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.


10 responses to “Merle Haggard and The Working Stiff”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    “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.”

    And “religion” has been a key tool in creating this “times out of joint”. Islands of magical thinking irrupting like man-made volcanoes within a sea of mental-rational consciousness – with environmental factors as the elephant in the room and also the source of many crises lying ahead.

    I live in California and easily 85%+ of the produce at the grocery store is labeled “produce of Mexico”.

  2. Dwig says :

    This reminds me of a couple or Wendell Berry’s outbursts — his early poem “The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front”, and a recent description of industrial civilization as having broken every one of the Ten Commandments and committed every one of The Seven Deadly Sins.

    • Scott Preston says :

      We can ask whether our modern buildings (such as skyscrapers) are really the rational organisation of space or more the case the image of this highly structured, frozen time. There are some compelling reasons for thinking that spatial construction is really secondary to the tempo, and temporality. The “square” organisation contrasted with the “circular” structures of nomadic peoples (who also have a much different sense of time). There may even be something of that in the comedy called “Men in Black”, in one episode, where Agent J, needing to travel back in time, leaps from the top of the Empire State building and passes through different ages on his way down (and then back to the future on his way back up).

      The tendency towards more curvaceous buildings today may be an attempt to represent changes in the intuition of time.

      • Dwig says :

        “spatial construction is really secondary to the tempo” — interesting point. In human activities, time structures space, and vice versa. (Again, we meet Holling’s Panarchy and Odum’s Pulsing Paradigm:

        I re-iterate (8^) my earlier recommendation of the works of J. T. Fraser on the many aspects of time, particularly “Time, the Familiar Stranger”.

        • Dwig says :

          This also reminds me of another aspect of time and space: energy, which is inherently dynamic. For example, see Odum’s Energy Hierarchy: and transformity:

          (And Greer, in his Galabes site, mentions “astral light”, which he carefully distinguishes from “ordinary” energy.)

          • Scott Preston says :

            Time also, for Gebser, is an energy. Moreover, in Gebser time is primary, space secondary (not vice versa), since the increase in dimensions (coincident with an increment in the consciousness capacity) unfolds in time, rather than space. Therefore, Gebser prefers to speak of “intensification” rather than “expansion” in referring to consciousness, “intensification” being basically temporal. But, then, “extensity” is the concomitant of “intensity” — by virtue of the ‘mirroring’ effect of reflection. And since this intensification logically precedes the extension (the increment of dimensions), time rather than space is the primary energy. Space, in this sense, is the reification or materialisation of time.

          • Scott Preston says :

            I might add to the foregoing that the quantification or reification of time (such as we see today) is, for Gebser, the surest sign that a consciousness structure has reached the limits of its possibilities and has entered into “deficiency” (decadence, in other words), because time is not a quantity, but an intensity and a quality.

            Gebser presents these notions in terms of the polarity of “measure” and “mass”, as universal features of all consciousness structures (save, perhaps, the archaic) — the “measured” being the moderate stage of consciousness (effective or efficient mode, proportionate, an equilibrium) which decays into the immoderate stage of “massification” or amassing — the aggregation as totality, the inequality as disequilibrium, loss of equanimity, hubristic, disproportionate, etc). One might say, in Buddhist terms, that measure and mass (or effective and deficient, moderate and immoderate) correspond to the “skillful” and “unskillful” employments or expressions of consciousness. In Buddhism, “good and evil” are really subordinate to the meaning of “skillful” and “unskillful”.

            With the rationalisation of time (and thus the quantification of time, particularly in the form of “time is money”) we are quite evidently in the deficient stage of the rational. And, in fact, I was just preparing a post on that, showing why there is very little difference between Stalinism and Thatcherism in that regard. They are like peas in a pod. But they are only symptomatic of a larger issue having very much to do with the atomisation and quantification of time.

          • Scott Preston says :

            And Greer, in his Galabes site, mentions “astral light”, which he carefully distinguishes from “ordinary” energy.)

            Not much difference really between them. What differs is the mode of attention we bring to “light” itself. This is why Blake raged against Newton’s corpuscular (atomic) theory of light, because Blake saw light very differently. Newton’s theory of light he compared to being blinded by a sandstorm (the atoms). He didn’t even see the sun in the same way as others do.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Life is a duel by two opposed forces,( it started by the story of Adam and the devil, mythical or otherwise) . One only need to follow the events of history to see the program and the interplay of its antagonistic forces. But what we notice people are prone to start with the general concept of energy as the prime mover of everything, ignoring or covering the real energy behind all these different perceived energies. This ignorance and uncovering is exactly behind the call of Blake and Gebser to see what is behind the veil, the ever present origin in Gesber terms or avoiding the Newton sleep in term of Blake. In another words there are two sources of knowledge, the original divine source and the secondary human source and this is the message of all prophets to remind humanity of the original source in order not be consumed and blinded by the human source, which always inclined to move in a perverted motion, as it is well demonstrated by our misguided civilization. It is a reminder call for all irrespective of their culture or religion to put off their narcissistic attire and start to weave the new garment that fits the call of our urgent time of values and qualities away from the shackles of space and quantity. Perception is our tool that makes us aware of the inviting phenomenon of our cosmos to reflect upon and to find the artistic words to express the wonders behind them and not to let words play the role of veils that prevent us from seeing the whole picture, the consciousness in its wholeness mode and not in its fragmented fashion.

  4. LittleBigMan says :

    I couldn’t resist……here’s to beautiful Country music:

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