Lost in the American Undertow
By Joe Bageant
April 18, 2011 "Information Clearing House" -- The United States has always maintained a white underclass — citizens whose role in the greater scheme of things has been to cushion national economic shocks through the disposability of their labor, with occasional time off to serve as bullet magnets in defense of the Empire. Until the post-World War II era, the existence of such an underclass was widely acknowledged. During the Civil War, for instance, many northern abolitionists also called for the liberation of “four million miserable white southerners held in bondage by the wealthy planter class”. Planter elites, who often held several large plantations which, together, constituted much or most of a county’s economy, saw to it that poor whites got no schooling, money, or political power. Poll taxes and literacy requirements kept white subsistence farmers and poor laborers from entering voting booths. Often accounting for up to 70 percent of many deep-Southern counties, they could not vote, and thus could never challenge the status quo.
Today, almost nobody in the social sciences seems willing to touch the subject of America’s large white underclass; or, being firmly placed in the true middle class themselves, can even agree that such a thing exists. Apparently, you can’t smell the rabble from the putting green.
Public discussion of this class remains off limits, deemed hyperbole and the stuff of dangerous radical leftists. And besides, as everyone agrees, white people cannot be an underclass. We’re the majority, dammit. You must be at least one shade darker than a paper bag to officially qualify as a member of any underclass. The middle and upper classes generally agree, openly or tacitly, that white Americans have always had an advantage (which has certainly been the middle- and upper-class experience). Thus, in politically correct circles, either liberal or conservative, the term “white underclass” is an oxymoron. Sure, there are working-poor whites, but not that many, and definitely not enough to be called a white underclass, much less an American peasantry.
Economic, political, and social culture in America is staggering under the sheer weight of its white underclass, which now numbers some sixty million. Generally unable to read at a functional level, they are easily manipulated by corporate-political interests to vote against advances in health and education, and even more easily mustered in support of any proposed military conflict, aggressive or otherwise. One-third of their children are born out of wedlock, and are unemployable by any contemporary industrialized-world standard. Even if we were to bring back their jobs from China and elsewhere — a damned unlikely scenario — they would be competing at a wage scale that would not meet even their basic needs. Low skilled, and with little understanding of the world beyond either what is presented to them by kitschy and simplistic television, movie, and other media entertainments, or their experience as armed grunts in foreign combat, the future of the white underclass not only looks grim, but permanent.
Meanwhile, the underclass, “America’s flexible labor force” (one must be pretty flexible to get screwed in some of the positions we are asked to), or whatever you choose to call the unwashed throngs mucking around down here at the bottom of the national labor tier, are nevertheless politically potent, if sufficiently taunted and fed enough bullshit. Just look at the way we showed up in force during the 2000 elections, hyped up on inchoate anger and ready to be deployed as liberal-ripping pit bulls by America’s ultra-conservative political machinery. Snug middle-class liberals were stunned. Could that many people actually be supporting Anne Coulter’s call for the jailing of liberals, or Rush Limbaugh’s demand for the massive, forced psychiatric detention of Democrats? Or, more recently, could they honestly believe President Obama’s proposed public healthcare plan would employ “death panels” to decide who lives and who dies? Conservatives cackled with glee, and dubbed them the only real Americans.
But back in 2000, before the American economic implosion, middle-class people of both stripes could still have confidence in their 401(k)s and retirement stock portfolios, with no small thanks to the cheap labor costs provided by the rabble out there. And they could take comfort in the knowledge that millions of other middle-class folks just like themselves were keeping the gears of American finance well oiled and humming. Our economy had become fat through financialization. Who needed manufacturing? We were now a post-industrial nation of investors, a “transactional economy”. Dirty work was for ... well ... Asians. In this much-ballyhooed “sweat-free economy”, the white underclass swelled with every injection mould and drill press shipped across the Pacific.
Ten years later, with the US economy as skinny as the running gears of a praying mantis, the middle class — what’s left of it now — is having doubts about its traditional class security. Every day it gets a bit harder not to notice some fifty or sixty million people scratching around for any kind of a job, or working more hours than ever in a sweating, white-knuckled effort to hang onto the jobs they do have. With credit cards melting down and middle-class jobs evaporating, there is the distinct possibility of them slipping into the classes below them. And who are they anyway — those people wiping out the ramen noodle shelf at the supermarket, and looking rather surly as they are moved out of their repossessed houses?
True, with the right selection of lefty internet bookmarks, you can find discussions of the white underclass, and occasionally even a brief article in the New York Times about some scholarly book that asks, “Does a white underclass exist in America?” But most of the shrinking middle class pulls its blinds shut, hoping that if they don’t see bad fortune, perhaps bad fortune can’t see them and will not find their doors. Behind those doors, however, some privately wonder how the ranks of desperate and near-desperate American whites ever became so numerous. Where did all those crass people with their bad grammar and worse luck suddenly come from?
Seldom are such developments sudden, of course. It’s only the realization of them that happens overnight. The foundation of today’s white underclass was laid down in the years following World War II. I was there, I grew up during its construction, and spent half my life trapped in it.
When World War II began, 44 percent of Americans were rural, and over half of them farmed for a living. By 1970, only 5 percent were on farms. Altogether, more than twenty-two million migrated to urban areas during the postwar period. If that migration were to happen in reverse today, it would be the equivalent of the present populations of New York City, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, and Saint Louis moving out into the countryside at a time when the US population was half of its present size.
In the great swim upstream toward what was being heralded as a new American prosperity, most of these twenty-two million never made it to the first fish ladder. Stuck socially, economically, and educationally at or near the bottom of the dam, they raised children and grandchildren who added another forty million to the swarm.
These uneducated rural whites became the foundation of our permanent white underclass. Their children and grandchildren have added to the numbers of this underclass, probably in the neighborhood of 50 or 60 million people now. They outnumber all other poor and working-poor groups — black, Hispanics, immigrants.
Even as the white underclass was accumulating, it was being hidden, buried under a narrative proclaiming otherwise. The popular imagination was swamped with images that remain today as the national memory of that era. Nearly all of these images were products of advertising. In the standard depiction, our warriors returned to the land kept free by their valor, exhilarated by victory, and ready to raise families. They purchased little white cottages and Buick Roadmaster sedans, and then drove off into the unlimited horizons of the “land of happy motoring”. A government brochure of the time assured everyone that “An onrushing new age of opportunity, prosperity, convenience and comfort has arrived for all Americans.” I quoted this to an old World War II veteran named Ernie over an egg sandwich at the Twilight Zone Grill near my home in town. Ernie answered, “I wish somebody had told me; I would have waved at the prosperity as it went by.”
According to this officially sanctioned story of the great postwar migration, these people abandoned farm life in such droves because the money, excitement, and allure of America’s cities and large towns was just too great to resist. Why would anyone stay down on the farm when he or she could be “wearing ten-dollar shoes and eating rainbow pie”? One catches a whiff of urban-biased perception here; but then, the official version of all life and culture in America is written by city people. Our dominant history, analysis, and images of America are generated in the urban centers. Social-research institutions, major universities, and the media — such as ABC, HBO, PBS, and the Harvard University sociology department — are not located in Keokuk, Iowa; Fisher, Illinois; Winchester, Virginia; or Lubbock, Texas.
I grew up hard by the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, and am a product of that out-migration; and, as I said, grew up watching it happen around me. I’m here to tell you, dear hearts, that while all those university professors may have their sociological data and industrial statistics verified and well indexed, they’re way off-base; they’ve entirely overshot the on-the-ground experience. In fact, they don’t even deal with it. You won’t be surprised to hear that the media representation of the postwar era — and, let’s face it, more people watch The History Channel than read social history texts — it is as full of crap as an overfed Christmas goose.
My contemporaries of that rural out-migration, now in their late fifties and mid sixties, are still marked by the journey. Their children and grandchildren have inherited the same pathway. The class competition along that road is more brutal than ever. But the sell job goes on that we are a classless society with roughly equal opportunity for all. Given the terrible polarization of wealth and power in this country (the top 1 percent hold more wealth than the bottom 45 percent combined, and their take is still rising), we can no longer even claim equal opportunity for a majority. Opportunity for the majority to do what? Pluck chickens, and telemarket to the ever-dwindling middle class?
As for the memoir aspect of this book, it took a while to get up the nerve, both personally and professionally. It was approached with trepidation. I’d be willing to bet that my generation — the baby boomers — has produced more damned memoirs than all others combined. Angry memoirs weeping over some metaphorical pony the author did not get for Christmas in 1958 have left a sour wad in the gullet of serious readers. I always thought I had better sense than to add to that heap. I was wrong.
Beyond that, I am advised by some editors that the word “memoir”, like the word “essay”, can be the kiss of death in today’s suffering book market. But this book was published first in Australia, where I have with my very eyes seen real customers in bookstores, there to purchase a book, not a talking greeting-card or a Shakespeare coffee mug to prove they have been inside a bookstore. So I nurse a shred of optimism.
Nearly a year after the publication of my first book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America's Class War, I decided that, at the age of 63, I just might be a grizzled enough old rooster who had scratched up enough American gravel to justify recording some of it. I was among the last to witness horse-drawn mould-board plows at work. I went to a one-room school with a wood stove and an outhouse. Yet, by dint of fate, here I am sitting at a Toshiba laptop hurling electrons across the planet that will magically reassemble themselves into a published work, a narrative and observations on the American class system.
The narrative begins with the voices of a 1950s postwar boyhood in the Appalachian Mountains, and ends in America’s industrial towns. I’ve not had a day in my life when I did not hear those Appalachian voices in the back of my mind, as if to follow me from the family farm along Shanghai Road in West Virginia, out of the hills and hollers, no matter where I go in this world:
The Devil, he wears a hypocrite shoe, better watch out he’ll slip it on you ... Ezekiel seen that fireball burning way in the middle of the air ... the big little wheel turns by man, lord, but the big wheel turns by the grace of God ... and our rabbit dog Nellie got gored in the corn crib by a 10-point buck ... it’s bad luck to bury a man barefooted ... this old road runs along Sleepy Crick, clean past Shanghai and up to Cumberland boy, this old road runs on forever.
Shanghai Road was a red-dirt scratch across the green mountains to a post office/general store crossroads community called Shanghai. Our lives on that road exemplified four-fifths of the American historical experience — which is to say, rural and agrarian. They are not just my roots but, with variations on the theme, the rootstock of a large portion of working-class Americans, especially those we must now call an underclass. Excepting immigrants whose ancestors came through Ellis Island, most of us don’t have to dig too deeply into our genealogical woodpile to find a rural American progenitor tearing up dirt to plant corn, or racing a thunderstorm to get in a hay crop.
But, isolated as that life was at times, there was community. Neighbors along Shanghai Road banded together to make lard and apple butter, put up feed corn, bale hay, thresh wheat, pick apples, and plow snow off roads. One neighbor cut hair; another mended shoes. From birth to the grave, you needed neighbors and they needed you. I was very lucky to have seen that culture, which showed me that a real community of shared labor toward the shared good is possible — or was at one time in my country.
The nature and substance of their efforts and endurance causes me to reflect on the ecology of human labor then, and what we now call “our jobs”. Especially how our degraded concepts of community and work have contributed to the development of physical and cultural loneliness in America. Not to mention the destruction of a sense of the common good, the economy, and the natural world.
This book covers about eleven years, with short jumps into the past and the present for reasons of context. But, like its writer, it always returns to the Shanghai Road farm to find meaning in America, its people, and its land.
So here it is in your hands. Now all I can do is ask your forbearance and the forgiveness of the larches and Douglas firs, the loblolly and white pines that were cut and pulped to make this book. I hope to have testified to what was, and still is, worthwhile in the human rush and flow, the still pools and eddies of things witnessed.
Even so, it’s hard not to shiver when you’re looking at that river.
Joe Bageant's newly released book, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir