Who Is Your Enemy, My Brother?
The real Rich Men North of Richmond.
There’s a new viral hit song called “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Maybe you’ve seen it. In two days it has already permeated the online ecosystem and washed all the way through the Twitter commentariat cycle. Normally this would stop me from writing about it— doing columns on viral things after they’re already slightly old puts you dangerously close to Maureen Dowd-style hack territory. Still, in this case, it made me want to say one thing.
You can listen to the song in three minutes, but basically it’s an until-now-unknown guy named Oliver Anthony singing an angry country tune about “sellin my soul, working all day, overtime hours for bullshit pay, so I can sit out here and waste my life away.” In the chorus he calls out his villains: “These rich men, north of Richmond, lord knows they all just wanna have total control… Cause your dollar ain’t shit, and it’s taxed to no end, cause of rich men north of Richmond.”
And don’t forget the other big villain: “Lord we got folks on the street, ain’t got nothing to eat, and the obese milking welfare. Well god if you’re five foot three, and three hundred pounds, taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds.”
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Now. This song, by just some dude, was an overnight smash. And conservatives said the predictable reasons why they loved it and liberals said it sucks and it’s not even good country music and hey man you’re not so slim yourself, by the way. You get the drift. This song’s enormous and instantaneous popularity is only worth writing about here for one reason: It so perfectly embodies the greatest trick capitalism ever pulled.
I have no reason to doubt that Oliver Anthony is genuine in his rage over being a working man and not making enough money and feeling the vague sense that the whole damn system is ripping him off. And I have no reason to doubt that it is this same sense of frustration and rage at the circumstances of life as a working person in a nation where there seem to be people everywhere enjoying wealth and leisure while you bust your ass and can never get ahead that made this song such an overnight hit. Whether you like this tune or think that it sucks, it has clearly tapped into a real existing vein of feeling in America. Things that go viral like this (I can tell you from my years writing on the internet) tend not to be blinding bursts of creative genius, but rather something that clarifies and puts into words a thought or feeling that millions of people already had. The virality is not the same as people declaring that something is a great artistic breakthrough; it is the collective act of millions of people saying “this guy said exactly what I feel.”
In that sense, this song should be in an encyclopedia as the picture of successful ruling class jujitsu. This is how the other side has won the class war since America’s founding, and, more particularly, since the Reagan era, when this move was mastered and disseminated so widely that it is still indoctrinating people forty years later. American capitalism can never make the rage of working people disappear. The class war that steps on all of us and pushes our wages down and sucks wealth upwards like a great vacuum and makes a mockery of the idea that hard work will earn you an easy life will always, always produce rage. The important thing is where that rage is directed. And the story that the ruling class and the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan and all his forebears have told generation after generation of regular ass people like Oliver Anthony is: The villain is the government. Look! North of Richmond! That shiny city populated by elites! Where they make taxes! Where they take your money, and give it to fat people so they can buy fudge rounds! The government is the problem! There—the target for your rage!
“Do not let the rage of the populace become focused on the capitalists” is the number one rule of capitalism’s perpetuation of itself. In fact it is more accurate to look at a large portion of what occurs in our nation’s political sphere as “systematic redirection of rage towards false targets” than “governing.” Governing is a small minority of what occurs in our political system. As an institution, the Republican Party (and a significant part of the Democratic Party) and all of its supporting tendrils have as their primary project not enacting political policies but rather the digging of a narrative channel through which popular rage can flow away from the rich. It does not help that Washington DC is, in fact, a shiny bubble of disconnected elites who view themselves as the True Knowers of What Is Good For Everyone and who are, in fact, to a large degree, funded by interests with ulterior and extremely self-serving motives. It’s easy to hate the government. And it’s easy to hate the damn welfare people. Billions of dollars have been spent and vast architectures of think tanks and media companies and insincere intellectual traditions have been built to keep a grand spotlight pointed on those things, so that the capitalists can function comfortably in the shadows. This is the whole game. “Rich Men North of Richmond,” the viral smash hit, is just evidence that the game is still being won by the wrong people.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And those of us who understand this trick—a group I’ll call “The Left,” for ease of reference— have a job. The job is not to say: Fuck you Oliver, you fat fuck, fuck you and your ten million fans, take your shitty song and go the fuck back to Cracker Barrel. No. That doesn’t really help. The job is to say: Oliver, my red-haired brother, I know your rage and I have felt it and while you’re getting mad about how much tax comes out of your check, have you ever thought about how much your boss takes out of your check? Have you ever thought about how much of what you produce never shows up in your check in the first place? Have you ever thought about the fact that your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss is not someone in DC, but rather some very rich man in a penthouse high above a city that you will never go to? A part of an entire class of staggeringly rich people whose penthouses are paid for by scraping off the streams of wealth produced by millions of hard working people just like you? Have you ever thought about the fact that while you are getting angry about a poor person getting a pittance in food stamps, there are people who make more in a year than you and everyone you know will make in your entire lifetimes, and they make it not by working hard like you, but rather by taking the money that your hard work creates? Have you ever wondered how it is that someone can make a billion dollars when you, who work so hard every day, make only fifty thousand dollars? Is it because they work twenty thousand times harder than you? That seems impossible. Have you ever thought that perhaps there are some shenanigans going on? That perhaps you and me and your friends and neighbors are suffering not because of someone on food stamps, or because your taxes are too high, but rather because rich people are taking all the money? If they don’t work harder than you then how the fuck did they get so rich? Is that fair? Is that not even more egregious than a person who has no money and no hope buying a fudge round? Isn’t it possible, Oliver, that there is something wrong with this system that forces you to work hard and then takes all the wealth and delivers it to Aspen and Davos and Central Park South and then, when you get angry, points the finger at another poor person and tells you that they are the ones you should be angry at? Let’s talk about this, Oliver. Let’s talk about how it all works. Because you are not the first person to think that this whole damn system sucks. But we know how to change it. We can tell you how much wealth you make and how much your boss is taking and how much faraway investors are skimming off and how little they are leaving you. We can tell you how all that works. And we can tell you how to fix it, Oliver. Look at this: It’s a union card. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about who the villains really are.We don’t want you to live your life as a patsy doing unpaid PR work for a hedge fund titan, Oliver. We want you to fucking fight back in a way that matters.
This goofy little song is, at its core, just a data point showing how much work we have left to do. Let’s do the work. Just as the ruling class sees all that rage as something to be stifled and redirected and dissipated, the left has to know that that rage is our raw material. That is our fuel. We just need to build our own channels. Who is your real enemy, my brother? North of Richmond is a bigger place than you think.
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