In February 2012, Cato Institute Vice President Gene Healy tweeted what may be the funniest think tank tweet to date: “Someday, the ‘Think Tank Network’ (TTN) will sponsor a reality show in which Charles Murray attends the ‘Gathering of the Juggalos.'”
The idea of a television network devoted to reality shows starring think-tankers is funny on its face, especially to those of us who work in the industry. But coming on the heels of the American Enterprise Institute’s Murray’s bestselling book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Healy’s tweet wasn’t twee but trenchant. Coming Apart detailed a growing divide in America along class lines, with the classes separated by differing attitudes towards marriage, faith, work ethic and community.
And perhaps no group better exemplifies in the popular mind a rootless, work-shy, amoral underclass than the Juggalos, for whom the annual Gathering is something of a hedonistic hajj.
A bit of clarification may be due. For those unfamiliar with the term, Juggalos are (broadly speaking) fans of horrorcore rap-rockers the Insane Clown Posse and the various related acts signed to ICP’s label, Psychopathic Records. (The label’s mascot is the Hatchet Man, a kind of hatchet-wielding Kokopelli.) The annual “Gathering of the Juggalos,” which since 2007 has been held in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, attracts tens of thousands of fans to an annual music festival that includes concerts as well as events ranging from bare-knuckle boxing to horrorcore karaoke. And, of course, plenty of alcohol- and drug-fueled fighting, fornicating, and frolicking.
To be sure, what exactly constitutes a Juggalo is a matter of much debate. Indeed, ICP’s 1997 album The Great Milenko includes the track “What is a Juggalo?” that tries (rather unsatisfyingly) to answer that very question:
What is a juggalo?
That’s what it is
Well, fuck, if I know
What is a juggalo?
I don’t know.
Juggalos have been branded a gang by the FBI, the National Gang Intelligence Center, and several states. This seems, at best, a laughable misunderstanding. But this misidentification, and the moral panics that Juggalos have been causing for almost two decades, suggests that they trigger a deep-seated repulsion or fear in many people.
What exactly is it about Juggalos that we fear? Juggalos are, when one strips away the vainglory and hyperbole, merely low-status men and women (and some fellow travelers from higher-status ranks who enjoy a spot of slumming) who reject a social order that deems them low status, not by seeking to challenge or overthrow it but by proclaiming loudly that they do not share its mores. As Kent Russell wrote in his 2012 n+1 article “American Juggalo”: “You can be a juggalo, or you can be white trash—the first term is yours, the second is somebody else’s.” Casting oneself as a Juggalo is an empowering, affirmative personal action.
Societies have long birthed movements of the underclass that reject widely subscribed normative institutions. And if Charles Murray is right, America has developed a permanent underclass lacking ties to traditional structures of family, vocation, religion and community. Declaring oneself a Juggalo may well be an attempt, however misguided or futile, to find community and social structure outside traditional Western hierarchies.
Indeed, it seems quite possible that the Juggalo ranks will grow in strength, at least if Tyler Cowen’s predictions in his recent book Average is Over come to pass. After all, Juggalos have in their ranks very few of the educated machine manipulators who Cowen predicts will reap the bounties of the next generation. And Juggalos should feel right at home in Cowen’s predicted shantytowns of tomorrow that one reviewer describes as having “poor public services but plentiful distractions (think: internet porn, 24/7/365 football, and soon-to-be legalized marijuana delivered by e-joints).” The Gathering may well go from being an annual event to a permanent encampment.
In other words, if Murray’s assessment that America has developed an unanchored underclass is correct, and Cowen’s prediction that the majority of Americans will experience declining returns to work in the coming decades, then get ready for the mainstreaming of Juggalo culture. Much like tattoos have gone in a generation from being symbols of outlawry and rebellion to banal middle-class conformity, the Juggalos’ face-painting and Faygo-spraying—outward manifestations of detachment from social institutions—may become the mainstream cultural signifiers of the next decades. Not, mind you, because these practices will have been adopted by the bourgeoisie, but because of the growing ranks of Americans who have come unglued from what were once considered default moral positions.
It’s not that Middle America will be won over to Juggalo culture. It’s that Juggalo culture and its detachment from mainstream institutions will come to increasingly define an America with a permanent underclass that neither hopes to nor can improve its lot.
To be sure, this is far from an ideal outcome. But it’s not the worst of all possible worlds, either. For all their devotion to lyrics glorifying mindless violence and stunted sexuality, Juggalos aren’t the amoral nihilists their detractors make them out to be. The accoutrements of the Juggalo lifestyle aren’t free, and even if they’re not in careers with upward trajectories, interviews with Juggalos reflect that many if not most of them have regular jobs. (ICP’s lyrics include this explanation: “[A Juggalo] graduated from…well /At least, he got a job /He’s not a dumb putz /He works for himself scratching his nuts.”) And while it’s not the Mosaic code, Juggalos do have an ethical code that includes respecting the property and persons of other Juggalos, a theme the Insane Clown Posse themselves stress in interviews.
The pictures that Murray and Cowen paint of America’s future are not hopeful—and both are loath to offer prescriptions. But if we are on an inexorable path to where a large swath of our countrymen are unmoored from the bourgeois virtues, kith and kin, a commitment to the “Juggalo family” may be better than no commitment at all.
Say what you will about the tenets of Juggaloism. At least it’s (kind of) an ethos.