White and Trashed: The collapse of American capitalism

Finian Cunningham
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.
© Carlos Barria
News headlines this week of epidemic drug abuse and mortality among Americans confirm what many observers have already noted – America is in bad, bad shape.

But despite the media coverage, there was little commentary on the backdrop to the malaise. American society is collapsing because of an epic failure in the economy.

Reports dwelt on the types of drugs being used and metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, but there was scant attention given to soaring poverty and social misery. Could this be because the US media, like the government, is covering for what should be the “big story”? The bankruptcy of American capitalism. And when we say “bankrupt” we mean not just a protracted downturn in the “business cycle” – but rather the entire system mired in a condition of historic, terminal failure.

READ MORE: 'America is a bomb waiting to explode'

The Washington Post headlined: “Nearly 60 percent of Americans — the highest ever — are taking prescription drugs”. Reporting on a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the article revealed: “Nearly three in five American adults take a prescription drug, up markedly since 2000 because of much higher use of almost every type of medication, including antidepressants and treatments for high cholesterol and diabetes.”

Based on the same study, NBC News headlined: “More Americans than ever use prescription drugs”. The channel reported that “the percentage of people taking prescription drugs rose from 51 percent of the adult population in 1999 to 59 percent in 2011.”

Meanwhile, the London-based Financial Times, reporting on a separate study also published this week, ran this grim headline: “White, middle-aged, uneducated and dying”. The FT said: “Drug and alcohol abuse and mental health issues in the US are contributing to an alarming surge in deaths among white middle-aged people, in a trend that has reversed decades of progress and is not being seen in other advanced economies.”

Americans drugged up, US economy dragged down

It is estimated that nearly half a million people from the white middle-aged demographic died from drug-related abuse from 1999 to 2013. While the African-American population still has higher rates of poverty and morbidity, the most salient increase is recorded among the white population, according to the study.

The FT report alludes to a unifying factor: the immense economic insecurity felt in modern American society. However, notably, this factor was downplayed in the general media coverage.

Both the Washington Post and NBC cited the dramatic increased consumption of anti-depressant drugs, among other prescribed medicines. They ascribed the rise in drug use to a range of factors, including diabetes, aging population, anti-cholesterol medicine and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies pushing doctors to prescribe more and more drugs to their patients.

© Brian Snyder

But, curiously, neither report addressed the social background of record levels of poverty, homelessness and unemployment.

Other sources, including government census figures, attest that indicators of social hardship are off the charts in the US. Nearly 50 million Americans are living in poverty, according to the US Census Bureau. It seems bizarre that two major mainstream media outlets chose not to explore this relevant background to soaring drug dependency and mortality in the US.

The FT, a supposedly business-focused news outlet, hinted at the bigger economic picture of the phenomenal drug problem among American citizens, but again its coverage was only tangential. That suggests an attempt to conceal the deeper cause.

Its report was based on a study by Princeton University economists Anne Case and recent Nobel laureate Angus Deaton, who found “rising mortality among white men and women aged 45-54 since the late 1990s.” The FT added: “The increase was caused not by factors such as heart disease or diabetes but by suicides and overdoses of prescription drugs and alcohol-related diseases.”

The chronic abuse of opioid drugs in the US has been declared as a “national epidemic” by the Food and Drug Administration, according to the FT. In 2013, some 44,000 people died from overdosing on these drugs. Over half that toll was from prescription opioids, such as OxyContin, while the other half was accounted for by illegal heroin-based narcotics.

Such is the crisis that US President Barack Obama has personally intervened to step up government efforts to tackle the problem. Obama recently noted that drug overdose is now the leading cause of injury deaths in the US, exceeding that from road accidents or gun violence.

An uncomfortable truth for US labor force

Paul Craig Roberts, formerly a senior member of the US Treasury Department, has the inside track on all of this. Roberts dismisses official claims of “economic recovery” and employment figures as hogwash peddled by the mainstream news media. He says that the American economy is in terminal decline from decades of neoliberal policies that have off-shored millions of well-paid manufacturing jobs to cheap-labor overseas destinations.

The official US unemployment rate of near 6 percent belies the real figure of over 20 percent, according to Roberts.

Decent blue-collar jobs have disappeared from the American landscape leaving behind an exploding population of low-paid menial workers and chronically unemployed, who have given up on the prospect of ever finding employment. Millions of Americans are off the official labor registers. The historic demise is now manifest among the white population, who formerly would have accrued better prospects than African-Americans.

“White trash” – a derogatory term that traditionally described poor white folks of the American South – seems now to be applicable to whites across the entire nation.

One expression of this is the disappearance of what used to be referred to as the “middle class”. More and more Americans, it seems, have slipped into an underclass of unemployed, poor and stressed-out social aliens.

Job seekers stand in line to meet with prospective employers at a career fair in New York City. © Mike Segar

Another manifestation is the number of young Americans who can no longer afford to form households because of the lack of decent jobs. Figures show that nearly half of 25-year-olds have to live in their parental homes.

Correlated to the demise of American society is the rise in despair and economic marginalization, which in turn is related to the soaring abuse of alcohol and other drugs, both prescription and illegal narcotics.

This partly explains why Democrat Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has garnered such a popular following among American voters. Sanders, an avowed socialist, may not follow through with corrective economic policies if elected, but his rhetoric condemning the excesses of capitalism is finding a receptive audience. That’s because the public’s awareness of capitalism’s failings has inevitably grown in line with the mounting social damage from this system.

A factor setting America apart from other countries is that its social welfare system is relatively mean compared, say, with Europe. That puts casualties from US-style capitalism in much sharper and deleterious consequences.

Worldwide, the capitalist system is not in good shape, as even outlook reports by the International Monetary Fund admit. But the United States, with its historic social policy differences, makes the system’s decline ever-more brutal for its workers and general population.

The abysmal void between a tiny rich elite and the rest of US society – the top one percent own more wealth that the bottom 90 percent – is not fixable under prevailing capitalist policies. The only “fix” it seems is for more and more desperate people to dull the pain with drugs and other pathological habits.

Whites are now joining the ranks of other population groups who have previously tended to experience endemic poverty in the US.

White and trashed. Like the majority of the US population. But don’t expect the American media to inform about this huge story – the collapse of American capitalism

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.