Eclectic Spacewalk #6 - Anomie

Acts of self-destruction by individuals & society are partly caused by the disintegration of social bonds

Read previous post #5 - Skin in the Game (15 minutes)

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Table of Contents:


  • Emile Durkheim’s On Suicide

  • The American dream is now a nightmare

  • Deadly Consequences

    • Opioid use has skyrocketed

    • Suicide rates are through the roof, especially for military members

    • Our climate emergency will only exacerbate Anomie

  • Four Horsemen of the Financial Misuse Apocalypse

    • Drastic Increases in Wealth Inequality

    • “War on Terror”

    • The failed war on drugs and the erosion of personal sovereignty

    • 2008 Financial Crisis

  • The Way Forward

    • Limits of Wealth

    • Team Human

    • The Long Now

  • Audio (2 podcasts)

  • Video (2 talks)

  • What’s Next?

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Reading Time: 30 minutes (Read sections you find intriguing, bookmark the media/links, and come back to anytime.)


Abstract: “A state of hopeless and despair due to the disintegration of social bonds that drive individuals and societies to personal and collective acts of self-destruction.”

Forewarning: This essay may be filled with an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, but it is ALWAYS better to shine “light” on these issues rather than just moving on with life or sticking your head in the sand hoping things will change. To understand the importance of facing these issues head-on, listen to my podcast on the philosophy of suicide and grief with Cal Poly Pomona philosophy professor Michael Cholbi on Substack or Anchor.

If my first essays on heuristics provide possible solutions to make the world better, more ethical, and truthful, then this post focuses on an amalgamation of problems. This meta-problem is not solely American or Western, but currently where it is acutely apparent. (It is increasingly becoming an international issue.) I promise three possible helpful solutions.

What does the opioid crisis have to do with plagues of suicide?

Or the emboldening of violence and hate with the increase in gambling?

Does climate change have anything to do with humanity’s pornification of culture?

How does one understand the rise of magical thinking in the masses along with the successful corporate coup d'état of government?

One of the smoking guns, if any, is an all-encompassing word coined by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim in the late 19th century: Anomie.

Made famous in Durkheim’s book On Suicide, Anomie occurs when society lacks the regulatory constraints necessary to control the behavior of its members. This usually comes after rapid, unpredictable, and uncontrollable change. There is a breakdown of the normative structure and were once rules and norms were strong, they have weakened over time. Without norms, limits, or boundaries an individual’s life becomes meaningless and behavior becomes uncontrollable. You can see the progression quite clearly below. (We are either in the third or fourth stage depending on your level of cynicism, but one cannot deny that we are past the second stage.)

A shorter definition of Anomie is  “a state of hopelessness and despair due to the disintegration of social bonds that drive individuals and societies to personal and collective acts of self-destruction.”

Sociology professor Chad Gesser says, “Sociologists see society as an organism, much the way the human body is an organism. Society, just like the human body, is a sum of its parts.” A fancier way to put it is organic specialization. Two handy graphics below help visualize.

“Staying with the human anatomy and physiology theme, I like to think of the above image as the “skeleton” of society.  Below you’ll find the makeup of the “central nervous system”. These are the fundamental elements of culture,” says Gresser.

“Keep in mind that norms are the guidelines and expectations in society. They are not right or wrong, but we as members of society determine at any given moment in time or history the makeup of norms...Norms, just like culture, change. The “skeleton” of society, and the “central nervous system”, remain the same.

The American Dream is now a nightmare

The average American is worse off today then they were just a generation ago. Millennials, my age cohort, are poorer than previous generations, and actively losing ground in every major statistical measurement. The counter-intuitive has become the norm. We can see this personification in totality with the example that the US life expectancy is DECLINING! How is that possible in 2019?! (One could easily argue that America has always been a nightmare for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Women, and anyone not white and male.)

Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and NYT best-selling author, recognized our culture’s widespread malaise as Anomie, and recently repopularized the term, including writing a book called America, The Farewell Tour. He wrote in a summary post for that our traditional social bonds that give individuals a sense of being part of a collective, and more importantly, engaging in a project larger than the self are, in fact, in disarray.

“This collective expresses itself through rituals, such as elections and democratic participation or an appeal to patriotism and shared national beliefs. The bonds provide meaning, a sense of purpose, status, and dignity. They offer psychological protection from impending mortality and the meaninglessness that comes with being isolated and alone. The shattering of these bonds plunges individuals into deep psychological distress that leads ultimately to acts of self-annihilation,” says Hedges, mirroring Durkheim.

The American Dream - the belief that if you, or anyone, work hard, obey the law, and get a good education can achieve social status mobility - is a lie. The great comedian George Carlin was prophetic about the subject with the final line in one of his most infamous stand-up sets, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Mark Manson wrote in the Observer that the continued belief in something that isn’t true in reality (The American Dream) is in fact killing us, “The sad truth is that fewer people today are getting ahead than before. And they’re getting ahead not due to their hard work or their education as much as their connections, their family’s socioeconomic status, and of course, just the plain luck of not getting horribly sick or getting into a serious accident.

This is not to say the elite are the only ones to blame. Brookings scholar Richard V. Reeves, says in his book Dream Hoarders that the middle class has enriched itself and harmed economic mobility: “Various forms of “opportunity hoarding” among the upper-middle-class make it harder for others to rise up to the top rung. Examples include zoning laws and schooling, occupational licensing, college application procedures, and the allocation of internships. Upper-middle-class opportunity hoarding, Reeves argues, results in a less competitive economy as well as a less open society.”

Manson continues that the truth is we are back to where we started before the late 18th-century revolution and standing up to monarchical powers, “Not only is this not the American Dream, it’s the antithesis of the American Dream. It’s the old feudal order where you’re born into your privilege (or lack thereof) and forced to just hope things don’t get any worse.”

This sad truth is further ingrained in our collective psyche when voting effectively no longer advances the interests of the average citizen. Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page note in their research that the political process is not as democratic as one might think. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Hedges comes back into the fray while also bringing down the truth hammer with what this really means to the veneer of democracy when social bonds are not just broken but are blown up, “This facade of democratic process eviscerates one of the primary social bonds in a democratic state and abolishes the vital shared belief that citizens have the power to govern themselves, that government exists to promote and protect their rights and interests.”

Hedges states, as plainly as can be, how this happened right in front of all of us, “But the capture of political and economic power by the corporate elites, along with the redirecting of all institutions toward the further consolidation of their power and wealth, has broken the social bonds that held the American society together.”

Deadly Consequences

The American Dream was brutally assassinated in the open. If we treat the United States as a crime scene, we can look around at the current situation and deduce previous causes. But, what is the current situation exactly? Well, I only need to tell you about two factors to illuminate how ghastly our present reality is: Opioids and Suicide.

Opioid use has skyrocketed like at no other time in history. The CDC says, “In 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and illegal opioids like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl) was 6 times higher than in 1999.” More than 700,000 people died from drug overdoses between 1999 to 2017, pressuring the Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency in 2017.

Why the drastic increase? Access, misinformation, and, once again, greed were the biggest contributing factors. HHS points out that pharmaceutical companies in the late 1990s promised the medical community that these substances were NOT addictive, so healthcare providers took that hook, line, and sinker. They began prescribing them at higher rates and higher doses which caused widespread misuse. Now it is abundantly clear that these substances could be incredibly addictive.

Suicide rates are through the roof in the United States, including more military members committing suicide than dying in combat. Yes, more military members are taking their lives than dying in the “fight against terror.

To put that into perspective, the NYT writes, “More than 45,000 veterans and active-duty service members have killed themselves in the past six years. That is more than 20 deaths per day — in other words, more suicides each year than the total American military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Ok, but those are people in high-stress environments with bullets, explosions, and death all around. Surely that isn’t happening to regular people right?” readers might ask. 

Actually, suicide is climbing the ranks of causes of death to Americans, especially young people, with a 31% increase in overall suicide deaths from 2000 to 2016. The American Psychological Association reported that  “suicide was the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States in 2016. It was the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34 and the fourth-leading cause among people ages 35 to 54.

The distribution is NOT equal, and you cannot chalk these deaths up to psychological issues. “More than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known mental health condition,” says the CDC. suicides among girls and women increased by 51 percent between 2000 and 2016. The graph below shows that suicide rates increased in almost every state!

This trend seems like it is only going to continue with the reality of the climate emergency that humanity faces in the coming decades. With sea levels rising faster and higher than previously thought, including the threat of a number of major cities being partly underwater by 2050, and along with the promise of tens of millions of people becoming climate refugees - the future looks quite grim without a complete overhaul of society’s priorities. Stanford researchers found thatas global temperatures rise, climate change’s impacts on mental health are becoming increasingly evident. Recent research has linked elevated temperatures to an increase in violence, stress, and decreased cognitive function leading to impacts such as reduced test scores, lowered worker productivity, and impaired decision-making.

Four Horsemen of the Financial Misuse Apocalypse

As with any complex problem, it is not one simple reason of how we got to this point, but I believe Dr. Martin Luther King summed it up in one pithy statement: The problem is that we all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free enterprise capitalism for the poor. That’s the problem.

The “essence” of the individual being unleashed through greed and a passion for unlimited growth is but another reason. Our dominant economic system of corrupt and crony capitalism also has a giant hand to play in the molding of Anomie.

“But, but, but...” mumbles the reader, “It’s not that bad...right?”

If a person looks around and knows they are not valued as our American Dream fallacy states above, and all the while the government that is supposed to help them is throwing  *almost all* of its money (effectively YOUR money as a taxpayer) into budgetary black holes rather than using it for overall betterment and more fruitful existence, then you would rationally conclude that this game we call life is a farce, or at the very least not equal to modern expectations.

The next time someone gasps aloud at the prospect of universal healthcare, free education, easy access to capital, and any basic human right services for all with the question, “But how are we going to pay for it?”

Simply ask the following, “How are we paying for the current system, and its inefficiency, misuse, and downright criminal enterprises?”

Then show them this essay, including the section Four Horsemen of the Financial Misuse Apocalypse.

Let’s go through just a few startling facts that are true during the 31 years of my existence, and see if they change your outlook. But first, try to wrap your head around how much 1 TRILLION dollars is

Drastic Increases in Wealth Inequality

Matt Bruening, of the People’s Policy Project, explains the increase in wealth inequality quite simply: “Here's a statistic to get your class rage going: since 1989, the net worth of the top 1 percent has skyrocketed by $21 trillion. And the net worth of the bottom 50 percent'? It plummeted by $900 billion. goes further with a cartoon about how this all came to be. “You can see lots of discussion and debate and political fighting over who has wealth in America, and whether that should change. Or, you can look at the cartoon below to understand how the distribution of wealth has changed in America, and why.”

You can look through the entire thread as it talks about tax rates, minimum wage not keeping up with inflation, and labor unions decreasing. The most damning piece of information shows how the 1% and the entire monetary system in the United States have gotten away with highway robbery.

War on “Terror”

The US war on “terror,” whatever that means, has cost taxpayers $6 TRILLION. And the military is still active in the Middle East, so this number is only going to increase. The countless lives lost are incalculable in value lost. A helpful timeline of costs puts the facts in perspective, along with the data visualization (shown below) that included deaths since the September 11, 2001,  attacks.

Was the tragic loss of ~3,000 lives on that horrible day reasoning for the results visualized below? Any rational human can’t square that circle...

President Donald J. Trump has effectively destroyed the veneer of continuing to be in the Middle East region for reasons of “spreading democracy,” or saving the citizens of this or that country that George W. Bush and  Barack Obama floated as acceptable says independent journalist Caitlin Johnston. These reasons are all invalid, of course. The United States is in the region for the oil and its strategic military positioning half a world away from the US border.

“We’ve kept the oil,” Trump said. “We’ve stayed back and kept the oil. Other people can patrol the border of Syria, frankly, and Turkey, let them — they’ve been fighting for a thousand years, let them do the border, we don’t want to do that. We want to bring our soldiers home. But we did leave soldiers because we’re keeping the oil. I like oil. We’re keeping the oil.”

“Failed” war on drugs and the erosion of personal sovereignty

Growing up in the southern United States I, like most, was subjected to the idiotic & unscientific “Just Say No” propaganda along with mandatory D.A.R.E. classes, a state-sponsored fear-mongering tactic about all the bad things that could possibly happen while taking drugs. One would think that the powers at be would have learned from the failures of the prohibition of alcohol, and, even more, parallel with young people the monumental failure of unethical & unscientific “abstinence-only” sex education. Yet, here we are…

This has cost, you, me, and every taxpayer a pretty penny. How much exactly? As NBC news states, “After 40 years, the United States' war on drugs has cost $1 trillion and hundreds of thousands of lives, and for what? Drug use is rampant and violence even more brutal and widespread.”There is another TRILLION dollars down the drain, and it made the problem WORSE!

Since just 2008, drug control spending has topped $200 billion, and as the chart below shows, it has doubled since then. What the hell are we doing? Especially with the research of other approaches having better results...

2008 Financial Crisis

Remember back in 2008 when the banks bet big on the subprime mortgage market, then it collapsed because all the bonds were in reality not valuable in the least but were given AAA ratings? No? Watch the documentary Inside Job & the acclaimed feature film The Big Short to catch up on how this all happened. Also, here is a handy timeline of how things transpired.

HuffPost reported on the Government Accountability Office fact-finding initiative of how much all this cost us: “The 2008 financial crisis cost the U.S. economy more than $22 trillion.”

The report continues that, “The 2007-2009 financial crisis, like past financial crises, was associated with not only a steep decline in output but also the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The agency said the financial crisis toll on economic output may be as much as $13 trillion — an entire year’s gross domestic product. The office said paper wealth lost by U.S. homeowners totaled $9.1 billion. Additionally, the GAO noted, economic losses associated with increased mortgage foreclosures and higher unemployment since 2008 need to be considered as additional costs.”

The Way Forward

I do not have all the answers, but I can offer three possible points of view on how we could minimize the effects of the crisis. Even more importantly, I believe these would drastically help the issues discussed not happen in the first place.

These may seem grandiose or even blasphemous to the contemporary discourse, but just hear what other scholars have to say. 

Limits of Wealth

In his Guardian column, George Monbiot says it is time for a radical plan, one in which we strive for private sufficiency, public luxury. He bases his argument that we cannot afford the rich, due to the global environmental degradation from individual aspirations based on our dominant culture of wealth maximization.

He states, “There’s a name for this approach, coined by the Belgian philosopher Ingrid Robeyns: limitarianism. Robeyns argues that there should be an upper limit to the amount of income and wealth a person can amass. Just as we recognize a poverty line, below which no one should fall, we should recognize a riches line, above which no one should rise.”

Monbiot continues that Robeyns’ arguments are sound due to the future of Life on Earth depending on moderation, “Surplus money allows some people to exercise inordinate power over others: in the workplace; in politics; and above all in the capture, use, and destruction of the planet’s natural wealth.”

He concludes, "The grim truth is that the rich are able to live as they do only because others are poor: there is neither the physical nor ecological space for everyone to pursue private luxury.”

Team Human

In 2017, David Bryne wrote in the Atlantic that we have a new technological norm of eliminating human interaction, “I have a theory that much recent tech development and innovation over the last decade or so has an unspoken overarching agenda. It has been about creating the possibility of a world with less human interaction. This tendency is, I suspect, not a bug—it’s a feature. We might think Amazon was about making books available to us that we couldn’t find locally—and it was, and what a brilliant idea—but maybe it was also just as much about eliminating human contact.”

Bryne asserts that this even has a knock-down effect on democracy, and quite literally goes against what makes us human: “I’m wondering what we’re left with when there are fewer and fewer human interactions. Remove humans from the equation, and we are less complete as people and as a society. “We” do not exist as isolated individuals. We, as individuals, are inhabitants of networks; we are relationships. That is how we prosper and thrive.”

I came across the almost carbon-copy argument - the need for more humanistic thinking - recently in a book by Douglass Rushkoff aptly named Team Human. I devoured his manifesto, which consists of 100 aphoristic statements, “exposing how forces for human connection have turned into ones of isolation and repression.”

Rushkoff, in a Medium post, says that all is not lost and now is the best time to reassert the human agenda, “The first step toward reversing our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our individual or collective will.”

The Long Now

Given everything we have already discussed in this essay, it can be quite easily deduced that civilization is moving at breakneck speed into the future whether we humans like it or not. In almost every facet of life the speed with which things are happening, and we having to deal with the repercussions, are increasing. The Silicon Valley adage “Move Fast and Break Things” sums up our pathologically short attention span, as well as the “acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, and the distractions of personal multi-tasking.”

This is where The Long Now Foundation comes in. Their mission, “was established in 01996* to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long-term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide a counterpoint to today's accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common. We hope to foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.”

Their guidelines for a long-lived, long-valuable institution:

  • Serve the long view

  • Foster responsibility

  • Reward patience

  • Mind mythic depth

  • Ally with competition

  • Take no sides

  • Leverage longevity

Carnegie Mellon University School of Design Instructor Stuart Candy actually began teaching a course called: The Long Now: Thinking, Storytelling and Designing with Long Timespans. Check out the syllabus, course description, and selected bibliography and resources.





1) Chris Hedges "American Anomie"

2) Existential Psychotherapy: Death, Freedom, Isolation, Meaninglessness

What’s Next?

The next newsletter will be on: “Tertiary Politics” made famous by Bruno Latour.

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Thank You for your time. Until the next post, Ad Astra!