Thoughts on reading ‘Strangers in their own land’ by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Neoliberalism and the self-harm faithful

People of the earth [Part III]

Louisiana is the major ground for Hochschild’s research. There, most of the people she meets – and gets to like –are hunters, fishers, cookers of their catch; lovers, ostensibly, of nature. And yet, tales of environmental woe [NATURE DESPOILED] abound in their world:

‘But there is more. Animals and fish are not all they have lost…’ (p. 43).   ‘Shifting in his chair and coughing slightly, Harold continues, “My brother-in-law J.D. was the first. He came down with a brain tumor and died at forty-seven. Then my sister next door, Lillie Mae, had breast cancer that went into her bones. My mom died of lung and bladder cancer. And others up the bayou: Edna Mae and Lambert both died with cancer. Julia and Wendell, live two miles from here, they got it. My sister grew up here but moved over to Houston River and she’s fighting cancer” (p. 44)’. These cancers are often associated with pollutants and contamination of the air, the land and the water.

Thus the riddle remains in what Hochschild calls her “social terrain”. Louisiana’s state government does nothing – or perhaps, to be kinder, little – to protect its citizens from the environmental disasters its courting of oil and fossil fuels’ investment has wrought on the populace. Climate change does not exist and oil spills –  though not good – may be expected. A man Hochschild calls Harold, who lives near the heavily polluted  Bayou d’Inde, says, ““My nephew used to raise hogs. And you know a hog can stand almost anything. Because of the bad water, my nephew had to cook the slop he fed them. But the hogs got out of the pen and went to drink the bayou water and died. The health unit came down on my nephew for not keeping his hogs away from the bad water, but they didn’t do nothing about the bad water [my emphasis]” (p. 43).  None of the people Hochschild interviews vote against their Republican state representatives; most of them voted, as the Afterword makes clear, for Trump in November 2016. Or they did not vote at all. They certainly did not vote for Clinton and a party that will assert more government control over their lives.

As Hochschild observes,  it may well be that the people of this part of the earth have been forced to focus on short term economic issues (jobs, putting food on the table) rather than the apparent nebulousness of grander concepts such as ENVIRONMENT, JUSTICE… LOGIC.  

Poverty is a problem in what is the U.S.’s second poorest state. Economic disadvantage means that many can only focus on alleviating the  stresses of never ever having quite enough (and certainly being a long way from achieving the American Dream).  In 2015, Louisiana ranked 49th  – out of 50 states –  for human development [last in Health], 49th for 8th grade Mathematics achievements, and 49th for child wellbeing . In 2015, 44 percent of its state budget  was derived from Federal funds.

In 2020[1], Republican Louisiana had a median income of $US 50,800 and a poverty rate of  18.6%; contrast this with Democrat California’s $US 78,672 and 12.6%. As the introduction  – Part I – made clear, it is the Republican states in the U.S. that vote for small or non-existent government; the very agency which could fix or at least alleviate their problems is abhorred.

Rutger Bregman [author of Utopia for Realists] argues that poor people may be more likely to make poor decisions – not voting in your own interests seems a poor decision:

‘Why are the poor more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do the poor make so many dumb decisions? Harsh? Perhaps, but take a look at the statistics: The poor borrow more, save less, smoke more, exercise less, drink more, and eat less healthfully. Offer money-management training and the poor are the last to sign up. When responding to job ads, the poor often write the worst applications and show up at interviews in the least professional attire.’

Utopia for Realists – and how we can get there (p. 55)

Bregman offers many examples of exactly why government ‘handouts’  – unconditional would be best, he argues: a universal living or ‘basic’ wage, if you like – are good for society. His views thus differ diametrically from the Tea Party/Republican perspective.  Bregman says – offering studies from a number of universities and life cases as evidence – that a key problem many societies, including Louisiana, face is  income inequality; as historical examples show, government funds designed to eliminate inequality and poverty have huge positives and essentially pay for themselves over time. [See Utopia for Realists (p. 65).]  ‘“Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult,” said the British essayist Samuel Johnson in 1782. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he understood that poverty is not a lack of character. It’s a lack of cash[2] (p. 69).’

But Louisiana will not vote to heal itself. The Republican voter, I feel confident in saying, would see poverty not only as the poor person’s problem, but as their fault. It’s not up to government to interfere in the ‘free market’. Louisiana is a Republican state, through and through.

Is this paradoxical state of affairs Louisiana’s poor’s fault –  do most tend to vote Republican? Or can we argue – as Bregman would – that because it is much poorer than most U.S. states that the poor of Louisiana make poor decisions. Most of Hochschild’s interviewees are TEA PARTY supporters and many of them poor or from poor backgrounds. The Tea Party adherent would say it is not for the government to fund people’s way out of poverty; they see welfare recipients as a scourge, beneficiaries of largesse who will do nothing to improve their own lots; they are queue jumpers. Of course not all Tea Party adherents [nor Republican voters] are poor, so poverty isn’t the only reason why Louisianas don’t vote in their own best interests – or the interests of the EARTH they inhabit.  

Which brings me back to Hochschild’s ‘great paradox’; why is it that the people of her book vote for people who feel as the Tea Party does; that it’s poor people’s fault that they can’t get ahead and that any job – even one that might kill you because of the pollution it exposes you to – is what is needed to get things moving? These people of the Louisiana earth, these once or still [or never] poor who are struggling with environmental and health problems in their social terrain, vehemently object to what Bregman proposes (and what experience shows actually works; government ‘handouts’) and what a more progressive, less neoliberal government would aim for.

It is indeed a strange social terrain.

[1] These figures are drawn from See also this link -

[2] George Orwell writes in Down and Out in Paris and London: “For, when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs some of the others. You discover boredom and mean complications and the beginnings of hunger, but you also discover the great redeeming feature of poverty: the fact that it annihilates the future.”

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