‘Deaths of despair’ point to working-class calamity

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Source: Vancouver Sun

Immediately after Vancouver author and anthropologist Wade Davis wrote a viral essay on the United States’ decline into extreme economic inequality, he heard from thousands of Americans who felt betrayed by their country’s leaders.

The men and women who responded angrily to Davis’s August essay in Rolling Stone magazine, which drew millions of readers, were largely made up of blue-collar workers who felt marginalized while historic gains were being made by women, homosexuals and people of colour.

“Those movements happened in the same decades that globalization was changing the fundamental social contract between labour and capital,” which obliterated most of the good jobs for working people of limited education, said Davis, a University of B.C. professor of ecology and culture, in a recent interview.

“These people felt they had made a deal” with governments and businesses that they would be rewarded for their hard work. “And now they have a sense of betrayal.” The jobs they once held proudly in manufacturing, mining, forestry and other traditional sectors “all basically disappeared in a generation or two, as capital went on the prowl in search of cheap labour around the globe.”

The author of the Rolling Stone piece, The Unraveling of America, is among a small but growing cohort of thinkers appalled by the way many working-class Americans abandoned by the capitalist system are dying rapidly from so-called “deaths of despair,” characterized by suicide and chronic drug and alcohol use.

Such people, often from the hinterlands of America — and Canada — “will not be a part of a new transformed green-energy economy, or a knowledge-based economy, or a digital economy. They’ve just been discarded. That’s why the highest cause of death for those under 50 is no longer car accidents, but opioid use,” Davis said.

“There are towns in places like West Virginia where the amount of opiate drugs has per-capita consumption equal to each person taking hundreds of pills a year. In other words, a great percentage of the town is on these drugs. In some towns in Kentucky and Tennessee, people tell me there is no workman you would hire who is not strung out on crystal meth.”

The acclaimed new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, provides the background to Davis’s worries. It details the “epidemic” of deaths among the U.S. working class, explaining how “today’s America has become a land of broken families and few prospects.”

Co-written by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who won the Nobel Prize in 2015, Deaths of Despair describes the nuances behind how tens of millions of white people with limited educations are increasingly vulnerable to suicide, drug overdose and alcoholism.

The cohort, which consists of white people (who are not Hispanic) who do not have bachelor’s degrees, accounts for 38 per cent of the U.S’s working-age population — or 65 million people.

It is not lost on the authors that this discouraged demographic has provided one of the strongest voting blocs for populist U.S. President Donald Trump.

And it would not be surprising if it’s eventually confirmed this demographic contained many of the pumped-up protesters, mostly white, who took part in this month’s shocking breach of Washington D.C.’s Capitol buildings.

“The election of Donald Trump is understandable in the circumstances, but it is a gesture of frustration and rage that will makes things worse, not better … Working-class whites do not believe that democracy can help them — more than two-thirds think elections are controlled by the rich and by big corporations,” the authors wrote last year, almost anticipating the mob breach.

Even though life expectancy for American Blacks remains worse than it is in for whites as a whole, Deaths of Despair reveals that mortality rates and the ratio of deaths from suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse among working-class whites surpassed that of Blacks 20 years ago.

Life for many middle- and low-income Americans often now lacks structure, meaning and status. Wages have stagnated while rates of union membership, and even marriage, have swiftly declined for whites without four-year degrees.

“Those who do not pass the exams and graduate to the cosmopolitan elite do not get to live in the fast-growing, high-tech and flourishing cities — and are assigned jobs threatened by globalization and by robots,” say Case and Deaton. “The less educated are devalued or even disrespected, are encouraged to think of themselves as losers, and may feel that the system is rigged against them.”

The two Princeton economists and UBC’s Davis are on broadly similar wavelengths about how to respond to these deaths of despair among the white blue-collar class. They believe North American capitalism can be reformed.

“In the 1950s the economy of the U.S. was much closer to Denmark that is to the American of today,” Davis said, expanding on his Rolling Stone article. In the 1950s the American rich, he said, were paying a much higher proportion of taxes.

“Back then the income for CEOs was 20 times that of a staffer. Not 400 times, like today. Now the three richest Americans control more wealth than the poorest 160 million Americans all put together. So things aren’t good in the hinterlands.”

The authors of Deaths of Despair explain how U.S. politicians have exploited those on lower incomes, by failing to provide reliable health care for all while doing the bidding of corporations that shower them with political donations. They have allowed rapacious monopolies to exploit cheap, non-union labour wherever it can be found.

What does this all mean for Canada, particularly in light of B.C.’s out-of-control opioid crisis, which is the worst of any province and last year broke records by costing more than 1,550 lives, mostly of men? (That figure is higher than B.C. deaths attributed to COVID-19.)

For all the attention given to the overdose calamity in Canada, I’m not aware of any scholars drawing a link between it and an epidemic of despair among the virtually forgotten working classes.

If the Princeton economists are right, the popular political responses in B.C. of drug legalization and “harm reduction,” however applicable in a limited way, will not rescue this cohort of defeated people.

A deeper perspective is required in Canada. But that is a piece for another day.

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