Drowning in Liquid Modernity: One Working-Class, Southern White Woman’s Story

By Curtis Price

Posted February 16, 2023

“N” is late again. Our co-workers mock her, saying that when she says she’s parking, she’s really 20 minutes away. But “N” commutes from Arab (pronounced “A-rab,”) a small town on Sand Mountain in Marshall County, Alabama about an hour away.” A-rab,” population 8,000, like much of Marshall County, was a “sundown” town years ago. But few black people had any reason to go to “A-rab”, a down-at-the-heel, insular town with plenty of white picket fences but no jobs.

Today, “A-rab” is different. “Big Chicken” – the sprawling poultry conglomerates such as Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson’s Foods, and Wayne’s Farm – has lured workers from the far-flung ends of the earth. Most of the front-line production workers are Mexican, Haitian, Guatemalan, and Ethiopian (with a smattering of African-Americans and whites from Guntersville and Albertville) and they’ve changed the character of Marshall County Now, Mexican cantinas and taco trucks dot the main highways, and in its many small towns such as “A-rab” too. While in “A-rab,” the Latino population is still under 2% (unlike nearby Albertville, where it is 25%) it’s a change from its historic 100% white. “N’s” daughter is in a relationship with Malik, who “N” likes a lot, a relationship that would have been inconceivable twenty years ago on Sand Mountain.

Like so many people under stress, “N” always seems self-absorbed. And why not? People under stress focus on immediate dangers to their lives and integrity, a supremely rational decision in their cases. The chain-smoking soldier in a foxhole with bullets flying overhead is foolish to worry about contracting lung cancer decades later. Future orientation is a privilege of the stable and satiated, but a luxury for all others. You live in the present because nothing is guaranteed. “N” tells me in an aside that sometimes she is late because she has to scrounge up gas money to make it across Sand Mountain.

She walks with a sharp lean to the left. “My daddy wasn’t able to afford gettin’ my scoliosis treated,” ”N” says. It’s a disadvantage in a job consisting of hard, physical labor and constant moving. She struggles to keep up and you can tell she’s in pain. She’s missing her upper teeth. And no one wants to work with her because of her perceived slowness and being “white trash,” even though they are barely up the ladder of “respectability” from where she is.

We aren’t particularly close but we do talk. She told me life was once sweet, she was married to a man making a good paycheck as a supervisor. Then he descended into pill and meth hell. He was fired and started stealing her pain pills. She divorced, but lost everything and now stays with her daughter, who’s going through issues of her own.

Her pain clinic shut down and she didn’t have insurance to go to a new one because of the cost. “Legitimate” pain clinics reduce their patients to the status of medical sharecroppers. A five-minute visit will get you a quick evaluation and a script good for only 30 days. But it sets someone without insurance back $200 or more, a perpetual circle of dependence guaranteeing they have to rummage up another $200 by hook or crook next month.

 So instead, “N” buys on the black market when she can. She tells me she “babies” her pills, cutting them into smaller pieces so she stretches what she has to get some relief. “N” is counting on getting health insurance after she passes probation, dreaming of getting an operation to reduce her scoliosis. But her spinal curvature can never be cured because she didn’t get that operation when she was younger, when her bones were supple. “N” was working under the table in a corner store and hoping to apply for SSI (Supplemental Security Income), but then the boss hired someone else and thus she had to scramble for a “real” job – but it meant forfeiting her SSI case.

“N’s” particulars are, of course, hers. But her broad situation is the same experienced by all those in the lowest rungs of the segmented workforce, living precariously, unguaranteed, never knowing when they will get laid off, face an unexpected car break-down, or undergo a relationship gone bad. This constant churning prevents any activity beyond basic survival, let alone “politics,” in the broadest sense. She is living under “liquid modernity,” to use Zygmunt Bauman’s seminal phrase, where “everything solid melts into air” ( pace Marx.) This liquid modernity leaves people isolated, alone, and atomized. A first step must be meliorating this churning so that people have stability and space to breathe from back-to-back crises, a necessary precondition for coming to see their problems as not merely personal but problems shared by many others too.

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