The late, great Hunter S. Thompson captured the current sentiment of American society best when he wrote the following words 40 years ago, in his book Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas :”You can turn your back on a person, but you can never turn your back on a drug, especially when it’s waving a razor sharp hunting knife in your eye.“
America has defined itself as a society of collective “drug people,” pushers, addicts, and associates, with our drug of choice being debt. We happily injected drugs worth 300 per cent of our GDP straight into our veins, and made our international dealers filthy rich in the process.
The constant influx of drugs into our bodies made us feel super-human, as we were instantaneously able to afford TVs, computers, cars, and homes with the swipe of a card and the flick of a pen. Of course, as any regular drug user can attest, the human biological system becomes increasingly tolerant to the jolts of external chemicals and requires ever-larger doses to achieve the same effects.
The economy rapidly became saturated with debt, since economic actors needed to take on more and more debt to simply pay off previous debts and maintain their current level of activity. In 2007-08, the private debt servicing costs overwhelmed the “high” produced from this mostly unproductive debt, in the form of artificially elevated asset prices and revenue streams, and the national body had no more financial capacity to absorb additional drugs. With no more access to their drug of choice after a decades-long binge, the addicts began going through severe withdrawal. The drug-induced mentality of happiness, trust and tolerance was quickly replaced with collective feelings of sickness, fear and resentment.
Individual people who constantly abuse drugs face a deck deeply stacked against their survival and/or a stable existence, but there is always a distinct possibility that they can be “rehabilitated”. With some strong support from family and friends, the addict can go into a “program”, take the necessary medications, attend the required counseling, learn some discipline and then come out on the other side a healed creature.
This recovery is especially likely when the drug consumed is relatively weak, the duration of addiction is relatively short and the addict’s community is a strong source of support. The dynamics become significantly less favourable in a society of millions of addicts, all feeding off of each others’ addictions and desperation, without many voices of support or reason. In this environment it becomes much easier for addicts to deny that they even have a problem, let alone it needs to be fixed, and the disconnect between fantasy and reality persists despite the symptoms of societal sickness steadily worsening over time.
These symptoms grow gradually more influential as the withdrawal continues, and they can also lead to sudden, acute episodes of collective discomfort.
Many addicts in this situation will simply refuse to face the harsh new reality and continue doing anything they can to find their next fix, especially when there is a friend or family member financially enabling them to get a few more hits from the local dealer. In the wake of peak financial activity in the private sector, the American government popped in and told its citizens “not to worry”, because it would provide the temporary subsidies, tax credits or backstops that they needed to get another debt fix.
It also whispered to the dealers “not to worry”, because it would keep their profitable drug trade going, seeing as how it supported such a significant percentage of the economy and the past promises made to a now restive population. American addicts continued a sporadic debt binge for some time, but on the whole they continued to be priced out of the saturated market.
The struggling addicts eventually have to start fending for themselves, as the government’s income is increasingly consumed by direct or indirect handouts, and it transforms into the “friend” who is giving up on the incorrigible addict. What’s left is a society of fiendish, debt-starved addicts who, with increasingly little to lose, project their misfortunes onto others.
There is very little room for trust in the minds of addicts, since they feel betrayed in some way by all of the people who surround them. The addicts will simultaneously fear and resent dealers, friends, family, authority figures or even strangers, because these are the people who have exploited them, enabled them, ostracized them or are competing with them for survival.
A drug dealer can be the addict’s knight in shining armour when times are good and highs are cheap, but rotten crooks when the supply runs out and the sickness sets in. American individuals and small businesses now find themselves in the schizophrenic split-state of both depending on debt pushers to continue financing routine activities, and hating them for privatizing the gains of their drug trade, socializing the losses and continuing to operate in what appears to be good health.
It is unsurprising that more than twice as many debt addicts blame their creditors (51percent) for the latest financial crisis than themselves (24 per cent). . However, drug users typically hesitate to confront their dealers in any significant way because they respect the money, power and influence wielded by these dealers. They can cut off users’ supply to more drugs or even harm/kill them or their families if they really start acting up.
Major American banks may not execute their customers and their families, but they can certainly cut off access to additional debt or refuse to negotiate with struggling debtors and repossess much of their secured property. When the powerful dealers are largely untouchable, much of an addict’s residual loathing is focused on the system at large and those who manage it.
Drug users typically acquire their destructive habits at an early age, aided in no small part by the central institutions they have relied on, such as their household, community, school or government. Once the joyous journey of drug-filled exploits has run its course, addicts are left with an empty life within a pitiless system. The American journey has been characterised by a federal government and central bank which has stopped at nothing to encourage the debt addictions of their citizens, all the while insinuating that the drugs were necessary for a normal and successful existence.
Americans took this propaganda to heart, and now that the debt drugs have run out, they are actually left with the opposite of what they were promised. The “tea party” movement epitomizes a strung-out population of addicts who have grown extremely tired of all the lies and unfulfilled promises, and are enraged at those who have so casually fuelled their destructive habits for years on end. This movement has correctly identified the central government as a corrupt institution which puts on a public face of sympathy and compassion for the American addicts, while secretly dividing up the profits of the drug trade with dealers instead. Of course, the hellish fury of an addict scorned can express itself in many ways.
Some of the debt addicts get together in meetings and communicate their hatred of the “big, betraying brother” who constantly looms over them. They carry signs filled with anger, make rapacious rants or generally protest the fact that their share of the drugs is being diverted to others, but their unrest is mitigated by lingering flashbacks to a previous state of debt intoxication.
Other addicts have realised that they can talk all day and never secure any more drugs or become healthy, so they attempt to join the dealer complex, where they will bring down the destructive debt trade from the inside and liberate their fellow addicts from the sickness. Sadly, when these addicts successfully make the transition from the world of users to the world of dealers, they usually forget all about the plight of the addicted and sell out for a share of the profits. A few addicts eventually hit rock bottom, and give up all hope on a return to normalcy or a bearable existence. One such American addict decided that instead of protesting or running for political office, he would get behind the controls of an aeroplane and fly it straight into a Texan IRS building. .
It’s hard to blame the bottomed-out debt addicts for expressing anger or even seeking revenge against the dealers or authority figures who worked to destroy their lives. The latter are especially contemptible when they constantly tell people to “stay away from drugs”, but make it so damn easy for them to get some and even profit off of their addiction. Unfortunately, these institutions are the most inaccessible to the average addict, and so their fear and pain is more readily projected onto those that may actually care about them. There is, of course, the direct financial effect on the families of those who have been wiped out by a destructive debt addiction.
The debt servicing costs of Americans consumed an all time high of ~14 per cent of income in 2007, and these costs have had devastating effects on families whose incomes have continued to stagnate, decrease or have altogether disappeared. . Families of the addicts may eventually lose their homes, cars, and all the fancy things they have accumulated over years, returning to a state of frugal existence unexpected and long forgotten.
It is also the case that there is a high correlation between drug abuse and domestic violence (61 per cent of domestic violence offenders also report substance abuse problems) .
Could unserviceable debt be one of the destructive substances contributing to domestic violence in America? The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 21 per cent increase in calls from September 2007 to September 2008, and 54 per cent of these callers reported a change in their financial situation over the last year.
Women in the lowest income category experienced six times the rate of nonfatal domestic violence than those in the highest category between 2001-2005, and women are three times as likely to experience domestic violence if their male partners have experienced two or more periods of unemployment over five years. Although there are obviously many factors that affect rates of domestic violence, financial instability certainly seems to undermine the psychological stability of male addicts and may lead them to express their sickness through violent behaviour.
The Director of the Gender & Health Research Unit at South African Medical Research Council, Rachel Jewkes, has produced research suggesting that deteriorating finances leads men to feel that they have failed to live up to society’s expectations of masculine success, and these men turn to misogyny, substance abuse and crime to fill the gap between expectations and reality. .
Many drug addicts also vent their sickness by directing anger towards abstract groups of strangers around the world, since these groups are perceived as leading relatively “better” lives or posing an ephemeral threat to the addicts’ chances of survival. After the attacks on 9/11, American addicts became enraged at a decentralized group of Muslim “terrorists”, who had disrupted their comfortable existence at a time when they were just managing to “recover” from a debt-induced recession.
The population expressed strong support for an invasion of Afghanistan and were also convinced by the Bush complex that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed a major threat to national security. As these wars progressed and the American economy took off in another debt bubble, however, the comfortably numb addicts began questioning the wisdom of these wars, which were costing unconscionable amounts of lives and money.
Between 2003 and 2005, public support for the Iraq war fell from 69 per cent to 45 per cent, and by 2006, 44 per cent of addicts believed acts of terrorism were “not too likely” or “not at all likely” to occur in their communities over the “next several weeks”. . In stark contrast, during the ongoing debt deflation over the last year, the number of people who believed another terrorist attack is “very likely” to occur in the United States within the “next several months” increased by 14 per cent, and “somewhat likely” over the “next several weeks” by 16percent. . Recently, some American addicts have also become incensed about a relatively harmless plan to build a Mosque near Ground Zero, as they increasingly feel threatened by the general Muslim population.
Another large group of people targeted by American fiends has been the illegal Mexican population residing within the country. For many years, the flow of illegals from Mexico into American border states established a mutually beneficial geopolitical relationship, as the Mexican government kept social unrest in check and the economies of border states were supported by cheap labour and increased sales revenues. . Now, many American addicts feel that the illegals are acting as a drag on the economy and sucking up unskilled jobs at a time when broad U-6 unemployment measures 17 per cent.
Studies show that public opinion on illegal immigration is more negative in states with relatively high unemployment rates. The border state of Arizona, facing massive pressure from addicts in a deflating economy, has decided to take matters into its own hands by giving local police significantly more discretion when stopping and questioning potential illegals. Polling data has shown that 60 per cent of American addicts support this new law, even though the illegal population has actually dropped by almost 20 per cent from 2007 to 2009. , .
This piece has focused on the American people’s debt addictions, but there are many other inter-related addictions at play now. We have all been addicted to high standards of living, large returns on investments, appreciating assets, government entitlements, cheap oil and imperial hegemony. All of these things forged a level of systemic trust and confidence that is now quickly evaporating along with the drugs that fuelled it. American addicts had surely made beasts of themselves, getting rid of “the pain of being a man”, but are now forced to deal with the sober reality that has stewed and festered in the previously dark corners of their lives.
The politicians and pundits would like us to believe that we can restore our addictions and avoid the painful symptoms of withdrawal, but they are either ignorant of reality or lying and praying the addicts never figure out how sick they really are. Perhaps they are also blinded by their own addictions, as public debt burdens are becoming weighty and unmanageable. The individual debt addicts may be waving razor-sharp hunting knives in the societal eye, but then the strung-out government addicts are waving military hardware and atomic bombs. If Thompson were still alive today, he may have remarked that, with the right kind of eyes, we could stand on a steep hill and almost see the high water mark, where the wave finally broke and rolled back. One thing I know for sure is that I’m not going to turn my back on anyone, anytime soon.
**This piece is dedicated to the brilliantly insightful ideas and writings of Hunter S. Thompson:
“No explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant … “
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