Sign up to receive The Commons posts in your inbox.
The Homeless Society
Analysts and commentators talk about today’s “precariate.” The term plays on the Marxist notion of the proletariat, recasting it to describe gig workers, college grads whose income is swallowed by student loan debt, and wage-earners who can’t stay ahead of heath costs, childcare costs, car repair bills, and credit card debt.
The term is useful. But many commentators fail to recognize is that there is a social-cultural precariousness that is as debilitating as the economic vulnerability that characterizes the lives of many American workers.
This was not always so. I’m just old enough to have been socialized into a script for life—education, job, marriage, children, retirement, and on to eternal rest. Not everyone followed the script, but it was the norm.
Some call this script “the success sequence” and show how it leads to economically self-sufficient families. This is important, of course. But the script also provides social stability. If people follow the script, neighborhoods are more stable. The institutions of civil society naturally organize around this shared pattern of life, offering support.
The script of my youth had other dimensions. Patriotic pride was part of it. For the generation that fathered the Baby Boomers, military service during World War II was a widely shared experience that united the social classes. The Cold War created a sense of urgency and renewed patriotic sentiments.
Religious attendance surged in the 1950s. One can look back and judge this boom more a function of needing to fit in than sincere piety. But that’s the point. The script encouraged belonging. There were institutions such as Boy Scouts, Little League, VFW posts, and more. They also encouraged a sense of belonging.
The young John Updike made a name for himself by describing the soulless complacency of this scripted world. Many derided the script as banal and conformist. Civil Rights leaders fought against its racist aspect. I could fill the page with names of critics, for the main thrust of our dominant culture since the 1960s has been to deconstruct and “decenter” the old script.
The main trust of multiculturalism is to deny that there should be a script. As Justice Anthony Kennedy notoriously said, the essence of liberty is the freedom to give one’s life whatever meaning one chooses. A script necessarily imperils this freedom precisely because it is a script rather than an open mic.
And so we come to our own time. The old script is kaput. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the script only remains operative for people in the top twenty percent, who even as they benefit from the script carefully avoid endorsing it (as Charles Murray documents). Meanwhile, high-school-educated Americans struggle and founder in a world of ersatz scripts gleaned from therapeutic bromides and celebrity culture.
The upshot is a cultural precariousness as acute as the economic vulnerability so evident today. Too many people feel as though they cannot “get on” in life. The live for years, even decades, in a protracted adolescence.
This affects people across a wide spectrum. I live in New York City, and here there are many professional women who are frustrated. They are not economically precarious, but they feel stuck in a single life. There is no script that is connecting them to men who want to get married. Lower on the economic ladder, the breakdown of the male-female script produces blurry-edged families of absent or remote fathers. People do the best they can. But the instability cannot but unsettle their lives.
The feeling of being adrift is compounded by the recession of religious belonging, as well as the decline of civic institutions—the “bowling alone” phenomenon. Now the script of patriotic belonging is under stress as well. These trends cannot help but make people feel precarious. To what do I belong? Who is loyal to me? What is my place in the world?
The precariate—the economically and culturally vulnerable—emerged by design. Over the last thirty years, we have pursued an economic policy of deregulation. We lauded the “creative class.” But this turns out to be a small group. Our economic policies over the last generation reorganized our society around the talented few, not the ordinary many.
The same has been true for our cultural politics. The script was conformist. That’s what scripts are meant to do. They carry people forward in accord with a common way of life. But we dismantled this script. In a script-free world, some can be impresarios and engage in what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living.” They have flourished. But most people want to be “at home” in the world rather than mastering or conquering it. Without a script, however, being “at home” has become harder and harder to achieve.
In short, over the last generation we have organized our society around outliers—the “creatives” who break the norms. This has required de-regulating culture and sidelining the old script. The reasons for doing so may have been sound—to include those historically excluded.
But our economic policies of de-regulation were also justified by sound reasons. What we need to face up to is that this two-fold project of de-regulation—cultural and economic—has come a great cost. It has increased the vulnerability of the middle class and thrown many ordinary American into the precariate.
Earlier this month I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, located at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. often stayed and where on April 4, 1968 he was assassinated while standing on the outside balcony, chatting with colleagues and getting ready for dinner. The museum has preserved the façade of the […]
As we seek a realignment in American political economy we would do well to rediscover the thought of a 19th-century critic who did not like us very much. John Ruskin (1819–1900) found Americans obsessed with a liberty he considered license and naively committed to an ideal of equality he believed impossible: “also, as a nation, […]