Returning to our Roots

I typed up a lengthy post in which I offered my theory for the Trump and Brexit phenomena. Then I deleted it. I have lots of thoughts on that subject, and plenty of concerns and unanswered questions. But in the end I figured this probably isn’t the place for them. So I’m ramble in a different direction instead.

As we see the working class rebelling, believing (with good reason) that the political establishments don’t care about them or their concerns, it’s easy to become distressed. My sympathies and ultimate loyalties are with the good, honest, hard-working people from whom I came. While I’m pleased to see them standing up to the establishment that has abandoned them, it pains me to see them turning to demagoguery instead. But we’ve endured much worse than this. It will pass.

I suppose one could reasonably conclude that working class people—that is, people who aren’t highly educated and whose labor is usually (and usually falsely) called “unskilled,”—have no future now. The days when an honest hard-working man without a college education could support his family with a 40-hour/week job seem to be things of the past. Nowadays even with both spouses working full-time it’s hard to make ends meet. There seem to be fewer and fewer decent blue collar jobs, and it’s hard to imagine those jobs ever coming back, regardless of what an ambitious politician might say. And the robotics revolution that is beginning now will probably make the job losses caused globalism seem minor by comparison.

What industrialism has done to the working class is exactly what agrarians have been predicting for a century. We have been chewed up and spit out. Once it became more profitable to find cheap labor elsewhere, we were tossed aside. And now that robotics and automation are rapidly making human labor unnecessary and unprofitable, the newly emerging middle classes around the world are about to discover how expendable they are as well.

So is there a future for the so-called “working class?” (I really dislike that term, by the way. But I can’t think of a better one.) How will people who aren’t cut out for college, and whose skill lies in working with their hands, support themselves? Are they destined to join the permanent underclass and become perpetual wards of the state? Can’t we do better than that?

I think so.

Maybe we need to start reversing the rural to urban exodus of the past 100 years. Maybe we need to quit trusting in factories, corporations and governments, and return instead to our agrarian roots.

We live in an amazing time. There has never been a better time to be alive, and human progress is occurring now at an almost unbelievable pace. There are great opportunities these days for those with the skills and desire to contribute to the technological revolution that is occurring, and we definitely need good people of good character to participate, so it isn’t left entirely to the greedy and amoral. But for those of us who value physical labor (and who don’t have an aptitude for anything else), maybe we should look to the past to see our future. As thousands of generations before us have done, maybe we should tend the land, grow our own food, live modestly, trade with our neighbors, and build resilient communities.

Of course it won’t be easy, but as Wendell Berry put it when making this case over 45 years ago, we can never have a better economy unless we allow ourselves to consider alternatives to the one we have. If that be called tilting at windmills, so be it. Let’s start tilting.

After all, is there a better alternative?