The Suffering American Middle Class – A Movie We’ve all Seen Before

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, and resulting recession, the commentariat has carried on like pork chops about the demise of the American middle class dream. A late example is the book and film Gone Girl, which has a couple living in an ossifying suburban wasteland, and is said to depict “the desolation of failed suburban promises”. [i]

Just like the depiction of the end of affluence for middle America in every recession since the end of the post-war boom in the middle 1970s. In 1977, Ted Kotcheff’s Fun with Dick and Jane chronicled a couple who turn to crime when unemployment ended the suburban dream.[ii] As the remake (just before the GFC made it less comedy than doco-comedy) presents the protagonists, “they don’t plunge into poverty; they descend gradually, one indignity at a time”. [iii]

This all fits the conventional capitalism-has-failed-hard-working-Americans theme, of which there is always a lot about in films and television after every crash.[iv] And when it is not unemployment, it is the cost of healthcare – the narrative of illness as a prescription for poverty is universally accepted.

It was definitely the driver in perhaps the most powerful apparent indictment of the American system since the Great Depression – Breaking Bad. As a few residents of other galaxies may not know, Breaking Bad is an immensely successful tele-novel about Walter White, who cannot afford the health insurance he needs to treat his cancer. Terrified that he will leave his family destitute when he dies, he turns to manufacturing drugs to make a lot of money very fast.

Critics claim this can be read as a critique of the success or failure of the way America works, depending on your politics: “He is the personification of the whole theory that America’s exceptional form of safety-net-free capitalism — and the desperation it breeds — truly does breed innovation and entrepreneurship.”[v]

True enough. But the other, more common, take-out is that Walt was betrayed by a system that leaves the average and unlucky to rot, which makes his becoming an extreme entrepreneur understandable. As Michael Paarlberg puts it:

The show cannily plays on sentiments that Americans find unnervingly familiar: deep economic insecurity and the get-rich-quick ambition to escape it. When it comes to capitalism, Americans have always had a Walt-like split personality: rooting for both the underdog and the robber baron, and if possible, both.[vi]

But the suffering middle class argument is not the whole story – it misses a much older, deeper explanation that explains why Americans tolerate a welfare system so much less generous for working age people than the Europeans. As Benjamin Franklin put it in 1758:

He that hath a trade hath an estate; and he that hath a calling, hath an office of profit and honour; but then the trademust be worked at, and the callingwell followed, or neither theestatenor theofficewill enable us to pay our taxes. What though you have found no treasure, nor has any rich relation left you a legacy,diligence is the mother of good-luck and God gives all things to industry.[vii]

For the Yanks, a fall from economic grace does not signify a lack of character, but failing to work your way out of strife does.

Character is what Walt lacks. Walt has PhD in chemistry and when young was a partner in a start-up, which he left before it made (for those who stayed) Gates-esque gazillions. At the beginning of the first series, he is a high school chemistry teacher and working in a carwash to support his teen son and pregnant wife. It is a middleclass life, but just one missed paycheck from the abyss. [viii]

The 62-episode story charts his moral decline from middle class victim to murdering drug baron, building an empire because he can. He piles millions of dollars in currency in a storage locker because he has no use for it.

The contrast with the series’ hero, Walt’s brother in law Hank, is stark. Hank does the best job he can, is loyal to his ditz of a wife and does not believe bad luck gives him a moral free-pass to do whatever he likes.

As American nightmares go, Gone Girl and Breaking Bad do not cut it – they are tales of morally ambiguous and outright evil people rather than metaphors of a failed society. Crime as revenge on capitalism does not cut it – Dick and Jane are only acceptable in a comedy.

But this does not mean the Yanks are dystopia free. For what really scares them there is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, filmed in the depth of the GFC, about the chaos of a post apocalyptic world where all are doomed, the decent as well as the plain bad. And nobody can work their way out of trouble.


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[i] Julie Mcintyre, “What Gone Girl tells us about American degrowth,” The Conversation, October 10 @ recovered on October 11

[ii] Roger Ebert, “Fun with Dick and Jane,” Roger February 11 1977 @ recovered on October 11

[iii] Manolha Dargis, “Stranded on the flipside of the American dream,” New York Times, December 21 2005

[iv] Jason Dietz, “It’s the economy stupid,” Metacritic, October 19 2011 @ recovered on October 11

[v] David Sirota, “Walter White’s sickness mirrors America,” Salon, September 29 2013 @ recovered on October 11

[vi] Michael Paarlberg, “Breaking Bad is a middle-class horror story,” The Guardian September 9 2013

[vii] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Gutenberg, 2006 @ recovered on October 11

[viii] For a plot summary go to AMC, “Breaking Bad: Full series recap,” @ nd, recovered on October 11