By Jim Miller
Last week brought us the stark news that America’s middle-aged white working class is killing itself. Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case released a report documenting that “The mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.” And strikingly, “rising annual death rates among this group are being driven not by the big killers like heart disease and diabetes but by an epidemic of suicides and afflictions stemming from substance abuse: alcoholic liver disease and overdoses of heroin and prescription opioids.”
Although researchers were somewhat puzzled by the extremity of this epidemic of nihilism, many observers were quick to note that there was “a more pessimistic outlook among whites about their financial futures” along with a corresponding wave of health issues and “difficulty socializing.”
Commenting on this new revelation of “Despair, American Style”, Paul Krugman was astute to underline the researchers’ hypothesis that in our era of historic inequality, this group of Americans had “lost the narrative of their lives” because they were raised to “believe in the American dream and are coping badly with its failure to come true.”
Interestingly, however, Krugman is loath to argue that merely economic prescriptions like “universal healthcare, higher minimum wages, and aid to education” would “cure existential despair” though he thinks they surely might help. What the “answer” for this phenomenon is, he does not know.
And Krugman is right: the $15 minimum wage folks were fighting for last week is not enough and neither is free college nor better health care. What you might find in the actual struggle for those things just might be at least part of the answer—solidarity, community, and meaning.
Perhaps the worst thing that the devastation of America’s white working class communities from the old industrial towns of the Northeast and the Midwest to the small businesses of Everywhere, USA has done is kill community and with it a sense of connectedness and purpose.
Folks in the old American working class went from meeting in union halls to bowling alone to drinking or popping pills in front of the sad glow of the TV. This made some of them lonely and desperate and others angry at all the wrong things with others still scrambling to save what was falling through their fingers to no end.
As Paul Street writes in “The Wages of Whiteness is Early Death”:
Caught in the vicious victim-blaming webs of neoliberal capitalism and the great white lie of skin privilege, much of the white working class finds itself torn between suicidal self-loathing and revanchist white-nationalist hatred of the even worse-off Black and Latino lower and working classes. Its heroin, booze, and/or other pain killers with a good dose of Donald Trump’s “authentic” call for a giant racist immigration wall to “make America great again.”
In contrast, other segments of the American working class, many of them immigrants, have brought community traditions and a culture of solidarity with them to help navigate their own treacherous economic waters. But this too will not be permanent as long as it’s possible to assimilate into the dominant narrative of atomized, consumerist, competitive individualism with nothing to offer but hollowness at its core.
Surely, if the neoliberal turn toward One Market Under God continues unabated, we may yet have new, more multicultural generations of postmodern Willy Lomans.
And the hollowness of the American Dream that Arthur Miller portrayed in the 1950s in his classic play, Death of a Salesman, was just a revisiting of what Henry David Thoreau was writing about in the 1850s in Walden:
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.
The answer, of course, is that we need a new narrative. The old stories we keep telling ourselves are killing us. Why, as Thoreau asked, do we begin “digging our graves” as soon as we are born?