Dorothy Day Caucus of the American Solidarity Party A Revolution of the Heart
by Tara Ann Thieke
Hikikomori and kodokushi ring strange in the American ear, but these two Japanese words come across the Pacific heavy with misery and foreboding. The danger and doom contained in those words are apt to be dismissed as uncomfortable. Yet, to ignore them is to betray the lonely and most vulnerable among us.
Hikikomori means “shut-in,” an individual who has opted out of Japanese life. Rather than face the economic and cultural pressures of their society, they have chosen a life lived from the security of the bedroom, perhaps venturing to the rest of the home on rare occasion. The process has been observed to begin with teenagers but is not limited to them. Every day more Japanese reject the world and turn to their computer or television as a replacement for people. Parents and loved ones watch in helpless confusion and despair.
Kodokushi means “lonely death,” a phrase which arose to note the increasing number of Japanese people who die alone in their apartments, unnoticed, uncounted, unmourned. No one sings hymns at their funeral, and their bodies often aren't found for weeks or months. So many have died in this way that they have became more than an aberration for a gruesome newspaper story, but a public health concern.
The hikikomori and kodokushi are the dead canaries in the coal mine, the casualties our successful planners and managers refuse to acknowledge as they continue to predict endless progress and stack utopian scheme upon utopian scheme.
There is pressure to sweep these phenomenon beneath the rug by classifying them according to the tidy criteria of neurology and pharmacology: these poor individuals suffer from some form of autism or aspergers. This is a neat way to ignore correlation with unprofitable facts, a way to ignore how we are affected by our environments, and that we make deliberate social and political choices (or refuse to make choices and let 'the market' as run by billionaires choose for us} precisely because we believe they will shape our lives for the better. When the results are ugly we stick in our earbuds and walk a little faster, hoping the suffering of others is just an issue of chance or chemicals, and has nothing to do with us.
How did a tightly knit society which placed an emphasis on service and devotion to family collapse in living memory into a nation of atomized youth and elderly locking themselves away and waiting for death? Japan, a deeply imperfect and strict hierarchical country, fixated itself upon the desires of the global economy as they sought to re-define themselves in the wake of military defeat, and in so doing they ignored the needs of human beings.
There are an estimated 700,000 hikikomori in Japan today, with an average age of 31. As the phenomenon began only a few decades ago, society remains unclear as to what will happen when their current providers can no longer support them. Millions are estimated as at risk of making a similar retreat. Causes have been listed as a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, independent thinkers who cannot conform, a failure of transition markers to help young people step into adulthood, middle-class wealth allowing a greater degree of indulgence, internet addiction, an anti-family working environment, and a school system unable to recognize how its rigidity has segregated youth into a “caste system,” depriving them of external perspectives.
It could be worse. The hikikomori have walked away from society; others reject life itself. Japanese schoolchildren kill themselves at horrific rates, most often on September 1, the first day of the school year. Japan, notoriously, has one the highest suicide rates in the world. Meanwhile, middle-aged and elderly adults are dying alone. Of course, bright young things and tech firms have a (profitable) solution: robots. Robot pets and robot caregivers will take care of those elderly who can afford them. What is lost by replacing human interaction with pets is not considered. Alternatives are never imagined. Theories are pronounced that those elderly who reject bureaucratic assistance only do because of a culture which prizes a "stiff upper lip." The idea that people could be motivated by something other than the desire for a check for the pharmacy, or that health could depend on feelings of purpose, connection, and meaning are laughed at. Programs save people. Robots save people. Anything a person could do a robot or program can do better. It's repeated over and over, and yet for all the new experiments and plans the Japanese are haunted by ever more kodokushi.
What is that to us? We're Americans. And what does politics have to do with it? It’s a cultural issue. It’s in Japan. The Japanese are weird. The end.
But we are our neighbors, and the worldview Japan placed its hopes in is the same bell jar we live beneath. While the coloring of local institutions necessarily affects the speed of certain trends, the entire purpose of the global economy is to swallow the local, dissolve the community, and isolate the individual as ever perfect worker, ever perfect consumer. And, occasionally, as ever perfect voter, nodding in perfect synchronicity with the overlords of our technocratic-administrative utopia.
Japan is the canary in the coal mine. We have only to blink, to break the hypnosis demanded of us by the economy, the media, our tech monopolies, and our politicians to see despair has not only come for us, but has seeped into our homes. Our suicide rates climb and all our concern about mental health has not stopped the ominous rising of numbers, numbers which testify to a crisis of despair.
Once upon a time in history, political participation was not the realm of credentialed experts walled off in capital cities determining what the masses would be permitted. Politics was not the domain of your betters, our RANDian managers determined to impose uniform solutions on unique people and places. Politics was, to Aristotle, the art of delineating the good life with your neighbors. The idea that we could have meaningful discussions about the good life through the media, through avatars, or impose standardized solutions upon millions of people would have shocked him, the rest of ancient Greece, and most cultures and people up until the 20th century.
Politics begins in the home, but for us it ends in the home. The home is, as Wendell Berry wrote, simply the place where consumption happens. The elderly are removed. The children are sent out during the day and given over to video games in the evening. Nothing is made. We "netflix and chill" at our best; we "hikikomori" and drug ourselves into apathy and death otherwise. Nobel-prize winning economists Deaton and Case noted in their study on rising morbidity: "Self-reported declines in health, mental health, and ability to conduct activities of daily living, and increases in chronic pain and inability to work, as well as clinically measured deteriorations in liver function, all point to growing distress," but who can count body bags when the blue haze of the screen requires all our attention?
Aristotle wrote: “A state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime for the sake of exchange.... Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship." If only Aristotle had known one day we could be Minecraft heroes with robot girlfriends! His interest in the good life, in questions of scale and governance have long been brushed away. A state is a place to safe-guard consumption and selling; citizenship is replaced by passive consumers or those driven by a brutal system of employment where ideas of vocation and purpose are a joke.
What remains of the political discourse the masses are permitted to hear is shaped by a class of DC lawyers who place much confidence in their own prognoses while being entirely uninterested in finding out whether their answers work. They keep their focus on power through strategy, candidates, and ignoring deep policy questions, let alone first principles or consequences. Combined with a social media driven-culture that eschews conversation in favor of signalling one's allegiance to the "good" tribe by offering infinite hot takes and engaging in mob-driven flare-ups, there is absolutely no possibility for us to look, listen, and hear the cry of the broken.
It is relationships which save people. Programs are a distinctly secondary effort, but they are now deemed our sole salvation. Globalism and the free market, which of course is not "free," are one more variation of the technocratic path to a promised land they can never really describe beyond "flying cars." And with the transfer of sovereignty to planners, politicians, businessmen, and other managers, individual initiative is crippled, and those unable to swim with the sharks retreat into a bubble they can control. Faced with the tyrants of modernity, an increasing number of people choose the last spaces they can control. They will die alone if needs be; they will choose the drugs that speed their death, the games and shows they spend their life upon. They have looked at the system and they, for whatever reason, "prefer not to."
The human heart and soul cannot be measured, but the technocratic manager is deaf to the long, low cry of the heart. Our political parties concern themselves with winning elections rather than opening themselves up enough to pay attention, ask questions, or hear policy proposals which don’t fit their pre-packaged narrative. They build brands instead of asking why brands have not made people happy. They tout college degrees as the literal definition of success. But you cannot kiss a cubicle, you cannot love an acronym, you cannot watch last year's vacation take its first steps, you cannot encounter mystery or receive freely given love from a robot, and a college degree will not hold your hand when you die. They have not dared to approach first principles, which would not be so bad if their answers were not total systems, winnowing out anything beside the lowest common denominator of "happiness."
Robert Kennedy, a politician of a different stripe for at least the duration of this speech, famously spoke: "Gross National Production counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
Here are some statistics about life in modern America:
Suicide rates are increasing every year.
Teenagers and children face a particularly gruesome escalation in suicide statistics.
Teen depression is rising at a frightening rate.
America is in the grips of the most powerful opioid crisis it has ever seen.
The number of homebound, elderly Americans who are all alone has never been higher.
Young African-American men face a crisis of PTSD, unemployment, incarceration, and abuse.
Poor men without college degrees are disappearing from the work force.
Americans are facing rising levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
The use of antidepressants has increased almost 400% since the 1990s.
Children, especially boys, are increasingly drugged.
Foster care children are the most drugged of all.
Alienation, however it manifests, is killing millions of Japanese and Americans alike.
Japan has a crisis of loneliness and despair. American also faces a crisis of loneliness and despair. We are victims of a “Bigger Better Faster Stronger” narrative which surrounds us on all sides, telling us life has never been so good. The costumes are glitterier, the trends faster, the prestige tv shows darker and grittier, the fashion more absurd, the music louder. Bonus: stock prices have never been so high.
The culture shouts everything is wonderful and flying (or at least self-driving) cars will be here momentarily, then whips its head around and sells conflict and division in the next breath. Everything is terrible unless we accept the new product, the new solution. The next policy will change our lives, the next candidate will change the world.
We need a politics which does more than try to win elections. We need a politics that worries about more than electable candidates. We need a politics where people outside the gated communities and best neighborhoods are heard, not managed. We need a politics that does more than encourage polarization and self-righteous tribalism. We need a politics that listens for even a few minutes. We need a politics unafraid to ask what a good life looks like beyond "college degree, resume, travel, maybe 2 children, pets, access to cutting-edge technology and fine dining." A politics that asks what makes a community, what makes a home. A politics that asks if machines serve people, or if people serve machines. A politics that asks how many people have to die to acknowledge despair is a political issue. A politics that asks if the best end of a human life is to be surrounded by robot dogs. A politics that asks why no children play in the street. A politics that asks what progress could ever mean in a world where any child commits suicide, let alone one where more and more do so.
The canaries fall down.What does it mean to reach through the noise and realize we hear their song no more? Who is our neighbor? Whose agenda do we serve? Do we know where we are going, and what it costs to get there?
We must resist allowing the politicians, advertisers, and self-proclaimed experts who brought us this Brave New World to continue offering solutions which only benefit them, and even then only seemingly. The self-indulgence of the managing class assumes happiness is rooted in numbers, charts, and stock points; in growth and progress everlasting do they place their trust. But growth and progress as a standard mean nothing if you do not know where you want to be, and they are outright reckless if you do not know what growth bases itself upon. Our politicians and leading managers and elites refuse to face how the luxury of their lifestyle depends upon wealth transfer and the destruction of other communities. They refuse to face how their own children are suffering. We must not swallow easy solutions because we are afraid of asking hard questions.
The bells fall silent, replaced by engines and noise. There is no communal touchstone to mark the passing of our faceless neighbors. Every hour souls slip away around the corner and through the cracks, unmissed, unhailed. We must pray for those with no one to pray for them. We must pray for the canaries. As the ambulance turns off its lights to cart another stranger away, we should recall that beneath the spell of illusion reality remains ever the same:
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Tara Ann Thieke