Class War, Guess Who’s Winning?
I can’t say I’m surprised by this Times story, citing research which points out that the life expectancy of less educated American white women declined by five years over the past two decades. The relevant comparison made even by the Times was to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the social welfare networks of the communist state collapsed and oligarchs were quicker than anyone else to understand and exploit the situation. But in America, this collapse of life expectancy of the less educated took place without any kind of convulsion—under the presidencies of Clinton and George W. Bush, marked for the most part by growing prosperity, at least for those at the upper ends. While life expectancy among poor white women was collapsing, the Dow Jones average went from about 3,000 in 1990 to 12,000 in 2008, when the study concluded.
Christopher Lasch saw this coming, though I doubt even he could imagine that the female half of poor whites could have had their their lives shattered to such a degree. His Revolt of the Elites, published after his death in 1994, contains this passage in the introduction:
The culture wars that have convulsed America since the sixties are best understood as a form of class warfare, in which the enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial, and xenophobic), much less to persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or “alternative” institutions in which it will be no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all.
Lasch probably could foresee an America in which the white working class would be stripped of cultural respect and lose all power to shape part of the national narrative, but I don’t think he quite envisioned the extent of its pauperization. The researchers cited above note that lack of a job (along with cigarette smoking) is the most critical contributor to reduced life expectancy, and the reduced earnings of low wage workers surely contribute. (Let’s bring in more poor immigrants, chirp together neocons and neoliberals, to reduce the wages even further!) And of course there’s an ethno/cultural element: Lasch regularly reminded us that America’s old ruling elites felt a sense of shared community and responsibility for the lower classes of their country, with whom they felt a common destiny. It’s hardly likely that the high-flyers of J.P. Morgan, much less the GOP’s beloved Sheldon Adelson, harbor such sentiments.