A brief meditation
… And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying;
We, content at the last
If our temporal reversion nourish
(Not too far from the yew-tree)
The life of significant soil.
T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”
Starting in the 7th century BC, after the Yahwist fanatic Josiah slaughtered the priests and followers of rival gods, a certain valley just on the edge of his hilltop kingdom became the most famous waste management project in the world.
That valley was once a ritual site to another god, a place where the devoted passed children “through the flames.” Likely a purification ritual similar to the practice of driving cattle across flames in Celtic Europe, it was instead recorded by Josiah’s Judaic propagandists as child sacrifice — literally burning children alive.
That valley, Gehinnom, or what Romans and Greeks called Gehenna, became a trash pit for the city of Jerusalem and later the symbol of eternal punishment in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic eschatology. Said to be burning with an “everlasting fire,” the valley of trash also became a place to discard the bodies of unconverted polytheists and unrepentant sinners. By burning their bodies, the Jewish authorities could make sure God would not resurrect them in an afterlife, which is why Jesus warned his followers to “fear the one who, after he has killed has authority to cast into Gehenna.”
Our English word “trash” comes from an old Norse word (tros, or trask) referring to the fallen leaves, twigs, and other bits shed from trees onto the forest floor. A forest fills with such debris, composted slowly by vast congregations of insects, worms, microbes, and fungi feasting together in worshipful delight. Faithfully devoted, they leave their offerings in gratitude, later moistened and soaked down by rains to the roots of the trees their gods.
Like “rubbish,” which likely first referred to the bits of unusable or “waste” stone left over from early medieval masonry projects, and like “garbage,” which probably referred to the sorting of bits of chaff from imported spices, trash took a long time to eventually mean the vast excess of capitalist waste we now daily produce. Before it got there, though, it became a go-to smear for humans thought worthless.
We have Shakespeare to thank for the first recorded use of “trash” as an insult, referencing a person’s low birth. Referring to Roderigo, a naive merchant in Venice whom Iago fools into complicity with his plot to ruin Othello, Iago calls him “this poor trash of Venice.” Since his victim was poor trash, Iago needn’t fear a guilty conscience, nor even the consternation of others, for what he would do to him.
Two centuries later, but still another 70 years before being used the way American English speakers use it now, we have the first recording of trash being used to refer to a specific group of people. Fanny Kemble, an English actress and abolitionist, wrote in her diary, after a visit to a plantation in Georgia, that:
The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as 'poor white trash'
Kimble was referring specifically to the house slaves she had met in Georgia — a small sub-class of the much larger slave class — who had taken on many of the cultural pretensions of their masters. By the same mechanism that the early 20th century “white collar” shop clerks and secretaries came to see themselves not as oppressed workers but as upwardly-mobile intelligentsia, the house slaves of the American South situated themselves in a superior position to both the field slaves and the free white laborers upon whom their masters’ wealth depended.
Dan Evans describes the mechanism of this self-delusion in his book A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petite Bourgeoisie. Evans’ idea is that recent shifts in global capitalism have spawned a new subclass he calls the New Petite Bourgeoisie. They’re the university-educated urban “progressives” who, through their sense of being intellectually and culturally superior to the rest of the working class, took quickly to ideas like “the internet of things,” independent contracting work, or precarious intellectual employment like associate professorships, remote coding, design, or editing work, and other kinds of unstable but sweat-free employment.
As late as a decade ago, you could still almost make a passable living with such jobs, because they were scarce enough that the capitalists would pay you decently. Once the labor market was glutted with a generation believing non-manual labor to be their birthright, however, the wages decreased and this labor became more automated and surveilled. Meanwhile, others from their generation who opted for more traditional kinds of employment — as plumbers, electricians, mechanics, builders, and all that “nasty” physical work — have actually done extremely well for themselves and even started their own businesses.
Besides the difference in wages and stability between the two groups, what really sets this new subclass (the New Petite Bourgeoisie or NPB) apart from the traditional workers and self-employed manual workers is their over-inflated sense of themselves. Though downwardly mobile, constantly struggling to juggle their multiple “gig” hustles, and constantly relying on crowdfunding schemes to pay for urgent health care or even to get themselves through to the end of the month, the NPB nevertheless sees themselves as intellectually, morally, and culturally superior to other workers.