In a recent study, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton found that while midlife mortality rates continue to fall among all education classes in most of the rich world, middle-aged non-Hispanic Whites in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less have experienced increasing midlife mortality since the late 1990s. This is due to both rises in the number of “deaths of despair”—death by drugs, alcohol, and suicide—and to a slowdown in progress against mortality from heart disease and cancer, the two largest killers in middle age.
The authors suggest that the increases in deaths of despair are accompanied by a measurable deterioration in economic and social well being, which has become more pronounced for each successive birth cohort. Case and Deaton document an accumulation of pain, distress, and social dysfunction in the lives of working class Whites that took hold as the blue-collar economic heyday of the early 1970s ended and continued through the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent slow recovery.
However, one sociological attitude I don’t feel they are taking enough into consideration is the weight of cultural expectations on this group. White non-Hispanic males have the extra burden of an expectation of racial and gender superiority — an expectation that has been taught to them from the cradle. And while institutional racism and sexism do give them a leg up in society, for the workers in this group it’s an incredibly stumpy leg, simply tall enough to lift them above the more oppressed. But the problem with these expectations is that if, despite their superiority, White non-Hispanic males end up economically struggling, their failing can be seen by them as their own fault. Rather than examining how our economic system has failed them, they blame whoever the news tells them to blame — non-Whites, women, their kids, Commies — but often they themselves can feel that it must, on some level, be their own fault, that somehow they must have squandered their superiority. How else could those whom nature designed to be on top fail? The truth is that the myth of their superiority was a lie to divide them from their fellow workers, and we are all living in a downward economic cycle which is the result of the re-industrialization of the rest of the world after WWII.
See, in WWII every industrial nation had its factories bombed to dust by one side or another — except the United States. Our post-war boom wasn’t because our way of life was better, Capitalism was neater, or our “freedom” was cooler — it was just because we have an ocean on either side so bombers couldn’t reach us. That’s it. Big oceans. But that was not the myth the American working class was sold. We were told we were better and successful because we were Americans, and the epitome of that bestness was the non-Hispanic White working class male. Heck, after the war they were even given their own new designation — Middle Class. (This term actually has no real economic meaning, and was invented to divide the Working Class by implying that some workers were inherently better than others, and to make that group identify with their employers rather than with their fellow workers. The idea of a “Middle Class” has short-circuited the class-consciousness of many a non-Hispanic White Working Class Male for generations.) So, for a while the world had to “buy American,” not because our products were better, but because everyone else had to rebuild their countries first.
But by the late ’60s, Japan and Germany — with our help to show everybody what Capitalism could do — had rebuilt their factories. England, France, Italy, the Soviet Union, and, finally, China followed and suddenly the world didn’t need to “buy American” anymore. And by the early ’70s, our boom ended and salaries for workers started to stagnate. Capitalist investment started to go overseas, followed by American factories fighting to stay competitive in foreign markets.
So, fewer jobs here, which means less purchasing power, which in turn means a decrease in domestic profits, which means fewer jobs — what was American capitalism to do? How to keep the workers spending without actually paying them more? The solution to this downward spiral was the invention of the credit card! This monetary miracle allowed the American worker to spend money they didn’t have, and artificially kept domestic spending up. I say “artificially” because since wages weren’t increasing in pace with inflation, purchasing for each household naturally reached a plateau when monthly debt payments overtook monthly income. Credit allowed the illusion of prosperity to continue well beyond actual job growth and wage increases for the working class. Only wealthy capitalists — primarily those whose income was derived from domestic financial institutions (credit card companies, banks) or overseas industrial production — saw their wealth increase substantially. This credit-driven false prosperity eventually reaches the point where the price of consumer goods became irrelevant. The cost of goods and even housing came to mean nothing — all that mattered was the monthly credit or mortgage payment. For many, there was no longer the expectation of paying anything off, and, for much of the working class, perpetual debt became normal. It was simply the monthly price of the illusion. Economic security was replaced with gadgets (normally made overseas) that may never be paid off, and homes with thirty, forty, or fifty-year mortgages, but which contributed to the illusion of prosperity.
Through all this illusion, White non-Hispanic working class males were told that any economic pressure they felt was the fault of others in the working class, either foreign or domestic, of environmental laws, of unnecessary government regulations on their employers, of unions, and finally — just maybe — of themselves. Their economic struggle was never the fault of the capitalists who benefitted from underpaying them and it could never be the natural and inevitable consequence of the end of a boom because they’d been told that America was the always and everlasting winner. But having grown up in a culture that constantly, overtly and covertly, insisted that Blacks, Latinos, and Women were not as smart, not as hard-working as themselves and that workers overseas were inferior simply by dint of not being Americans, why were things worse for non-Hispanic White male workers? If they, even subconsciously, accept that they are naturally superior in a land of limitless possibilities and prosperity, yet still aren’t making it, a cognitive dissonance is created — two realities that cannot coexist — which can result in irrational, destructive rage. This rage can be expressed loudly and violently at others or quietly, but equally destructively, at themselves.
Of course, the problem is that the narrative is false — they are not superior and America’s economic downturn is by no means their fault. But, as the group raised to almost mythical levels of (false) empowerment, and without the class consciousness to understand how those non-Hispanic White male capitalists are still profiting during this decades-long downturn, the White non-Hispanic working class male has been left to rage — either against those fellow workers and government agencies the corporate media tells them to blame or at themselves. They turn to violence in their battle to regain what they feel is their birthright or look to demagogues who promise to restore what they’ve lost (but never really had, in the case of superiority, and haven’t had economically for decades). But many see their circumstances and judge themselves to be losers in a land where they should so easily be winners and drug themselves to dull their dissonance (our opioid epidemic) or simply shut themselves off with hopelessness and despair.
Their lack of hope is the direct inverse of the lie they’ve been sold for decades — that prosperity is within their reach because America is the land of limitless and never-ending prosperity, especially for the naturally superior. In the reality of their economic suffering, this lie torments them and they see no way out. The possibility of a revolutionary solution has been taken off the table for them by those who profit from the status quo. For Blacks, Latinos, Women, and many Asians in America, revolution has always been a possibility because we’ve grown up knowing the table was tilted against us, recognizing the lies spread about us by the corporate media and demagogues, knowing that we lived in a culture where some profited from us being underpaid, from us being denied jobs, denied housing, denied absence of self-worth — just as all of these things we know and understood about their own circumstances by pre-WWII non-Hispanic White male workers. The Red Scare (designed to de-politicize them) and the postwar job boom convinced them revolution was unnecessary. They spent the next twenty years living in a “Middle Class” bubble and the next thirty years living in a state of enforced denial, a denial sold to them by a corporate government which needed them to not understand the actual cause of their situation. Now all they are left with is despair.
Their only chance is the rekindling of their hope for change — and that hope for change is an economic revolution. When they can again see that the path to their survival is not blocked by their failing, is not blocked by their fellow workers, is not blocked by government of, by, and for the people, when they can see those who benefit from their delusion for the manipulators and economic parasites they are, when they can understand that their fault lies not in themselves, but in historical forces that can only be addressed with a revolutionary, trickle-up economic re-thinking of what American Prosperity actually is, then, perhaps, they will have the hope they need. We would all benefit from such a revelation and a revolution.