This is a blog about social (in)justice and mental (ill)health. The writers will scrutinize a range of c-words, with the aim of exploring connections between socio-political issues and a wider concept of health. We hope to move away from a binary of mind versus body, to show that there is not simply “mental health” and “physical health,” and that our health (collectively and individually) cannot be isolated from the environmental, spiritual, historical, and socio-political contexts in which we live.
The first word is Capitalism.
This first word goes hand in hand with another c-word: Christmas. I am recovering (financially and in a wider health-oriented sense) from the monetary stresses of the holiday season. In the Judeo-Christian dominated context of New Zealand, I feel compelled to buy things for my loved ones when Christmas rolls around. This year my partner and I made a deal not to buy gifts for each other until January 2013, so that we could spend our money on friends and family in the lead up to December 2012. This was a good call, but it is only a management strategy. It does not address my broader concerns about how living in a capitalist framework turns every event, every season, and every ritual, into a potential financial crisis (so many c-words!).
Part of the problem is that I love buying stuff. I try to shop from mostly second hand and fair trade stores, but I cannot deny that I get an endorphin rush when I purchase something, whether it’s for me or a gift for someone else. I’m trying to learn how to better appreciate opportunities NOT to buy things – like when my parents gave me curtains that they had last used in 1980s London. These curtains are now family heirlooms, and not because they’re particularly expensive or beautiful (though their retro style is well fashionable right now!) but because they were precious to my parents and thus are precious to me.
How on earth is second hand curtain endowment related to mental health, you say?
Capitalism is bad for my health. And in my opinion, it’s bad for everyone’s health, even the CEOs who may rake in more than us average workers. Because it’s not just about the money, or the lack of money. It’s about the system that we’ve created where everyone has to work all the time. Full-time work is desirable because it symbolizes a full-time citizen. Sadly it’s also because wages are still so low that we can’t get by without working too much.
We’ve created a system that values only paid work (lots of important labour is still unpaid – for communities and families, in particular) and values people proportionately according to their employment status. That’s how people like Paula Bennett get away with hacking up people’s livelihoods – because if you’re on a benefit you’re automatically a less deserving human being.
And you can forget the dangerous myth that unemployed people are having a great time living off their benefit – the small amount of money is enough to keep you from complete poverty, yes, but it is not enough to stop you from working constantly to try and make ends meet. Especially if you are a parent or care giver.
There is no benefit to shaming people. Most of my friends and loved ones have been on a benefit at some point, and many of us would be ashamed to talk about it. That contributes to the myth about how people on benefits are scamming the system and living large.
Generally, people who are receiving benefits are too shamed (by WINZ, by friends and family, by social norms) to talk about it. Or to talk about how challenging it is to find work or to live off very little while you’re carrying around a whole lot of guilt about not being a “good citizen” or purposeful person.
I like having meaningful jobs. But my jobs are not my purpose. We can have meaning and purpose in our lives that is not related to employment. Why is it that we continue to judge people on the basis of employment status? Why is the first question we ask, in pakeha society, “So what do you do?”
I really hate that question. I make sure to answer it by saying, “I write, I think, I play with my cat. I love food but I don’t love cooking. What kind of things do you do?”
Pakeha norms often dictate that “you are what you do.” This impoverished notion has a lot to learn from indigenous perspectives, for example Maori frameworks of whakapapa and positioning one’s self through history, relationships, land, family, ancestors, and so on. (But that’s another topic!)
This relates to “mental health” – in quotation marks because I’m highlighting the limitations of the concept as it is commonly used – on several levels:
1. Most people I talk to about depression, anxiety, distress, and so forth, are worried about finding meaning and purpose in our lives. Not being able to work, whether it’s full-time or part-time, paid or voluntary, is a huge barrier to feeling like we are contributing to our world and are thus valuable people/citizens. A capitalist system is a competitive system and there will always be people looking for work, that’s built into the structure itself, that’s what keeps wages low for the employee or manageable for the employer. So it may be that I cannot work, or I have to find a more flexible workplace, because I’m (sometimes) unwell. Or it may be that there are less jobs than people, which is how capitalism works. Either way, if I’m struggling to work or find work, I am treated like a non-citizen and this impacts my health. (Also we forget there are other ways to find meaning and purpose.)
2. A lot of people are also concerned about wanting to “belong” somewhere. A feeling of belonging is a foundation of identity that white capitalist structures fail to provide, unless it’s brand loyalty or a feeling of being part of the company family. We can belong to a community, to a family, to a church, to a support group, to a hobby group, to a friend group…but when we position ourselves based on employment – “So what do you do?” – those crucial relationships are side-lined and de-valued.
3. When we are working, it’s hard to maintain a balance. I don’t see my friends enough, or I don’t get enough time to de-stress by reading and relaxing. I take my work stress home with me. I am encouraged to work more and more, to climb a ladder of “success,” to sacrifice other aspects of my life so that I can achieve a good income and a satisfying job. But what if I never learn how to balance and I end up working so much that my health and my relationships suffer? How will I be satisfied by my job then?
4. I am pressured to buy more stuff. And I like buying stuff. I am asked about whether I will be settling down anytime soon (as anyone over 25 can attest) and am encouraged to think about buying a house, having kids. Both of these are, at the very least, immense financial commitments. Those commitments, for the people who can afford the deposits and bank loans and school fees and household maintenance, further ensure that we cannot stop working, or cannot reduce our hours. Is this satisfying? Is this livable?
I’m hoping we can start to have more conversations about this kind of stuff: the dangers of capitalism; the perils of working too much or defining ourselves solely by our employment status; the devaluing of our relationships and communities; the stigmatizing of welfare and how that intersects with racism and sexism.
I’m also hoping that we can talk about the possibilities for change, the potential and actual shifting of our priorities. We can value our relationships with friends, family, whanau, and community members. We can achieve balance and contentment in our lives. We can challenge dominant narratives about qualifying as a “good citizen” or “deserving person.” We can stop asking people, “What do you do?” in relation to their career/job/profession/work status, and look for other ways of starting conversations. Or other ways of positioning ourselves and connecting with people.
Capitalism is entrenched in New Zealand (and all over the world with the free market economies and trade agreements) so any work to challenge this model needs to be staunch and ongoing. In the meantime I’m going to keep talking about the limitations of a white dominated capitalist framework, and thinking about how I can better value my relationships and my whanau.
The heirloom curtains hanging in my window remind me that it’s not how much money I earn, or spend. It’s how I am cared for, and how I care in turn.