More Shallow Thoughts

Today’s thoughts are less philosophical, and more about the practical nature of ideology.

Recently, I’ve been reading J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy. The overall message of this book seems to be that poverty isn’t a matter of an unfair economic system, but of personal choice. More specifically, the suggestion is that if we all just made the personal choice to work harder, we could all wind up with Ivy League degrees and professional jobs with mid-six-figure incomes. Anyone who’s poor is just making bad choices, unable to see that America could easily be a country were everyone is a lawyer and nobody needs to do jobs like drive trucks or work in warehouses for longer than it takes to pay their way through college.

It should be clear from what I’ve written here in the past that I am not a fan of this particular fantasy, whether it is promoted (oddly) by the anti-intellectual right or the neoliberal “left”. My position is that not everyone has the kind of natural intelligence required to do college, at least if college were still what it used to be and still demanded that at least some critical thinking and real learning take place. In today’s college, of course, “education” is a matter of paying for the degree, with classes requiring nothing more than mindless busy work and rote memorization, and the skills to cheat on multiple choice tests taken on your laptop in your dorm room. So sure, probably everyone has the native intelligence to get that kind of college degree. But unlike a law degree from Yale (where Vance went), such degrees don’t generally lead to very good jobs. Colleges graduate millions of illiterate, and “mathematically illiterate”, young men and women, confident that they will get those six-figure jobs with their paid-for diploma, but they soon discover that without the ability to read above a fifth-grade level they can’t last long even if they are lucky enough to land a job. The jobs that require college degrees will still go to those who graduated from the elite schools, most of time, largely due to the expectation that these graduates are more likely to have basic reading and math skills.

So why perpetuate this expensive ruse, pushing everyone to go into debt to get useless degrees even if they don’t have the native intelligence to do “college-level” work? Why can’t we accept that those without this particular native ability may still be deserving of a decent living? Why shouldn’t warehouse workers and roofers make as much money for their exhausting and often unpleasant jobs as “white-collar” workers make for their much easier and more comfortable occupations?

After all, there will never be enough of these (relatively) easy and comfortable jobs for everyone, and somebody will always have to deliver your packages or process the meat you buy in the grocery store—jobs for which a college degree, even in a bullshit major like “business”, will never be of any use.

In the introduction to Vance’s book, he mention his job working at a floor tile warehouse during the summer before he entered Yale Law. He needed to save up some money, and a friend of the family got him this summer job, which was no doubt hard work. He attempts to prove that poverty is a matter of bad choices with the example of “Bob,” who worked at the warehouse with him that summer. “Bob” was nineteen, with a pregnant girlfriend, and both he and his girlfriend were given jobs. Bob made thirteen dollars an hour, which would have netted him a take-home income of about 22,000 dollars. Vance tells us that a “decent apartment costs about five hundred dollars a month” in Middletown, Ohio, so about 6,000 a year. Vance is baffled by this young man’s reluctance to work at this job, especially since it had “excellent health insurance”. He describes behavior we’ve all seen if we ever worked at any kind of job that requires manual labor: Bob frequently missed work, came late, and took multiple “breaks” of over half an hour on days when he did show up. When his pregnant girlfriend got fired for not showing up to work, Bob took this as an opportunity to lash out at his manager, and got himself fired.

I’ve been there. I’ve worked at jobs where managers spent all their time trying to placate and encourage such reluctant workers, offering them raises and the best shifts, while those of us who actually did all the work every day were treated poorly, never getting raises, working all the holidays and overtime without extra pay. This is how I paid my way through college. Decades later, I still have the bad back and bad knees to show for it.

But what I couldn’t understand at the time, and what Vance still can’t grasp, is the difference between doing such a job for a year while you’re looking forward to graduate school or law school, and doing such a job with the prospect of living right at the poverty line for the rest of your life. I survived such jobs because I knew I only had to do it for one more year, or I only had to do it until September. Many of the guys I was working with would be doing these jobs until they got too old to physically handle them anymore. And then what?

I’m sure 22,000 a year sounds just fine to a lawyer with a Yale degree. Why shouldn’t they be able to live off that? But if you do the calculations, figure how much it costs to buy food and clothes, to keep a car on the road, and these days to keep your cellphone connected, at the end of the month you’re not left with much to show for your back-breaking labor, shifting fifty-pound cartons of floor tile all day.

I don’t work such jobs anymore, because I am not physically able to. But I know many men my age who do. And they describe the same frustration with younger workers, who call in sick twice a week, leave early, or just wander away for a half hour or so out of every two hours, leaving the old guy to do all the work himself. So I assume things haven’t changed much since I was working my way through school.

My position is that the problem here is not a matter of poor personal choices, but of a failure of ideology. Workers like this have nothing to give their lives meaning. Long hours of grueling physical labor to keep food on the table and a roof over your head and nothing more, ever, for the rest of your life, starts to seem, well, not worth doing. And Vance does a great job of describing what happens to such people when they get a bit more money: they wind up even more unhappy, spending their money on things they don’t need and can’t really afford, drinking and using drugs, and trapped by the confused belief that all their unhappiness must be caused by their current relationship they spend their time fighting with their families and looking for that next sexual partner who will finally make them happy.

What’s missing is ideology. Not in the bourgeois sense of better personal choices about managing one’s financing. And not in the pop-Buddhist sense we see every day in newspaper opinion columns (especially since the beginning of the pandemic) of becoming blissfully indifferent to everything and learning to enjoy sitting and doing nothing. What I’m talking about is actual social practices that people can become engaged in, can participate in, to give their lives meaning beyond their alienated labor and their instagram feeds.

Vance mentions religion, and the declining participation in churches among those in the rust belt. He points to research that suggest those who attend church “commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money” and do better in school, and that church is causal in this, “it’s not just that those people who happen to live successful lives also go to church” (92). Despite this, and the conviction that “church offer[s] something desperately needed by people like” himself, almost nobody from his blue-collar hometown ever went to church. They all have deeply held “religious” beliefs, about a God who is somehow on their side, but these beliefs seem to allow for violence and even murder with no repercussions. In fact, Vance describes his family as having disdain for anyone who even attempts to behave civilly or kindly to anyone outside their own family; they see such people as affecting a superior attitude, and despise them.

This is what I mean by a failure of ideology. We all think our deeply held, private beliefs are good enough, and disdain participation in social practices. Without such social practices, though, it is difficult to find purpose in life, and almost impossible to organize any significant social change. We can’t even conceive of unionizing any more, and civil rights movements have been relegated to protests with no clear goals, usually only those protests that are promoted and so encouraged by media owned by those who don’t want any real change. In short, we have given up on all ideological practices that might give our life meaning, and give us agency, opting instead to be controlled an placated by the billionaires who own our social media accounts.

Of course, Vance leaves out what for me has always been a problem with organized religion: money. Churches here in Connecticut make it clear that what they want is not to save your soul but to access your bank account. Whoever gives the most money runs the church, and your ability to participate is dependent on your income. I’ve seen this over the last few years at churches of three different denominations in my town (we have close to a dozen churches, with every major Christian religion and few obscure ones represented). In a town of over thirty thousand, about fifteen hundred attend church regularly, and they pay well for the privilege of controlling the church they attend. Most people here say they believe in God but never see the inside of a church except at a funeral. Buddhist groups are even worse about this, often the most expensive kind of “religion” around, and offering nothing for your payment but bromides and condescension. And it’s not just religion that is gone. Social clubs and softball leagues are a thing of the past, as all of our human interaction has been taken over by our phones. My grandparents, who were not college-educated, participated in countless social organizations, from Kiwanis to bowling leagues and pinochle clubs. They worked “blue-collar” jobs, bought a house, and retired comfortably in their sixties. Their social activities kept them busy all their lives, even after retirement, but they also gave them some reason to go on with their work.

My point is that if guys like Bob had a hope of eventually getting real economic security, but also of something beyond lifting floor tiles to give his life meaning, he might be more motivated to do such a job.

In some ways, this time of isolation seems less strange than it would have half a century ago, because we have been preparing for it all our lives. Perhaps we can use this time to put down our phones and start thinking about what kinds of social practices we’d like to engage in once we’ve all been vaccinated. According to some experts, we’ll have at best three years before the next pandemic shuts us down for another year or so. What kind of ideological practices can prepare us for this?

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8 Comments

  1. thesonoranghost

     /  December 15, 2020

    Ironically “Hillbilly Elegy” was one of the books I read this year that slowly coursed you and I to bump paths. It’s interesting though, I got a different message from the book but of course I was reading it in hindsight from a different perspective than if I had just followed the author’s narrative. Just before it I had read in order, “Slavery’s Capitalism” and “The Radical King.” Just after Hillbilly I reread Malcolm X’s biography. The thing that made me stand up and take notice in regards to both class as well as social systems was when he described not knowing how to eat at a haute dinner, as well as the hidden language of why for example you socially get on the Harvard Review as it’s a primer to the career path of the Supreme Court. It also made me look at *my* trajectory in comparison.

    My Marxist study is still nascent having consisted so far only of Althusser and the first two chapters of Capital. However that path of reading over late summer lead me to the inexorable conclusion that the class system was indeed alive and well, and this was despite hearing the words of Warren Buffet a decade or so back when he said in response to paying more taxes “Yes there is a class war in this country, and mine is winning!”

    At any rate, what I found to be missing from his discussion was that his upbringing was just varied and disruptive enough within different class groups that again–he failed to interpellate. His grandfather’s constant impulse to teach young J.D. math was not at all dissimilar to the encyclopedia gift I received. Having calming places to go to is critically important especially when living with the possibility of abuse. He absorbed the educational pressures from his grandma. When he went to live with his father he experienced a successful middle class life. His choice to go into the military was a critical one: He was surrounded by college-educated people and in THAT kind of environment, your social programming is going to change and get altered, but I’ve see that fail in some of my friends who went immediately back into where they were before they entered military life. Because well, who can blame them? I probably would have gone home too.

    The neoliberal attitude you associate with him in the book… is probably there. I just didn’t catch it because I attached to nuances, such as when he discussed all the knowledge that “elite” students have that other students don’t. He also discussed reading some books on sociology, so he seems to understand… *something* maybe about the class system but at least at this stage, seems tight-lipped about what if anything may have impacted him. The major idea that he didn’t state from the book but that deeply impacted me was the idea that who you become is a huge function of the social environment you’re enveloped in.

    Alot of your other comments especially about religion are well-taken here, though I chuckled at the Buddhist bit, because about 2yrs ago I looked into a retreat, and I saw that the cost was something like $3k and I said to myself, “Who the f*** can afford to be a Buddhist?” It’s telling to me that Wisdom publications seems to act like a major record label.

    I think the only pushback I might have is that you were being a bit too harsh on college: You have a willing convert in regards to the fact that it’s not designed to create challengers to the system, but as someone who failed algebra 4x in HS… to have succeeded enough in college to have gone past algebra with a cohort of students, I’m not quite sure I’d agree with the magnitude of your dismissal–though my math professor was very concerned that the quality of students had been going down… and that was 14yrs ago.

    Practices…

    This part is hard. Off the cuff… what about storytelling? There has to be a way to reinvent the old practice of telling good stories, especially at a time when social distancing is going to be more of a norm?

    That’s hard… I’m still trying to consider what a life without money could look like. Let me take some more time to stew on this and come back with something…

  2. nicky

     /  December 16, 2020

    Tom,
    I may have misunderstood, but the part where you ask about practices for those who have to work a shitty job, it sounded for a moment like – exagerating now a bit – oh give them more money and let us look for a hobby for those people, so they like doing their shitty jobs more….
    instead of…aiming higher?
    Idk I was on this retreat in a Zen house where we had to work each for one hour in the house doing cleaning work and I liked the idea of sharing the dirty work in a way that it is totally acceptable for everyone and eliminating the job for someone who would have to do it all day, cleaning toilets for an hour a day is not the end….ok in a mass society it might be more problematic in an organizational sense. But the idea of maybe lessen the shitty jobs or the “job-in-itself” and wage labour in the first place by sharing the work and also by mixing mental and manual work, instead of a “sorry boy, mental work is only for the smart ones”….the institutions that also produce status and hierarchy and the Lacanian subject-supposed-to-know that then binds desire and power should be undermined by a decentralised fluctuating of functions and positions, shouldn`t it?

  3. Sonoranghost: The ostensible message of “Hillbilly Elegy” may conflict, for some readers, with the message of the actual story. For me, the book does confirm the overwhelming power of class ideology and the near impossibility of economic mobility. But Vance considers himself as “conservative,” whatever he may mean by that, and his expression intention does seem to be to demonstrate that most economic difficulty is a matter of poor personal choices. What I take from it is colored by my own experience: to have a shot at law school, Vance had to work hard, be smarter than average , etc. But I’ve known many people, coming from a different social class, who partied their way through school, never had to go into the military, and still got into law school despite being only of average intelligence and having mediocre grades and LSAT scores. I’m not sure I understand what you’re disagreement is about my description of college today. If there are colleges that are different from the one’s I’ve worked at over the last twenty years, I’d like to hear about them. I assume there are, that not all higher education can be as bad as the places I’ve worked!

    When I was in middle school, I got “B”s in algebra, but a 98 on the regents exam. In geometry I did a bit worse, but got 100 on the regents exam. It was suggested that since I was good at math, I might have a future as a bookkeeper or maybe even an accountant! Nobody suggested that I might become an engineer or a mathematician—I was clearly working class, and this was not a possibility. For me, this is a very tangible part of the class function of the educational system—mobility is allowed, but only within prescribed pathways, and at a great personal price. People I’ve met since who came from a different class background were encouraged to become engineers or scientists despite struggling with the kinds of math that came easily to me.

    I wound up, eventually, in English. But the same expectations existed. Although I could easily read and engage texts that most of my classmates could not comprehend at all, I was not encouraged, by most of my professors, to go on to graduate school. Some of my undergraduate friends, who were hopeless with things like Dryden or Derrida, were pushed to go on to grad school, mostly because they came from the right class background. Despite graduating summa cum laude and having near perfect GRE scores, I got into graduate school off a wait list, along with a lot of people from private colleges with middling grades and GRE scores, because in the 80s everyone was going into money fields and nobody wanted to study English anymore. And then, despite publishing my first article in my second yea of grad school, I never even got a single job interview for a tenure-track job, while many of my peers who still have never published a peer-reviewed article in their lives got jobs and tenure and are now contemplating retirement. This is the way class has always worked in America: the illusion of mobility, but only in the prescribed ways. I didn’t have the sense, until way too late, to know exactly how someone like me would be allowed to “succeed” economically. I thought if I did the “right” thing, and was better at it than other candidates, I’d get the job. Of course, now I see how foolish this was. I look back and am often stunned by my blindness for so many years, my failure to see what should have been obvious. I’m just a slow learner, I guess!

  4. NIcky,
    Yes, avoiding the “hobby” answer is the biggest challenge in trying to find meaningful social practices. Because “hobbies” don’t do anything meaningful, and leave people in the same despair and alienation. This is why it is so challenging to find new meaningful practices. Labor unions or political parties may have more agency, but we are taught, from early childhood, to have disdain for them and for anyone who might be foolish enough to participate in them.

    Many years ago, when I used to go to Zen retreats, I was invariably assigned to clean the bathrooms. In fact, while others rotated jobs, I never did, and this was the only job I was ever assigned. I wonder why? Anyway, cleaning the bathroom is not unfamiliar—I’ve never been affluent enough to hire a cleaner, and have always had to clean my own house, mow my own lawn, etc. This isn’t alienated labor, so it doesn’t seem as horrible—just the necessary tedium of everyday life.

    I can’t really agree that we should all share in all kinds of jobs. I don’t want everyone taking a turn at doing surgery for an hour or so a week. And I don’t want just anyone getting into the woodshop to work on the cabinets I’m going to buy, or trying to fix my car. I wouldn’t even want to eat food cooked by someone who cooks just a couple hours a week or a few weeks a year in a rotation!

    The goal, to my way of thinking, is to stop thinking of “mental work” as higher and superior. That is, we if what someone’s abilities are happen to make them best suited to, say, working in a plant nursery or putting roofs on houses, we shouldn’t think “oh, you’re only a roofer or a gardener, you’re not good enough to be a chemist or a lawyer.” Your response seems to still be shot through with that attitude, which is what we would have to find a way to leave behind. Of course, we can’t easily drop it so long as we ridiculously overpay some occupations while underpaying other, more essential, jobs. Why do we idolize grown men who put on short pants and play children’s games? Because they make millions of dollars a year doing it! So they are our heroes, although we alway find out they are idiots, horrible people, serial sexual assaulters, drug abusers, etc. Still, I think mental work just should only be for the “smart ones.” I don’t want people with limited intellects designing bridges I need to drive over.

  5. nicky

     /  December 17, 2020

    I am sorry for posting so often (where is everyone else), let me just say this thing:
    I don`t agree very much with the “natally intelligent” part, although there is very probably such a thing, I think it is increasingly difficult to detect it within the systemic damage done to it: are the children really getting more stupid (as my sister tells) or has the system just become more brutal….and how much helped class to lessen this damage and poverty increase it or how much did the ambition of the parents to hide the natural disposition of their kids…
    Otherwise, not saying everyone should do everything, but reducing people to one function/job alone seems brutal to me. I like very much Marx` idea of the development of the full potential of everyone…

  6. nicky

     /  December 17, 2020

    (In the word “intelligence” within our system is already so much violence with the segregated education system we have here where people are stigmatized into the lower levels, the grade system and competition from early on, the narrow view on children with its judgment and valuing by their intelligence and potential for “productivity for the economy”, everything so inherently ableist: in the world we live, it is difficult to even talk about “intelligence” in a way that does not seem brutal imo)

  7. I can’t really argue for the existence of natural differences in intellectual ability. This is an empirical question, and so can only be demonstrated by pointing to evidence in the world. It’s sort of like debating whether there are still mountain lions in Connecticut—you can’t debate it, it is just a matter of looking. (And no, there aren’t any mountain lions in CT any more—people just mistake bobcats for mountain lions).

    But I agree that the word “intelligence” is so ideologically loaded that it is almost impossible to discuss it. “Intelligence” has meant so many things over the years, and been tested for in so many ways, that it is impossible know what we mean by it. I usually mean something like the ability to think in abstract concepts and reason logically, but this is an older meaning of the word—this is what IQ tests and SAT exams used to test for, but this ability, which I do think we all have to different degrees, is not longer what most standardized tests look for. It turns out this ability is not very well correlated with affluence, and “poor” kids tend to have it just as often as rich kids; so they’ve cut the “logic” section out of the GRE exams, and started testing for memory and knowledge content on the SAT, to insure that kids who get more expensive educations will still do better on tests of intellectual ability.

    The point is, the word “intelligence” has such intense ideological power, that we need to always redefine it to suit our ideological agenda. Like Robert Sternberg redefining “intelligent’ to mean something like “properly interpellated into capitalist ideology” in one of a variety of ways. I think of it like Shakespeare used to be in English departments. The name carried such enormous weight, that any ideology you wanted to promote had to first be “discovered” to be the true ideology promoted by Shakespeare. So he was found to be “truly” a fascist, and then a New Critic, and then a neoliberal, etc. (Of course, today many English departments have just dropped Shakespeare as a requirement, because most English majors don’t read well enough to understand any of his plays.)

    I do get the problem with this term—and the hostility against it. Those who have wealth and power always just define themselves as the most “intelligent’ and so justify their oppression of others. Witness Trump’s frequent claim that he is a genius. The goal, for me, is to drop this valuation of intellectual ability. Other abilities are just as important to develop—like the ability to make things, to play music, or to grasp intuitively the irrational side of human life.

    I am always concerned, though, that we don’t deny those with intellectual abilities the right to develop them out of sheer resentment. Many years ago, when I was a grad student in psychology, half the people in the program were studying to be school psychologists. Now, it was a demonstrated fact, back then, that grad students in psychology had the second lowest IQs of any graduate major (education, or course, was the lowest). The psych grad students were very angry about this, and would often rail against the “smart kids” they would some day get revenge on when they were working in the schools. And there was a very clear agenda to hold back the “intelligent” kids, so they wouldn’t think they were better than anyone else (this is still common in American public schools, where there are no more true “gifted” programs, but half of the school budget is spent on sports and program to help developmentally challenged kids). I used to try to argue that this is the equivalent of saying we shouldn’t let the athletically gifted play on the sports teams or the musically gifted play in band. But this argument doesn’t go far, because of the enormous ideological resentment against “intelligence” in our culture.

    Long and rambling comment—but the short point is, yes, “intelligent” is an equivocal and ideologically loaded term. It is difficult to talk about mental abilities in any serious way because of this, and even harder to separate out the advantages due to class privilege from differences in natural ability. But we don’t have to see differences in natural ability as necessarily evil—this, I take it, is the force of Marx’s comment about allowing everyone to develop whatever potential they happen to have!

  8. nicky

     /  December 17, 2020

    Okay. Thank you. This makes sense.

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