and THE END
difficult situations, one should dash forward bravely and with joy. It is the
crossing of a single barrier and is like the saying, “The more the water,
the higher the boat.”
It’s an exciting time to be in America — 200 years after we formed a union perfectly engineered to sublimate desire for freedom into something antithetical to its very possibility. It’s exciting like going to the deli & finding a laid-off Samurai behind the counter channeling centuries of Kendo tradition into slicing cold cuts. In 1776, we lost the real revolution within the war & in 1976, a few people, John Belushi’s Samurai character among them, were using historic parallels to illuminate the absurd & terrible track we were on. But what do unemployed Samurai have to do with 21st century Americans – and what does any of it have to do with being a poet?
It may be an exciting time, but the fun’s only just beginning. Until recently, national polices were approved by the middle class, if only through coercion & propaganda. But now, the occupants of the white house & board rooms no longer need popular consent to get their way. So what happens next? Just like Grandma, shuttled off to the nursing home, the middle class is unceremoniously being given the boot. Consistently falling wages have begun to lower the middle class into a brief but uncomfortable twilight. A dusky wood of neverending labor in which there’s little time to notice that the basic amenities enjoyed by generations past are being scrapped. If you’re a poet, what that means is less time to write or read journals like this one. But it’s merely twilight. The lonely western night isn’t far off, in which everything you loved about third world destitution comes home.Amid all this, why are more and more poets looking for legitimacy in careers? With varying degrees of cognitive dissonance, poets have embraced the material or social trappings they once were positioned to critique. The liberation achieved by living outside the mainstream has been replaced with a new liberation based on the paycheck or the view from positions within a hierarchical structures. Even in apparently creative jobs at arts organizations, universities or ad agencies, that liberation is procured at the expense of hours not making art & constrained by what money or stature can procure. Ultimately, you can’t call yourself a poet if you spend almost all your time doing something else. A doctor doesn’t say, well, I like to practice medicine but really I spend 40 hours a week temping at a bank or adjuncting at five community colleges. Ted Berrigan said, “Being a full-time poet is a full-time thing. And you can hardly do anything else and be an artist, a poet.”
But Ted Berrigan lived in a time when you didn’t have to work ten hours a day to make rent. Today, if you don’t spend all your time working, you can’t call yourself anything except very hungry. The overarching culture of commodification that demands we work an ever-increasing number of hours has spilled over into a new measure for the legitimacy of a poet. Because nobody has time to write as much as they would like, but we would like to think of ourselves as decent writers, the new quantifiable measure of greatness has become the expensive MFA, the name of your book publisher & the prestige of your teaching position.
It wasn’t always like this — being a poet has never been the fast track to affluence, but it was once possible to cobble together a livable wage without becoming a player. Poetry has traditionally been the least commodifiable of all forms of cultural production. But with wages down 20% since John Belushi’s Samurai first told us to take a number, poets are now trapped in the same cultural cattle pen as all Americans, wondering how do I survive.
The answer is simple, but it’s adversative to becoming a poet. To survive without going insane under circumstances that require you to rent your body to a company you don’t care about, doing work that takes you away from the work you would prefer to do, to not go nuts doing that, you have to completely transform your value system. Any concern for developing intelligence & compassion, must be replaced with the cultural icons of success defined in the narrow terms of notoriety and wealth. Your poetry will suffer, but you may become somewhat well known because you won’t be wasting your time synthesizing new thought, forging non-remunerative relationships or actually perceiving your surroundings.
“I used to write. Someday I’ll get back to it though”
The fact is, a lot of you won’t be pursuing your art in another decade because there are so many economic forces allied against you. The free time needed to observe, think & write is, like all forms of inefficiency, being systematically eliminated. That’s been going on for a long time — what’s new is that an entire class of people, the altogether inefficient middle class, is being phased out as well.
The vanishing middle class takes many forms. For starters, the decline in wages since the bicentennial means you have to work an extra day each week just to make what you would have in the 1970’s. That’s fifty days a year transferred from raising a kid or writing a book to paying the bills. But life isn’t bad for all Americans, only the bottom 99%. In the 1970’s the typical worker would get $17 for the hour it takes to read this journal, while the average CEO would’ve gotten $670. Now the worker would get $15 & his boss would pull in $5,200. The rate of poverty among working people is skyrocketing. Unemployment itself is at an all time high, a fact obscured by government figures altered to stop counting people who have been out of work for more than six months.
The middle class used to do whatever the rich told them out of the delusion that they might join the rich if they played along & out of fear they would become poor if they refused. The middle class acted as a big Berlin Wall between the have & the have-nots, feeling they had too much at stake to ever raise their voice. They also were the source of labor & consumption that corporate leaders needed to keep the machine greased.
The middle class is now being converted into the poor —& to keep the country from falling apart, religious fundamentalists are filling their old role. If fundamentalists contest what their leaders tell them they won’t be poor (many of them already are) — they will go to hell. Do as your told & go to heaven. It’s much more cost-effective than having to expend the nation’s resources on middle class demands like healthcare, housing, education & so on. Just as wages are falling, corporations & the government are donating an ever increasing amount of their assets to right wing religious organizations. The Bush administration donated $1.7 billion in the past twelve months to faith-based organizations. That’s three times what the EPA spent on keeping the air clean and over $300 million more than the entire budget for the FDA. I guess they’re all in a hurry to meet their maker.
American Fundamentalism — Like Christianity in 17th century England, without the adorable accents
This isn’t the first time fundamentalism has been used to ease the national disruption of moving from one economic model to another. In 17th century England, Christianity was completely recast to support the nascent business class. According to religious & economic scholar RH Tawney, “The traditional scheme of Christian virtues was almost exactly reversed … poverty was no longer a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a moral failing to be condemned, and in riches, not an object of suspicion … but the blessing which rewards the triumph of energy and will.” Far from being the self-denying ascetics they are often portrayed as, the 17th century Puritans were interested in amassing wealth & its delightful comforts — suddenly affluence was no longer merely a sign of economic well-being, but of heavenly approval, not to be questioned or challenged.
The new belief system encouraged unlimited exploitation of the lower classes because the poorer a person was, the poorer he deserved to be. The workers became worse than slaves, who didn’t have souls at all, they were abject sinners who’s suffering was nothing more than penance for which they should be grateful. In the past 30 years, a similar self-justifying syllogism has allowed multinational corporations, government leaders & workers themselves, to roll back the advances made over the first half of the 20th century.
To justify the elimination of government social programs & corporate benefits, the American fundamentalist belief system allows us to understand that it’s not just economically irresponsible — it’s morally wrong to help the underclass. Similarly, third world terrorists are not attacking us because of our oppressive policies, they are attacking us because they’re in league with the devil & are after our God-given wealth.
The ends remain the same, but the new means to get there have old-school conservatives, like Professors Garry Wills & Harold Bloom & others, kind of freaked out. The career ladder they climbed was based on a specific set of rules — a traditionally western Enlightenment set of rules — that is evaporating. In the 1980’s they blamed the poor & the minorities for eroding the intellectual character of the US — but this year, if the editorials they’ve been writing are any indication, they’ve realized it was their bosses chopping away at it all along.
So how did this happen? To think the problem started with Bush is analogous to blaming a contemporary poet for not making more time to write. We can choose how to deal with the historic hand we are dealt, but ultimately the reason you didn’t write much this week & the reason Bush thought it would be a good idea to invade Iraq go back a long long time.
1776: The revolution we lost
The American colonies were organized half a millennia ago by entrepreneurial businessmen who came to America to minimize costly European trade restrictions. They brought with them indentured servants & slaves to work for them & to kill the Native Americans. In continuing to live, even when they weren’t actively resisting the invasion, the Native Americans were using resources that the Europeans considered theirs.
In the decades leading up to the Revolutionary War, conditions deteriorated precipitously for everyone in the colonies. The increasingly military response to the Native Americans and the deepening taxes levied by England radically hacked at profits. The colonial proto-capitalists passed their losses onto their workers & slaves, demanding more labor under increasingly arduous circumstances. This led to widespread popular unrest, but it was nothing that couldn’t be managed by turning the poor working class, the slaves & the natives against each other through bribes, xenophobic indoctrination & punitive actions.
But as the communication infrastructure became more developed & the territories expanded further from the direct supervision of the colonial lords, the three underclasses began to realize they had more in common with each other than with the businessmen. They formed alliances, not unlike the alliances you see today between labor organizers & environmentalists in opposition to the World Bank. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, popular rebellions became increasingly coordinated & threatening to the colonial regime.
The most wealthy among the leaders recognized that something radical had to be done. Through a massive media blitz, a campaign that included patriotic poems in broadsides, pamphlets and newspapers, they were able to convince a huge number of poor workers, a handful of slaves & even a few Native Americans that the true source of their unhappiness was the crushing tyranny of the United Kingdom. Seemingly overnight, they manufactured a popular mandate for revolution, transferring a kind of anarchist anti-capitalist unrest into nationalist anti-monarchist anger.
It worked like a charm.
After the revolution, the rebels found themselves absolutely free in the world’s first true democracy. Paramount among their freedoms was 10% of them were allowed to vote once every four years from candidates selected from among the wealthiest men in the land They could vote, that is, unless they found themselves working longer hours than they had been in 1775, or deep in Indian territory setting fire to villages, or lacking a penis, or, um, still enslaved.
The founding fathers, whose combined wealth amounted to a majority of the entire colonies’ assets, had pulled off a majestic coup. & the system they established was designed not just to protect their money, but to encourage its growth at the expense of economic equity in the fledgling nation. Once set in motion, some of them had misgivings about the macrocosmic effect of what amounted to a huge pyramid scheme. Jefferson worried that the corporation was, in effect, an immortal being that would continue to accrue resources until there were no more resources to be accrued. What that would mean was at a certain point the concentration of wealth would absorb more resources than those needed to maintain the standard of life that most would consider middle class.
In 1973, the US economy reached that point. In 1973, at the height of the Vietnam War, the year before the covert US invasion of Saudi Arabia, the year Nixon opened China’s slave labor market to US corporations. In 1973 there was no longer a need – and every year since, less of even a possibility — for a middle class. Not if the US economy was to continue as it was hard wired to do.
There were times when the US economy was about to fall apart before that. Wars have generally been used to postpone that inevitable restructuring by absorbing other sovereign economies into our own. The brilliance of the system has always been to justify war & oppressive foreign policies through the illusion of nationhood. We all have some essential characteristics that make us separate from all other peoples & thus well within our rights to crush other countries in the name of our own.
Since the Revolution, the US has rarely gone six months without a military invasion. Large scale projects are great for rapid redistribution of wealth from a broad base to a narrow one & scary projects like war are great for unifying people against their own best interests. The Civil War centralized the US economy under the auspices of a few banks. World War I effectively hobbled the labor movement in the US – how can you ask for a raise when our boys are leaving their arms & legs overseas? WWII gave us almost complete control over the European economies. But now we are engaged in a permanent war & the economy is still suffering.
The additional brilliance of the system is its adaptability – as people around the world gain the means to organize on huge scales & develop autonomous communication networks, their ability to survive becomes increasingly integrated with & dependent on the very corporate system they are resisting. If the US economy falters, I will feel it before the CEO does, by losing my daygig, by having to pay more for the subway & by watching the interest rate on my credit card creep up. Once social security is privatized, everyone will have a stock portfolio – everyone will pray for Halliburton at night & hope Enron makes a sweet comeback.
Our future reflected in katana steel
Before trying to assess the proper response, we should look for other examples of an entire social group being eliminated from a culture to see what they went through. There are no examples of such a massive restructuring in the history of the US, but John Belushi’s bushido-steeped absurdism provides a clue as to where we could direct our attention.
At the same moment England was undergoing a Puritanical revolution, 17th century Japan, undertook a massive societal restructuring that left the entire Samurai class looking for a new job. They were well-educated & had specific skills that overnight were no longer needed by the culture which they had helped create. In the 1600’s, it wouldn’t be surprising to find an angry samurai staring back at you as you asked for extra mustard on that turkey.
Feudal Japan was, like Capitalist America, a nation broken into discrete classes. Within this structure, the Samurai as what could be seen as prosperous, well-mannered middle class citizens. In a state where territorial clashes were common, they had steady work protecting the nobility & stability of their region. They were remunerated well by their lords to whom they were intensely loyal. Their level of education & involvement with the arts & even their style of dress separated them from other cultural groups.
Then in 1603 the nation was unified under the Tokugawa shogunate & the need for a Samurai class was eliminated overnight. A few Samurai were retained by the emperor to form the new army, but many were released with zero role to play in a society that had trained them to do a job that no longer existed. Their value system, outlined in the Hagakure, no longer made any sense at all.
Some were rehired by their lords in lesser capacities, others became retainers for wealthy individuals. Most however were unemployed & destitute, looking for work among the other, much less distinguished classes. Gone were the opportunities to engage in cultural activities during their free time. Many held on to their physical trappings, continuing to travel with the traditional armor & two swords, hoping for a way to make ends meet.
Because the Samurai were central to the creation of the Japanese state, people pretended they still existed as a viable group. For the next two hundred years, the infrastructure that had trained Samurai continued to train those who wanted to become one, but the schools were in constant decline & the certification was about as useful as a Poetry MFA is now – what jobs might have existed years earlier no longer did. There was constant talk of how to reform the increasingly motley ex-warriors & efforts were made to get them back on their feet that ranged from raising educational standards to stricter laws against fighting between Samurai.
Ultimately, in the 1870’s the Japanese government officially eliminated the Samaurai as a group & arrested anyone who refused to turn in their swords.
There were several armed revolts against the end of feudalism in Japan, the most important being the Satsuma Rebellion in 1870 in which 30,000 desperate Samurai faced off against the newly-drafted army of 40,000 people who didn’t really want to be fighting. But what the new military lacked in will they made up for in technology & long swords were no match for the western rifles.
Of the two million samurai who remained, most took menial jobs in factories or simply became destitute. A small handful accepted jobs with the government that had abandoned them. Histories of early modern Japan have no record of any samurai managing to move beyond the confines placed upon them. But perhaps some few individuals had enough success in living outside of what society had become, that that they were rendered invisible to any records of the era…& through that invisibility, free.
Dual Citizenship – How to Live in Two Eras Simultaneously
For nearly 300 years the people of Japan saw the gradual incursion of a new world into the existing one just as we have seen here in America for the past 30. The demands & capabilities of our era insure that the shakeup will be swifter than Japan’s & the grim legacy of the Samurai demonstrates the need to respond. We are living between two ages, neither of which seems all that great. So, as Miyamoto Musashi said in 1645, “What is the right way?” Or, as Dave Chapelle, one of Belushi’s cultural heirs, said last year, “Konichiwa, bitches!”
One way to face the future is to hope that the old & new conservatives, the Professor Wills & the president Bushes, destroy each other in their fight for the country’s future. If they weaken each other enough, one of the emerging superpowers — the EU, China or, more optimistically, Latin America under Chavez, might gain control of our economy. The role of the left in all this is marginal & useful only in terms of making the system appear to be a democracy.
But if either of the conservative blocs become all-powerful, there are few options left for someone who wants to express their humanity through something other than constant alienating work & gradual starvation. Armed insurrection seems futile unless your aim is to provoke a reactionary response. Ignoring the problem will only increase the odds you will retire with a closet full of Purina’s new catfood for elderly adjuncts. Trying to use the system to your own ends will work if you are crafty, but only for awhile & then its kibble for you too. The remaining response, perhaps the most difficult but potentially the only one with a good chance of providing a fulfilling inner life, is removing yourself from the game.
The institutions that are bent on confining your ability to be fully human don’t take kindly to those who try to leave. Pulling your support for the corporate infrastructure, refusing to engage in consumption or production, means lost resources, which will make some people very mad. Establishing an alternate way of getting by would serve as an example to others and in every such case, from the Black Panthers to the nation of Panama, the U.S. doesn’t take lightly the threat of the good example. It would be impossible to accomplish a life outside the grid without the assistance of like-minded colleagues, but the like-minded are not always easy to find or motivate. Setting up an infrastructure of support that would allow each person within the community not just to survive but to prosper wouldn’t be easy.
But the fact remains, by being a writer, or an artist, or merely by being the kind of person who would read this journal, you have identified yourself as someone who would prefer to know the world as it is. And anyone who has made that choice has accepted a responsibility. A responsibility to to resist their plan. Their plan to crush your ability to be a complete human — a prerequisite for being a complete poet. You may never have enough time or money, but you know what really matters. In eliminating our means to survive they inadvertently offer us a secret opportunity that the existence of the middle class was designed to obscure – they offer us the chance to see our innate solidarity with all others and in a time when we have nothing to lose, to unite with one another.
The insight of several people allowed this essay to exist, Tracey McTague, Joel Kuszai, John Colburn, Emma Goldman, & John Perkins, among others. It was originally presented as a lecture in March 2005 at University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee.
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