The Isolation, Atomization, and Desperation of the American Worker

A Target employee and labor organizer talks about how to break through mental alienation.

Adam Ryan is a Target employee in Christiansburg, Virginia. Ryan grew up there, left for a few years, and then returned in his late 20s to start organizing retail workers. He started Target Workers Unite, which now has hundreds of members across the U.S. 

Ryan is one of the most well-read communists I’ve ever met. His bedroom is stacked to the ceiling with books on communism, racial oppression, and organizing. 

As Covid ravaged every American community, and as retail workers faced the brunt of the U.S. government’s inept and cruel response, Ryan was on the front lines trying to get workers to stand up for their rights.

One of the biggest impediments to convincing people to work together for higher wages, safer conditions, and a worker-controlled future is a sense of isolation and depression that pervades every workplace—people are so tired and feel so atomized and hopeless that it’s hard to get them to imagine a brighter, more collective future. Ryan thinks breaking through this barrier is essential work for any organizer.

[This as-told-to has been edited and condensed]

Capitalism makes us stay disorganized and atomized, and that’s a very difficult thing to overcome. I’ve always wondered what it’s going to take to cause people to finally stop being so apathetic and passive toward everything. What will make people get off their ass and do something. That’s my frustration as an organizer. And that’s always the task, to try to figure out how to motivate people and win them over to this idea of organizing, to the idea that we can improve things if we work together. 

It’s frustrating. This is a serious issue and the U.S. is performing the worst out of almost any country in the response to Covid. I just wish people would be a little more pissed off, and a little more willing to fight back and try to assert their self-respect and dignity. But even before the pandemic, that was kind of the same problem. It’s the same frustrations.

And that ties in so much with mental health because people feel so impotent and disempowered, which is how the two parties want it. They want people to have this very narrow view of politics or political action, of what agency the average worker has, they want people to think this is just how it goes. And because of that people remain disorganized, always waiting for some savior to come and fix the problem.

As a result, I think a lot of people suffer from mental illness. They can see the world going to shit. They think, “well I’ll go vote Democrat and hopefully things won’t be as bad.” But then nothing changes. If we could get people organized in a meaningful way, I think that would improve mental health.

People feel very overwhelmed with their lives, and don’t feel like they can take on the task of organizing because it’s so emotionally draining and exhausting. I’ve encountered a lot of people who say that mental health is the thing that prevents them from becoming more involved. People want to stay in their homes or their rooms and not do anything because it’s hard enough to get out of bed and live their lives and go to work. 

Ryan said the book The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski helped solidify for him that this sense of isolation and depression is a purposeful feature of our current political era. We’ve been sold the idea of atomization as freedom.

The atomization is In large part in response to the wave of rebellions in the 1960s across the West. We had students talking about, “we want freedom, we don’t want to be robots, we want more agency and not to be stuck in this monotonous, uninspiring daily life.” And the neoliberal offensive was basically in response to that, where they appropriate those ideas, and then turn it around and present the idea of precarity as being somehow more dynamic, not as fixed or boring or monotonous. In reality, we have to work three jobs instead of one. But they tell us that we’ll have flexibility, the right to make our own schedules, all that bullshit. 

Capitalism makes people atomized, and then people are yearning for freedom, and the only way to feel like they get it is through consumerism. You go out and buy this product to feel fulfilled. But it’s always a fleeting, temporary thing. It’s never really meaningful. There’s a sense of hollowness, no matter how much we consume.  

For Ryan, the basic Marxist concept of workers’ alienation from labor applies to our mental states as well. 

Workers are alienated from the means of production. We have to work together in operations on a global scale with these long supply chains, but we don’t actually own the tools we’re using and we don’t own the commodities we’re producing. We just have to constantly sell our labor power in exchange for a wage, and that very literal alienation turns into workers having a sense of psychological alienation.

I don’t want to be one of those socialists who just says, “well if we had socialism mental health wouldn’t be a problem anymore.” But I do think it would qualitatively improve people’s mental health in a very significant way. Because it helps fulfill these very basic things that people need—a sense of belonging, of socializing, of community, feeling valued and knowing your work means something, that you’re not just a cog, that you actually have a say in your life, that you actually have some kind of power. 

Everything we do only ever really addresses the symptoms. Capitalists, the bourgeoisie, can never resolve the inherent contradictions of capitalism. The best they can do is treat the symptoms. You see that with psychiatry for example. These drugs are treating the symptoms, not getting to the root of the reason why people feel so neurotic, so depressed, or just all the negative feelings we’re having. They can help numb you a little.

I won’t knock people who need these drugs because the system we live in is devastating to people psychologically, and we have to deal with it. And people need to cope to even be able to function. But if we weren’t unhealthy and overworked and we were reducing our working day and having time to not stress out, to not think about, “am I going to be able to afford rent, or feed my kids, or have insurance,” if we had more time to dedicate to things that actually motivate you, people would feel much more satisfied.

One of the hardest parts about organizing in the U.S. is that our current hellish work culture is all we know. We’ve been sold the idea of freedom as being able to go shop for 20 brands of toothpaste at Target, not as the ability to have time off, to feel fulfilled, to feel ecstatic about our lives. 

We have no frame of reference for what else freedom looks like. There are moments in our living memory where that existed though, even if it’s just a few years of revolution—people are alive who remember these revolutionary moments. It’s obviously contentious, but the Cultural Revolution in China, there are still folks out there who look back with nostalgia. Despite the borderline civil war, they remember the transformation of pedagogy, of centering things around workers, of making sure people in rural areas were trained to help improve their lives with agriculture and industrial production. The kind of freedom that people get a taste of in moments like that has a profound effect. People don’t forget those things. 

In this country, all we have are these very fleeting moments, like the West Virginia teachers strike. But it’s always fleeting. But that’s our job as organizers. To take those moments and amplify them, to trigger a rupture so that they don’t just go away. It’s hard to convince people of that when their only frame of reference is the U.S., and the U.S. has always just been a capitalist shithole. That’s all we know.

The other big problem is that there’s not a lot of infrastructure for workers in the U.S. who want to get more involved in organizing. 

You’re taking this monumental task that many have tried and failed at before, or been killed or imprisoned for. It’s scary shit. And we don’t have the infrastructure in place to really overcome those concerns. They’re legitimate concerns! So part of the goal is to develop infrastructure to address those concerns, to prevent people from getting burned out. So that if people are doing this work, and they’re feeling that way, they have people to reach out to. 

A lot of the isolation we see is just self-preservation, which isn’t a coincidence. It’s very profitable for capitalism for us to be stuck in this state where each individual is trying to get what they need, acting alone. 

To overcome that we need some kind of national political organization, a party, that would be able to provide for that kind of support. The Communist Party USA at its height did that—workers cooperatives, anti-eviction support, legal aid, taking care of working people and their families. 

We’re trying to create a tenants union and a childcare cooperative now to build some of that infrastructure. To give people breathing room. That’s one thing I really believe—that it’s everyone’s right to have a kid, and their right to make sure that those kids are raised in an environment that doesn’t stress them out, that doesn’t stress the parents out. Otherwise we have this vicious cycle, where all these same problems of stress and isolation and depression get passed down to kids. 

If you have a structure that can fulfill the needs that people aren’t getting under capitalism, then you can proselytize people over to your side. In Europe in the early 20th century, that was a big part of what they did. They had millions of followers, and sports leagues, and arts movements, and all sorts of cultural things that fulfilled these various needs—to socialize, to feel part of a community.

As much as Ryan is an idealist, he’s also a realist. He realizes there’s no way to organize without sacrifice, discipline and constant dedication.

On a personal level I would say that using your time wisely, not spreading yourself too thin, and overcommitting, are key. That also means making time for yourself to eat, get enough sleep, drink enough water. These things don’t stop mental illness but they have a qualitative effect on your mental health. If you feel well physically, it’s a lot easier to weather some storms. I don’t say this as some clueless person. I used to be extremely unhealthy, and I was depressed too. When I’ve set aside time daily to do some exercise, to eat things that are good for me, that’s helped tremendously.

I think there’s a tendency on the left to go too far in the other direction and to miss these basic things like diet and exercise. You kind of have to take those things seriously. We don’t have good healthcare. We live in a capitalist shithole. You have to take responsibility for your health. I don’t want to trivialize anyone’s struggles but these are things that we need to take seriously as leftists, as militants.

I don’t think there’s this rosy way of organizing where everyone is always satisfied. But I view it as the same way that explains why people are religious: you have to have a belief system to get through this world. It’s a means of coping. Some people believe in religion, and I believe in socialism and communism in a fanatical way. That’s not to say I don’t have a critical analysis and try to remain grounded, but you have to have a strong belief to weather the storm. It’s not about always being happy, it’s about having strong principles and sticking to them because they will help you get through the hard times.