Visions of vast apathy with Jack Kerouac
Notably, Jack Kerouac was a Catholic, and he cited this as a explanation for his conservatism, or what of his reactionary view of the politicization of the Beats would pass for conservatism in the latter half of the 20th century— he did this once, again notably, despite also claimed by others to have never voted (despite the bit about voting at 6 here), on Firing Line with William F. Buckley:
There’s much to unpack about this sentiment— that he always came across as, perhaps not always convincingly, more visibly working class than many of his peers in this literary-cultural movement, that his protagonists often were based on the sort of people who were so themselves that Kerouac, himself, could never successfully emulate while still being an observer (Neal Cassady, notably), speaks to this.
Kerouac, in posthumously published writing, credits capitalism for what resonated with much of his audience, the lifestyle which he spent so much time writing about:
“If it hadn’t been for Western-style capitalism . . . free economic byplay, movement north, south, east, and west, haggling, pricing, and the political balance of power carved into the U.S. Constitution . . . I wouldn’t have been able or allowed to hitchhike half broke thru 47 states of this Union and see the scene with my own eyes, unmolested.”
This, of course, assumes that, absent capitalism, a lot of the struggle he was seeking spiritual awakening from, and much of the abstraction that made his travels more complex (and, by definition, less spiritual) would not exist. This is what I mean when I say he wasn’t apolitical, but reactionary about how he, and his peers, were politicized and used as props of the counterculture in contexts like the Buckley show, where Kerouac was ingratiating himself to Buckley, while disaffecting himself from the movements his work influenced politically. His work isn’t reflective of holistic embrace of a validated conservatism, it’s an unconscious indictment of the circumstances that makes it necessary— permanence of artificial scaricty corrodes the individual from seeing the world for what it is, and participating in an unjust, anti-meritocratic system that purports to be the opposite while serving a selective class at the top, and useful idiots (not Kerouac, per se, but what he positions himself, curiously, as) further down the hierarchy.
If, what he means, is that his import as an author, and his ability to forge the mythos of his travels, is a function of (rather than an anomaly within) capitalism, then it’s a pretty stock bootstrap myth scenario, but more likely, he’s also describing the culture and ubiquity of temporary work at the time, something that even was apparent then, was not a longterm viable employment culture, but highly conducive to favoring employers at the expense of employees (we now, in 2020, have an entire economy of gig workers, contractors, and even in full-time employment, not full-time benefits and pay). I won’t say Kerouac doesn’t care about these things, or holds a bias (because I don’t know), but his suggestion is basically that he does not consider things like midcentury urban industrialization (where Jim Crow-era labor practices like convict leasing really took rise, etc.) and how the burgeoning civil rights movement was also essentially a labor movement for the Black community as well— is this economy Kerouac described supposed to be beneficial to them? His experience of capitalism is powered by their experience of capitalism, which the latter is hidden by the former, a black box consumable experience, for the sake of the prevailing economic system’s longevity.
My suggestion isn’t that being a conservative is, in and of itself, incorrect, but in this scenario it is not only reductive and reactionary, exclusive of critical points of fact not weighed in these types of pronouncements, but also indicative of the void left by the seemingly absent resistance to such imbalance we’ve seen play out historically (the US had labor movements, but these are often blockaded by what normally might be a sympathetic working public writ large, the economic frustrations of a series of intersectional concerns and intensifiers, for example). If what he says of capitalism is true, then Kerouac, as he puts it in The Dharma Bums, an underculture of marginalized Americans living nomadically out of survivalist necessity that speaks a “language” he had to be taught to speak, exists as a result of capitalism.
He is asking you to be thankful for the existence of a marginalized class of migrant laborers and nomadic survivalists not able to survive in the cities in the post-War century.
The advanced element of the Beats, and the one that gets confused for being apolitical, is that a rejection of electoralism isn’t a non-partisan position, but an ideologically pure one; Allen Ginsberg, for example, could be described as being singularly focused on individual liberties, as in free speech, freedom of assembly, etc. the things that build a collectivist politic. Kerouac, by contrast, saw the inherently collectivist, albeit confederalist, almost-hobo hitchhiking culture he mythologized in his novels as an expression of personal enlightenment, rather than a system and language of how to navigate challenges those who came before faced. It’s a valid politic, but one that is, necessarily, reductivist given the reasons this country developed the way it did: Where Kerouac saw romance in the sprawl of the American empire, others saw a combat zone as the 1950s flowed into the 1960’s with the counterculture declaring victory in a culture war that hadn’t even begun to be fought in earnest— the problem, as Kerouac saw it and articulated to Ed Sanders on Firing Line, is that he didn’t think the war had two distinct combatants, even if it did have two distinct sides:
“You make yourself famous by protest. I made myself famous by writing songs and lyrics about the beauty of the things that I did and the ugliness, too. You make yourself famous by saying, ‘Down with this down with that, throw eggs at this, throw eggs at that.’ Take it with you. I cannot use your refuse, you may have it back.”
This is the division of Beat figure politics I’m describing— Where Ginsberg, for example, felt direct action was necessary for a truly free and democratic politic to emerge in the US, Kerouac felt the hippies not only lacked the constitution for the fight against the prevailing post-war societal tide, but that what they did have the constitution for would be ineffective. He takes the position of personal introspection, believing, rightly or wrongly, that this can yield more than a collective introspection that lacks any real ethos— he is a conservative in the way liberals in 2020 skew conservative; a sense of defeatism and fatalism rationalized as pragmatism, where the yield reaches 0, and anything less bad becomes good.
Maybe this is the philosophy for the end of the world, but it seems to me that the class of American Kerouac is describing is one that is, merely, cast as reactionary: in the decades after Kerouac’s time, as labor strength in the US declines further and further, rather than seek to compete against the Republican Party’s ethos of weakening unions, offshoring labor work, etc. the Democrats, for example, sought to speak the language that would legitimize this direction for American laborers— so-called Reagan Democrats, who the party establishment then felt the need to court over having a coherent oppositional ideology. The idea that this would happen anyway, or that it wouldn’t fly with labor, was the new line for these Democratic Party leaders; it so diminished a plausible reality where class struggle could meaningfully yield results for labor that it rings false as a second path.
That Kerouac, himself, would assert the culture of declining labor strength, after decades of meaningful gains through labor organizing, large-scale strikes, etc. I think demonstrates that the right-wing’s attempt to differentiate itself by creating wedge issues out of race and sexual politics (a bridge too far for many Democrats to embrace, at least openly) solidified that the people in power, in a bipartisan effort, were fine with the creation of this marginalized working class that spanned every demographic in the nation. One can hardly blame Kerouac for feeling the effort from the left was too-little, but that this insight came courtesy of a worldview that sought to elimate all other context is, I think, telling, for someone identifying as a conservative citing western capitalism as the catalyst for a greater society.
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending:
Kerouac, the Unexpected Conservative
Silicon Graphics, Gone but not Forgotten
Allen Ginsberg, Chicago 7 Trial Testimony
Myth of the Reactionary Working Class