Can a Society Be Insane?

Our colleague Taru is researching the links between capitalism and depression and the potential of commoning as a practice to alleviate mental illness. On our blog, she shares regular updates with us.

Our current mode of thinking about mental health only recognizes the individual as the subject of illness. However, I wish to convince you that it is also useful to consider a society or a community as a patient. As a thought experiment, this can be an illuminating experience.

I ran into the question of the sanity of a society in the work of Erich Fromm and his book The Sane Society (1955). This work heavily criticizes the pathologization of an individual and pushes the reader to look beyond. So, inspired by Erich Fromm, I will now present my diagnosis of our current western society.

According to Michael Sandel, we live in a world which has gone from “having a market economy to being a market society”. In other words, the logic of the market has entered almost all spheres of our lives, corroding all values that are not measurable in the economic sense.

We live in a world which has gone from “having a market economy to being a market society”

Consider these examples from Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy (2013): In certain regions in California, a non-violent prisoner can upgrade his cell for 80 dollars a night. An American couple can legally outsource a surrogate mother in India to carry their baby for about one third of the price in the US.

However, we don’t have to look to such extreme examples to see the corrosive influence of market values. Your everyday health has become heavily commodified in our society. Especially in the sector of mental health we have privatized the effects of stress to the individual. Privatizing stress makes it harder and harder to come up – or take – preventive measures. Worse, it forces us all to ignore the societal structures that add to our problems with mental health.

Additionally, without considerable financial means it is often difficult to receive professional help within a reasonable time frame. For example, in the Netherlands many of the private practices receive a lump sum from the insurance companies every half a year. Consequently, if you seek primary mental health care in the start of October it may well be that the specific quota for your insurance is depleted and you are kindly asked to return start of January. For a person experiencing debilitating symptoms this is an excruciating waiting time.

The capitalist ethos is directly affecting our mental well-being

The capitalist ethos is also directly affecting our mental well-being. Repeated studies have shown that the more an individual is buying into the materialist values, the more vulnerable they are to depression and anxiety. What we are witnessing is a clear seesaw effect between market values and pro-social values, to the detriment of our mental health. This is due to factors such as weakened interpersonal relationships and the crowding out of intrinsic motivation by extrinsic motivation.

A society that seizes to prioritize the true needs of people, such as meaningful connection, is self-destructive. When that self-destruction gets repeated time after time, it starts to look like insanity. So maybe our society is the real patient?