An American Parable: You Don’t Have to Live Like This
At his inauguration as President of the United States, Donald Trump spoke of an America few outside the country will have recognised. He spoke of ‘American carnage’ where American jobs had disappeared overseas, where crime ran out of control and inner cities collapsed into ruin.
Many, both inside and outside America rolled their eyes at the rhetoric and the ungracious language. And yet, lurking uncomfortably behind the bombast is an awkward reality.
America has serious problems; of deindustrialisation, the failure of public schooling; of continued racial segregation and hostility and above all, of the dominance of finance at the expense of the productive economy. In other words, ability to make money out of loans, hedge funds and derivatives, combined with the ability to business to locate where it wants, means that financiers have never been wealthier, while stable, well paid working and middle class jobs have become scarcer and scarcer.
Trump’s appeal is based on a nationalistic promise to turn all this around. To return the great industries to America, to bring crime back under control and one suspects, though it is not openly said, to restore white dominance over ungrateful, parasitic minorities.
Symbol of all this supposed decline is Detroit, once the home of the American motor industry, now a dying husk of city, large parts of which have been abandoned, its once grand buildings falling into decay, its population dwindling into a poverty stricken, largely African-American, core.
It is in Detroit that Benjamin Markovits’ thought-provoking novel, ‘You don’t have to live like this’ is set. Markovits’ book is, in its way, a kind of parable for how 21st century America has failed to solve its problems.
The main character, ‘Marny’ graduates from Yale with a history degree, spends some years working in a low-level teaching position in Britain (Wales to be exact) then returns home aged thirty and drifts in and out of his parent’s house in New Orleans. Similarly, his most erudite college classmates drift from job to job, while Robert James, the good looking ‘superficially intelligent’ ‘Greek God’ of his college dormitory, goes into finance and makes millions from a hedge fund.
This, it seems to me is the first parable of the book. Work that gives meaning to life is undervalued and underpaid. Work that is essentially meaningless, but incredibly lucrative, dominates modern life.
At one point Marny lectures his brother on the importance of community and of fulfilling work. His brother, a lawyer, responds that Americans don’t want fulfilment, time off or family life. ‘They want to make more money than their neighbour does, that’s how they know they’re winning’.
But Robert James, Marny’s college friend and hedge fund millionaire, is something of an idealist. He wants to use his wealth to finance a new community in Detroit that would repopulate an abandoned neighbourhood and bring it back to life. He compares his ‘settlers’, who are carefully hand-picked, with the early American colonists. Marny, his old college buddy, drifting and searching for purpose (he volunteers for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008), is among the first of this new breed of self-styled pioneers.
Here in miniature is the modern centre left (‘liberal’ in American terminology) utopia, of private capital funding social progress. The new neighbourhood, christened, ‘New Jamestown’ will be environmentalist, complete with its own farm, its residents, chosen, among other things for their diverse racial and gender profile, are provided with health insurance, they open ‘mom and pop’ shops and cafes. They are the model of a diverse, socially conscious, liberal community.
Like the 17th century pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock though, Robert James’ ‘settlers’ have to contend with the native population, not all of whom are thrilled to see the new arrivals take over the area. In post-industrial Detroit, the ‘natives’ are mostly black residual working class population.
Marny has run ins in particular with a gruff former American football player Nolan, who from the start makes clear that he sees ‘New Jamestown’ as ‘occupied territory’ and the gentrification project as ‘negro removal’. The two develop an uneasy friendship.
The narrator also embarks on an awkward romance with a local black school teacher but also cheats on her with a self-obsessed German self-styled filmmaker.
Ultimately the supposedly model community cannot escape the ingrained nature of racial and class division in American society. From the start the ‘settlers’ mount armed patrols and road blocks to keep their area safe from the ‘natives’. Without giving away the book’s plot completely, it all ends in chaos and destruction, as the locals perceive that police force and justice system have lined up with the settlers against them and respond with violence.
Just as ‘Black Lives Matter’ accuses police forces in America of shooting down black men without justification, so Marny’s black friends and girlfriend ultimately accuse him of siding with a racist justice system against them. No amount of well intentioned, privately-funded ‘social entrepreneurship’ can wish these problems away.
President Barrack Obama himself makes an appearance in the book, apparently to cheer on the project, but it is rumoured he ‘doesn’t trust these hedge fund guys’. And with good reason.
‘New Jamestown’ it turns out, is not really a philanthropic project to create an urban utopia, but rather a profitable investment for Robert James. The model community is, in the end merely a diversion, the real purpose being to buy up large vacant warehouses in Detroit to store waste metal.
Here then, is the book’s central parable. The idea of combining social idealism with finance capital failed, because the latter’s raison d’etre will always simply be profit. It failed to tackle real social and racial problems because it did not really address them.
Rather, as part of what was essentially a money-making scheme, it simply tried to create community of model consumers to replace the old awkward working class community. The ‘new’ community is completely dependent on the handouts of private capital, has no self-sustaining economic or social basis and folds as the first real problems emerge.
Marny, the main character and narrator, emerges from the ashes of ‘New Jamestown’ back where he started, without a real home, without a job or a partner and without a purpose.
If we could extend the imaginary world of Markovits’ intriguing novel into late 2016, we can imagine some of the ‘refugees’ from the failed project blaming the capriciousness of finance capital and voting for Bernie Sanders. But we could just as easily imagine others drawing the conclusion that the problem was ‘corrupt’ Democrats, their pie in the sky liberal scheme and their constituency, violent and ungrateful blacks. It is from here that Trump’s support base emerged.
Benjamin Markovits’ novel is not a ‘political’ book in a narrow sense, but it is an extremely thoughtful and insightful look at America in the era of Donald Trump.