12.6 Percent: What Happened to the American Middle Class?

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You can feel it in the heavy air:  America is in cultural and economic decline. Neoliberal technocrats and multinational corporations with aspirations of global hegemony set their sights on the middle class years ago – eliminating the only reliable bastion of solidarity against creeping despotism. 

In 2020, our national identity is in shambles. Our personal ones seem to be as well.  

“Smartphones for everyone!” is the siren song of 21st century America. Dive headfirst into a digital reality free of real human interaction. 

Witness the cultural decay. 

Unabated consumerism and public education obliterated all the delicate balance that had been achieved between the individual and the group. The digital spaces we occupy, alone in our rooms, are now atomized, cut off from a shared sense of identity that any nation needs to thrive.

Trophies for everyone!

A lot of people know that Nietzsche shocked the 19th-century world when he declared “God is Dead.” A surface interpretation – the end of Christianity – provides the commonly-held explanation of the quote that it heralded the decline of Christianity in the West.  

Indeed, he was foreshadowing the waning of Christianity and Christian values. The intended Nietzschean meaning, though, was more horrific than the decay of organized religion. When Nietzsche wrote “God,” it served as a proxy term for “meaning.” 

Philosophers like Nietzsche have long sounded the prescient alarm: in the West, we have no moral center-left. We have a deficit of meaning. We find no solace in anything. 

We became too affluent too fast to mend the damn against nihilism. As it turns out, navigating what “purpose” means when living in relative material comfort isn’t as easy as we might have hoped. 

Decadent enlightenment philosophers, and the postmodernists after them, for all the good that they did, ushered out meaning and replaced it with the sophisticated theory that we are unmoored water bags floating through space. We live and then we die. 

How do we best pass the time now, in the absence of meaning, to satiate our inborn desire to have a purpose? 

When people’s situations get to be too dark and the pervasive nihilism of empty consumerism triumphs over hope, pharmaceutical companies offer the go-to solutions for people whose will to put in the hard work to fix themselves has been forfeited.

If you close your eyes and imagine, you can see the protesting American voice: why should I have to put in, like, effort or whatever, to fix myself? Like spoiled children, we demand instant gratification.  This type of infantilized ideology is the byproduct of advertising with the central message that you deserve this. You deserve to be happy. 

The reality is that nobody is granted rights ipso facto just for being born. Even the basic liberties that we take for granted as God-given “human rights” were hard-fought – no social controller hands them over willingly. King George II certainly didn’t hand them to the architects of the United States. Our forefathers had to fight a war to gain them and another war for the enslaved populations to gain nominal freedom. 

Sacrifice is a lost concept in 2020, replaced by unchecked entitlement. It’s soul-crushing to watch. 

On the streets, even a casual onlooker can feel the pervasive nihilism among the population. It is manifest in the despondency and drug addiction that characterize entire populations of hollowed-out Midwestern towns across the nation. 

12.6 percent of the adult American population uses benzodiazepines, the class of drugs that includes Xanax (alprazolam) and Valium (Diazepam). The major psychoactive effects of these drugs, as anyone who has used them can attest to, is a euphoric blunting of emotions. 

Instead of introspection, you can go numb. 

The major American power brokers love it. Multinational pharmaceutical companies with no allegiance to American citizens like selling customers Xanax and Valium and SSRIs for depression because they pay money for them. So-called “leaders” in Washington, D.C. let those pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs because they sedate the population. The campaign donations from pharmaceutical lobbyists help too.  

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the ruling class administers regular doses of a fictitious sedative drug called “soma” to its populations that essentially exerts the same emotion-blunting action as benzodiazepines. 

As the character Mustapha puts it in the novel, “… if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering.”

How life imitates art! 

Politicians are rightly afraid of an angry pitchfork-wielding public. People intoxicated on large doses of Xanax are compliant. Drugging the population just makes good political sense to them, regardless of the human cost. 

As rightful inheritors of the Enlightenment, former members of the middle class, and descendants of countless generations before us who fought despotism, our only hope against the social engineers who threaten our well-being is to recover our righteous anger at a ruling class that threw us overboard decades ago. 

Our ancestors braved the brutality of North American winters, the inhospitable landscapes, and the mortal realities of frontier life in the wilderness to carve out an American mythology worthy of respect, despite the flaws and crimes of the nation that scar its otherwise beautiful and compelling story. Time will tell if we respect the sacrifices of the past enough to see it through.

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Ben Bartee

I am a Bangkok-based American journalist, grant writer, political essayist, researcher, travel blogger, and amateur philosopher.