Cultural orphan of the class struggle

From Joe Bageant
Author, Deer Hunting With Jesus

Hi Joe,

I just found your site a few weeks ago, computer-phobe and migraine sufferer that I am, but it seems like the more I read of you, the more I understand of myself. I’m from southern Illinois, born and raised, although I lived away from here for a short time.

Now I’m back living in Williamson county, in a town where our last major factory closed two years ago, and coal mining, what’s left of it, is not much more than an irritating reminder of better times long gone. But I give the folks around here a lot of credit. They’re always looking to get beyond the disappointments of the present, find ways to attract new business, and keep the population from decreasing. We’ve held at a steady 10,000 for a good thirty years, and although it might seem laughable to some, that’s a victory in itself, considering everything we’ve lost, believe me.

As for me, I was born working class, well, underclass, truth be told. My dad had been a prosperous farmer post World War Two, but after he lost the farm, he had no other skills to fall back on. He became a house painter, working from dawn till dusk. When his health failed, he became a janitor. My mom was a nurse’s aid at a time when not only didn’t you need a certificate, you didn’t even need to show an 8th grade diploma. It was my bad fortune to be born long after the farm was gone, so all I ever heard from my parents was how wonderful everything use to be, and how shitty it is now. I was one of those quiet, bookish, pessimistic little kids, having little in common with my parents or peers. But rural poverty will have its effect, and I grew up to hold the same jobs as everybody else, working at Wal-Mart, Kroger, and at gas stations which seemed to change their names every few months. I never had what most would consider a real job. I guess because I never felt I deserved it.

And at middle age, I have to say I’ve never found a way to overcome those feelings. A few years ago, while still in my thirties, I had the quixotic idea to go to college. Instead of doing what most true middle class people would do, I stayed here and went to the local state university (good ole SIU, rah!), and after five years of working part time and living on Pell grants, I graduated with a liberal arts degree.

During those years I came into contact with people unlike myself (professors with varied backgrounds) — elites as far as I was concerned. I was relatively bright and on the grad school track, and it was easy enough to talk to them about academic matters, but socially, I was never really comfortable. Of course, the first thing anybody is going to ask an older student is, “What’ve you been doing up to now?” And that’s when things got awkward. It’s funny, Joe. The phrase, “odd jobs” will make certain types of middle class professionals tighten their assholes and turn away faster than finding a press-on nail in their cappuccino.

That’s when I first started to understand the mindset of the people I grew up with. They sense the condescension, the self righteousness, the “Why are you too stupid to recognize your own interests” attitude of some liberals, and they resent it, naturally. At least the conservatives pretend to understand and respect them, and for many of them, that’s compliment enough. I suddenly felt a strong sense of solidarity with my former coworkers.

But at the same time, I had also absorbed some of the academic culture, along with what I consider to be their accurate diagnosis of the working class mindset. I keep thinking about a factory over in the next county. About a year or so ago, there were union rumblings on the floor. And were those union rumblings quashed by the owners or management? Nope. They were quashed by the workers themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I heard something along the lines of, “If we ask for too much, we’ll be out of a job altogether. It’s his (the owner’s) factory, and he has the right to move to Mexico or somewhere else if his costs are too high here.” Now, when you have the workers identifying with the interests of the owners, you have an owners’ paradise. The owners can be the innocent, beleaguered, hardworking real Americans who’ve made something of themselves. They don’t have to be the bad guys. All they have to do is keep the workers insecure enough to be grateful for whatever they get. And the factories usually end up closing anyway.

Another thing I remember is driving the son of a childhood friend to his job interview at that very factory. I kept thinking, “For Christ sake, get that frown off your face. Hold your head up, stop mumbling, and at least act like you want the goddamn job! Don’t you understand, nobody cares how much you need work, or how good a person you are. Before anything else, that employer wants to find some evidence that you weren’t raised by wolves.” And then I hated myself for thinking that.

And so I’m perpetually vacillating between one culture and another. Some days I want to identify with the liberal elites, some days with my roots. My grades were good enough to get a free ride to grad school, but I don’t think that’s what I really want. Right now, I’m living off a bit of savings, trying to take stock and figure out what to do. And that’s why I had to write and let you know that over the last few weeks, your essays and your book have helped me coalesce and make sense of the things I’ve always felt.

If I’m reading you right, I get the feeling you’ve had some of the same struggles. In any case, thanks.




Good to hear from Illinois. My wife is from “downstate” Illinois (natives know that term indicates rural and small town folks and is not to be confused with Chicagoans). The downstaters are some of the most optimistic, hardworking, cooperative and sincere folks imaginable. As you say, “They’re always looking to get beyond the disappointments of the present.” Which means they get screwed because they still believe in our “American system.” The system in which over 50% of their productivity is raked off by a very small wealthy elite before they are even paid, and financial institutions have co-opted the medium of exchange, making everyone credit dependent and unable to save because their surplus productive wealth was raked off. These good people have been exploited by capitalism all their lives, and never even seen a paycheck reflecting the full value of their labor. Never having been exposed to any other possibilities, they consequently cannot conceive of anything else but life beneath the wheel.

Anyway, one of the things that click between me and my Illinois wife is that she has an unerring ability to see class distinctions play out between people. A small town farm girl whose father, like yours, failed at farming, she moved “into town,” and like farm kids of our generation who’ve spent countless hours alone as a society of one, she could see the unacknowledged class structure. She just plain “gets it.”

We’ve spent thousands of hours talking about the rural values and cultural experience that led to so many of these people becoming the foundation of America’s permanent white underclass. So much so that a big part of my new book (now finished and due out in October, 2010) is about that. The book masquerades as a memoir, but is really more of my jack-leg American sociology. From what I’ve seen in your letter, I can assure you that you will find yourself and your family in the book like no other book you’ve ever read. I put my soul into this puppy.

Incidentally, your father’s experience farming sounds classic. Midwestern farmers made good money supplying the war effort and for a while thereafter. Then big ag and vertical integration rose up swiftly to capture all agricultural profits and assure that people like your father and my grandparents could never again be so successful as independent farmers.

Fearful, conservative, and self-defeating, our people, yours and mine, did not become that way all by their little lonesomes. They had a lot of outside help from government and corporations right after World War Two, when some 22 million (my family among them) were purposefully driven off their farms to work in industry, providing a cheap, docile, and anti-union work force.

More importantly though, this migration caused millions more people to depend on paychecks in a wealth-based economy so the high profits of the wartime boom could be maintained for DuPont and many other corporations. Much effort and policy went into creating a nation of wage dependent consumers (commodity slaves). One government “social behavior film” shown in theaters before and between movies stated bluntly that “Being self sufficient is a waste of time. You can buy a better life in the city than you can create on a farm.”

When World War Two started 45% of Americans lived on farms or in farming based communities. Ten years after the war only 12% remained on farms, and not much later it dropped to six percent. And believe me, they did not all leave willingly.

The result is that we are into our third generation of underclass whites — around 60 million of them. At one point in the 1950s when unions were at their peak, a large portion of these people briefly constituted a legitimate working class. Since then they have been ground back down into a malleable disposable work force with no real contours, no vision, no philosophy or principles of labor, zero negotiation regarding the price of their labor, and no avenues for self determination as individuals or as a class.

They are that great white unwashed that educated liberals just cannot get their heads around. Liberal audiences ask me, “Why are so many working class Americans non-union or anti-union?” Sometimes I reply that if you kick a dog hard enough and often enough, the dog will do any goddamned thing you want, whether it is “in his interests” or not. If the dog doesn’t bite that union organizer, the poor fucking beast doesn’t get fed at all.

Educated urban liberals never seem to grasp that most Americans no longer have access to the levers of self-determination. But then, I never expect the bourgeoisie to understand the legions of industrial serfs outside the gates. Nor do they much bother to try. After all, they’ve “got theirs.” Education, safe working conditions, negotiable wages, access to real culture if they choose, progeny who will more or less continue their class patterns, even if on a somewhat lesser scale. When they look around their affinity groups and communities, they see only people like themselves. “Naw, we’re not elites,” they conclude.

But the sheer gravitational pull of 60 million people circling the drain is starting to draw these elites who do not know they are elites toward the drainpipe. So now we are seeing academic papers with titles such as “Does a white American underclass really exist?” Lemme see now, are there any clues? Well, about 49.1 million people, most of them white, went without food at various times in 2008 (USDA). This is called “food insecurity” in government and academic circles. I suppose the 3.1 million folks sleeping under bridges, in cars, in shelters and cardboard boxes are experiencing “housing insecurity.” This includes the 1.4 million homeless children attending our public schools. I suggest they start by asking these people if there is a white underclass in America. You know, get it straight from the horse’s mouth. You don’t know if you don’t ask. I mean, hell, these people might all be just hobo-ing for a lark!

Whatever the case, I read a slew of these studies in the course of writing the new book. My conclusion is that the academic elites can hustle a grant out of any damned question you can think up, then write 70,000 words that not only do not answer the question, but lay the groundwork for further research into other ways to not answer the question.

But yes, yes, we do have a lot in common. I too was the bookish kid with little connection to parents or peers. In fact, our paths are parallel until you reached the point where you went off to university. I went off to take dope and storm heaven with millions of others on LSD — contemplating the starry void, the meaning of justice and whether Paul McCartney was really dead, catching the clap a couple of times along the way. Christ, it seems like a century ago.

And in a way it was. Here were are with one foot 10 years deep into what we used to call “the next century.” Phew! Last summer I remarked on this to a wry old geezer named Ernie, who hangs out at The Twilight Zone bar and grill in my hometown.

Waxing philosophical, I said, “Ya know Ernie, I find it utterly amazing that I was born in the first half of a century now gone, and have burned up a decade of the next one. And I’m certain of less than ever before.”

“Well then, I can give you one thing you can be certain of.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“You ain’t gonna kick off any more new cen-chur-ies, bub.”

Some days the truth comes dressed in sack cloth.

In art and labor,