The Dude Abides

Because I have written a book claiming that the surfer is the most important archetype of resistance to work and to the artificially perpetuated scarcity that capital uses as a weapon against our natural aversion to colonized time, I am certainly pleased when I see a story like this, about the food stamp surfer dude, icon of the right to be lazy:

But I’m mad, too. This story came out two months ago. And I have not seen ONE SINGLE defense of this Spicoli-esque surfer slacker who is audacious enough to assume that there is enough food in America that he could just, you know, have some.

Resentment has given this story quite the pair of legs. Objectively, it’s dumb — a right-wing falsehood about who food stamp recipients really are. Of course the truth is that the vast majority of food stamp recipients actually work, or are elderly or children. Welfare exists (to the extent that it still does) to help those who are disadvantaged in the labor market. And it’s obvious that the poor have less opportunity to work for wages sufficient to meet their needs. That’s what makes them poor. Thus, we have a social wage organized on the preferential option for the least advantaged. Seems reasonable. However, it’s precisely this aspect of American welfare that has made it so vulnerable. To liberals, throwing down to help out the poor is no biggie, so the right-wing anti-welfare crowd must just be a bunch of assholes. But for those of us interested in making American life less desperate, this moralism just doesn’t cut it as analysis.

Consider that the only income transfers that survive are policies that benefit everyone — like Social Security and Medicare. That’s why capital’s political servants have been trying so hard, for so long, to introduce means-testing into the calculations for these programs. They know that if they begin the process of making it a program for the needy, it’ll soon enough be vulnerable. And then they can privatize all that public wealth and fritter it away on the Wall Street casino tables while their media lackeys repeat the mantra, “there’s not enough.” Americans have successfully resisted this for a long time — until, that is, their beloved “progressive” president Obama proposed a form of means-testing that would be the death knell of those programs. There is no middle ground here. If these programs stop being universal, they stop being universally popular. And then they will be murdered by the same resentment that’s endangering food stamps. So if we don’t want to be eating cat food or begging for health care when we’re old, we’d better understand this basic dynamic of social policy. If everybody benefits, the program is hard to kill. If some pay in and others benefit, it’s basically already gone.

Why? Why can’t people just be cool and give according to their abilities and take according to their needs? Work. Work is why resentment festers and bubbles up when a working taxpayer subsidizes someone else’s perceived nonwork. It’s a big part of the reason that social welfare policy in the US is such a disaster: the intended beneficiaries are the poor, who in the right-wing anti-welfare discourse that has totally shaped public policy since the eighties, simply won’t work. It doesn’t matter that food stamps and income transfers of one kind or another make up such a miniscule portion of the budget, or that corporate subsidies exceed it by a factor of, well, around ten gazillion. Or that most poor people work their asses off.

Facts don’t matter in politics. Ideas do. The image of the welfare cheat, the lazy surfer, the slacker sponger, trumps the numbers every time. Why? Because it tells us something — something potentially unifying and revolutionary, even — about American culture.

Namely, that we hate work. If Americans loved work as much as we say we do, we’d whistle while we work and gladly give away the pecuniary rewards to the poor needy fellows or the misguided slackers who don’t have enough of it. Instead, Americans use the work ethic as cultural cover for their resentment against the perceived slacker who is taking some of what they have earned with their sacrifice. But it’s not the work ethic that makes them hate on the slacker surfer or the Cadillac-driving welfare queen. Just the opposite. It’s the fact that it seems so unfair that surfer boy (or his parallel, ghetto girl) gets to be free and the working stiff watching him on tv is so profoundly unfree.

What we ought to get across to the resentment crowd is not that they need to be more realistic or altruistic, but that it’s ok to embrace what makes them so pissed about the lobster-eating food stamp surfer — his freedom. And their lack of it. The left rejoinder to the food stamp discourse should not be the cold facts — food stamp recipients work really hard, honest! It should be… hey, it sounds like you might wanna go surfing and eat free lobster too. Let’s talk about that. That’s where altruism ends and solidarity (and hey… a guaranteed annual income for all?) begins.

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