The “ownership society” neither creates owners nor encourages society. Discuss.
Last Thursday I drove to the northern side of Desert City for burritos and horchata. Located amid a neighborhood of foreclosed upon houses, abandoned convenience stores, and sign-scarred mini-malls is a small Mexican restaurant famous for “buttered tortillas,” (a carby sensación if ever there were one).
I quickly came to regret my decision to make this forty-minute trip, not because buttered tortillas proved better in theory than in practice, but because of the spectacle that confronted me when I arrived at the eatery. Before me I saw dozens of dour people hunched over heaping plates, shoveling machaca tacos into joyless maws, their faces ashen and etched with lines or puffed from sodium bloat, their bodies bulging wearily against the inseams of Wranglers or Dockers slacks.
A woman and her child stand out particularly in my memory. They leaned against the red Formica counter listening for their order number. The mother, a blowsy woman — hair peroxided, watery blue eyes inexpertly mascara-ed — kept nodding off, her head lolling against her pilled green sweater. No wedding ring did she sport, nor any other symbol of belonging to another. Her child, fidgety and uncommonly sweaty (it was quite cool inside the restaurant), absently chewed a straw and frowned at the plasma television that hung in the corner.
It wasn’t so much that my fellow diners were out of shape or poorly dressed; that’s par for the course in these parts. No, what disturbed me was that they all seemed so tired — hopeless, even. No one was talking, not even the couples or families. Every so often a baby cried, or someone sneezed, but that’s about all, save the gentle din of so many munching mouths….
We could just be a buttered tortilla away from revolution.
Unemployment in Desert City hovers at nine percent. What jobs exist are mostly temporary and lacking benefits. Some 11,000 houses huddle empty, having been foreclosed or never occupied. Vast portions of the population sit idle. They have given up on the very idea of employment. The state legislature, its carving knives sharp and poised, stands ready to scrape the bones of an already spavined public sector. The patrons of that rundown Mexican restaurant seemed the weary victims of a Titanic struggle waged over their heads, one involving the arcana of interest-rate policy and tax codes. They seemed as but flies to the gods, batted about for the latters’ sport.
In his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell treats the plight of the unemployed in the industrial north of England. While those employed in the coal mines lead grim, exhausting lives, those who lack any work whatsoever suffer crippling ennui. “But there is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of unemployment upon everybody, married or single,” Orwell writes, “The best intellects will not stand up against it . . . . You can’t settle to anything, you can’t command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.” He goes on to describe visiting homes where entire families lie indolent, bereft of the hope of any gainful employment whatsoever.
The only comfort preventing the unemployed from rebelling against the state comes in the form of chintzy consumables. “The two things that have probably made the greatest difference of all are the movies and the mass production of cheap smart clothes since the war,” Orwell continues.
Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish and chips, art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution.”
The Huffington Post (which has recently joined forces with that visionary, cutting-edge Internet service provider America Online) reports that the latest jobs data represents a “classic good news–bad news situation.”
Last week, the number of Americans filing new unemployment claims fell to a two-year low. But while headlines point to this news as a hopeful sign of recovery, some economists are skeptical that the new data reflects anything other than an economy “treading water.”
The employment picture in the United States apparently leaves much to be desired. It’s hard not to think of those out-at-the-elbows citizens of Desert City. If the last few years have taught us anything, it’s that history has a tendency to repeat itself — so much so in fact that you could say it has a stammer. We could just be a buttered tortilla away from revolution.
I’m tempted to quaff the recovery Kool Aid, because to do otherwise is to confront the idea that we may be sliding back seventy years, back to margarine and bread for dinner and to betting on soccer in order to paper over the utter hopelessness of hopelessness and unchanging changelessness. Somehow I don’t think this is what Richard Florida has in mind when he talks about “The Great Reset.”
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