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Middle Class Lockdown

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Joe Bageant | February 8, 2006 | Category: Essays

Welcome to Middle-Class Lockdown

Now shut up and buy something

"Take away America's Wal-Mart junk and cheap electronics and
what you have left is a mindless primitive tribe and a gaggle of
bullshit artists pretending to lead them."
-- James "Mad Dog" Howard

When I was a boy on my grandparents' farm in the 1950s the neighbors
always banded together to make lard and apple butter, put up feed
corn, bale hay, thresh wheat, pick apples, plow snow off roads. One
neighbor cut hair, another mended shoes and welded. With so little
money available in those days in rural America, there was no way to
get by without neighbors. And besides, all the money in the world
would not get the lard cooked down and the peaches put up for the
winter. You needed neighbors and they needed you. From birth to the
grave. I was very lucky to have seen that culture which showed me
that a real community of shared labor is possible -- or at least was
at one time in this country. And if I ever doubt it I can go up to
those hill farms and look into the clouded old eyes and wrinkled
visages of the people who once babysat me as a child and with whom I
shot my first rabbit and quail.

They are passing quickly now and I drive by more than a few of their
graves in the old Greenwood Cemetery when I visit to that place where
there are still old men who know how to plow with horses and the
women who can chop a live copperhead snake in half with a hoe then go
right on weeding the garden. "Yew kids stay 'way from that damned
dead snake, ya hear me?"

Fifty years later nobody cans peaches any more, or depends upon a
neighbor to cut their hair or get in the hay crop. And fifty years
later I found myself in the middle class and softening like an
overripe cheese. Given my background, I never guessed I'd see the day
when I would be bitching because I could not get Hendricks gin or
fresh salmon delivered to my door. (But when you're too drunk to
drive or even walk to the supermarket ...). Such is the level of self-
insufficiency to which some of us weaker souls devolved.

Whatever the case, we no longer depend upon community and other
people around us. We live in our houses, idiotically sited vinyl
"Tudor-esque" f*ck-boxes with brick facade (sorry Neddie, I just had
to steal that lick) which grow bigger each year in order to
accommodate our massive asses, egos and collection of goods, and we
"order out." Or go shopping for it at the mall. Beyond the need to
get laid, there is little real reason to be together with other
thinking, feeling adults. We do not need each other to do anything
important in our lives, because all those things are performed by
strangers, often as not thousands of miles away. Including the sex,
if your are an internet porn fan. Which leaves us strangers to the
natural human community.
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After all, what can we really do together? Consume. Drink. Consume.
Talk. Consume tickets to entertainment. Consume. There is little else
to do with other human beings in America than consume. So most of our
primary life activity is solitary. We drive, do housework, pay bills,
watch television... When we do "get together with friends," there is
little to talk about, other than one form or another of consumption,
consuming music, or movies or whatever. We can not tell each other
anything new because we all get the same news and information from
the same monolithic sources. At the same time we try to fill the
loneliness for a real human community that we have never experienced
by calling any group of people who come together in any way a
"community." Online community. Planned community. As writer Charles
Eisenstein, says in The Ascent of Humanity:

It is a mistake to think that we live ultra-specialized lives
and somehow add another ingredient called "community" on top of it
all. What is there really to share? Not much that matters, to the
extent that we are independent of neighbors and dependent on faceless
institutions and distant strangers. Real communities are
interdependent." Never in all history has there been such a lonely,
inauthentic civilization.

This leaves those few fleetingly concerned Americans alone to
momentarily stew over the condition of the world, fester upon
national moral issues like squishing brown desert people under tanks
-- or building offshore gulags so the sight of naked prisoners being
tortured in wire cages will not dampen the consumer confidence index.
But ultimately somewhere between the seven o'clock showing of "Law
and Order" and the third cocktail, or perhaps after that bracing
evening trot around the block in your Land's End shorts with the
dogs, the mind settles down to the more relevant issues such as "Do I
need a Blackberry, and if so, should I wait for the next generation
of technology?"

Still, what about those cages in Gitmo? Or global warming? You and I
may presently be yammering our asses off in cyberspace (talk about
inauthentic!) about such topics, but most Americans, if they dialogue
about those things at all, conduct the dialogue with that voices
inside our heads, the one that says: Things cannot be as bad as the
alarmists say. They cannot be as bad as I often suspect they are. If
there really were such a thing as global warming they would be
starting to do something about it. And besides, even if it were true,
science will find a way to fix it. If there really were genocide
going on in so many places far more people would be concerned. At the
same time, every commercial and piece of sports hoopla, every
celebrity news item leaves us with the impression that, if we have
time and money for such things, then matters cannot be all that bad,
can they? If the earth were heating up we would surely notice it. If
our soldiers and government agencies were torturing people around the
world it would make the news. If millions were being exterminated, it
would be more obvious, would it not? Look around. Nobody seems
worried. Look how normal everything is every day. Look at your wife
and your own family. No one is worried. Things cannot be that bad.

Joe Bageant's little inner voice is like everyone else's. Whenever I
shudder at the condition of the republic, whenever I feel its utter
absence of community, it scolds me and tells me I am crazy: Nothing
is wrong. This is merely the way things are. It has always been this
way. You cannot change that. You expect too much. Look at your wife.
She's not upset. She wonders why you cannot just go ahead and be
happy. What you see around you is normalcy. Take care of your own
family. Relax. Buy something. And I do too. Which is why I own nine
guitars, though I can only play one at a time, and even then not very
well. The voice made me do it. I was bored.
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Bored plus anxious. Hell, I could lose my job. I could lose
everything. And if I lost my job I would indeed lose everything.
Social status, family, the accumulated net worth of a lifetime.
Which, believe me, ain't much after two divorces and a run-in with
cocaine.

Adding to the anxiety is the lack of evidence that the world needs
you or me at all. In this totally commoditized life we are
dispensable. Everything is standardized. It really doesn't matter who
grows our food or makes our clothing. If we don't make it, it someone
else will. If we don't buy it, someone else will. Some other faceless
person will step forward to fill in our place. The same goes for the
engineers who created this computer and the same goes for your own
job. The machine rolls on. With us or without us. Naturally, we have
our loved ones and our friends. But increasingly even these
relationships are monetized for all classes. Family and leisure
activity has become intensely commoditized. Never has there been such
a lonely and inauthentic civilization as the American middle class.

Now it took me one helluva long time to claw my redneck self into the
middle class and it took me even longer to figure all this out about
its inauthenticity. Always one to f*ck up right in front of the whole
damned world, I loudly declared American middle class life to be a
crock of sh*t and vowed to kiss it off. Go someplace simpler. Run
nekkid in the surf in Saint Kitts or smoke pot in Belize. Catch my
own damned salmon on the Galician Coast. But whoaaa hoss! This bad
news just in: Not only do you have to buy your way into the American
middle class through forceful consumption of the lifestyle, but you
have to buy your way out of it. I'm serious. Buy your right to live
in poverty. Let's say you've managed to get your kids through college
one way or another, usually via a second mortgage and loans, and you
decide like I did to say: f*ck this. I've done right by my family.
Now I've got high blood pressure, a bad back, and a million other
stress ailments. I'm overweight and have terrible lungs. Now I want
to escape the ever rising cost and stress of playing the game, the
grinding chase after enough net worth to feel safe about such things
as health care and a safe place to sh*t. Spend a few years in some
warm place blinking at blue, unpolluted sky before I go t*ts up. To
my mind, these are completely understandable sentiments for any
reasonable person. But, alas dear hearts, the American middle class
is a lockdown facility. One that takes a lot of cash bribes and
blackmail payoffs to break out of.

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