The Right & The Unnecessariat
Reader KD writes:
If I had to diagnose the difference between “Conservatives” versus the “Alt-Right” set, your Conservative grows up in an intact nuclear family and attends church on a weekly basis in a community that is relatively ethnically homogeneous. Think Salt Lake City or small-town Kansas.
In contrast, the “Alt-Right” experience, I suspect, is a result of growing up in dysfunctional families in dying, de-Industrializing cities and towns, who, thanks to the gift of the diversity, gets the opportunity to get beaten up by children of all different creeds and colors, only to be told that he or she actually deserves to have his or her face stamped in due to some invisible and/or ancestral blood curse.
To put it differently, conservatism exists in those regions of the country relatively untouched by “Progress”, whereas the kind of punk rock rightist stance requires feminism, mass immigration, rising inequality, de-industrialization, rising suicide rates, secularism, and, of course, a thriving drug culture, to provoke a kind of political gag reflex.
I believe there is a divide on the right based on whether people grew up in the last bastions of a culture of life, or whether someone grew up in the center of the culture of death. Further, I suspect that the future belongs more to the Alt-Right than the conservatives, because it is a consequence of “Progress”, the more America “progresses”, the stronger the Alt-Right will grow.
I don’t think this is a good thing, it is probably a bad thing, but if one writes about politics, one has to look reality square in the face. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that Life will ultimately triumph, but it may be messy in the interregnum.
Which brings to mind a fascinating piece from a couple of weeks ago that reader Leslie Fain brought to my attention today. It’s about what its author, “Anne Amnesia,” calls “The Unnecessariat.” Anne, who is a leftist, begins by saying she’s old enough to remember the AIDS crisis, and how the gay community mobilized in its face:
Mostly what I remember is the darkness- the world seemed apocalyptic. Everyone, at least in the gay men’s community, seemed to be sick, or dying, or taking care of someone else who was sick or dying, or else hurling themselves headlong into increasingly desperate and dramatic activism the like of which has hardly been seen since.
… For much of the 80’s, AIDS was killing thousands of people every year, and the official government response seemed to be: Who cares? Let the fags die.
AIDS generated a response. Groups like GMHC and ACT-UP screamed against the dying of the light, almost before it was clear how much darkness was descending, but the gay men’s community in the 1970’s and 80’s was an actual community. They had bars, bathhouses, bookstores. They had landlords and carpools and support groups. They had urban meccas and rural oases. The word “community” is much abused now, used in journo-speak to mean “a group of people with one salient characteristic in common” like “banking community” or “jet-ski riding community” but the gay community at the time was the real deal: a dense network of reciprocal social and personal obligations and friendships, with second- and even third-degree connections given substantial heft.
There is nothing like that today for poor and working-class Americans who are dying in the suicide and drug-overdose epidemic. Anne compares that crisis to AIDS, and produces two maps of the US — one that shows suicide rates, and one that shows drug overdoses. There is an enormous amount of overlap. Anne lives in the Rust Belt, in the heart of the epidemic. She writes about hanging out in the Medical Examiner’s office:
The workers would tell jokes. To get these jokes you have to know that toxicology results take weeks to come back, but autopsies are typically done within a few days of death, so generally the coroners don’t know what drugs are on board when they cut up a body. First joke: any body with more than two tattoos is an opiate overdose (tattoos are virtually universal in the rural midwest). Second joke: the student residents will never recognize a normal lung (opiates kill by stopping the brain’s signal to breathe; the result is that fluid backs up in the lungs creating a distinctive soggy mess, also seen when brain signalling is interrupted by other causes, like a broken neck). Another joke: any obituary under fifty years and under fifty words is drug overdose or suicide. Are you laughing yet?
And yet this isn’t seen as a crisis, except by statisticians and public health workers. Unlike the AIDS crisis, there’s no sense of oppressive doom over everyone. There is no overdose-death art. There are no musicals. There’s no community, rising up in anger, demanding someone bear witness to their grief. There’s no sympathy at all. The term of art in my part of the world is “dirtybutts.” Who cares? Let the dirtybutts die.
Anne calls people in her region the Unnecessariat. Why? This:
Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that.
I don’t want to overquote the long essay, because I don’t want to discourage you from reading it. She talks about how middle-class and upper-class people look at these wrecks and think, “Well, I wouldn’t live like that, so I wouldn’t get into that kind of trouble.” But that’s blindness, she says. If you don’t believe it, please read my post from a while back on Sam Quinones’ great book of reportage, Dreamland, about the American opiate epidemic. Anybody who thinks it can’t happen to them or their families ought to read Dreamland.No, I take that back: everybody ought to read Dreamland. Excerpt from that post:
The book is full of sad stories, but the saddest is the tale of Russian Pentecostals in Portland, Oregon. Massive number of these persecuted Christians emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US, and settled mostly on the West Coast. They were religious, conservative, and strict churchgoers. But their kids went to school with other Americans, and came to see church life as boring and too restrictive. They tried OxyContin, and moved into heroin. Hundreds of these Russian Pentecostal kids became addicts. Their parents did not know what to do. In one family’s case:
Two decades after Anatoly and Nina left the Soviet Union for the freedoms of America, each of their three oldest children was quietly addicted to black tar heroin from Xalisco, Nayarit. … [T]heir American dreamland contained hazards they hadn’t imagined. Remaining Christian in America, where everything was permitted, was harder than maintaining the faith in the Soviet Union where nothing was allowed. Churches were everywhere. But so were distractions and sin: television, sexualized and permissive pop culture, and wealth.
Think of it: these Pentecostals were better off in the USSR than in America, because American freedom led to extreme decadence.
This past weekend, there was a double murder in my normally quiet, peaceful rural parish. Five people have been arrested in connection with it; I believe they are all locals. Authorities don’t yet know the motive, but the words “remnants of a meth lab were found in a shed near [a victim’s] trailer” appeared in the initial newspaper report. The talk around town about this has made a lot of us middle-class people wonder what’s going on in our own parish that we don’t know about. This past weekend, at the festival in Oklahoma, I talked to a Christian from the Midwest who said that many of his fellow middle-class Evangelicals have no idea what’s really going on in America. We were talking about religion, culture, and what it means for the future of the family and religious liberty. But that statement could be applied far more broadly.
Anyway, back to Anne Amnesia. She continues:
If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: county by county, where life expectancy is dropping survivors are voting for Trump.
What does it mean, to see the world’s narrative retreat into the distance? To know that nothing more is expected of you, or your children, or of your children’s children, than to fade away quietly and let some other heroes take their place? One thing it means is: if someone says something about it publicly, you’re sure as hell going to perk up and listen.
Anne quotes from a letter she sent to a professor friend on the primary election day in her state. Though she took a Democratic ballot and voted for Sanders, she wrote, in part:
Let’s be honest- Clinton doesn’t give a sh*t about me. When Clinton talks about people hurt by the economy, she means you: elite-educated white-collar people with obvious career tracks who are having trouble with their bills and their 401k plans. That’s who boomed under the last president Clinton, especially the 401ks. Me, or the three guys fighting two nights ago over the Township mowing contract, we’re nothing. Clinton doesn’t have an economic plan for us. Nobody has an economic plan for us. There is no economic plan for us, ever. We keep driving trucks around and keep the margins above gas money and maybe take an odd job here or there, but essentially, we’re history and nobody seems to mind saying so.
And let me be honest again- Trump doesn’t have an economic plan for me either. What Trump’s boys have for me is a noose- but that’s the choice I’m facing, a lifetime of grueling poverty, or apocalypse.
I think that Trump, and his supporters, many of whom I live and work with, have clued into something similar to what IS are seeing: the US is not actually for real anymore.
Dmitri Orlov described the end of the Soviet Union as the lifting of a dream, a sudden realization that what was ludicrous was in fact powerless as well. How Trump wins is by recognizing this ludicrous unreality in the established “norms” of political behavior. The control system, the “donor class,” the “party [that] decides” are paper tigers, dreams, ridiculous. The US government is on equal footing with Apple- neither could “build a wall” across Mexico, or bomb another state into compliance, or “fix” the economy, and every claim to the contrary is both risible and, most likely, the loss leader for another round of extra-legal exploitation and entrapment. But hey, neither one can keep the bridges from falling down either, or maintain a reasonable life expectancy or low infant mortality rate. Trump is not a fascist or a clown, he simply gives the panopticon no more respect than it can actually command in the real world. Against this, the Clinton and other republican campaigns can manage only a half-throated reassurance that rules and traditions aren’t bankrupt, should matter, and there’s nothing important behind the curtain. Those claims evaporate, USSR-like, with the first throw of a fist.
One more thing: today I spoke to a working-class friend, a hard-working woman with a good heart, who lives in Fishtown. I asked about her extended family, which I had heard was going through some rough times (infidelity, a family breaking apart over it, traumatized kids, rage, resentment, etc.). She said things were going pretty well, actually, in all that. Of course there is no way in hell things are going pretty well; all this just happened within the last few weeks. But then I thought: that family has been dealing with the breakdown of social and familial order for a very long time. They’ve gotten used to it. What would be a complete catastrophe for middle-class people like me is just another day for those folks.
So, with that background, let’s return to the reader comment that inspired all this: the claim that the difference between a “conservative” and a member of the “alt-right” has primarily to do with whether or not one is a rightist who lives in a world (state, county, neighborhood, family) that has not fallen apart, or not.
True? False? Discuss.
Note well, though: anybody who uses the word “cuckservative” or its variation is not going to see their comment posted. Whatever you say, say it thoughtfully, in the spirit of civil exchange.
UPDATE: I would add one more thing. An Alt-Rightist is someone who is post-Christian, if was Christian in the first place. This accounts for the racism and anti-Semitism you see in those circles. It’s not that no Christian has ever been racist or anti-Semitic before (alas). It’s that no Christian worthy of the name can be racist after slavery and Jim Crow, and no Christian worthy of the name can be anti-Semitic after Auschwitz. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, if it ever was. And no Christian principles can be appealed to as a counter to Alt-Right beliefs, because they by and large reject them. Of course I have strong Christian moral beliefs about these matters, but I also think they are true as a matter of sociological observation. Hence the saying, “If you don’t like the Religious Right, just wait till you see the Post-Religious Right.”