Understanding Yourself in Modernity

Understanding yourself in modernity (links to mental health eventually)

Very loosely, many years ago our ancestors hunted and gathered or settled in one place and grew crops and raised animals. Life was not a perfect utopia, and I imagine that gathering berries all day long could be quite boring, unless a fun group did it together. The best way to organize these groups of people over a long time was through close family ties and through religious and other social formations that kept people wanting to be together. Again, it was not all love and peace but there were families that cooperated together on the whole and succeeded in getting food and a sustainable life, usually with some forms of (loosely) religious or ritual practices to hold all the families together, especially during crises. Again, these control methods were not perfect and people suffered and people prospered. But that was life.

What about now? Are we totally different? Yes. But are the same general outlines there? Yes. We still need to get resources, but we do it through gathering and hunting money!  Most of us do this by working for a stranger (not family) who gives us money which (because of our broader social system) can be exchanged for food that some other strangers (also not family) have raised or gathered (they use the money from us to do the same).

All of this context impacts on everything else in our lives, and the quality of our lives. We still have to gather our food and resources but this is done differently:

“[Walt] Rostow must have been among the first to perceive that the culmination of human social evolution was shopping” (Sahlins, 1999, p. iv).

Would those bored berry-pickers wish they could do our jobs for money instead of gathering berries? Maybe, but which would you prefer? Our jobs are mostly boring so far as I can glean and not connected with family and friends, although we often find a good bunch of fun work colleagues that make it happier. But working at a job is not a perfect utopia especially working for a stranger and surrounded by strangers. Marx also said that separating the work we do from directly getting our resources was alienating.

With this kind of (new) social system, how do we hold people together? Clearly, family is not as important because we work and get what we need from strangers and without any family help. Our broader communities are therefore now huge and non-family, and so religious groups are not much help holding us all together, although on a smaller scale they might; but religions are now also not very much help (on the whole) in helping us get our resources, which come through strangers.

And now, what about ‘psychological’ factors? How do we see ourselves and value ourselves? With large families and tight communities you had a place to prove your worth, and a forgiving family that allowed mistakes and changes over time. These were never perfect or unbiased, nor were they violence free of course. But now we are faced with so many strangers involved in what we do—people we have not known before and who have little accountability to us or the people we know, and these strangers especially have no connections to our family. Any accountability with strangers must work through other strangers in a regulated system—police and law courts.  And how many friends and colleagues will actually help us when we are down and out?  Ask yourself that question…

Do you see now why it is that everyone in modernity has some form of generalized anxiety and generalized depression?  The word “generalized” really means “from abstract strangers”.  All our consequences and resources rely on these vague strangers who have no social obligations or relationship ties with the people we value.


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