The Great Question

In the August Harper’s, in a lengthy article entitled “The Art of Losing,” James Pogue talks with (among others) the mayor of Kenosha, Wisconsin. It took a while for Pogue to interview John Antaramian—the mayor never returned Pogue’s phone calls—until, by chance, the opportunity presented itself at a Labor Breakfast.

Of course the subject under discussion was Trump. Or, more precisely, why so many working-class people, including union members, voted for Trump in 2016—and, before Trump, for former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

The “great question in American politics,” said the mayor, has to do with “’the political vision that energizes people across. . . .’ He trailed off. ‘And clearly no one knows the answer.’”

Let’s wade into this enigma with an observation that should be a baseline in any search for political vision. The Industrial Revolution, says E. J. Hobsbawm in the fourth chapter of Industry and Empire, destroyed the traditional world and way of life for the laboring poor without “substituting anything else. It is this disruption which is at the heart of the question about the social effects of industrialization.” Or, as we might now say, deindustrialization.

That is, we—shall I say we white people?—are starting to get it that historical trauma has powerful no-end-in-sight consequences, both cultural and psychological. We’re starting to get it that with the cowboy auto-erotic romanticism of Roy Rogers and Matt Dillon we were saturated with good white cowboy cops forever. But look hard and long at the smashing of indigenous cultures, the unimaginable otherworldly shock and trauma of being captured, corralled, and sold into slavery as pieces of black labor on the other side of an ocean whose crossing you were lucky to survive—if lucky is what to call it. Lesser but still brutal, the contempt meted out to Hispanics, the Chinese and Japanese—and a much longer list could be compiled.

Yes to keenly feeling all that. Yes to taking it right into your heart or soul of whatever secret name you may have for that deepest conscious reservoir of discernment and empathy. And if you believe all that to be real and important, with an importance having very much to do with us white folks finally feeling able to recognize in the darkest of faces a glowing goodness that puts our precious white privilege to shame—well, try then to consider what the demolition of the peasant village produced in mass psychology and buried trauma in Euro-American culture. Slip that into your political perspective, as well.

Hobsbawm’s English context was the more or less simultaneous impacts of the Enclosure Acts, which allowed large-scale property owners to evict peasants in mass from villages and the traditional commons, and the rise of the industrial factory, ready to employ those masses with near-starvation wages.

Hobsbawm lists four particulars pertinent to this massive disruption: 1) a cash wage; 2) regularity, routine, and monotony; 3) city life; 4) an absence of culture to provide meaning in the grip of imposed alienation.

It’s probably not empirically true to say there was no substitute for the destroyed traditional world and way of life for the laboring poor—the sun continued to rise and set, even if the day was filled with misery, loneliness, boredom, and suppressed rage; but the industrial economic forces in alignment with enabling political power generated what we might call the second farm crisis. That is, enclosure-plus-factory ruined the rural folk culture of the peasantry just as, roughly five thousand years previous, the formation of Class and War civilization impounded the agrarian villages and created a class of perpetually exploited peasants, a condition we might designate the first farm crisis.

The first farm crisis, a trauma imposed at bandit “aristocratic” sword point, was the creation of a continually exploited peasantry. The second farm crisis, via the political collusion of elite land owners and entrepreneurial industrialists, was the extinction of the peasantry—and, more or less simultaneously, the wreckage of indigenous cultures, the glory days of slavery, and the eventual atrophy of small-scale farming.

So—back to the absence of political vision.

Since, in English (as derived from Latin), the countryside is pagan—the Latin is pagus, country district—the moral valuation of the rural has had, for hundreds of years, a subtext on a sliding scale from outright evil to stupidly rustic. When we all have been psychologically processed through civilized institutions, and taught that progress is our most important product, and when those Class and War traumatic institutions have become normative in our political lives and have matured into toxic global dystopia—well, how surprised should we be that there’s a mass and massive absence of energizing political vision? Other than MAGA. And MAGA means to blow the merely dystopian to unlivable hell.

If one might invoke a heavy piece of terminology like “false consciousness,” and pile on the appropriate slander by asserting that civilized presumption is our dominating form of false consciousness, why should we be surprised—or shocked—when civilized institutions create the conditions for evolutionary ecocidal catastrophe and we haven’t a clue about the content of energetic political vision by which to shape a wholesome and livable alternative?

False consciousness is, we might say, made of two elements. First is the multi-generational adaptation to commercial image and governmental coercion—commodity saturation, on the one hand, and (to pick only one example) compulsory schooling, on the other. The second element is more atmospheric than focused, but it may be sardonically depicted as the space between cities on which crops grow, to steal a line from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Everything beyond the by-pass that’s there for the sake of our lunch.

Since the deliberate and thoughtful reconstruction of rural culture is not so much an intellectual as an emotional nonstarter, even as various forces (certainly including climate change) are in process of wrecking our commodity utopia, we find ourselves in the slough of bewildered political despond. If a constantly expanding and improving industrial future is what we’ve been conditioned to expect intellectually, while harboring sliding-scale emotional dread and contempt for the rural past—well, Kenosha mayor John Antaramian expresses our political muddle with compact exactness.

Republicans believe in the MAGA disaster. It’s the religious culmination of their spiritual possession by civilized industrial utopianism. Democrats—some of them—surmise the depths of the growing disaster. But this is the Titanic by more magnitudes than your average math student can count. Therefore almost all Democrats swallow hard and decline to alert the public of the wreckages our civilization has engendered, just as they remain largely mute as regards the immense disasters towards which we are currently speeding.

We’ll get a political vision that energizes only when pain compels us to recognize civilization for the Class and War traumatic institutions that lie at the core of its demented being. We may not have long to wait.

Paul Gilk lives in the woods of northern Wisconsin. His home is a reconstructed nineteenth-century log cabin, without electricity or running water. He is the author of several books including Green Politics is Eutopian, Nature’s Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis in Rural Culture, and Picking Fights with the Gods: A Spiritual Psychoanalysis of Civilization’s Superego.