I’m going somewhat outside of my areas of familiarity with this post. In many ways this is a personal exploration, but I hope it is valuable and instructive for a larger audience, too.

Over the weekend, Bruce Levine posted some thoughts from the perspective of psychology that captures and explores rather well my fuzzier read on the challenges confronting our broad system of political economy. Specifically, he discusses the concept of brokenness as it applies to victims of abuse. Take some time to read it and think it over. My plan is to tie this into some broad areas in relation to political economy and then go into some specific actions that can be taken on a local level to regain feelings of ownership and control.

Al Gore, in his film An Inconvenient Truth, touches upon the interesting dynamic of human thought whereby we live in blissful ignorance and denial as long as possible and then have a tendency to shift radically to despair and hopelessness once we confront a negative reality, a feeling of powerless to actually do anything about it, and then a sense of embarrassment at our weakness and inaction. The name of the game is catching people in between, educating those who are unaware of challenges and then guiding them to constructive action before being broken by the weight of despair and, ultimately, embarrassment and shame.

Or to use our recent jargon, that’s where hope and change happen.

I believe this model of human cognition is really valuable because it suggests there are different methods of reaching people. Some Americans are just honestly ignorant of the depths of the challenges faced by people with all kinds of barriers in our society. Some Americans really just don’t realize that our economy has failed to produce viable careers for a couple decades now. Some people just don’t realize that our treatment of detainees, whether Americans or foreigners, is absolutely horrendous. Some people just don’t realize that hunger and homelessness are still big problems, even in 21st century America. Some people just don’t realize that socioeconomic status is the primary indicator of whether a young person becomes a high school dropout or a college graduate. Our task is to provide education, facts, logos, to reveal truth, to show how ‘get a job’ or ‘try harder’ is about as helpful today as ‘let them eat cake‘ was to French peasants.

However, this approach assumes a very important state of affairs, namely, that what we are addressing is a lack of information. There are other circumstances where lack of information is not the problem (or at least, not the central problem). Many people are acutely aware of just how bad things are out there for some Americans. As Levine describes this state of affairs

Can people become so broken that truths of how they are being screwed do not "set them free" but instead further demoralize them?

Yes. It is called the "abuse syndrome." How do abusive pimps, spouses, bosses, corporations, and governments stay in control? They shove lies, emotional and physical abuses, and injustices in their victims’ faces, and when victims are afraid to exit from these relationships, they get weaker. So the abuser then makes their victims eat even more lies, abuses, and injustices, resulting in victims even weaker as they remain in these relationships.

Now, abuse is a bit of a touchy subject in America. We have made a lot of progress in recognizing the significance of victimhood and the need for people who have been victimized to receive assistance. There is still progress to be made, but we have certainly greatly reduced the stigma associated with seeking mental health services. But we have also attached a great deal of social programming to being a victim.

Sometimes, it metastasizes as the obligation to deny that you’re a victim; I think of Barbara Ehrenreich discussing breast cancer and ‘positive psychology’ on this point, as if going through chemotherapy is somehow remotely a good experience. Other times, it is revealed by the pressure to claim status as a victim even if that’s not how you feel. Reproductive healthcare comes to mind on this one; some abortion counseling is helpful in laying out the options. However, there is frequently additional pressure to make women feel bad about getting an abortion even when they don’t feel bad about it, particularly the socialization of women who have already gotten an abortion, as in you lost your baby, you must feel like a horrible mother, you must have regrets, you must wish you hadn’t done something foolish when you were younger…

In other ways, we face a certain amount of pressure to simplisticially shift blame to ‘other people’ when the actual situation is more complex, and these are some of the trickiest perspectives to navigate. Some mortgage holders were victims of outright fraudulent activity (and fraud is one of the least investigated aspects of our crisis), but much of the story of the past decade is simply people making investment decisions that turned out poorly. Just because you paid more for an asset than it’s worth doesn’t mean you’re a victim, and it doesn’t mean that the banks are evil for lending to you (in fact, absurdly, that’s what we’re telling banks to do: abandon prudence and return to the days of easy money, despite the fact that excess debt is precisely the cause of our present predicament). Or another hard area to swallow is international terrorism. Absolutely, what happened to the USS Cole, or our embassies in Africa, or the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon, and elsewhere, were horrific acts which caused suffering, destruction, and death. But at the same time, we’re not exclusively victims. We’re also perpetrators. What was attacked wasn’t some suburban shopping mall or little league baseball game; they are elements at the heart of US power projection diplomatically, financially, and militarily. That’s called blowback. One final point I would offer about victims is how society is trained to treat victims. A certain level of support and understanding is healthy. When we take it to extremes, though, we create artificial interactions that are based on social programming rather than the actual needs of the participants. Just because someone has been the victim of something doesn’t mean that is their whole identity for the rest of their life.

I said this was a personal exploration, so I’ll interject with a personal tidbit. I’ve been the victim of a violent crime. I wasn’t hurt physically; I’m eternally grateful the gun was just for compliance, not usage. I appreciate very much the support of friends and colleagues after the incident. I harbor a whole range of emotions and memories in response to it. But here’s the thing. Being a victim doesn’t define me; it’s not my identity. It’s just something that happened to me. For a moment in time, I was submissively compliant. It’s hard to say explicitly ‘why’ when the event you’re analyzing is a split-second decision made under what we somewhat euphemistically like to call duress. In the instant my brain processed that a gun was pointed and cocked at me, my nervous system decided that the $100 in my wallet and the phone in my pocket wasn’t worth the risk of being injured or killed. I was cooperating before I even made a conscious decision to cooperate, an excellent first-mover advantage of our reflexes over our purposeful cognition. Excellent, at least, for my particular need in that particular situation. Had I misread the situation, had it been a gang initiation instead of a mugging, submission might not have been the proper evolutionary response.

Whatever the case, you chew on that instant after the fact, once you’re ‘safe’. The second-guessing, the questioning of your ‘weakness’ in not fighting back, the embarrassment of getting caught in a bad situation, and so forth. It may sound a little silly, but the end result of victimization is often embarrassment and shame. It is powerful.

And paralyzing, when the submission is constant, when there is no point of ‘safety’ within seeming reach.

As Levine describes

Does knowing the truth of their abuse set people free when they are deep in these abuse syndromes?

No. For victims of the abuse syndrome, the truth of their passive submission to humiliating oppression is more than embarrassing; it can feel shameful — and there is nothing more painful than shame. When one already feels beaten down and demoralized, the likely response to the pain of shame is not constructive action, but more attempts to shut down or divert oneself from this pain. It is not likely that the truth of one’s humiliating oppression is going to energize one to constructive actions.

Perhaps this vignette gives some insight into my, shall we say, disagreement, over corporate welfare, or bailouts, or whatever we want to call them. Over the past couple years, we have engaged in an unprecedented transfer of wealth to the wealthy. The scale is so enormous and secrecy so foundational that ballpark guesses are about as good as we can get; we hope we just guess the right sport. So let’s use one guestimate of the total size of the handouts, loan guarantees, credit facilities, backstops, et al, of $12 trillion. Now of course, unless Armageddon actually happens (in which case, the allocation of dollar-denominated assets won’t really mean much anyway), we’ll get most of that money back; that’s an aggregate figure of theoretical outlays, not an actual net loss. Let’s assume we recover 90% of that, that the net cost comes out to only $1.2 trillion. With a population of just over 300 million people in our country, that’s just under $4,000 for every man, woman, and child alive today.

Go back to my story. Let’s round the total cost to me (phone, cash, time, etc) to an even $200. At that conversion rate, I’ve been ‘robbed’ 20 times over the past two years in support of a philosophy that says wealth trickles down rather than bubbles up. To a certain extent, I’ve resisted. I’ve written government officials. I’ve called government officials. I’ve thanked government officials. I’ve attended a protest organized around A New Way Forward. I’ve pushed for an audit of the Fed. I certainly pull no punches in speaking my opinions; I can’t promise we’ll agree on everything, but I can promise I’ll explain what I believe. And more generally, I actively strive to access a variety of sources of information so I can make my own decisions as free as reasonably possible from any one source of influence.

But an honest assessment has to also deal with a feeling of powerlessness, an understanding that I have more or less gone about my ‘day to day’ life allowing the abuse to continue, to even grow more brazen. Van Jones gets driven out of office by crazies, we can pass Constitutionally-challenged legislation defunding ACORN, but the Masters of the Universe, the Best and the Brightest, the Smartest Guys in the Room, not only wreck our economy, they not only do not face investigation for all manner of fraud and other potential crimes, but they largely keep their jobs and continue profiting personally to this day. We can’t seem to do anything material to account for the abuses of the past or prevent them from happening in the future. Our financial sector is more concentrated today, there is more risk for cataclysmic failure today, than two years ago when the official recession began.

It’s difficult to even maintain outrage about it. That fatigue is at the heart of the abuse syndrome. The more injustice we accept, the more that is thrown at us. Simply for the sake of somewhat restraining the length of this piece, I won’t even touch the myriad of other issues to which this applies.

Rather, I want to move on to the core observation that most Americans recognize the brokenness of our system. Some of us have more detailed familiarity to articulate it, some of us are nerdy enough to spend some significant amount of free time thinking about this, but the gist is pretty universal. Most Americans’ gut feeling is that they’re getting screwed. And roughly speaking, they’re right. After all, it’s not like something magic happened in 2007. We’ve lived through a whole generation of public policy designed to transfer the wealth of America to the wealthy. And guess what? It’s been pretty successful. Mission accomplished, you might say.

Our major challenge is living si se puede. Yes, We Can. Really, we can. It’s a powerful slogan because it’s a powerful reality. We do have control over some things directly, and we can influence broader factors over time. We do have a variety of good policy options at our disposal; we are not constrained simply to choosing among the lesser of evils. So long as our country can change, we do not need to despair. So long as the CEO of Goldman Sachs feels it is worthwhile to become Secretary of the Treasury, we are not powerless. So long as Wal-Mart fears unionization, we are not weak. So long as the National Park Service exists, our natural and historical wonders aren’t lost. So long as the Social Security Administration keeps cutting checks, the concept that government can effectively provide social security is not destroyed. So long as our leaders swear loyalty to the Constitution, it is still the Supreme Law of our great land; We the People are still the ultimate bearers of power and responsible for wielding it.

It’s hard to say no to an abusive situation. It’s hard to resist oppression and injustice. But it’s not impossible.

And it’s incredibly liberating.

You see, despite all the attempts to restrict the ability of Americans to make individual decisions, to think for ourselves, we’re not actually a broken people. Our mental fortitude, our obstinance, has been obnoxiously stubborn. Despite massive attempts at enforced conformity, we at least still pay lip service to the value of resistance. It’s in there somewhere, like the magma under a volcano that hasn’t erupted in some time.

It’s going to take some time to take our country back from the corporate interests that have come to dominate the thinking inside the beltway, but make no mistake, we are going to do it. We are going to do it because millions and millions of Americans will not accept bondage to the increasingly impersonal commercialization of our society. We are not consumers or workers or mortgage payers first; our identity above all else is as citizens of these United States.

That is a wonderful statement of equality, a source of power which rightly makes those who would be oppressors hesitate. As a citizen of the United States, my opinion means just as much as yours. Your opinion means just as much as mine. And both of our opinions mean just as much as those of any other American, regardless of race or creed, educational attainment or net worth, criminal background or work history, mental illness or physical disability, urban or rural, coastal or flyover, recent immigrant or several generation American. No one is going to give us that power. We have to claim it. That takes a lot of audacity, of arrogance, of self-confidence, to stake such a claim.

That’s all great and high-fallutin’ and everything, but what can we do?

After all, as Levine writes

U.S. citizens do not actively protest obvious injustices for the same reasons that people cannot leave their abusive spouses: They feel helpless to effect change. The more we don’t act, the weaker we get. And ultimately to deal with the painful humiliation over inaction in the face of an oppressor, we move to shut-down mode and use escape strategies such as depression, substance abuse, and other diversions, which further keep us from acting. This is the vicious cycle of all abuse syndromes.

So this section isn’t for those who like keeping their heads in the sand, and it isn’t for those who think they have all the answers. This is for those of us working through the doubt and uncertainty of the abuse of our labor, our trust, our taxes, our dreams. This isn’t a lecture about how I’ve got all the answers and you need to write them down and do what I say. It’s an exercise in honor of the power which citizenship rests in each one of us.

A couple caveats, because that’s what I do. This of course isn’t going to be exhaustive. In fact, I hope this might prod other ideas for action; it’s not like I invented any of these ideas, anyway. Also, this is from the perspective of empowering what we think of as ‘middle class’ America, those of us whose primary economic structure revolves around budgets, planning for what comes in and what goes out. Some certainly do this more formally than others, but it’s an activity that really defines the American middle class in juxtaposition to both those living in destitute poverty and those with significant wealth. At poverty levels, navigating the social services landscape is a more central skill than budgeting, and higher net worth individuals, while still dealing with revenue and expenses, see their priorities shift from budgeting to investing; managing the money (and associated personal networks) they’ve got.

This isn’t really about ‘pinching pennies’ per se, although the expense side of a budget is certainly important. There are lots of good sources of information on frugality and financial independence. Rather, this is more about breaking the mindset of brokenness, of changing our psychology from that of dependence to that of empowerment. We gain strength not through one superhuman act, but rather through making a habit, a lifestyle, of taking small steps.

1. Distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot control. It is important to deal with both concepts of responsibility, that for which you are personally responsible and that which is not your fault. No matter how bad a situation is, you have some options; there is always a responsibility to work to improve the situation. But at the same time, don’t blame yourself for everything. Larger societal factors often mean that your circumstances are not ‘your fault’. This may seem elementary or silly, but I would suggest that the absence of a healthy balance between taking responsibility and not shouldering the whole weight of the world is a foundational issue which leads to unforeseen problems down the road.

2. Take advantage of New Year’s Day. While the innocence of youth can cause its own problems, it also is uniquely liberating in that one is not hostage to previously committed actions. Since we’re approaching the holidays, New Years is an excellent opportunity in our quirky tradition to wipe the slate clean. We don’t have many of these in our culture; take full advantage. Rather than setting yourself up for failure by thinking your dietary or exercise or drinking habits or whatever will magically change on January 1, do something that can actually be accomplished by picking a random day: starting fresh. Maybe it’s environmental activism, maybe it’s opposing war, maybe it’s working to end homelessness, maybe it’s spending more time with your kids, maybe it’s putting away the dishes. Whatever has built up baggage of guilt and shame from your inaction, use the new year to start over. Decide that whatever (in)actions and thoughts and feelings you have developed over the course of your life in respect to this issue will be set aside, that you will be free to pursue any avenue in the future regardless of past affiliations. You don’t have to have a Damascus Road experience or be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past to experience such a renewal and liberation. You have to choose that your future will not be trapped by your past.

3. Say hi to your neighbor. Don’t expect anything. Don’t ask for anything. Don’t judge anything. Just say hi. Let it go from there. Some neighbors you may never do more than see their face. Some neighbors may become great friends and sources of support. Predetermining an outcome isn’t important. The important thing is a simple greeting acknowledging a shared humanity. Fellow introverts, remember that a lot of us are introverts and somebody has to speak first. Extroverts, please remember we’re not being anti-social and we don’t hate you. We’re just shy.

I want to quote another bit from Levine because the issue of basic human contact has become such a central crisis in the paralysis of our society.

The U.S. population is increasingly broken by the social isolation created by corporate-governmental policies. A 2006 American Sociological Review study ("Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades") reported that, in 2004, 25 percent of Americans did not have a single confidant. (In 1985, 10 percent of Americans reported not having a single confidant.) Sociologist Robert Putnam, in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, describes how social connectedness is disappearing in virtually every aspect of U.S. life. For example, there has been a significant decrease in face-to-face contact with neighbors and friends due to suburbanization, commuting, electronic entertainment, time and money pressures and other variables created by governmental-corporate policies. And union activities and other formal or informal ways that people give each other the support necessary to resist oppression have also decreased.

4. Get involved in a local cause. I don’t care what it is, whether it’s your church’s food bank or working with students at a local school or helping out at the neighborhood community garden or whatever. You know what your interests are, what you find valuable. This is reassurance that lots of other people are involved, too, and you’ll meet them when you do this, starting a cycle of positive reinforcement of action instead of negative reinforcement of inaction. Again, don’t try to achieve a specific outcome; let that develop organically. Make involvement itself the goal.

5. Drop by a politician’s local office. I’ve had the fortune of living within walking distance of two local offices of federal officials, one Congressman close to my high school and one Senator close to my college apartment. I don’t know how much I accomplished; heck, I was a little nervous just walking in the door and chatting up the intern/staffer with the task of greeting the public. But I will tell you, there is something about doing that in person that is reassuring that you have a voice. Of course, this kind of action scales nicely, too. Take a friend next time.

6. Try an all credit diet for a month. I know, the traditional advice is to try an all cash diet. That’s a great tactic when the goal is reducing expenses by a specific amount, for example, when you’re burning through $100 a week but aren’t sure exactly why. You take $50 in cash out of the ATM on Monday and if you run out before next Monday, you don’t spend anything at all. It’s also a good tactic when the specific problem is handling credit or not paying bills on time or something similar. When the goal is figuring out what you value, though, one thing you can try is actually removing cash, money, dollars, checks, debit cards, etc, from the equation. Deal only in credit cards, electronic transactions, ones and zeros, bits and bytes. If that Starbucks coffee or name brand cereal or weekly bottle of wine or whatever makes you happy, then it’s worth it. What you can concentrate on are expenses that show up that you don’t really value. Focus on getting things you value, a positive action, not on not getting things you can’t afford, a negative action. And then, don’t feel guilty about using financial resources to acquire things you value. Rather, feel liberated to then make the decision that you don’t need to spend any money on items that don’t improve your life because you’re not irrationally depriving yourself of things you like.

7. Know who can – and would – bail you out of jail. This is mostly rhetorical, not an actual get out of jail arrangement. The psychological key is having a relationship outside of ‘normal’ family connections that is intimate enough that you are comfortable asking for help. That is a powerful form of resistance, although we often overlook it. If we have a friend who can help us, we are much less desperate in our day to day dealings, and if push does come to shove, we don’t have to accept a hasty arrangement which takes advantage of our situation. Odds are, you’ll never have to post bail for anything; the point is the value of relationships that are strong enough to do that should the situation arise.

8. Make a list of your financial obligations, distinguishing between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. Now, set aside the ‘wants’ list. This will probably be a relatively small portion of your budget, and at any rate, there are approaches for dealing with this should a short-term event necessitate temporary changes. What I want to focus on are the ‘needs’. I would suggest that most of those needs are actually wants. Look again at the list and start from the premise that they’re actually wants, not needs, and then justify why you need that expense. The point of this exercise is not to cut your living standard to the bone. Rather, it is to appreciate what you have. This is the ‘there are starving children in Africa’ vantage point. The psychological key is making an inventory of what you have, not of what you don’t have. This allows you to exercise more control over all your budget, not just the ‘discretionary’ part. It gives you the confidence to know that should an unfortunate event occur, it doesn’t have to break you. You can adapt. One of the best perspectives on wealth I have heard is that wealth doesn’t prevent storms, wealth helps you survive storms. Our country survived the Great Depression. We survived the Civil War. We will continue surviving. You personally will continue surviving. This too shall pass.

9. Make a list of what you consider to be your rights as a citizen, as a human being. There is no right answer; this is your viewpoint. It may look similar to my list, it may not. Then, make a habit of asking for these rights. Ask on behalf of yourself. Ask on behalf of a family member. Ask on behalf of a friend. Ask on behalf of a stranger. Claiming entitlement to our human rights is life-changing. It breaks the bondage of abuse, of oppression, of the notion that someone else knows what is best better than you do. It renders us vulnerable as we expose our deepest beliefs. There is power in the authenticity of that vulnerability, and it focuses how we evaluate our economic and political landscape. You might accidentally find someone else who shares a similar passion.

10. Celebrate the victories of other people. There is cool stuff going on in the world, past and present. And the act of celebrating other people’s effort and ultimate triumph is joyous itself. Howard Zinn and Matt Damon’s History Channel production of The People Speak is an excellent, timely reminder of this. Ken Burns’ most recent project on the National Parks is another great example. You already know there’s a lot left to fix in the world; you don’t need somebody to tell you that. Take some time being energized by stuff that’s been fixed.

I hope this ‘top ten’ kind of list is a helpful exploration. My skills are generally better suited toward education than motivation, and that’s where I spend the bulk of my time, but I wanted to try a little different perspective with this post. I think Levine’s framing is important to keep in mind because motivation is precisely what some people need, specifically, the mutual reassurance that yes, we can make a difference. We can be agents of change. We all have various levels of doubt and brokenness, but we don’t have to be consumed by the despair, depression, and dislocation of our situation. I’m of the opinion that most of the major issues of the day are national in scope, even our electoral system itself has become increasingly nationalized as fundraising, branding, campaigning, and so forth increasingly crosses district lines. Our challenges will ultimately require policy actions at the federal level to address.

What I would emphasize is that there are specific, meaningful actions we can take on a more personal level to develop the confidence and the excitement that we are not owned by the impersonal commercialized version of America, that much bigger and bolder action is possible, that we have the luxury of realizing our own vision of America rather than being dependent upon someone else’s, that freedom and liberty aren’t handed to us by somebody else. We have to demand our rights, claim them, exercise them.

Proclaiming that our first allegiance, our core identity, is as a citizen, is incredibly personal and incredibly liberating. It’s something each of us can do.

Crossposted at Daily Kos.

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