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The Drug Economy, Neo Liberalism and the Social Basis of Ron Paul’s Appeal to Young Voters

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“New York streets where killers'll walk like Pistol Pete
And Pappy Mason, gave the young boys admiration
Prince from Queens and Fritz from Harlem
Street legends, the drugs kept the hood from starving”

Nas, “Get Down”

That big ol' building was the textile mill
It fed our kids and it paid our bills
But they turned us out and they closed the doors
We can't make it here anymore
See all those pallets piled up on the loading dock
They're just gonna set there till they rot
'Cause there's nothing to ship, nothing to pack
Just busted concrete and rusted tracks
Empty storefronts around the square
There's a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
You don't come down here 'less you're looking to score
We can't make it here anymore

James Mc Murty “ We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”

The strength of the Ron Paul candidacy continues to astound many liberals and leftists. How can a 76-year-old man who opposes, and continues to oppose, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was the featured speaker at the John Birch Society 50th Anniversary Dinner attract thousands of young supporters, not all of whom think of themselves as conservatives, some of whom are gay or people of color.

It is tempting to see Paul’s mass appeal to young people as a form of false consciousness, attributable to his anti-war position, which blinds them to the conservative implications of his libertarian philosophy. But such a posture overlooks ways in which one portion of the Paul platform, his opposition to the drug war, and the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders, speaks directly to their material interests in the way no other candidate, Republican or Democratic does. For young people of all racial backgrounds, the drug economy has become an essential income supplement in a society where work has become scarce, and wages have been driven down to the point that few people can support themselves in the legal economy without some off the books activity, a good portion of it drug related.

There has been a great deal of research done on the drug economy in inner city neighborhoods, where de-industrialism, and neo-liberalism hit first and hardest. From Charles and Bettylou Valentine’s pioneering anthropological study, Hustling and Other Hard Work, to Phillipe Bourgeois brilliant book on crack dealers in East Harlem, In Search of Respect, scholars have demonstrated that a significant portion of the income stream in inner city neighborhoods from the early 70’s through the present has come from the drug economy, shoring up local businesses and producing for a level of consumption among local residents, that official census data on incomes could not predict. Hip Hop artists and hop hop scholars alike have spoken about this with considerable frankness. In his book Hip Hop America, Nelson George estimated that 150,000 young people worked in the drug business during the height of the crack epidemic, a figure I have never heard anyone dispute

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But what is less well known is the size of the drug economy in small town, rural and suburban America, and its role in supplementing wages in a nation where Wal Mart has replaced the automobile and steel industry as the largest employer. Even before partial legalization in states like California and Colorado, marijuana was the second largest cash crop in the nation, and it has now been supplemented by a thriving market in chrystal meth and prescription pills.

Although I am not familiar with anthropological studies of the drug economy in rural, white America, I have gotten enough papers on small town drug dealing from students in my Worker in American Life class to get a sense that it’s proportions now equal, if not exceed, what is going on in inner city neighborhoods. If what my students tell me is true, a significant portion of young people working in Wal-Mart, K-Mart or other box stores sell drugs on the side ( prescription pills as well as pot) and almost no-one can survive on what those stores pay without some additional source of income. In poorer, more rural areas, chrystal meth, locally manufactured, is the drug of choice, and the violence associated with its trade can rival what you have in tough inner city neighborhoods.

In his powerful indictment of the new, low wage economy, “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore,” James Mc Murtry sings

Minimum wage won't pay for a roof, won't pay for a drink
If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. CEO
See how far 5.15 an hour will go
Take a part time job at one of your stores
Bet you can't make it here anymore”

Nobody knows this better than the young people who work in these stores and their response has been to find alternative sources of income, many of them illegal, some involving the risk of violence, arrest and imprisonment

Enter Ron Paul with a call for legalization of drugs and release of non-violent prisoners. To millions of young people living in an economy where the route to the middle class can no longer go through the legal economy, that portion of his campaign speaks directly to their lived reality. It provides them with the hope of doing in the light of day, and in safety, that which they now do surreptitiously in order to have even a minimum access to what they perceive as an American standard of living

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Given that no other candidate is willing to raise this issue as clearly and forthrightly as Ron Paul does, don’t be surprised if his support continues to grow among young people of all backgrounds. And it won’t be because of racism. It is because Ron Paul implicitly recognizes- alone among Presidential candidates- that without the drug economy “we can’t make it here anymore.”

Mark Naison
With a Brooklyn Accent