From farmers to underclass citizens

A reader writes to Joe Bageant, author of both the book and the blog titled “Deer Hunting with Jesus“:

Author Joe Bageant with friends, in Belize, his second home. Photo Arvin Hill

“…..As for me, I was born working class, well, underclass, truth be told. My dad had been a prosperous farmer post World War Two, but after he lost the farm, he had no other skills to fall back on. He became a house painter, working from dawn till dusk. When his health failed, he became a janitor. My mom was a nurse’s aid at a time when not only didn’t you need a certificate, you didn’t even need to show an 8th grade diploma.

It was my bad fortune to be born long after the farm was gone, so all I ever heard from my parents was how wonderful everything use to be, and how shitty it is now. I was one of those quiet, bookish, pessimistic little kids, having little in common with my parents or peers. But rural poverty will have its effect, and I grew up to hold the same jobs as everybody else, working at Wal-Mart, Kroger, and at gas stations which seemed to change their names every few months. I never had what most would consider a real job. I guess because I never felt I deserved it….” — Dave

And now, an excerpt from Joe Bageant’s reply:

“….Anyway, one of the things that click between me and my Illinois wife is that she has an unerring ability to see class distinctions play out between people. A small town farm girl whose father, like yours, failed at farming, she moved “into town,” and like farm kids of our generation who’ve spent countless hours alone as a society of one, she could see the unacknowledged class structure. She just plain “gets it.”

We’ve spent thousands of hours talking about the rural values and cultural experience that led to so many of these people becoming the foundation of America’s permanent white underclass. So much so that a big part of my new book (now finished and due out in October, 2010) is about that. The book masquerades as a memoir, but is really more of my jack-leg American sociology. From what I’ve seen in your letter, I can assure you that you will find yourself and your family in the book like no other book you’ve ever read. I put my soul into this puppy.

Incidentally, your father’s experience farming sounds classic. Midwestern farmers made good money supplying the war effort and for a while thereafter. Then big ag and vertical integration rose up swiftly to capture all agricultural profits and assure that people like your father and my grandparents could never again be so successful as independent farmers.

Fearful, conservative, and self-defeating, our people, yours and mine, did not become that way all by their little lonesomes. They had a lot of outside help from government and corporations right after World War Two, when some 22 million (my family among them) were purposefully driven off their farms to work in industry, providing a cheap, docile, and anti-union work force.

More importantly though, this migration caused millions more people to depend on paychecks in a wealth-based economy so the high profits of the wartime boom could be maintained for DuPont and many other corporations. Much effort and policy went into creating a nation of wage dependent consumers (commodity slaves). One government “social behavior film” shown in theaters before and between movies stated bluntly that “Being self sufficient is a waste of time. You can buy a better life in the city than you can create on a farm.”

When World War Two started 45% of Americans lived on farms or in farming based communities. Ten years after the war only 12% remained on farms, and not much later it dropped to six percent. And believe me, they did not all leave willingly….”

Read the whole exchange here.

In view of recent events, particularly with regard to the savaged prices with which American dairy farmers are being insulted these days, one can’t help but feel that a whole new round of “clearances” is underway for American farmers, who, once again, are not going to have much say in the matter. More and more the only viable options seem to involve selling direct to consumers as cow-share dairy farmers do. The notion that a farmer can survive by going big and going chemical — or these days, GMO — is more and more being recognized for the illusion that it maybe always was.

Thanks to George for introducing us to Joe Bageant and his work!

See this earlier story on the Bovine titled “A Stockholm Syndrome of the Soul”

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