Is the ‘digital hive’ a soft totalitarian state?
by Joe Bageant, Ferrara Italy, October 2010
Joe Bageant (may he rest in peace), America’s Redneck Prophet, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir, and the posthumous Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball, addresses in this essay (one of his last) a number of issues that, I believe, are insufficiently acknowledged in today’s “progressive” culture – including the impending collapse of the capitalist paradigm, the population problem, the downside of the digital hive, and American’s inability to relinquish their comfort zone.
Sitting in a trendy wine bar, one of those that brings out food to match your particular choice of wine, mystified by the table setting. What was that tiny baby spoon for? Cappuccino surely, at some point, but why no big spoon to go with the knife and fork? The things a redneck American does not know grow exponentially in Bella Italia, starting with the restaurants – not to mention several civilizations beneath one’s feet. Being in a house that has been continuously occupied for over 1000 years – resisting the temptation to piss in the hotel room bidet, that sort of thing.
One thing the Italians can never be accused of is being a culture given to vinyl sided sameness, fast food franchises. Another thing is lack of a good educational system, given that Italy’s is among the very best in the world. So here I am sitting with some college kids trying to hang onto my end of a discussion of evolutionary consciousness, and whether Italy can withstand the cultural leveling of globalism.
“And Mr Bageent, what do you think of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the hive mind and the noosphere? Can monolithism and totalitarianism possibly be resisted in the cybernetic age?”
“Il regno mondiale dei computer, global computerization. Do all those disassociated shards of human input constitute an overarching hive intelligence? Or are they the emergence of further evolutionary structures?”
“Ahem, uh, well, Timothy Leary once convinced me that they are,” I said. “But after the drugs wore off, I was not so certain. And now I’m certain again that he was right. But, with a far more chilling outcome than he or Chardin could have ever predicted.”
Which was pretty good for pulling it out of my ass.
In any case, it seems that 40 years in retrospect, the human hive enjoys monolithism and totalism far more than anyone would have ever guessed back in the sixties. Most of industrial humanity, as it turns out, is, or would be, quite happy to come home from a hard day in the mines and settle down to Facebook or Twitter or hive broadcast “news” and passive entertainments, distributed by unseen “corporate entities”. I dunno, I think I liked dope and live music and sex better. But as all three diminish in my life with age, I’ve learned to settle for the Larry King Show and/or a lot less at times.
Big Al and the Tuscaloosa Sprinkler Man
On the other hand, this whole business of the new hive cybernetic connectivity, could be just a swarm of data bits with no particular significance, in and of themselves, other than the magical thinking belief that they do. Which ain’t no small thing, given that what we agree upon as reality is achieved by social consensus. Hell, to some people Beelzebub still stalks the earth. To others, America is a free republic, not a company town. We all have our hallucinations.
One thing for sure. Most people in the (over)developed world think the connectivity and speed of the algorithms behind the cyberhive are worth it. Even teachers teach to a standardized test so students will conform to an algorithm, and if that ain’t hive mind, I don’t know what is.
Besides, if the worship of algorithms is not worth it, it does not matter. Whether we be Tanzanians à la Darwin’s Nightmare, or some Stanford professor writing economic algorithms, the people who control all our lives in the globalized economic world believe they are.
For example, bankers and investment houses believe intelligent algorithms (Big Al) can calculate human risk in making loans. That an algorithm can predict whether a 35-year old lawn sprinkler installer in Tuscaloosa will be able to steadily make $2,300 monthly payments on his $220,000 twice refinanced “snout-house” (so-named because of the four-car garage sticking out the front) for 30 years. Most of us would be more than happy to make that prediction for them, and with far greater accuracy, for a fraction of what they paid the pinhead to write the algorithm.
In the pre-digital hive era there were limits to what the organic human brain, and therefore the mind, plus past experience, could calculate, then evaluate. At some point, one was forced to recognize the limits of a financial proposition or investment. Familiarity with the actual basis of an investment was necessary. (Hmmm. Lawn sprinklers, huh? And yer paying on a new Dodge Ram too?”). But there was no stopping such things as computer-assisted hedge funds, and the techno nerds’ faith that you could remove the human risks through complex algorithmic structures. So mythical financial instruments such as derivatives and layers of bets on derivatives, and bets on those bets, bloomed out there in the “virtual economy”, sending out algorithmic spores that spawned even stranger financial flora. The whole of it could not be understood by any single human participant. Even the individual parts were understood only by their specific designers. As in, “Just trust me on this Marv. This instrument even creates its own collateral.” (which many of them did). Information, of course, is not reality, not even close to the juicy anecdotal stuff of which our daily lives are made. In essence, investment is reduced to an algorithmic Google search for debt, which is wealth to a banker, then mathematically rationalizing that debt as wealth for the rest of us.
Life is lived anecdotally, not algorithmically. And anecdotal evidence is not allowed in the new digital corpocracy. As one poster on Democratic Underground put it, “Anecdotal now has this enforced meaning such that no one is supposed to believe what they experience, what they see, hear, taste, smell, etc. The Powers That Be have basically extinguished the notion of inductive reasoning. Everything has to be replicated in a laboratory and since 90% of all the labs in this nation are operated by Corporate Sponsored monies, not much truth comes out of them.”
The trouble with the algorithmic age is that life is not a finite sequence of steps that define and contain the algorithmic concepts used. Even when created with the best of intentions – and we can all agree by now there were few good intentions at Goldman Sachs when they were creating and bundling these mutant investments – they cannot account for our uninsured sprinkler installer getting cancer, or divorcing the other half of the household income – or the end of America’s residential construction orgy.
The digital folly is never ending. The knock-on effect just keeps rolling. The latest is the rising scandal of millions of illegal foreclosures created by MERS (Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems), which enabled the big financial firms to securitize and swap mortgages at super high speed. But not to worry. Nancy Pelosi and Christopher Dodd are on the case, and there is sure to be a Congressional committee appointed. Whoopee! Have one on me.
Meanwhile, we have our social networking software to better weave us into the hive. Social networking software, now there’s a term that should scare the piss out of anyone with an IQ over 40. It means the database as hive reality. Facebook, online banking, shopping, porn, years of one’s life playing electronic games or whatever, online dating and reducing romance and companionship to fit the software. Or 4,000 Facebook “friends”, data on 4000 Americans voluntarily collected for Facebook corporation. The concept of “friends” is cheapened, rendered meaningless as it passes through a database. In fact, all human experience is cheapened by that process. Information is not reality.
As my second wife, who was a mathematician, can tell you, I know as much about algebra as a flatworm. So I turn to experts when I write this stuff – or sometimes just make it up as I go. But even a dumb person can ask questions. And one of my questions as I sit here background Googling the subject is this: Does a search engine really know what I want, or am I dumbing down to fit its hive algorithms? If the latter is the case, then why don’t we just bring back PCP [horse tranquilizers used as a recreational drug]?
Anyway, allegedly, the hive does many things better than paid experts. Wikipedia is an example of this assertion. Most web content is generated by hive inhabitants for free, profiting the new elite cybernetic ownership class, which is to say some corporation or other. This also means that content becomes worthless. That the efforts of skilled and devoted journalists, artists and others become valueless, unsellable, just more info-shards in the hive. Only advertising has value in the cyberhive. In a nation whose social realism has been represented by advertising for three quarters of a century, that was to be expected.
Of course the real global economic problem is seven billion people in increasing competition for ever scarcer vital resources. But capitalism loves competition, as long as, A: it is the people’s capital involved, and B: it is not the capitalists doing the competing. Either way we’re talking money here and what most people consider to be “economics”. Economics equals money. Right?
But the actual world revolves around meeting our genuine needs, which may or may not involve money. In the big picture, money is just one small, much abused abstract tool. Money has been abused from the beginning, probably about fifteen minutes after the first shekel was minted, but now the abuse has reached such levels that the entire notion of money is collapsing in on itself. Our concept of money needs to be reevaluated and probably abandoned in the distant future.
The bottliberia waiter comes with something on a plate I can actually – by pure luck – identify. Octopus gnocchi. The conversation rolls on.
“What do you believe allowed such abuse and calamity?” I ask.
An intense young woman leans across the table, all black hair and red lips, making an old man moan and sigh inwardly.
“Fossil fuels, of course,” she says. “An unnatural supply of energy. But once that is gone, we’re going to have to go back to a whole different way of doing everything. Everything.”
“Spot on,” I agree. At that moment she could have gotten me to agree that the earth is flat.
But the truth is that each gallon of fossil fuel contains the energy of 40 man-hours. And that has played hell with the ecology of human work, thanks mostly to the money economy. For instance, a simple loaf of bread, starting with the fossil fuels used to grow the wheat, transport, mill, bake, create the packaging materials and packaging, advertise and distribute it, uses the energy of two men working for two weeks. Yet this waste and vast inefficiency is invisible to us because we see it only in terms of money, jobs and commerce. Cheap oil allowed industrial humans to increasingly live on environmental credit for over a century. Now the bill is due and no amount of money can pay it. The calorie, pure heat expenditure as energy, is the only currency in which Mother Nature trades. Period.
Despite that America produced such thinkers on the subject of living simply as Thoreau, modern hydrocarbon based civilization has driven expectations of material goods and convenience, and the transactions surrounding those expectations, through the stratosphere. Money has abstracted the notion of work to the point where, I dare say, there are not 100,000 people in America who truly understand that, although there are at least a few million trying to understand and liberate themselves.
I’m gonna take a wild shot here and say that understanding and liberation, come through self-discipline and self-denial, and that it’s nearly impossible for Americans to practice self-discipline. They cannot imagine why self-discipline, and a more ascetic life, becoming less dependent on the faceless machinery of algorithm driven virtual money, is necessarily liberating.
If there can be a solution at this late stage, and most thinking people seriously doubt there can be a “solution” in the way we have always thought of solutions, it begins with powering down everything we consider to be the economy and our survival. That and population reduction, which nobody wants to discuss in actionable terms. Worse yet, there is no state sanctioned, organized entry level for people who want to power down from the horrific machinery of money. There are too many financial, military and corporate and governmental forces that don’t want to see us power down (because it would spell their death), but rather power up even more. That’s called “a recovery”.
When viewed from outside the virtual money economy, and from the standpoint of the planet’s caloric economy, probably half of American and European jobs are not only unnecessary, but also terribly destructive, either directly or indirectly. Yet what nation or economic state acknowledges the need for a transition away from jobs that aren’t necessary. None, because such an economy could not support the war machines or the transactional financial industries that dominate our needs hierarchy for the benefit of the few. Loaning us money we have already earned, stuffing us with corn syrup. And I won’t even go into the strong possibility that everybody does not need to be employed at all times for the world to keep on turning.
Like the Reagan Years on Speed
One of the Italian students, Mariarosa, asks, “Is it true that so many Americans are struggling and suffering right now?”
“No,” I reply, “not in the real sense. If they are suffering, most of them are suffering from commodities withdrawal. What they really are is people oppressed by metastasized capitalism. Which is its own form of suffering, I guess. They are squeezed hard for profit every moment of their waking lives. They’ve got families and dare not make a move, even of they knew how.”
Everyone nods in agreement.
“It’s coming to Italy too,” says one young man. Again, all nod in agreement.
Yet, despite Berlusconi, despite the rigthtist takeover in progress in Italy – which I am guessing will be successful, because I’ve seen it all before in America through globalization – so many are still able to ask the right questions. They seem able to filter what they need and what is best for the majority, from what they want. But looking at the overall country is like watching the Reagan era unfold again before your very eyes. Only faster. All of these kids probably own an iPod or cell phone, the only difference being that they do not let them interrupt a good meal.
The third bottle of wine arrives and the topic turns to global competition, and the EU charges that “Italy is not competitive enough”. A student named Cristiano, sits directly across form me, sporting one of those fashionable three-day beards (I tried that once – people just asked me: “How long have you been depressed, Joe?). Cristiano offers that cooperation would get us all a lot farther than competition. Applause from everybody on that one. I raise my glass in salute. I’ve raised a few too many glasses in salute in my life, but what the hell.
Societies such as Italy, Greece and many others are viewed by global capitalism as inferior economies. Especially agrarian societies: different rates of exchange and economies of scale, are set for them because capitalism benefits from the bonuses of synergies in scale and the virtual economy. Never do global capitalists want to see regional food security, energy security, or any other kind of security for that matter.
And I look at the faces of these young men and women, who are among the brightest, best educated and common good oriented the world has to offer. A taxi’s headlights flash through the window of the darkened bottiliberia. Each face is illuminated for a moment, then golden dimness again prevails. And I am saddened.
I do not expect that the world they have inherited will show them one ounce of mercy. But it is heartening to see clear competent minds drawing the right conclusions.
And I ask myself, what chance does America’s far less informed, and purposefully misled public stand against all this?
Joe Bageant (1946-2011) was an American author, columnist, blogger and insightful if irreverent social critic.
Raised in Winchester, Virginia, he left to work as a journalist and editor. In 2001, Bageant moved back to Winchester.
Bageant frequently appeared as a commentator on radio and television internationally, and wrote a progressive online column distributed to hundreds of blogs and websites. He maintained his own blog, and also served as a senior (roving) editor with Cyrano’s Journal Today and The Greanville Post, two sites devoted to progressive political and media analyses.
In 2007, Bageant published Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War, and in 2010, he cranked out another book before passing on, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir.
During the last years of his life, Bageant lived in Mexico, where he wrote his last book. He did on March 26, 2011 of inoperable cancer. Joe’s wisdom will be missed.
Following are some excerpts from Rainbow Pie which may be both surprising and vitally relevant to our attempts to reconstruct a meaningful and sustainable way of life.
Bitter Tales from the Massive White Underclass
in Joe Bageant’s “Redneck” Memoir
Lose all your troubles, kick up some sand
And follow me, buddy, to the Promised Land.
I’m here to tell you, and I wouldn’t lie,
You’ll wear ten-dollar shoes and eat rainbow pie.
– The Super Dumpling Line, hobo song
The United States has always maintained a white underclass – citizens whose role in the greater scheme of things has been to cushion national economic shocks through the disposability of their labor, with occasional time off to serve as bullet magnets in defense of the Empire. Until the post-World War II era, the existence of such an underclass was widely acknowledged. During the US Civil War, for instance, many northern abolitionists also called for the liberation of ‘four million miserable white southerners held in bondage by the wealthy planter class’. Planter elites, who often held several large plantations which, together, constituted much or most of a county’s economy, saw to it that poor whites got no schools, money, or political power. Poll taxes and literacy requirements kept white subsistence farmers and poor laborers from entering voting booths. Often accounting for up to 70% of many deep-southern counties, they could not vote, and thus could never challenge the status quo.
Today, almost nobody in the social sciences seems willing to touch the subject of America’s large white underclass; or, being firmly placed in the true middle class themselves, can even agree that such a thing exists. Apparently, you can’t smell the rabble from the putting green.
Public discussion of this class remains off limits, deemed hyperbole and the stuff of dangerous radical leftists. And besides, as everyone agrees, white people cannot be an underclass. We’re the majority, dammit. You must be at least one shade darker than a paper bag to officially qualify as a member of any underclass. The middle and upper classes generally agree, openly or tacitly, that white Americans have always had an advantage (which has certainly been the middle- and upper-class experience). Thus, in politically correct circles, either liberal or conservative, the term ‘white underclass’ is an oxymoron. Sure, there are working-poor whites, but not that many, and definitely not enough to be called a white underclass, much less an American peasantry.
Economic, political, and social culture in America is staggering under the sheer weight of its white underclass, which now numbers some sixty million. Generally unable to read at a functional level, they are easily manipulated by corporate-political interests to vote against advances in health and education, and even more easily mustered in support of any proposed military conflict, aggressive or otherwise. One-third of their children are born out of wedlock, and are unemployable by any contemporary industrialized-world standard. Even if we were to bring back their jobs from China and elsewhere – a damned unlikely scenario – they would be competing at a wage scale that would not meet even their basic needs. Low skilled, and with little understanding of the world beyond either what is presented to them by kitschy and simplistic television, movie, and other media entertainments, or their experience as armed grunts in foreign combat, the future of the white underclass not only looks grim, but permanent.
Meanwhile, the underclass, ‘America’s flexible labor force’ (one must be pretty flexible to get screwed in some of the positions we are asked to), or whatever you choose to call the unwashed throngs mucking around down here at the bottom of the national labor tier, are nevertheless politically potent, if sufficiently taunted and fed enough bullshit. Just look at the way we showed up in force during the 2000 elections, hyped up on inchoate anger and ready to be deployed as liberal-ripping pit bulls by America’s ultra-conservative political machinery. Snug middle-class liberals were stunned. Could that many people actually be supporting Anne Coulter’s call for the jailing of liberals, or Rush Limbaugh’s demand for the massive, forced psychiatric detention of Democrats? Or, more recently, could they honestly believe President Obama’s proposed public healthcare plan would employ ‘death panels’ to decide who lives and who dies? Conservatives cackled with glee, and dubbed them the only real Americans.
But back in 2000, before the American economic implosion, middle-class people of both stripes could still have confidence in their 401(k)s and retirement stock portfolios, with no small thanks to the cheap labor costs provided by the rabble out there. And they could take comfort in the knowledge that millions of other middle-class folks just like themselves were keeping the gears of American finance well oiled and humming. Our economy had become fat through financialization. Who needed manufacturing? We were now a post-industrial nation of investors, a ‘transactional economy’. Dirty work was for – well, Asians. In this much-ballyhooed ‘sweat-free economy’, the white underclass swelled with every injection mold and drill press shipped across the Pacific.
Ten years later, with the US economy as skinny as the running gears of a praying mantis, the middle class – what’s left of it now – is having doubts about its traditional class security. Every day it gets a bit harder not to notice some fifty or sixty million people scratching around for any kind of a job, or working more hours than ever in a sweating, white-knuckled effort to hang onto the jobs they do have. With credit cards melting down and middle-class jobs evaporating, there is the distinct possibility of them slipping into the classes below them. And who are they anyway – those people wiping out the ramen noodle shelf at the supermarket, and looking rather surly as they are moved out of their repossessed houses?
True, with the right selection of lefty internet bookmarks, you can find discussions of the white underclass, and occasionally even a brief article in the New York Times about some scholarly book that asks, ‘Does a white underclass exist in America?’ But most of the shrinking middle class pulls its blinds shut, hoping that if they don’t see bad fortune, perhaps bad fortune can’t see them and will not find their doors. Behind those doors, however, some privately wonder how the ranks of desperate and near-desperate American whites ever became so numerous. Where did all those crass people with their bad grammar and worse luck suddenly come from?
Seldom are such developments sudden, of course. It’s only the realization of them that happens overnight. The foundation of today’s white underclass was laid down in the years following World War II. I was there, I grew up during its construction, and spent half my life trapped in it.
When World War II began, 44% of Americans were rural, and over half of them farmed for a living. By 1970, only 5% were on farms. Altogether, more than twenty-two million migrated to urban areas during the post-war period. If that migration were to happen in reverse today, it would be the equivalent of the present populations of New York City, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, and Saint Louis moving out into the countryside at a time when the US population was half of its present size.
In the great swim upstream toward what was being heralded as a new American prosperity, most of these twenty-two million never made it to the first fish ladder. Stuck socially, economically, and educationally at or near the bottom of the dam, they raised children and grandchildren who added another forty million to the swarm. These uneducated rural whites became the foundation of our permanent white underclass. Their children and grandchildren have added to the numbers of this underclass, probably in the neighborhood of 50 or 60 million people now. They outnumber all other poor and working-poor groups – black, Hispanics, immigrants. Even as the white underclass was accumulating, it was being hidden, buried under a narrative proclaiming otherwise. The popular imagination was swamped with images that remain today as the national memory of that era. Nearly all of these images were products of advertising. In the standard depiction, our warriors returned to the land kept free by their valor, exhilarated by victory, and ready to raise families. They purchased little white cottages and Buick Roadmaster sedans, and then drove off into the unlimited horizons of the ‘land of happy motoring’. A government brochure of the time assured everyone that ‘An onrushing new age of opportunity, prosperity, convenience and comfort has arrived for all Americans.’ I quoted this to an old World War II veteran named Ernie over an egg sandwich at the Twilight Zone Grill near my home in town. Ernie answered, ‘I wish somebody had told me; I would have waved at the prosperity as it went by.’
According to this officially sanctioned story of the great post-war migration, these people abandoned farm life in such droves because the money, excitement, and allure of America’s cities and large towns was just too great to resist. Why would anyone stay down on the farm when he or she could be ‘wearing ten-dollar shoes and eating rainbow pie’? One catches a whiff of urban-biased perception here; but then, the official version of all life and culture in America is written by city people. Our dominant history, analysis, and images of America are generated in the urban centers. Social-research institutions, major universities, and the media – such as ABC, HBO, PBS, and the Harvard University sociology department – are not located in Keokuk, Iowa; Fisher, Illinois; Winchester, Virginia; or Lubbock, Texas.
I grew up hard by the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, and am a product of that out-migration; and, as I said, grew up watching it happen around me. I’m here to tell you, dear hearts, that while all those university professors may have their sociological data and industrial statistics verified and well-indexed, they’re way off-base; they’ve entirely overshot the on-the-ground experience. In fact, they don’t even deal with it. You won’t be surprised to hear that the media representation of the post-war era – and, let’s face it, more people watch The History Channel than read social history texts – is as full of crap as an overfed Christmas goose.
My contemporaries of that rural out-migration, now in their late fifties and mid sixties, are still marked by the journey. Their children and grandchildren have inherited the same pathway. The class competition along that road is more brutal than ever. But the sell job goes on that we are a classless society with roughly equal opportunity for all. Given the terrible polarization of wealth and power in this country (the top 1% hold more wealth than the bottom 45% combined, and their take is still rising), we can no longer even claim equal opportunity for a majority. Opportunity for the majority to do what? Pluck chickens and telemarket to the ever-dwindling middle class?
Nearly a year after the publication of my first book, Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, I decided that, at the age of 63, I just might be a grizzled enough old rooster who had scratched up enough American gravel to justify recording some of it. I was among the last to witness horse-drawn mold-board plows at work. I went to a one-room school with a woodstove and an outhouse. Yet, by dint of fate, here I am sitting at a Toshiba laptop hurling electrons across the planet that will magically reassemble themselves into a published work, a narrative and observations on the American class system.
The narrative begins with the voices of a 1950s postwar boyhood in the Appalachian Mountains, and ends in America’s industrial towns. I’ve not had a day in my life when I did not hear those Appalachian voices in the back of my mind, as if to follow me from the family farm along Shanghai Road in West Virginia, out of the hills and hollers, no matter where I go in this world:
The Devil, he wears a hypocrite shoe, better watch out he’ll slip it on you … Ezekiel seen that fireball burning way in the middle of the air … the big little wheel turns by man, lord, but the big wheel turns by the grace of God … and our rabbit dog Nellie got gored in the corn crib by a 10-point buck … it’s bad luck to bury a man barefooted … this old road runs along Sleepy Crick, clean past Shanghai and up to Cumberland boy, this old road runs on forever.
Shanghai Road was a red-dirt scratch across the green mountains to a post office/general store crossroads community called Shanghai. Our lives on that road exemplified four-fifths of the American historical experience – which is to say, rural and agrarian. They are not just my roots but, with variations on the theme, the rootstock of a large portion of working-class Americans, especially those we must now call an underclass.
Excepting immigrants whose ancestors came through Ellis Island, most of us don’t have to dig too deeply into our genealogical woodpile to find a rural American progenitor tearing up dirt to plant corn, or racing a thunderstorm to get in a hay crop.
But, isolated as that life was at times, there was community. Neighbors along Shanghai Road banded together to make lard and apple butter, put up feed corn, bale hay, thresh wheat, pick apples, and plow snow off roads. One neighbor cut hair; another mended shoes. From birth to the grave, you needed neighbors and they needed you. I was very lucky to have seen that culture, which showed me that a real community of shared labor toward the shared good is possible – or was at one time in my country.
The nature and substance of their efforts and endurance causes me to reflect on the ecology of human labor then, and what we now call ‘our jobs’. Especially how our degraded concepts of community and work have contributed to the development of physical and cultural loneliness in America. Not to mention the destruction of a sense of the common good, the economy, and the natural world.
At 5% simple interest, Pap bought a 108-acre farm – house, barn and all – for $400. (It was a cash-poor county, and still is. As recently as 1950, you could buy a 200-acre farm there for about $1,000.) On those terms, a subsistence farmer could pay off the farm in twenty years, even one with such poor soils as in these Southern uplands. But a subsistence farmer did not farm to sell crops, though he did that, too, when possible. Instead, he balanced an entire life with land and human productivity, family needs, money needs, along with his own and his family’s skills in a labor economy, not a wealth economy. The idea was to require as little cash as possible, because there wasn’t any to be had.
Nor was much needed. The farm was not a business. It was a farm. Pap and millions of farmers like him were never in the “agribusiness”. They never participated in the modern “economy of scale” which comes down to exhausting as many resources as possible to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible. Land value was based upon what it could produce, plain and simple. These farms were not large, credit-based “operations” requiring annual loans for machinery, chemicals and seed.
Sure, farmers along Shanghai Road and the Unger Store community bought things at the junction store on credit, to be paid for in the autumn. Not much, though. The store’s present owners, descendants of the store’s founders, say that an annual bill at the store would run to about ten dollars. So if Pap and the other subsistence farmers there spent eight bucks a year at the local crossroads store, it was eight bucks in a reciprocal exchange that made both their subsistence farming and the Unger Store possible as a business and as a community.
The year my grandparents married, about 35 million Americans were successfully engaged in farming, mostly at a subsistence level. It’s doubtful that they were all especially gifted, or dedicated or resourceful. Nevertheless, their kind human-scale family farming proved successful for twelve generations because it was something more – a collective consciousness rooted in the land that pervaded four-fifths of North American history.
They farmed with the aid of some 14 million draft horses and God only knows how many mules. Pap wasn’t much for mules; all the farming he had to do could easily be done with one horse. Around 1955 at the age of ten, I saw the last of Pap’s work horses in use, a coal-black draft animal named “Nig” (short for nigger, of course). By then, Nig, who was Nig number three, if I remember correctly, was over twenty years old.
Though Pap owned a tractor by then – a beaten up old Farmall with huge, cleated steel wheels, a man-killer prone to flipping over backward and grinding the driver bloodily under the cleats – he could still do all his cultivation walking behind Nig in the spring. In the summer he’d scratch our the weeds with a horseless garden plow, or “push plow”, and pick off bugs by hand, dropping them into a Maxwell House coffee can half-filled with kerosene. Pap hand-harvested most things, even large cornfields, using a corn cutter fashioned from an old Confederate sword. But it is that old horse and that old man with the long leather lines thrown up over his shoulders, the plow in his iron grip, that I remember most fondly. He made it look easy. Fifty years in the furrows will do that.
For the adults, life was about work. Hard work. And, for their back-breaking efforts, most of the clan expected to live on that place any time and at will – or at least hunt and “run a patch” (keep a garden) there. My grandfather’s will specifically granted all future Bageants perpetual gardening and hunting rights on the place. The late attorney David Sevastian, a young lawyer traveling along the back roads looking for small legal work at the time he wrote Pap’s will, told me later, “Your grandfather didn’t know it was impossible to grant such a right after you’re dead, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him.” Pap couldn’t imagine life without the security of a garden. He came from an ancient lineage of such people. (They have bones of clay and blood of the earth’s rains, and make to rise up the goodness of creation.) Planting was necessary to life as he knew it, and as those before him knew it. All his children would plant gardens most of their lives, no matter where they lived. Nor could he imagine life without chickens and at least one hog, nor a house that didn’t contain at least two generations – usually newly married sons of daughters, plus an old man or woman or both living out their last years somewhere in the back rooms. So rooted in the home place was the family that in the years after the war, when my father, aunts, and uncles all ended up taking jobs and apartments in the towns and cities, it was unforgiveable for them not to spend every weekend and holiday there. My father, Aunt Ony, and Uncle Toad managed to drop by there a couple of evenings during the week to boot, until the day they died.
Pap and Maw and the other farmers along the road made their own world with their own hands. The held few “jobs of work”, as we called employment. Before WWII, most people’s survival, even town people’s, depended to some degree upon knowing how to do things that most of us don’t know today – such as how to fix the broken accoutrements of daily life, add on a back porch, adjust tools properly, or fix the family jalopy. There is a deep pleasure in knowing how to take care of yourself and the people you love with your own hands, not to mention providing life’s pleasant diversions the same way.
By today’s notions, people along the Shanghai Road were poor and, in most cases, quite superstitious and ignorant of the larger world. Yet they were rich in human relationships, and very well fed. When it came time to eating, the very scale of our meals would be considered obscene and hedonistic today. Maw’s cooking was so good it would make you get down and pound the floor for joy. Everyone on the farm – which meant a bunch of us, because married aunts and uncles lived there half the time – ate meals together at a table about seven feet long and four feet wide. Often as not at breakfast, there would be a whole shoulder or a side of middlin’ meat, along with three dozen biscuits, a couple dozen eggs, half a gallon of sweet milk gravy, with three kinds of jam plus molasses on the side. Vegetables were fresh in season and canned for the winter, simple fare such as green beans and tomato pickles. Meals were the heart of daily life, a rowdy family sacrament linking everyone. Childhood on this farm, and especially at that table, is the rootstock of imagination. It is to this table and the faces around it that my mind returns to touch something near perfect.
Food was not yet an addictive substance, nor the subject of slick magazines or cooking shows for affluent foodies. Preparing it on an eight-burner woodstove was dammed sure not a hobby. In fact, there were no hobby crafts as such. Woodworking was just that: doing necessary work that involved wood. Quilting, too. Buying new fabric to make a quilt would have been proof of insanity, or wifely incompetence at the very least – quilts being the primary way to make use of old clothing scraps.
America’s vast white-collar plantation of clerks – and that’s what most white-collar jobs are, regardless of the claptrap about being part if an “information society” – leaves us disembodied. Eight hours a day of pushing the Empire’s insurance and credit-card transactions around in cyberspace, even if pursued with utter diligence, can only add up to a pointless lifetime of tedium. Each task is only the movement of a symbol, which, like the bureaucratic or commercial transactions it represents, vaporizes into the next one in a never-ending series. No matter how complex or valuable the work is supposed to be, the human being at the end of it is just a tracking mechanism attached to a stream of numbers and transactions. Only the mind is required to track the digital flow of zeros and ones through the circuitry of commerce, while the body slumps in the cubicle like some useless appendage. Work and life feel most productive and meaningful when the mind and the body are joined in a purposeful way. I’ve done both kinds of work separately and together, and I’m convinced of its truth.
Employing the mind and body in a purposeful way was the only manner in which people like Pap knew how to be. It was an entire world and a way of being that was anachronistic even in the 1950s – vestigial, charged with folk beliefs, marked by an ignorance of the larger world, and lived unselfconsciously under the arc of Jeffersonian ideals, backed up by an archaic confidence in the efficacies of God’s word and grapeshot. I consider myself fortunate to have caught a glimpse of a more purposeful and meaningful way as it went around the corner, only to be ambushed by an increasingly fancy and “store bought” America – a slicker, glossier one with no handmade edges.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes