I remember AIDS. I’m older than you probably think I am, and I remember what AIDS in America meant in the eighties, when William F. Buckley suggested all “carriers” be tattooed, and the Wizard of Id got in trouble in Canada (fr) for a joke in which Robbing Hood’s “Merry Men” were rounded up into quarantine camps. Mostly what I remember is the darkness- the world seemed apocalyptic. Everyone, at least in the gay men’s community, seemed to be sick, or dying, or taking care of someone else who was sick or dying, or else hurling themselves headlong into increasingly desperate and dramatic activism the like of which has hardly been seen since. I was actually watching the MacNeil/Lehrer news hour when ACT-UP broke in and nearly handcuffed Robert MacNeil to his desk. The tenor is just unreproducible; you get a taste of it in some of Sarah Schulman’s fiction, or Diamanda Galas’ Plague Mass, but it didn’t feel like a disease, it was an… unearthly detonation.
We forget this era now. If anything, people remember the Team America parody “Everyone Has AIDS!” RENT came out in 1996, not coincidentally the peak of the epidemic was 1995, a year when the CDC reported 41,699 Americans died of AIDS. To put that in perspective, that’s about 70% of the number of Americans who died in all nineteen years of the Vietnam War combined. The first year for which statistics are available (1987) 13,329 Americans died, which is actually more in one year than the total number of deaths attributed to the West African Ebola outbreak from 2013 to the date of this writing (11,325).
Lets dwell on that date, 1987, for a moment. The first report of “a cellular-immune dysfunction related to a common exposure that predisposes individuals to opportunistic infections” was published in 1981. A year later, the term “AIDS” was coined, and a year after that, in 1983, HIV (known as HTLV-III or LAV) was isolated as the cause of AIDS. Four more years, however, went by before reliable death numbers are available [note: AmFAR has published estimates for every year since 1981]. Why? What was happening in that interim? Why was the initial official response only to scare, and not to inform people at risk? Why were AIDS information materials censored (or more properly defunded) if they did not simultaneously condemn homosexuality?
Good genetic analysis has identified the origins of the virus, and put to rest the conspiracy theories, both the plausible (an attractive, malicious airline steward, or poor sterilization of serum used in polio vaccine production) and the unlikely (biowarfare) but looking at the history, its clear where the theories came from. For much of the 80’s, AIDS was killing thousands of people every year, and the official government response seemed to be: Who cares? Let the fags die.
More Death and More Silence
Prince, apparently, overdosed. He’s hardly alone, just famous. After all, death rates are up and life expectancy is down for a lot of people and overdoses seem to be a big part of the problem. You can plausibly make numerical comparisons. Here’s AIDS deaths in the US from 1987 through 1997:
The number of overdoses in 2014? 47,055 of which at least 29,467 are attributable to opiates. The population is larger now, of course, but even the death rates are comparable. And rising. As with AIDS, families are being “hollowed out” with elders raising grandchildren, the intervening generation lost before their time. As with AIDS, neighborhoods are collapsing into the demands of dying, or of caring for the dying. This too is beginning to feel like a detonation.
There’s a second, related detonation to consider. Suicide is up as well. The two go together: some people commit suicide by overdose, and conversely addiction is a miserable experience that leads many addicts to end it rather than continue to be the people they recognize they’ve become to family and friends, but there’s a deeper connection as well. Both suicide and addiction speak to a larger question of despair. Despair, loneliness, and a search, either temporarily or permanently, for a way out.
Did I mention there’s a geographic dimension to this?
See any overlap? I do.
AIDS generated a response. Groups like GMHC and ACT-UP screamed against the dying of the light, almost before it was clear how much darkness was descending, but the gay men’s community in the 1970’s and 80’s was an actual community. They had bars, bathhouses, bookstores. They had landlords and carpools and support groups. They had urban meccas and rural oases. The word “community” is much abused now, used in journo-speak to mean “a group of people with one salient characteristic in common” like “banking community” or “jet-ski riding community” but the gay community at the time was the real deal: a dense network of reciprocal social and personal obligations and friendships, with second- and even third-degree connections given substantial heft. If you want a quick shorthand, your community is the set of people you could plausibly ask to watch your cat for a week, and the people they would in turn ask to come by and change the litterbox on the day they had to work late. There’s nothing like that for addicts, nor suicides, not now and not in the past, and in fact that’s part of the phenomenon I want to talk about here. This is a despair that sticks when there’s no-one around who cares about you.
The View From Here
Its no secret that I live right smack in the middle of all this, in the rusted-out part of the American midwest. My county is on both maps: rural, broke, disconsolated. Before it was heroin it was oxycontin, and before it was oxycontin it was meth. Death, and overdose death in particular, are how things go here.
I spent several months occasionally sitting in with the Medical Examiner and the working humour was, predictably, quite dark. A typical day would include three overdoses, one infant suffocated by an intoxicated parent sleeping on top of them, one suicide, and one other autopsy that could be anything from a tree-felling accident to a car wreck (this distribution reflects that not all bodies are autopsied, obviously.) You start to long for the car wrecks.
The workers would tell jokes. To get these jokes you have to know that toxicology results take weeks to come back, but autopsies are typically done within a few days of death, so generally the coroners don’t know what drugs are on board when they cut up a body. First joke: any body with more than two tattoos is an opiate overdose (tattoos are virtually universal in the rural midwest). Second joke: the student residents will never recognize a normal lung (opiates kill by stopping the brain’s signal to breathe; the result is that fluid backs up in the lungs creating a distinctive soggy mess, also seen when brain signalling is interrupted by other causes, like a broken neck). Another joke: any obituary under fifty years and under fifty words is drug overdose or suicide. Are you laughing yet?
And yet this isn’t seen as a crisis, except by statisticians and public health workers. Unlike the AIDS crisis, there’s no sense of oppressive doom over everyone. There is no overdose-death art. There are no musicals. There’s no community, rising up in anger, demanding someone bear witness to their grief. There’s no sympathy at all. The term of art in my part of the world is “dirtybutts.” Who cares? Let the dirtybutts die.
Facing the Unnecessariat
You probably missed this story about the death of a woman in Oklahoma from liver disease. Go read it. I’ll wait here until you come back. Here, in a quiet article about a quiet tragedy in a quiet place, is the future of America:
Goals receded into the distance while reality stretched on for day after day after exhausting day, until it was only natural to desire a little something beyond yourself. Maybe it was just some mindless TV or time on Facebook. Maybe a sleeping pill to ease you through the night. Maybe a prescription narcotic to numb the physical and psychological pain, or a trip to the Indian casino that you couldn’t really afford, or some marijuana, or meth, or the drug that had run strongest on both sides of her family for three generations and counting.
In 2011, economist Guy Standing coined the term “precariat” to refer to workers whose jobs were insecure, underpaid, and mobile, who had to engage in substantial “work for labor” to remain employed, whose survival could, at any time, be compromised by employers (who, for instance held their visas) and who therefore could do nothing to improve their lot. The term found favor in the Occupy movement, and was colloquially expanded to include not just farmworkers, contract workers, “gig” workers, but also unpaid interns, adjunct faculty, etc. Looking back from 2016, one pertinent characteristic seems obvious: no matter how tenuous, the precariat had jobs. The new dying Americans, the ones killing themselves on purpose or with drugs, don’t. Don’t, won’t, and know it.
Here’s the thing: from where I live, the world has drifted away. We aren’t precarious, we’re unnecessary. The money has gone to the top. The wages have gone to the top. The recovery has gone to the top. And what’s worst of all, everybody who matters seems basically pretty okay with that. The new bright sparks, cheerfully referred to as “Young Gods” believe themselves to be the honest winners in a new invent-or-die economy, and are busily planning to escape into space or acquire superpowers, and instead of worrying about this, the talking heads on TV tell you its all a good thing- don’t worry, the recession’s over and everything’s better now, and technology is TOTES AMAZEBALLS!
The Rent-Seeking Is Too Damn High
If there’s no economic plan for the Unnecessariat, there’s certainly an abundance for plans to extract value from them. No-one has the option to just make their own way and be left alone at it. It used to be that people were uninsured and if they got seriously sick they’d declare bankruptcy and lose the farm, but now they have a (mandatory) $1k/month plan with a $5k deductible: they’ll still declare bankruptcy and lose the farm if they get sick, but in the meantime they pay a shit-ton to the shareholders of United Healthcare, or Aetna, or whoever. This, like shifting the chronically jobless from “unemployed” to “disabled” is seen as a major improvement in status, at least on television.
Every four years some political ingenue decides that the solution to “poverty” is “retraining”: for the information economy, except that tech companies only hire Stanford grads, or for health care, except that an abundance of sick people doesn’t translate into good jobs for nurses’ aides, or nowadays for “the trades” as if the world suffered a shortage of plumbers. The retraining programs come and go, often mandated for recipients of EBT, but the accumulated tuition debt remains behind, payable to the banks that wouldn’t even look twice at a graduate’s resume. There is now a booming market in debtor’s prisons for unpaid bills, and as we saw in Ferguson the threat of jail is a great way to extract cash from the otherwise broke (thought it can backfire too). Eventually all those homes in Oklahoma, in Ohio, in Wyoming, will be lost in bankruptcy and made available for vacation homes, doomsteads, or hobby farms for the “real” Americans, the ones for whom the ads and special sections in the New York Times are relevant, and their current occupants know this. They are denizens, to use Standing’s term, in their own hometowns.
This is the world highlighted in those maps, brought to the fore by drug deaths and bullets to the brain- a world in which a significant part of the population has been rendered unnecessary, superfluous, a bit of a pain but not likely to last long. Utopians on the coasts occasionally feel obliged to dream up some scheme whereby the unnecessariat become useful again, but its crap and nobody ever holds them to it. If you even think about it for a minute, it becomes obvious: what if Sanders (or your political savior of choice) had won? Would that fix the Ohio river valley? Would it bring back Youngstown Sheet and Tube, or something comparable that could pay off a mortgage? Would it end the drug game in Appalachia, New England, and the Great Plains? Would it call back the economic viability of small farms in Illinois, of ranching in Oklahoma and Kansas? Would it make a hardware store viable again in Iowa, or a bookstore in Nevada? Who even bothers to pretend anymore?
Well, I suppose you might. You’re probably reading this thinking: “I wouldn’t live like that.” Maybe you’re thinking “I wouldn’t overdose” or “I wouldn’t try heroin,” or maybe “I wouldn’t let my vicodin get so out of control I couldn’t afford it anymore” or “I wouldn’t accept opioid pain killers for my crushed arm.” Maybe you’re thinking “I wouldn’t have tried to clear the baler myself” or “I wouldn’t be pulling a 40-year-old baler with a cracked bearing so the tie-arm wobbles and jams” or “I wouldn’t accept a job that had a risk profile like that” or “I wouldn’t have been unemployed for six months” or basically something else that means “I wouldn’t ever let things change and get so that I was no longer in total control of my life.” And maybe you haven’t. Yet.
This isn’t the first time someone’s felt this way about the dying. In fact, many of the unnecessariat agree with you and blame themselves- that’s why they’re shooting drugs and not dynamiting the Google Barge. The bottom line, repeated just below the surface of every speech, is this: those people are in the way, and its all their fault. The world of self-driving cars and global outsourcing doesn’t want or need them. Someday it won’t want you either. They can either self-rescue with unicorns and rainbows or they can sell us their land and wait for death in an apartment somewhere. You’ll get there too.
In Sum, Despair is the Collapse of Forever into the Strain of Now
If I still don’t have your attention, consider this: county by county, where life expectancy is dropping survivors are voting for Trump.
What does it mean, to see the world’s narrative retreat into the distance? To know that nothing more is expected of you, or your children, or of your children’s children, than to fade away quietly and let some other heroes take their place? One thing it means is: if someone says something about it publicly, you’re sure as hell going to perk up and listen.
Guy Standing believed that the Precariat heralded a new age of xenophobic nationalism and reaction, but at the same time hoped that something like Occupy, that brought the precariat together as a self-conscious community, would lead to social and economic changes needed to ameliorate their plight. Actively. The gay community didn’t just roll over and ask nicely for recognition, they had their shit together enough that they could fight their way, literally, into the studios of one of the top news shows in America, into the US capitol, the UK parliament, into the streets of every major city at rush hour. AIDS galvanized them, but it was their mutual recognition as friends, allies, comrades-in-arms from years of fighting for urban space to hook up in that made that galvanic surge possible. The disease blew a hole in an entire generation and the survivors kept fighting. HAART attenuated the death rate, and the survivors kept fighting.
So far, the quiet misery of the unnecessariat has yet to spark its own characteristic explosion, but is it so hard to see the germ of it in Trump’s rallies? In the LaVoy Finicum memorials? Are we, and I don’t mean this rhetorically, on the verge of something as earth-shaking as ACT-UP?
On primary election day, I wrote the following to a professor friend (edited):
I am despising myself for a coward today. I stopped for gas on the way to the polls, and noticed a hole in the frame of the car that you could push a parrot through. Dammit, I can’t afford a new car, and I don’t know if I can afford a welded patch- I don’t even know what would be involved, since so much has to be stripped off before you can bring a torch near a car body. I was in a pretty bad state when I got to the polls.
Let me explain my conundrum: all democratic primaries are proportional, among candidates who get 15% or more of the votes. The republicans have a whole slew of delegate procedures, but ours is winner take all. [I could contribute one fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a delegate to Sanders, or help push Trump over the top.]
What’s the outcome here? Sanders isn’t going to win. He doesn’t have the delegates- hell, he doesn’t have the votes. Doesn’t have the support. Clinton is the democratic nominee, and frankly she’s favored to win in the general election, even though in a head-to-head she gets trounced by Cruz, Kasich, or Rubio. Right now she polls ahead of Trump, but Trump is the one factor in this race that could completely kick the whole thing over. What happens if Clinton wins? For me, nothing- nothing good anyway. I still can’t afford car repairs, I still have to buy medication in cash raised by selling hay bales. No, I didn’t bale them, I trucked them across the county. If you bale them yourself, you make money at it, but I just had some extras to unload. That’ll still be the shape of things in a Clinton presidency.
Lets be honest- Clinton doesn’t give a shit about me. When Clinton talks about people hurt by the economy, she means you: elite-educated white-collar people with obvious career tracks who are having trouble with their bills and their 401k plans. That’s who boomed under the last president Clinton, especially the 401ks. Me, or the three guys fighting two nights ago over the Township mowing contract, we’re nothing. Clinton doesn’t have an economic plan for us. Nobody has an economic plan for us. There is no economic plan for us, ever. We keep driving trucks around and keep the margins above gas money and maybe take an odd job here or there, but essentially, we’re history and nobody seems to mind saying so.
And let me be honest again- Trump doesn’t have an economic plan for me either. What Trump’s boys have for me is a noose- but that’s the choice I’m facing, a lifetime of grueling poverty, or apocalypse. Yeah I know, not fun and games- the shouts, the smashing glass, the headlights on the lawn, but what am I supposed to do, raise my kid to stay one step ahead of the inspectors and don’t, for the love of god, don’t ever miss a payment on your speeding ticket? A noose is something I know how to fight. A hole in the frame of my car is not. A lifetime of feeling that sense, that “ohhhh, shiiiiiit…” of recognition that another year will go by without any major change in the way of things, little misfortunes upon misfortunes… a lifetime of paying a grand a month to the same financial industry busily padding the 401k plans of cyclists in spandex, who declare a new era of prosperity in America? Who can find clarity, a sense of self, any kind of redemption in that world?
Fuck it. Give me the fascists, I’ll know where I stand…
But I went ahead and took a democratic ballot regardless. And voted for Sanders. And as long as chumps like me keep doing that, we’ll keep getting the Clintons we deserve.
I am of two minds. On the one hand, Trumpism is unspeakable. On the other hand the status quo is silence and death. I had hoped that Trump himself would collapse and the populist movement he unwittingly inspired would find some less terrifying (and less racist) organizing principle, but now that the nominees are essentially decided, that seems unlikely. For the unnecessariat, what is to be done?
Caveat #1: This blog post is talking about the AIDS epidemic in the US. AIDS is a global disease and has social and political ramifications far different in countries where poverty, rather than Teh Gay, is the defining stereotype of infection. Also, in the US deaths have declined since the introduction of HAART, a treatment package not available in most countries. There’s a lot more to say about AIDS, but this is the AIDS I remember from my own childhood.
Caveat #2: The increase in mortality and decrease in life expectancy is so far limited to white people, and much of this post is about white people. Rural white people. This has led to some rather disgusting spectacles, well-caricatured as politicians who were “tough on drugs” when it meant arresting black kids, but supportive of treatment and recovery when its white kids in the crosshairs. However, not to speak for black people, but I think the sense of being seen as unnecessary to the functioning of the country, and a speed-bump at best, is something that black Americans have experienced for years, and what’s changing is that (some) white people are joining them. Over at hipcrime they’re blaming automation, but in my experience in flyover country, white folks are predictably blaming everyone of color for their plight. That’s a bigger issue than I can talk about here, but in brief I disagree with (and hate) the argument that a white sense of economic disenfranchisement is somehow separable from a racial narrative. It isn’t. Rural white people, in my (ethnographic) experience, see their economic circumstances as a result of the rich/the government taking “their” stuff and giving it to the “undeserving,” which is as racially marked a definition as exists in the American vernacular. We can talk about this later.
Caveat #3: I don’t think discussions of “fascism” are useful here. I almost left Trump out entirely but that county-level link was too good to pass up.
Caveat #4: My professor friend wishes to clarify that he is a post-doc. Also, in addition to the frankly absurd odd jobs I do for money, I am still a graduate student. We can talk about this later too. And yes, I found a guy who could weld a patch on the frame, thought its still bent.