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?

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30 comments on “Returning to our Roots

  1. shoreacres says:

    I’ll put my friend who’s a $150K/year plumber up against any gender studies major in the world. 🙂

    I think one of the best, most immediate things we could do is stop fetishizing college education — particularly when so much of college these days neither educates in the classical sense nor prepares for life. I’m not opposed to college, or to the agrarian vision of renewed society, but I think there’s room for entrepreneurs, too — and those who are going to keep the plumbing in order. It’s very interesting to me that trade schools in Houston are filled to the max with people learning welding, HVAC, plumbing and such — and that their employment after graduation rate is so high. It’s like there’s a forgotten “third world” between high tech and repetitive manual labor, and we’d do well to nurture that, too.

    Liked by 6 people

    • DM says:

      great comments Linda! I am one of those who live in that “third world” between high tech and manual labor. Just gave myself a $10 an hour raise this week. 🙂 Started working in a larger city recently…instead of driving 20 minutes to work, I am now willing to drive 45… the wage scale is all of $10 an hour more for what I do (and even more) Was asked to bid on some more work in that area, and decided it was time for a raise. Most days I love what I do. That in itself is hard to put a price tag on.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Susan says:

      Excellent points!!
      I had “forgotten” about that important group of folks that keep our homes and lives (and cars!!)
      running. That’s what I LOVE about reading blogs. You really get to see the whole picture

      Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      While economists continue to project growth in jobs that don’t require college degrees, workers without a college education earn on average less than half what college educated workers earn. Meanwhile, incredibly, the median wage for a non-college educated worker has fallen by $1.30 per hour since 1980. I don’t think we can necessarily credit college education for that disparity, but it does seem to me that opportunities for folks of ordinary skills and intelligence to earn a decent living are going away. Your six-figure earning plumber of course isn’t representative of what’s happening to the “working class” in our time. There will always be demand for skilled tradespeople and I agree that is an excellent option for those with the aptitude for it. But our economy has always had a place for the great majority of workers, who aren’t cut out for jobs that require skill/craftsmanship or high intelligence/book-learning/diplomas, and those jobs are either going away or are being replaced by lower-paying jobs. I think of my friend whose husband died of cancer and is now working 2 part-time jobs to get the money to keep up the payments on her mobile home. No one will hire here full-time (they don’t want to pay benefits), so she’s waiting tables on Sunday mornings and missing church for the first time in her life. She’s my age (55) and counting the days till Social Security kicks in. Or the man I read about this morning who lost his $28/hour mining job and now is working for $11/hour in a pawn shop. He lost his home and he and his family had to move in with his parents to have a place to live. Those kinds of jobs, that required only dependability and a good work ethic (but not literacy for example) are going away and leaving many people behind. Lots of those people feel (perhaps accurately) that no one in government cares about them. I’ve been reflecting on it a lot lately (perhaps too much) and it saddens me. But I do wonder if it isn’t the inevitable consequence of the abandonment of rural America over the last century. Hopefully we’ll transition to a new economy that has meaningful work for everyone, but with automation replacing everyone from cashiers to anesthesiologists, there is some good reason I think to be concerned.

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  2. valbjerke says:

    North of the 49th – there’s an incredible dearth of skilled/ticketed trades people. It’s a problem for the economy (or will be) when those trades people have retired or will soon – as there are so few up and coming, to take their place.
    My husband has been a licensed mechanic and inspector for 32 years – a trade when he started out, was considered something you stuck the boys in if they made it as far as grade ten and showed no promise of making grade twelve. Therefore, a ‘trade’ wasn’t considered a good career – so for many years now, parents push push their kids to stay in school, go to university……to the point that those who are mechanically inclined (or electrically, or able to weld etc) steer away from what has become considered a substandard job.
    It does not help that (speaking of mechanics specifically) they are expected to invest their own paychecks on tools to do the job (about fifty thousand dollars worth in my husbands tool box at the moment), generally work for private employers with no pension plan on the table, no medical/dental and so on.
    Many trades jobs are not high paying jobs – although a few (such as my son in law – a master electrician) are fortunate to get on with a large company that does pay well – still, it’s not the norm.
    Robotics can’t run wire in a hospital, robotics can’t repair your car. And ultimately – until the ‘working class’ is treated as a class with some value, I don’t see this class (of which I am a part of) doing anything other than grinding along, making ends meet, and hoping to be able to keep the brain and the body functioning well enough to make retirement age.
    I consider ourselves fortunate for the fact that we are nearly self sufficient, and we do ‘horse trade’ with other farmers (though never do we trade mechanical skills) – but even at that, neither of us can afford to not be employed – and we’re both thankful we have a ‘trade’ that is needed regardless of the economy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I’ve seen that situation many times in my life too. Perhaps that’s why here we’re beginning to see those roles filled increasingly by immigrants. A friend who is a general contractor has told me how difficult it is now to find reliable skilled tradesmen. He says that in the past a carpenter’s son would apprentice with his father and eventually take over the trade. But now the carpenter wants his son to go to college and become an accountant or a lawyer and is disappointed if he doesn’t. We certainly see that among farmers as well. But I do have hope that we’re seeing a change as people come to understand the value and merit of meaningful labor. College enrollments are dropping now for the first time. The back to the land movement is encouraging too. But there are enormous financial obstacles to living that way.

      You touch on something vitally important I think: “until the working class is treated as a class with value…” I get the sense that the working class (I really hate that term, but don’t know what else to call it, “proletariat” has too much baggage I suppose) is being forgotten and marginalized. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Susan says:

    The two posters before me —brought up EXCELLENT points and I just “echo” them.
    Have a great 4th, Bill.

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  4. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, another great post to chew on the rest of the day. Robotics is indeed advancing at an incredible rate. Soon cars that drive themselves will be starting to show up on the highways. For me it’s an exciting but a little scary future. Not being in the work force any more, my income is pretty much fixed so I’m at the mercy of hoping that it doesn’t just end for some reason. Social Security is supposed to out last my life time but one never knows what will happen if the monetary system fails. Chaos will rule. I’m not sure that I’ll see it in my life time but my grandson surely will. It’s foolish to think we can continue to live with food traveling 2000 miles to table and continue to have an ever increasing government debt without some tipping point of collapse. Those that still have the trade skills will have something to trade even if it isn’t for money. I truly wish there was a way to avoid ths but most don’t seem to be concerned about 10 years down the road and only live in the present.

    I hope you are right, Bill, and people band together in communities to tend the land, grow more food, and trade services with one another. From what I see around me there’s not enough of it happening just yet. Maybe as times harden up, it will become more prevalent.

    Have a great community building day..

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    • Bill says:

      As robotics and automation (and 3-D printing) replace the need for human labor we’re faced with wondering what is to become of the people who have historically done that labor? I’ve heard a lot of experts speculating about the future. One scenario is that for those unable or unwilling to find work there will be a “guaranteed minimum income”–basically an amount to enable a person to meet life’s necessities with or without a job. The commentator compared that life to being put on a Indian reservation. I just read this morning that in West Virginia less than half of working age people are employed now. It doesn’t sound like a very fulfilling way to live.

      I used to believe society was destined to collapse. I don’t believe that any more. I’m persuaded that innovation and progress will continue to accelerate and the future is very bright. But I also believe that we need to recognize the value and importance of physical work. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do wonder if as the industrial age transitions to a time when human labor is largely unnecessary, maybe we need to reconsider agrarian values.

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  5. avwalters says:

    It’s easy for me to agree, having already started that very transition. Not so easy for young people to move to the country and start fresh. There’s the problem of housing, of mortgages (since rural low wages don’t often provide enough to qualify) and of jobs (since it’s tough to make it solely on what you can grow/raise.) I’m relieved to be nearer the end of my career than the beginning. I fear that working class serfdom is our future–but it won’t stop there–global corporations will make their decisions as to who is their market and where they can get the cheapest labor. (Look at what happened in Haiti–and our State Department led the charge!) Anyone not in those two categories is extraneous.
    In the meantime, we’re learning to make more of what we have, and live with less of those things that are extras. Some things that people think are necessities, turn out not to be. Can you live without fashion? Cable TV? Gadgets and games? As our autonomy grows, we become increasingly irrelevant in an economic sense.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bill says:

      Well said. And if factories can produce gadgets without human labor, where will the humans who once worked in those factories get the money to buy the gadgets? I don’t have any answers, but I’m convinced that we’d do well to try to lessen our dependency on the corporations and that I strongly agree that we need to reevaluate the things we’ve come to consider necessities.

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  6. Laurie Graves says:

    Very thoughtful post. A quick response. Other countries that produce things do it better than we do—Germany and the Scandinavian countries come to mind. What happened in this country wasn’t inevitable.It was the result of policies and lobbyists that helped turn corporations into becoming kings of the world. Truly, an international game of thrones. But things can change. I have seen it in my lifetime. Never did I expect to see this country elect an African American president. But I did, and how glad I am. Finally, there are too many people on this planet for most people return to an agrarian lifestyle. As it is, we are hogging ecosystems and driving so many species to extinction. We have to learn to live closer, live better, live more frugally, waste less, whether in the city, country, or suburbs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I would argue that there are too many people on the planet for us NOT to return to agrarian lifestyles. Only 15% of Americans live in rural areas now. That’s the lowest percentage in our history. I’m not sure crowding into cities is more environmentally sustainable than living in the country. Of course if country folk have to drive to cities to work and buy food, then it defeats the point. When we abandoned the countryside over the last century, it was to move to cities for jobs, and those jobs are now vanishing, leaving cities with large numbers of unemployed people and a seemingly permanent underclass. It seems to me that unless we can retool our economy in a way that provides decent meaningful work for all these city-dwellers, we have to consider whether it wouldn’t make better sense to return to the country. But no matter what direction we take, I agree that we have live more frugally and less wastefully.

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  7. We are all individuals, and each and every one of us, have different skills. The path of discovery to burnish those skills is the key to success and feelings of personal accomplishment.

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    • NB: This my opinion and how I was raised – to be self-sufficient – to think, act and do for one’s self; but most importantly to do what is right, not just blithely follow the crowd.

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    • Bill says:

      Well said. We all need opportunities to self-actualize. There are many people who simply aren’t cut out to be what our culture says is required for a decent life now. That’s what troubles me the most.

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  8. theburningheart says:

    Too big to fail they said, instead it’s too big too succeed!
    At one point I guess we will realize it’s time to go back to the essentials of living, and that of course
    means to go back to Mother Earth, either to plant the seeds of nourishment for all, or to leave our bodies for fertilizer!
    Great post thank you! 🙂

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  9. I blame Tony Blair. He endlessly pummelled the doctrine of “education education education” into everyone and made anything less than a university education seem something of a failure. So then we ended up with a population well versed in media studies and psychology but no plumbers. Enter much needed plumbers from Poland. Now we have a UK divided over immigration. If we’d kept the old technical colleges and taught young men a proper trade we might not be in the mess we’re in now. Sorry Bill, I mentioned Brexit!

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    • Bill says:

      The same thing is happening here. In a recent speech President Obama said that the “surest ticket to the middle class” is a college education. That simply isn’t the case for many people. While it’s true that college-educated people earn much more than those without college educations, that may not hold true in the future. Nowadays many people are going to college because they feel they have to, rather than because they want to. They’re coming out deeply in debt and often unable to find a job. Meanwhile, as you and others have pointed out, there is a need for skilled tradesmen and we often can’t meet it with native labor.

      My wife has a friend who would only pay for their kids’ college education AFTER the kids had learned a trade. They had to get technical training first (so they would be employable) THEN they could go to college if they still wanted to. That’s the kind of thinking we need more of I think. I know some young people who graduated college, couldn’t find a decent job, and then went out and learned a trade.

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  10. Globalization is here, it’s happening. I don’t think we can turn back the clock on it, Bill. But we may be able to co-exist with it. Hand-crafted and home grown are better. It may be that our society will be willing to support them.

    Robotics and artificial intelligence are scary. The excesses of capitalism even scarier. Our world is changing rapidly, too rapidly, perhaps. Too many are left behind— and when too many are left behind, there is fertile ground for revolution, ripe for any two-bit, would-be charlatan/dictator that comes along. Fear and frustration replace reasoned thought and hope.

    I think that the world is balanced on the edge of a very sharp knife. Hopefully we can get beyond these troubling times and move forward to the brighter future the positive aspects of who we are and what we can do promises. Chaos lies on the other side. –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      Well said Curt. I see it the same way. On balance I think the change we’re seeing is good. But it’s happening so rapidly it’s unsurprising that it’s causing a lot of fear and anxiety. Lots of people are benefiting (in amazing ways) but lots are being left behind and are having to face a world that doesn’t look like the world they’ve grown up in. And I’ve still seen no satisfactory answer to the question of what is to happen with all these people who no longer have any way to make a decent living.

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      • My dad was born at the end of the horse and buggy era, Bill, in 1904. When he died, men had walked on the moon and we were starting to see the beginning of the computer and Internet Age. The amount of change was almost unbelievable, but I think the changes that we and our children are seeing will be even greater. How to adapt is indeed the question. I think our survival may depend on the answer. I do, BTW, think the back to farm and craft movement you champion may be a part of the answer. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Seeking Joyful Simplicity says:

    “maybe we should tend the land, grow our own food, live modestly, trade with our neighbors, and build resilient communities.” I see this happening, as both young and old pursue a more down-to-earth way to live. But I also fear the corporate/industrial/government intrusion into those simple lives. Whether it is the bureaucracies forcing on us unnecessary building codes, the power company polluting our land, soil, and water for fracking and pipelines, or forced vaccinations…all of which I have had to personally deal with, I don’t believe we can live simply anymore. Unfortunately, those with money also have more power, and it is the poor, middle, and working classes that are left most vulnerable.

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    • Bill says:

      I wish I had an easy solution to the problem. The solution we can expect from the system is to add the people who are left behind to the permanent underclass, where they will presumably be perpetually dependent wards of the state. I can only think of two ways to avoid that fate–either climb out of that class (which isn’t possible for everyone of course) or create ways to be more self-reliant. I realize how difficult those things are to achieve, but it seems to me that we don’t have any other good choices.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. WhirldWorks says:

    I think we also need to revisit what it means to “support your family.” Too many people today think they NEED to have the best house in the best neighborhood with media rooms, unlimited internet, the latest cell phone with unlimited plans, the flashiest car, and shall I go on? It wasn’t that long ago that I supported my family on $10.50/hr. We lived in a decent mobile home in a decent neighborhood and I drove a reliable car. We didn’t have cable or internet or cell phones, but we had family and that worked really well…until the wife decided she was ready for something flashier and I refused to go into debt for it 🙂

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    • Bill says:

      Yes indeed. I think the advent of easy credit gets a lot of the blame. It used to be that the only things a family would buy on credit would be a house, a car and maybe major appliances. Only the well-to-do had credit cards. But now just about everyone is saddled with debt that eats up a lot of what they earn. And as you say, things that should be considered luxuries are treated as if they are necessities. It blows my mind to see how much money people spend to buy things I know they can’t really afford.

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