Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age
(attributed to Victor Hugo)
In his article “Opioids and Paternalism”, Dr. David Brown described the new face of American drug addiction, “the new underclass is stymied by economic obsolescence, a sense of victimhood, and an exaggerated view of its own physical damage”. One of my former professors used to say, “don’t re-invent the wheel unnecessarily” to convey the idea that one does not need to create new analyses and methodologies for every problem. In addition to Dr. Brown’s sound scientific and psychological observations, I believe that we may also look to history for enlightenment regarding the current malaise.
Do the Europeans know anything?
The French historian Jules Michelet (1797-1874) sought, over the course of his career, to develop a theory and vision of human history that would reflect natural history. Relying as he did on natural sciences for insight into history, Michelet arrived at some startling insights into human history via biology, and it is these insights that are applicable to America today.
In his L’Histoire de France, Michelet uncovered a correlation between increased life expectancy and socio-technical development. The essential pattern, starting in the Renaissance, was: health-related discovery, leading to longer life, and within a generation or two new thinkers and innovators appeared whose ideas and devices revolutionized the contemporary way of life. But, as in physics, these developments always came with an equal but opposite reaction. In biology-based history, the reaction came from a specific group of malcontents, those young enough to benefit from the scientific and technical discoveries but old enough to feel threatened by the devices and the new way of life and expectations they brought, i.e. those in the youth of old age. These people began to portray themselves as the victims of progress. The difference between Michelet’s discontented class and the modern American group is age, wealth, and status – Americans simply have more of everything than did the French petit-bourgeois – but the primary trait is, in all probability, the same.
Across nineteen dense volumes, Michelet created an overarching image of the underclass that is best described as those who had to live longer and with fewer intangibles, such as a prestigious profession, than they would have liked. Needless to say, the demographics of this underclass were not those who suffered from absolute poverty as they had sufficient leisure time to be bothered by their lack of intangibles. An example of this situation is the family of the composer Richard Wagner. The panegyric book The Life of Wagner (translated by W. Ashton Ellis in 1900 from the German Das Leben von Richard Wagner) chronicles multiple generations of the Wagner family, starting with their origin as miners and farm laborers through their rise to country schoolmasters and finally to university-educated government officials. Through the course of the genealogy two themes emerge: the men of the Wagner family lived longer each generation, and as they rose each felt dissatisfaction with his own position compared to his neighbors, younger peers, and sons, who would eventually adopt their fathers’ discontent. In a single family, we can see the pernicious effect of perceptive relativism.
Europe to America
The issue of relativism is central to understanding how French and German socio-cultural history is applicable to the modern American malaise. In his article, Dr. Brown alluded to statistics that indicate around 43% of able-bodied American males are not engaged in gainful employment. He hypothesized that the root cause is an underclass flight from reality through the use of opioids. Accepting Dr. Brown’s thesis is true, the question of applying Michelet’s insights remains. The explanation is in technology and the economy, or more specifically “economic obsolescence”.
The common narrative regarding technology is that it displaces low- or unskilled workers, who are left bereft of dignity, value, and meaning, initiating a slide into poverty which the modern rendering connects to substance abuse. We have seen this story before during the Luddite Rebellion of early 1800s England when cottage-industry cotton spinners and weavers smashed the mechanical mills in a bid to retain their socio-cultural status as craftsmen of a luxury good, a good which they could not afford themselves. While economic history demonstrates the falsity of the anti-tech narrative the recurrence of this bromide serves as a form of social absolution.
By seeking refuge behind tropes, the myth-bearer obviates personal responsibility. Lest anyone think that we are unnecessarily denigrating the working class, one should examine Charles Murray’s Coming Apart in which he recorded observations of low-skilled male workers who, in 2009, at the height of the Recession, and unable to support their families, refused to apply for available local blue-collar positions and excused themselves using phrases saturated with victim mentality (178-181). Technically, the men Murray interviewed were not economically obsolete, though they did belong to the underclass described by Brown, as there were positions available which they declined to fill. The purpose of this summary is to provide a modern real-life example of the effects of mental lassitude and its implicit consequences.
Youth, technology, and mental models
The dynamic facing modern American youth – and I confess to being part of this demographic – is that technology has brought mid-life regret and a premature sense of inadequacy straight to our handhelds. This statement is not a denunciation of technology: far from it. Having the ability, however, to conduct business from my smartphone is double-edged. In a few clicks of a button, anyone may discover, too late, the entrance requirements for Harvard, the qualifications expected for professional promotion, or find the joker from youth orchestra who became a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. In the information game, he who knows first wins most.
The very convenience of technology has removed the specter of false hope. However, one must also wonder if information accessibility has not stolen dreams and ambition as people surrender to feelings of “being behind” and give up before beginning, with some merely becoming resentful and others seeking the pitiable flight from reality discussed by David Brown. This is the loss of will, chronicled by Jules Michelet, felt by those who have long lives ahead of them yet perceive themselves to be unalterably stranded. Unfortunately, Michelet’s histories offered no solution as his materially comfortable underclasses simply died out in dissatisfied whimpers. Given ample historic proofs that an attitude change must come from within, I am inclined to believe that the same must occur in modern America.