So long, middle America

Sat, Aug 25, 2012, 01:00

SOCIETY:Two powerful new books document the ongoing destruction of ordinary working communities in the US

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt By Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Nation Books, 304pp. £18.99

The Betrayal of the American Dream By Donald L Barlett and James B Steele, Public Affairs, 288pp. £17.9

THANKS IN PART to Andy Warhol, the Campbell’s soup can is an icon of America. In 2010, his 6ft-high image of one sold at auction for almost $24 million. Campbell’s started out in 1869 in a growing railway town called Camden, New Jersey. As it took off in the great US industrial revolution, the city was home to other symbols of American dynamism. The RCA recording studios and production facilities were there – John McCormack was one of the early stars who went to Camden to make records. Its huge shipyard, employing 36,000 workers, constructed some of the behemoths of the US naval fleet, such as the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Savannah. It sucked in workers from the southern states, from Ireland, Italy and Poland. All of them were in search of the American Dream of limitless opportunity for those who were prepared to work hard.

In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, the doughty American reporter Chris Hedges and the brilliant cartoonist Joe Sacco visit Camden, among other places. A local priest, Fr Michael Doyle, sums up its fate: “The whole thing went. It all went. There’s no saying ‘This area survived and that didn’t.’ None of it survived.” The factories moved towards cheaper labour, first in the South, then overseas. The theatres and shops followed. White families left in droves after riots in 1971, sparked when the police beat a Puerto Rican motorist to death.

Median household income in Camden is now $24,600 (€20,000). The high-school dropout rate is 70 per cent. Crime is rife, but half the police have been laid off because of budget cuts. “The movie theatres are boarded up or gone. There are no longer any hotels or motels. There are no more factories. There are used car lots, but no new vehicle dealerships. The only supermarket is on the outskirts of the city, isolated from the street crime.” The only food for sale in the city is fried chicken or doughnuts.

This almost apocalyptic vision is not typical of the US now. But it is not untypical either. Camden dramatises, in an extreme but nonetheless accurate way, the truth summarised in the title of another powerful new book, The Betrayal of the American Dream. Far beyond Camden, as Donald Barlett and James Steele, one of the best investigative teams in American journalism (now working with Vanity Fair), put it, “the optimism of the past has given way to raw fear – middle America worries over how to pay the bills, whether they can send their kids to college, whether they will ever be able to retire”. The old deal that defined the US – work hard, keep your nose clean, do the right thing, and you will be able to live a dignified life and watch your kids blossom in a world of endless opportunities – is off.

There is, of course, another, more cartoonish version of the American Dream – the idea that anyone can become fabulously wealthy. And this is, in theory, truer than it ever was – the rewards for success are now dizzying. In 1980, the average chief executive of an American company was paid 42 times the average factory worker. Today, he (and it is almost always a he) is paid 325 times what the schmuck on the factory floor takes home. Taxes for the rich have fallen dramatically – from 51 per cent in 1955 to 17 per cent now. An ever higher proportion of the fruits of growth has gone to those at the top: between 2002 and 2007, the incomes of the top 1 per cent rose by 62 per cent, while those of the bottom 90 per cent rose by just 4 per cent.

“By 2007,” according to Barlett and Steele, “the top 1 per cent of Americans claimed a larger share of the nation’s income than at any time since 1928.” The big difference, though, is that even in the Gilded Age, the US was creating millions of good industrial jobs for ordinary workers. Now, those jobs are more likely to be created by American capital invested in China and India. Even a phenomenal success of contemporary US capitalism, such as Apple, sources less and less of its labour in its homeland.

The consequences for what Americans call the “middle class” have been devastating. In 1979, there were 19.5 million manufacturing jobs in the US; now there are 11.6 million. The solid factory job on which a family’s decent present and aspirational future could be based have become ever rarer: in 1979 18 per cent of American workers had such a job; now just 9 per cent do. Real unemployment is much higher than the official figures suggest: Barlett and Steele reckon that 22.8 million are “in need of a job”. The idea of retirement is being wiped out – working till you drop, often in a minimum-wage job, is the new future. Most starkly of all, the great land of opportunity now has the lowest social mobility among industrialised nations.

And this is not just a problem for the “sacrifice zones” that Hedges and Sacco explore in such devastating human detail. The social, physical and environmental destruction they evoke so vividly is concentrated in places that seldom, if ever, make the national media: Camden, Pine Ridge (South Dakota), Welch (West Virginia), Immokalee (Florida). But the malaise is also evident in the mainstream. The promise of escape from the consequences of these changes has long lain in the belief that a higher education is a passport to a new, tech-savvy, knowledge-based middle class. Yet, as Barlett and Steele point out, entry-level hourly earnings for college graduates have actually fallen over the past decade. And the cost of getting that degree is frightful: student debt in the US, at more than a trillion dollars, is now higher than total credit-card debt.

These two books – one microcosmic, the other macrocosmic – make urgent reading for anyone interested in contemporary America, not least as stark reminders of what is barely being discussed in the presidential election. American public discourse is infused with an obligatory optimism – not to believe in the Dream is to be an apostate or a heretic. If they do nothing else, these angry reports from the frontline may help to bring some tiny semblance of realism to the debates.

But they also have implications far beyond the US itself. The American Dream has loomed large on the psychological landscape of many other cultures, Ireland chief among them. And the questions they raise are also about the future of economic globalisation, a question in which Ireland, again, has an especially large stake. That great burst of free trade has been based on the idea that ordinary Americans would be compensated for the loss of their manufacturing jobs by entering a new world of high-tech, service-driven affluence. If, instead, the result has been the gradual destruction of ordinary American prosperity, there is an obvious question: can globalisation as we know it be sustained?


Fintan O’Toole is Literary Editor of The Irish Times

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