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.