The Official James Petras website


Neo-liberalism, popular resistance and mental health


The socio-economic damage wrought by the application and implementation of neo-liberal economy are abundantly clear throughout the world.

Millions of workers have lost their jobs, bosses have gained almost total control over the workplace heightening the rates of exploitation, tens of millions of peasants and small farmers have lost their jobs, wages have declined, poverty has increased while the income of the top executives of the major corporations have increased tenfold.

What has not received serious attention is the socio-psychological damage inflicted on salaried and wageworkers, which is in many ways as serious as the material losses. Interviews, testimonials and visits to communities reveal the psychological pathologies resulting from unemployment, job insecurity and degrading work: high rates of chronic depression, family break-up, suicide, family violence, child abuse, anti-social behavior particularly where the unemployed are isolated and unable to exteriorize their hostility and anger via collective social action. Individual social and political impotence generates personal impotence, and expresses itself in a lack of self-esteem, sexual impotence and the internalization of anger leading to self- destructive behavior. My hypothesis is that collective organization and action, in the form of unemployed movements, community-based social organizations making collective demands have a positive effect in not only creating job opportunities but also they are therapeutic. Collective struggles raises self-esteem and personal efficacy, while creating solidarity and providing a social perspective, thus reducing anomie.


The best way to approach the relationship between macro-political-economic phenomena such as neo-liberalism and micro-social psychological behavior collective mental health is through a dialectical approach. In as much as macro-economic decisions by bankers and executives effect employment and as a consequence unemployment and thus individual psyches, it is also the case that the individual responses whether it is personal depression or joining a social movement also can have a significant effect on the macro-economy, in the form of occupying factories and changing property forms and relations.

Franz Fanon in his classic work, The Wretched of the Earth, pointed to the profound negative psychological effects which political and economic oppression has colonized people and individuals when they are atomized. Recent studies have demonstrated that prolonged unemployment leads workers to despondency and an unwillingness to register as unemployed. Hence official employment statistics reporting on unemployment rates seriously distort and underestimate the rate of unemployment by failing to count the number of workers who are so depressed that they fail to register at the unemployment office. This underestimation caused by the worsening of long-term unemployment and its perverse psychological effects, allows the ruling class publicists to propagandize about the improving economy, citing the supposed decline of unemployment.

Dialectical logic works from the macro to the meso to the micro levels of the politico economic structure, social organization and individual psyche. The big decisions (macro) are taken by international capital and the local ruling bosses and political clique who serve as the transmission belts. These decisions reflect the correlation and relations of power between classes and nation-states. In the current context of Latin America between U.S. imperialism and its client regimes.

The elite decisions that impact on the social organizations and class relations between workers and capital and the social organizations within the working and salaried classes family, social organizations, barrios, etc. The social organization mediate between the ruling class and the individual, reinforcing the negative impact, or ameliorating the effects or offering forms of collective social resistance. In dialectical fashion the individual reacting (or failing to act) impacts through the social organization can confront and in exceptional circumstances can partially or totally reverse the macro economic decisions and elite dominance.

What is crucial is that mental health is not an innate hereditary condition or embedded in childhood experiences as much as it is socially determined by contemporary social relations of power. This suggests that those who suffer from mental illness depression for example induced fro unemployment, job insecurity or declining living standards, can be cured via adult re-socialization (gaining class awareness/consciousness) whether it be in the form of collective organization or class action.

The Socio-Economic Problems Induced by Neo-liberalism Which Have Consequences for Mental Health

Our lives are organized by our work our daily routines, our recreation, living standards, personal lifestyle and family life depends on our employment. Loss of employment, firings by employers, empty lives of their daily discipline and empty pockets (or bank accounts) leaving the individual with mounting debts and a sense of panic. Today employers use shock tactics: sudden firings with no prior notice, which precludes protest or collective organization, further isolating the victim. If the firing was preceded by a sense of insecurity or fear of unemployment prior to the firing, the worker or employee may at first have a sense of relief that the tension between job and no job has been resolved, however unfavorable. This initial relief however, is replaced by depression when the unemployed goes on the job market and discovers there is no new employment. Job applications are rejected. Repeated rejection leads to depression especially when the condition of unemployment is experienced as a personal failing i.e. when the individual is blamed by the bosses and economists for to having the proper personal attributes they are said to have the wrong skills, too old, too young, not live in the right region, etc. When the unemployed however socializes their condition and realizes that the same condition affects millions that those responsible are the ruling class and political cliques and that there is a means of externalizing anger through social action, they are less likely to suffer the worst effects of depression.

The second problem induced by neo-liberalism is the reduction of living standards and income. Firings force workers to seek lower paying jobs or to use up their savings and in many cases to fall below the poverty line. Loss of status, fear and insecurity in the face of the inability to pay bills for electricity, water, home mortgages creates deep and perpetual anxiety and a loss of self-respect. In some cases especially among white-collar employees, they maintain the fa?ade of respectability even as the material bases have disappeared. in the parties, one frequently meets unemployed professionals with their necktie and jacket sitting at benches reading the want ads. The desperate attempt to maintain appearances in the face of downward mobility, has led to schizophrenic like behavior: living like a proletarian but refusing to recognize reality.

The loss of employment or low wage employment leads to the collapse of a way of life the decline of social life, the avoidance of friends (or the avoidance by former friends) the intensification of internal conflicts in the family and the sense of isolation and impotence.

The economic crises of neo-liberalism particularly the growth of unemployment, under-employment and low-paid, insecure jobs has multiple effects which spread far beyond the material conditions of life, and affect the very social being and the most intimate relations of the individuals affected.

The Socio-Psychological Effects

The entire personality is adversely affected by the collapse of neo- liberalism, but the behavioral expressions vary from person to person and most importantly from context to context. The most common initial response is profound shock and then depression, in many cases by diffuse anger and if class conscious anger directed at the bosses or traditional politicians. For those who put trust in the employers there is frequently self-hate or self-blame. They accept the bosses’ explanations of individual failings.

In these circumstances, there is a tendency to withdraw, feelings of shame and lack of self-esteem. This extends to a decline in the libido, insomnia, a loss of sexual desire and an inability to respond to or give affection. Repressed hostility to the power above are displaced toward those below wife/husband, children or close friends. In contrast, where the victimized worker socializes their private discontent (unemployment) and converts it into a public problem, they are more likely to external hostility join social movements, which channel aggression outward toward employers and the state. If however, there are no progressive movements, externalized hostility can be directed by elite groups against other workers or marginal groups (racial minorities, women immigrants, etc.).

Extreme Pathologies

Internalization of social problems, or self-blame can, in extreme circumstances, lead to suicidal tendencies, self-destructive behavior (chronic drunkenness or drug addiction) homicidal behavior or clinical paranoia. In a political context, the self-blame reinforces an inferiority complex and can lead to the embrace of the powerful power elite which inflicts the torments, and the development of a fascist personality which is at the feet of the powerful and the throat of the powerless. Ready recruits for rightwing shock troops.

Mental Health and Socio-Political Militancy

While some degree of mental disturbance is almost inevitable with the economic crises and loss of employment, the degree and duration can be counteracted through curative properties of mass socio-political organization and action.

The shock effects of factory or office firings can force workers and employees to realize the real arbitrary and exploitative nature of corporate power. The firing destroys the false sense of loyalties and mutual obligations between capital and labor and reveals in all its brutality the real nature of capitalist relations: profit over livelihood, family, and the individual worker. For a moment the victimized worker/employee is forced to concede that the Marxist conception of the antagonistic interests between capital and labor expresses their personal situation. The worker/employee realizes that after years of toil, punctuality, loyalty, productivity, they are expendable, they are nothing but a discarded condom.

The mental health of the unemployed workers/employees depends on the degree of social solidarity they encounter after leaving the workplace. Between the firing by the employer and the victimized workers social organizations mediate the relations of the individual to their social situation and have an important effect on mental health.

Social movements, particularly the popular assemblies and unemployed workers’ movement provide a framework for transforming individual private problems into collective social response. They externalize hostility outward to the system the economic and political bosses. Assemblies provide a forum where individuals can speak and express their ideas and feelings and listen and learn from others in the same social situation. Demonstrations around programmatic demands provide direction and purpose, helping to overcome the sense of impotence, isolation and anomie.

Collective action is a form of social therapy, not in the office or a paid employed professional, but in the street with people sharing the same conditions in the real world, with its dangers (of repression) and realization (social changes). Social action involves organization, participation, individual commitment, debate which raises self- esteem because it utilizes the skills and knowledge of the unemployed. The realization of changes, reforms through collective action whether in the form of state funded public works or community-based economic enterprises provides hope for the future and immediate gains.

In this context, economic catastrophe becomes a learning experience, of practicing solidarity instead of individual competition, or social equality instead of invidious distinctions.

When social movements of the unemployed or popular assemblies are organized usually they are based on family and community networks. Instead of the family becoming a terrain for conflict it becomes a basis of social support, where the partners share household work and common social values. Neighborhoods bond to organize self-help projects while mobilizing to change the larger system.

The new social relations created by social bonding or class solidarity lessen the alienation embodied in the relationship of corporate and state hierarchies. Social integration in collective movements lessen anti-social behavior and the propensity for crime through criminal behavior will persist.

Feelings of solidarity in the family strengthen intimate ties and personal affection. Externalizing conflict increases personal esteem and sexual desire.

Social movements and action cannot help individuals suffering extreme pathologies, or raise the self-esteem of victims who continue to embrace their tormenters. Nor does social action solve the fundamental economic problems which create mental health problems. But it is a step in the right direction toward the new person with greater social sensibility and solidarity. As the unemployed workers’ movement says “Tocas uno, Tocas todos” (you pick on one of us you have to take on all of us).

Dec. 17, 2002 :: Printing version