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America’s Industrial Gold Rush Is Over


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Mother Lode
Mar 31, 2010
America’s Industrial Gold Rush is Over

By Addison Del MastroMay 10, 2019, 12:01 AM

Gary, Indiana (Wikimedia Commons)

I recently read and reviewed Tim Carney’s excellent book Alienated America, a sort of combination of the “how we got Trump” genre with the sociological works of researchers like Robert Putnam and Charles Murray. Carney’s exploration of the Trump phenomenon, and his grappling with the timeless question of economic security versus personal responsibility in regard to the formation of virtue, family, and community, are among the best you’ll find. There is a deeper subtext in his book, however, that is not excavated. But first, a quick recap.

As in most treatments of inequality, geographic immobility, deindustrialization, and related issues, Alienated America features the requisite visits to faded old towns with ghostly main streets, and paeans to the blue-collar jobs that once allowed men with high school educations to comfortably own homes, raise families, and retire with pensions.

Through a long analysis, including a fascinating visit to a fracking camp in North Dakota—awash in money but utterly lacking in neighborliness and community—Carney concludes that wealth alone does not produce human flourishing. It is rather community and what social researchers call “civil society” that makes the American Dream possible. Obviously, money helps, but it is not sufficient, nor, in Carney’s telling, even necessary. For much of America, especially less affluent places, the primary institution of community and civil society is the church. While acknowledging that there is a chicken-and-egg problem here, and a problem of reinforcing cycles and virtuous circles, Carney nonetheless deems an economic, or “materialist,” explanation of American civic and family decline insufficient. The revival of the American Dream requires the re-churching of America.

This may well be largely true for places that are struggling; struggling to keep family and community intact in the face of deteriorating economic opportunity and the withering of old community institutions and social norms. But here’s the rub: some of the places Carney visits and alludes to are not exactly “struggling.” This is euphemism; these places are destroyed, ruined, vast swaths of their built environments far beyond the hope of revitalization.

The surfeit of Detroit “ruin porn” and the counterexamples of hipster homesteaders and craft businesses have recently been steering the Rust Belt narrative from one of terminal decline to one of scrappy, unlikely renewal. But the growth of a few Detroit or Youngstown neighborhoods, or the eds-and-meds reinvention of a few towns or inner-ring suburbs, is more like the growing of moss on a dead log than the sprouting of a new shoot. It does not presage comprehensive renewal, and it is not likely to bring the old community back, much less the old way of life.

Carney’s juxtaposition of old industrial towns, once overflowing with family and community life, to fracking camps is fascinating for a different reason than the one he gives: one can argue that many of these places where the American Dream is dead are, essentially, fracking camps writ large. The fact that they once possessed vibrant civil society—ethnic and social clubs, Little Leagues, union halls, tightly-knit public schools—is deceiving. In reality, they were often glorified company towns, with funding or tax revenue from the dominant employer flowing to and propping up these institutions of civil society. In some cases, even housing was built, cheaply, by employers. Gary, Indiana, famous once for steel and now for spectacular urban decline, was in fact founded by a steel company.

You can read the rest here: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/urbs/americas-industrial-gold-rush-is-over/