I have harboured the usual Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll-inspired English white boy road trip fantasies ever since my teenage years, and a couple of weeks back, I finally found myself out on Highway 61.
As I approached the celebrated Interstate — top down on the bright red Mustang convertible hired for the occasion, the inevitable choice of Dylan CD blaring from the speakers — I was met by a sign reading “lane closures in both directions”. That’s not quite how I imagined it was going to be.
Obvious lack of infrastructural investment was not the only thing that struck me about the state of the world’s largest economy, which still accounts for around a quarter of global GDP. In the Deep South and the Midwest of the USA, poverty is almost as ubiquitous as brilliant music.
For sure, the only real point in making a 2,300 mile journey from New Orleans through Tupelo, Nashville, Memphis and the Mississippi Delta and then on to Chicago is to check out every blues roadhouse, country & western honky tonk and down-at-heel jazz joint you can find along the way. That I did, and loved every minute of it.
But nobody’s brain switches off, even when they are having a good time. One outcome of the holiday is a deepened understanding of what Marxist theory understands by combined and uneven development.
I have on my travels experienced enclaves of the most advanced capitalism in what otherwise remain poor countries. The example that stays in my memory is Sokhna, a container terminal that services the Suez Canal in Egypt. It sits in the middle of a desert, but boasts a computerised control system way ahead of anything I have come across in Europe or Asia.
What I had never properly appreciated before is the flipside of the coin, which is the continued existence of third world standards of living in the first world. There are now tens of millions of Americans who are worse off than tens of millions of affluent Indians or Chinese or Russians.
One conversation in particular shed light on all this. I met two young and obviously middle-class white women from the East Coast at a blues club in Mississippi, the poorest state in the US at the time of the civil rights struggle half a century ago, and the poorest state in the US now. Shotgun shacks are rare, but can still be seen in farming communities, while trailer parks and repossessed houses are just about everywhere.
This particular duo had signed up for something called the “Teach for America” programme, which takes idealistic graduates from elite Ivy League colleges and sends them on two-year assignments in schools in depressed areas. In return, student loans are written off. It can’t be long before the Coalition emulates the scheme in this country.
Still in their first year, they were thoroughly disillusioned. Some of their pupils, they said, have never been far from their isolated rural homes and have never so much as seen a revolving door. Their future is badly-paid farm work, if their future is to be in employment at all. Many of them are already addicted to drugs.
It’s a similar story in the cities. If you visit Memphis, you will no doubt want to see the Sun recording studio, where Elvis cut his first 78s. But if you plan to go on to the Stax studio, equally famous in a soul context, you need to cross a black district where the impact of deprivation — not to mention the impact of crack cocaine — is all too apparent. It’s just too dangerous to go by foot.
Among the books I took along to read during the inevitable downtime in motel rooms was The Other America: Poverty in the United States, written in 1962 by the late academic Michael Harrington. He was at one time a member of the Independent Socialist League, a group founded by Max Shachtman. It is to this day seen as something of a definitive statement on the issue.
I’ve no idea how well Harrington’s work is regarded by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, but it was certainly taken seriously by the Kennedy administration, and formed part of the intellectual input into Lyndon B Johnson’s so-called “War on Poverty”.
Full of sixties optimism, Harrington argued that American capitalism could eradicate the stark inequalities of class and race that scarred his country, and could do so in a matter of years. But if no action was taken, he warned, poverty would drag on into the 1970s. Why would the richest nation on the planet tolerate that, he wondered?
The scary thing is that you could lift just about any description of penury from any page, and apply it to 2011. In other words, American capitalism has lost the struggle proclaimed by Johnson, just as surely as it is losing the war on Afghanistan. If there is to be social transformation, the task will fall to the world’s most potentially powerful working class.