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Posts Tagged ‘Elites

“All the animals, the plants, the minerals, even other kinds of men, are being broken and reassembled every day, to preserve an elite few, who are the loudest to theorize on freedom, but the least free of all”*…

To be sure the 1% deserves scrutiny, but there is another– much larger– kind of elite entrenched across the U.S…

American wealth and power usually have a certain look: glass-walled penthouse apartments in glittering urban skyscrapers, sprawling country mansions, ivy-covered prep schools, vacation homes in the Hamptons. These are the outward symbols of an entrenched oligarchy, the political-economic ruling class portrayed by the media that entertains us and the conspiracy theories that animate the darker corners of the American imagination.

The reality of American wealth and power is more banal. The conspicuously consuming celebrities and jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life for tens of millions of people. Donald Trump grasped this group’s existence and its importance, acting, as he often does, on unthinking but effective instinct. When he crowed about his “beautiful boaters,” lauding the flotillas of supporters trailing MAGA flags from their watercraft in his honor, or addressed his devoted followers among a rioting January 6 crowd that included people who had flown to the event on private jets, he knew what he was doing. Trump was courting the support of the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.

These elites’ wealth derives not from their salary—this is what separates them from even extremely prosperous members of the professional-managerial class, such as doctors and lawyers—but from their ownership of assets. Those assets vary depending on where in the country we’re talking about; they could be a bunch of McDonald’s franchises in Jackson, Mississippi; a beef-processing plant in Lubbock, Texas; a construction company in Billings, Montana; commercial properties in Portland, Maine; or a car dealership in western North Carolina. Even the less prosperous parts of the United States generate enough surplus to produce a class of wealthy people. Depending on the political culture and institutions of a locality or region, this elite class might wield more or less political power. In some places, it has an effective stranglehold over what gets done; in others, it’s important but not all-powerful.Wherever these elites live, their wealth and connections make them influential forces within local society. In the aggregate, through their political donations and positions within their localities and regions, they wield a great deal of political influence. They’re the local gentry of the United States.

These folks’ wealth extends into the millions and tens of millions rather than the billions we typically associate with the world-shaping clout of international oligarchs. There are, however, a lot more of them than the global elites who get all of the attention. They’re not the faces of instantly recognizable brands or the subjects of award-winning New York Times profiles; they own warehouses and Applebee’s franchises, concrete companies and movie-theater chains, hops fields and apartment complexes.

Because their wealth is rooted in the ownership of physical assets, they tend to be more rooted in their place of origin than the cosmopolitan professionals and entrepreneurs of the major metro areas are. Mobility among major metros, the characteristic jumping from Seattle to Los Angeles to New York to Austin that’s possible for younger lawyers, creatives, and tech folks, is foreign to them. They might really like heading to a vacation home in Bermuda or Maui. They might plan a relatively early retirement to a wealthy enclave in Palm Springs; Scottsdale, Arizona; or Central Florida. Ultimately, however, their money and importance comes from the businesses they own, and those belong in their locality.

Gentry classes have been a common feature of a great many social-economic-political regimes throughout history. Pretty much anywhere you have a hierarchical form of social organization and property ownership, an entrenched gentry class of some kind emerges. In the course of working on my doctorate in history and years of research for my podcast, Tides of History, I’ve come across many different gentries, each with its own ideas about its legitimacy, role in society, and relationship to those above and below on the social scale: the local civic elites of the Roman Empire, the landlords of late Han China, the numerous lower nobility of late medieval France, the thegns of Anglo-Saxon England, the Prussian Junkers, and the planter class of the antebellum South. The gentry are distinct from the highest levels of a regime’s political and economic elite: They’re usually not resident in the political center; they don’t hold major positions in the central administration of the state (whatever that might consist of); and they aren’t counted among the wealthiest people in their polity. New national or imperial elites might develop over time from a gentry class, even rulers—the boundaries between these groups can be more or less porous—but that’s not typically the case.

Gentry are, by definition, local elites. The extent to which they wield power in their locality, and how they do so, is dependent on the structure of their regime. In the early Roman Empire, for example, local civic elites were essential to the functioning of the state. They collected taxes in their home city, administered justice, and competed with one another for local political offices and seats on the city council. Their competition was a driving force behind the provision of benefits to the common folk, in the form of festivals, games, public buildings, and more basic support, a practice called civic euergetism.

When we talk about inequality, we skew our perspective by looking at the most visible manifestations of it: penthouses in New York, mansions in Beverly Hills, the lavish wastefulness of hedge-fund billionaires or a misbehaving celebrity. But that’s not who most of the United States’ wealthy elite really are. They own $2 million houses on golf courses outside Orlando, Florida, and a condo in the Bahamas, not an architecturally designed oceanfront villa in Miami. Those billionaires (and their excesses) exist, but they’re not nearly as common as a less exalted category of the rich that’s no less structurally formative to our economy and society.

An enormous number of organizations and institutions are dedicated to advancing the interests of this gentry class: chambers of commerce, exclusive country clubs and housing developments, the American Society of Concrete Contractors, and fruit growers’ associations, just to name a small cross section. Through these organizations and their intimate ties to local and state politics, the gentry class can and usually does wield significant power to shape society to its liking. It’s easy to focus on the massive political spending of a Sheldon Adelson or Michael Bloomberg; it’s harder, but no less important, to imagine what kind of deals about water rights or local zoning ordinances are being struck across the U.S. on the eighth green of the local country club.

Some people work their way into this property-holding gentry class by virtue of their blood, sweat, and sheer gumption. That’s one variant of the American dream: the belief that hard work and talent, and maybe a bit of luck, can take a person into the ranks of the elite. But far more members of the gentry class are born into it. They inherit assets, whether those are car dealerships, apple orchards, or construction companies, and manage to avoid screwing things up. Managers run their companies, lawyers look over their contracts, accountants oversee their finances, but they’re the owners, whether or not they’ve done a single thing of their own volition to accumulate those assets. This is broadly true of gentry classes: They’re hereditary. Large amounts of property of any kind form a durable base for generational wealth, whatever specific shape it might take. The American gentry class isn’t entirely closed to new blood, but it, too, is hereditary.

Equating wealth, especially generational wealth, with virtue and ability is a deeply American pathology. This country loves to believe that people get what they deserve, despite the abundant evidence to the contrary. Nowhere is this more obviously untrue than with our gentry class.

The American gentry stands at the apex of the social order throughout huge swaths of the country. It shapes our economic and political world thanks to its resources and comparatively large numbers, yet it’s practically invisible to the popular eye.

Forget the skyscrapers and opulent country mansions, the elite family dynamics of Succession and the antics of the Kardashians and Kardashian-adjacent; look instead to the far more numerous multimillion-dollar planned golf-course communities and their controlling homeowners’ associations. Think about the informal property-development deals struck between sweating local grandees at the country-club bar in Odessa, Texas, or Knoxville, Tennessee.

Power resides in gated communities and local philanthropic boards, in the ownership of staggering numbers of fast-food franchises, and in the smooth transmission of a large construction company’s assets to a new generation of small-yacht owners. Power can be found in group photos of half-soused, overweight men in ill-fitting polo shirts, and in the millionaires ready and willing to fly their private jets to Washington, D.C., in support of a certain would-be authoritarian. The yeoman developer of luxury condominiums, the single-digit-millionaire meatpacking-plant owner, the property-management entrepreneur: These were the people who, remembering or inventing their tradition of dominance over their towns and cities, flocked to Make America Great Again. As much as the United States loves to think of itself as an egalitarian paradise open to talent of any stripe, hierarchy and local power are no less the American way.

American Gentry“: the jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of America’s local hierarchies. From the invaluable Patrick Wyman (@Patrick_Wyman) , author of The Verge, newsletter writer– both of which are eminently worthy of reading, as is the full article excerpted above.

* Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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As we ponder privilege, we might recall that it was on this date in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. A pioneering study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use, it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

Carson documented her accusations that the chemical industry spread disinformation, and that public officials accepted those marketing claims unquestioningly. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies; but, thanks to public opinion, it sparked numerous changes: it led to a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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“Note, to-day, an instructive, curious spectacle and conflict”*…

States within the global political economy today face a twin insurgency, one from below, another from above. From below comes a series of interconnected criminal insurgencies in which the global disenfranchised resist, coopt, and route around states as they seek ways to empower and enrich themselves in the shadows of the global economy. Drug cartels, human traffickers, computer hackers, counterfeiters, arms dealers, and others exploit the loopholes, exceptions, and failures of governance institutions to build global commercial empires. These empires then deploy their resources to corrupt, coopt, or challenge incumbent political actors.

From above comes the plutocratic insurgency, in which globalized elites seek to disengage from traditional national obligations and responsibilities. From libertarian activists to tax-haven lawyers to currency speculators to mineral-extraction magnates, the new global super-rich and their hired help are waging a broad-based campaign to limit the reach and capacity of government tax-collectors and regulators, or to manipulate these functions as a tool in their own cut-throat business competition.

Unlike classic 20th-century insurgents, who sought control over the state apparatus in order to implement social reforms, criminal and plutocratic insurgents do not seek to take over the state. Nor do they wish to destroy the state, since they rely parasitically on it to provide the legacy goods of social welfare: health, education, infrastructure, and so on. Rather, their aim is simpler: to carve out de facto zones of autonomy for themselves by crippling the state’s ability to constrain their freedom of (economic) action…

From Nils Gilman (@nils_gilman), a sadly prophetic 2014 piece– the postmodern state is under siege from plutocrats and criminals who compound each other’s insidiousness: “The Twin Insurgency.”

For a more current– but altogether resonant– take (one that arrives at a similar conclusion from a different point of origin), see Harvard Law School professor and Berkman Center co-director Yochai Benkler‘s “The Real Reason the GOP Suppresses the Vote.

(This is being written the day before the election; sadly, the issues raised here will be with us regardless of the outcome…)

* Walt Whitman

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As we watch our flanks, we might recall that it was on this date in 1970 that Salvador Allende took office after being elected President of Chile. He was deposed in a military coup, actively supported by the U.S. CIA, in 1973.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 4, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democracy, from beneath which the old aristocratic colors sometimes peep”*…

Almost three decades ago, one of us, Jack Goldstone, published a simple model to determine a country’s vulnerability to political crisis. The model was based on how population changes shifted state, elite and popular behavior. Goldstone argued that, according to this Demographic-Structural Theory, in the 21st century, America was likely to get a populist, America-first leader who would sow a whirlwind of conflict.

Then ten years ago, the other of us, Peter Turchin, applied Goldstone’s model to U.S. history, using current data. What emerged was alarming: The U.S. was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Even before Trump was elected, Turchin published his prediction that the U.S. was headed for the “Turbulent Twenties,” forecasting a period of growing instability in the United States and western Europe.

Given the Black Lives Matter protests and cascading clashes between competing armed factions in cities across the United States, from Portland, Oregon to Kenosha, Wisconsin, we are already well on our way there. But worse likely lies ahead.

Our model is based on the fact that across history, what creates the risk of political instability is the behavior of elites, who all too often react to long-term increases in population by committing three cardinal sins. First, faced with a surge of labor that dampens growth in wages and productivity, elites seek to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves, driving up inequality. Second, facing greater competition for elite wealth and status, they tighten up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny. For example, in an increasingly meritocratic society, elites could keep places at top universities limited and raise the entry requirements and costs in ways that favor the children of those who had already succeeded.

Third, anxious to hold on to their rising fortunes, they do all they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits, even if that means starving the government of needed revenues, leading to decaying infrastructure, declining public services and fast-rising government debts.

Such selfish elites lead the way to revolutions. They create simmering conditions of greater inequality and declining effectiveness of, and respect for, government. But their actions alone are not sufficient. Urbanization and greater education are needed to create concentrations of aware and organized groups in the populace who can mobilize and act for change.

Top leadership matters. Leaders who aim to be inclusive and solve national problems can manage conflicts and defer a crisis. However, leaders who seek to benefit from and fan political divisions bring the final crisis closer. Typically, tensions build between elites who back a leader seeking to preserve their privileges and reforming elites who seek to rally popular support for major changes to bring a more open and inclusive social order. Each side works to paint the other as a fatal threat to society, creating such deep polarization that little of value can be accomplished, and problems grow worse until a crisis comes along that explodes the fragile social order.

These were the conditions that prevailed in the lead-up to the great upheavals in political history, from the French Revolution in the eighteenth century, to the revolutions of 1848 and the U.S. Civil War in the nineteenth century, the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the twentieth century and the many “color revolutions” that opened the twenty-first century. So, it is eye-opening that the data show very similar conditions now building up in the United States…

Two scholars long-ago predicted political upheaval in America in the 2020s. Why it’s here and what we can do to temper it: “Welcome To The ‘Turbulent Twenties’.” An important– and bracing– read.

As to how these challenges might unfold (JIC you’ve not yet seen this widely-circulated piece): “The Election That Could Break America.”

Of course, domestic issues are only one dimension of the challenges facing us. We have to deal with those same issues on a global level, as they play out in radically-changing geopolitics and geo-economics– all underlain by climate change: “Are we living at the ‘hinge of history’?

And finally, for those interested in the “plumbing” that enables the slide toward autocracy: “Money Laundering for 21st Century Authoritarianism: Western Enablement of Kleptocracy” (pdf).

* Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

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As we step up, we might recall that it was on thus date in 1962 that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published. A pioneering study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use, it challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind relates to the natural world.

Carson documented her accusations that the chemical industry spread disinformation, and that public officials accepted those marketing claims unquestioningly. Unsurprisingly, the book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies; but, thanks to public opinion, it sparked numerous changes: it led to a reversal in the United States’ national pesticide policy, and a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and helped to inspire an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept”*…

 

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One of the stranger rituals performed by the media in the Trump era has been to keep an obsessive count of the president’s lies since he took office. By September 2018, TheWashington Post reported, he had already passed the 5,000 mark, including a new one-day record of 125 on September 7. The Poynter Institute’s nonpartisan fact-checking project PolitiFact keeps a running list, and The New York Times did likewise throughout 2017.

There is a certain pointlessness to these exercises. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Donald Trump should recognize that, since long before his presidential campaign, he lies as easily as he breathes. He says whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, and whatever he thinks he can get away with. But if there is nothing truly revelatory about the number of Trump’s lies, keeping track of them still serves a variety of symbolic purposes for the commentators who repeat the steadily mounting figures with gleeful outrage. One is simply to underline the extent to which this is not a normal presidency. Another, far more debatable, is to hold up Trump as a symptom and symbol of what is often called the “post-truth era.”…

Princeton historian David Bell, reviewing Penn historian Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and History: a Short History

Not only does she make short work of the “postmodernism is to blame” argument; she provides the historical background necessary to understand our current truth crisis. That a crisis does indeed exist, Rosenfeld has no doubt. But it is not one that came upon the Western world from nowhere, like a meteor strike vaporizing a peaceful pastoral landscape. Instead, it broke along an epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding: Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth—an elite of the supposedly best, most intellectually capable citizens, or the people as a whole?…

Rosenfeld cannot resist mentioning the Trump lie count at the start of her book. But rather than treat it as a shocking sign of the new “post-truth era,” she uses it to note the obvious fact that truth and democratic politics have “never been on very good terms.” If we are now living in an age of unprecedented mendacity, what was the Nixon administration? For that matter, no less an American icon than George Washington complained, at the end of his presidency, of the “ignorance of facts” and “malicious falsehoods” with which hostile newspapers had tried to destroy his reputation.

Rosenfeld also insists (borrowing, yes, from Foucault) that different societies exist under different “regimes of truth.” Not all truths are self-evident, and not all facts are easily verifiable, so societies need particular evidentiary standards and forms of authority to determine where truth lies. These can change from place to place and from era to era; they are rarely (if ever) stable or uncontested, but continuities are still discernible.

Our own regime of truth dates back to the 18th century, when a host of Enlightenment thinkers challenged established churches and rulers. They insisted that no single individual or institution should “hold a monopoly…on determining what counts as truth in public life” and disputed the idea—long promoted by absolute monarchs—that good rulership involved keeping most information secret and lying when necessary to protect the state. They put a premium on the values of openness, transparency, sincerity, freedom of expression, and unfettered debate. In short, they created the “truth culture of the transatlantic Enlightenment.”…

How does truth fit into democracy?  Read in full at “An Equal Say.”

* George Carlin

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As we contemplate context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1825 that the U.S. House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams to the Presidency.  The election of 1824 had been contested by four candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party: John Quincy Adams, Andrew jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay.  Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, and a plurality– but not a majority– of the electoral college vote… so the race went to the House of Representatives.  Per the Twelfth Amendment, the House considered the top three vote-getters in the electoral college.  That eliminated Clay, who threw his support to Adams– who prevailed.

After the election (the first in which a president did not receive the most popular votes; so far the only race settled in the House), Adams named Clay to the coveted post of Secretary of State– deemed “the corrupt bargain” by Jackson, who went on to form (what evolved into) the Democratic Party.  The Democratic-Republicans became the National Republican Party (AKA, the Anti-Jackson Party), then the Whig Party.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

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