Deaths of Despair | Trump, Brexit, Putin and Dostoyevsky

“The Russian soul is a dark place.”

Angus Deaton has a new book out.   Not the disgraced former presenter of Have I Got News for You, but the Nobel prize winning Economist.

Deaton was the first person to use the phrase “deaths of despair” to describe the declining life expectancy of non-college educated white Americans.  In 1999 mortality rates of non college educated white Americans were 30 percent lower than mortality rates of Black Americans. By 2015 they were 30 percent higher. Deaton, and his wife, the Public Health Doctor Anne Case, investigated the reasons for this decline and found a predictable pattern of suicide, obesity, prescription drug abuse and guns. Initially this decline was localised in poor parts of the South West, but over the last decade has spread all across the US. With each generation it gets worse.

In some parts of the US non college educated white Americans are experiencing an excess death rate comparable to New York at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the 80s, but without the attention.   It was from this group that Trump drew his most ardent supporters, the backbone of the MAGA and QAnon movements.   

It was no surprise that opposition to Covid restrictions, mask mandates, and vaccinations was so high among this group – they are as reckless with everyone else’s health as they are about their own. 

But the US is not the only part of the world where support for reactionary populist politics and declining life expectancy go hand in hand

The UK had seen recent increases in life expectancy stall even before the Covid epidemic.  Some parts of the UK continue to have improving life expectancy but this is balanced by other parts which are declining.   Some of this is down to poverty, but some parts of the UK where life expectancy is going backwards are relatively wealthy – Tunbridge Wells for example.

There is a rather neat correlation between declining life expectancy and Brexit – areas in decline were much more likely to vote leave.

The most extreme example however is Russia.    

Russia’s life expectancy is 71 years, 7 years lower than the US, nearly 10 years lower than the UK.   They have the 2nd worst life expectancy in Europe.

This, however disguises a massive gender gap.  Russian women live on average to be 75.  Russian men on average live to be 65.  Russian male life expectancy is the worst outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, and Russia has the biggest gender gap in the world. That doesn’t mean Russian men die at 65, an average death rate of 65 means lots of men dying in their 30s and 40s.  

What makes this even more shocking is that I suspect that these numbers are actually too high.   Russia is deeply corrupt and in some parts of Russia creating fake birth certificates to access pensions below the state pension age is widespread.   The truth is almost certainly more shocking.

Russian men die young for obvious reasons; vodka, smoking, violence, and a reckless approach to health and safety.  

This nihilistic group are the backbone of support for Putin and his war in Ukraine.  

The Russian fascist theoretician Vladimir Zhirinovsky coined the term “men in garages” to describe them. There is even a documentary film about their lives.

Men with limited education, and an uncertain social position who feel that the post Soviet world doesn’t value them and has no use for them.  They express that worldview by supporting Putin’s violent revanchism, projecting relentless machismo, and a holding a nihilistic disregard for their own health and wellbeing.  

Westerners watch Putin pour more and more Russians into the Ukrainian battlefield, ill equipped and untrained, and wonder why Russian’s don’t protest.   But if Russians don’t care about their own lives why would they care about their fellow citizens being sacrificed to some vague notion of fatherland and glory.   They matter no more than the Dead Souls did in Gogol’s brilliant comic novel.

This heart of darkness was always part of the Russian psyche, brilliantly described by Dostoevsky, many of whose characters kill themselves; Svidrigailov in Crime and Punishment, Stavrogin and Kirilov in the Devils, Ippolit in The Idiot (who claims that suicide is the only way to prove free will),  Olya and Kraft in The Adolescent, and Smerdyakov in Brothers Karamazov.   I spent so long looking up Dostoyevsky on-line that google provided me the number for the Samaritans.  

In “Notes from the Underground” Dostoyevsky’s protagonist is resentful, neurotic, angry with the world, and endlessly offended by it.   Although written 150 years ago “The Underground Man” is the perfect post modern character, whose primary joy is taking offence, and whose main motivation is resentment. 

Putin and his colleagues were skilled at speaking to these men in garages, and connecting with their resentments, their neuroses, their grievances.   

The rest of the global populist movement tap into the same qualities.   

Trump is endlessly insecure, neurotic, and resentful, his whole life an endless list of petty grievances he acts out on social media.   He is good at connecting with his base because he connects with the same qualities in them.  He engages their grievances, validates their hate.

Dominic Cummings was the perfect architect for the leave campaign.  An insecure little man from a minor public school, with a burning anger that the world did not regard him half as much as he regarded himself.    He connected perfectly with the grievances, neuroses and resentments of older voters, who became the backbone of Brexit.

Modi speaks to the anxieties of older socially conservative Hindus, who fear that their position in the social and economic order of a rapidly changing India is under threat, and want to see any minority from Muslims to LGBT kept down.   Erogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary.   

Their unifying ideology isn’t anything as complex as fascism, it is simply resentment.   People whose resentment at the modern world has been groomed into a political force. 

What these political movements offer isn’t any kind of brighter future, if the future was bright deaths of despair wouldn’t be so high.   It is revenge.

The Governments these voters elect act out the resentments and grievances of a population whose hate and desperation drive them to an early grave, and who wish the same on the rest of us, and they would rather rig elections than allow a Government that might make things better.

And of course, one other thing they all have in common is terrible fan art.

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