Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.

First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.

This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.

It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.

J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.

But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.

This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.

The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.

Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.

Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.

This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.

5 thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

  1. An insightful and thoughtful review. I liked the comparison to “Angela’s Ashes.” Of course structural changes in society always dislocate people. I think we are in the equivalent of the end of the agrarian world and the beginning of the industrial. Sadly we are only aware of the death of the industrial with no clear sense of what is coming. Of course neither did the agrarians imagine the next state of things. Read recently that what the US needs is a Democrat with conservative social values and liberal economic ones. Why should the right wing own things like the family, the community and faith?

    1. It is a terrible shame that the right is seen as the authority on the moral values. It was never thus in the past. The neo-liberal right eschew moral responsibility and promote utilitarianism and atomistic individialism. The left have abandoned this area recently which is very sad as originally these were left values. As it was said the “Labour party owes more to Methodism than Marxism”. In the UK the driving force in the socialist movements was often the Christian movement. There is a pressing need to try and rekindle some of this aspect of politics

      1. Here the religious right now claims that the “social Gospel” is not Christian. How they can read the Gospel and come up with that conclusion says they are reading a very bad translation! Here I could say that the historic Democratic Party owed more to Methodism than Marxism too.

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