A growing number of fields are examining why these “deaths of despair” are occuring in America. These deaths of despair are things like suicides, alcohol-related deaths, and drug overdoses. It also seems like these have been occuring among middle aged white males without a bachelors. These deaths have been occuring so much that they are a major cause of the decrease in life expectancy. Between Trump getting elected, the rise of white nationalism, and the opiod crisis, researches and thinkers have been looking into this phenomenon and finding out what is going on.
Anne Case and Angus Deaton are two economists who did some research and wrote a book called Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Their research provides empirical data, analysis, and some first hand anecdotal accounts of what people might feel all over.
On top of this empirical data and economic research, I am going to put forth two theories as well. One is from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which one could say that she predicted this in the 50s using her theoretical structure of “the human condition”, not human nature. Also, I am going to draw on the paper “Black Radical Kantianism” by the philosopher Charles W. Mills.
Using this theory and the data, maybe we could understand a bit more about what is going on in parts of America that contribute to part of the political reality we now face.
Hannah Arendt’s theory is that there are four elements to the human condition. They are labor, work, action, and contemplation. Labor is concerned with the biological processes of human life, the mortal part. Work is where humans are able to make artificial things, to engage in world-building. Action is the relations between humans directly, the political, and relies heavily on speech. Action is where humans can create history, we engage with the immortal. Contemplation is thinking and where humans engage with the eternal truth, thinking like philosophy.
Necessary to this post is work. Arendt thinks that the American life is one where work is put on a higher pedestal than it should be. Work is something we do so we can be free, to engage in the active and contemplative parts of life.
The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. … What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.
We live in this “society of jobholders”, which given the nature of capitalism the final solution is automation of as much work as possible. In this society of jobholders, we are missing the higher activities in life, the active and contemplative. If automation comes, if the jobholder’s job disappears, what is left of that human to do?
I do not want to engage with the whole of his paper, but the important aspect that I find interesting is that he posits this idea of the mind of the racist. For the racist, it is no longer person to person interactions, one of equal worth. The racist, irrationally, now has an R1 to R2, race 1 to race 2, way of viewing and interacting with people. The R1, say in America the white person, views themself and the R2, black people in America, as fundamentally different and asymmetric. The R1 is one who is human and morally worthy of respect and dignity, the R2 is not.
To the extent that the R2 sub-persons have internalized the ideology of the dominant R1s, they will look up to them as superior beings, who are owed not just respect but deference, while looking down on themselves.
I believe this passaged is pretty important, to how these racist ideologies may affect the psychologies and morals of the people involved. The R1 may look up at themselves higher than they are actually. They are superior to these other people they think, this confidence(not sure if the right word to use here, we will see how it plays out) may affect other parts of their lives. Additionally, for the R2s, it might affect their confidence and the way they view the world and what they can do by themselves.
The jobholder society and the R1 (white) identity I think explain a lot of what we are seeing. Not only are jobs disappearing, the job outlooks are looking worse than usual. Workers have less bargaining power, vertical and horizontal ability of promotions and changing jobs in that same industry, and their money does less for them. However, the economy and resulting poverty does not explain the reason why middle aged white males have been experiencing at a much higher rate these deaths of despair.
The economy has affected whites and blacks similarly after the 1970s when everything became more “late stage capitalism”-like. In the book Falling from Grace, Newman found that white people were more likely to blame themselves instead of institutions such as the government or corporations for the problems. Whereas black people were more realistic about the diagnosis of the problem since they have first hand experience of institutions working against them for decades.
The whites, in their own arrogance, ignored institutions and thought that the results of their success were on their own terms. However, this turned out just to be an accident that their work in life also resulted in their wealth. The R1 group may have felt more confidence in life, unreasonably, given their history. The R1s benefited from racism in their wealth and job prospects. When the government and corporations abandoned them, they could only blame themselves (the reasonable-ish ones at least).
Some do not blame themselves, but there is an influx in white people an dmassive conspiracy theories and general distrust of institutions to the level of Diogenes-like skepticism. I would quote some more, but I recommend reading the review of the book linked above. The article mentions the conspiracy theories, the guns, the hate of immigrants and other minorities, the lonely individualism, stoic-like mentalities.
Like Arendt theorized, nothing could be worse when the jobholder’s no longer have jobs. In addition, part of the racist history in the US might have made the R1 group into believing they were “hot shit” when in reality they were still just human, subject to the same whims of the corporations and corrupt government officials, uncaring neoliberals. The illusion was part of the white identity for so long, that when things went south they resort to blaming themselves or they lean into conspiracy theories or more blame of the wrong people out of prejudices.