What Ails Us
by John Zerzan
(from Green Anarchy #10)
On the level of personal affliction or dis-ease, matters are steadily worsening. This situation corresponds to the deepening crisis at every level. At the same time, according to Michelle Mary Helvica, "we live in a society that seems increasingly numb to the causes and effects of human suffering." In this sphere as with every other, the promises/protections of technological civilization are failing on a grand scale.
Tuberculosis and malaria have grown resistant to modern antibiotics and other standard medicines. E-coli and West Nile virus outbreaks are now common in the U.S. Infectious diseases of all kinds, once declared conquered, are on the rise. They accompany the major degenerative illnesses that are a staple of civilized life. Rift Valley fever, mad cow disease, hanta virus, Ebola, cholera, etc. "At least 20 major maladies have reemerged in novel, more deadly, or drug-resistant forms in the past 25 years," pronounced the February 2002 National Geographic's "War on Disease" survey.
It is hardly surprising that industrialized medicine is unable to remedy the toll that is inherent in industrialized, standardized, estranged daily life. In fact, updating a point made by Ivan Illich decades ago, Michael J. Berens' investigations have revealed the extremely high levels of life-threatening infections produced by hospital environments and other aspects of the health care industry (3-part Chicago Tribune series, July 2002). Recent studies have shown that artificial light causes breast cancer, by superseding the natural light cycle. Food now contains only a small fraction of its former nutritional content, as packaging and appearance considerations dictate that nutrients be bred out of fruits and vegetables. Nonetheless, health-threatening obesity, epidemic in the U.S., has become a global problem because of the increase in junk food and processed food.
More than 20 million Americans — mostly women — suffer from often devastating auto-immune disorders, such as lupus, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Many afflictions attack women almost exclusively, notably anorexia and bulimia. Hilde Bruch finds that anorexia is typically about a young woman's "struggle for control, for a sense of identity, competence and effectiveness." A struggle within a patriarchal, male-defined culture that actively excludes her from all of those fundamental human dimensions. Michelle Mary Helvica's Starving for Salvation (1999) focuses on eating disorders as a yearning for meaning and wholeness in the context of how very much is missing, especially for women. J.A. Sours' Starving to Death in a Sea of Objects testifies, from its title onward, to the underlying deprivation or emptiness at the base of these life-threatening conditions.
Margaret Talbot observed that physical incapacitation has been one of the few ways in which women could effectively absent themselves from their assigned duties and roles. Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are among the illnesses, suffered by millions, that must be seen in light of women's basically unimproved condition in society.
Countless forms of suffering, from AIDS to cancer to depression, are experienced within the increasingly unhealthy regime of technology and capital. There can be no "cure" so long as we all must strive to endure the bludgeoning conditions of daily life. Rural America now resembles a constellation of meth labs and Oxycontin supply networks, while epidemic drug use varies only in terms of which narcotic is most popular in a given season. What kind of society is it in which the teen suicide rate has been climbing for decades and self-mutilation is commonplace? Male sexual function will become dependent on pharmaceuticals like Viagra, a development far less grotesque than the growing number of toddlers on anti-depressants. The techno-world serves up increasingly bizarre "solutions" to the problems it continues to create, not forgetting the rising levels of both climatic temperatures and environmental toxins. Pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer proclaims, "Life is our life's work," as if anyone needed a reminder of the genetic engineering and human cloning in our future to which cyber-leftists like Donna Haraway have no objections.
An increasingly overworked populace labors in a more and more anxiety-prone, destabilized consumer void. The need to be diverted from a glaringly impoverished present and future is addressed in books like Neal Gabler's Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquers Reality (1998), a point explored in greater depth by writers such as Adorno and Debord, but accurate and timely all the same. And in just four years (New York Times, 8/4/02), Gabler says, this situation has become qualitatively much worse. We now get only short-hand, truncated versions of escape that he terms the illusion of entertainment. Ersatz or otherwise, entertainment is now quite possibly the primary value of modern life, precisely because reality has become unbearable.
But of course it is only "chemical imbalances" that are said to account for this massive immiseration. This reactionary and desperate claim responds to phenomena such as the fact that 2.8 million kids had what is euphemistically called a "runaway experience" in 1999, by diagnosing most of them with a pseudo-medical condition called "conduct disorder."
A mid-2002 survey conducted by the National Sleep Foundation showed that 69% of Americans experienced some insomnia after September 11. (Glaxco Wellcome, by the way, spent $16.5 million promoting Paxil in October 2001.) Even more noteworthy is their finding that 51% of the population were already insomniac during the previous year! What will new polls on sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, etc. reveal in light of more systemic bad news: revelations that corporations, science, the Red Cross, et al. are routinely fraudulent, that 90% of students cheat, that male athletes begin steroid use in adolescence, and so on and on.
David Barlow's Anxiety and its Disorders (2002) discusses the high prevalence and chronicity of a range of such conditions, like panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and various phobias. He concludes that the aggregate toll on social life "dwarfs even the most pessimistic estimates." Many have charted a steady rise of more serious mental illnesses that began with and correspond to the industrialization of society, as documented for example in The Invisible Plague: the Rise of Mental Illness from 1750 to the Present, by Torrey and Miller (2001). The answer to this scourge is obviously deindustrialization, the undoing of the root cause of all this and other crises in physical and mental health.
Society is a racket, and its everyday practices are no longer hidden from us. Nonetheless, as everyday life becomes steadily more impoverished, cheapened, surveilled, standardized, and otherwise debased, the official version (in many more aspects than mentioned in this article) prevails, with its stark omissions and lies. As Derrick Jensen has it, it is truly a "culture of make believe."
Marx inaccurately predicted that growing material poverty would bring revolution. A more plausible forecast today is that growing psychic or emotional suffering may inform a widespread refusal of this no-future reality.