Among the most important hermeneutic keys to understanding the current political situation in the United States is the recent study released by Anne Case and Angus Deaton showing that, beginning in 1999 death rates among midlife “white” Americans have increased sharply, while rates for other groups have fallen. Death rates for Black Americans remain higher to be sure, though rates for Latinos are lower and the trend seems to be driven by developments among whites with a high school education or less.
This is the sociological condition which has made possible the transformation of the Republican presidential primary into a competition between fascistoid demagogues for the votes of a demographic segment whose defining characteristic can only be described as cultural despair.
Much of the interpretation of the findings has, unfortunately, focused on the suggestion by Case and Deaton that the trend is a result of suicide, alcohol poisoning, and abuse of “prescription opioids” following on the widespread availability of Oxycontin, though to be fair the authors themselves allow that the subjects of their study may well be facing an “authentic epidemic of pain.” Conservatives have read the findings as confirming Charles Murray’s argument in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 that “white” America has experienced a decline in moral virtue generally and its work ethic in particular in response to the temptations of an overly generous welfare state.
Such an interpretation is simply not credible. Drugs of all kinds are certainly even more accessible to higher income groups with better insurance coverage. And as commentators such as Paul Starr and Paul Krugman have pointed out there is no comparable trend in Western Europe which, despite recent changes, still has a much more generous welfare state. Krugman points out that what distinguishes this group is the fact that less well educated white workers find themselves excluded, for the first time in generations from an American Dream which is still (sometimes) real for those with more education and which Black and Latino Americans never really believed was their own. Starr may be even closer to the mark in citing Case and Deaton’s own suggestion that the shift is tied specifically to the decline in defined benefit pensions after 1999, which have left less well educated middle aged white Americans, for the first time in generations, facing an old age marked by poverty and inevitable decline rather than the “golden years” many imagined for themselves.
This analysis takes us part of the way to an answer –but only part of the way. First, as Krugman himself acknowledges, “universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on” while they may help, are not going to be enough. But this is not just because, as Deaton argues, less educated white Americans have “lost the narrative of their lives” that “their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better.” The problem is that that narrative itself, and the structures which emerged to sustain it, were themselves flawed from the very beginning.
Krugman gets part of the way –but only part of the way– towards recognizing this when he concludes his analysis by describing the crisis of less educated white Americans as a case of “existential despair.” Existential suffering is universal suffering, written into our underlying human condition: that fact that being finite we are aware of the infinite and desire without limit, that being contingent we can at least conceive of the power of Being as such and seek this power absolutely –both aims which exceed our natural human capacities. Civilizational ideals interpret and respond to this reality; social structures represent an attempt to realize those ideals, however imperfectly.
Our hegemonic civilizational ideal –what I have called technocratic secularism– which seeks to transcend finitude by means of scientific, technological, and economic progress is dead. It operates by turning human beings into batteries whether through mechanisms of state planning or, more generally, market pressures and will end, if it lasts long enough, by rendering all human labor redundant. Less educated white Americans have been particularly affected by this crisis because they have recently been retired as batteries and moved into the column of surplus population, joining the less educated Black and Latino Americans they (at least sometimes seem to) despise. But it is a destiny we all face if we continue down our current path.
But this is only part of the story. Those following this debate may have noticed, as Paul Krugman did, that despite lower levels of education and income, Latinos –and Latin Americans generally– have lower suicide death rates and report higher well being than most other groups. What every one has seemed to forget is that this is exactly what anyone with a basic education in social theory should expect. Latin Americans are Catholic. And this true at the deeper cultural level even when they have individually embraced evangelical Protestantism. They are less likely to buy into the dominant technocratic secular ideal than other groups and even if they do their embrace of it is modified and softened by their Catholic heritage, which challenges them to find meaning in the wisdom which flows from charity and in a community which pursues this ideal. This is why Catholics had lower suicide rates when Durkheim first studied the phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth century. This why Latino immigrants have lower death rates today.
Not all less educated “white” Americans, to be sure, fully embrace the technocratic secular ideal. But even those who are nominally Catholic are part of an historically Protestant society which, as Weber pointed out nearly a century ago, means that they look for evidence of their spiritual state (or more broadly of their worth as human beings) not, as some incorrect readings of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism claim, in their worldly success, but in their usefulness to society. This is why, as Weber argued, Protestantism has been a precursor to technocratic secularism generally and capitalism in particular. And it is precisely their “usefulness to society” which less educated “white” Americans are finding questioned. I suspect that a deeper look at the problem would find that the trends in suicide and death rates are worst in those regions which, controlling for economic vitality, have the strongest Protestant culture: e.g. Greater Appalachia.
This brings us much closer to a correct interpretation of Case and Deaton’s challenging study –and much closer to an understanding of what must be done if we are both to counter the fascistoid trend which is so strong among less educated white Americans and, more broadly to heal not just this particular demographic segment (it cannot be called a community) and our society as a whole.
First, we must understand the limitations of the technocratic ideal and reject it. This does not mean rejecting science or technology or the belief that they can make our lives better –even radically better in ways which ultimately alters, in some ways, the “existential equation.” But it does mean recognizing that what human beings seek is not infinite consumption but unbounded creativity. We need a science and a technology which help us stop destroying our planet and which focus less on making more for us and more on helping us realize our creative potential. This, in turn, requires a break with Capital for which technological progress is simply a way of driving the value of labor power down to zero, in favor of a structure in which new technologies free human labor from routine drudgery and for creativity.
We don’t know how to get there yet. Historic socialism was too quickly hegemonized by the technocratic ideal and became simply an alternative way of transforming human beings into batteries. But a restored commons, which takes advantage of rising levels of productivity to secure the conditions of survival and development, for everyone on the planet, regardless of their “usefulness” –and ultimately regardless of their labor– is a start. The reason why “universal health care, higher minimum wages, aid to education, and so on” are not enough is that they have not been proposed or implemented so much with the intention of reducing and eventually eliminating market pressures, but rather with simply providing slightly better conditions for people struggling to maintain or increase their usefulness to Capital. Its better than nothing, but it doesn’t address the underlying malaise. This is why less educated “white” Americans don’t believe that even very serious social liberals like Krugman really speak to them. We need to create the conditions for a generation or two of the vast segments of our population “white,” Black, and Latino and “other,” whose labor has been rendered redundant, to “just chill” while they figure out what they want to do next. We need to let them, and not the technogentry whose work is still (sometimes) interesting to them, and Capital, which that work serves, be the principal beneficiaries of technological change.
To put the matter baldly, in the absence of a clear understanding of what this means structurally in the long run the Left needs to offer people cash up front, lots of it, over very long periods of time, without any strings attached. This and this alone will definitively defeat the fascistoid right.
The aim, of course, is not for people to “just chill” indefinitely. But we need to begin by believing that this isn’t really a danger, that contrary to the technocratic secular (and Protestant) narratives which regard human beings as fundamentally selfish, people actually long for unbounded generativity. And so our commons must also become a sanctuary in which human generativity is inspired and cultivated and nurtured. We need to learn from the great majority of humanity’s spiritual traditions which regard human beings as not just potentially useful instruments for an alien Supreme Agency, divine or human, but as potentially or actually wise and enlightened, just and compassionate participants in the ripening of Being. The enduring power of the Catholic tradition has, in this regard, been highlighted by the debate around Case and Deaton, as by Pope Francis’ halting but very real (re)turn of the Church to its historic option not just for the poor but against the instrumentalization of humanity and of the earth, capitalist and otherwise. But other traditions –Judaism and Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, primal or aboriginal traditions and humanistic secularisms also have much to offer the debate. Given reasonable assurance within the technological and means of their society that their basic needs will be met and presented with inspiring visions of the countless ways of ripening Being, human beings will rise to the challenge and strive for unbounded creativity.
Finitude and contingency will always be our defining horizon. It is the knowledge (and experience) of death which challenges us to seek the power of Being as such, and never to rest content with anything else. But the future, which for both our planet itself, as an ecosystem and biome, and for the vast majority those who dwell here, is currently a valley of troubles, can in fact be a gate of hope. The decision is ours. So be it.