The Economic Crisis as Collective Trauma

What do I mean by referring to our current economic crisis as a "collective trauma"? Let me explain.

I have characterized the essence of emotional trauma (RD Stolorow, Trauma and Human Existence, Routledge, 2007) as a shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life--the illusory beliefs that allow us to experience the world as stable, predictable, and safe. The shattering of these illusions by trauma brings us face to face with our existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats.

I describe our era as an "Age of Trauma" because the tranquilizing illusions of our everyday world seem in our time to be severely threatened from all sides--by global diminution of natural resources, by global warming, by global nuclear proliferation, by global terrorism, and, currently, by global economic collapse. These are forms of collective trauma in that they threaten to obliterate the basic framework with which we as members of our particular society have made sense out of our existence.

For me, it was the fall of General Motors, even more than that of AIG and other financial institutions, which had this obliterating impact. I grew up in Pontiac, Michigan, where the cars with that name are manufactured and which is located 25 miles north of Detroit and 35 miles south of Flint. For me and my family and friends, GM was an unassailable absolutism, a symbol of the invulnerability and permanence of the American way of life. And now this Olympian symbol, along with other similar ones, has dissolved, leaving us as a nation collectively traumatized.

It is my view that our Age of Trauma began with the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. In horrifyingly demonstrating that even America can be assaulted on its native soil, the attack of 9/11 shattered our collective illusions of safety, inviolability, and grandiose invincibility, illusions that had long been mainstays of the American historical identity. The current economic crisis, in addition to being a collective trauma in its own right, is reanimating once again the feelings of terror, vulnerability, and powerlessness spawned by the attack of 9/11. It is what I describe as a portkey to retraumatization.

In the wake of the collective trauma of 9/11, Americans came under the spell of the disastrous resurrective ideologies offered by the Bush administration--ideologies that promised to bring back to life the grandiose illusions that had been nullified and lost. Although President Obama, by contrast, has shown that he is capable of grasping the complexities of our collective situation and of transcending divisive false polarities, I worry that Americans in their desperation are attributing messianic powers to him. Such messianic longings and hopes are doomed to disappointment when directed toward any finite human being with humanly limited powers and possibilities.

What do we need emotionally in our Age of Trauma? We need to be able to bring our feelings of anxiety and existential vulnerability into dialogue with our fellow sufferers, so that these painful feelings can be held and better borne within relationships--what I call a relational home--rather than being evaded by means of the grandiose, destructive resurrective ideologies that have been so characteristic of human history.