Life can be good. We have evidence of this. We’re just not sure how to make it happen. In part, this is because we’re not really sure who “we” are. Will Hutton, writing for the Guardian, talks about Britain, Brexit, and ‘Shit-Life Syndrome.'” He notes that this shit-life syndrome in Britain parallels a lot of the suffering in the U.S. (wherein lower class white folks are starting, more often, to be afflicted with the same problems non-whites have suffered from). Hutton says that the decline in life-expectancy in Britain is starting to look like the worse problems we have in the U.S. A recent study indicates that, in the U.S., “all cause mortality increased… among non-Hispanic whites.” Drug overdoses were the leading cause but mortality also increased for “alcohol-related conditions, suicides and organ diseases involving multiple body systems” (notably liver, heart diseases and cancers).
US doctors coined a phrase for this condition: “shit-life syndrome”. Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighbourhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.
Hutton says that white people afflicted with shit-life syndrome are Trump’s base and the core of Brexit supporters. They respond to accusations that their woes are caused by dark foreigners. Meanwhile, suggestions that the Nordic countries have managed to create a system where their citizens are happier and more prosperous are met with dismissive responses about how the countries are communist.
Hutton doesn’t really get into it, but that’s not the only rejoinder about why we can’t have the good life enjoyed in the Nordic countries. There was another column in the New York Magazine by Eric Levitz entitled “Conservatives can’t decide if Nordic Socialism is a totalitarian nightmare or actually capitalist.” Levitz observes that the traditional conservative notion is that the Nordic countries are totalitarian nightmares. As a representative sample, Levitz references a recent piece by Noah Rothman wherein Rothman argues that single-payer healthcare and tuition free access to a university education are pillars of the Soviet Constitution. However, they are also features of Scandinavian government and Rothman apparently feels no need to explain why those ideas lead to the gulag rather than to, say, Denmark.
Democrats may think they “can control the monster they’re bringing back to life,” Rothman writes, but if socialists are given an opportunity to prevail at the polls, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer “will find themselves prisoners to their party’s collectivists soon enough. After all, taking captives is what socialism does best.”
Levitz can’t resist twisting the knife a little bit by mentioning that the American system is way better at incarcerating its citizens than these socialist countries. At the same time as conservatives are making these gulag-socialism arguments, other conservatives are making incompatible arguments about how Nordic socialism is actually capitalism. According to this version of the argument, ” the real secret of the Nordic country’s success lies in its ‘strong protection of property rights and the integrity of the legal system,’ along with its commitment to free trade, light touch with regulations, and the fact that its ‘labor market is very flexible: there is no legislated minimum wage, and there are few restrictions on hiring and firing.'” Levitz rejoinder to this is that, even if we accept that Denmark’s welfare state isn’t responsible for its strong economic growth, “there’s little question that the country’s aberrantly high levels of social spending are responsible for its exceptionally low levels of relative poverty and income inequality.” Levitz concludes that the implication of this argument is that:
The economic success of the Nordic countries is actually a testament to the vitality of free-market capitalism — because free-market capitalism is (apparently) totally compatible with giant welfare states, nearly universal private-sector unionization, and state-owned oil, telecoms, and financial services companies.
Snark aside, the relative success of the Nordic countries suggests that it’s possible to have substantial wealth transfers from rich to poor without crippling the economy. (Other places, of course, show that wealth transfers can be done in a way that cripples the economy.)
A couple of themes I’ve seen raised in similar contexts that don’t necessarily come up in Hutton or Levitz columns but seem relevant: a) People suffering from shit-life syndrome are lazy and make poor life decisions; and b) the success of Nordic countries has to do with “homogeneous” populations. Here’s the word dropped into a 2015 column by Jeff Jacoby. (Incidentaly, Jacoby goes with the option #2 ‘actually capitalist’ dismissal of Scandinavian socialism.)
The real key to Scandinavia’s unique successes isn’t socialism, it’s culture. Social trust and cohesion, a broad egalitarian ethic, a strong emphasis on work and responsibility, commitment to the rule of law — these are healthy attributes of a Nordic culture that was ingrained over centuries. In the region’s small and homogeneous countries (overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and native-born), those norms took deep root.
The connection between homogeneity and a successful social welfare state is usually left unstated as somehow self-evident, so I have to guess a bit at the rationale. The less charitable interpretation is just straight up racism. “Sure, you can have a successful system where the population is made up of hard-working white people. But, too great a population of the lazy mongrel races will suck us dry.” The not-great but probably more realistic connection between homogeneity and the success of a welfare state is that we’re more likely to feel comfortable spending money on people like us and more likely to resent spending money on people who are not “us.” Racism is probably the biggest stumbling block here. But it’s not the only one — there are other significant cultural divisions that also present challenges. If we think of our fellow citizens as “they” because those citizens look different, it’s going to be tougher to develop consensus about spending money on a strong social safety net. “Helping industrious people like us who are down on their luck is a great idea. Supporting lazy people like them will ruin us.”
So, the homogeneity argument is related to the one where people who suffer from shit life syndrome do so because of laziness and poor life decisions. Why would we spend money to help those who refuse to help themselves? Don’t do drugs! Don’t have kids when you don’t have a job! Don’t have sex out of wedlock! Exercise every day! Don’t buy junk food! Do your homework! Don’t spend your money on luxuries! Don’t smoke! Save more money for retirement! Pay your credit cards off every month! The litany of admonitions is endless. It’s easy to make suffering the result of personal failings. But, as I’ve said many times — and it’s hardly original to me — the economy isn’t a morality play. There are plenty of hard working, sensible poor people; and there are plenty of wealthy people whose wealth is not at all proportional to their personal merit. The fact is that almost none of us are self-made. (Cue the howls of indignation from the people who foamed at President Obama’s unremarkable observation that if you were successful, you had someone help you along the way.)
I’ve never been too comfortable with any one ideology, but I suppose utilitarianism has been more or less my guide when judging whether a public system is good. If your system is mostly making people happy, it’s probably a good one. If your system is mostly making people unhappy, it’s probably a bad one. (But, yes, uncomfortable questions arise if you push this to the extremes. It has to be bounded by individual rights and protection for minority groups.) The success of these Nordic systems seems to be based on giving individuals more opportunity to succeed. It’s probably tougher for an individual to hit the economic jackpot and become a billionaire in the way that the American system makes possible. But, the flip side is that one doesn’t have to beat the odds in order to live a middle class lifestyle which also seems to be increasingly the case under the American system.
As a middle-aged white woman who suffers from shit-life syndrome, I am really tired of being lumped in with angry, racist Trump supporters.
I’m angry, but it has nothing to do with race
Not all members of the growing underclass are ignorant yokels who blame all of their problems on minorities.
Some of us poor folks are progressives who actually read and are able to digest and process information to make informed decisions.
The powers that be love to create racial discord among the working class. It keeps the ignorant masses focused on race, instead of paying attention to the sins of big business and the politicians who bow to their every whim.
Corporations run this country, not the people. Just take a look at the privatization of prisons. Modern day slavery disguised as “penance” that puts more money into greedy, grubby, already obscenely rich hands.
I came of age during the Reagan administration. Livable wages disappeared and unions dismantled. Big business claimed their wealth would trickle down to us at the bottom. They lied, received more tax breaks, or moved their money overseas, adding more money to their already substantial coffers.
Most trades would not hire women then, no matter what the Equal Opportunity Act states as law. I was denied financial help for school twice as a young adult, even when I had a 4.0 GPA.
In 2016, on a fluke and tired of dead end jobs, I applied for aid for school. Finally, at 48, they finally agreed to pay for some of my college education. The rest will be taken out in loans.
A whole lot of good a degree will do me now. When I graduate, I will be competing with young grads who are also saddled with significant student debt.
I will continue to ride out our political and economic shit -storm in my safe academic bubble for as long as I can. Do I think my piece of paper will magically lift me out of the dung-heap? Unlikely.
When I look into the backgrounds of successful people, the overwhelming majority grew up in upper middle class environments. Very few people are self-made today.
For the rest of us, it’s sink or swim, and most of us in the lower caste are doing a desperate dog-paddle, trying not to drown.
My rant is done. I feel one percent better. Thank you.
YES, THANK YOU. I’m a leftist with SLS as well.
I think it should be noted that only 40% of millennials and gen z support capitalism. We are affected by the income inequality crisis, student loans, the housing crisis, etc. more than any other generation (millennials only own 5% of the wealth in the US, despite now being on the verge of middle age. It’ll be even worse for gen z) while also being the most well-informed thanks to easy access to the internet and educations we were told we’d need but can’t apply.
We’re crippled by debt while unable to escape poverty-wage customer service positions that don’t provide healthcare benefits or PTO and struggling to make rent on places that need 4 roommates to be affordable, meaning:
WE ARE WRACKED BY SHIT LIFE SYNDROME.
It’s why there’s a “worker shortage”; we cannot mentally handle the idea of returning to HORRIBLE conditions, HORRIBLE pay, and HORRIBLE treatment, with no sign of anything improving in the near future. If we’re going to be destitute no matter what, why would we return?? Might as well be the version of destitute where you’re not worked to the bone. The climate crisis is going to cut our lives short, so we better make the most of our time left. Fuck it. If they want us back, then make it worth our while.
Attributing SLS to Trump voters is insane when 60% of the two generations most affected by said Shit Lives are anti-capitalist LEFTISTS. And these leftists are sick and fucking tired of such an awful quality of life.
Benjamin David Steele says
I agree with poorandunknown. I too am a working class white, although I was raised middle class. I’m not desperately poor, but there was a period of time when in severe depression when I was living below the poverty line. Many people raised middle class have fallen out of the middle class. That is why the middle class is shrinking and inequality is growing. I might add, if you look at the demographics, the largest support for Trump came from the lower middle class — that is to say the people most at risk of falling out of the middle class.
The poor, whites or otherwise, aren’t particularly conservative, right-wing or reactionary, and no more likely to vote Republican. Actually, the poor lean Democratic, even in the conservative South. But most poor people are disfranchised, either kept from voting by intentionally designed obstacles (closed polling stations in poor neighborhoods, voter purges, etc) or because of apathy in response to failed democracy (no matter who poor people vote, as research shows politicians still only do what the rich tell them to do).
The homogeneity view never made any sense to me. Social identities are always largely social constructions. Until the world war era, most Europeans didn’t identify with nation-states but instead identified with their regions, local cultures, communities, religions, etc. I have an ancestor who immigrated to the US in the mid-19th century. In three different censuses, it shows him as being born in France, Germany, and Alsace-Lorraine. Well, which is it? The fact of the matter is that the region was variously under control of either country, but obviously my ancestor didn’t feel attached to either national identity. That used to be the typical attitude.
Even in the US, region and state identities were more common than the national identities until recent generations. Also, our present sense of whiteness was invented not that long ago, well within living memory. In the early 1900s, European-Americans of different national origins or ethnicities did not identity as the same people. Even the crime data was kept separately for different groups: Italians, Irish, Jews, etc. New identities are regularly created over very short periods of time. It’s not that sense of separate identities keeps people from assimilating and allowing socially democratic welfare states. Rather, socially democratic welfare states encourage assimilate and create new common identities. That is what happened in the US, as that was the intended purpose of public schools for example, to enforce assimilation and it worked.
Anyway, the whole homogoneity argument is bullshit, from top to bottom. It doesn’t even fit the facts, if one digs deep enough. As Eric Uslaner explained (Segregation and Mistrust, Kindle Locations 65-73):
“[C]orrelations across countries and American states between trust and all sorts of measures of diversity were about as close to zero as one can imagine… [L]iving among people who are different from yourself didn’t make you less trusting in people who are different from yourself. But that left me with a quandary: Does the composition of where you live not matter at all for trust in people unlike yourself? I had no ready answer, but going through the cross-national data set I had constructed, I found a variable that seemed remotely relevant: a crude ordinal measure (from the Minorities at Risk Project at my own university, indeed just one floor below my office) of whether minorities lived apart from the majority population. I found a moderately strong correlation with trust across nations – a relationship that held even controlling for other factors in the trust models I had estimated in my 2002 book. It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”
Division, often artificially created and politically enforced, has long been used to either violently or economically oppress the poor. If you look at parts of the South that had the highest per capita of slaves, they remain the most unequal and impoverished parts of the country. It’s not only that blacks are still worse off in those places but whites as well. Those places have the least public investment into public goods: schools, library, healthcare, etc. Racial (or ethnic or religious) division is often a cover for class war of a caste system.