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  1. Ideas
21 August 2023

Oliver Anthony does not have the answers

Right-wing protest songs only benefit the wealthy and powerful.

By Slavoj Žižek

Everybody who pretends to be on the left today needs to analyse Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond”. Over the course of two days, this working-class lament exploded into “the protest song of our generation”, garnering tens of millions of viewers and listeners. The word authentic occurs in positive reactions to the song: there are no special effects, it is just the voice and guitar of a simple worker recorded on a real camera. Here is the direct raw voice of those Americans ignored by the mainstream media: poor working men, barely surviving, with no clear prospect for a better life. Here are (most of) the lyrics:  

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away

It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is

Livin’ in the new world, with an old soul
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do
‘Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end
‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond

I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare

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Well, God, if you’re five foot three and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground
‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down

There is an obvious truth in Anthony’s words. Yes, millions work while the rich exploit them; yes, big corporations and government agencies exert a frightening power of control over us. But the details of the song beneath this truth are disturbing – and details matter here. Why “north of Richmond”? Because Richmond, Virginia, was the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War – a clear hint at where Anthony’s political sympathies lie.

And why fudge rounds? This term has a double meaning: (1) fudgy, round chocolate cookies, sandwiched together with chocolate buttercream; (2) when engaged in anal sex, a female loses control of her bowels, leaving a circular imprint around the base of the male’s genitalia – again, a hint at a link between the new rich and sexual perversions. (Elsewhere, with “minors on an island somewhere”, Anthony makes a passing reference to Jeffrey Epstein’s notorious island.) Who are the “obese” men living comfortably by way of the overtaxing of ordinary working people? They are at the same time the new corporate elites controlling us and the lazy (racial, sexual) minorities getting fat from generous handouts provided by the welfare state.

One should locate this in a series of rightist lower-class protests this summer. Consider The Sound of Freedom (Alejandro Monteverde, 2023), a movie based on a true story of a former government agent turned vigilante who embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue hundreds of children from sex traffickers in Latin America. Liberal media dismissed this surprise low-budget hit (at the US box office it has earned more than the new Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible movies) due to the proximity of its star, Jim Caviezel, to QAnon conspiracy theories. It is also weird that, in the film, some children are sold as sex slaves to the Farc movement leaders in Colombia – sex slavery is thus portrayed as a feature which unites the corporate elite of Hollywood and the extreme revolutionary left.

[See also: Who is criticism for?]

But child trafficking and sex slavery are horrible things, and it is all too easy to leave them to the new populist right, while the Hollywood mainstream is occupied by woke projects like the new Disney remake of Snow White in which Snow White is not white, dwarfs are not dwarfs but “diverse” people, and the ending will seemingly not be the old one (with the prince awakening Snow White with a kiss) but the empowerment of Snow White, who will become a new legitimate ruler. The sad thing about The Sound of Freedom is that we have a modest movie produced outside of the big Hollywood machine which deals with sex crimes against children from poor Latino families and is a surprising box office hit, but was made by right-wingers.

The new wave of rightist working-class protests and the “protect-the-minorities” corporate liberalism are not simply opposites: what they share is that they both avoid confronting the basic social antagonisms that characterise our era. While the rightist working-class protests do address actual problems that haunt many ordinary workers, they simultaneously portray the enemy as the “rich”, the corporate and state elites, and the “lazy” recipients of welfare. The struggle against racism and sexism is thus dismissed as the strategy of the elites to control workers and the productive capital. We get here the old fascist idea of uniting workers and productive capital against the parasitic extremes of the elites and welfare-state recipients. These protests are a reaction to what is false in today’s liberal left that deftly manipulates the fight against sexism and racism and for the rights of minorities in order to avoid confronting the perverted logic of global capitalism. 

A protest may be authentic, but authenticity is not in itself a sign of truth: even the most brutal forms of racism and sexism can be experienced as an authentic feeling. At the start of August 2023 my own country – Slovenia – was for a brief moment in global news: it was hit by floods and landslides, with thousands of homes destroyed and whole towns cut off. The reaction was an unexpected show of solidarity: Slovenes offered too much help and too many volunteers, so that all of it couldn’t be used. Even embattled Ukraine sent help. Although this show of solidarity was sincere, it was small compared to what will be needed in the catastrophes that await us. For the large majority in Slovenia life went on as normal, and the display of solidarity allowed us to feel good without changing our way of life. For a moment, we acted as if the pursuit of comfortable daily life is not all, and our moderate sacrifices made us feel that life gained meaning. The display of solidarity was thus the expression of a desperate wish not to confront the depth of our crisis.

Back to Anthony’s song, the first simple counter-question of the left to its words should be: “OK, poor working people are exploited, so why doesn’t the song mention the standard solution – form a union?” Old working-class protest songs, from “Joe Hill”, to Pete Seeger’s “Solidarity Forever”, to Billy Bragg’s “There Is Power in a Union” all point in this direction. As for American patriotism, how far is Anthony’s song from the great Leftist working class protest song, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”! Here are its first lines: “Born down in a dead man’s town / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground / You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / Till you spent half your life just covering up” – a similar experience of being downtrodden, but from a totally different political background.

Don’t be surprised if Anthony’s song is praised by billionaires from Elon Musk to Donald Trump – the rich man from Mar-a-Lago – who, by means of complex legal tricks, for years avoided paying taxes. Warren Buffett himself, one of the richest men in the world, was shocked to discover that he was paying less taxes than his secretary. No wonder that, when President Obama was accused of irresponsibly introducing “class warfare” into political life, Buffett snapped back: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

What we hear in Anthony’s song is the ultimate triumph of the rich in the class warfare: even a downtrodden proletarian struggling for social justice takes their side.

[See also: Russia’s war on the future]

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