Atlas Slacked (and So Should We)

“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

Thus spake Henry Miller on the first page of his first book, Tropic of Cancer, in 1934—no doubt one of the reasons it was banned from publication in the United States until 1961. Miller was a square wheel and not the kind of influence a country trying to get things rolling after a Great Depression wanted folks being exposed to. The book was deemed pornographic as well, but the social criticism was more risqué than the gratuitous sex.

Today, as we continue to work our way out of the Great Recession, many of Miller’s Cancer sentiments still ring true as we mark the 50th anniversary of its appearance on our shores. Materialism is unwise. Over-consumption is destructive. And the most recent incarnation of American Capitalism is simply a diagonally slit wrist that we’re watching bleed out.

Deep down, we all know this, but we can’t seem to muster the craw or the courage to square our wheels. It makes me think back to a time and place in my life when people tried.

It was Austin, Texas in the early 1990s and I lived on my friend Jerry’s couch in a duplex in Hyde Park for nine months. I kept odd jobs and odder hours, usually scheduled around manic chess marathons and bleary-eyed, late-night philosophical volleys. The debates always started with a lob, but three hours later we were both trying to maintain serve with obscure, paraphrased excerpts from Nietzche or clever parries from Kierkegaard, Camus, or Sartre.

Jerry had an uncanny knowledge of local happy hours at restaurants that offered free finger foods for the thirsty souls that frequented their establishments to imbibe alcohol. So we would show up, buy one beer each and then just eat; it was a nice dinner 2-3 days a week.

When the hinges of our toilet seat broke off, we simply hung the lid on the bathroom door. Using our water closet involved placing the lid on the toilet bowl and balancing yourself.

I barely had a pot to piss in, and it was one of the happiest times in my life. I didn’t have a mortgage or car payments or credit cards. I wasn’t prostituting myself in some pathetic, cubicled slog and I wasn’t a stock-optioned salary-slave with no place to go but up the arse of a corporate colossus slinking after ill-begotten profit margins.

I was free. I could loaf. And I could sit still and think.

Richard Linklater’s Slacker touched on the phenomena, but conveyed the weirder aspects of the process more than the wisdom. In fact, the movie reinforced the stereotype that a “slacker” was a young adult whose existence was characterized by apathy, lack of ambition and general aimlessness. The derogatory connotations masked the profounder aspects of what was really happening. We weren’t apathetic or lazy or aimless; we just had serious reservations about the catalogue of ways people demeaned themselves for money.

Austin in the early 1990s was a place where “Atlases” came to shrug. Moms and dads across the state were sending their kids off to UT or Southwest Texas State for vocational training, but some of stuff in some of the books was leaving an impression. And a significant number of students theretofore scheduled to become normal, traditionally successful yuppies were garnering (1) levels of awareness that were counterproductive, (2) penchants for self-examination that were downright dangerous, and (3) a contrarian vein that approached anarchy.

Resignation, obsequiousness and utter convention were out. Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf had observed that to think was to undermine and, with our educations in hand, that’s exactly what we did. We didn’t have much practice and our non-conformist leanings were almost unanimously discouraged by real “grown-ups,” but once we thought for ourselves for a summery instant we realized the entire phony system wasn’t worth engaging in, struggling for or reducing ourselves to. So we stayed in Austin and held out as long as we could (but not nearly long enough).

I bring this up because my happy “shrug” in Austin comes to mind a lot lately, especially when I see Tea Partiers hold up signs that say “Who is John Galt?” For the record, I like Ayn Rand, but she made a mistake in Atlas Shrugged when she assumed that talented folks and great innovators would automatically be capitalists. Rand had too much reverence for the “system” and naively suggested that capitalist Atlases might shrug, but that’s never been the case–because they always benefited too much from the “system.” Rand might as well have titled the book Robber-Barron Shrugged or Industrialist Shrugged or When Corporations Shrug.

History clearly suggests that the “shruggers” were never members of the upper capitalist caste. They were hardscrabble types, common people, beset-upon folks that refused to surrender to the robber-barons, industrialists, and corporatists who solemnly and repeatedly endeavored to relegate them to capitalism’s dirty, secret byproduct: a powerless heap of the collaterally damaged and chronically disenfranchised (also known as the middle and lower classes).

So take notes, Ayn. A union work stoppage is John Galt. A strain of talented college graduates refusing to become cogs in a soul-crushing, environment-ravaging corporate machine is John Galt. And collection of Egyptian protestors speaking truth to power in Tahir Square is also John Galt.

America is in trouble because we don’t believe in it anymore. And we shouldn’t. But not because our president is black or because our government is too big or we pay too many taxes. It’s because we no longer operate under the precept of collective self-interest. We have self-interest down to a science and regard self-indulgence as the fulfillment of the American Dream. But “collective” no longer has a place in the equation because it’s an unpleasantness that the have-mores and the have-mosts pay legions of lawmakers and lobbyists to help them avoid. Then they enthusiastically hail unrestrained, unregulated free markets as the amazing cure-all for our times and utilize their government-sanctioned privileges to remove the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th wrung on every ten foot stretch of the socio-economic ladder so that we are systemically and perpetually beholden to them if we are inclined to climb.

The ladder is still navigable if you’re connected, related, incredibly lucky or prepared to jump real high when they tell you to—but if you question their authority or resent their entitlement, you’re an extremist, a radical or an insurrectionist who must be quashed.

As I think Henry Miller would have colorfully noted, unrestrained capitalism, corporatism, materialism and our destructive way of life in general are not too big to fail and we’re not so small that we won’t survive when they do.

The have-mores and the have-mosts who control everything in this country are a conglomerate version of Hosni Mubarak. Different crime scene, different M.O., but same criminality. And obligatorily shouldering their burden simply makes us enablers.

So become a square wheel. Slack a little. Take some time and think.

The mortgage, the car and the flat-screen can wait.

There’s always surrender. But it should be a last resort. Not our chief priority.

E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo, Texas and the author of Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious (History Press, 2013). He can be reached at: erbillsthinks@gmail.com. Read other articles by E.R..

14 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on February 16th, 2011 at 9:43am #

    bills:
    “America is in trouble because we don’t believe in it anymore. And we shouldn’t.”

    i counter pose this assertion with another: some people in u.s. had always been in trouble more than others. today also. and some people r doing just butifly.

    and i am not sure that there had ever been anything, but an a america; a and not the america–just an a america and the only one ever allowed for lower classes by the cosa nostra gang.

    “a america”, manufactured by supremacists or some rich families, is not in trouble.
    it may be some day, but i am not holding my breath to see their dream and other people’s nightmare in trouble.

    yes folks, there always had been the american dream alongside the american nightmare! and always will be??? tnx

  2. hayate said on February 16th, 2011 at 9:25pm #

    “Richard Linklater’s Slacker touched on the phenomena, but conveyed the weirder aspects of the process more than the wisdom. In fact, the movie reinforced the stereotype that a “slacker” was a young adult whose existence was characterized by apathy, lack of ambition and general aimlessness. The derogatory connotations masked the profounder aspects of what was really happening. We weren’t apathetic or lazy or aimless; we just had serious reservations about the catalogue of ways people demeaned themselves for money.”

    I remember wasting a couple hours on that very shite film. I would say it’s probably the least worthwhile film I ever watched. There are worse films, obviously, though not many, but at least one can have some “camp” fun with them. With slacker, there was absolutely nothing there, as no doubt is the situation of the film maker’s head. I rented the film from a small video rental place in Berkeley back in the 90’s and the people at the store had recommended it. After watching slacker, after that recommendation, I realised Berkeley was no longer the place it used to be, where alternative actually meant alternative, instead of yuppies who like a wee bit of variety with their classism, chauvinisn and their general suburban whitebread wankery.

  3. hayate said on February 16th, 2011 at 9:31pm #

    Forgot to add that was my intro to the term slacker, I’d never heard it before, and to this day, the use of that term affects me emotionally like fingernails on a chalkboard. To me, it’s one of those terms that turns me immediately off of the user of it, like someone who uses a term like niggerlover or similar. It makes me think of the user of the term as a greater piece of shite than the target of the user’s slander.

  4. jayn0t said on February 17th, 2011 at 10:16am #

    What this misses is the elitist attitude of hippies toward ‘straight’ people who don’t want to live in squalor and aren’t interested in Kierkegaard. Been there, done that, no point in reminiscing about it…

  5. E.R. Bills said on February 17th, 2011 at 10:39am #

    jaynot:

    I was never a hippie. and I don’t remember living in “squalor.” I doubt either of us really know much about real squalor. especially on a third world scale. I do know this: there is no hope for us until we start wanting less, getting by with less and pretending everything is going to be okay if we dont less.

  6. Deadbeat said on February 17th, 2011 at 11:42am #

    ER Bills writes …

    I was never a hippie. and I don’t remember living in “squalor.” I doubt either of us really know much about real squalor. especially on a third world scale. I do know this: there is no hope for us until we start wanting less, getting by with less and pretending everything is going to be okay if we dont less.

    I disagree. I want more! The problem is underconsumption not overconsumption. People’s ability to consume are undermined by capitalism. Failing to understand Capitalism is why we get badly written and misguided articles like this one.

  7. E.R. Bills said on February 17th, 2011 at 11:52am #

    A champion for indulgence… at least you’re honest.

  8. commoner3 said on February 17th, 2011 at 7:43pm #

    ER Bills wrote:
    “I was never a hippie. and I don’t remember living in “squalor.” I doubt either of us really know much about real squalor. especially on a third world scale. I do know this: there is no hope for us until we start wanting less, getting by with less and pretending everything is going to be okay if we dont less. ”
    ———————————————————————–
    ER Bills,
    The definition of “less” and “more” is elastic, relative and is in the eye of the behoder.
    Before you called on people to “start wanting less, getting by with less…..”, you talked about living in “squalor on third world scale”! So, for you, if I understood you correctly, “wanting less…” is instead of meaning consuming less, living in moderation and simplicity, it means that the people have to accept living in abject poverty and be content about it.
    If that is the case, then I cann’t help it but feel that you are a shill for the ruling super-rich elites, calling on people to accept exploitation and not demanding much and letting most of the money go upward.!

  9. commoner3 said on February 17th, 2011 at 8:03pm #

    Re: Deadbeat said on February 17th, 2011 at 11:42am #

    Deadbeat wrote:
    “I disagree. I want more! The problem is underconsumption not overconsumption. ”
    ——————————————————————————
    Deadbeat,
    Again, the definition of “less” and “more” is elastic, relative and is in the eye of the beholder.
    INMH, the problem is not underconsumption but insane consumption by some and inability to consume by others.
    With the population of earth is approaching 7 billions and counting, there is no way that planet earth can provide and support a decent life i.e sane moderate consumption for all these people, especially now, with global warming , deteriorating environment and the rapid depletion resources.

  10. Deadbeat said on February 17th, 2011 at 8:52pm #

    commoner, it is due to underconsumption why you have higher birth rates among the poor. This isn’t a matter of semantics as you suggest. The problem is the control of resources and prevention to access of the means of production and consumption by the rich and powerful.

  11. Deadbeat said on February 17th, 2011 at 8:55pm #

    E.R. Bills writes …

    A champion for indulgence… at least you’re honest.

    You are right. Tell that to the Egyptian who are fight for the indulgence of living under the yoke of Zionist and Capitalist tyranny. Obviously you have no idea what underconsumption is.

  12. Deadbeat said on February 17th, 2011 at 9:00pm #

    Should read as …

    You are right. Tell that to the Egyptian people who are fight for the indulgence of living against the yoke of Zionist and Capitalist tyranny. Obviously you have no idea what underconsumption is.

  13. Don Hawkins said on February 19th, 2011 at 1:41pm #

    WASHINGTON – Jolted to action by deficit-conscious newcomers, the Republican-controlled House agreed early Saturday to cut $61 billion from hundreds of federal programs and shelter coal companies, oil refiners and farmers from new government regulations.

    “The American people have spoken. They demand that Washington stop its out-of-control spending now, not some time in the future,” said freshman Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.

    Changes rammed through the House on Friday and Saturday would shield greenhouse-gas polluters and privately owned colleges from federal regulators; block a plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay; and bar the government from shutting down mountaintop mines it believes will cause too much water pollution.

    In almost every case, the measure sides with business groups over environmental activists and federal regulators.

    The Environmental Protection Agency took hits from Republicans eager to defend business and industry from agency rules they say threaten job creation and the economy. The EPA’s budget was slashed by almost one-third, and then its regulatory powers were handcuffed in a series of votes.

    EPA foes prevailed in halting the agency from using its powers to try to curb greenhouse gases. The EPA has taken steps to regulate global warming pollution from vehicles and the largest factories and industrial plants and is expected to soon roll out rules that target refineries and power plants.

    The move to stop the EPA from regulating greenhouse-gas polluters came from Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, who said his congressional district is home to more oil refineries than any other. AP

    So with known knowledge the best minds we have today telling all of us if you look to work together use reason and yes make some hard choices and a few will take a pay cut but my kid’s and there kid’s although tuff times ahead stand a fighting chance. As we see the fancy men and women seem to feel the destruction of Earth and it’s ability to sustain life is of little importance I guess style is everything. Such wimp’s very strange day’s ahead and Universal deceit doesn’t begin to explain it the nonsense we see on the media now and those messages that just keep coming and the purpose is…………………………?

  14. Don Hawkins said on February 19th, 2011 at 1:51pm #

    The American people have spoken, really I mean you can’t make this stuff up.