Class and Beyond: Case-Deaton’s “Deaths of Despair,” Embodiment, and Neoliberal Epidemics

Theory of Change

First of all, it’s madness to think that the country can have an increase in mortality with no political effects; organic damage — AIDS, the trenches of World War I, lynching (ultimately), and even, if you want to think of it that way, abortion — always brings about a political reaction from those damaged, or speaking on behalf of the damaged, often massive. So why don’t we have either major political party directly capitalizing on “deaths of despair”? I mean, aren’t political parties supposed to be about making voters’ lives better? At best, we’ve got Trump putting Kelly Anne Conway in charge of something or other; and the Democrats are silent.[2]

To answer that, let me flounder through my priors. This is not laughably oversimplified, but cliche, so don’t @ me, but I picture our society as having a pyramid-like structure with a 1% (more like a 0.01%) at the tippy top, who own capital, with a cadre of professionals below them, the 10%, who make sure the 1%’s capital stays buffed and tidy, with the remaining 90% below them, who don’t own capital, and therefore sell their labor power by working to make a living. (Figures may not add due to rounding.) Part of buffing capital is managing all that labor power for profit; another part is keeping the 90% divided, “punching sideways” and not, heaven forfend, up.)

So where does electoral politics fit into all that? Teetering onwards and continuing to oversimplify, this is my theory of change: I believe that “change” — and I’ve “had it,” as Gaius Publius says, I want “change” — comes only when a supermajority of the electorate has the power to demand it collectively; in other words, a big chunk of the 90% has to think and act the same way (and some class traitors in the 10% and 1%, too). I posit that constantly hammering on a platform of universal concrete material benefits, especially for the working class, is the way to bring about that realignment (“Peace, land, bread!”). Both party establishments disagree, as they would. Since the focus of the donor class is on keeping the 90% divided, the parties actively avoid seeking a supermajority, instead deploying a strategy of 50% + 1, that is, about half the electorate plus a few marginal voters. Trump did this by flipping Obama voters in 2016; the Democrats are trying to do this by flipping wealthy suburbanites, especially women, in 2018 and 2020. And this is what the whole swing state/bellwether county model of campaigning is about, and has been for years.

So, floundering along, tactically, how to win a supermajority in a deliberately divided electorate? And an electorate in our enormous country that is legitimately different, in that the life experiences — and class and cultural markers — of a first generation Hispanic immigrant woman in Miami will be very different from those of a male black descendant of slaves in Detroit will be very different from a sixth-generation WASP gay male in Brooklyn. Yes, they are all most likely to be selling their labor power at work as members of the 90%, but what about all the differences? The answer ought to be intersectionality, so that we could all see society as a sort of ginormous Venn diagram of overlapping identities. People ought to be able to communicate at the overlaps; to communicate with each other as both working people and black (or white (or…)) and female (or male (or…)). Unfortunately, intersectionality has been vulgarized into “identity politics,” whose logic is not both/and but either/or; that’s why you never hear about a “black working class” from liberal Democrats, for example; the category cannot exist for them. Worse, both intersectionality and identity politics focus the gaze of the citizen inward at the task of self-categorization, no matter whether the logic be the inclusive both/and or the exclusive either/or, and so you end up with absurd politics like this: “The most radical thing we can do is to be ourselves, no matter what that means or who tells us we’re wrong.” Most radical? Really?

Now my priors are out of the way, so onward. If intersectionality has failed — except for the 1% — because the parties have irretrievably polluted it with identity politics (yes), what to do to win that supermajority? I’m glad you asked. Here is a handy chart of Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs:

– Naked Capitalism

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