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Issue #1737      June 29, 2016

Taking Issue – Rob Gowland

What a great system!

The propagandists of capitalism would have us believe that it is the apex of human development, the ultimate achievement of human ingenuity. Remember when Gorbachev destroyed the Soviet Union and those same propagandists rushed to proclaim that it was “the end of history”, that there would be no further development of society, that capitalism was the best system we would ever have? Well, we knew they were wrong, but some of us may not have known how very wrong they were.

Now an article Globalisation and the American Dream by a couple of American counter-culture activists assembles a damning raft of statistics that show the world’s leading capitalist power to be in fact a nightmare world for millions of its inhabitants. And what makes this article even more potent is the fact that most of the people it deals with are children.

The authors of the article are Helena Norberg-Hodge and Steven Gorelick. Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of US “new economy” organisation Local Futures (aka International Society for Ecology and Culture) which promotes “an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being” and “the revitalisation of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”

Steven Gorelick is Managing Programs Director at Local Futures. He frequently teaches and speaks on “local economics” around the US.

They are not Marxist-Leninists, approaching economics as a question of size rather than class, but they take a refreshingly anti-corporate stance. Their critique of the USA reveals that “more than 8.3 million American children and adolescents require psychiatric drugs; over 2 million are on anti-depressants, and another 2 million are on anti-anxiety drugs. The age groups for which these drugs are prescribed is shockingly young: nearly half a million children 0-3 years old are taking drugs to combat anxiety.”

Norberg-Hodge and Gorelick make a point which I am sure also occurred to you readers of the Guardian, namely that “most people in the ‘less developed’ world will find it hard to imagine how a toddler could be so anxiety-ridden that they need psychiatric help”. How indeed?

However, it seems it is not an isolated problem. “Equally difficult to fathom are many other symptoms of social breakdown among America’s children,” they write. “Eating disorders, for example: the incidence of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders has doubled since the 1960s, and girls are developing these problems at younger and younger ages.”

Eating disorders pale into insignificance compared to the extraordinary levels of violence that America’s children must surely regard as commonplace. “Consider the fact that there have been more than 150 school shootings in the US since 1990, claiming 165 lives. The youngest killer? A six-year old boy.”

Americans are constantly told by their media and “opinion makers” that they live in the greatest country on Earth and that the rest of the world not only envies them but wishes they could change places with them. And yet homelessness is rife in the US, job security is virtually unknown, the police – far from acting sympathetically to protect the most vulnerable – function as an army of occupation especially in Black and Latino neighbourhoods. Consequently, “the typical American moves 11 times during their life, repeatedly severing connections with relatives, neighbours and friends.”

Not surprisingly, under these conditions, young people in particular are alienated from their communities and have few people they can turn to when their unhappiness becomes extreme. “In 2013, 17 percent of US high school students seriously considered suicide during the preceding year. In America today, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year olds.” Now there’s a statistic to make one blanche!

Despite the bull that American workers are fed daily about the supposed greatness of the country they live in, the real truth is American workers in the cities generally live in very small apartments compared to workers in other developed countries. They put in “longer hours than workers in any other industrialised country, with many breadwinners working two or more jobs just to make ends meet”. They also have less holidays than workers in other industrialised countries.

As in other developed capitalist countries these days, both parents in American working class families usually have to work just to make ends meet. Single parent families have an even harder time. But whether families have both parents or only one, they are at a serious disadvantage compared to workers in the much maligned former Soviet Union, for example. American factories do not provide crèches for their workers, nor are American workers’ children routinely provided with cultural or other activities to occupy their time while their parents are at work.

Day-care centres for young children are almost invariably privately run and are consequently expensive. Not surprisingly, older children especially are left in the company of video games, the Internet, or the corporate sponsors of their favourite television shows.

According to a 2010 study of American children, the average 8- to 10-year old spends nearly eight hours a day with various media; older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours a day with media.

Not surprisingly, time spent in nature – something essential for our well-being – has all but disappeared: only 10 percent of American children spend time outside on a daily basis.

Children in industrialised Western countries such as the US have been sold a wide variety of devices that they are told they cannot live without. These devices have largely replaced the natural world for many kids these days.

Their only reality is what they see on screen, a fact which Norberg-Hodge and Gorelick also noted: “America’s screen-obsessed children no longer have flesh-and-blood role models – parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbours – to look up to. Instead they have media and advertising images: rakish movie stars and music idols, steroid-enhanced athletes and airbrushed supermodels ... an artificial consumer culture created and projected by corporate advertising and media.”

As numerous other commentators have observed, this phenomenon leads kids to develop false expectations and illusions about themselves. Children and grown-ups alike are actively encouraged by a sales-obsessed corporate world to “emulate the manufactured ‘perfection’ of these role models”. Naturally, they fail and are left “feeling insecure and inadequate”. The effect of this is bad enough on adults; imagine its effect on children.

According to the President of the American Academy for Facial Plastic Surgery, “the more consumers are inundated with celebrity images via social media, the more they want to replicate the enhanced, re-touched images that are passed off as reality.” What’s more, he adds, “we are seeing a younger demographic than ever before.”

The Americanisation of our culture in Australia is a process replicated all over the world. As Norberg-Hodge and Gorelick note: “Millions of children [and not just children, let us remember] from Mongolia to Patagonia are today targeted by a fanatical and fundamentalist campaign to bring them into the consumer culture. ... Like American children they are bombarded with sophisticated marketing messages telling them that this brand of make-up will inch them closer to perfection, that this brand of sneakers will make them more like their sports hero.

“It is not surprising that American children, many of whom seem to ‘have everything’, are so unhappy: like their parents, their teachers and their peers, they have been put on a treadmill that is ever more stressful and competitive, ever more meaningless and lonely.”

Norberg-Hodge and Gorelick note in their article that “this psychological impoverishment is accompanied by a massive rise in material poverty”. They point out that “more than 46 million Americans – nearly 15 percent of the population – live in poverty.” That doesn’t worry capitalism of course. It has been many years now since the system was able to provide jobs for all the workers available to it. The only role for the jobless under capitalism is to be used as a threat to those in work if they get “out of line”.

“According to a recent report by Oxfam, the world’s richest 62 people now have more wealth than the poorest half of the global population combined. Their assets have risen by more than $500 million since 2010, while the bottom 3.5 billion people have become poorer by $1 trillion. ... Hundreds of millions of people [are being] drawn into sweatshops or unemployment in rapidly growing urban slums. ... This is globalisation at work,” note Norberg-Hodge and Gorelick.

“The earth is finite, and global economic activity has already outstripped the planet’s ability to provide resources and absorb wastes. When the average American uses 32 times more resources and produces 32 times more waste than the average resident of the global South, it is a criminal hoax to promise that development can enable everyone to live the American Dream.”

In any case, “the central hope of the American Dream – that our children will have a better life than we do – seems to have vanished. Many people, in fact, no longer believe that our children really have any future at all.”

Well, not under capitalism they don’t.

Next article – Put the Coalition last in the Senate

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