The Cost of Being an Entirely Bourgeois Nation
We don't make things anymore, including our own medicines. What happens when our dependence on globalization is really put to the test?
For the first six months of our marriage, my wife and I have settled on a little patch of rural Michigan while she finishes her master’s degree. Folks here were hit hard by the collapse of American industry: one out of every three of our neighbors lives below the poverty line. The town is welfare-dependent, and it shows: the local Walmart is filled with overweight men and women hollering at their three unruly towheads. They never change out of their pajamas, but they drive souped-up F-150s, blaring the radios day and night, though 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. seems to be rush hour.
Hardly a week goes by when we don’t open the local paper to find that yet another meth lab has blown up. On our afternoon walks, we pass two of these charred wrecks; they’ll lie abandoned for a few years until the city tears them down. To think that some worker at the steel mill (long since shuttered) built that quaint little home for his new wife to raise their kids in. Now his granddaughter sleeps on a mattress in the kitchen with six of her closest friends, all of them shooting heroin and burning trash in the fireplace to keep warm.
Just past the tree line, the county opens up into hundreds of square miles of flat, golden farmland. The number of farms in this country is slowly dwindling and what remains is absurdly misused. About four times more acreage is devoted to corn than to vegetables. That’s what most of this rich soil is used for out here: the raw ingredient for toxins like ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup, all paid for by taxpayer subsidies.
But drive about 20 minutes north of town and you come to a long, straight road where the power lines don’t dip towards the houses. There are cornfields, yes—but there’s also pumpkin patches, chicken coops, and cow pastures. Come through at night and you see little fires drifting up the road on the helm of broad shadows: horse-drawn buggies with torches for headlights, filled with stocky men in straw hats and wool frock coats. Welcome to Amish country.
The Old Order is clever. They move into towns like this, where globalism has wrecked the local economy, and buy up land cheap. They grow all the crops and raise all the animals they need to support their community; whatever’s left over, they sell at the farmer’s market and use the profits to buy the little luxuries they can’t make themselves (Pepsi, for the most part).
The contrast between the “English” Michiganders and the Amish is striking. If you described the Amish lifestyle—no phones or internet, homemade clothes, etc.—it sounds like they’re barely getting by. And yet they’re doing better than many of us who enjoy all the conveniences of modern life. Their economy is self-sustaining, highly localized, and virtually immune to stock market trends. They flourish where we falter because they do without. They have no use for Ford or Little Caesars or Dollar General. They have their land, their one-room schoolhouse, and their church. That’s all they need, and it’s all they really want.
This may sound like an apologia for becoming an Anabaptist and living with the plain folk. It’s not—though I’ve never understood why neoliberals call distributists “Catholic Amish,” as though the comparison is somehow unflattering. Nevertheless, there’s a lesson to be learned here about how we measure economic success and quality of life.
In past articles, I’ve warned about the perils of mindlessly chasing unlimited “economic growth.” The fact of the matter is that our economy is already too big—too complicated, too cumbersome—to provide for the real needs of our citizens. We’re not capable of supporting ourselves: not as families and not as a nation. We simply don’t have the capacity to create the things we need to survive. And in the event of a major fiscal catastrophe, we’re absolutely screwed.
Farming is just one example, though it’s a poignant one. If the stock market collapsed tomorrow, fewer than 50 percent of farmers—about 0.25 percent of all Americans—could survive off their own crops. They’re the minority who own the land they work. The rest are employed by landlords or agricultural corporations. They’re not growing food to feed their families or their communities; that’s not the point. They’re producing whatever crops will maximize profits for their landlords. They’re not the noble yeomen of Jeffersonian lore; they’re serfs.
And what happens if we do find ourselves in an economic emergency? If you think Bayer-Monsanto or the Gladstone Land Corporation will free up their tenants to grow the produce and raise the livestock that their neighbors need to survive the Greater Depression, you’re out of your mind.
We’ve run into the same problem with oil in recent years. How many wars have we fought, how many young men and women have we sent to shed their blood in far-flung deserts, to ensure a steady supply of cheap gasoline back home? How many times have we turned a blind eye to the crimes of Saudi Arabia because they account for 10 percent of our petroleum imports (which is absurd, given that we export seven times more petroleum than we import from the Kingdom)?
Of course, none of it matters unless we do find ourselves in the throes of some financial catastrophe. Anyone who raises such concerns is dismissed as a fear-monger or a hypocrite, but that catastrophe might be just around the corner. As Axios reported on Sunday, this country may soon find itself with a shortage of life-saving medicine. Thanks to the coronavirus, exports from China are slowing to a trickle. This will almost certainly affect our supply of pharmaceuticals, since we import the ingredients to about 150 prescription drugs.
Just don’t say we weren’t warned. Long before the coronavirus reared its head, national security experts were warning about the United States’ dangerous dependence on the People’s Republic for our pharmaceutical needs. “If China shut the door on exports of medicines and their key ingredients and raw material, U.S. hospitals and military hospitals and clinics would cease to function within months, if not days,” says Rosemary Gibson, author of the book China Rx. She’s also written about the effect of coronavirus on our supplies, on these pages, here.
Brigadier General John Adams shares her concern. “Basically, we’ve outsourced our entire industry to China,” he told NBC last September. “That is a strategic vulnerability.” It might not even take a communist coup against the American hegemon for us to realize just how vulnerable we really are.
And what makes it all so much worse is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
We’re more than capable of making everything we need for ourselves. The problem is, we sold off our agricultural and industrial base and invested all of our stock in non-productive sectors. Retail, finance, and hospitality alone account for 25 percent of American jobs. Manufacturing and farming, meanwhile, are just 10 percent.
This is the cost of creating an entirely bourgeois nation. In order for every American to enjoy the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, we had to be able to produce and buy all of our goods at third-world prices. That meant ditching the standards of first-world labor: wages, workplace safety standards, bargaining rights, the lot. Now we have more people employed in selling things than in making them. It’s madness.
In the United States, three out of every 25 citizens is employed in the health care sector…yet we can’t even produce our own penicillin. That’s just one of the (literally) countless jobs we’ve outsourced to China. Now we’re facing a shortage of chemotherapy drugs and antidepressants. Remember that.
And look: the good folks at the American Enterprise Institute can come up with a hundred and one reasons why globalism has benefited mankind—not only the wealthy and the middle class, but also the very poor. And often enough, they’re right. But when the chips are down (as they will be soon enough), none of that will matter. The standard libertarian retort against critics of free-market economics has always been some variation of: “You say you hate industrial capitalism, but what about antibiotics?” Well it looks like we’re going to run out of those too—just as we ran out of industry.
At what point do we have permission to ask if maybe, possibly, we need to rethink the way we do economics? Forget supply- and demand-side: what we need is a “need-side economics,” a way of looking at the markets that accounts, first and foremost, for the basic necessities of life. Because that’s precisely what we can’t provide for ourselves.
We sent Donald Trump to the White House with a mandate to revive America’s productive sectors. He started out strong, bringing thousands of jobs in manufacturing back to the United States, but his attention quickly drifted elsewhere. Hopefully the coronavirus will bring his priorities back into focus. He’s been far too chummy with the Chinese communists and far too apologetic for their own crimes—much to the dismay of his supporters.
Now’s his chance to win our trust back. Let him get back to the vital work of restoring America’s economic independence and self-determination. Only then can he deliver our country from its dangerous dependence on unstable global markets and unreliable foreign powers. A nation must be able to feed, shelter, and heal itself. Otherwise it isn’t a nation at all.
Michael Warren Davis is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. He is the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021).