In our talk of revolution, political or otherwise, much of the discussion tends to center around the economic effects on individuals and communities. Spending the past six years working in the nonprofit social services sector, however, has shown me another prominent and important, though less discussed factor: the loss of sense of self and safety as a result of a capitalist economy. This is trauma, but it’s not well understood.
If our ultimate goal as activists is to build a democratic and socialist society, the avenue we must take to get there cannot be solely relegated to the political arena. Putting a narrow focus on gaining power through politics runs the risk of ignoring our communities and those we claim to fight for. The revolution will only truly be won through community engagement, community building, and community consciousness; in short, a political revolution is meaningless without direct and active community building in the process. In order to do this, however, we must understand the realities of our communities, and the impact of capitalism’s ruthless grip on them.
Therefore, when we envision the world we are trying to create, a society that is built purely on the equitable and empathic treatment of each of its members, we must prioritize trauma and its impacts. The purpose if this article is to understand the impact of capitalism beyond our current economic or social understanding. Capitalism, through the conditions created by its ruthless class exploitation, is in itself responsible for traumatic experiences on a mass scale: from the inability of economically vulnerable community members to seek affordable and adequate treatment, to the police violence that is often persistent in poor communities, and to the intergenerational trauma that plays itself out in the biology of historically abused communities. And while these effects cannot be necessarily reversed in the immediate, we can begin to use this framework of understanding to view a solution: trauma-informed socialism.
News reports in recent months have been giving more lip service to the idea of trauma, sometimes discussing the traumatic impact of an event in an attempt to understand it and its effects. Trauma is, of course, a reality that clinicians have known and discussed for decades, but they have all too often limited these discussions to their own inner circles and professional conferences. Whether it is violence perpetrated by the system of policing, mass gun deaths, natural ecological disasters, or the opioid crisis, when bad things happen they have a devastating effect on our senses of self and safety. Traumatic experiences and their consequences are at the core of our understanding of catastrophic events and systems of power. But if we are to understand how, we must first explore what trauma is.
Trauma is typically thought of as a deeply distressing or disturbing event, but this description does little to show how the effects of such an event reverberate long after the original incident has ended. Trauma is best understood as an event that ruptures our sense of self—an event that makes us feel as though we are no longer in touch with our body. This alienation of the self is at the heart of what makes a traumatic experience so devastating.
The effect of a traumatic event is as much physiological as it is existential. Our bodies can do dramatic things when confronted with fear: our metabolisms and immune systems slow down, our attentions become narrowly focused, our hearts are readily pushing adrenaline throughout our bodies. These responses are all necessary to make quick “fight, flight, or freeze” decisions. But while they have kept us from getting eaten by megafauna or killed by other nefarious and deadly adversaries throughout our evolutionary march, they are not without their drawbacks. Under prolonged or frequent periods of high stress—toxic stress—short-term memory recall and typical childhood development can falter, while overall health declines. Even after much time has passed, toxic stress can have long-lasting effects.
While most of us understand a traumatic event as one thing that happens, one thing that an individual can point to, such as a car accident or having your life threatened, this is not the typical experience of individuals who experience trauma. And the likelihood of experiencing multiple adverse and traumatic experiences across one lifetime is higher the more economically vulnerable you are. This piling on of traumatic experiences makes it much harder to emotionally address the original incident. Take, for example, getting into a car accident: while that alone can be terrifying and leave someone shaken up, if they have good car insurance to cover the cost of repairing any damage done to the car, comprehensive health insurance to help the cost of any injuries, and a stable support group to help them take care of any lingering problems, like needing a ride while their car is getting fixed, they are likely able to recover with little lasting emotional and physical distress. But what if a person only has basic car insurance and expensive—or maybe no—health care? The event of the accident is worsened, just by the economic conditions under which that person lives.
Research into adverse and traumatic experiences seems to bear this out. Adverse childhood experiences, as categorized by the authors of the influential ACE study, include traumas like witnessing physical/emotional/sexual abuse, experiencing said abuse, or having a family member incarcerated. The authors of this study found a positive relationship between experiencing an adverse experience in childhood and negative health outcomes later in life. Children exposed to violence have also been shown to be at a greater risk for various deficits in their psychological, physiological, and developmental health. This includes reduced academic performance, difficulty forming trusting relationships, an inability to differentiate between threat and safety, increased anger, anxiety, and dissociation, as well as an increased risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes. In regards to the juvenile justice system, around 90 percent of youth within detention facilities self-reported being exposed to at least one traumatic event, with 35 percent reporting multiple traumatic events.
The concept of generational trauma and the field of epigenetics presents another avenue to view the effects of traumatic experiences. Although a new and controversial field of study within the scientific community, there is growing evidence to support the notion that traumatic experiences not only have an emotional and physiological effect, but can also affect the very structure of your DNA. When a lasting traumatic event occurs, the manner in which one reacts is due partly to genetics: the inclination towards a given reaction is passed through family lineage. But that’s not all. Families and communities may quite literally be bearing the emotional scars of generations of colonialism, imperialism, and the various other forms of state-sanctioned violence. This is indeed true for pregnant mothers; toxic stress and traumatic events that the mother experiences can have a negative effect on their child’s temperament. Simply put, traumatic experiences in life, whether they are directly experienced, witnessed, or perceived, have lasting effects on our lives, maybe across generations.
The Trauma Inherent to Capitalism
The purview of the trauma-informed perspective can provide us with further material in which to confront the capitalist doctrine. While Marx and Engels gave us the language and framework to understand the unequal power dynamics and anti-democratic nature of capitalist economics, viewing this through the lens of trauma grants us the ability to grasp the human effects of a system that relies on the unequal distribution of resources.
Poverty, at its core, is a traumatic experience. Whether it is through the instability it creates surrounding food and rent affordability, the lack of equitable opportunity for quality education, the lack of equitable access to systems of mental and physical health care, or the criminalization of poverty through court fees, policing, and prison systems, trauma affects people in poverty in multiple and layered ways. But health care for profit, a feature inherent to capitalism, makes it difficult for people who have been through traumatic events, and who live in communities traumatized by violence, systems of policing, and economic vulnerability, to access treatment.
This means that the accumulation of traumatic experiences and their impacts leads to further economic crises in these communities. It’s a vicious circle: trauma increases the need for medical and mental health care, and without access to this care, trauma’s effects multiply. Through the system of monetized mental and physical health care under capitalism, however, equitable access to these services are unimportant in relation to how much money can be made.
Behind every crisis brought on through capitalism’s virulent hunger for profit lurks a trauma that impacts nearly every community. As a means of increasing shareholder profits, companies exploit the labor of immigrant, refugee, and vulnerable overseas populations. The climate crisis, brought on by profit-driven industries that exploit and pollute our communities and the environment, is displacing communities, forcing people to leave behind their homes. Fossil fuel extraction is also destroying communities, from mountaintop removal in Appalachia, to the displacement of North America’s indigenous people due to tar sands, natural gas, and the creation of new pipelines. Imperialist armed conflict, meant to maintain a grip on the trading of goods and labor, traumatizes the people who live in the conflict zones. Soldiers who are sent overseas, often under the pretext of free college tuition and decent wages, often develop PTSD due to the horrifying nature of their experiences. The list goes on, whether it is instability of unemployment, or the crises of secure housing, homelessness and gentrification—each crisis carries with it the human impact of inflicted trauma.
There is no human face to capitalism that is not covered in soot and struck with fear. It is here that we can firmly grasp one of our best arguments against capitalism: that it has a psychological and physiological impact on everyone under its thumb. We know that the capitalist system is set up to allow and foster competition in a way that some win and many lose, and those who lose are left struggling to survive. But we also must grasp that living within these conditions is an inherently traumatic experience; capitalism not only creates trauma, but relies on it.
It is not enough, however, to simply critique capitalism in a trauma-informed fashion; we must also offer a trauma-informed solution.
If we were to end the discussion at this point, the prospect of a better future may seem exceptionally grim. The challenges seem so large and the impact so heavy and lasting, the task before us can feel almost Sisyphean. Thanks in part to 24-hour news networks and social media, horrific images, like those of migrant children washing ashore in southern Europe and northern Africa and being held in detention centers in the southwestern United States, reach us no matter where we are. The terror and gloom can have a devastating effect on our psyche, increasing our chances at succumbing to compassion fatigue. It also, however, has the effect of closing the distance between us. The world becomes our community, and the capitalist hydra becomes our shared enemy. We can begin to see a world where we can fully realize that we are all struggling with the same demons. As individuals, this can make us vulnerable, but as a community, it increases our power, and gives us realistic, if not radical, opportunities and solutions.
What trauma-informed socialism must first prioritize is the building and rebuilding of strong, connected, and trauma-informed communities. The front line of the fight towards an equitable system of economics and justice has to be where these effects are most devastating. The impact of trauma on us as individuals leads to feelings of insecurity, agitation, and selfishness; these feelings can destroy our sense of community. The absence of a strong sense of community, geographic and otherwise, diminishes our ability to create any form of mass movement.
The political revolution, therefore, must not only focus on building power, but harnessing that power for long-term good. We can take the fight for Medicare-for-All, gaining ground among many mainstream Democrats, as an example. When we can understand the issues facing working people and communicate that understanding from a trauma-informed lens, we can better understand and communicate a need for policies that guarantee free and equitable access to physical and mental health care. But this also cannot be the end of the fight, as the burden of access involves the physical structures of healthcare as well. We must also be pushing for the nationalization of hospitals, re-imagining them as more than megastructures in select cities, and instead as community health clinics that treat mental and physical health equally. Other policy platforms such as housing as a human right, and fully-funded social service programs such as public schools, can and should take on the same trauma-informed view.
Addressing the connective tissue between trauma and capitalism only solidifies this point further. But in order to move forward and fight against the capitalist power structure, we cannot ignore the lasting impact that has already been inflicted upon our communities. Therefore, utilizing this trauma-informed perspective means not only understanding the human impact of the system of capitalism, it also means moving to build a more equitable system based in this understanding. We do not all need to be clinicians or have an academic background in social work or psychology in order to gain this perspective and act upon it. We simply need to recognize the impact of trauma on communities, recognize what creates it, and use this understanding as a lens in which we view problems and solutions.
For example, viewing crime through a trauma-informed lens shows us that it is exacerbated by individuals not getting their needs met, emotionally and otherwise. This means re-imagining the purpose of law enforcement, such as the police and ICE, from oppression and containment, towards a system of care and treatment. Such re-imagining may point to abolishing the current system of policing and creating community-oriented emergency responders who focus on crisis de-escalation, restorative justice, and mediation, and replacing prisons with emergency, short-term, and long-term mental health treatment facilities.
And finally, we cannot ignore the impact of trauma on ourselves as activists. Whether it is trauma that we have directly experienced in our own lives, or the impact of vicarious trauma through our work, we cannot ignore our own experiences and reactions to these events and stressors. Our deep commitment to this work also carries with it the potential that we will ignore our own needs. Ignoring the signs of burnout, compassion fatigue, and hopelessness in ourselves not only impacts us as individuals, but impacts our ability to do good work—to organize. We have to take care of ourselves, with the support from our communities, as difficult as that can be. Ultimately, the revolution, political or otherwise, begins at home.