body can become physically addicted to anything.

Many people believe that they are “hard-wired” for addiction, that they were born with magic little receptors in their brain that respond to booze, cigarettes, or whatever substances they are addicted to.  But recent research has shown that it is so much more complicated than that.

As explained by Extended Mind Theory, the brain is actually an incredibly flexible thing.  It is constantly reshaping itself to fit the way you interact with your environment. We aren’t born hard-wired for anything: we hard-wire ourselves through our behavior.  The more we do something, the more our brains re-map themselves to fit that behavior.

One of the most compelling scientific experiments to show this was when a group of researchers at MIT operated on a bunch of newborn ferrets, hooking their eyes up to the parts of their brains normally used for hearing.  You’d think that the ferrets would learn to “hear with their eyes,” right?  But instead, the ferret’s auditory brains rewired themselves to see.  [3b]

Just as the ferrets’ auditory brains rewired themselves to receive sight, parts of my brain rewired themselves to respond to fennel seeds.

As scientists continue to study addiction, I believe they are going to find that any action or substance can become an “addictive behavior,” triggering parts of the brain that have been trained to respond to a substance in a pleasurable way.

-     –     -

The other day, my friend Evan said, “You know what I think addiction really is?”

“What?” I asked.

“I think it’s when you’re reaching out for something you can’t have, so you grab something else.”

Evan had a point.  And I’m sure Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalytic theorist, would have agreed with him.

Much of Lacan’s work focuses on how we use “signifiers” to replace the unattainable objects of our desire, chasing after these things to distract ourselves from our inevitable incompleteness.

If we are to ever curb our “reaching habits,” we must learn to accept the things that we can never have.  We must learn to bare our feelings of incompleteness.

-     –     –     –     -

Three years ago, my cousin died.  After he was gone, I found myself reaching out for him all the time.  I would grab my phone and start to call him.  Or look for him on the street.  Or start to think of something I wanted to say to him.

The rational side of me knew he was never coming back, but the habit-oriented side of me kept making room for him in my activities.  My brain (and spirit) still expected my cousin to be part of my daily life.

Grief is the process of letting go of the habits connected to something that is no longer there.

When we move to a new city, when an old computer dies, or when a romance ends, we need to let ourselves grieve a little.

Grieving is a mind-altering ritual that allows us to transition away from habits that cannot be physically expressed anymore.

But in our frenzied lifestyles embedded in this age of Late Capitalism [3c], we rarely get the time to grieve.  Our emotions must be pushed aside, packed in.

At the time my cousin died, I was trying to get in to grad school, while in the process of moving to a new city, applying for apartments, and job-hunting.

Sure, I seriously freaked out when he died.  But I didn’t get the time to actually grieve — to emotionally work through the fact that he wasn’t coming back — so I kept reaching out for him.  And when reaching for him become too painful, I began to reach for other things…

I would consume and consume — boxes of ice cream, bottles of wine, loaded pipes — as if that stuff could fill the emptiness left by my cousin.  It became a viscous cycle of consuming to the point of feeling sick, but never feeling satisfied and consuming again.

Now that I’m on fennel seeds, I’ve had the mental capacity to start facing my problems and work through my grief.  It’s been a slow process, but I’m proud to say that — as I learn to bare the emptiness left by my cousin — my addictive habits are stating to fade away.

I’d like to say that I’ve found the “solution” to addiction — that everyone will get better if they replace their addictive behaviors with non-debilitating activities, while building the strength to bare the weight of their incompleteness.

But it is dangerous to talk about addiction in universal terms.  No two cases of addictive behavior are ever the same.  And if we reduce all addiction to the same thing, we lose touch with the unique personal obstacles that must be confronted on a individual level.

I think that switching to a non-debilitating substance (like fennel seeds) can help.  And I think self-observation can be a great way to uncover the emotional core that underlies addictive behavior.  And I think that sharing or writing about the experience can help (please feel free to share your personal story of addiction in the comments section below).

But ultimately, overcoming addiction is a unique, personal journey that each of us must take on our own.

-     –     –     –     -

Anti-copyright 2011.  Steal these ideas.

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Filed under Brain, Capitalism, Desires, Grief, Habits, Late Capitalism, rituals, Urges

Seeking a New Social Space

by Samara Steele

This week, an article appeared in the Hypocrite Reader entitled “Slow Mood Movement” by Debbie Hu.  This thoughtful, articulate piece examines the Slow Mood Movement through the lens of literature, while also reflecting on a major flaw of many activist organizations.

In the opening paragraphs, Debbie discusses her experience of struggling with depression while working as a community organizer in Chicago:

My office was in a three-story titanium building. Everyone smiled at each other all the time.

“I don’t know if I can keep doing a job that’s so irrelevant to the fact that I’m depressed,” I joked to my friend Austin a few weeks into the job. It was true: I’d never had to be so efficient while being such an emotional wreck (privilege). I was a recent college graduate. The corporate mode of relating with people, where you communicate so that you can help each other administrate, the logistical mode of relating, was really hard and alienating. Plus I was the organizer, which meant that I was supposed to be a leader—radiant with positivity.

….the environment felt so oppressive—the workday bustled briskly forward by the smiling efficiency of three hundred pragmatic employees—that I fantasized about “coming out” to my coworkers as “depressed.”

I can very much relate to Debbie’s situation:

Back  in 2008, I worked as a canvasser for the Democratic Party in Portland, Oregon.  I didn’t really believe in the cause (I’m not a huge fan of the whole 2-party thing…), but I took the job because I needed cash.  I was going through a huge personal crisis at the time (death in the family, nervous breakdown, etc), but I was able to “fake it” through the workday and pull in the required $100 of donations.

Some of my coworkers were also experiencing emotional struggles, but they couldn’t hide their feelings as well as I could.  Folks like that inevitably lost their jobs because they couldn’t bring in the $100 quota. It was really upsetting to watch those people get fired, especially if they were passionate about the cause.

Sometimes I wanted to just “come out” and allow myself to express my real moods and political ideas at work – but I knew that if I did, I’d lose my job. The whole time I worked for the DNC, I felt frightened and alienated.

In Debbie’s article, she writes:

This is not a story of how capitalism caused the attrition of my subjectivity, since I was working for a non-profit and doing political work. Except that it kind of is that story, because the model of work we used was profoundly market-based (being more efficient, getting more volunteers, making more contacts, getting more votes, for what? “Power.”). In this environment, what was more difficult than feeling sad was the feeling that sadness had to take on the status of a private extravagance, that there was no room for my sadness while there was work to be done and people to lead. If there was room for my sadness, it would only be to fix it in the name of greater productivity.

It is disappointing how most activist organizations are simply extensions of the Late Capitalist model – wrought with hierarchy and competition, with workers exploited for their skills and reduced to mere functions. It is such a shame that even supposedly “progressive” political workplaces overlook the opportunity to create a new kind of social order.

But there are people building a new model, working to envision a different type of social space in which people are able to express and experience their moods.  These models can be found in the work of a handful of writers and poets.

As Debbie explains:

In a lot of celebrated “poetry of the everyday,” I find very little of my everyday. I guess there’s the everyday and then there’s the everyday. There’s the details and the flux and then there’s the way those details feel, an affective mapping of the everyday—the everymood?—which might be really different for different people—that only a few writers have ever done for me. David Foster Wallace was maybe the first, and then I lost the thread for a few years, and picked it up again in the work of Lorrie Moore, Tao Lin, Lydia Davis, Mary Gaitskill, Megan Boyle, and, most recently, Rachel Glaser.

These authors have been criticized for allowing non-productive emotions to surface in their stories.

For example, Debbie points out an instance in which an interviewer asked Tao Lin why his book of poetry entitled Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is such a sad book, if, according to (a deeply flawed interpretation of) cognitive behavioral therapy,

“emotions are brought about by thoughts which are brought about by behaviors and it’s this cycle of irrational thoughts that lead to depression. So typically, when we’re trying to overcome depression we avoid negative thoughts, but it seems like in [your poetry collection] Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, you’ve done the opposite of that.”

Tao Lin’s response:

“I think I would prefer in my life to not just block out every negative thought but to learn to have the negative thoughts sort of just like pass through me. I’m not sure how that fits into cognitive behavioral therapy.”

As Debbie shows, Tao Lin and the other authors ignore the paradigm of productivity and use their work to create a space in which

The fantasy of sad thoughts passing through is like a fantasy of breathing, drifting with one’s feelings. Sadness makes questions of scale difficult—it sometimes feels like sadness must either be a catastrophe or else irrelevant. I think the writers here are trying to imagine a life in which sadness has relevance, before it gets to/without having to see it as having crisis proportions.

The Slow Mood Movement aims to take this imaginary space – in which moods are allowed expression – and turn it into a reality.  Perhaps Debbie sums it up perfectly when she writes

I like the Slow Mood Movement because it wants to make a movement out of the belief that moods take time and that feeling can be more like eating.

…Like the slow food movement, which wishes to take food out of the contexts of industry and efficiency, to reclaim eating as a pleasure, a communal activity, and a slow process, so the slow mood movement wishes to reclaim mooding.

The Slow Mood Movement isn’t an organization.  We are a scattered collection of people from all walks of life who believe that human beings are not meant to be gears in a power-grabbing machine – no matter how “benevolent” that machine claims to be.

We deserve the dignity to experience and express the full range of our emotions, of our existence.  And we are ready to create the social space needed to make that happen.  We are ready to learn the fine art of mooding.

Read the Slow Mood Manifesto

Read the full text of Debbie’s article in the Hypocrate Reader.

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Filed under Activism, Capitalism, Feelings, Late Capitalism, Revolution

Can the “New Age” Save Us? (An Astrological Digression)

by Samara Steele

Recently, one of my more mystically-minded friends pointed out that the period discussed in the Slow Mood Mythos (400Bc to the present) roughly corresponds to the Age of Pisces.

In the Babylonian tradition of astrology, Pisces is represented by two fish with their tails tied together, and it is often associated with obsessive spirituality, weak will, escapism, and confusion. Indeed, these traits correspond with the dominant ideas/practices of selfhood of the last 2,400 years.

According to astrologers, the Age of Pisces is currently in the process of ending, to be replaced by the Age of Aquarius.

Aquarius is represented by a person pouring out a jug of water, dispensing it freely and equally to all.  The water represents truth.  This sign is associated with honesty, innovation, humanitarianism, and intellectualism.  Certainly, those are all things that many of us hope will someday guide humanity.

While I find it pleasant to imagine that some new astrological age will bring equality and providence for everyone, there is a huge problem in believing that the “arrival” of a “new age” will solve all of our problems.

If the last 2400 years really were “The Age of Pisces,” they began with one man writing down his idea of the soul — and that idea could not have spread if people hadn’t practiced it in their daily lives.

If any sort of “new age” is to come, it will be because people work hard to make it happen.  It will take a total transformation of selfhood on an individual and global scale.

That said, I have nothing against using the new astrological age as an excuse to throw a revolution.  — After all, if there’s anything we’ve learned these last 2400 years, it’s that myths can help us organize our practices.  It’s just a matter of making sure that we’re the ones using the myths, and they aren’t using us…

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Anti-copyright 2011.  Steal these ideas.

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Filed under Age of Aquarius, Astrology, Revolution, Selfhood

The Rise of the Brain-Self: How Pharmaceutical Companies Hijacked Our Brains

Reprinted from the Slingshot newspaper, issue #106

by Samara Steele

A few years ago, I was given a prescription for Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SRIs) for my epilepsy. Like cocaine (which is technically an SRI), pharmaceutical-grade SRIs prevent your brain from reabsorbing serotonin (“the happy chemical”), causing old serotonin to float around with nowhere to go, creating a sort of pleasant “hazy” feeling. SRIs are usually used to treat depressive disorder, but my neurologist explained that they sometimes prevent seizures.

For my first year on the drug, it seemed to be helping my epilepsy. But after two years, I started having problems. My thinking got fuzzy, it became difficult to use language, and for the first time in my life, I found it nearly impossible to make new friends.

I spent another year feeling like a zombie before I realized the SRIs were to blame. I stopped taking them, and after a painful period of withdrawal, I started feeling like I could think again. Recovery has been slow, though, and in the two years since I’ve been clean, I’ve had to gradually rebuild the skills I lost. Everything from my balance to my body-awareness to my short-term memory is still screwed up.

Sadly, I am not the only one who has been royally fucked over by psychiatric medication.

In his latest book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs and the Rise of Mental Illness (2010), journalist Robert Whitaker shows how each type of psycho-pharmaceutical drug has its own unique way of damaging and debilitating its user. According to Whitaker, before psychiatric drugs came into mainstream use, 85% of people diagnosed with bipolar disorder could return to their jobs within a year of diagnosis, and suffered no long-term brain damage. But now – with drugs being prescribed to a majority of bipolar patients – less than 30% can return to work, and most of them suffer from long-term cognitive impairment!

Whitaker’s book contains a bounty of scientific studies that show how the drugs used to treat “anxiety,” “depression,” “bipolar disorder,” and “schizophrenia” cause more harm than good. The author has made these studies free to the public at the Mad in America website.

The bottom line is: Psycho-pharmaceutical drugs are not safe. They prolong the illnesses they are supposed to treat and cause long-term brain damage. (Not to mention the “official” side effects: liver damage, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, kidney failure, birth defects, increased risk of suicide among children – the list goes on and on!) Yet, today, 1 in 8 Americans is on a psychotropic medication, with these dangerous drugs being prescribed to children less than two years old!

This creates a bit of a mystery: if these drugs are so bad, why are people taking them?

The foremost cause is the rise of the idea/practice of the brain-self: treating yourself as if you are nothing more than a passive brain.

For the last two decades, pop-science writers and have been working relentlessly to convince people that they are their brains. The goal of these writers is to dismantle religion. They think that, by convincing people they are simply brains, the idea of the soul will disappear and religion will vanish.

A good example of this kind of writing can be found in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1994) by geneticist Francis Crick. On the opening page of the book, Crick writes: “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” The book goes on for several hundred more pages, promoting the idea that the “self” is completely isolated to the brain.

In contrast, cognitive theorist Alva Noë is an adamant opponent of the idea of the brain-self, and in his book, Out of Our Heads: Why You are Not Your Brain (2009), he explains, “Consciousness is not something the brain achieves on its own. Consciousness requires the joint operation of brain, body, and world. ….consciousness is the achievement of the whole animal in its environmental context.” Alva also says that the idea of the brain-self is dangerous to individuals who use it.

But Alva’s words often fall on deaf ears. For decades we have been conditioned by “educational” magazine articles, books, and TV programs to think of ourselves as our brains. This leads us to believe that our thoughts, feelings, and urges are the results of “brain chemistry” over which we have no control.

So, when a believer in the brain-self has behavioral problems, unwanted thoughts, or uncomfortable moods, she observes herself passively and does not feel empowered to change. She is locked out of her own internality. Furthermore, traditional aspects of human nature like “love” and “free will” come into doubt. “If these things exist,” the logic goes, “they must already be hard-wired into my brain.” So the individual stops working to cultivate these things – she stops developing her personality. And she begins to feel miserable. Then she sees an advertisement…

The 40-billion-dollar psycho-pharmaceutical industry has hired a small army of advertisers and lobbyists to manipulate people into believing that their drugs will provide happiness, completeness, and a quick fix to all of one’s problems. And when someone believes they are their brain, these drugs seem like their only hope.

Many drug ads are also designed to make people think they have a mental illness when they don’t. For example, in one early ad for Zoloft, the criteria for depression seems to be having dishes piling up in the sink. But who doesn’t have dishes in their sink?!

So the individual makes an appointment with a “psychiatrist” (they really should just be called “dealers” now…or maybe “priests” would be a better term).

Just as the Catholic Church stole the Platonic soul by claiming that their priests were the only ones with access to it, the institution of brain-based psychology has co-opted Freudian terms, (the word “psychology,” for example) and claimed that their agents are the only ones who can access an individual’s internality. Just as the Catholic priests held souls hostage, these new psychiatrists hold brains hostage.

Unlike Freudian psychiatrists of the past, these new brain-based psychiatrists do not talk to patients about their thoughts and feelings. Instead, like a Catholic priest in a confessional, a brain-based psychiatrist asks for a list of “symptoms” (sins) for which she administers a “medication” (absolution/communion). And, like medieval peasants on communion, patients fetishize these drugs (“These pills are saving me from my brain disorder!”), developing a deep emotional attachment. But unlike communion wafers, these drugs alter a person’s basic ability to think, express emotion, and feel desire – making it even more difficult to get away.

So, instead of dismantling religion, the idea of the “brain-self” has given rise to the Cult of the Psycho-pharmaceutical, with both patients and psychiatrists sucked into this oppressive structure of beliefs and rituals.

That’s right, the psychiatrists are believers themselves. One reason for this is that many “trusted” leaders in the field have sold out. For example, Dr. Joseph Biederman, a full Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, received 1.6 million dollars from drug companies from 2000 to 2007. In exchange, Dr. Jo authored dozens of “scientific” papers promoting the use of ADHD medications. Countless other field leaders let the drug companies buy them out, creating a sea of mis-information disguised as science.

On top of this, drug companies market directly to psychiatric practitioners, using even more intense propaganda than what the public sees. Additionally, a majority of psychology professors have been converted to pharmaceutical psychiatry, so most psychology students are only exposed to the doctrine of medication.

And… it’s hard watching someone suffer. Who can blame psychiatrists for wanting there to be a quick fix for their patients’ problems? In their desire to help patients, they are led by their emotions to believe that the drugs work. The neurologist who put me on SRIs, for example, was also using them herself.

But the reality is, we have problems no pill can fix.

The global economy has entered a phase of Late Capitalism in which individuals are becoming increasingly isolated, environmental conditions are disintegrating, and the majority of the populace is working harder and harder for the benefit of a handful of elites. Then, when people are unhappy in this shitty situation, they are told they have a “brain disorder.”

By blaming our emotional problems on our own biology, we fail to look outside ourselves for alternative causes. Reality disorders – problems with the environment, social order, and workplace – go ignored while people obsessively drug their brains into oblivion.

Thanks to the idea/practice of the brain-self, the capitalist mode of production has infiltrated our bodies and penetrated our core beings. Our moods, thoughts, and emotions have been transformed into commodities to be sold back to us. And, as Late Capitalism slouches towards Neo-feudalism, we are stripped of our revolutionary potential.

Michel Foucault once wrote, “The body is the prisoner of the soul,” but more than ever, the body is becoming prisoner of the brain.

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Lately, I’ve started seeing an acupuncturist once a week. Besides the needlework, she prescribes herbs and helps me plan my diet. My epilepsy has gotten much better, even though she isn’t specifically treating it: she and I are working together to take care of my whole body.

In the meantime, I’ve been obsessively reading real scientific articles about the brain, trying to get a better idea of what it actually is.

One thing I’ve learned is that the brain doesn’t just “stop learning” at some stage in development. The brain can actually stay “plastic” throughout adulthood, meaning you have the ability to learn new things your whole life. No matter how old you are, your brain isn’t written yet. You always have the power to change.

The brain is just part of the nervous system, which is just part of the whole body. Whatever you do with your body is going to have a direct effect on your brain. If your body receives healthy levels of exercise, wholesome food, sunlight, fresh air, and frequent human interaction, the brain remains healthy and “plastic.” But if the body doesn’t receive these things, the brain becomes “depressed,” impairing the brain’s ability to make new connections. This makes it harder for the person to learn new things, and can lead to other disorders.

Our Late Capitalist system keeps most people too busy to engage in the healthy lifestyle needed to keep the brain “plastic.” If, as a culture, we had time to prepare and eat healthy food, exercise at least three times a week, hang out in the sun, breathe fresh air, and actively socialize for an hour or two a day, most of the “illnesses” psycho-pharmaceutical drugs treat would be cured.

Ultimately, the brain is the tool of the spirit. Whatever we strive to become, the brain will re-wire itself to support us. If we practice love, our brains become better at loving. If we cultivate free-will and practice making educated decisions, our brains will become better at that. The active-brain is a reminder that all of our thoughts and actions matter in this huge task of forming our identities as liberated human beings.

The Slow Mood Movement

It is not enough to merely reject the brain-self. New ideas of the self must develop to take its place. The Slow Mood Movement is all about re-thinking the way we think of ourselves. Inspired by the Slow Food Movement’s rejection of fast food, Slow Mood aims to resist the buying and selling of “fast moods.”

Here’s an excerpt of the Slow Mood Manifesto: “We are taking it slow. Slowly learning to feel our inner states. Slowly developing the cognitive tools needed to make healthy decisions for ourselves, our communities, and our world. Slowly learning to expand our emotions to connect with other people as people, not functions. We know these things can’t be given to us instantly. We have to build these things ourselves, over time.”

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Anti-copyright 2011.  Steal these ideas. 

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Filed under Brain, Capitalism, Catholicism, Late Capitalism, Neofeudalism, Psychiatric Drugs, Psychopharmaceutical, Selfhood