Books – Janesville. A premonition?

I’m reflecting on the aftermath of a UK election result that I, personally, found disappointing. As with the Trump result a few years ago, there’s a fair amount of soul-searching and blame-pinning on the left. In games we call it a ‘post-mortem’ and it’s a reflection on what went wrong and what needs to change, what are the lessons learned.

But as I absorbed the result yesterday and this morning, I was reminded of a book I’ve been meaning to recommend on this blog, Janesville* by Amy Goldstein.

Janesville is a town built around and almost entirely reliant on, the once huge GM plant. Goldstein traces, through following a number of families’ and people’s fortunes, what happens to them and Janesville in the years following the factory’s closure.

This remarkable book offers a view into the American psyche I’d not come across before, both personal and nuanced. In particular, it offers a view of America’s working class in an industrial town that echoes the fate of industrial towns across the US, but also what I know of them in the UK, in particular the coal mining industry in South Wales, the evisceration of which politicised me as a teenager.

What I found interesting about Janesville was the response to the shock of so many thousands losing their jobs. As Goldstein traces the years after the closure, she is tracing the growing struggle of more and more families as poverty starts to eat away at them. The system, when most of Janesville had good incomes from GM, allowed those better off to donate to shelters and other charities that supported those their limited welfare system doesn’t, but when too many people rely on it, its flaws become apparent. There is a self reliance and will to charity, a fellowship in adversity that feels almost genetic in their mindset, and it echoes strongly the similar support networks that emerged in poor and rich neighbourhoods all over New York state in the aftermath of 9/11. But as the rising inequality and lack of opportunity in Janesville bites, as the hope fades and more and more people hit the breadline, I sensed a deepening frustration and anger, despair too, in the subjects of Goldstein’s study, even as they fought valiantly to support each other; fighting too, often futilely, to secure funds for retraining and re-skilling those without jobs.

What was particularly interesting was Goldstein’s evidence showing that those who retrained and reskilled were generally worse off than those who didn’t bother. It was eye-opening and counter-intuitive, initially, but just because there are a few ultra-rich in Janesville that are looking to find ways and raise funds to energise its community, it doesn’t mean that the structural difficulties of attracting investment and entrepreneurs to replace the lost production capacity can be solved. The Welsh valleys I think tell a similar story, after the demise of coal mining, as do the Lancashire and other coal mining communities. It’s given me pause for thought regarding my general view that upskilling is necessary if western economies are to reposition themselves in a global marketplace that finds greater profits in pushing heavy industry ‘east’ and ‘south’. That we need to upskill and prepare for an IoT-suffused and increasingly automated economy is obvious, but how we do it will be a central challenge of the next few decades.

The quality of life in Janesville, without good employment opportunities and a good income, suffered. Drug use, homelessness, suicide, poverty, all these things saddled the altruistic and charitable efforts with more and more demand. The system they have, more than here, leans on the self-reliance and sense of community to ‘pay’ for the support the state won’t. What’s interesting in particular about Janesville is that there weren’t more people who felt this was wrong, for while a few railed against such a wealthy country having no robust plan to help them, there were many who still abhorred ‘socialism’, or the idea that the state should better fund those who find themselves in need of help. There exists there an optimism, a gritty determination to keep pushing and seeing the positive, to meet the increasing welfare demands of their fellows with their own efforts.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, we can see why Trump succeeded. He spoke to the genes of these people, encapsulated a hatred of the globalism that took their livelihoods away, promised the jobs and the investment and tarriffs that would help them to rebuild their own communities. The irony is, of course, that this is big state investment and protectionism. But it’s not welfare, it’s not ‘handouts’. It was a promise to give them the means to continue as they did before. Poverty and decline in Janesville didn’t materially affect the character of the people, even under significant duress emotionally and mentally. It is all borne.

Here in the UK, with a decade of increasing in-work poverty, under-investment in the NHS, and in particular in social care, which moves the financial burden onto the NHS additionally, we see the rise of voluntarism, of food banks, of charities, of teachers feeding schoolkids or doing their washing. The weight of the burden of the broken, the homeless and the hungry now increasingly leans on the good will of individuals. We may not be able to rely on the state, and while such things are not a burden of the state, while the support we need isn’t sufficiently funded, the funds will not be found and the spiral picks up the pace. One need only look at the full-time carers of all ages in this country and the struggle they have, the cost they bear that the state doesn’t have to, to see that. It is an ideological pursuit by small state free market fanatics, or it would be if it wasn’t actually about the rich sustaining their position at the expense of the masses.

You may well disagree with such polemic, and this blogpost isn’t the place to elaborate a more nuanced argument, but Janesville taught me that people, their cultures, shape their attitude, define the elasticity of their conceptions of what governments can and should do, what people themselves can and should do. Janesville educated me by telling me a story about people.

After arguing in circles for years over what to make of various facts and the spin on them, Janesville makes me think that it isn’t facts alone that can change the world, it is stories and the people they are about.


*I’ve linked the book to Hive allow you to donate a % of the cost of the book to an indy bookshop of your choice.

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