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Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Demoralized Mind

The Demoralized Mind

By John F. Schumaker
New Internationalist
Saturday, May 14, 2016

Our descent into the Age of Depression seems unstoppable. Three
decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was
30. Today it is 14.

Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that
the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling
with each successive generational cohort.

At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation,
aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age.

Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire
conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression.

By contrast to many traditional cultures that lack depression
entirely, or even a word for it, Western consumer culture is
certainly depression-prone.

But depression is so much a part of our vocabulary that the word
itself has come to describe mental states that should be understood

In fact, when people with a diagnosis of depression are examined
more closely, the majority do not actually fit that diagnosis.

In the largest study of its kind, Ramin Mojtabai of Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health sampled over 5,600 cases and
found that only 38 per cent of them met the criteria for depression.

Contributing to the confusion is the equally insidious epidemic
of demoralization that also afflicts modern culture.

Since it shares some symptoms with depression, demoralization
tends to be mislabeled and treated as if it were depression.

A major reason for the poor 28-per-cent success rate of anti-
depressant drugs is that a high percentage of ‘depression’ cases
are actually demoralization, a condition unresponsive to drugs.

Existential Disorder

In the past, our understanding of demoralization was limited to
specific extreme situations, such as debilitating physical injury,
terminal illness, prisoner-of-war camps, or anti-morale military

But there is also a cultural variety that can express itself more
subtly and develop behind the scenes of normal everyday life
under pathological cultural conditions such as we have today.

This culturally generated demoralization is nearly impossible
to avoid for the modern ‘consumer’.

Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of
existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s
‘cognitive map’.

It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel
generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or
sources of need fulfilment.

The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions
dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction.

Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as
well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing

The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike
most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to
the circumstances impinging on the person’s life.

As it is absorbed, consumer culture imposes numerous influences
that weaken personality structures, undermine coping and lay the
groundwork for eventual demoralization.

Its driving features – individualism, materialism, hyper-competition,
greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt – all
correlate negatively with psychological health and/or social well

The level of intimacy, trust and true friendship in people’s lives
has plummeted.

Sources of wisdom, social and community support, spiritual
comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up.

Passivity and choice have displaced creativity and mastery.

Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude
have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence
and a masturbatory approach to life.

Research shows that, in contrast to earlier times, most people
today are unable to identify any sort of philosophy of life or set
of guiding principles.

Without an existential compass, the commercialized mind
gravitates toward a, ‘philosophy of futility’ as Noam Chomsky
calls it, in which people feel naked of power and significance
beyond their conditioned role as pliant consumers.

Lacking substance and depth, and adrift from others
and themselves, the thin and fragile consumer self is
easily fragmented and dispirited.

By their design, the central organizing principles and practices
of consumer culture perpetuate an ‘existential vacuum’ that is
a precursor to demoralization.

This inner void is often experienced as chronic and inescapable
boredom, which is not surprising.

Despite surface appearances to the contrary, the consumer age
is deathly boring.

Boredom is caused, not because an activity is inherently boring,
but because it is not meaningful to the person.

Since the life of the consumer revolves around the overkill of
meaningless manufactured low-level material desires, it is quickly
engulfed by boredom, as well as jadedness, ennui and discontent.

This steadily graduates to ‘existential boredom’ wherein
the person finds all of life uninteresting and unrewarding.

Moral Net

Consumption itself is a flawed motivational platform for a society.

Repeated consummation of desire, without moderating constraints,
only serves to habituate people and diminish the future satisfaction
potential of what is consumed.

This develops gradually into ‘consumer anhedonia’, wherein
consumption loses reward capacity and offers no more than
distraction and ritualistic value.

Consumerism and psychic deadness are inexorable bedfellows.

Individualistic models of mind have stymied our understanding
of many disorders that are primarily of cultural origin.

But recent years have seen a growing interest in the topic of
cultural health and ill-health as they impact upon general well

At the same time, we are moving away from naïve behavioural
models and returning to the obvious fact that the human being
has a fundamental nature, as well as a distinct set of human
needs, that must be addressed by a cultural blueprint.

In his groundbreaking book The Moral Order, anthropologist
Raoul Naroll used the term ‘moral net’ to indicate the cultural
infrastructure that is required for the mental well being of its

He used numerous examples to show that entire societies
can become predisposed to an array of mental ills if their,
‘moral net’ deteriorates beyond a certain point.

To avoid this, a society’s moral net must be able to meet the key
psycho-social-spiritual needs of its members, including a sense of
identity and belonging, co-operative activities that weave people
into a community, and shared rituals and beliefs that offer a
convincing existential orientation.

We are long overdue a cultural revolution that would force
a radical revamp of the political process, economics, work,
family and environmental policy

Similarly, in The Sane Society, Erich Fromm cited ‘frame
of orientation’ as one of our vital ‘existential needs’, but
pointed out that today’s ‘marketing characters’ are shackled
by a cultural programme that actively blocks fulfillment of
this and other needs, including the needs for belonging,
rootedness, identity, transcendence and intellectual stimulation.

We are living under conditions of, ‘cultural insanity’ a term
referring to a pathological mismatch between the inculturation
strategies of a culture and the intrapsychic needs of its followers.

Being normal is no longer a healthy ambition.

Human culture has mutated into a sociopathic marketing machine
dominated by economic priorities and psychological manipulation.

Never before has a cultural system inculcated its followers
to suppress so much of their humanity.

Leading this hostile takeover of the collective psyche are
increasingly sophisticated propaganda and misinformation
industries that traffic the illusion of consumer happiness
by wildly amplifying our expectations of the material world.

Today’s consumers are by far the most propagandized people
in history.

The relentless and repetitive effect is highly hypnotic, diminishing
critical faculties, reducing one’s sense of self, and transforming
commercial unreality into a surrogate for meaning and purpose.

The more lost, disoriented and spiritually defeated people become,
the more susceptible they become to persuasion, and the more
they end up buying into the oversold expectations of consumption.

But in unreality culture, hyper-inflated expectations continually
collide with the reality of experience.

Since nothing lives up to the hype, the world of the consumer is
actually an ongoing exercise in disappointment.

While most disappointments are minor and easy to dissociate,
they accumulate into an emotional background of frustration
as deeper human needs get neglected.

Continued starvation of these needs fuels disillusion about one’s
whole approach to life. Over time, people’s core assumptions can
become unstable.

Culture Proofing

At its heart, demoralization is a generalized loss of credibility in
the assumptions that ground our existence and guide our actions.

The assumptions underpinning our allegiance to consumerism are
especially vulnerable since they are fundamentally dehumanizing.

As they unravel, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify
with the values, goals and aspirations that were once part of
our consumer reality.

The consequent feeling of being forsaken and on the wrong life
track is easily mistaken for depression, or even unhappiness, but
in fact it is the type of demoralization that most consumer beings
will experience to some degree.

For the younger generation, the course of boredom,
disappointment, disillusion and demoralization is
almost inevitable.

As the products of invisible parents, commercialized education,
cradle-to-grave marketing and a profoundly boring and insane
cultural programme, they must also assimilate into consumer
culture while knowing from the outset that its workings are
destroying the planet and jeopardizing their future.

Understandably, they have become the trance generation,
with an insatiable appetite for any technology that can
downsize awareness and blunt the emotions.

With society in existential crisis, and emotional life on a steep
downward trajectory, trance is today’s fastest-growing consumer market.

Once our collapsed assumptions give way to demoralization, the
problem becomes how to rebuild the unconscious foundations of
our lives.

In their present forms, the psychology and psychiatry professions
are of little use in treating disorders that are rooted in culture
and normality.

While individual therapy will not begin to heal a demoralized
society, to be effective such approaches must be insight-oriented
and focused on the cultural sources of the person’s assumptions,
identity, values and centres of meaning.

Cultural deprogramming is essential, along with, ‘culture proofing’
disobedience training and character development strategies, all
aimed at constructing a worldview that better connects the person
to self, others and the natural world.

The real task is somehow to treat a sick culture rather than it's
sick individuals.

Erich Fromm sums up this challenge: ‘We can’t make people sane
by making them adjust to this society. We need a society that is
adjusted to the needs of people.’

Fromm’s solution included a Supreme Cultural Council that would
serve as a cultural overseer and advise governments on corrective
and preventive action.

But that sort of solution is still a long way off, as is a science
of culture change.

Democracy in its present guise is a guardian of cultural insanity.

We are long overdue a cultural revolution that would force a
radical revamp of the political process, economics, work, family
and environmental policy.

It is true that a society of demoralized people is unlikely to revolt
even though it sits on a massive powder keg of pent-up frustration.

But credibility counteracts demoralization, and this frustration
can be released with immense energy when a credible cause,
or credible leadership, is added to the equation.

It might seem that credibility, meaning and purposeful action would
derive from the multiple threats to our safety and survival posed by
the fatal mismatch between consumer culture and the needs of the

The fact that it has not highlights the degree of demoralization
that infects the consumer age.

With its infrastructure firmly entrenched, and minimal signs of
collective resistance, all signs suggest that our obsolete system
what some call, ‘disaster capitalism’ - will prevail until global
catastrophe dictates for us new cultural directions.

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