Jennifer Silva on working-class young adulthood in the USA

Jennifer M. Silva is a Professor of Sociology at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The following quotes are from her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, a contemporary classic.

“She taught me love
She taught me patience
How she handles pain
That shit’s amazing
I’ve loved and I’ve lost
But that’s not what I see
‘Cause look what I’ve found

-Ariana Grande

“Over and over again, the men and women I interviewed told me that growing up means learning not to expect anything from anyone. They told stories of investing their time and energy in relationships and institutions, only to find that their efforts were one-sided. I demonstrate how experiences of betrayal, within both the labor market and the institutions that frame their coming of age experiences, teach young working-class men and women that they are completely alone, responsible for their own fates and dependent on outside help only at their peril.

They learn to approach others with suspicion and distrust. Many make a virtue out of necessity, equating self-reliance and atomic individualism with self-worth and dignity: if they had to survive on their own, then everyone else should too. In an era of short-term flexibility, constant flux. and hollow institutions, the transition to adulthood has been inverted; coming of age does not entail entry into social groups and institutions but rather the explicit rejection of them.”

“For the vast majority of the men and women I spoke with, coming of age has been reimagined as a psychic struggle to triumph over the demons of their pasts. These ‘demons’ take several different forms: pain or betrayal in past relationships; emotional, mental, or cognitive disorders (e.g., depression, dyslexia, or anxiety); or addiction to drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Hurtful and agonizing betrayals within the family lie at the root of these torments, grounding their adult identities in the quest to heal their wounded selves. Through telling their stories of confronting a difficult past, working-class women and men stake a claim to dignity and respect, based not on traditional markers of adulthood but on having undergone emotional trauma and emerged, triumphantly, as survivors.”

“…couples who want to create relationships that foster the growth of their deepest selves find that self-realization requires resources that they do not have, and they must decide whether commitment is worth sacrificing their own interests and desires. For women, fears of losing the self predominate: their sense of self feels too fragile to risk in a relationship. Because many young people fear disappointment, betrayal, and dissolution, they often choose to be alone.

In a world where you have only yourself—hard-won through privation and suffering—to depend on, relationships feel overwhelmingly risky. Caught between two impossible ideals of love, many find themselves unable to forge romantic relationships that are both satisfying and lasting. Respondents thus numb the ache of betrayal and the hunger for connection by embracing cultural ideals of self-reliance, individualism, and personal responsibility.”

“As the coming of age stories of working-class young people reveal, the strain of risk-bearing has split individuals, families, and communities apart, leaving them with only the deep and unyielding belief that personal responsibility is the key to meaning, security, and freedom. In an era defined by neoliberal ideology and policy, collective solutions to risk run counter to common sense. Young working-class men and women understand personal choice and self-control as the very basis for who they are, and blame themselves, rather than large-scale economic precariousness and risk privatization, for lacking the tools they need to navigate their futures.”

What on earth? USA/UK foreign policy and domestic politics

The war in Iraq was a very significant historical event. Who went to war with Iraq? Well, if you had to narrow it down to two people: Tony Blair and George W. Bush. But they had a lot of political backing. For our purposes keep in mind that both Hillary Clinton and David Cameron—prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016—voted to support the war early in their political careers. Clinton voted as a US senator and Cameron as a member of parliament.

After the USA invaded Iraq it descended into sectarian conflict. Despite the Iraq experience though, in 2012 the same type of people—lets keep following Cameron and Clinton as significant representative characters—thought they had the answers for Libya. Cameron—at this point PM of the UK—was particularly eager to get involved and Hillary Clinton— oversaw the USA’s participation as Obama’s Secretary of State.

But Libya turned out badly as well. Muammar Gaddafi—Libya’s longtime strongman leader—was killed and an anarchic division of the country followed. The situation hasn’t yet been as violent as Iraq, but the basic picture of outside intervention creating a power vacuum is the same.

Crucially for the purpose of this essay, post-intervention Libya—a North African country on the coast of the Mediterranean—became a staging point for desperate people from all over Africa and the Middle East to attempt passage to Europe by boat. This so called “migrant crisis” would come back to haunt both Cameron and Clinton. In addition, it’s said that the intervention in Libya greatly angered Vladimir Putin, deepening the chasm between Russia’s leader and the Western political elite.

Now we’re back to 2013 and ISIS hits the scene, at least in terms of Western attention. Remember those guys? ISIS itself—with its media savvy, brutal stunts and worldwide recruiting base—was a disturbing precedent, and cause for much apocalyptic handwringing at the time. ISIS was a creature bred by the invasion of Iraq mind you—only the hell of war could create an absurd monster like ISIS. Specifically and tellingly, the leadership of ISIS coalesced in a US army jail.

That brings us to Syria. It was a complicated situation—and genuinely beyond my understanding at this time—but in 2013-2014 ISIS, Syria and Iraq were one sprawling disaster. In the USA and UK there was a huge debate about what to do. David Cameron wanted to get heavily involved but was held back by “backbench” Conservative MPs who voted against him after a dramatic parliamentary debate. Interestingly, some parts of the right-wing media like the influential tabloid Daily Mail also sided against Cameron.

In the USA there was a similar thing happening. Republicans like John McCain hosted “townhalls” where they were shouted down by old white conservative guys who didn’t want another foreign entanglement. In both countries it was the “moderate” political establishment—people like Cameron, Clinton and McCain—facing anti-war opposition from a pacifist left and an isolationist right.

Back to Syria itself. Bashar al-Assad—who is still president—got crucial support from Vladimir Putin. Putin’s intervention in Syria stabilized the country and kept Assad in power. With Syria, Putin got a sneaky upper hand on the Western political establishment—undoubtedly a historic moment. The unhinged debate about whether or not Assad used chemical weapons can certainly be seen in light of Iraq’s non-existent WMD’s.

That brings us to 2016—a year when countless chickens came home to roost. The “migrant crisis” peaked in 2015 and—if you take a long comprehensive view—was fueled by Syria, Libya and Iraq. David Cameron was forced to be very defensive about the UK’s open borders within the EU as the “Remain” leader during the 2016 Brexit battle. Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” was a theatrical response to this same context of public perception.

During a Republican primary debate in South Carolina Trump trashed none other than Jeb Bush—brother of the original Iraq invasion guy—by breaking the longstanding “taboo” in the Republican Party on questioning the whole Iraq episode. It was a brilliant move. Remember those old white guys who yelled at John McCain about Syria? Trump was just echoing them. And who did Trump go on to beat? Hillary Clinton of course—she of Libya and Iraq.

In the UK the same political forces that defeated David Cameron over Syria—backbench conservative MPs and right-wing tabloids—made his life hell during the Brexit debate, eventually retiring him. Even Tony Blair returned to the political scene in the context of Brexit and offered up sage commentary about the “migrant crisis” and its contribution to public feeling. Thanks Tony!

The whole story has a slightly uncanny feel to it. Figures like Cameron and Clinton did lots to bring about the political context that would eventually dispose them. The debate over intervention in Syria is particularly informative in hindsight as it immediately foreshadowed Donald Trump’s appeal and Brexit.

The politics of foreign policy over the last twenty years seem to have been coloured by a weird “triple game” wherein the Anglo political establishment created chaos “out there” in the world—with consequences increasingly encroaching on the “over here”—all the while offering themselves as the “moderate” response to that same instability.