You may not get a belly laugh, but you’ll definitely hear something in the nature of a chuckle or a guffaw, or at least a snicker followed by a sarcastic eye roll.
I’ve got bankruptcy to the left of me, foreclosures to the right, and all manner of human degradation in between. When I mount the crow’s nest to get a look around, this is what I see: one guy who just got laid off, and now he and his wife are living on his unemployment and her pension. Once his claim runs out, they could be in for some severe austerity. On the other side, there’s a single mother who’s hours have been cut in half and who’s in the process of losing her home. The family right next door is also in dire circumstances. Dad is underemployed and mom has lupus. They were going to cancel Christmas this year, but all the neighbors pitched in and got presents for their kids. George W. Bush would have considered it uniquely American.
There’s even a guy whose wife just left him for another women. That’s not an economic problem, I know, but it fits in rather snugly with the general theme of misery that runs through these parts. It is so unrelievedly dismal you almost have to laugh, at least in a tragicomic sort of way. I know countless people who’ve been laid off and just flat out can’t find another job. I hear a new horror story every week, and I often find myself just shaking my head and saying, “You have got to be freakin’ kidding me!”
Most people aren’t starving or sleeping under bridges, mind you (though some are). They are subsisting, but only precariously. They’re just muddling along through this grim subterranean world of near poverty, chronic anxiety, and deepening gloom. The most accurate word to describe their condition is submerged. I should emphasize that these people I’m referring to aren’t regular members of the working poor. Until a few years ago, they all had what could loosely be described as middle class lives. They weren’t getting rich, to be sure, but they worked every day, paid the bills, and enjoyed their weekends. Life wasn’t glamorous but it was okay. At any rate, it was a slightly more varied and enriching experience than the grinding, joyless struggle it’s become.
Hard times are not unusual here, but there has never been this kind of prolonged malaise, and it’s leading to a sense of hopelessness and futility that is unique. In the past, people could more or less shrug off hard times because they knew they were temporary. Hang in, tough it out, things will always get better. Historically they always have. That belief is gone. It’s been replaced by the growing conviction that things are never going to improve. Life as we knew it has become extinct. It’s all gone forever, and there is nothing in the future but deep black uncertainty.
The other day I was struck by this weird feeling of deja vu. Where had I seen this kind of listlessness before? Where had I observed this sort of laggard, slumping despair? Then I remembered. It was back in Russia during the Yeltsin years. It was the exact same atmosphere: Things were shitty and getting worse. Life was shabby and dilapidated. Their rulers were corrupt and didn’t give a damn. Cosmically rich oligarchs were cannibalizing the country, and the system was so badly broken there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it. Drink up.
(Interestingly, that’s when Vladimir Zhirinovsky rose to prominence. He’s a right-wing clown worthy of our own Republican party, a Slavic Pat Buchanan. “We like a lot of the things he says,” the people I lived with told me, “but we would never support him because he’s crazy.” Score one for the intelligence of the Russian people. Would that the American electorate was that sophisticated.)
In the words of the inestimable Charles Pierce, people got no f***ing jobs, people got no f***ing money. And, I would add somewhat ominously, people got no f***ing hope.
There doesn’t seem to be any real rage yet, except, of course, among the right-wingers, who are blaming all the wrong people for all the wrong things, just like the right-wingers near you. People aren’t raising hammer and sickle flags and demanding blood. Me and a retired math professor down the street - a raging lefty like myself — are the only ones who seem to be approaching that enlightened stage, but then we’re both intellectuals, ha ha. There is, however, a very distinct mood of hostility towards our elites. I don’t want to exaggerate here. It’s mild, but it’s definitely there. It’s noticeable. People are aware that their suffering hasn’t been caused by their own failings (the Republican view), nor is it the result of a natural economic downturn, a good old fashioned “market correction” that, given a few well placed pokes and prods, will eventually just cycle away (the Obama view).
No, they’re fully cognizant of the fact that they’ve been ripped off, plain and simple, and the criminals who did it not only walked away scott free, but are still in charge of the show. Hence the pessimism. Hence the despair. Things aren’t getting better because they can’t get any better: the convicts are running the prison, and they ain’t doin it with our best interest in mind. People have perceived this basic fact and it’s made them cynical.
When Obama and his supporters speak of the recovery as if it’s an established fact, it just sounds like so much hollow BS. That’s what the recovery looks like down here on the mudsill.