Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America
By Chris Arnade
Published by Sentinel, 2019, £25
Reviewed by Peter Taaffe
This book is a stunning achievement by US photojournalist Chris Arnade. It was written and published in advance of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the recent magnificent movement ignited by the racist brutality of the US police. However, to a great extent this book anticipated the devastating fallout from Covid-19, particularly in the US, because of the rotting of US capitalism which it records in detail.
At times of serious economic and/or social crisis, the US seems to find outstanding writers, journalists and photographers who successfully hold up a mirror to society and show the ugly reality of US capitalism.
They also gave a voice to the largely unheard masses. Chris Arnade does this splendidly in his book. Think of those like John Dos Passos, in his gigantic novel USA, and particularly in the chapter 1919, which gave us an unforgettable picture of the effects of the Russian revolution on the citadel of world capitalism, the US itself.
Dos Passos had been preceded by the great Jack London with his book, The Iron Heel, and socialist short stories containing many vivid accounts of the class struggle – more like a continuous civil war between the bourgeois and the working class that developed at each stage in the US. To the absolute astonishment of Leon Trotsky himself when he read it later in the 1930s, London had predicted, on the basis of trends within capitalism, the development of fascism as well as its state forms.
This at a time when, as Trotsky remarked, neither he nor the other giants of Marxism, Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, predicted the emergence of fascism and its main characteristics of an ‘iron heel’ on the necks of the working class, ensuring its atomisation through the suppression of all its democratic rights in order to cement the totalitarian rule of the brutal capitalist oligarchy.
Chris Arnade’s achievements in writing this book are commendable particularly when you see where he came from. He describes in the introduction his “discovery” of “the poorer areas of New York: I first walked into Hunts Point neighbourhood of the Bronx because I was told not to. I was told it was too dangerous, too poor, and that I was too white. The people directly telling me this were my colleagues (other bankers), my neighbours (other wealthy Brooklynites), and my friends (other academics). All, like me, successful, well-educated people who had opinions on the Bronx but had never really been there. It was 2011, and I was in my eighteenth year as a Wall Street bond trader… I wasn’t in the mood for listening to anyone, especially other bankers, other academics, and the educated experts who were my neighbours”.
Instead the author went for long walks to discover the hidden part of brutal (and poor) New York which lead him to discover “just how cloistered and privileged my world was and how narrow and selfish I was. Not just in how I live but in what and how I thought. This was a slow and shocking revelation to me, one I kept trying to fight”.
He spent the next three years discovering the rotten underbelly of New York capitalism. Many of the conditions he discovered – drug addiction, prostitution and violence – are common to all parts of America and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in Britain and Europe for that matter.
However the picture that he gives – not just in New York, but on a US national scale – shows that the US, reflected in its collapsing towns and most of its cities, is already a completely broken society. Moreover this is a precursor of a further coming economic, social and political storm in the US. It will include huge battles on the issue of real and decent paying jobs, and the rebuilding of strong and powerful unions to effectively confront vicious employers. As we see in this book, the collapsing cities have led to unspeakably bad housing and many hollowed out cities and towns, as well as widespread despair leading to drug addiction, and intrinsic violence against the poor and the dispossessed.
Chris Arnade simply states: “We pretend that the addicted take drugs because of bad character, not because it’s one of the few ways they have to dull the pain of not being able to live good lives in the economy we’ve created for them. We tell them… that they shouldn’t expect to be able to earn a living unless they leave their hometowns. We say the white working class is racist while the policies we endorse hurt the bulk of the minorities. It is not surprising some have responded with cynicism and apathy, or rebel in anger”.
There are not just words – and damning words at that – that describe the terrible social conditions confronting broad swathes of the population, which “official US society”, capitalism, has written off. There are many graphic and stunning photographs which often don’t need a caption, just a hint to illustrate the point that the author is making. They speak for themselves in all their horror. Some are explicit, like the one in the chapter headed Respect, Recklessness, and Rebellion. This reads, together with an image of a black militant: “Revolution – America was NEVER great! We need to OVERTHROW this system!” This is a poster for a small, self-proclaimed ‘revolutionary’ organisation; nevertheless it expresses the conclusions of many US workers.
One of the revelations for me was the contention of the author that “if you want to understand the country, visit McDonald’s”. So many other outlets had been closed down; the diners saw it as a meeting place for workers of all stripes. Chris Arnade writes that “I found myself going to McDonald’s every day because everyone did. It was a meeting place, a social centre, et cetera”.
This experience opened the eyes of the author, to poverty but also the deep-seated and searing racism on “his own side”. He points out: “We were dedicated to knowledge… We were in the front row of everything we did, not physically but hierarchically. We were at the top of our class, went to the top colleges and top graduate schools, and we landed the jobs in the top law firms, banks, universities, media companies, tech companies, and so on. The shared experience and the rules necessary to succeed left us with the same worldview…”.
“We were mobile, having moved many times before, and we would move again. Staying put was seen as failure. You advanced in your career, and that required not being tied to one place. Our community was global, allowing us to proclaim it to be diverse, despite every resident sharing a similar path beyond high school. We used our dominance to change the world… We generally understood we were privileged and fought to make our country more inclusive for minorities. This meant dismantling a system… The vast majority of minorities and the working poor are excluded from our club – by a lack of credentials and by a system rigged against them getting any”!
The author catalogues very well the decline of the US in practically every sphere, with one chapter simply called Desolation. And why not, when you can read and see in this book about millions who face “a wholesale rejection that cuts to the core. It isn’t just about [the working class and poor]; it is about their friends, family, congregation, union, and all they know. Whole towns and neighbourhoods have been forgotten and destroyed, and when they point this out, they are told they should just get up and move (as if anyone can do that) and if they don’t, then they are clearly lazy, weak, and unmotivated”.
But as the author points out: “Everyone wants to feel like a valued member of something larger than themselves. The current status quo doesn’t do that for most of America, because it only understands value in economic forms of meaning. In that world it is all about getting credentials, primarily those gained by education… [It] is tightly rationed, with only a few allowed access each year”.
The diagnosis cannot be faulted but the author does not provide real lasting solutions. However, the photographs and the comments of those interviewed provide enough material to indict US capitalism and its brutal narcissistic representatives like Trump. It is also invaluable in providing a real voice in the “back row” – the very poorest of the poor, as well as the working class – while at the same time demonstrating the volcanic discontent which existed even before the onset of this disastrous pandemic. But you have to look elsewhere, to the organised working class, to see not just seething discontent at the shattering conditions of whole swathes of the US population but an iron resolve to do something about it.
A review in the Financial Times recently confessed “that the USA’s social and economic model has stopped delivering for most of its people”. It further comments: “America is the only developed society where the average income of the bottom 50% of the population has gone down over the past 30 years”.
What this means for the working class was spelt out in a recent Guardian report dealing with conditions in Kansas. The article shows how “the inequality virus”, ie capitalism, and now the pandemic, have severely impacted on the American working class and the poor. One female worker comments about her experiences: “Out of the blue a decade ago, the mother of three was told she was working for a different company. Mary P would carry on cleaning the same offices, but over time, while executives whose desks she was polishing continued to enjoy the fruits of their company’s fortunes, she saw her pay erode, healthcare coverage diminish, and what had seemed a secure job turn into an ad hoc position with few protections”.
“Then the virus made its appearance: ‘They told me to go home. They would call me if they needed me. I won’t get paid. The health insurance only lasts until the end of the month’, said Mary P, who did not wish to be identified because she hopes to return to her job. She reckons had coronavirus hit 15 years ago, she would have been in the same position as those whose offices she cleaned – at home, collecting salaries, reassured by good health coverage if they fall sick. But now she is cut adrift. ‘I can apply for food stamps and unemployment, but it won’t pay the rent. I’m really afraid of what happens if I get sick. I will just have to stay home. I can’t afford to pay for a doctor’, she said”.
This is the kind of loss experienced by literally millions of American workers on the basis of capitalism. But they are not going to continue to put up with this. Chris Arnade’s book illustrates why a massive revolt is going to take place against the horrific conditions that are described in photographs and comment.
But it is also indicated by one worker who declared to the Guardian that “while those at the top are better able to insulate themselves from coronavirus, he told a told a meeting of national AFL-CIO leaders that they will not be able to avoid its consequences. ‘I said right now the bankers don’t give a fuck about working people, but they’re going to give a fuck about us very shortly’.”
Recent events are just the first moves of an angry, potentially mighty working class, which is ready to revolt against the greedy billionaire oligarchy symbolised by Trump and his gang. Socialist revolution in America will be one of the most grandiose events in history. Conditions for this are being prepared now under the hammer blows of a rotted and ailing system!