This is a lovely essay by Clare Coffey from the summer issue of Hedgehog Review. In it she explores the extremes in contemporary American life through the medium of two recent books: those who have been shunted aside in the knowledge economy and destined to deaths of despair, and those who occupy the flashiest reaches of the new uber class. She does this through an adept analysis of two recent books: Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton; and Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, by Ashley Mears. In combination, the books tell a powerful story.
We’re All Counting Bodies
Lenin’s maxim that “there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen” can be tough on writers. You spend years carefully marshaling an argument, anticipating objections, tightening your focus, sacrificing claims that might interfere with the suasion of your central point, and then—bam, the gun goes off. Something happens that makes the point toward which you were gently cajoling the reader not only obvious but insufficient. Your thoroughbred stands ready, but the rest of the field has already left the gate.
So it is with Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. In 2014, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the latter a Nobel Prize winner, noted that for the first time, the mortality rate among white Americans without a college degree was climbing rather than dropping; further, while members of this group remained relatively advantaged compared to their black peers, the two cohorts’ mortality rates were moving in opposite directions. Case and Deaton found that a significant portion of this hike in mortality was due to deaths from alcoholism, drug use, and suicide—phenomena which, bundled together, they labeled “deaths of despair.”
Six years later, in this new book, the two economists attempt to turn these observations into a thesis: What can this horrifying data can tell us about American society at large? Instead of linking the deaths to any single deprivation, the authors place them in a context of wholesale loss of social status and coherent identity for those without purchase in the knowledge professions—a loss that encompasses wage stagnation, the decline of union power, and the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.
For Case and Deaton, the closing of a factory involves all three, and cannot be understood strictly in terms of lost earnings or job numbers. Even in a “success” story, in which workers get new jobs at a staffing agency or an Amazon fulfillment center, a qualitative catastrophe occurs: to the prestige of difficult, directly productive work; to a measure of democratic control over the conditions of work; to the sense of valued belonging to socially important organizations; to the norms governing work, marriage, and sociality that developed in a particular material context, and which cannot simply transfer over or remake themselves overnight. At least some of these losses are downstream of sectoral transition only insofar as firm structure and historic labor organization is concerned. There is no purely sectoral reason for companies to outsource all non-knowledge jobs to staffing companies, or for Amazon to fire whistleblowers. The differences between NYC taxis and Uber lie in the fact that one has a union and the other classifies its workers as independent contractors, not in NAICS codes. But however carefully you parse the causes, deaths of despair are the final result of a long, slow social death.
Who are the culprits? Case and Deaton are careful not to absolve capitalism, but they insist that the problem is not really capitalism itself but its abuses: “We are not against capitalism. We believe in the power of competition and free markets. Capitalism has brought an end to misery and death for millions in now rich countries over the past 250 years and, much more rapidly, in countries like India and China, over the past 50 years.” This qualification is not unique to them; it takes different forms, from the regulatory reformism of political liberals such as Elizabeth Warren to the attacks on “crony capitalism” of doctrinaire libertarians, for whom the true free market has not yet been tried. For Case and Deaton, the big-picture problem is unchecked economic trends that encourage “upward redistribution”; their more specific and more representative target is a rent-seeking health-care industry.
Their complaint is not only that companies like Purdue Pharma arguably jump-started the opioid epidemic by hard-selling their pain medications and concealing these drugs’ addictive potential. Case and Deaton also argue that the health-care sector has eaten up American wage gains with insurance costs, funneling more and more money to health-care spending while delivering less and less in terms of health outcomes. The numbers the authors have assembled are convincing. But who at this juncture needs to be convinced? A teenager recently died of COVID-19 after being turned away from an urgent care clinic for lack of insurance. Hospital personnel are getting laid off in the midst of a pandemic to stanch balance sheet losses resulting from delayed elective care. Hospitals that have been operated on the basis of years of business school orthodoxy lack the extra capacity to deal with anything more momentous than a worse-than-usual flu season. Who is in any serious doubt that the American health-care system is cobbled together out of rusty tin cans and profit margins? The more pertinent question is what in America isn’t.
The release of Case and Deaton’s book just as an often fatal communicable disease was going pandemic was not, of course, the fault of the authors. But it makes for oddly frustrating reading. Positing a link between deindustrialization and health-care rent seeking and deaths of despair is an abductive argument about historical and present actors rather than a purely statistical inference. As Case and Deaton freely admit, you cannot prove by means of regression analysis that any of their targets are the unmistakable causes of these deaths. For that matter, there’s too much bundling among both the phenomena (alcoholic diseases, overdoses, suicides) and the proposed causes (deindustrialization, the decline of organized labor, wage stagnation, corporate restructuring) to conduct even a controlled test.
While it may not be possible to demonstrate airtight causality, Deaths of Despair nonetheless provides valuable documentation of the humiliations, losses, and unmoorings of those on the wrong end of a widening economic divide. The book is less a technocratic prescription than a grim body count.
In Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, Ashley Mears is counting bodies too, albeit very different ones. From New York to Miami, from Ibiza to Saint-Tropez, all over the elite global party scene in which Mears, a sociologist and former fashion model, did eighteen months of research, everyone is counting bodies. The bodies are those of models, ruthlessly quantified and highly valuable to the owners of elite nightclubs. Very Important People hinges on one insight: The image of a rooftop party filled with glamorous models drinking champagne isn’t just a pop-culture cliché. It is a lucrative business model.
According to Mears, up through the nineties the business model for nightclubs was simple. There was a bar and a dance floor. You paid to get in and you paid to drink. Ideally, you’d want a certain ratio of women to men, but the pleasures on offer were fairly straightforward. But in the early 2000s, a new model emerged, ironically enough, in the repurposed industrial buildings of New York’s Meatpacking District. Rather than rely on the dance floor and bar, clubs encouraged (usually male) customers to put down serious cash for immediately available and strategically placed tables and VIP sections, where bottles of liquor at marked-up prices could be brought to them. Clubs that could successfully brand themselves as elite might make enormous sums off out-of-town dentists on a spree, young financiers looking to woo or compete with business associates by demonstrating access to the city’s most exclusive pleasures, and the mega-rich “whales” proclaiming their status by over-the-top performances of generosity and waste.
The table is crucial for this strategy to succeed. It allows maximum visibility for both the whale’s endless parade of bottles of Dom Perignon (much of it left undrunk by virtue of sheer volume) and the groups of models that signal that this is the kind of club where a whale might be found. The good that is being advertised is indistinguishable from the advertising process.
A whole secondary ecosystem has grown up around this glitzy “potlach,” as Mears calls it—this elaborately choreographed wasting of wealth. There are the elite club promoters, who might make thousands a night if they show up with enough models, and whose transactional relationships with the models are defined in useful, fragile terms of mutual care. There are the models, young and broke in expensive cities, who get free meals, free champagne, and sometimes free housing as long as they show up and play nice. There are the bouncers, who police the height and looks of entrants, and the whales, who both command the scene and function as an advertisement for its desirability. Being adjacent to real wealth is a powerful incentive, especially for promoters, who dream of rubbing shoulders and making deals of their own through connections forged in the club.
The owners make money, and everyone else gets a little something and a little scammed. Perhaps among those who are scammed the least are the models, the majority of whom seem to be in it for a good party rather than upward mobility. When you are very young and very beautiful, the world tends to see those traits as the most important things about you. One way to register dissent is to trade them only for things equally ephemeral, inconsequential, delightful: a glass of champagne, moonlight over the Riviera, a night spent dancing till dawn. Reaping the benefits of belonging to an intrinsically exclusive club is not heroic. But it seems no worse than the trade made by the wives of the superwealthy, who in one scene appear, disapproving and hostile, at a table adjacent to their husbands’ at an Upper East Side restaurant. They have made a more thoroughgoing negotiation of their value to wealthy men—one resting on the ability to reproduce the upper class as well as attest to its presence.
Demarcating status is the limit of the model’s power. It is what she is at the club to do. The model is not there primarily to be sexually alluring—that is the role of the lower-class-coded bottle waitress. One of Mears’s subjects even confesses that models aren’t his type: They are too tall and skinny, too stereotyped, and after all, desire is so highly personal—less an estimation that a face has been arranged in the single best way as delight that it has been arranged in such a way. But models are necessary precisely because their bodies and faces have transcended the whims of any personally desiring subject, to the objectivity of market value. Their beauty can be quantified in inches, and dollars.
To contemplate and cultivate beauty is perhaps noble. To desire and consume it is at least human. To desire not any object in itself, but an image of desirability, is ghastly. There are many scenes in Very Important People, from the physical dissipation to the moments bordering on human trafficking, that are morally horrifying. What lingers, though, is this spectral quality: huge amounts of money, time, and flesh in service to a recursive and finally imaginary value. If anyone has gained from the losses of Case and Deaton’s subjects, it is the patrons of the global party circuit. But their gains seem less hoarded than unmade, in a kind of reverse alchemy—transmuted into the allurements of a phantom world, elusive, seductive, and all too soluble in the light of day.