Methland and the Rise of an American Peasantry
Imagine a world in which workers are not paid enough to live but are given narcotics sufficient to stoke abnormal energy which they can use to work themselves literally to death. Distant overlords profit from the trade in these drugs. The workers are left to rot and die in hidden places, well away from profit centers and real life chances.
Imagine such a world and consider the town of Oelwein, Iowa, population 6,126. As rendered by Nick Redding's stunning report, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (Bloomsbury, New York: 2009) the world of hollowed out worker and zombies ground to dust by industrial overlords is not the stuff of fiction. It is small-town America in the here and now.
I live in Southern New England, and I am a criminal defense lawyer. From what I can see, crystal methamphetamine has not flourished here. Perhaps Connecticut is simply too affluent to have given over to despair. Perhaps our time is yet to come. Today's New York Times reports that millions of Americans have given up hope of ever finding decent work again. Meth seems to move into communities just awakening to despair: the drug thrills the senses while dulling the pain. Taken long enough, the drug also drives folks quite literally out of their minds.
Redding's reporting is chilling. He asserts that no matter what the government initiative to try to curb the importation and distribution of meth, it seeps across borders and into our communities. Redding sheds light on Mexican drug cartels and their reliance illegal immigrants to move product North.
I was reminded, sadly, in this book of arguments that Dominic Crossan made in several of his books on the historical Jesus. There are cultural conditions in which a peasantry is kept just at the cusp of survival. The affluence of some comes by exploiting the laboring class: giving them just enough to work but not enough to thrive. Crystal meth lowers the cost of keeping a transitory work force alive. Redding tells of workers forced to work double shifts to replace wages from good jobs gone overseas. Meth helped produce a superhuman sense of strength: call it soma for the dispossessed.
Methland scared me. Redding doesn't fall into an easy sort of pop-Marxism. The material conditions of the working class throughout middle America are deteriorating. But revolution is not in the air. No, rather extinction looms, extinction by means of self-destructing. The horror of narcotics is that use dulls awareness of systemic issues. It is the perfect means of treating people as little more than animals. Few of us have the ability to peer far and deep into the future, or to discern the distant causes and effects that yield the daily rhythm of our lives. What we do is shuffle, hoping always to keep ahead of the day's sorrows. Methland reports that there is a broad spectrum of American society in which people are responding to economic change by means of self-destruction. It is terrifying.