In 1998, two Canadian psychologists, Michael Chandler and Christopher Lalonde, published an unusual paper on the psychology of suicide. Examining the widely varying suicide rates among 196 Indian tribes in British Columbia, which vary by a factor of a thousand between tribes, Chandler and Lalonde propose that an awareness of what they call “self-continuity” was protective against suicide. They summarize their theoretical framework as follows:
The central theoretical idea developed here is that, because it is constitutive of what it means to have or be a self to somehow count oneself as continuous in time, anyone whose identity is undermined by radical personal and cultural change is put at special risk to suicide for the reason that they lose those future commitments that are necessary to guarantee appropriate care and concern for their own well-being.
They then suggest that this individual sense of continuity in time is enmeshed in belonging to a culture that precedes us as individuals and reaches into the future.
Like other potential sources of continuity and discontinuity, cultures too appear to be double-edged swords. At least when they tended to outlive the people who populated them, cultures offered a more “mythic” time-frame that could be relied on to lend a certain age to things. Even now, when cultures seemingly wink in and out of existence, they still appear to sometimes work in the service of self-continuity by holding our noses to a grindstone of social responsibilities and cultural promises during our own moments of developmental transition. At least this is possible when they are working well.
Examining the 196 tribes of British Columbia, they construct an index of cultural continuity that includes some measures of self-government (like running their own police, fire departments and schools), successfully making legal claims of ownership over traditional lands, as well as the presence of cultural centers or facilities on tribal lands. Combined, these measures are strongly predictive of lowered levels of suicide at a tribal level, which Chandler and Lalonde take as supportive of their theoretical framework.
Like many cross-cultural comparative studies, Chandler and Lalonde’s 1998 paper (which they have expanded upon in several follow-ups also examining First Nations suicide rates) suffers from whole Nations of potential omitted variable bias. But as a theoretical framework for thinking and speaking more productively about the psychology of self-destruction and suicide, the ideas of self and cultural continuity are revelatory.
Sixty-three percent of the rapidly rising total number of suicides in the US in 2017 were white, non-Hispanic males, who only make up 30 percent of the nation’s population. 2017 also saw over 72,000 fatal drug overdoses, a rate over 16 times higher than in the 1970s (when drugs were already considered an epidemic) and a significantly heightened number of deaths due to alcoholism, both of which are also concentrated among white males, comparable only to American Indian men in their combined likelihood of drug, alcohol, or suicide deaths.
Reaching back to Chandler and Lalonde, one wonders whether white men, like American and Canadian Indians before them, find themselves lacking in both self-continuity and cultural continuity. In the words of Michel Houllebecq, speaking broadly of Western decline to the Paris Review a few years ago, “The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.”
An honest appraisal of most contemporary media would suggest that a campaign of discrediting white males and their history appears to be the mission statement of many news and opinion outfits, while other media and online settings respond with a counter-narrative focused on nurturing and amplifying racial and sexual resentment. It would be easy, and probably partially correct, to argue that the interplay of these two master stories, between guilt and rage, leads to the kind of breakdown in individual and cultural continuity that leads to spiraling self-destruction among many men and vindictive and nihilistic violence among a few. But there are probably more structural explanations.
A friend who predicted Trump’s electoral success early on had a simple explanation: people are bored. This was also, he argued, why people were overdosing on opioids and drinking themselves to death and killing themselves in rapidly increasing numbers, an analysis he punctuated by successfully drinking himself to death in the couple years afterwards. Being aware of statistics does not stop you from becoming one.
Politics is the OxyContin of the chattering classes and those who mockingly quote tweet them. This is not to say, of course, that the drug crisis is simply motivated by the same excess of free time and directionless cultural drift as “time for some game theory” conspiracy theories. The easy availability of black tar heroin, and then fentanyl; the marketing and over-prescription of pharmaceutical opioids; massive public and private insurance fraud; porous borders and poorly monitored ports surely all have played more material and direct roles.
But if despair can be quantified, not only in suicides and overdoses and men drinking from the bottle in cars parked on the side of the road, but in simultaneously collapsing birthrates and marriage rates, surely it can also be characterized in gestalt terms, as a spirit of the age that is surprisingly indifferent to high employment and stable wages. We are hypnotized by the unfolding of the news, even when it is fundamentally free of events of lasting significance, because we feel ourselves like water molecules in a pot that is starting to boil. We are at a phase transition that will toss some of us into the air before others but that, given time, could well come for us all.
Trump’s election was, according to some, the End of the End of History, just as 9/11 was to be before it. In both cases, though, the apparent weakness of our political system and national security state belies how the world order becomes even more integrated after these supposed cataclysms than they were before. The End of History continues on its happy course, leaving Rust Belt men dropping fentanyl and fat neoliberal economists praising the wonders of socialism in its wake. Whether or not a southern border wall ever gets built, in most ways 2019 seems like 2016, only much more so. The constant popping of yesterday’s news, as evanescent as soap bubbles, obscures much larger structural changes in how we live and what use the society and economy has for us.
The fundamental change of our time is the End of the Bourgeois Era and the end of the monogamous heterosexual family as the key unit of economic organization. But this seemingly cultural and political, (ostensibly feminist) metamorphosis of the family has macroeconomic and technological forces behind it. The industrial revolution and its aftermath occurred in large part because men could sell their labor in competitive market economies and use that sale to support increasing standards of living for their families. The post-medieval economy allowed for an explosion of production in large part because European and then global markets were never demand-constrained. Increasingly fluid financial markets meant that what was produced could be sold. What has changed in recent decades is that the mobility and automation of productive processes, combined with a glut of the supply of financial capital, results in a macroeconomic production function that is demand-constrained rather than supply constrained. This is no country for old men, but even the young are valuable more as consumers than producers.
A central theme of Krugman, Bernanke and sundry’s analysis of the financial crisis, was that negative real interest rates, and the global glut of savings showed the economy was below capacity and that only artificially stimulated demand could allow for full employment. Trump’s policies and their macroeconomic success are a confirmation of Keynesian economists’ predictions, not their repudiation. Apparently irresponsible fiscal policy and tax cuts have allowed for much greater increases in employment than was predicted two years ago. But just as Bernanke’s multi-trillion dollar asset purchases of immaculately materialized money during the financial crisis seemed to have stabilized the financial system, at the cost of making obvious the absurdity that holds it all together. A government that funds its ample operations largely through debt rather than revenue suggests something very strange is going on.
What seems evident, but is perhaps empirically unprovable is that these global economic imbalances also produce tensions that manifest themselves culturally, in political pressures to increase demand without increasing supply commensurately. It is a fact universally acknowledged that, cool wine aunts with infinite travel budgets aside, savings rates for monogamous families are much higher than savings rates for single adults, and the social and economic processes that produce stable families or continuity through history and over time may be badly suited for an era when, as George W. Bush said after 9/11, our highest civic duty is to go shopping. Water flows downhill, and our political and economic system, designed to maximize global material and financial throughput by any means necessarily, finds multiple solutions to its needs.
The global economy, already a super AI, would happily turn us all into paper clips, as long as afterwards we kept buying in bulk. This is the nature of the despair of living at the end of history. We find ourselves extraneous to the future on its way to coming about. Even as a rapidly adaptive set of cybernetic technologies monopolize our attention with ever-greater efficacy, our individual contribution to those technologies and the economy they structure is ever more attenuated, and our individual connection to any individual or cultural past and future appears ever more elusive.
This new society, given enough time, might likely select for those most resistant to this despair, to those who see value for themselves irrespective of the value of their labor and a path to the future regardless of the fog before us. That vision could be illusory or a matter of faith, and given enough time our present demographic trends appear to be favoring deep religiosity and conservatism at the level of genetic selection even while immediate cultural trends are towards millenarian secularism and self-actualized selfishness. It is the Amish and Mormons and Ultra-Orthodox Jews whose stubborn traditionalism appears to be winning the future, at least in terms of numbers. In the meantime, it seems the rest of us will keep watching, with rapt absorption, as various kinds of nothing happen in the news.
Jeremy Larson is a public policy researcher in the United States.