With the housing crisis making headlines across the country, there’s been much discussion about the broken social contract. The idea we’ve all been raised on – that if we work hard, contribute to society and respect the law, we’ll be able to afford a decent standard of living and have children if we choose – appears, to many, to no longer be true.
Take the city of Vancouver, where the median income for individuals is $36,884 if you are male and $29,835 if you are female, the average one bedroom apartment rents for $1,952 a month, and residential lots of burnt rubble are now priced at close to four million. In this city, the decoupling of local salaries from local housing costs is accompanied by an epidemic of opioid overdoses. To read bestselling author Chris Hedges’s latest book, America, The Farewell Tour, is to see these two things as related.
The former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner is known for his radical politics. So it’s no surprise that his latest outing takes the position that America is an empire in its dying days. The country, he argues, has been overtaken by corporate interests, triggering a crisis on both a collective material level and an individual psychic one.
If this is the case, there are implications for all Western democracies, which are fashioned on the same basic blueprint. Including, of course, our own.
“People are just trapped, and they’re trapped in places they don’t want to be,” Hedges says, reached on the line in Princeton, N.J. “So, in past generations, people may have been trapped in places they didn’t want to be, but they felt that social mobility was possible. Now they realize that not only is social mobility not possible, but they’re reeling backwards. And I think what’s so devastating for so many Americans in the working class is that it’s apparent that not only will they not achieve the economic level and security their parents achieved, but that their children will never achieve it.”
The social contract, he says, was never as egalitarian as it was presented. It was never available to many, including African-Americans in the States and Indigenous peoples in Canada. “However, it wasn’t a complete illusion,” Hedges says. “There was a possibility – especially with the rise of unions and before deindustrialization – for a working-class family to have a middle-class lifestyle. To have jobs that had security, pension plans, in the United States … the possibility for medical care, which we don’t have any more. It was never as halcyon as it appeared, or presented itself. But it wasn’t fictitious. Now it’s largely fictitious.”
To live in America in the 21st century is to live in a stressful society with extreme wealth at one end of the spectrum and prison labour for pennies an hour at the other. In short: a society spiralling out of control.
In order to take stock, Hedges tours communities across the country, documenting the ways in which societal insecurity is manifesting in individual pathologies.
Citizens in America, The Farewell Tour overdose on heroine, consume violent porn, subscribe to hateful ideologies, commit suicide – or, tellingly, indulge in magical thinking, at megachurches and Trump rallies. (According to Hedges, “magical thinking is about ameliorating or fixing your personal and existential crisis through magic…it denies the external reality around you and promotes the idea that reality is never an impediment to what you want.” He includes self-help gurus like Tony Robbins in this camp as well.)
The everyday Americans he encounters elsewhere forfeit savings, homes and marriages to play slot machines, addicted to an ethereal flow state, expertly engineered by casinos, that allows them to lose track of everything from time and space to bodily functions, often forgetting to even use the bathroom. “It blunts the pain,” Hedges says. “And there’s a lot of pain.”
Interestingly, Hedges’s outing is not the only title in recent years to explore the link between the madness of modern society and soaring mental health rates. Bestselling author Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions maintains mental illness is a result of a sick society, and that healing requires us to reconnect to ourselves, nature, meaningful work, values, our neighbours and, ultimately, the greater good.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, a slim tome that began as a Vanity Fair feature, is a war reporter’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder. Upon returning to New York City from Afghanistan, he had his first panic attack in a subway station. In the course of subsequent research, Junger learned the U.S. military now suffers the highest reported rate of PTSD in its history – and probably the world – but only 10 per cent of its armed forces experience actual combat. As such, “the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.” Junger posits that it’s not the atrocities of war to blame, but the dysfunction of the society a soldier returns home to.
War, for all its horror, sees troops living the sort of communal, tribal life that humans have lived for much of history. Soldiers fight, eat and sleep in small units. They co-operate, keeping an eye on the greater good – in this case, collective survival – and go to tremendous lengths to protect and care for one another. As a result, they experience meaning and purpose (whatever the conflict’s rationale may be), and race and class distinctions often fall away. They experience equality. They feel profoundly connected, and profoundly useful.
However, when soldiers come home to the U.S., they confront an alienating society that has no understanding of communal life, with its sacrifices and rewards; a place in which many people feel “deeply, dangerously alone.” Soldiers now sleep by themselves or with a spouse, missing the safety of fellow troops. By day, they are surrounded by poverty, racism, greed, indifference. They are afforded token respect – “thank you for your service” – but not jobs.
“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it,” Junger writes in the book. “What they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”
All three books, in different ways, call for a rejection of individualism and materialism, and an embrace of one of the most powerful forces in human history: community.