Have we gone into the Twilight Zone, or the Matrix? Have the Lizard People hijacked our governments and started replacing our collective consciousness and conscience with their own?
This vignette is one of the scariest things I’ve seen in months. The moment I read about government case workers berating the unemployed to be more “positive” about their situation, I knew that something was dangerously off about their attitude, but I couldn’t put a finger on it. Then it hit me: these case workers are showing exactly the same deliberate, official disregard for the realities faced by their clients in a ruined job market that Marie Antoinette showed for France’s poor in the last months of her reign. Like Marie Antoinette, they refuse to seriously consider that circumstances have become structurally brutal for the poor. They’re secure in their own positions, so they assume that everyone else is just too being too negative.
What’s so frightening about this parallel, of course, is that Marie Antoinette is notorious the world over for having so offended the mob with her sheltered insensitivity that the mob, upon seizing power from her husband, equally and fraternally liberated her of her head. The mercurial, haphazard collapse of the Bourbon Dynasty into a shortlived reform government followed by years of mob and demagogue rule in the name of republicanism resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands under the death sentences of kangaroo courts and a population so horrified by the explosion of lawlessness that it welcomed Napoleon Bonaparte. By many reckonings, France’s veering from near-absolute monarchy to extreme democracy to imperial adventurism under a military dictator to forcible pacification by competing powers under the Concert of Europe set the country a generation or two behind Germany and Great Britain in the development of advanced industry and the rule of law. In fairness, many of the popular histories of the French Revolution and its aftermath were written by Etonian snots and other Englishmen who ought to have shut up more often, but they have a pretty good point.
One of the especially scary things about the essay that I linked above is that the officials it describes humiliating the unemployed with unannounced auditing phone calls and twenty-minute screeds about the need to remain positive are employed by Work and Income New Zealand. I’d always assumed that the Kiwis were too plain-dealing and sensible to fall for a pot of shit manifesting good times into existence with positive thoughts, as instructed by Oprah Winfrey. Assuming the worst of the unemployed and lecturing them accordingly seemed much more specifically an Anglo-American vice, a social control that Canadians would consider too uncivil and that Kiwis, Aussies, Irishmen, and Scotsmen would consider too likely to start a fight with the proud, insolent locals. New Zealand has a reputation for jealously guarding its own folkways, so I didn’t expect its officials to be corrupted by a combination of the worst sorts of intrusiveness found among English social services case workers and the worst sorts of bullshit artistry advanced by American television charlatans.
If the rot has spread that far, it can spread anywhere. Tragically, the same memetic repetition that has spread these social controls to the farthest corners of the Anglo world has failed to eradicate racist bigotry in the United States. Maybe this is by design. Maybe the Cathedral only wants to look like it’s courageously opposed to racism.
The relief case workers Chloe King describes are agents of systemic moral parasitism. They’re eating the seed corn of public goodwill, and it’ll be gone before long if they keep this shit up. Their provocative rudeness is only possible in a population thoroughly inculcated in bourgeois habits of conciliation, civility, conversational and physical self-control, graciousness, trust, and goodwill. These habits don’t abide in a moral vacuum. Highminded though they are, they arise in response to an expectation that they will be rewarded in due course of time by other reasonable people of goodwill. Functionally, they’re responses to incentives that are likely only in orderly, well-regulated societies with a strong, coherent, complementary rule of positive and natural law. They’re adaptive only in societies that rebuke, shun, and punish bad actors and reward good actors with full membership in the community. It’s accurate, if a bit religiously deep, to say that bourgeois propriety is viable only in societies that excommunicate treacherous and defiantly troublesome members. This is why the Amish formally shun their bad seeds. As thoughtfully backwards agrarian communities, the Amish live too close to the edge to give their communal imprimatur and safe harbor to flimflammers, provocateurs, flamboyant layabouts, or other disruptive wankers. This is also why they’re so opposed to television. They don’t want to suborn bad values. We’d be wise to stop watching that garbage, too, for reasons that should be excruciatingly obvious from nine to five every weekday.
Maybe the Amish were savvier than they realized in denominating the rest of us as English. Unemployment case workers in England and New Zealand are wearing down the goodwill, the magnanimity, and the bourgeois decency of earnest beneficiaries who want to do right by their societies. Take that positivity shit to Skid Row, and the winos will call you a motherfucker and throw the nearest projectiles in your general direction. That’s why Dion Joseph is assigned to that beat and you aren’t. Take it to the welfare office and use it to humiliate the unemployed, and they’ll go along with it in order to get along–for the time being. At some point, they’ll snap. When? If Marie Antoinette had been graced with premonitions of the guillotine, she’d most likely have shut up. One does not simply talk about brioche when one’s subjects are starving, unless–you don’t want to hear about the alternative again, and I don’t want to write about it.
Downwardly mobile constituents of Bougie want to make bourgeois propriety work, many of them desperately so. They were promised–we were promised–some measure of stability and prosperity in exchange for our diligence and hard work and good manners. We aren’t getting it, and the bill is coming due. The Boomers are upon us like vampires: not all of them, but enough of them for a generational war, and if they keep calling us entitled while denying us the opportunities we desperately want to contribute to their government pensions, they’ll damn well continue to have one on their hands.
Meanwhile, we have these Young Turk Quislings like Matt Walsh and the case workers at WINZ telling other people to stop complaining about shit and go take jobs picking up trash or cleaning toilets, because that’s what they’d do to support themselves if they didn’t mysteriously happen to be holding think tank or government jobs that require them to do no physical labor whatsoever in exchange for a stable middle-class living. They aren’t quitting jobs that pay them to heap abuse on the downtrodden, but yeah, in an alternate universe where they’ve never lived, they’d totally support their families by picking blueberries piecerate. #TeshTips: You’re one lucky bastard if you’re able to support a family that way. And, come to think of it, they never carry on about how they’d totally pick crops, say, at a job like the one I’m returning to on Monday, instead of totally cleaning someone else’s toilet for pocket change because a cracka’s gotta hustle. Picking crops must not be degrading enough.
In fact, #TeshTips, it isn’t degrading at all if management isn’t yelling at labor about stupid shit. I doubt Matt Walsh can speak to this, but I can.
The Angl0-American world has been overrun by yuppies insisting that they’d totally take the nastiest, lowest-paying job in a thirty-mile radius to support themselves and their children if something unimaginably calamitous happened to the secure, well-paid jobs that they oddly refuse to quit in pursuit of honest labor. Once again, #TeshTips, if you’re on staff at the welfare department, you’re a yuppie. What, Mr. Walsh, you don’t want to spend the summer picking blueberries because you’d have to take a pay cut? Yes, do tell Mr. Wonka about how I’m entitled and lazy.
An awful lot of this nonsense comes down to Boomers refusing to admit to an external locus of control, for themselves or for their precious snowflakes. We have all these people who were raised in unprecedented broad peacetime prosperity, many of them having spent an unusually large amount of their youth fucking around, but then, sometime around 1975, they got in on corporate rackets allowing them to feather their beds but denying them the free time to chill out at Altamont, and now they won’t shut up about how they ate what they killed and how the rising generation should do likewise. They’re complemented by a failed cohort of quasiyuppies who are bitter and resentful because they missed the window to get in on the biggest real estate bubbles, got hosed by buying into the stock market at the peak, poured the rest of their financial assets into failing businesses, and maybe made the boneheaded decision to take S-Corp distributions instead of payroll bonuses because the tax rate was lower at the time, but now they’re irreversibly hundreds of dollars behind on Social Security benefits. None of this means that they can’t use proud cracker shtick on everyone while surreptitiously begging moneyed friends and relatives for alms and suggesting that their unpaid employees are ungrateful for all the opportunities they’ve been given to be “helpers.”
The successful ones let the success go to their heads, and the failures pretend to be successful at moments when their solipsism isn’t overwhelmed by the sober, lucid realization that they fucked up somewhere along the line. The Family Shrew likes to manifest success through affirmations of positivity, which becomes much more viable when one’s husband is manifesting $15- and $50k handouts from relatives by selectively admitting that he’s flat broke with a business in trouble. The rest of us, of course, still have to humor Joe Dirtbag and the Family Shrew’s conceit that they’re self-sufficient and beholden to no one whenever they find this conceit advantageous, because they’ll throw a fit if we don’t. Meanwhile, the family has basically scapegoated a couple of more honest Boomer relatives who sponged much smaller amounts of money off those close to them without making noisy shows of their own self-sufficiency. Others were itching to lower the boom (heh) on them for accepting $600 checks from their mother, supposedly because she was elderly and $18k in credit card debt, and on one of them for angling for some estate jewelry that she figured might be worth a couple hundred dollars on e-Bay.
As far as I can tell, these small-time mooches got into the bad graces of the others because they didn’t run proud cracker game on the rest of us, i.e., because they didn’t pretend not to be lazy, and also because they weren’t emotionally belligerent towards anyone who challenged their solipsistic financial self-conceptions. They were taking shit for sponging two orders of magnitude less money than Joe Dirtbag has talked out of those close to him, dumping most of it into a gaping hole while he ostentatiously pretends to be a competent businessman.
We’re penalizing relatives for living in truth. This can’t have a good end game.
More broadly, we have a generation or two that grew up in exceptional stability and prosperity and cannot deal maturely with failure, even minor failure by others. We have yuppies, including ones who outwardly appear to be pious leftists, who make the category error of assuming that their professional and financial success was their own doing and not the result of their entering an opportune job market that lavishly rewarded ambitious social climbers. Now they wonder why the rest of us don’t do the same. Well, for one thing, the market isn’t there. Shit. There’s nothing for Laird Hamilton to beast in the dry part of Shasta Lake. People whose fathers went to college on the GI Bill, who got their own educations at historically inexpensive, heavily subsidized, and accessible universities, and who then landed career-track corporate jobs at high and rising salaries wonder why the youngsters aren’t pluckier in the face of low-pay, contingent employment and six-figure student debt. Well, we’re unhappy and anxious because our circumstances suck. Does that make any fucking sense? We’re shut out of job markets and housing markets and credit lines and family formation opportunities that the Boomers took for granted. Now try figuring out why we don’t always stay on the sunny side, Sherlock.
And how cool is this? We have this barren bulge generation flooding into a retirement that it was too profligate in its youth to afford in its dotage, and it won’t let anyone, itself or its descendants, take a mulligan. You’d have to figure that the Boomers could use some fucking mulligans, having splattered the detritus of serial housing bubbles across whole continents (okay, Gen X is guilty here, too), botched their retirement planning at a time of soaring asset prices, hoarded jobs in their old age, moved to remote-ass retirement communities at a time when they need increasing amounts of elder care and supervision from the sparse descendants they conceived, and left their children and grandchildren with job, housing, and credit markets so ruined that we can’t afford to start families of our own. It seems, though, that they don’t have it in them to admit that maybe Aquarius isn’t such a good sign after all.
But the category error about personal success that I mentioned: these aging bougies who don’t realize that much of their success came from paying their fare on a money train that isn’t coming for their descendants, or who are bitter that they didn’t time the bull market as well as their peers, now criticize their descendants for not chasing after a success that they themselves achieved in large part by being in the right place at the right time. They assume that we’re goof-offs while we desperately chase down shit jobs that they wouldn’t have considered when they were our age. They assume that we’re personally incapable of success because they refuse to really accept the existence of a society in which success is increasingly becoming impossible for structural reasons.
It must be an individual problem at its root. If it weren’t, that might mean that a bunch of people wasted a bunch of money on overpriced colleges, and that would be embarrassing. It would be unfortunate to admit that spending the last thirty or forty years ratcheting up the pressure on teenagers to go to ever more ridiculously bumptious schools had the main effect of causing the students thus corralled into wasting four prime working years being high-hatted by shitheads before graduating into failing, or fully failed, job markets flooded by bachelor’s-level waitresses and back-of-the-house staff that, probably by design, can hardly speak a word of English. Admitting such a thing would require humility.
The political, sociological, and psychological effects of this mindset are a clusterfuck. A citizenry that admits to having gotten conned might agitate for stronger regulations on con artists with stupid coats of arms and an affectation of proficiency in Latin. Check out the coats of arms used by for-profit colleges in British Columbia. Some of them are fucking hilarious. There’s one (I’m too lazy to look it up right now) that has seaweed washed up over a knight’s helmet and, if I recall correctly, a sort of Lego block castle. Another one, or maybe the same one, has a promotional picture of an Asian guy and a couple of gingers watching a fat brunette in a white coat use a stethoscope on a German Shepherd. But look, qualis rex, talis grex. Bougie has his colleges, and the poors have theirs. If you can’t get into McGill, maybe you can take your clinical rotations with that crew instead. The weather is nicer in BC anyhow, and Dagmar Midcap grew up there, so the local girls aren’t all, shall we say, dogs.
The racket hasn’t disintegrated yet. Enough students and parents still think that they have enough to gain by playing games with overpriced colleges to keep the Kaplan test prep empire solvent. Not enough victims of this nightmare have had the balls to stand up and say, no, fuck you for calling me a loser, and by the way, you’re cruising for a bruising yourself by thinking that you can successfully game this fraudulent system. Because it is fraudulent, and it probably hasn’t hit peak fraud yet.
When it fails, expect it to fail catastrophically. College administrations are overrun by useless eaters who will not see the writing on the wall until it’s too late. They will not make efforts to wind down their own rackets in an orderly fashion before they go bust. They’re too invested in the mythology of their own superiority to do anything but double down. The most dramatic institutional failures will look like Enron, with middle-aged people in business suits carrying stacks of file boxes out of their offices in front of TV news vans.
The unemployment case workers I described earlier? Their meal tickets won’t get yanked unless their constituents demand that they be fired for not abiding by rudimentary standards of civility towards the clients they were hired to help. The Go Galt crowd will have to be politically marginalized first, and that’s no mean feat. There will have to be at least an incipient consensus that it is beyond the pale to kick a man while he’s down, that it’s unacceptable to waste a civil service salary humiliating the unemployed with nonsense advice from daytime television about imagining good vibes into existence. Mr. McFeely, King Friday, and Dion Joseph’s most psychotic buddies from the streets would have trouble coming up with anything that crazy.
But, you see, Officer Joseph has to keep it real because if he doesn’t, the surreal people on his beat will keep it real for him. Case workers at WINZ wouldn’t be supercilious asshats to their clients if the clients responded to the high hat like Oscar the Grouch on speed. They’re shitheads, but they’re milquetoast shitheads, paper tigers who blow over in a gentle puff of wind. They don’t have the hunger to defend their territory; they control it because no one else has the wherewithal to reassert the genuine bourgeois moral order that they’ve perverted by demanding supplication from humiliated clients in the face of their fighting words.
The center cannot hold. Someone ought to talk the woo-woo benefits technocrats back from the brink before their high-hat daftness gets people hurt or killed. A society choking on its own waste can get violent.