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Resenting hipsters


For Jacobin, Peter Frase has written about the popular activity of hipster bashing, especially in light of the recent article “A Hipster on Food Stamps.” Frase’s article in partial below.

Here we have a person who has been marginally employed for two years and suffers physical pain twenty-four hours a day — and rather than demanding something better for herself, she demands that other people suffer more!

Vicious and unhinged discourse is widespread on the Internet, but this example is worth noting because the sentiment it expresses is by no means unique. This attitude — a petty and mean-spirited resentment — is depressingly common even among the working class. It sometimes seems to amount to no more than the sentiment that justice consists in everyone else being at least as miserable as you are. At one level, it’s an attitude that reflects diminished expectations, and can be partly blamed on 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.

This resentment is also at the heart of a lot of hating on “hipsters.” People see others whom 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.

But why? The false (but not without a grain of truth!) intimation that hipsters are all white kids who are subsidized by their rich parents legitimizes this position, but even if it were accurate it wouldn’t make the attitude of contempt any more sensible. For 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.

The rage directed at the figure of “a hipster on food stamps” is only intelligible in terms of the rotted ideological foundation that supports it: an ideology that simultaneously glorifies the suffering of the exploited and vilifies those among the dispossessed who are deemed to be insufficiently hardworking or self-reliant. It treats some activities (making art) as worthless and parasitic, and others (working temp jobs) as totems of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” without any apparent justification.

This is what we have learned to call the work ethic; but the vociferousness with which it is expressed masks its increasing hollowness. For just who counts as a hard worker, or a worker at all?

The work ethic is a foundational element of modern capitalism: it assures the overall legitimacy of the system, and within the individual workplace it motivates workers to be both economically productive and politically quiescent. But the love of work does not come easily to the proletariat, and its construction over centuries was a monumental achievement for the capitalist class.

After years of struggle, discipline was imposed on pre-capitalist people who rejected regimented “clock time” and were prone to take a holiday on “Saint Monday’s day” whenever they had been too drunk the Sunday before. In America, a Protestant ethic equating work, salvation, and moral virtue arose in an economy full of artisans and small farmers, and was maintained only with great difficulty through the transition to more grueling and alienated forms of industrial labor.