Towards a Trauma-Informed Socialism

or, How to Crush the Creeping Tide of Fascism with a Revolutionary Politics of Compassion

Editor’s Note: The following article appears in the latest issue of Tikkun magazine (VOL. 35 NO. 1). To read all the other wonderful articles, purchase the issue here.

Socialism is seeing a rebirth in the public consciousness in recent years. Much of this attention can be explained through the success of Bernie Sanders and the rapid growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). To put the attention solely on the Sanders campaign or the DSA would be reductive. Socialism has a long and active history in the United States, with organizers from socialist and communist organizations playing major roles in historic labor strikes and the civil rights movement. But the term socialism carries with it a ton of baggage, much of which is a holdover to Cold War fear mongering about Soviet Communism and nuclear war. In this sense, to be clear, I will be using socialism as a stand in for all related forms of communitarian and liberatory political structures.

The rise of socialist organizing in the form of the Socialist Rifle Association, the DSA, Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL), Black Rose Federation, and recent labor strikes by auto workers, teachers, students demanding radical action against the coming climate disaster,

“One cannot understand the effects of capitalism without also understanding the effects of trauma. And if we are to build a more just and equitable world, then it must be envisioned through this lens.”

indigenous communities standing up against further attempts by the state to destroy what little has been left to them, have continued to spark hope in building a more just and equitable world. But with our current times showing even further cracks in the validity of the capitalist structure, how should socialists respond? We know how the other side is responding: with sharp rises in authoritarian and fascist sympathies and violence. Is there a common thread we can pull to strengthen our critical analysis of the system and assure the world on the other side of the crisis is ours?

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 What is often missed by contributors to both sides of the debate between capitalism and socialism is the essential ideology that differentiates each system. Our adherence to socialism does not stem from hopes for better industrial output, efficient mechanisms of production, or its ability to lift individuals out of poverty. To argue on those terms is simply to agree with the outrageous assertion that those attributes are fundamentally important to the functioning of a cohesive society, as if the argument is an intellectual discussion between different economic systems. To make these arguments is simply to cede ground to those who are currently profiting off of the misery of the working class and the economically vulnerable majority of citizens. Could it be true that systems with more worker control over the means of production lead to overall increases in production value and efficiency in the workplace? There is quite a bit of historical and empirical evidence to say so, but what are we really winning if it’s true?

To make this argument is to admit defeat from the start; it is to divorce the means from the ends. Ours is not a politics of production and value. On the contrary, ours is a politics of compassion. We believe in a socialist society not because it can outproduce a capitalist one, but because we believe humanity (and for that matter, all life) is valuable in and of itself. What a trauma-informed approach critiquing capitalism allows us to see is the human tragedy inlaid in the structure. One cannot understand the effects of capitalism without also understanding the effects of trauma. And if we are to build a more just and equitable world, then it must be envisioned through this lens.

TRAUMA AND CAPITALISM

One doesn’t have to explore too far into the literature to find a breadth of writers critically examining our relationship to capitalist modes of production, and offering guiding philosophies on how to build a better world. From Marx and Engles, Lenin, Kropotkin and Bookchin, as well as a multitude of current scholars, each leaves an important mark. But what is often left out is the very human cost of engaging in a society that operates in a neoliberal capitalist manner. If we hope to build a better, more equitable society, we need to first acknowledge the trauma embedded into the system.

What is trauma? Though specific definitions may differ across clinical and academic circles, a traumatic event may be best understood as an event that ruptures our sense of self, a violent disruption between ourselves and our bodies. It creates a space between who we are and the physical space we hold in the world. It is both an existential and physical experience. Traumatic experiences can cause our bodies to slow down metabolically, cause our immune systems to dysfunction, disrupt short and long-term memory, and cause us to feel chronically unsafe. Trauma is inherently a dehumanizing process that alienates us from all aspects of the natural world and human engagement itself.

While a traumatizing experience can be one that occurs in one single, often life-threatening moment, this is a very selective definition of the problem. Traumatic experiences are often more complex, accruing over time. Trauma typically has a “piling on” effect, where the original incident causes a series of other events, each one obfuscating and intensifying the effects of the original traumatic experience.

This is particularly true for individuals who are economically vulnerable, where the accumulation of toxic stress and traumatic experiences makes it increasingly difficult to find stability in the world. The breadth of research into Adverse Childhood Experiences has shown us that accumulating traumatic experiences throughout your life, such as experiencing abuse or having a close family member incarcerated, has serious effects on your overall health and wellbeing throughout your life. And as we accumulate traumatic experiences, our alienation from the world grows, creating a sense of loneliness that we now know carries with it its own serious health risks. Epigenetic research has also begun to show how these traumatic experiences are being passed on generationally through our genetic code. It may well be the case that communities are bearing the emotional scars of colonialism, imperialism, and other forms of historic and generational state-sanctioned trauma. Simply put, traumatic experiences in life, whether they are directly experienced, witnessed, or perceived, have lasting effects on our lives, maybe across generations.

Poverty, thus, isn’t simply an economic condition, it is an inherently traumatic experience. With the recent report that around 40% of Americans are only one paycheck from financial disaster, we cannot understate the traumatic effect of always feeling as though your world is about to collapse. The same is true for each of the disasters and crises we are facing on a regular basis: climate catastrophe, police violence, institutional racism, homelessness, the opioid crisis, the creeping rise of far-right fascist violence, and historical scars of colonialism in the (continuous) attempted genocide of indigenous peoples. Behind every crisis brought on through capitalism’s virulent hunger for profit lurks a trauma that impacts nearly every community. The human face of capitalism is that of a mass of people struck with fear, overworked, and nervously awaiting another crisis. It is here that we can firmly grasp one of our best ways of understanding capitalism: that it has a psychological and physiological impact on everyone under its thumb. Capitalism not only creates trauma, but it relies on it.

WHAT IS TO BE DONE

It is not enough for us to simply critique capitalism as if it were a thought exercise, a trap into which many socialist academics and activists fall. If we acknowledge that our current system perpetuates systems of oppression and exploitation, that living in our current system is an inherently traumatic experience, then we must provide a way out. We must offer a solution that aims at abolishing the structures of power and control that dominate each of us, in particular those of us who are receiving the brunt force of the capitalist system.

Perhaps a better way of thinking about this is through the lens of trauma treatment. In the realm of trauma therapy, there generally exists two trains of thought: (a) changing our thought patterns in how they related to the traumatic event(s), or (b) changing our relationship to the traumatic event(s). In the former, the goal of treatment is to accept that the events happened, but also to accept that the problem is more centered in how we react to and think about the experience. This, of course, is a purely individualistic solution: the point of treatment is to change our thought patterns in a way that accepts the world as it is and change ourselves.

The goal of the latter treatment, however, is much different: to change our relationship to the event, not how we react to it. This distinction may seem subtle, but it is nonetheless important. By changing our relationship to the event, we can thus accept that, while the event happened, the problem itself lies in the event and not in how we react to the event. Our reactions, thus, are perfectly normal given the extraordinary circumstances that caused the reactions. It is a solution based on a philosophy of empowerment; it is a solution postulated on liberation.

If we expand these options on a mass scale, we can thus see the two options that lay before us: simply accept that this is the world as it exists and that our individual actions are in need of changing, or understand that the problem lies in what is happening to us, and that we must change our relationship to the problem. It is the difference between individual change and collective change; of homeostasis and emancipation. It is, in the common parlance of political ideology, the struggle between reforming the current neoliberal capitalist structure in order to lessen the traumatic impact for as many individuals as we can muster, or to no longer accept the narrative that trauma is a given.

A trauma-informed perspective asks us to create a new narrative, one replete with love, compassion, and connection with and for ourselves and each other as a whole. An acceptance of a liberatory, trauma-informed politics means reorienting all of the current relationships away from consumption and domination, and towards one another.

A trauma-informed socialism must first then prioritize the building of strong, cohesive, and compassionate communities. Simply focusing on winning political office, passing policy, or even convening in marches every so often is not enough. The epicenter of our struggle towards developing a more equitable future for everyone must take place where the effects of capitalist violence have been the most devastating. This also means prioritizing the work that needs to be done to rebuild those communities most devastated: communities of color and indigenous communities. A trauma-informed socialism also forces us to begin reimagining the idea of what community is. Instead of locations within cities that we live, we can begin viewing communities as larger and more inclusive, without boundaries or borders. A focus on communal control of the structures of power means that each person has access to everything that is needed: food, housing, mental and physical health treatment, etc. It means that access to these things is in the best interest of everyone, and no longer limited to those who have the ability to afford it. It means abolishing oppressive state structures such as the police, ICE, and systems of incarceration. We can instead transform them into community-oriented emergency responders who focus on crisis de-escalation, restorative justice, and mediation, replacing prisons with emergency, short-term, and long-term mental health treatment facilities.

Capitalism has taught us all to accept that we are most successful when we struggle alone, that success is individualized and personalized fulfillment. It has sold us a fake reality, the costs of which continue to destroy communities and violently perpetuate a hierarchy rooted in domination and exploitation. It has alienated us from our sense of community and our sense of self. That isn’t by accident. The neoliberal system works when we are divided and categorized. But this is just simply not true. We are not isolationist by nature; we are inherently communal creatures. And it is time we acknowledge that, and begin to stop accepting a world void of compassion and care and instead create a world flowing with compassion and love together

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