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America’s Industrial Gold Rush is Over

Most human settlements never transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them.

I recently read and reviewed Tim Carney’s excellent book Alienated America, a sort of combination of the “how we got Trump” genre with the sociological works of researchers like Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. Carney’s exploration of the Trump phenomenon, and his grappling with the timeless question of economic security versus personal responsibility in regard to the formation of virtue, family, and community, are among the best you’ll find. There is a deeper subtext in his book, however, that is not excavated. But first, a quick recap.

As in most treatments of inequality, geographic immobility, deindustrialization, and related issues, Alienated America features the requisite visits to faded old towns with ghostly main streets, and paeans to the blue-collar jobs that once allowed men with high school educations to comfortably own homes, raise families, and retire with pensions.

Through a long analysis, including a fascinating visit to a fracking camp in North Dakota—awash in money but utterly lacking in neighborliness and community—Carney concludes that wealth alone does not produce human flourishing. It is rather community and what social researchers call “civil society” that makes the American Dream possible. Obviously, money helps, but it is not sufficient, nor, in Carney’s telling, even necessary. For much of America, especially less affluent places, the primary institution of community and civil society is the church. While acknowledging that there is a chicken-and-egg problem here, and a problem of reinforcing cycles and virtuous circles, Carney nonetheless deems an economic, or “materialist,” explanation of American civic and family decline insufficient. The revival of the American Dream requires the re-churching of America.

This may well be largely true for places that are struggling; struggling to keep family and community intact in the face of deteriorating economic opportunity and the withering of old community institutions and social norms. But here’s the rub: some of the places Carney visits and alludes to are not exactly “struggling.” This is euphemism; these places are destroyed, ruined, vast swaths of their built environments far beyond the hope of revitalization.

The surfeit of Detroit “ruin porn” and the counterexamples of hipster homesteaders and craft businesses have recently been steering the Rust Belt narrative from one of terminal decline to one of scrappy, unlikely renewal. But the growth of a few Detroit or Youngstown neighborhoods, or the eds-and-meds reinvention of a few towns or inner-ring suburbs, is more like the growing of moss on a dead log than the sprouting of a new shoot. It does not presage comprehensive renewal, and it is not likely to bring the old community back, much less the old way of life.

Carney’s juxtaposition of old industrial towns, once overflowing with family and community life, to fracking camps is fascinating for a different reason than the one he gives: one can argue that many of these places where the American Dream is dead are, essentially, fracking camps writ large. The fact that they once possessed vibrant civil society—ethnic and social clubs, Little Leagues, union halls, tightly-knit public schools—is deceiving. In reality, they were often glorified company towns, with funding or tax revenue from the dominant employer flowing to and propping up these institutions of civil society. In some cases, even housing was built, cheaply, by employers. Gary, Indiana, famous once for steel and now for spectacular urban decline, was in fact founded by a steel company.


While to the passing eye, Gary or Carney’s example of Fayette City, Pennsylvania (in his words, it’s “not a city; It’s barely even a town. It’s a former town”) look like cities, they may be closer to simulacra of cities—unlike New York City or Old Town Alexandria, for example, they never managed to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them. Indeed, large numbers of human settlements never do, and never have. A one-dimensional, economically undiversified city is essentially a housing tract for a factory or a wharf or whatever industry drives its economy. What is left when that economic engine breaks down? A company town without a company. This is the fate that has befallen many of America’s declining places, and it is hard to argue that this economic reality doesn’t play a direct role in the decline of the family and of civil society. Is this a “materialist” explanation? Perhaps. But it may also be true.

There are those who admirably hope and work for revival, for restoration in places like Gary, Detroit, or any number of gutted small towns. But many of the buildings in these ghostly, empty blocks, even with their mighty and almost pleasantly timeworn facades, are far beyond the point where renovation is economical. For now, poverty is a sort of preservative. More money, for many hollowed-out cities, would simply mean more demolition.

To urbanist and declinist James Howard Kunstler, it may simply be the case that the national gold rush of petroleum-fueled industrial growth is over. If this is the case, the crisis of declining America is a structural, inexorable economic reality on the order of the Industrial Revolution itself.

It is true that countless dying cities and towns across America were and are “home”—and there is “a non-material aspect to home…that a purely materialist worldview can’t adequately express.” But Gary or Fayette City would never have been home had there not been a purely material reason for their existence. Perhaps cities—like people, like organisms—can die, and should be allowed to. Perhaps, counterintuitively, allowing them to die will also allow us to feel sadness and loss and humility, to acknowledge that technocratic tinkering is not a cure-all for the afflictions of being human in a broken world.

[googlemaps https://www.google.com/maps/embed?pb=!4v1556725814660!6m8!1m7!1sQytLoUEybH6vNtWGs5k8gg!2m2!1d41.57680898433124!2d-87.33680307571306!3f357.94609230093283!4f3.127309192342267!5f1.4963059229814113&w=600&h=450]
Urban blight along Broadway, Gary’s main commercial boulevard.

It would take a monster not to feel empathy or even vicarious loss surveying the ruins. It is almost necessary to remind oneself that Google Maps’ Street View is not an open-world apocalyptic video game. Perusing Gary’s blighted Broadway, you will find many buildings sporting glass blocks and lightbulb-lined marquees, which must once have given the strip quite a modern and glamorous feel. Occasionally, in neighborhoods like this, one happens upon a stray building that is still clearly inhabited and maintained, surrounded by desolation. Within living memory, these were new, sparkling places, with a beguiling appearance of permanence. No doubt there are people who intended to comfortably retire here, and other people who intended to sell and move and are now underwater.

Can the American Dream be resurrected in such an environment, in a settlement that is essentially a housing tract with no attendant need for workers? Money alone may not translate into community, but we also may have a need for at least a base level of economic and psychological security. Or at least hope for such security. Perhaps the difference between the hardship of the pre-industrial era, and the decaying remnants of the industrial era, is hope. No amount of municipal reform or insightful urban policy or federal funding or urban farming or homesteading is going to turn back the clock on all of America’s gutted main streets, vanishing rural communities, or Rust Belt company towns. And most people know it.

This is not a reality anyone should like—or even accept without struggle. It is particularly difficult for a person of faith to believe that faith, community, and other genuine human goods can be mere epiphenomena of passing economic conditions. Yet that may simply be the case. After all, the Gospel makes no promises of worldly affluence, and “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” is not a Bible verse.

The unwinding of rural and post-industrial America is a human tragedy, not to be written off, much less tacitly celebrated. Yet the facts of the post-industrial landscape may not care about remaining working-class feelings. This does not mean that any of these places “deserve to die.” But it may well mean that their collapse is beyond the ability of policy—or church—to alter.

Addison Del Mastro is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He tweets at @ad_mastro.