Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Lumpenliesure Class

I'm just a regular Joe, with a regular job
I'm your average white, suburbanized slob
I like football and porno and books about war
I got an average house, with a nice hardwood floor;
My wife and my job, my kids and my car,
My feet on my table, and a Cuban cigar.
-Denis Leary

Do you understand what's going on in American culture today? James Howard Kunstler puts together a lot of the pieces in his essay, "The Twilight of Mechanized Lumpenliesure". What is the Lumpenliesure class? Lumpenliesures are the affluent working class of Americans that arose due to the industrial boom that took place after World War II.

Kunstler writes:

"By mid-century, after two World Wars, the industrial nations of Europe had exhausted and bankrupted themselves, and lay physical shattered [sic], and the same was true of Asia’s only industrial power, Japan. The situation in the United States, on the other hand, was favorable to the extreme. The US continental homeland went unscathed in both world wars, and at the end of the second one, our factories, mines, oil fields, harbors, and railroads stood completely intact while everyone else’s was devastated. We set out immediately to supply the rest of the shattered world with the necessary manufactured goods to resume civilized life, and lent them money liberally to buy our stuff. Once this program got underway in earnest, one of the side effects was a fabulous enrichment of America’s laboring classes...

"Now, politically, the situation I describe would seem to be very desirable, perhaps ideal, considering all the unjust rotten systems that had existed before and elsewhere. The American system in those years was fairly equitable and appeared to be stable. But like all good things deriving from industrial civilization, this social leveling process had some strange diminishing returns. One was that the lower ranks of American society became so affluent by historical terms that they were able to impose their tastes on everybody else, if only because there were so many of them, with so much money to spend. They begin to occupy and modify the terrain of America in a way that lower classes never had been able to before – using the prime artifact of industrial civilization to accomplish that takeover, namely the car. They bought homes in the new subdivisions that were obliterating the rural hinterlands of the cities, and before long all the commercial accessories followed: the strip malls, the department stores, the fried food huts, the cinemaplexes, the office parks, the Big Box stores – in effect, an entire alternate infrastructure to the tired, old, bleak, nauseating downtowns of the industrial cities, which had begun to sicken in the Great Depression and with a very few special exceptions would never return to health again. The new stuff built all over America in the late 20th century was analogous to the content of the television programming to which the lower classes insidiously became addicted – a cartoon simulacrum of a real world that was systematically being obliterated. Instead of a real countryside outside the hated cities, we now had suburbia, a cartoon of country living. Instead of towns, shopping malls. Eventually the theme park, as represented by developments of the Walt Disney corporation and their clones, became both the embodiment of the destruction wreaked across the land and paradoxically the last refuge from it. Americans would flock to Walt Disney World in Orlando to put themselves in a saccharine replica of the authentic Main Street environments that they had thoroughly trashed in their own home places."

Lumpenliesures are the "Red State Americans" of which Barack Obama recently said, "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Caleb Stegall argues that Obama is essentially correct in noting the resentfullness of Red State Americans, but that Obama has a superficial grasp of the reasons why:

"[T]he spiritual core of the resentment and bitterness of the lumpenleisure classes is that deep down, we know we serve many masters—there are the tax masters, the monied masters, the loan officer and the payroll clerk; the town inspector, the county inspector, the state inspector, the code enforcer and the permit doler; there is the dogcatcher and the license examiner and even the busy-body do-gooder from the heart and lung association who prissily snubs out our cigarettes with one hand while paying her registered lobbyist with the other; there are the ad men and experts of all colors and stripes telling us what to buy, what to eat, what to read, and what to believe; there are the snooty professors and the imported school superintendents; the shipping barons, the oil barons, the corn barons, the food scientists, the Wal-Mart feeding trough, and the health care gods. "

Read the rest of Mr. Stegall's excellent article here.

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