The New Class Conflict

By: Joel Kotkin

I don't know if you, like me, have noticed an increasingly embattled exchange in our public arena.

Some of this, I know, is due to social media. At first it was Twitter's tendency to slide into what more resembled the old Flamewars of BBS days, a series of increasingly angry if terse and occasionally clever barbs aimed at "the other side." So I quit it.

Then I began to notice that good ol' Facebook, that happy place of kitties, puppies, children's photos and funny platitudes had become more and more political; more and more nasty; less and less interesting. I find myself spending less and less time with it, if for no other reason that to get to the end of the day without feeling oddly angry.

Still, when a book like this one comes along, I can't help myself, and I want to dive in.

The story is simple: class warfare will always be with us, it just morphs. What was good was bad, what was "done" simply isn't any more; what was proper and decent is laughable and dated. The foreward sets the tone by reminding us of that great snark, H.L. Mencken, who sat and "observed the scene," usually with a decent amount of hauteur and humor.

Now Kotkin, explains foreward writer Fred Siegel, perhaps more earnest and scholarly, is stepping into similar shoes in this book, pointing out that, having hovered somewhere near "true north" for a while, our "contemporary political compass is broken. The standard assumptions that fill our 'quality dailies' and their aural offshoots are guided by presuppositions about what constitutes right and left that have been eclipsed by the changes of the past quarter century."

I recall reading about "pole shift" some years ago - the idea that once every so many eons the poles, north and south, shifted polarity, causing enormous disruption. Or supposedly this happens. No one, certainly, has lived to tell the tale, though there are indicators that it has happened. Certainly, however, we only have to look back as far as the Civil War to know that it was the Republican Party that sponsored the Abolitionist movement, and the Progressives who some years later sponsored Prohibition. Things do flip flop, Kerry and several other politicians or no.

Kotkin's primary thesis is that all the labels we have assigned to various roles in society, and the influence they exert, have lost meaning, should be trashed, and he has come up with a new, possibly more accurate way of organizing our American brand of "castes."

He is hardly the first to point out that the Robber Barons of the early industrial age had nothin' on the very wealthy of our age. "In 2013 alone," he writes, "nine private equity investors took home over $2.6 billion in compensation just by themselves, an amount unprecedented for such a small group. In addition, there has been a rapid increase in compensation to corporate management; since 1978, pay for CEOs rose a remarkable 725%, more than one hundred times the increase in worker compensation."

See, I told ya! I can hear that now. What might be different, however, is the degree to which the "growing alliance between the ultra-wealthy and the instruments of state power" has cozied up. "Too big to fail," while not utterly new as an idea, was once the bete-noir of government trust-busters, even at the risk of putting the lowest paid workers out of a job.

Moreover, Kotkin points out, contrary to what might be expected, it's not just the Republicans "with their long, historic ties to Wall Street and laissez-faire ideology" who are accepting of such inequity. Much as the recent administration and its populist voice has expressed disgust at the "one percent," it is perhaps the makeup of that one percent that is surprising, as well as the fact that "95 percent of the income gains during President Obama's first term have gone to barely one percent of the population, while incomes have declined for the lower 93 percent. As one writer from the left-leaning Huffington Post put it, 'the rising tide has lifted fewer boats during the Obama years - the ones it's lifted have been mostly yachts.'"

It is the "discrepancy between rhetoric and reality" that interests Kotkin, and that motivate much of his vision of the new class structure.

At the topmost rung he places "The New Oligarchs."  The digital economy, "manifested in the shift of physical products and services into cyberspace, has engendered the emergence of what I will describe as a new, and potentially potent, Oligarchy, with influence that extends into the media and political world."

This post-industrial economy has given pride of place to the professional and technical class, decreasing reliance on labor, both skilled and unskilled. Even pixel workers, the line-workers of the modern era, are fungible resources. Unplug that one, jack another one in.

Moreover, "over the coming decades, the nwe Oligarchs impact will be enhanced by the fact that so many have achieved their fortunes at an early age; tech Oligarchs, mostly from Silicon Valley, represent the lion's share of billionaires under forty who are not inheritors of family fortunes. In 2014 alone at least ten new billionaires emerged from this sector."

So not only are they young (and potentially immature even for their years), but their influence could extend over decades as they continue to live, thrive, and buy influence.

And they are, according to Kotkin, inordinately interested in influencing the shape of the country's future direction. Like the industrial barons a century earlier, they want to protect their interests, but they are also cause-directed. But Kotkin warns that "today's 'philanthrocapitcalism' differs markedly from the philanthropy of the past. Instead of helping hospitals, building libraries or supporting soup kitchens, the new Oligarchs have risen to what author David Callahan calls "affluent super-citizens,' able to use their money to craft their own solutions to social problem." In other words, a "do-gooder" steeped in the needs of the poor, the uneducated, the needy, doesn't apply to the Oligarch for support of his or her charity. The Oligarch has a plan of his own for how to "fix" things.

Moreover, these new Oligarchs "depend on mass consumerism, (but they) base their fortunes primarily on the sales of essentially ephemeral goods; media, advertising, and entertainment. These products and services consume time and leisure more than physical space; they are less reliant on low-cost domestic energy sources, as their products are either software or built elsewhere. Indeed, many of the new Oligarchs have profited through investment in very expensive renewable energy sources that have enjoyed often lavish public subsidies."

And here is the devil in the details: "these industries (in which the New Oligarchs are engaged) employ relatively few Americans.

Kotkin now moves on to the "Clerisy," or those who dwell in academia, media, government and the non-profit sector. "These groups have expanded," he writes, "as much of the middle class has declined... (their influence stems) from persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society. This has particular impact given that the vast majority of the Clerisy are increasingly uniform in their worldview, especially in political matters, their approach to environmental issues, and their social values. In practical terms, such as in their support (for the) Democratic Party, they are both broadly allied with the tech Oligarchs and are themselves becoming a huge center of power and influence, much as the clergy was in medieval and early modern times."

I considered that statement above, particularly in light of the tendency for "discussions" on Comboxes (comment boxes) on political websites, or politically-oriented posts on Facebook and other social media to devolve to "Your (sic) dumb!" "No, you are a retard (libtard, wingnut, fill in the blank)!" I realized that indeed, the Clerisy sees itself as having "the secret knowledge," and to admit to not sharing in that belief is tantamount to admitting not ignorance, but stupidity verging on being backward, and to heresy.

The next group to be considered are the poor Yeomanry. Once the backbone of the nation, these are the great unwashed, the erstwhile Middle Class. Once a flourishing bastion of votes and buying power, courted by everyone, this group has shrunk to a pitiful remnant, clinging, whether bitterly or not, to its attempt to move up. "Even at the height of the latest economic expansion," warns Kotkin, "the typical middle-class American saw only one percent income growth, adjusted for inflation, compared to six percent in the period from 1995 to 2000. Throughout at least the last two decades, economic change has benefited top workers at financial services companies, technology firms, and the highest-end businesses, while incomes for the middle and working classes have suffered as low-wage job have proliferated."

And of course the "fading Yeomanry threatens to create a more bifurcated soceity, with an increasing number of formerly middle-class people becoming, in a sense, proletarianized." This is doubly painful as many of this group are educated, and had higher expectations, unlike the serf class of the middle ages, and "the ability of less-skilled workers to break into high-wage work has slowed, trapping many in a kind of permanent status as working poor. Increasingly these workers are older and better-educated than low-wage workers in the past."

"Rather than be helped in the new economic order," warns Kotkin, "the once-independent Yeoman class is expected to accepts its new role as home care providers, hairdressers, dog walkers, and toenail painters for the 'innovative class.'"

I won't give away the surprise ending - but suffice to say Kotkin asks the question, "Will the Middle Orders Revolt?" and then launches into a discussion of how decentralization, dispersed intelligence, and a break in the old patterns and orthodoxies, while difficult, has often meant a new period of Enlightenment and growth, and that the smoke-filled back rooms of yore frequently come equipped with a smart phone camera to share the discussions held therein.

No matter what your political persuasions going in, Kotkin will surprise you with an even-handed approach to per-conceived notions and comfort you with an essential belief in our ability to rise to the occasion and reinvent our political parties, our belief systems, and ourselves.


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