Hipsters, Food Stamps, and the Politics of Resentment

Recently, a friend of mine became the object of the Internet's daily Two Minutes Hate. He had the misfortune of appearing in this story, which Salon.com chose to call "A Hipster on Food Stamps". The article was basically about some college-educated but poor and underemployed people trying to eat decent, nutritious food while relying on food stamps. To me, this is a poignant commentary on both the failure of American capitalism and the deep pathologies of our food system.

But what the article mostly seemed to call forth in its readers was unending bile and rage directed at people who were deemed insufficiently deserving of a public benefit. The title of the article--which, it seems, was a cynical ploy to drum up web traffic--certainly didn't help. Calling someone a "hipster" is, as this post points out, a license to spew all kinds of demented hate. And since the term carries connotations of slackers and trust funds, the image of "hipsters on food stamps" is perfectly designed to provoke the conclusion that someone is lazily taking advantage of the system. Certainly that was how things played at the blog of the libertarian Reason magazine, which mocked the notion that one might simultaneously be deserving of economic assistance and be someone who makes art and wears odd clothes.

But the greater concern is that so many people read a story like this and immediately feel rage or contempt rather than empathy. There is, in the American working class, a thick and persistent streak of petty and mean-spirited resentment. This manifests itself in the sentiment that justice consists in everyone else being at least as miserable as you are. Much of the reaction to the Salon article reflects this, but it was really brought home to me by the following comment, left under my friend's response to the article about him:

I'm sorry but you are a selfish, whiny leach. I can say this because I a middle-aged woman and have been trying to find work for two years without success though I have a masters degree in a fairly desirable field. I have dwindling savings and two kids. Because I stayed home with them for a few years I don't qualify for unemployment and that has also damaged my marketability in the job world. Despite all of this I have never resorted to public assistance and will not. In addition, I have a back problem that surgery did not correct so I am in physical pain 24 hrs a day. Still I have taken temp jobs and we have cut back in many ways. I am proud of my fortitude and resourcefulness, because we will make it through this time and my kids will learn valuable lessons from me about self-reliance.

Here we have a person who has been marginally employed for two years and suffers physical pain 24 hours a day, and rather than demanding something better for herself, she demands that other people suffer more! I don't entirely blame her for taking this attitude, because I think it's in part a function of the weakness of the Left and the defeat of its historical project: when you don't believe any positive social change is possible, there's little left to fall back on but bitterness and resentment.

Nevertheless, I find this attitude profoundly disturbing. And I think it's actually at the heart of a lot of hating on "hipsters." People see others who they perceive to have lives that are easier, cooler or more fun than theirs, and instead of questioning the society that gave them their lot, they demand conformity and misery out of others. The (false) intimation that hipsters are all white kids who are subsidized by their rich parents legitimizes this position, but it's basically irrelevant. Even if creative and enjoyable lives are only accessible to the privileged, that's not a damning fact about them so much as it is an indictment of a society that has so much wealth and yet only allows a select few to take advantage of it, while others are forced to waste their lives chained to their useless jobs and bloated mortgages.

I felt I had to write about this article, not just because I knew one of the people involved but because it connects directly to some themes I've been raising on this blog and in conversations with YDS activists.

It goes all the way back to one of my earliest posts here, on ascetic and epicurean socialism. The attitude that there is something scandalous about a guy on food stamps eating good-tasting and nutritious food is just the sort of ascetic attitude that I was condemning in that post. And that asceticism is, I think, closely connected with the spirit of resentment (or perhaps even Nietszchean ressentiment) that I identified above.

It also relates to my recent post on the basic income, in which I argued that society should guarantee everyone a decent living, not just the poor. One of the most common criticisms I received about that argument was that while it was a fine ideal, it was simply too far out of step with American ideas about the work ethic and the value of self-reliance. And the attitude on display over the "hipsters on food stamps" article confirms that, in a way. Yet the very fact that it has produced such a fierce argument is heartening to me. It suggests the possibility that these attitudes can change--particularly as the deep dysfunction of capitalism continues to demonstrate that hard work and persistence are at best weakly associated with income security.

Finally, this whole business has driven home another point about the welfare state and its programs which I've made elsewhere: means tested benefits are poisonous for the left. Programs like food stamps, which are restricted to a small group of poor beneficiaries, inevitably tend to create the resentment detailed in this post, because they make it easy to demonize one group in society as parasitic on the hard-working "regular" people--whether the demonized group is welfare queens in the 1990's or hipsters on food stamps today. Moreover, they put the state in the position of deciding who is the "deserving" poor, and constantly monitoring and harassing recipients to ensure their proper eligibility. In contrast, universal programs like Social Security--which is broadly available to the whole population when they retire--are far simpler, far more popular, and hence far more difficult for reactionaries to destroy. That's why I prefer the language of economic and social rights: things that are granted to everyone, simply by virtue of their humanity. Even hipsters.

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