Merle Haggard and The Working Stiff
Country singer Merle Haggard has died. I remember first hearing his song “Okie from Muskogee” and thinking to myself, “Hot damn! There‘s trouble. There‘s a bad moon arising.” The song gave voice and focus to the ressentiment of the so-called “silent majority”, and ressentiment (resentment, that is) is a very destructive emotion. That ressentiment and animus in Haggard’s song was directed against the counter-culture. There is, definitely, a continuity between it and Trumpismo today.
There was also a little remembered country-rock band called “Pure Prairie League” which mocked Haggard and his song with a riposte — a song of their own called “I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire, Merle“. Dueling songs, dueling cultures.
Mr. Haggard eventually came to regret that song, although with some ambivalence it seems. It branded him as a redneck arch-conservative which he apparently wasn’t. It made him a very wealthy man, establishing a reputation, but it seems he originally thought of it as satire and caricature and was as surprised as anyone when it became the virtual anthem of the mythical “working man” and the “silent majority”. Caricature! But, as they say, “if the shoe fits, wear it.” Apparently his devotees never realised it was caricature, and even a tinge of Haggard’s own self-mockery in it.
Early Haggard celebrated the life of the working stiff against the “hippie”, but in effect redirected their resentment about their lot against the counter-culture. And although he came later to change his mind about many things regarding the “silent majority” and the counter-culture, initially he showed very little insight into it.
The counter-culture was basically a revolt against the entrapment of consciousness in structured time that the “working stiff” had surrendered to — the highly structured time of economic, technological civilisation — 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure, 8 hours sleep; punching the clock; breakfast, break, lunch, break, supper all at prescribed hours of the day; “time is money” and wages calculated by the hour and by piecework; the annual two-week vacation. And this life, repeated mechanically, dominated by the calendar of interest rate calculation and the clockwork mechanism, repeated endlessly, day-in and day-out. It’s the image of life mechanised and rigidified, or “reified”, as Gebser would term it. Ossified, quantified life — time quantified.
This highly-structured time was rejected by the counter-culture as alienating. In fact, the very term “working stiff” attests to its rigidification of life time into mechanical, or “dead” time. So, at the very root of the contest between “counter-culture” and “silent majority” was a contest between two different understandings of time. “Time”, as they say, “is of the essence”. The counter-culture, against which the animus of the silent majority and the working stiff was articulated, was really against the freedom from this highly structured time that the silent majority had already surrendered to, so that Haggard’s memes about the working stiff “living free” was something a joke. The working stiff had become a wage-slave and a cog in the machine, and this condition of slavery to routinised, mechanical time and the hourly wage he mistook as “responsibility”, whereas it was just routinised life. It was against this “routinised” life of dead time and of the hapless “stiff” that the counter-culture struggled.
Haggard, later in life, softened his views, and came to regret the song in some ways as he came to appreciate the meaning of the outlawry of the counter-culture as being, really, an attempt to escape the “point of existence” as understood in the narrowing “point of view” of the working stiff — that “freedom” really has something to do with time, and with how life-time is structured, by being quantified, in technocratic society.
The counterpart to ressentiment, though, is a sense of self-righteousness, as vain and futile as that is given the conditions of our slavishness to highly structured time. And although Haggard may have changed his views over time, his anthem remains an expression both of that ressentiment and sense of self-righteousness allied with self-pity, or what Gebser calls “our guilt about time”.
So, Gebser is quite right — the turmoil of the day is very much about the irruption of time into consciousness, and the anxiety that a sense of quantified time brings with it.