How America's Bully Economy leads to a "Bully Society"

The following is an excerpt from Jessie Klein's new book "The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America's Schools," (New York University Press, 2013).

Schools are microcosms of American society where students are told that  financial wealth and superficial gender markers are compulsory for social acceptance. They learn these lessons from each other but also from grown-ups—parents, teachers,  and the wider culture  they inhabit. As they prepare to enter the adult workforce and social life, children come to understand that being perceived as the richest or prettiest, or the most powerful or confident, could  dramatically  enhance their futures—and that without  these marks of American success they may become lifelong outcasts. They also learn to see life as a zero-sum game, where they can win only if someone else loses, rise only by ensuring  that  someone else falls. These values are at the core of bullying behavior, and they are also the foundation upon which much of the economic, political, and social life of our nation is built.

Not all cultures are so obsessively focused on winning. In the Southwest, for instance, coaches say that teams of Hopi Indians want to win but that they often try not to win because they don’t want to embarrass their opponents. In some traditional cultures, the game isn’t over until the two sides are tied. They work hard to make sure no one loses. Even in Europe, as T. R. Reid writes in “The European Social Model,” some core human needs  are seen as everyone’s birthright rather  than  as something to be “won” through competition with one’s compatriots. “To Americans,” Reid writes, “it is simply a matter  of common sense that rich families get better medical care and education than the poor; the rich can afford the doctors at the fancy clinics and the tutors  to get their kids into Harvard.  But this piece of common sense does not apply in most of Europe. The corporate executive in the back seat of the limo, her chauffeur up front, and the guy who pumps the gas for them all go to the same doctor  and the same hospitals and send their children to the same (largely free) universities.”

In the United States, however, hardcore competition and striving to be the best are generally considered vital to keeping people motivated  and functioning at optimal  levels. Harsh  inequalities  are considered, at best, an  unfortunate consequence. Yet gender  pressures—and especially the expectation to embrace  hypermasculine values and  behaviors—are  seldom examined in the context of the larger socioeconomic forces that shape them.

In one of my criminal justice classes, I asked students to tell me what words they associated  with capitalism.  What  qualities do you need to be successful in our society? The board filled up quickly: competitive, aggressive, and powerful were some of the first suggestions. At that point, we were discussing white-collar crime and the unprincipled behavior that had produced both the Enron scandal and the economic meltdown of recent years. Later in the course we discussed  school shootings  and their  relationship to gender, and I asked my students to list some words they associated with masculinity. The same list emerged—competitive, aggressive, and powerful. Without intending to, my students had highlighted  the link between  the values of masculinity and capitalism.The school shooters,  for the most  part, grew up in the 1980s or later. The rise in school shootings  roughly coincides with the Reagan administration’s restructuring of the American  economic,  political, and cultural landscape—a period that glorified unrestrained capitalism and reemphasized an “up by your own bootstraps” ethos. Following a landslide reelection in 1984, Reagan promised  an America  rich with freedom,  individualism,  and  financial reward for  those  who  skillfully met  the  standard, coupled  with a lower degree of support for those  who did not. Increasingly, success was defined in terms  of power, economic  attainment, and social status—the same barometers increasingly used, at the high school level, to assess masculinity.

Capitalism  is hardly new to the United States, nor is the system’s relationship  to core American  values. But as former  labor secretary  Robert Reich observed in his book Supercapitalism, in recent decades the power of unregulated, unrestrained capital has increased  to such an extent  that it has outstripped democracy as a primary foundation of our society. According  to Reich, Americans  became identified  more as investors  and consumers and less as citizens and members of a community.

Further,  in this same period, a slew of books documenting America’s increasing social problems hit the shelves. The titles alone explain why Americans  are more  stressed, broke, unhappy, and doing whatever they can to survive: The Overworked American  (1993), The Overspent American (1998), The Cheating Culture (2000), and The Lonely American (2009). Another set of recent titles document the new plagues with which our children  are grappling—increased anxiety, depression,  materialism, and even narcissistic personality  diagnosis: Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers (2004); The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and The Crisis of Adolescence (2004); The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids (2006); and Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans  Are More Confident,   Assertive,  Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (2007). Couple these telling titles with the alarming statistics depicting the United States as scoring highest on almost all of the worst social problems in the industrialized world (including  murder, rape, and infant mortality), and it becomes less surprising that school bullying is so common here, or that its vicious and fatal retaliations in the form of shootings are more prevalent in the United States than in the rest of the world combined.

What is a Compassionate Economy?

Competitive and punishment-oriented schools mirror  the combative workforce. In the larger world, adults are given little support if they meet hard times and are unable at some point to work at their best, or work at all. Similarly, as adolescents  struggle to find their identities and their place in the world, the emotional ups and downs of their journey can undermine academic performance. Even students who tend to do well risk failure, and their confrontations with widespread  cliques and bullying only add to the stress.  Children’s  understanding of this  antagonistic culture feeds their  fury and fear as they find that  their every move in school so profoundly  affects their future prospects.

In his book Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces  to Clinton’s Columbine  and Beyond, Mark Ames writes:

“The kids are stressed  out not only by their  own pressure  at school, but by the stress their parents endure in order to earn enough money  to live in [a prestigious] school district.  ... Everyone is terrified of not ‘making it’ in a country where the safety net has been torn to shreds.”  

Children who might otherwise look forward to a life after high school see, in the model of their parents and the larger society around them, a similarly brutal environment.

While their safety nets are weakening as well, in most European countries the government still takes some responsibility for ensuring that everyone has basic health care, education,  housing, food, child care, elder care, and even indefinite unemployment if necessary. There are real limitson work hours (in Finland, for instance, a six-hour workday), and mandatory paid vacation and holiday time is often four to six weeks.

In contrast, even before the start of the latest recession, workers in twentieth-century America were losing some of the gains they had fought for in the earlier part of that century. The eight-hour day (forty-hour week) that Americans finally won in 1938, under President Roosevelt’s New Deal Fair Labor Standards Act, is a dim memory for most Americans  today, who tend  to toil more  often at fifty to seventy or more  hours  per week.

Americans  once hoped to achieve the demands  made by the Welsh social reformer  Robert Owen for eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure, and eight hours of sleep, but most now have little if any leisure and much less sleep. We are working much longer hours than our counterparts in other industrialized countries. John P. Walsh and Anne Zacharias-Walsh write in “Working  Longer, Living Less” that  the average American  works seventy more hours per year than  his or her Japanese counterpart and 350 hours  or nine more  weeks per year than  Europeans. Americans  tend to work more hours and then spend money paying others  to do the services they don’t have time to do because of they are working.

Because we Americans work so much, it becomes more difficult to take care of our children and our homes. In many European countries, the government pays mothers as well as fathers  to stay home  with their  young children  so they can return to work when  the  children  are older. In the United  States, middle-and upper-class adults make money and often pay other  people to do these tasks; many small children  in the United  States are under  the  care of nannies  or some  other  form  of child care worker. Rather than a system designed to meet human  needs, our economy prioritizes profit. Instead of opportunities to nurture ourselves, and our friends and family, and larger community, our time is managed by someone  else’s drive to make  money.  Walsh  and  Zacharias-Walsh write  that  “to argue that  an expensive factory should be left idle because workers are tired or that production should be organized  using a less efficient but more comfortable  process—is considered absurd.”  Yet the “overworked American,” to use Juliet Schor’s term,  does not  necessarily  generate  more  profit. As Anders Hayden notes,

“Several shorter-hours innovators in Europe—Belgium, France,  the Netherlands, and Norway—are  actually more  productive per hour of labor than is the United States. Higher hourly productivity in these countries is almost  certainly  due, in part, to shorter work-time’s beneficial effects on employee morale, less fatigue and burnout, lower absenteeism, higher quality of work, and better health.”

European economies  tend to prioritize  family and community as a primary value. The notion of “time affluence,” not just “material affluence,” is important—a concept  that is less common in the United States. Instead, Americans  work longer and live with their family less. Walsh and Zacharias-Walsh  write about  one mother of two young children  who summed up this  collective  quandary:  “This is the  only job I could  get that  paid enough  for me to take care of them,  but it never lets me be home  when they need me. I can either  feed them  or be with them, never both.”  The increased  workday also prevents  participation in community life—politi- cal organizations, social clubs, sports  leagues, religious  institutions—as well as family life, leading  to what  Robert  Putnam called the  “Bowling Alone” phenomenon; other  research  also notes  a related  plummeting of social connections and increased  loneliness and isolation among Americans.

In  recent  decades,  the  U.S. government has  taken  less responsibility for people’s basic human  needs. Life has become  a struggle for many working  parents,  especially single working  parents.  In addition  to lacking the  government-supported universal  health  care that  is available to citizens  in virtually  all European  countries, the  United  States  does  less than any other industrialized country  to support parents,  who receive no legally mandated paid leave when a child is born or adopted.  Among the168 nations  surveyed in a 2004  Harvard  University  study, 163 have paid maternity leave, while the United  States stands  in a category with Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.

The lack of economic  support for American  citizens  means  adults are under  more  pressure  and  stress  to keep their  jobs and  succeed  in them  in order  to support themselves  and their  families. Driven to succeed, with dwindling access to community, adults end up forming similar social cliques to those that fester in children’s schools. Workplace massacres, then, tend to have causes that parallel those found in school shootings.

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