"No home, no job, no peace, no rest"
Does humanity truly have an insatiability for authoritarianism, or are we simply conditioned to tolerate more marginalization than a Marxist social model can seemingly tolerate on a brink of calamity?
The imagined belief of Americans as ultimately individualistically, and singularly, self-reliant is a dangerous myth that, as the underlying ethos for all manner of political expression, has not only improverished, dehomed, maimed, and manufactured countless unforced suicides for the state, but millions of deaths and incalculable amounts of suffering abroad. We see less toxic forms of this manifest in the so-called enlightened Nordic state, which profit no less from our imperialism than we, as Americans, at least in the abstract (as those the ruling class requires in order to be rulers), do. Workers, now, more than ever, feel they have no place in the United States, and indeed the overall global capitalist economy, just as many have before them; there are few ways to sublimate that existential crisis into work that means something. This is the background against which, in 1995, Bruce Springsteen sets “The Ghost of Tom Joad”.
The first verse of the song is:
“Men walking along the railroad tracks
Going someplace, there's no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretching around the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in the cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest”
and the path ahead, while fraught with challenges (“nobody’s kidding about where it goes”), by invoking Joad, the solution to Springsteen, at least, seems clear. An explanation for this state of affairs can be found, more broadly, in Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism: “The system deploys its capacity for abundance to bring the petty bourgeois into complicity with his own oppression—first by turning him into a commodity, into an object for sale in the marketplace; next by assimilating his very wants to the commodity nexus.”
The working class has long identified with Bruce, and the reason, I suspect, has not only to do with the fact that he seems like a totally normal guy, but that he depicts the experience of being a downtrodden worker, under the boot of a capitalist system to whom you are a cell on a spreadsheet; a human resource, little more. He writes about a world where unions are still strong, workers have solidarity, and ultimately, what one might do if capitalism weren’t the driving motivation for getting up in the morning— a looming threat you’ll lose everything if you miss a day of work. Less overtly, but no less, political are tracks like “Born to Run”; basically an anthem to what is basically a deathwish of a competitive hobby, but one that is deeply satisfying, vaguely triumphant, a gladiator amongst the workers. Sonically, it’s the equivalent of a parabolic maneuver in flight, the false ending of the track leaving you weightless for a moment. This moment evokes a visual, breaking free from the onramp traffic and opening up the engine on the interstate, or as JG Ballard puts it in Crash, “Horns sounded from the trapped vehicles on the motorway, a despairing chorus” which you, driver, are now leaving behind, chasing and being chased by your peers for a functionally currencyless exercise in citizenship.
If this sounds anarchic, that’s because it is. Much of what anarchism means in the context of American labor is that Marxism, more specifically the ability of workers to affect the kind of change that had occurred in the past amid the overwhelm of the sheer magnitude of capitalism’s agents and defenders in the form of massive corporate union busting efforts, the ability to coerce a whole segment of the population into wage slavery, and now forcing the Millennial generation into a permanent fixture of the gig economy as one of the few reliably available means of generating an income; at any other point in world history, at any other place in the world, these outcomes would not proof these tolerances so malleable. What Springsteen sings about is a desire to to see what comes beyond being a worker trying to work inside capitalism because, well, it hasn’t work, and even the good outcomes are not positive or robust ones.
Murray Bookchin’s own break from Marxism and then anarchism was, specifically, because of this dynamic; as an auto workers’ union member, he was witness to concession after concession made in the name of pragmatism (something rather than nothing from the bosses) because working within capitalism, even if the risk of perpetuating it (but not the enlargement of the human spirit to go along with it) was all but guaranteed as a result, was a path to a resolution; the desperation of the working class has outcomes that speak to that desperation because in a society ready to let them starve, they had to make the decision to protect a material interest required for survival. Bookchin would posit that the ecological question would be what overthrew capitalism, and not because its propagators would develop a conscience, but that the environment would render denial impossible, at a point when it would be too late to do anything but suffer in solidarity as a species. Abolishing class interest, rather than leading a revolt by class struggle, “citizenship” in one’s community, their social ecology, would be the solidarity required to affect change. In a lot of ways, this is the kind of thing Springsteen’s music is meant to engender—it speaks to an experience, either literal or metaphorical, of anyone living under capitalism, and the route through the capitalist slog is typically through some sort of communalist action, either a coping mechanism (an acolyte of street racing in “Born to Run” for example, but this could be anything—religion, socialization, simply being a part of a community), or just sharing the same crummy experience as the ghost of Tom Joad:
He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and he takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box beneath the underpass
You got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathing in the city's aqueduct
In The Housing Question, Friedrich Engels suggests one aspect that prevents this sort of social ecology from developing, and thus resolving rifts between town and country in terms of housing policy:
…the bourgeois solution of the housing question has come to grief-it has come to grief owing to the antithesis of town and country. And with this we have arrived at the kernel of the problem. The housing question can only be solved when society has been sufficiently transformed for a start to be made towards abolishing the antithesis between town and country, which has been brought to an extreme point by present-day capitalist society. Far from being able to abolish this antithesis, capitalist society on the contrary is compelled to intensify it day by day
What relevance this has to a Springsteen listener is that you’re fundamentally viewing the housing question, perhaps beyond the scope of just housing, but of labor as a whole; whatever political inclination one may have, it’s in capitalism, and the capitalists’ interest to encourage divisions in things like geography, demography of a geographic area, etc. to, as Engels puts it, push that compulsion to “intensify it day by day”. The lyricism suggests an experience to be universal even if it isn’t; it speaks to a plurality of interpretations relevant as lived experience as much as metaphor.
Bookchin’s theory expands on the Marxist interpretation of the antithesis of town and country; that a failure to resolve this means that conflict between our world and the natural world is imminent, and the calamity is going to be ecological disaster forcing the end of capitalism, as its biggest accelerant. In Our Synthetic Environment, Bookchin says: “Some kind of decentralization will be necessary to achieve a lasting equilibrium between society and nature. Urban decentralization underlies any hope of achieving ecological control of pest infestations in agriculture. Only a community well integrated with the resources of the surrounding region can promote agricultural and biological diversity. ... a decentralized community holds the greatest promise for conserving natural resources, particularly as it would promote the use of local sources of energy [and use] wind power, solar energy, and hydroelectric power.” The social make up of Springsteen’s fandom is a good example of how class awareness, but more broad hierarchical awareness, labor organization, however you want to perceive the framework oppressing labor, the average citizens, etc. will achieve this decentralized, but ultimately ideologically confederated society with just outcomes for inclusive, engaged citizenship.
Bookchin, in his disillusionment with Marxism and anarchism, looked for explanations beyond capitalism to tell the whole story, and perhaps this is where it gets most interesting to me to consider Springsteen through this lens: Social hierarchies, rather than economic class, have existed for a long time before capitalism, and still exposits how social domination developed into the modern era and how this has effectively built the tolerance of our society, in my estimation, to finding that social equilibrium that might answer some of these questions, relieve the suffering of those under the boot of these systems, an economy predicated on scarcity as a purely abstract construct. His solution was to encourage confederalism of these decentralized municipalities, which in turn would encourage the citizenship of its members to take action in their governance:
“We propose a qualitatively different level of political activity: the confederal or, if you like, the “communard” concept of institutional organization that also found expression in the Paris communes of 1793–94 and 1871. This “communard” approach ... essentially called for a confederation of the municipalities as opposed to the development of a centralized state ... For American radicals to raise this approach today and restore its revolutionary content based on a post-scarcity technology would mark a decisive, indeed a historical advance in the development of an authentic left in the United States.”
Every Friday at 6 pm on WMMS FM/100.7 in Cleveland, Kid Leo would play Bruce’s “Born to Run”— a fitting homage to what the weekend represents to workers; a hard won victory of organizers over capitalism. “In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream / At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines” the track opens with, and this could be about anyone commuting to work, from work to somewhere else, expression from a more fulfilling outlet than a job that doesn’t give a shit about you. I’m not suggesting Bruce Springsteen set out to start a revolution, but I am saying his fans, anyone familiar with his work, should find a lot of these concepts familiar; it’s never just you, you’re a human, and in participating, you’re a citizen of your community, and that you can exist for more than the benefit of your employers. “In our own time we have seen domination spread over the social landscape to a point where it is beyond all human control.... Compared to this stupendous mobilization of materials, of wealth, of human intellect, of human labor for the single goal of domination, all other recent human achievements pale to almost trivial significance. Our art, science, medicine, literature, music and "charitable" acts seem like mere droppings from a table on which gory feasts on the spoils of conquest have engaged the attention of a system whose appetite for rule is utterly unrestrained.” Bookchin wrote, and as Springsteen implores in “Tom Joad”, we exist amongst a lot of strife everyone appears to understand is bad, but does not accept that it is implemented by those with uncharitable intentions, and seeking solidarity is one step towards tearing down the myth of the American Dream.
It’s less a call, in both cases, for individualistic, popularly-understood libertarian solutions to mass social problems, but autonomously organized municipals of individual citizens, seeking their own solutions to provide for the populace, rather than relying on a system intent on denying them bare necessities to provide those solutions instead once politically expedient (which, in Bookchin’s estimation, cannot happen without is own collapse when the environment finally ceases to be hospitable enough for their ends). Time for us to “walk the wire”.
Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:
If you’re a subscriber, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter at @jmarhee, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a community link.