Capitalism Has a Compulsive Hoarding Problem

Pathological hoarding, now recognized as a mental disorder, is a fitting malady for an economic system predicated on the compulsive accumulation of profits — achieved, in practice, by flooding the world with stuff.

Capitalism exacerbates hoarding disorders by both generalizing an underlying condition of lack and flooding the void with excess. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

As many as 19 million Americans have a hoarding disorder. For some people it presents as a tendency toward extreme clutter, but for others the compulsive accumulation of and inability to discard objects is a debilitating and even life-threatening condition.

For decades, hoarding was rarely studied and little understood. When it was discussed at all, it went by the name Collyer’s syndrome, after two brothers who died in 1947 in a Harlem house filled with over a hundred tons of junk — one of starvation, the other crushed by falling objects. 

News reports of the brothers’ deaths called them “eccentrics,” and despite being clearly mentally ill, perhaps they were in a way, as there were few like them in those days. But it’s a different story now. Hoarding is on the rise in the United States. There are many reasons, but underlying them all is capitalism, which creates simultaneous conditions of scarcity and surplus — a fundamental condition of dispossession, and endless possessions to fill the void.

The Hoarding Boom

“A hoarder is not a ‘nut,’ read a letter to the New York Times editor in 1994, in response to a book review that made light of the issue.

A new addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-IV, had been published earlier that year. It listed hoarding disorder under the entry for OCD. “He suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder,” the writer explained. “Most hoarders, and their families, live out their dramas in secret.”

The New York Times published the letter, but its tenor on what were then usually called “pack rats” wouldn’t change for another decade. Then, in 2003, an article appeared taking seriously the phenomenon of “reclusive people trapped by their own accumulations, in rooms made unlivable by floor-to-ceiling heaps of newspapers, books and saved objects — from twist ties to grand pianos.”

The article solicited another letter, this one appreciative. “My father suffered from this disorder. It destroyed our family life and turned him into a recluse,” the letter said. “My father wasn’t dangerous, but he was sad, lonely and scared. He was also kind, loving, funny and intelligent. If we had had more time, I think we could have encouraged him to get the help he needed, and with the right medication and intense psychotherapy, he could have had a happier life.”

The coming years saw greater coverage of research on the disorder’s causes, scope, and treatment. They were a prelude to the boom in hoarding-related content, which was kicked off in earnest by the 2007 book Buried In Treasures by Gail Steketee, David F. Tolin, and Randy O. Frost. By 2008, the paper of record had changed its tune entirely, calling hoarding “a condition many experts believe is a mental illness in its own right, although psychiatrists have yet to formally recognize it.”

The A&E television series Hoarders debuted in 2009, bringing psychologists, organizers, cleaners, and cameras into hoarders’ homes. Some 2.5 million viewers watched the premiere. Americans were glued to the television, some in curiosity, others in disgust, and more than a few in painful self-recognition.

Meanwhile, books about compulsive hoarding were being published at breakneck speed, reaching their crescendo in 2011, when titles included The Hoarder in You by Robin Zasio, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Gail Steketee and Randy O. Frost, Cluttered Lives, Empty Souls by Terrence Daryl Shulman, and The Secret Lives of Hoarders by Matt Paxton and Phaedra Hise.

In 2013, after years of intense and sustained popular attention, the DSM-5 granted compulsive hoarding its own status as a separate mental disorder. By then the popular culture had radically changed. Few were likely to regard a compulsive hoarder as a mere eccentric, or a “nut.” Pretty much everyone was in agreement that hoarding was an illness.

Scarcity and Surplus

There is some apparent irony in the fact that the hoarding boom, spanning from roughly 2007 to 2011, ran perfectly parallel to the Great Recession. As the headlines often noted, millions of Americans “lost everything” in the crash — and yet they were also drowning in their “everything.” So what was America’s problem: Too much or too little? Privation or plenty? The answer is both, bound intimately together.

Hoarding appears to have some neurological basis, and the disorder takes all kinds. But not in equal measure. A 2008 study that divided participants into income groups found that hoarders were four times as likely to belong to the poorest group than the wealthiest one. 

How do we understand this link between poverty and hoarding? An obvious answer is that routine experience of needing objects one lacks produces in some people a pathological desire to save things one may someday need, even if it’s impossible to say why or when.

Another clue may be found in a separate conclusion of the 2008 study. The authors found a strong and oddly specific link between hoarding and experiencing childhood break-ins, suggesting an intense psychological connection between having objects ripped away and pathological collection. 

Of course, poorer people are more likely to experience burglaries since their homes are less secure and situated in higher-crime neighborhoods. But there are also more ubiquitous forms of insecurity and volatility that come with the territory of poverty, which may have a similar if more subtle psychological effect. 

These might include abrupt loss of work and family income, sudden evictions, or unexpected departures of loved ones (lost, for example, to prison or early death due to violence or drug abuse). The abrupt disappearance of objects, places, or people can be psychologically destabilizing, even traumatizing, and the poor experience a lot more of it than the rich. 

In addition to the traumatic instability of life without money, there are several other basic factors that potentially explain the relationship between hoarding and poverty. One is health care. Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder which is best addressed through clinical treatment, but in our society mental health care is least available to those with the fewest resources.

And then there’s the issue of physical space. Rich people, naturally, can afford larger dwellings than poor people, plus off-site storage space and in-home organizing solutions and cleaning services. A hoarding disorder in a large space might look like clutter or even just a hobbyist’s collection. But in a small space, the same amount of stuff might result in chaos, even posing physical danger to the inhabitant.

Ultimately, it’s not difficult to understand the coexistence of the condition of scarcity known as poverty and the condition of excess known as hoarding.

As for why the hoarding boom coincided with the Great Recession, part of that is merely coincidental, relating to the maturity of the research that was spurred by the publication of the DSM-IV. But it also may have to do with the fact that the Great Recession abruptly pushed millions of people into or closer to poverty — a society-wide experience of sudden traumatic dispossession, something like a mass burglary.

The Great Recession also created a pervasive feeling of social disorganization and disintegration, especially related to the concept of home. The economic crisis was, after all, experienced on the ground primarily as a housing crisis. Perhaps this manifested partly in a popular fascination with images of the home in disarray. 

A Deeper Connection

There is one final link between hoarding disorders and poverty, more elemental than the others. The reason the world is chock-full of stuff to hoard is the same reason people experience material deprivation despite there being plenty of resources to go around. That reason is capitalism.

Capitalists are compulsive accumulators of profit, just as hoarders are compulsive accumulators of manufactured objects. It doesn’t matter to capitalists what they’re manufacturing, as they’re not driven by society’s needs but by a mandate to maximize profit; if they fail to fulfill this mandate, their companies will go under. So they’re locked in competition to make and sell more stuff, ideally for lower prices, which usually means lower wages. The arrangement automatically produces a combination of cash-strapped people and cheap crap they can afford.

Add to all this the fact that capitalism puts people to work doing jobs they have no connection to, and increases social isolation by eroding the foundations of our relationships, and you have a lot of people who are looking for meaning and security wherever they can find it. A century of advertising has established as a foundational belief of our culture the idea that it’s possible to find security and shore up an identity through object acquisition. Is it any wonder that it occasionally manifests as a type of madness?

Hoarding disorders are probably not exclusive to capitalism, but it’s evident that capitalism exacerbates the issue by both generalizing an underlying condition of lack and flooding the void with excess. Millions of hoarders need help now, before we can effect any radical transformation of society. But ultimately, it’s unlikely we’ll halt the escalation of the problem without confronting capitalism too.