Rich Men North of Richmond: Living in the New World, With an Old Soul — Some Thoughts

by JaneFairburn on August 18, 2023

Central to Part II of my current work, Moorlands: An Ancestral Memoir of Loss and Belonging, is a rethink of the liberal project Canada and the West have undertaken over the past 500 years.

By the liberal project/liberalism, I mean the holy trinity of rights, democracy and capitalism that most of us unconsciously take for granted, and that forms the basis of our current social order and political structure. I’m arguing in Moorlands that while the success of liberalism is undeniable, it has also led to a series of unforeseen consequences, including a profound loss of belonging, and a deepening disconnection from the land and each other.

So let’s just say I was gobsmacked about a week ago, when I first watched Oliver Anthony from Farmville, Virginia standing alone in the bush, ripping an elegiac lament about that very disconnection and loss. His YouTube song, “Rich Men North of Richmond”, currently sitting today at 21 million views, specifically takes aim at the plight of the working poor, the vicious suicide crisis particularly prevalent among young men, and the loss of belonging many of us have experienced as we enter a new age more closely aligned to quasi-feudal capitalism, than the woke utopia the Left has on offer.

His anthem has inspired chatter from the usual suspects, including The Guardian, that (shocker) summarily tried and convicted him for slamming Washington elites and the line, “if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds / Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds…”

But before we write him off as just another rural, south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line whack job, consider this: most of the societal ills Anthony sings about are live concerns for people not in the privileged, laptop class. In Canada, we have to look no further than the current opiod crisis, the ‘safe’ injection site ‘treatment’ programmes, and a recent Research Co. survey, released in May of 2023, where more than a quarter of Canadians indicated that being impoverished or homeless was justification for assisted suicide. This societal unhinging has contributed to an unexpected brand of populism – one that holds both the Left and the Right’s feet to the fire in equal measure.

As Anthony himself said the evening before the release of his song, “It seems like both sides serve the same master and that master is not someone of any good to the people of this country.”

.                    .                    .

How did we get here? Political scientist Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame University produced a fascinating book in 2018, entitled “Why Liberalism Failed”, (Yale University Press). Widely praised by a broad spectrum of the liberal elite, including former American President Barack Obama, it argues that, “liberalism has failed because it has succeeded”. Liberalism abhors limits, and is by nature progressive, both in its cultural, political and capitalistic/consumerist aims. It has produced both unfettered economic globalization, and encouraged the growth of rabid individualism over nurturing the collective, leading to a withering of our shared sense of history, and respect for the past.

In the late spring of 2023, Deneen delivered his follow-up work, Regime Change (Penguin Random House), that envisions an innovative, mixed-constitutional order honouring the lived experience of the many, while instilling responsibility in a newly envisioned elite to build a better society, focused on the Common Good, in a post-liberal age.

While I certainly am not in agreement with all that Deneen has to say (for example, who gets to determine the Common Good, and BTW, what’s the procedure for so doing?), it is nonetheless a courageous, intelligent, and deeply thoughtful attempt to address the legitimate and serious problems raised by the likes of Oliver Anthony. Rather than dismissing his clarion call as just another rightwing rant, I invite you to listen UP.





{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Moore August 21, 2023 at 8:29 am

Couldn’t agree more! Populism is on the rise, and shouldn’t be dismissed because that will justify their complaint “Nobody listens to us!” Globalism has also contributed to this sense that “Me and my neighbours have lost control, and we want it back!”


JaneFairburn August 21, 2023 at 11:54 am

Thanks for your comment, Bob — I agree. Part of the solution may lie in turning our attention to what each of us might do to foster a sense of community and belonging at the local level. I know that you’re already doing that — again, thank you!


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