Last week I had the enticing experience of being denounced as a racist on one blog and castigated as a social justice warrior on another. As my regular readers know, such entertainments have been anything but rare since I launched The Archdruid Report just under ten years ago. The odd belief that there are only two possible ways to think about any issue pervades modern American society; contradict that habit of thought, break with the conventional wisdom, and propose a third alternative, and you can count on both sides insisting that you belong to whichever point of view they like least.
If this week’s post fields a similar response, I won’t be surprised. Over the last month, we’ve been talking about the convoluted landscape of privilege in American society, and the way that the preferred rhetoric of both ends of the acceptable political spectrum falsifies the actual complexities of privilege that exist in contemporary American life. Some of my readers have wondered aloud, though, what that theme has to do with the broader issues at the heart of this blog’s project—the increasingly bleak future that modern industrial society is building for itself, the particular shape that future is taking in the United States, and the possibilities for constructive action that are still available this late in the day.
In this week’s post, I propose to start tying those threads back together.
One of the things that’s determined by privilege, after all, is which members of a society have a voice in making that society’s collective decisions. When George W. Bush sent American troops surging over the Iraqi border in 2003 and plunged the Middle East into its current state of chaos, for example, that decision was not made by all Americans equally. A small group of ideologues in the inner circles of the Bush administration made that decision, and got it rubberstamped by the President. A larger circle of politicians, representing an assortment of power centers toward the upper end of the nation’s political and economic hierarchy, either supported the move or chose not to oppose it.
The few million Americans whose wealth and influence give them the ability to make themselves heard by the political system, in turn, either went along with the plan, or contented themselves with the kind of pro forma protests that the establishment has learned it can safely ignore. The rest of the American people, to say nothing of the people in Iraq and elsewhere who ended up bearing the brunt of the Bush regime’s squeaky-voiced machismo, had nothing to say in the matter.
This is normal. Every human society without exception gives some members more say in making decisions than others. Since human beings are what they are, in turn, every human society without exception hands out those decision-making roles in ways that can reasonably be called unfair. That’s true of all other species of social primates, too, so odds are it’s as thoroughly hardwired into our behavioral repertoire as, say, sex.
I mentioned a little earlier the common American habit of insisting that there are two and only two ways to think about any issue. This is another example. The conventional wisdom on the Left holds that it’s not only possible but mandatory to create a society with no inequality at all, where everyone has the same privileges as affluent American liberals have today. The conventional wisdom on the right holds that existing inequalities are good and right and proper, and reflect the actual worth of the more or less privileged. Both of them are wrong, but they’re wrong in different ways.
The Left’s faith in the possibility of a society of perfect equality, where no one is more or less privileged than anybody else, has deep roots. Christian heretics in the Middle Ages roughed out the idea of a society in which perfect love would erase social divisions and everyone would share freely in all of life’s blessings; most had the great good sense to place this utopian vision on the far side of the Second Coming, when divine omnipotence could be counted on to take care of the practical difficulties of such a system. With the waning of Christian faith, Enlightenment philosophes such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau transposed the old vision into a new key, but lacked the perspicacity to find some existential barrier to shield the dream of a world of perfect equality from the fraught realities of human nature.
The result has been a long string of societies that proclaimed that they had abolished all privilege and made everyone equal. In every case, without exception, what happened instead was that an overt system of privilege was destroyed, and promptly replaced with a covert system of privilege—and since this latter was covert, it was much less subject to checks and balances. That’s why, from the Terror of revolutionary France to the killing fields of Cambodia, utopias of perfect equality quite reliably end up awash in rivers of blood. The American left, though, remains immune to the lessons of history, and once you get beyond the affluent end of the left, you can readily find utopian fantasies of the same kind that drove Robespierre, Stalin, and Pol Pot to their destinies being loudly proclaimed as the next great step in human history.
On the affluent end of the American left, by contrast, the blindness to history takes on a different shape. From the standpoint of the privileged liberal, the only reason everyone in today’s America isn’t equal is the machinations of the Evil Ists—that is, racists, sexists, fascists, and the like, who hold down all of American society’s underprivileged groups out of sheer evil evilness. Theirs is the logic of the Rescue Game discussed in an earlier post this month; the idea that privilege is structural and systemic, and that they’ve benefited from it all their lives without having to take an active role in the process is right outside their grasp of the world. Suggest it, and they’ll assume that you must mean that they’re Evil Ists and leap up in outrage shouting, "No, no, we’re the good guys!"
Of course there’s another massive problem with the particular form that the dream of a perfectly equal society has taken on the contemporary American left. Most versions of that dream imagine dragging the privileged down to the level of the poor; the current American version, as already noted, dreams of bringing everyone else up to the level of the affluent. It’s a more generous vision but also a far more clueless one, because the privileges, perquisites, and comforts that make the life of an affluent American what it is today are made possible, first, by the breakneck consumption of irreplaceable natural resources at wildly unsustainable rates, and second, by a distorted global economic system that until very recently allowed the five per cent or so of humanity that lives in the United States to consume around a third of the products of the global economy.
I’ve already discussed at length, here and in several of my books as well, the impossibility of keeping America’s affluent in the style to which they have become accustomed. (The short form was summed up memorably by Kenneth Boulding: “Anyone who believes that exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”) Factor in the cost of giving everyone else those lifestyles and the impossibility factor soars to Himalayan heights. Understandably, a great many affluent American liberals don’t want to hear this, but facts of this kind are like cats—the more strictly you ignore them, the more they persist in wreathing around your ankles and jumping up into your lap.
The Right’s faith in the fairness of existing inequalities has more flexible roots, as shifts in intellectual fashion have sent the rhetoric of privilege careening all over a broad landscape of ideas. Back in the Middle Ages, the usual argument was that God had assigned each person his or her station in life, and asking questions about privilege was tantamount to questioning God’s good intentions. The collapse of Christian faith in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sent the apologists of privilege scrambling for other options; theories of racial superiority and Social Darwinism put fake biology in place of religion. More recently, the insistence that modern industrial societies are meritocracies, where each person naturally gravitates to a place consistent with his or her abilities, fill the same dubious role.
That said, the American right remains just as closed to the lessons of history as their equal and opposite counterparts on the left. Track the individuals and families that populate the upper reaches of privilege in any modern industrial society, and you’ll see something that resembles nothing so much as a pot of spaghetti sauce at a slow rolling boil. Individuals and families rise up from lower in the pot, linger on the upper surface for a while, and sink back into the depths. No one formula explains the churning; for every person who climbs into the upper ranks of privilege on the basis of talent, there’s at least one who bullied and bluffed his way there and another who got there by sheer dumb luck—and there are many others just as talented who never succeeded in climbing the social ladder as far, or at all.
The way down is a little more predictable than the way up, not least because it used to be a favorite theme for novelists. I’m thinking here among many others of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which follows a wealthy German family from the zenith of privilege through decline and extinction over the course of the nineteenth century. The lesson to be learned here is that a life of privilege doesn’t foster the habits that conduce to the preservation of privilege. Within a few generations, the descendants of the talented, the blustering, and the just plain lucky who clawed their way to the top become clueless and cosseted, unable to deal with the ordinary hurly-burly of life outside their bubble of privilege, and when something disrupts that bubble, down they go.
In ordinary times, as the spaghetti-sauce metaphor suggests, the turnover in the privileged classes is relatively steady and goes on without causing any particular disruption to the pot as a whole. To extend the metaphor, though, there are times when history turns up the heat suddenly under the sauce, a great bubble of steam rises to the surface, and the entire upper surface of the sauce is replaced in a single convulsive blorp. When that happens with spaghetti sauce, the result is usually quite a mess, and the same is just as true of the social phenomenon.
Here a different novel by Thomas Mann is a useful guide—the most famous of his works, The Magic Mountain. What it’s about, if I may sum up an extraordinarily multilayered tale far too crudely, is the world of European privilege in the years just before the First World War. There were plenty of novels written about that theme in the 1920s, when the memory of that vanished era was still fresh enough to be painful, but Mann went about telling his story in a typically unorthodox way. The slice of prewar life he chose, half metaphor and half microcosm, was a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Swiss Alps.
Back before the development of effective treatments, tuberculosis was a death sentence for the poor. Those who didn’t have to work for a living, though, could seek a cure in sanitariums in mountainous regions, where the clear dry air might give their immune systems enough of an edge to overcome the infection. There, with nothing to distract them but conversation and romance, the patients go round the narrow circles of their well-ordered lives, their every need taken care of by swarms of servants. Far below the magic mountain, on the crowded plains of Europe, things were happening and pressures were building toward an explosion, but the feckless viewpoint character Hans Castorp and his fellow-patients—Lodovico Settembrini, Clavdia Chauchat, and the rest—drift aimlessly along until the explosion arrives, the trance shatters, and Castorp is flung, or flings himself, down from the magic mountain and onto the killing fields of the First World War.
It’s a heck of a read and I recommend it to anyone who has the patience—not that common these days—to take in a long, thoughtful, and richly ironic novel. That said, Mann’s take also places the current state of affairs in the United States and the rest of the industrial world in mordant focus. History paid Mann an elegant compliment, because the Swiss town where the International Sanitarium Berghof was located in Mann’s novel is famous today for a slightly different gathering of the coddled and cosseted rich. Yes, that would be Davos, where the self-proclaimed masters of the world gather every year to take in speeches by movers, shakers, and tame intellectuals, and issue oh-so-serious rehashes of whatever vacuous brand of conventional wisdom is in fashion just then. Look at pictures of the the last few Davos gatherings, and I’m quite sure that you’ll be able to spot Hans Castorp among the crowd, blinking owlishly at the camera.
Castorp’s vague cluelessness, certainly, is much on display these days, and not merely at Davos. I’ve discussed a great many aspects of that cluelessness in previous posts, but the one that’s relevant here is the way that people high up on America’s social ladder understand their own privilege. By and large, as already noted, the affluent on the leftward end don’t think they have any privilege at all, while their counterparts on the rightward end think that their privilege is a straightforward reflection of their own superior talent, intelligence, and so on.
Here again, the reality is a bit different. The affluent classes in America, as already noted, have the privileges, the benefits, and the comforts they have for two reasons. The first is that the world’s industrial societies are consuming irreplaceable natural resources at unsustainable rates in order to keep the global economy churning out the goods and services needed to prop up the lifestyles of the affluent. The second is that wildly unbalanced patterns of exchange concentrate the lion’s share of the benefits of that orgy of environmental destruction in the hands of a small percentage of our species. If you want to talk about the 1%, I’m fine with that, so long as it’s applied globally: to the top 1% by income of Homo sapiens. If you live in America and have an annual household income above $38,000 or so, in case you were wondering, you belong to that category.
This is the magic mountain of our era—a mountain of privilege whose inmates either have no idea that they’re privileged, or have convinced themselves that they deserve whatever they have and that those who don’t have the same things don’t deserve them. Far below the magic mountain, in the rest of the world, things are happening and pressures are building toward an explosion, but most of those up there in the heights haven’t noticed. It does not occur to them that there’s anything unusual about their lives, much less that some sudden turn of events could fling them down from the mountain and into a chaotic future for which most of them have made no preparations at all.
What they don’t see, in brief, is that both of the pillars propping up their lives—the breakneck exploitation of finite natural resources and the arrangements that funnel an oversized share of the proceeds to a small minority—are running up against hard limits right now. In upcoming posts I’ll be going into much more detail about how that’s playing out. For the time being, I want to talk about what this means for the structures of privilege we’ve been discussing for the last month.
Let’s take the two pillars one at a time. A nation that supports itself by exploiting the rest of the world has a very different economic structure from a nation that supports itself by its own efforts. In the latter, the economy tends to be dominated by productive labor, on the one hand, and investment on the other, and the sort of conflict that Karl Marx liked to talk about—in terms of the analysis I’ve been using in these essays, the conflict between the wage class and the investment class—determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in society. In the former, by contrast, it makes more economic sense to offshore the production of goods and services to other countries, and to use the profits of global exploitation rather than domestic savings to provide capital for industry; thus the wage class and the investment class both suffer, while the salary class—the class of managers, marketers, bankers, bureaucrats, and corporate flunkies, all those professions that make their livings by manipulating the wealth produced by others—prospers as never before.
The transition from an economy focused on domestic production to an economy focused on global exploitation takes plenty of time. In the case of the United States, it took a hundred years, from the first wave of American imperial expansion in 1898 to the temporary triumph of globalization in the 1980s. The transition the other way, though, happens a good deal more quickly, as a faltering hegemon generally gets shoved aside by rising powers rather than being allowed to decay slowly in peace. The aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a good working model here: once the Soviet system imploded, Russia suddenly had to do without the large subsidies it received from the rest of the Eastern bloc, and most of a decade of raw economic chaos followed as the Russian economy struggled to adapt to the task of meeting its own needs domestically. Soviet Russia, it bears noting, was much less dependent on overseas imports for goods and services than today’s America, so the post-Soviet experience should be considered a lower bound for what we’re in for.
The other pillar has similar implications. An economy based on the breakneck consumption of natural resources tends to concentrate influence in the hands of those who control resource flows directly or indirectly, and in today’s America, once again, these tend to be disproportionately members of the salary class. An economy based on the conservation of natural resources tends to concentrate influence instead in the hands of those who own sustainable resources such as land, or those who work directly with those resources; again, the conflict between owners and laborers determines the distribution of wealth and privilege in such societies. Transitioning from a conserver economy to a consumer economy takes plenty of time—in the case of the United States, the better part of two hundred years—while the transition the other way tends, once more, to be much more rapid once the resources run short.
It’s in this context, finally, that we can understand the unexpected revolt of the wage class that’s having so dramatic a role in shaping this years US presidential race. Hillary Clinton, like her already-forgotten Republican equivalents, is a perfect salary class candidate; she speaks for the privileged, and her entire campaign consists of waving around sound bites that signal to the privileged that they don’t need to worry about significant change if she moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Donald Trump, and to a lesser extent Bernie Sanders, are appealing instead to the wage class. I doubt either one expected to get anything like as far as he has, but both seem perfectly willing to ride the wave of popular discontent just as far as it will take them—and in Trump’s case, it seems likely to take him straight to the White House this autumn.
That is to say, what was supposed to be an ordinary contest among the champions of the affluent has suddenly taken on a very different shape. To shift metaphors a bit, the affluent are beginning to notice that their jockeying for position resembles nothing so much as bickering over the arrangement of deck chairs aboard the Titanic. The revolt of the wage class shows that the structure of power and privilege in today’s America is already beginning to shift, and two weeks from now we’ll take a hard look at some of the ways that shift is unfolding and some of the factors that are driving it.