Things Fall Apart

By Curtis Price

August 16, 2020

But trucking is also work that relies on the commodification of the trucker’s body. This body has to be primed for maximum efficiency, pushing itself to the limits to overcome the inevitable routine obstacles and delays. Trucker’s work life is determined by an intersection of time and distance and at this intersection is where their money is made. (1)

COVID19  has thrown a new spanner in that equation, besidse the shutdown in commercial traffic in the early days of the pandemic: increased piracy.

Industry sources report a 56% increase in incidents of theft and 80% increase in the value of goods stolen in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. In April 2000 alone, thefts skyrocketed 300%. But actual thefts are notoriously under-reported because trucking companies don’t want to get a bad rep for not securing their trucks. The true figures are much higher and the reported figures misleading because there are incentives for all parties concerned to keep quiet. Since industry reporting is voluntary, the federal crime figures woefully underestimate the true extent of theft and piracy on the highways..

The type of goods stolen since the onset of COVID-19 has shifted too. Before COVID19, electronics scored high, with most electronics stolen by professional gangs that then shipped the goods overseas to South America to be broken down and sold in Asian markets. But with slowdowns in international trade in the first few months of the epidemic, thieves turned to food, bottled water, and other household consumer items. These goods are easy to unload on the domestic black market and thieves with a determined hustle can peddle food stuffs to mom-and-pop stores with virtually no ability to trace such transactions. As one industry loss expert says, “You can’t put serial numbers on almonds.”

 But as the economic pain from COVD19 spreads, the incentive to pirate trucker loads has only increased.  As good capitalists, criminals will tailor thefts for local markets; for instance, nitrate gloves were stolen for areas with shortages and stolen bottled water gets diverted to hurricane-struck areas where drinking water fetches premium prices. In one heist, 18,000 pounds of toilet paper were spirited away for black market destinations.

Another factor boosting opportunities for theft is lay-offs or absenteeism because of COVD-19 at shipping docks, which leaves less eyes to keep track of goods and gives thieves more opportunities. Even before COVID19, truckers faced a shortage of berths at truck stops and with COVID-19, many truck stops closed or cut-back staff and hours, forcing truckers to bunk down in less secure areas, which has led to a number of violent attacks. Trucks, for instance, have been commandeered at gun point. In one case, a trucker who had pulled over for the night in a parking lot in Detroit was shot and his rig set on fire,

Many of these attempts are small-fry crimes of opportunity where attempts to steal unprotected goods devolves into violence. The big boys use more sophisticated technique such as hacking into logistics computer systems, posing as legitimate cargo shippers and even setting up phony shipping companies.

The figures for shootings and other violent acts against truckers have mushroomed since COVD-19, leading some truckers to start a “Trucker Lives Matter” Facebook group to fight for the right of truckers to carry arms.  Trucking companies for insurance purposes forbid drivers to drive strapped and state laws don’t recognize gun permits held out of state so even a trucker with a permit in Oklahoma can be arrested for carrying the same weapon in Arizona. Truckers are demanding not only that companies allow them to carry arms for self-defense but also  are demanding a federal law letting truckers traveling cross-state to be armed without legal repercussion.

COVID-19 is having a ripple effect throughout U.S. society and if economic hardship grows, it logically flows that attempts to appropriate necessities by any means necessary may stand to increase too. The uptick in violence and piracy in the trucking industry is just one of those hidden, unacknowledged  markers of social disruption following in the wake of COVID-19. As one truckers posted on a trucker’s list said, “It’s wilder out here now than anything I’ve seen in 35 years of driving.”

Notes

1. See Benjamin H Snyder, Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification,  The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2012. Accessed from https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/work-and-dignity/articles/dignity-and-the-professionalized-body-truck-driving-in-the-age-of-instant-gratification

“If a social class acts against its own apparent collective interests, then the historian should at least provisionally assume a rational basis for its action, rather than trying to force it into a posthumous session in consciousness-raising” – Eugene Genovese,  “Yeoman Farmers in A Slaveholders’ Democracy”


At my auto mechanics last fall, I looked over the waiting room: a large battleship-grey area with four plush, copper-studded burgundy leather chairs that were circled around a non-descript rug. Fox TV blared from a wall TV. The sky hung grey too and in the distance loomed the last outcroppings of the Appalachians stooping over Huntsville like watchful gods. A corner rack held wilted Bible tracts doubled over from the summer heat just past.

I’ve been coming here for a while and even with all the customer traffic- it’s a busy place- the managers know me by name. Once, earlier on, I had called impersonally, asking if they could give me an oil change. When I showed up, the manager scolded me, “Why Curtis, why didn’t you say it was you? Of course, we can take you. I’ll do it myself.” This is not the cold, impersonal North, but the convivial South where personal relations trump business formality, at least in the working-class areas. I suspect personal relations are more formal and aloof in all the NASA and defense industry engineering labs. But these are separate worlds, worlds that barely intersect with blue-collar Huntsville.

John, one of the managers, is a short, middle-aged white man with naturally slicked back black hair that reminds me of Elvis with a widow’s peak. Speaking in a thick, nasal twang, John is very sociable and shares his wit and wisdom with anyone who will listen. I always enjoy his stories and we banter back and forth. Today, I asked him if he plans to go gallavantin’ on a cruise again anytime soon, that vacation choice of Black and white working class America, a yearly ritual that is as unknown to our coastal cultural elites as the mating rituals of Stone-age Papua New Guinean  tribes. But I understand it. If you’ve physically worked hard all year, you want to kick back and do nothing but eat and relax. It’s only the symbolic analysts who want to climb the Andes.

It’s right after Thanksgiving so I ask John the perfunctory, “How was your Thanksgiving?” He paused and a pensive look crossed his face. There was no one in the shop so he could talk freely and without interruption. He said his son was in Nashville but he couldn’t make it down this year. A family reunion used to take place every Thanksgiving but people “drifted apart” and that stopped. When he was growing up, he knew all of his cousins but now his children just know a few. If you needed help from family, they’d help without asking anything in return. But people just aren’t willing to help one another anymore these days. As a child growing up in the country, he used to milk the neighbor’s cows from time to time and mow other neighbor’s grass “just because it needed to be done.” Things are different today. His voice trailed as he looked in the distance, “But I figure if you give a blessing, one will come your way. Eventually.”

What John doesn’t realize is that he’s describing the larger crisis of family and personal life under turbo capitalism that has undermined people’s lives, making their lives churn, leaving people more alone and adrift. Even families aren’t what they used to be. I know many families here whose personal relations remind me more of addicts conning each other for drugs than a support network, so much has the ruthless competition of the outside seeped even into that “haven in a heartless world.” John and many others look back to a better world in the past, where people helped one another more, jobs were plentiful and better paid and your knew your community. I can understand why he probably voted for Trump who at least said things were worse off now as opposed to glib, New York Hillary.  John doesn’t know whether capital is fictitious or not, he just knows “things are falling apart.”

Or “Coming Apart.” Charles Murray, to give the Devil his due, wrote one of the best class analyses of recent years in ‘Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010.” Murray, perhaps realizing he is a poisoned messenger, strictly confines himself to descriptive data analysis and what he shows, although he would never draw such conclusions, is the dovetailing of white workers with Black and Latino’s life prospects. The Great Unwinding, in George Packer’s pungent words, hit Blacks and Latinos first and then it moved on to white workers too who face the same collapse of community and family life, declining prospects and loss of security, whose neighborhoods are awash in drugs and who fill early graves just like their Black and Latino counter-parts. They may hate one another but their fates are intermingled, their lives intertwined. The line connecting the Chicago South Side to rural Alabama trailer parks will not pass through the editorial offices of The Nation. . .

What, then, can be said to men (and women) such as John?

One approach, from those embalmed in Sociology departments and Brooklyn, is to say this man is nostalgic for “lost whiteness.” After all, he’s nostalgic for the past and since white supremacy was part of that past so, ipso facto, he’s pining for “whiteness.” This is the shallow, arrogant, analysis of people who have no real contact with other human beings outside their professional and political bubble worlds. It proffers a gross psychological simplification worthy of a fourteen year old blaming everything on “society.” Why? Because people are active actors, picking and choosing from the past, freely discarding aspects of the past they don’t like and preserving those that they do. We remember days playing freely as children and not the days we were sent to the principal’s office for smearing gum in little girls’ hair (confession). John and others like him can yearn for the past without longing for the racial segregation that was part of it. Arguments about “whiteness” that used to be made by Marxist groups such as Sojourner Truth Organization to ENGAGE at the point of production with white workers are today arguments being made in a professional-managerial class Left to flatter its alleged cultural superiority and effectively write white workers off.

If a Left can’t stand for a politics of “common decency,” to use Orwell’s poignant phrase, then hasn’t it lost both its way and maybe the right to exist? Unchanged, the Left will remain, as it is today, disproportionately the province of the credentialed educated and the protected; the journalists, media pundits, academics and the like with no real roots outside these circles and no imaginative capacity to reflect on why it has so dismally  failed to connect with ordinary hopes and aspirations. It instead will continue to rely on undemocratic means such as the courts, Twitter feeds, the media, and “woke” capital to impose an identity-focused agenda from above while screaming to high Heaven . . . “Democracy Now!” Or its less protected but still credentialed part will escape from the world’s messiness into sandbox “autonomous zones.” The Left will remain the province of “Champagne Socialism” and grow further away from lived experience than it already is. It will be like a totaled car, where all critical thinkers can do is shake heads and walk away from the wreckage, realizing there’s nothing left to salvage.

2 thoughts on “Things Fall Apart

  1. Race and/or class? Race is grossly overweight while class is on a starvation diet nearing the point of anorexia.
    Unfortunately, race sells as big and as profitably for academics and leadership of organizations such as BLM, as much as sexual harassment for celebraties and the politically savy MeToo Movement. Their intent is not to oversee systemic, structural changes, starting from the ‘point of production’ benefitting the masses, but to achieve personal and short term gain exclusive of the masses. In other words get theirs.
    Beyond some minimal changes to policing, for example, I do not envision sugnificant changes, if any, in the quality of life of the masses long term, so blatantly exposed by Covid-19, not just ‘black and ‘brown’ lives but ‘white’ lives who, lest we forget, comprise the largest portion of the masses.
    John may not be the only one to whom Capital is unrecognizable. The same holds true for a silent majority black and brown people, who these movements claim to represent, politicians included, but deliver nothing in the long term that substantially changes their lives.
    The question comes, who speaks truth to power for and unite the masses?
    Very well written, complex and thought, provoking article, by Curtis Price, editor Gasoline and Grits.
    Some observations, on a more personal note. The writer, clearly a southern gentlemanly type, a true revolutionary, called ahead for his appointment to service his car, consistent with his principles to avoid the preumption of privileges reserved, even for regulars. He did not dictate how John should understand the complexities of his lot. He listened.

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  2. Pekah Pamella Wallace … I love your comments and analysis as much as the original article. Incidentally, I read ‘Things Fall Apart’ on the porch of your sister Wìnnie’s house in Moneague.
    The decay of interwoven and supportive social structure is discussed elsewhere as a function of disruption in agrarian society, industrialization, and finally suppression of organized labor leading to the need for double incomes and the cosequential disruption of the nuclear family unit. A good sociological archetype is that in Emile Durkheim’s ‘organic’ and ‘mechanical’ solidarity model.
    I remember in 1986 when I first moved to a rural southern Indiana community, an elderly widow’s ramshackle home burned. People in the community came together with skills and material, mickle mickle mek a muckle, and rebuilt her house in a fortnight. Now this same community is riddled with underemployment, meth, and opioids and only the older people remember the way things were.

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