The Political Sociology of Stress

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The Political Sociology of Stress

by Michael Liebig


At a graffiti-painted wall in a run-down building in Frankfurt, I recently read the following sentence: “The Essence of the 21st Century in One Word: Stress”. Well, we ‚re only into the 11th year of the 21st century. And the 20th century with its “hot” and “cold” world wars was certainly extremely stressful. Nevertheless, this sentence contains a bitter truth: There is a wide-spread and deepening sense of social-economic insecurity in Western societies. Existential insecurity is the breeding ground for stress which in turn aggravates the sense of insecurity.

Important here is the fact that the sense of insecurity is not limited to the underclass of badly educated unemployed and other marginalized social groups. A feeling of insecurity has intruded deep into the middle class. In Britain, we have just witnessed how the underclass went into a violent rampage of plundering and arson, but the precarious social-economic situation of the British middle class – stuck in the highest level of household debt worldwide – seems to me equally or even more worrisome. What has happened in Israel during the past weeks may be a sign of the times: Several 100.000 middle-class Israelis demonstrated peacefully against unaffordable costs for housing, medical services and education – adding up to social insecurity and endemic stress.

In continental Europe, there were neither mass rallies nor riots recently. But one of Germany’s biggest health insurers, GEK Barmer, has published a shocking study: In 2010, 8,5% of its insured persons suffered from stress-related psychosomatic illnesses, in 1990 the number had stood at 3.7%. During the past 10 years (2000-2010), total stress-related psychosomatic illnesses increased by 117% in Germany.

The term “stress” was first used in the 1930s by the Hungarian-born medical scientist, Hans Selye, to describe the physiological reactions of human beings (and living creatures generally) when confronted with acute danger – be it a an attacking wolf or a fast approaching car with no sign of braking. That’s natural or “normal” stress, helping to overcome short-term “crisis situations”. Since, the meaning of the term stress has been broadened to designate a protracted overload of physical, mental and/or emotional demands on human beings. This “abnormal” stress generates a broad variety of pathological – physical and/or psychological – symptoms ranging from severe headache or back pain to “burnout” and depression.

Why Stress has Become a “Social Disease”

Medical doctors and psychologists deal with individual cases of stress-induced illnesses. For social scientists, stress becomes an issue when it turns into a “mass phenomenon” affecting basic social relations in the family, at the work place or in the education system. “Bad” stress is not spread by bacteria or a virus and it’s no genetic disease either. Social and economic conditions – and norms – in society make a growing number of people sick. Thus, stress cannot be seen merely as the sum of individual cases, but has become a social phenomenon affecting the lives of people across all layers of society: office workers, mothers, nurses, teachers, policemen, managers and technicians.

Why should social-economic norms make so many people sick? In trying to find answer, we have to go back to the 1990s, when social-economic norms in Europe began to change rapidly and dramatically. The continental European model of “Rheinish capitalism” became increasing undermined by the Anglo-American paradigm of “neo-liberalism”. The basic concept of man in these two socio-economic models differs greatly: In the normative concept of the “social market economy”, strongly influenced by both the social teachings of the Catholic church and socialist thinking, man is seen as structurally embedded in society. In the Anglo-American normative model, strongly influenced by both British liberalism (Adam Smith) and Calvinist Puritanism, man is seen as the “free”, individualistic and competitive homo oeconomicus. In the “social market economy” model, society’s (and the state’s) duty to care for the individual is a basic norm, while the homo oeconomicus is “on his own” – if he fails, he is a “loser” (and it’s his own fault). This sketch of the two socio-economic models is simplified, but it should provide some insight into the power of norms for the development of society.

While Rheinish capitalism featured 1) long-term investment in the real economy, 2) steady, but rather moderate profits, and 3) cooperative relations between employers and employees, its Anglo-American counter-model featured 1) maximization of short-term profits, 2) focus on the financial and service sectors, and 3) the “flexibilization” of labor relations. Instead of a consistent re-investment of profits for research & development and the upgrading of production technology, the Anglo-American “shareholder value” paradigm diverted capital out of enterprises into financial investments promising maximum yields (anywhere in the world). The state – the anchor of Rheinish capitalism – was declared a bureaucratic monster which supposedly vastly overtaxed the economy’s “top performers”. Business leaders, politicians and the media demanded (and got) tax cuts for businesses, notably the financial “industry”, which, however, uniquely profited from Europe’s tax-financed (and world’s best) public infrastructure, notably education, transportation, energy, and social services.

“Old Europe”, it was said then, lacked dynamism and competitiveness compared to the USA and Britain. The labor costs in Europe, it was asserted then, were far too high and the labor market much too rigid. Supposedly, German workers had to compete with the wage level in Vietnam. One wonders, what had happened to common sense? Particularly Germany’s competitiveness has always been based on three factors: the quality of its (high-cost) labor force in high-tech production, stable, cooperative labor relations and its excellent infrastructure. This combination has guaranteed Germany’s unique economic competitiveness internationally.

But these pillars of Germany’s economic strength were badly undermined (Thank God, not destroyed) during more than a decade – up to the 2008 “financial crisis” when the Anglo-American economic model collapsed. But in the meantime, a lot of damage had been done. The normative paradigm shift towards roughshod social competition and penalizing “losers” has led to wide-spread and growing social insecurity. Pope Benedict recently spoke about the “wounds” in society due to a normative paradigm of “success at any cost”. And here we are back to the dramatic rise of stress-induced illnesses.

Stress, the Family & Demography

The July 27 science supplement of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried an interview with the sociologist Hartmut Rossa, in which he explains the consequences of the normative paradigm of

“total competition” when extended from the economic sphere into society as a whole. He first points to the rise of job insecurity, job rotation and “patchwork jobs”. In Germany, there are currently 2.4 million people “self-employed”: not high-income doctors or lawyers, but low-income teachers, nurses, drivers or waiters.

Then Rossa comes to his central point: The first victim of this trend is the family – the core element and foundation of society. Parents lack the time and energy to adequately “perform” in their job(s) and vis-a-vis their children – resulting in guilt feelings. The “overload” often becomes a contributing factor for divorce and “patchwork families” – often resulting in psychological damage for the children. And often, the sense of overload leads to the decision not to have children – resulting in the dramatic demographic decline across Europe during the past 20 years.

Rossa emphasized that empirical surveys clearly show that the vast majority of young people want the “traditional” family with children and with secure jobs for the both parents leaving them enough time and energy for family life. The latter also involves the availability of sufficient time and energy for the great contingencies if life: birth, decease, old age and death. Rossa points to the fact that the emotional security of the family is the most important (potential) source of stress neutralization. He sums up his observations by referring to a famous sentence by the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno: “You cannot live the right life within the wrong one”.

Stress: The Enemy of Economic Innovation

To address these societal “wounds” and to heal them, is not a matter retrospective nostalgia over the “good old days” of Rheinish capitalism. The stress-induced dissonance in society is an existential threat to cohesiveness of society, which necessitates corrective action.

While stress is the result of socio-economic norms which proclaim to promote economic “efficiency”, in reality, stress has become a serious economic problem. Sick employees can’t work, and if they work, they are not productive. Far from being the dynamic motor of innovation, stress is the enemy of innovation – the essence of the modern economy. Innovations depend on creativity which, in turn, depends on a sense of personal security. Creativity is not easy-going bohème, but hard work – and the creation of innovations it takes time. The foundation of lasting economic success is long-term planning and investment: 5, 10 or 20 years – not the next “quarter”.

It seems that in Europe (some) business leaders and even some economists begin to realize that the “stress regime” in the economy and society as a whole is simply counterproductive: It doesn’t pay off in terms of tough business calculation – when look beyond the next “quarter”. That the idea of “work-life balance” has become fashionable, seems to be an indication of a new thinking. I guess that there is a growing realization that, if Europe wants to remain economically competitive vis-a-vis Asia, a renaissance of the principles of Rheinish capitalism is the way of the future.

But, isn’t that just wishful thinking in view of the revolution in “communication technologies” which have fostered an irreversible speed-up of life. Is that not the other principal cause of stress? How should the stress regime in society be reduced when people submit to the tyranny of mobile communication gadgets – not only at the work place, but at home, when traveling or making a walk in the woods with their children?

I would argue that technology as such is never the problem – be it nuclear energy or smartphones. Technology, including digital communication technology, does not intrinsically dictate social behavior. Social norms determine social behavior. Therefore, one should not use technology as a pretext (or excuse) for stress-generating norms. When the dominant social norm is competition and “efficiency” around the clock, people will not turn off their smartphones when dining, attending a cultural or religious event, or even when sleeping. When the normative order emphasizes “work-life balance” and the integrity of family life as vital for society and the economy, people will turn off their smartphones when they need to left alone.

Modern communication technology has unquestionably raised the (technological) productivity in the economy. Why should communication technology not be seen a chance to organize life in ways that generate free time and energy – to be spent in family life, cultural and religious recreation or social and political activities? The latter being absolutely essential ingredients for high and sustainable productivity levels of the labor force in a modern economy.

The “stress regime” in society has been the consequence of a wrong directionality of basic social-economic norms. When prevailing norms threaten in the cohesiveness and viability of society and the long-term productivity of the economy, they have to be changed. It wouldn’t be the first that societies do learn their lessons from past mistakes.

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