Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, strikes a delicate balance between family history and cultural commentary. In the book, Vance draws on his memories of an unstable family in a stagnant small town to paint a vivid picture of the culture of “working-class white Americans of Scots-Irish descent who have no college degree” better known as “hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash.”

Vance, himself a hillbilly by birth, now has coastal elite credentials, and he both loves and condemns the culture he was raised in. He admires hillbillies for “an intense sense of loyalty, a fierce dedication to family and country.” But looks down on the poor impulse control that dooms them to drift from relationship to relationship and dead-end job to dead-end job. According to Vance, this cultural dysfunction—more than automation, globalization, or any of the usual economic suspects—is why hillbillies are shut out of the opportunities of the 21st century.

In the book’s first pages, Vance talks about working at a tile warehouse the summer before starting at Yale Law: “Thirteen dollars an hour was good money for a single guy in our hometown… Despite this relatively stable situation, the managers found it impossible to fill my warehouse position with a long-term employee.” The focus of Vance’s story is his coworker “Bob,” a nineteen-year-old with a pregnant girlfriend: “Bob missed work about once a week, and he was chronically late. On top of that, he often took three or four daily bathroom breaks, each over half an hour…. Eventually, Bob, too was fired.”

Bob was typical of a series of young men who were fired or quit, and Vance sees all this as evidence that culture, more than economics, is to blame for the crisis of the white working class: “Too many young men immune to hard work. Good jobs impossible to fill for any length of time. And a young man with every reason to work—a wife-to-be to support and a baby on the way—carelessly tossing aside a good job with excellent health insurance.” Vance believes Bob’s lack of grit is what lies between the hillbilly and the Elysian fields of upward mobility.

Vance’s critics have caricatured him as a compassionless conservative. A recent article in the Los Angeles Review of Books summarized his message as “no economy, no matter how broken and unequal, can be blamed for such quotidian fecklessness. No policy can fix a broken culture. It’s time to put down the Big Mac and grab hold of those bootstraps…. People are poor because they deserve to be.” This is one way of reading Vance’s attitude about people like Bob. But while Vance may be anti-welfare, it’s remarkable the degree to which his goals and those of his critics coincide.

It is not as if Vance’s critics have anything good to say about hillbilly culture. They simply believe that Bob’s lack of agency and productivity could be substantially solved by expanding the safety net, teaching coal miners to code, or (their fondest dream) extending the civilizing aura of urbanization to an ever-growing share of the population.

The disagreement between Vance and his critics is about means, not ends. They not only agree about the evil of hillbilly culture, they basically agree about what should replace it. Both have in mind a society made up of people like post-Yale J.D. Vance: a buzzing hive of well-adjusted, well-meaning, well-educated, well-remunerated dog-parents. Beyond “work vs. welfare” their differences are essentially cosmetic, points along a bourgeois-bohemian continuum.

Too much of the debate surrounding Hillbilly Elegy has been stuck on whether folkways or economics are more to blame for excluding the hillbillies from the meritocracy. The debate is superficial. It ignores the much more essential question of whether the meritocracy’s hall of power is a desirable place to be: whether they should even be left standing—or whether they should be reduced to rubble with all deliberate speed.

Wendell Berry’s raised precisely this problem in The Hidden Wound, his book about the legacy of racism: “The problem of race, nevertheless, is generally treated as if it could be solved merely by recruiting more blacks and other racial minorities into colleges and then into high-paying jobs…. The aims and standards of the oppressors become the aims and standards of the oppressed, and so our ills and evils survive our successive ‘liberations.’”

Vance is preaching a kind of neo-bourgeois morality. The principal value of this moral system is a post-industrial docility, a willingness to serve bureaucratic systems in exchange for delayed rewards: primary education, secondary education, postgraduate education, college applications, job applications, performance reviews (the whole boatload of HR-compliant bullshit on a human face forever). This docility is the going rate for upward mobility, and it is no less valued by Vance’s detractors on the left.

Which brings us back to Bob. What if—just for a moment—we imagine that he isn’t lazy; he’s just uncompliant. Stacking some rich guy’s tile for eight hours a day with no Yale in sight… what if that’s a hard lifestyle to embrace? What if Silicon Valley is no better than a trailer park, morally speaking? What if there really is no honor in being an Excellent Sheep in law, finance, or tech? In short, what if we thought about hillbillies not just as defective cogs in our economic machine, but as dissenters from the neo-bourgeois consensus?

What Bob seems to be saying with his voluntary unemployment (and excessive bathroom breaks) is: “There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part.” I’m not saying that Bob’s “protest” is courageous or even conscious. Maybe Bob and the rest of the hillbillies are so unvirtuous that they would have been deadweight in any economic system. On the other hand, maybe the fact that so many of our citizens are unwittingly finding their “bodies on the gears” is evidence of a dangerous, out-of-control machine.

So how should we respond to Vance’s culture in crisis? Do we insist that all is well and that generational poverty, drug addiction, and family dissolution are just an alternative lifestyle to neo-bourgeois respectability? Of course not. But in light of the hegemony of the neo-bourgeois, the hillbilly dissent must be heard, even if ultimately rejected.

Rather than recondition a huge swath of the human race to succeed at the difficult test our economy has set for them, we must insist that it is our economic system that must change. It must be possible to live decently without conforming to a neo-bourgeois ideal of many years of education followed by abstract knowledge work in an urban office. The independent, insubordinate, and unresponsive-to-incentives must not be forced to choose between submission and starvation. We need to create an economic pluralism that offers a variety of paths—paths as diverse as the population—to a humane and dignified existence.

As Christians we have a vested interest in this pluralism. We need cobelligerents against the tyranny of barbarians in high places. Because as we are beginning to discover, the demands of our convictions are not always compatible with the demands of the market. We are slowly awakening to the degree of our accommodation to and subversion by the neo-bourgeois hegemony, and a work life shaped by the gospel may soon by hardly more respectable than hillbilly shiftlessness.

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Posted by Charlie Clark

Charlie Clark lives in his hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee with his wife Sarah. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2011 with a degree in Classics, he earned his law degree from the University of Tennessee. He now works in his family’s fourth-generation scrap metal recycling business. Charlie is a founding editor of Fare Forward and chairman of its board of directors. He has a homepage at boroist.com.

  • gregelchert

    Meeting basic expectations of a job and working to support your family aren’t “bourgeois” values – they’re essential to any functional society. If you’re not willing to do even that much, even when, like “Bob,” other people are depending on you, you’re not rebelling against the values of the upwardly mobile – you’re pissing your life away. That’s the point Vance is making, and it continues to amaze me how many people miss that.

    • Cal P

      The word ‘bourgeois’ should be put on moratorium unless it is scrupulously defined in the context it is being used, especially for Dreherites.

      • gregelchert

        Agreed. It’s one of those words, like “fascism,” “socialism,” or “racism,” that means pretty much whatever the person using it wants it to mean.

    • calebroberts811

      I think his point is that the upwardly mobile are pissing their lives away just the same… they just look more respectable doing so.

    • Ian

      Trigger warning: I’m not a dyed in the wool Marxist. (But damn if thinkers in this tradition don’t sometimes nail it.)

      Terry Eagleton hones in on the importance of the distinction when he pinpoints “the characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism.” Moralism/ity in this paradigm (i.e., ours) becomes an obscured rule system perpetuating the socio-political order and is thus divorced from any classical account of what is good and true and beautiful. So yes, “bourgeois” has a place in this discussion but (also yes) we shouldn’t let a bunch of undergrads volley the word about carelessly.

      • gregelchert

        Ian,

        You’re missing the point. This article claims that people like J.D. Vance are trying to force a “neo-bourgeois morality” onto working stiffs like “Bob.” But Charlie Clark doesn’t bother trying to explain why expecting someone to support his family and do the job he’s hired to do is some kind of unworkable standard that coastal elites are trying to shove down the proletariat’s throats, rather than the bare minimum requirements of any civilization. “Bob” isn’t some enlightened peasant rebelling against a stifling bourgeois conformity – he’s a lazy bum who can’t be bothered to do what he needs to do to support himself and his baby mama.

        • Ian

          It seems to me like you’re side stepping the main thrust of the article, that the “bodies on the gears” working landscape renders the call to “just do your job” not a call to virtue but simply a demand to not slow down production. I’m not pretending “Bob” is a new Moses but I am agreeing that imploring others to slowly die over a lifetime isn’t glorious or even very dignifying. Sure, Bob has responsibilities he should see to, but I can sympathize with the evaporation of the will that comes with the hopelessness of having no options.

          • Cal P

            I hardly see having a solid job, with health benefits, as no options. And I don’t consider working in a tile factory (whether production, sales, or in placement) as without dignity. In the wake of our post-industrial wasteland, it’s very easy to see that the attacks upon the Fordist system were fundamentally flawed. What was the alternative? “Meaningful work”? That is many times more of a fantasy than not. Not only because its generally a code for hobbies-as-life, but because its easy for the good in important work to be corrupted through quantification. How easy is it to be a professional artist who is not a booster for a patron, individual or corporate, or a flat-out propagandist?

            The likeliest thing is that Bob went to the bathroom to use his phone. And on the internet, we can be washed away into the sea of consumer options. The fact is that outside of Christ, everyone is slowly dying over a lifetime. In Christ, everyone is slowly dying over a lifetime. The question is which thief do you want to be, the one who repents or the one who scoffs? Are our lives a drink-offering on the altar of God, or dissolute filth? I’m talking at the cosmic level.

            I’m speaking as someone who gets an almost debilitating angst about working a job. You have to get through the pain, adjust, adapt, and find a way to make it. The problem for a lot of people, especially young men, is that all of their labor is not oriented towards anything larger than personal ambition and immediate responsibility. Even pagans of yore understood they were in a web of ancestors to whom their corner of the world depended. If you knew you were working towards something, almost any level of tedium or pain is bearable. I have my doubts that Paul really liked to make tents, but so he did in order to provide the funds for his missions, relieving the burden of the churches.

          • Ian

            “If you knew you were working towards something, almost any level of tedium or pain is bearable.”

            I agree with this and I dislike all the more double-edged sword this presents. Because the generational group I belong to largely refuse to do anything that doesn’t visibly further the x they believe themselves to be working for (which may or may not even be feasible in the first place). Work is an easy identity-constructor for haves and have-nots both. “Meaningful work” often is a fantasy, but man- I can’t help but notice that many times the ones who decry the hope of meaningful work are sitting pretty comfortably themselves.

            I gotta tell you, I’m not noticing that we’re focusing on “Bob” a whole lot as if there’s a nation of Bobs out there, withdrawing en masse into pointlessness. I don’t yet know how to construct a taxonomy of the working class hopeless in the US and until such a time as I can I’m sure much of what I would offer about that widespread hopelessness will simply sound anecdotal. I know the Wendell Berry approach might be too idealistic to actually take root in the soil of the 21st century, and yes, “hobbies-as-life” probably just ain’t going to work for most folks. Yes, we’re all slowly dying at the cosmic level, but many feel it awfully damn acutely on the weekdays-into-years level and the standard evangelical valorization of capitalism obscures that sad fact.

          • Cal P

            The fact that Evangelicals valorize capitalism is true, but irrelevant to this discussion. The major problem with the book’s review is that it collapses Vance’s rather sensical advice into some larger claim about bourgeois moral hegemony. One doesn’t have to steer in Vance’s direction, about ultimate goals and usefulness, to appreciate that learning to adapt to the contours of the market can be made to serve a greater purpose. Vance does not deal with the ethics, involved, but the story of Bob highlights how this problem works at the most fundamental level. It’s not about unethical work or deadend jobs, but here was someone who could step into the work world in a solid position from which to build on, and he f’d it up for no other reason but laziness and bad work ethics.

            There are a whole nation of Bobs out there, and they are situated all across the spectrum. The difference is that many working-class folks don’t have time for this kind of fooling around, where many people go through college, which sadly functions as an institutionalization of this aimlessness. The Bobs can’t afford it the way some more well-heeled people can, but its not just an economic issue, but a character one too. I know lots of folks who are in Bob’s place and would find him an unbelievable clown, not a martyr to fighting the “tyranny of the barbarians”.

            The problem is manifest in the link to the 60s so-called radical, who is a fool in hindsight. I’m not denying there is devaluing work, which occurs at both white-collar level call-centers and at the retail level of non-skilled, replaceable, labor. But the use of Bob shows a dumb way of approaching these issues. Trump garnered a lot of traditional Union votes, who normally swing Democratic, because he promised to bring solid jobs back, jobs that build-up skill and pay enough to live on. Not all socialists (which I would tentatively identify with) are shooting for fairyland, like Marx and his faux-eschatology of leisure.

          • Ian

            Years of interacting in comment threads have shown me that sometimes, Cal, you’re kind of a grouch, but you are demonstrating that even-keeled-ness you more regularly manifest. (Though at times it’s after a quick “Get off my lawn!” comment first!)

          • hoosier_bob

            I do see the evangelical valorization of capitalism as somewhat relevant. The evangelical conversion narrative is one that generally relies on someone’s experience of personal crisis. If economic policies are such that a higher proportion of people are forced into personal crisis, then evangelicalism benefits by having more people who may be in the market for the evangelical solution to personal crisis.

          • Cal P

            That’s a tendentious reading of Evangelical support for capitalism. Evangelicalism was founded as a Fundamentalist desire to reclaim (re-conquer) the institutions of power in Americana. The Fundamentalist skepticism of classical liberalism (typified in someone like WJ Bryant) was overrode in the Buckley reinvention of Conservatism as anti-communism, capitalism, and middle-American social ethos, which Evangelicalism signed onto with the endorsement of Reagan. But you’re reaching here with your peculiar straw-man.

          • hoosier_bob

            You’re right concerning the neo-evangelicalism of the 1950s and 1960s. I’m referring more to the evangelicalism that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. By the 1980s, evangelicalism had become more of a bourgeois movement. When I joined with the evangelical movement in the 1990s, most people I met had conventional (non-creative-class) white-collar jobs. Evangelicalism of the 1950s and 1960s had economic views that were generally well aligned those of the working classes.

            Evangelicalism was largely a blue-collar phenomenon in its early decades. It became bourgeois later.

          • Cal P

            Yeah, but none of that has to do with an adherence to capitalism because its ruthless joy in boom-bust cycles is actually intentionally wedded to a theological intent to create moral crises to inspire conversions.

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  • David_Kent

    Charlie, You sound very young.

  • CPT

    If Bob didn’t want to work under a manager for eight hours a day, he could’ve gone to a trade school and become an electrician or plumber, or tried his hand at farming, or some other non-managerial career. Imagining that a fornicating, irresponsible, lazy man is going to an ally in reforming modern-day capitalism is just … bizarre.

  • Brett

    I decided to dissent from paying the author in order to avoid subversion by the neo-bourgeois hegemony.

  • calebroberts811

    There’s good stuff here: I hadn’t really considered the shared investment in the neoliberal hegemony underlying both the proponents and detractors of Vance. I’m wondering if the author is at all inspired by Ivan Illich’s “The Right to Useful Unemployment,” as I can hear echoes of his argument in this piece.

  • hoosier_bob

    I agree that Vance’s “culture” argument is specious, if not downright duplicitous. I also agree that progressive prescriptions are equally specious.

    My hometown has lots of Bobs. But it didn’t when I grew up there. What’s mainly changed is the wages for putting up with being a cog. Both of my grandfathers worked blue-collar jobs. They both retired around 1980. At that time, they were paid about the same salary as the warehouse is offering Bob today. In today’s wages, my grandfathers would easily be making $80k without overtime.

    By contrast, I work in a profession where salary increases outpaced inflation 2x. In 1980, a successful lawyer made about double what my grandfather made. Today, a successful lawyer makes more than 10x what Bob can make.

    Over the past 30 years, there has been a slow-moving redistribution of wealth from the Bobs of the world to people like Vance. Vance is a bit younger than I am, so never saw the tail end of the days when the middle-class was thriving.

    Also, it’s worth noting that evangelicalism was complicit in this. Evangelical leaders sought to create crisis among the working classes so as to offer evangelical religion as the solution, instead of a higher salary. That’s why I find the recent celebration of Billy Graham to be rather odious. The man was a carnival barker whose work largely was funded by elites to justify the robbing of the working classes.