Why are Americans so desperately unhappy? What’s up with the opioid addiction, the mass murders, the deaths of despair, and the deep cynicism, that I’ve come to call American nihilism?
Maybe this is all because we’ve embraced economic policies that condemned millions of Americans in the working classes to poverty and misery, while treating our natural world like an open sewer?
One of those ruinous economic policies pushed so enthusiastically by our elite was free trade. Free trade allowed US corporations to close America factories and relocate to foreign sites where desperate workers would do the same work as American workers for a fraction of the cost.
Free trade was touted endlessly as beneficial to all Americans. In reality, free trade, despite the misleading moniker has been wonderful for the elite and terrible for the rest of us. What’s more, these effects weren’t acts of God. The mass unemployment, stagnant job market, and soaring rents that have driven so many working class Americans into destitution and misery since Reagan’s time aren’t bugs, they’re features, meant to increase the wealth of those who benefit from lower labor costs and asset ownership.
And that brings us to another economic policy that’s led to the immiseration of Americans and the corresponding nihilism–austerity. A modern economy depends on consumer expenditures for prosperity. When most consumers don’t have enough money to meet the ordinary requirements of life, much less the occasional luxury, the economy contracts. That’s the unmentionable fallacy at the heart of the austerity policies so dear to neoliberal economists and our sociopathic elite. As Henry Ford demonstrated by paying his workers more, the prosperity of the whole economy depends on the prosperity of the working classes. Austerity policies that impoverish the working classes for the temporary enrichment of the privileged thus always end badly. Can you say Third Reich?
Then, there’s our vaunted American democracy where both political parties have come to be solely concerned with the interests of the privileged classes and opposed to the interests of working-class Americans, even as they pretend to be rivals. There’s no doubt in my mind that this kayfabe arrangement is an enormous contributor to American nihilism.
For an example, let’s examine how we elect a chief-executive. The entire rhetoric of presidential politics in my lifetime has focused on the claim that we have to vote for the Democratic candidate because if the Republican candidate wins he’ll get to nominate a horrible Supreme Court justice or get us into another war or destroy the environment, even though it’s beyond obvious that the Democratic candidate supports the very same policies and is bought and sold by the same corrupt interests. Any suggestion that a presidential candidate might be expected to do something positive is dismissed out of hand as “unrealistic.”
Voting for the lesser evil means that the best the American people are supposed to hope for is the continuation of the current state of affairs, and for most Americans today, the current state of affairs is unbearable. If you don’t happen to belong to the privileged classes, life in today’s USA is rapidly becoming intolerable and the “realistic” policies pursued enthusiastically by both political parties are directly responsible for making it intolerable.
Trump surprising victory demonstrates that the American people have had enough of voting for the lesser-evil.
Still, there’s another important reason for American nihilism, but it’s one of those topics that’s largely unmentionable. I think that most Americans, whether they will admit it or not, know in their heart of hearts that the American way of life–the happy motoring to the suburbs, constant shopping and endless growth–are sacrificing our future. Peak oil and global warming are only a couple of the looming disasters that represent the dark side of the American dream.
Going further, I believe that we can point to a specific historical point where American nihilism began. I have in mind 1979, when President Carter gave his famous malaise speech, where in response to the energy crisis, he called on Americans to unify around a sense of civic sacrifice. Carter, also, correctly identified the roots of the nihilism that plagues us today–the American way of life with its rampant consumerism and materialism.
Here’s just a little of what Carter had to say. “The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”
Unfortunately, Americans were not ready for the sacrifice that was required, especially when Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s campaign theme of the 1980 election was “Morning in America”.
The economic and environmental decisions we made back in the 1970’s had a common denominator that a certain pro-wrestling Hall-of-Fame-president used to muscle his way into the White House. This Faustian bargain–throwing working class Americans and the environment under the bus–were supposed to make America great again, except these policies have abjectly failed. The policies we’re talking about–the lavish subsidies for corporations and the wealthy, punitive austerity for the poor, endless wars in the Middle-East, malign neglect of domestic infrastructure, and willful ignorance in the face of the obvious consequences of climate change–were supposed to bring prosperity to America and maintain our place as the preeminent hegemon.
These policies have failed and yet no one wants to talk about it.
Perhaps American nihilism is ultimately about our long-running deal with the devil, where it’s dawning on us that he got the better of the deal.
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