The Preteriat

(Another post on political theory)

The late David Graeber talks with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, image from London Real (2015)

The adjective ‘preterite’ (rhymes with the adjective ‘confederate’) is an ancient word referring to ‘that which has been passed over’.

In his recent retrospective review of Thomas Pynchon’s Ulyssean novel Gravity’s Rainbow, writer Aurélien describes how the term is used (extensively) in that book. I’ve been using the term ‘precariat’, referring to people who live their lives in a state of permanent precarity (scarcity, uncertainty, and imminent danger of loss). But Aurélien’s use of the term ‘preterite’, meaning those who have been or are being forgotten, lost, passed over, damned by the gods, seems equally if not more à propos. They (we?) are the losers in an increasingly-desperate rats-in-a-cage game of survival in a time of current or looming collapse and obscene inequality.

Perhaps the precariat is also (to coin a word) the preteriat? Or perhaps the preteriat is a much larger group, encompassing both the precariat and those who don’t yet realize just how vulnerable and helpless they (we?) are as collapse deepens. All those who are being and will be ‘passed over’.

Aurélien describes the preterite as “ordinary people, mostly reasonably good, mostly reasonably honourable, trying to do their best in a world where power lies elsewhere”.

Gravity’s Rainbow uses the term in this sense of “the multitudes who are passed over by God and History”, in apposition to the “elite”, the chosen. Thomas Pynchon also uses the term as a form of wordplay: Gravity’s rainbow of the title, is, after all, a reference to the arc of a missile, an arc that ‘passes over’ those below it.

Regardless of what you make of the novel, the term is an intriguing metaphor and perhaps a useful label for the increasing proportion of the world unlikely to survive our civilization’s collapse. This mass of humanity spans the globe and the political spectrum. It’s a label that many of those who fall under its umbrella would shudder to share with others who fit the definition, for whom they feel no affinity. They (we?) are united only to the extent we are, if we are willing to admit it, the losers in this increasingly cut-throat game of musical chairs. But what better strategy for the elite than to condition the preteriat to loathe each other by focusing on our differences from each other?

It is doubtful that the preteriat could ever unite enough to rally each other and call for an end to our deference and fealty to this small, quiet, disorganized, self-absorbed elite — privileged self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ ultimately preoccupied only with themselves and their self-aggrandizement.

But it’s interesting and amusing to imagine. Picture the rabble of left and right, the woke and the ignorant, the racialized and the racists, the disaffected, idealistic young and the cynical, embittered old, together, shouting, OWS-style…

À bas the elites, the celebrities, the obscenely rich, the do-nothing heirs, the worthless scions, the smug C-suite circle-jerkers, the media barons, the new robber barons, the pompous bone-headed tech billionaires living off corporate and military-industrial welfare, the corrupt psychopaths whizzing through the military/industrial/financial/government suites’ revolving doors extorting taxpayers’ money, paid for through cynical political campaign contributions, and all the rest of the professional-managerial caste (PMC) (and it’s a caste, not a class)! Aux barricades!

On the ramparts of this bizarre coalition of the passed-over, a rebellion would begin — against the babied, coddled, endlessly-subsidized rich whose parents bought and bribed universities to get them prestige university admission, and degrees and jobs they could never have obtained on their own merits, along with the commensurate deferment of military service. Not to mention zero inheritance tax. This is not anti-intellectual rebellion. It is anti-alphas, anti-top-caste fuckery.

You might be a member of the preteriat if:

  • You have to do work you hate just to survive
  • You would be in deep shit if you got a sudden unexpected bill for $10,000, or if your net worth, excluding the precarious equity in your home, is less than $100,000, or if a stock market crash would wipe out your pension and force you back to work in a society in which you are now too old and weak to be employable
  • You are in any of the categories of poor, dumb shits (thanks to our crumbling education systems) that Hillary Clinton would consider “deplorables”
  • You haven’t eagerly embraced the US/NATO goal of crushing and bringing about regime change in Russia and China so that its wealth can be stolen and hoarded (and not for you)
  • You work for less than $35/hour, or have to work two jobs, or more than 50 hours/week, just to get by
  • You have never, and could never, get a job, a promotion, a military deferment, or a special deal on something, simply by pulling strings with your, or your family’s, connections
  • You could never afford to fly “business” class
  • You don’t own your own home outright
  • You have committed the sin of being poor, sick, uneducated, or homeless
  • You actually pay taxes, since you don’t qualify for the tax credits reserved for the ultra-rich

If you are, perhaps unknowingly, a member of the preteriat, then beware:

  • When economic and/or ecological crises hit, you’ll be abandoned and left to your own devices. The cupboard will have been pre-emptively emptied.
  • The PMC/elite are quietly buying up well-secured properties in ‘safe haven’ locations like New Zealand, that you cannot afford and in which you are not welcome except as an obedient labourer.
  • The US and its vassal states are working fiercely to become the world’s unipolar nuclear power and effective owner of all the world’s natural resource stocks, and controller of all the world’s information media. Consider why they might be doing that. (Oh, wait, that would be a conspiracy theory — never mind.)
  • There are lots of churches ready to tell you you will be rewarded in the afterlife for your sacrifice and obedience in this one. Good luck with that.

We’re all doing our best. The ill-defined and utterly disorganized PMC/elite are scared and bewildered about what’s happening, just like the rest of us. They’re not evil, or any more insane than the rest of us. If we were in their shoes, we’d probably be doing just what they’re doing.

There isn’t going to be a caste war. That isn’t how nature works, and it isn’t how human societies have ever worked.

Ironically, for all their hoarding, the PMC/elite are no more likely to survive this Long Emergency than the preteriat. In the long run (and this will take decades or more to play out) the survivors will be those with strong communities with collective know-how (practical, agricultural, ecological, social, useful-stuff-making and fixing know-how, not military or managerial), and not those with wealth, resources and power.

So thanks to Aurélien for the new term, describing a huge and growing group that no one wants to be a part of. I think it’s a useful, and needed, addition to the vocabulary of collapse.

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4 Responses to The Preteriat

  1. Jack Alpert says:

    David I have been reading your missives for 30 years and you have many pieces of the human path correct. However, you seldom extend your view of the chaos more than a decade or two. You always leave open that the lucky prepers will make it through the long emergency to some 17th century survival (600 million circa 2100.) I have had this conversation with James Kunstler.
    Can’t we make this view of the future so unpleasant that we can (the collective we) don’t want to go there and think paying exorbitantly in the present is cheap in comparison to paying the expensive penalties in our unfolding future. How about collectively having half a million kids global per year going forward. Now run the numbers and see where that takes your world. (More at

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Actually, I think it’s possible that the Long Emergency will last millennia, so no one is going to feel ‘lucky’; civilizations collapse slowly, over centuries, and this one being global and much larger, it will take even longer. It’s impossible to predict, and people will believe what they want to believe, regardless of the truth, so creating a dismal view of the future will convince no one. As for voluntary radical reduction in new human births, that’s pretty idealistic, and it wouldn’t work in any case — if there’s a smaller population each person will just consume more of what’s left. The book The Mushroom at the End of the World portrays the kind of scavenger economy that will probably prevail after collapse. It won’t be “like the past only running backwards”. Human population by 2100 will almost assuredly be closer to 3-4 billion than 600 million, as I described in an earlier post (

  3. Dave. Insightful as always. The preteriat is a large proportion of the population, who through sleights of hand by the law-making class suddenly find themselves living in a situation that is precarious but where they have no agency to get themselves out of it, or indeed unravel the complex mess.
    Many of the preteriat carry on with the “I just want to live my simple life, have a drink now and again” which reminds me of Huxley’s 1984. A hierarchical society where everyone accepted the status quo and just “got on with their lives”.
    It also makes me think of the internet. Like some giant computer game, it looks as if you are changing things but for all the flow of 1 and 0 there is a solid wall between the digital and real life except for 1) shopping and 2) talking.

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