Joe Bageant died on the 26th of March last year.
Apparently, he was sometimes referred to as an American ‘leftneck’ – which is not a bad label for him.
Bageant’s book (and, more generally, his literary life) has been devoted to laying out the answer to a question that, if considered at all, is usually given a ‘once over lightly’ varnish of simplistic rhetoric substituting for a real understanding or explanation.
The question in question is “Why is there a so-called ‘underclass’?”
I was thinking of writing a post about what he had to say on this after I recently finished his memoir “Rainbow Pie“.
I didn’t get around to it.
Then, I was reminded it would be a good idea after reading the comments in response to Matt McCarten’s piece ‘Cheerful free-market ride about to nosedive‘.
But I still didn’t get around to it.
Then, I remembered that this year – and this term of a National-led government – is going to see a focus on supposed ‘welfare reform’. According to John Key, this will involve “a comprehensive reform of the benefit system, building off the recommendations of the Welfare Working Group“. [An outline of the establishment of the Welfare Working Group and its subsequent reports, in full, can be viewed here.].
In fact, over two years ago – and long before Joe Bageant’s death – Minister of Social Welfare Paula Bennett bluntly told the unemployed that the (bad?) “dream is over” (sadly, she didn’t mean that National had a plan to provide jobs)
This ‘welfare reform’ initiative builds upon other ‘reforms’ first announced in August last year which indicated use of the private sector to ‘case manage’ young people, including those on the Independent Youth Benefit (about 1600 under 18 year olds) and a further 11,900 under 18 year olds not in work or education.
But I still didn’t get around to it.
Then, the onslaught began as a slew of welfare reform proposals – and strangely timed kite-flying – rained down on us: long-lasting contraception for beneficiaries; various requirements for DPB recipients to seek work while their children are young; penalties for beneficiaries who refuse or fail pre-employment drug tests; providing food parcels rather than food grants to beneficiaries, etc..
National clearly has its sights on ‘the underclass’.
The final nail in the coffin of my tardiness was the National Party Conference this year. As well as the Prime Minister’s general bullishness about his party’s “absolute mandate and authority” supposedly gained at the last General Election, there was, yet again, the aggressive assertion of the ‘rightness’ of the government’s ‘welfare reform’ agenda:
Today [22 July, 2012] delegates will also debate the next round of welfare reform.
“We will be introducing social obligations, so they will have to enrol their child in early childhood education and get well-checks at the doctor by enrolling with the local PHO,” Social Development Minister Paula Bennett told 3News.
“If you have kids, then you will lose 50 per cent of your benefit. That’s the worst case scenario. We hope it doesn’t get to that.”
Given all of that political provocation, now I’m finally getting around to it. So, just why is it that there is a so-called underclass?
In Bageant’s estimates, America has a white underclass – alone – that numbers around 60 million people. Using his criteria, it’s anyone’s guess what the same figure – for all ethnic groups – would be in New Zealand.
So why is there such a large so-called ‘underclass’ in supposedly ‘advanced economies’?
There’s two general proposals to answer this question: One type of analysis focuses on deindustrialisation and the shift to unreliable low-paid service sector jobs; Another increasingly common analysis sees the primary cause in a permissive welfare state.
It is this second ‘analysis’, of course, by which the National-led government seems primarily driven.
Both of these proposals are based on particular events and processes in particular societies.
But there’s a more general approach that I’m interested in here: What are the basic processes of change that lead to the creation of a so-called underclass, irrespective of the particular place and time?
Before answering this more general question, it’s worth reviewing the particular explanations that have been given in the New Zealand context.
In New Zealand, the usual place to begin – for those on the right – is the establishment of welfare (see my take on that explanation here - it concerns Don Brash’s convictions in this regard). Hot on the heels of this virtue-sapping institution, according to the familiar narrative, was the abrupt arrival of the ‘permissive society’ and a lax, liberal social climate.
This latter was inspired by everything from rock music, leftie academics swanning around university campuses in Europe and the United States (aped elsewhere by wannabe celebrity academics preaching ‘people’s revolutions’), Dr Spock, ‘political correctness’ and other morally weakening conditions too numerous to list.
This concoction of moral corrosivity was the result of unceasing efforts by an amorphous group – often termed ‘liberals’ in the vernacular – apparently intent on undermining the moral order for no greater reason than the perverse pleasure they gained from those attempts.
The overall effect, so the story goes, was to undermine personal responsibility, ‘good parenting’ and community in general. This sapping of the population’s moral character has resulted in widespread and “deeply ingrained … drug and welfare dependency.”
The other explanation proffered in New Zealand’s case is the effect of the 1980s and 1990s radical restructuring of New Zealand’s economy and, therefore, society.
Roger Douglas looms large in this version, as the initiator of changes that wrecked communities, families and individuals. Evidence in support includes rising rates of most social ills, increased rates of psychological disturbance and suffering and casualisation and insecurity of employment.
The picture painted in this version is less about the undermining of the moral (or ‘behavioural’) fabric as it is about the direct tearing apart of social and economic fabrics. Communities that, for generations, had stable employment and prosperity – often on the back of public sector dominated industries and infrastructure – were suddenly cut adrift, with individuals required, in essence, to look after themselves.
All of that immense destruction was supposedly a creative force to unleash innovation, ‘real jobs’ and a vital and vibrant new New Zealand. The ‘collateral damage’, however, has been with us since and been topped up regularly with each new ripple of neoliberal policy enacted.
But, as I said, there’s a second way to answer this question and it involves looking for a general explanation or theory of what produces – at any time and in any place – a marginalised, so-called dysfunctional ‘underclass’.
My answer, in that generic vein, goes like this.
The first step is that viable cultures that have often sustained themselves effectively for decades or hundreds, even thousands, of years dissolve or are actively dismantled as a result of externally imposed change.
In English history there are plenty of examples of just this process that set the scene (and forged the initial pattern) for the ‘development’ of the rest of the world and the consequent ubiquitousness of various forms of ‘underclass’.
The examples, for England, include the progressive removal of the customary and legal rights of peasants in the Feudal system; enclosure of the commons (and, hence, removal of the options for a way of life); the flight of unemployed agricultural workers to urban areas to form the new urban working class; and, through ‘deindustrialisation’, the dismantling of those urban, working class communities that existed, for example, next to coal mines or shipyards, etc..
At each turn of that particular historical wheel a ‘new class’ was generated that, in essence, was a class without a viable means of reproducing its previous way of life.
What is missed – or glossed over – in this kind of account, however, is that the loss of this ability to reproduce a ‘culture’ or ‘community’ has direct implications for creating individuals. People are, principally, socio-cultural products rather than biological ones. This might come as a surprise to some so I’ll explain the point further.
Human beings are principally biologically defined (and reproduced) but persons are defined and generated only within a socio-cultural setting. A person, so to speak, is what a society does with a human being.
To invert Thatcher’s well-known comment: there’s no such thing as an individual person outside of a society. There is, however, such a thing as an individual human being outside of society, but most of us wouldn’t wish that fate on our worst enemy. To be unacknowledged by a social world is to cease to be, as a person. As William James pointed out in his Principles of Psychology:
No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed.
The conclusion is obvious: to dismantle a culture – or, more generally, the way of life of a particular group – is, in effect, to dismantle the very ‘machine’ that creates and develops individual persons.
The second step towards the creation of an underclass takes place in the vacuum created by the – sometimes incremental and sometimes only partial – destruction of this ‘person-creating’ machinery. The next essential step is the exploitation of the fractured remnants of the culture or social group – in other words, of the remaining individuals by those groups who are fully acculturated within the ‘new’ way of life.
This turns out to be relatively easy because the very attitudes and values carried along by the individual members of the dismantled group are, inevitably, ill-suited to the new arrangements. Cooperative, collective values, for example, do not serve one well in a system predicated on the pursuit of individually-defined ends. In a competitive context, then, such ‘fragments’ (i.e., persons) are relatively easy to use for other purposes (e.g., as consumers) as they carry along with them residues of these no longer materially effective values and ways of operating.
In Bageant’s books you get a clear picture of the kinds of communities that gave rise to the modern American, white ‘underclass’. Surprisingly, those communities seem to possess none of the ‘suspect’ values or ways of life that might lead you to predict that they would – within a matter of a generation or so – be the seed-bed for today’s American underclass.
They were communities in which people had a very hard but nevertheless effective way of making a life for themselves by sheer dint of effort. As he described this quintessentially American, rural life:
The farm was not a business. It was a farm. Pap and millions of farmers like him were never in the ‘agribusiness’. They never participated in the modern ‘economy of scale’ which comes down to exhausting as many resources as possible to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible.
Instead, this was a material life generated from a “community economic ecology” – a ‘culture’ – that brought with it a set of values honed to that way of life: Thrift, hard work, pragmatism, independence within a local and interdependent community.
But, it got dismantled.
When World War II began, 44 per cent of Americans were rural, and over half of them farmed for a living. By 1970, only five per cent were on farms.
Bageant describes the process in terms of the individuals of his childhood and youth. How they lived most of their lives and how that way of life disintegrated as they aged.
As one reviewer puts it:
Looking in on Joe’s world it’s immediately apparent that his dilemma in looking back, is that by the time capital got around to demolishing Joe’s “community economic ecology”, it had pretty much gotten through destroying everything else, in fact ever since the days when Joe’s ancestors landed in 1755. … So even while Joe’s community was still intact and functioning, it was already surrounded by an advancing tide of avarice and destruction.
What’s left is what Rainbow Pie describes, millions of poor, uneducated whites, who have been left to rot on a once intact rural ecology, just as the original inhabitants, or what’s left of them, have been left to rot on ‘reservations’ or to call them by their correct name, Bantustans.
The rural life that Joe describes, though whilst poor, barely above subsistence level, nevertheless reveals a culture that was in balance with the environment and to Joe’s credit, it’s not a romanticized vision of a life lost but echoes a lost culture that used to be the bedrock of the life of millions of working Americans.
The creation of an underclass is a tried and true process. Again and again it has happened. As I said, it begins with the dismantling of a culture. But then comes the second body blow; the exploitation.
Bageant was pretty clear about that too. Once you’ve dismantled a way of life – an entire means of producing the material goods and meeting the needs of a community (as was the case with the viable Southern, white communities within which Bageant was raised) – you then fully and rapidly submerse the residue, the people, into the deep end of a new way of life within which the old values and attitudes cease to be effective, or are even counterproductive.
Bageant’s “community economic ecology” with its attendant dogged values and virtues is unsuited to a more individualistic life in which failure consciously and constantly to plan and strategise in your own self interest is punished.
A subsistence, community-based economic order is a very poor developmental environment for gaining the ‘aspirational’, self-focused world-view and associated values that are obsessively pursued by the modern, urban middle classes. Being outcompeted in the marketplace of success then becomes the likeliest result. So what do individuals caught in this predicament do?
The story then becomes a familiar one, and one to which, today, we are all susceptible.
We all know its allures and it’s called ‘consumerism‘ amongst the intelligentsia. But it’s pretty basic. Shops, loud tv ads, television, cell phones, cheap booze and fast food. Not purely an accident, either.
Try the BBC’s ‘Century of the Self’ for size.
Or, read clinical psychologist David Smail’s Origins of Unhappiness, especially chapter 4, a case study of Britain in the 1980s. His withering description of a working class, ‘all-consuming’ family on a train, is a study in modern tragedy and pathos. (At a personal level it amounts to a description of my own extended family who remain in the North of England.)
For Bageant, the all-consuming self of the consumer is the only viable means of living left to those whose previous ways of living – and the skills adaptive within it – have been destroyed, dismantled, dissolved and disintegrated. And it has odd effects.
The paradox of Joe’s underclass is that it has been harnessed by the most Conservative elements in US capitalism and for a lot of reasons. Firstly, Joe’s community has always been very religious and secondly conservative with a small c. Thirdly, it’s been jettisoned as being surplus to requirement by what Joe calls the urban-based Establishment except when it comes to voting day. Stereotyped as ignorant and inbred hillbillies in the mass media (shades of ‘Deliverance’), the only ‘voice’ they have is one supplied to them by the likes of Oral Roberts et al, who allegedly speak on their behalves. After all, forty million voters come election time is a pretty big slice of the action.
This explains in part why so many people can be screwed over and over again and yet never revolt. The other part is the simple fact that they are mostly illiterate and deliberately under-educated, fed on a diet which is literally killing them physically and mentally.
As yet another reviewer cites the words of Bageant directly:
The bottom line, however, is that they can’t read. Feel free to blame anyone you choose, except the free-market system’s extreme preference for dim-witted consumers and workers …
Ultimately, these kids will join the millions of adults who cannot read. And they cannot read because: 1. They do not have the necessary basic skills, and don’t give a rat’s ass about getting them; 2. Reading is not arresting enough to compete with the electronic stimulation in which their society is immersed; 3. They cannot envisage any possible advantage in reading, because the advantages stem from extended personal involvement, which they have never experienced, are conditioned away from, and is understandably beyond their comprehension; and 4. Their peers do not read as a serious matter, thereby socially reinforcing their early conclusion that it’s obviously not worth the time and effort.
Again, from Bageant:
When it comes to the underclass, there is no arguing that some people are members because they are so damned uneducated they cannot count their toes or read well enough to fill out a job app, the causes of which are too deep and tangled to go into at the moment. Others just don’t care to do the smiling grammatically correct wimp assed customer service zombie thing. They prefer swinging a bigger hammer than that – doing real work, like America used to do. And doing it without kissing ass, which is why they are called the “permanently jobless.” As sociologist Christopher Jencks points out, “There is no absolute standard dictating what people need to know in order to get along in society. There is however, an absolute rule that you get along better if you know what the elite knows than if you do not.”
In this way it can come to seem as if the problems of the ‘underclass’ boil down to the ‘choices’ and behaviours of the individuals in the ‘underclass’. It can appear as ‘moral failing’, ‘ignorance’ and the like. It can come to be seen as the necessary outcome of so-called ‘welfare dependency’.
But it isn’t. The so-called underclass simply faces more acutely than the rest of us a realisation about the modern world that is almost as punishing as the anguish James predicts would arise “if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if we were non-existing things“.
In the end, there’s an underclass simply because ‘we are all individualistic now’.
Underneath the underclass is simply the logic of today’s world.
Without wanting to distract attention from the severe plight of those most clearly at the sharp end of this experience, there is a real sense in which we are all experiencing, day to day, the forces that push people into the so-called underclass.
Lives – and ways of life – are being dismantled constantly. Many in the middle class are simply better able to afford the self-medications and have the wherewithal to put enough strapping around the ‘centre’ to ensure it holds together each day.
But there’s always the fear that the strapping will come loose. The last word on the scale of the underclass belongs to Joe Bageant:
If in my travels and experience in American life I see that tens of millions of Americans being screwed silly by a handful of chiselers at the top, or if I see one percent of Americans earning as much annually as the bottom 45 percent of Americans, then that 45 percent is an underclass. When I see a 70 year old man on his second pacemaker limping through Wal-mart as a “greeter” so he can pay at least something on last winter’s heating bill this month, then he is part of an underclass. When I see the humiliated single mom waitress tugging downward on the ridiculously short red plastic skirt she must wear at the Hooter’s type joint so her crotch won’t show, she’s part of an underclass of humiliated and socially oppressed people. Screw the hairsplitting about who qualifies as underclass and what color they are. Just fix it. Or reap the consequences.