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Democracy Against Capitalism: Liberalism

In Chapter 7 of Democracy against Capitalism Ellen Meiksins Wood sets out an historical analysis of the politics of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, starting with England. In Wood’s telling, two of the major steps along the way were Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Both events temporarily settled the relations between the nobility and centralizing state in the person of the monarch. Neither event had anything to do with the establishment of democracy in the sense of rule by the people. The settlements assume the continued servility of the masses, and continued domination by the aristocracy. The power of the nobility was based on their economic domination through non-economic means, military, juridical, and ideological, and on control over the power of the nascent state.

As feudalism morphed into capitalism, domination was split between two forces, the centralizing state and increasing economic power, mostly held by the aristocracy and by the rising merchant class. The latter were threatened by growing centralized power, and reacted to it by working to increase the power of the Parliament which they controlled. Capitalism helped make this possible because the economically dominant class was able to extract surplus from the productive sector through economic power, only somewhat aided by the power of the state.

Liberalism became the dominant ideology among the dominant economic class. This use of the term “liberal” has a specific meaning: it refers to a set of values including limited government, constitutionalism, individual rights and civil liberties. Kindle Loc. 4499. The pre-condition for this kind of liberalism is the existence of a centralized state, one that has to be limited by these ideological constructs. Kindle Loc. 4502.

The dominant classes were willing to extend civil protections from the central state to the multitudes. What they were not willing to do was to allow any intrusion on their rights of property. That led to a search for legal and constitutional protections of their property rights. Capitalism provided the economic framework for this project. Citizenship relates to the State, and a growing right to select representatives to govern. Citizenship is irrelevant to the economy, where the economically dominant class controls everything. Legal and ideological structures protect that division.

Wood looks at US history, and sees a somewhat similar process. In the US, a limited form of democracy existed in the States at the time the Constitution was written, and the Founding Fathers could not displace it. Still, the same solution emerged. The Constitution protects property interests. Theoretically, all citizens share in that protection of property, but the emphasis is on political freedoms, the liberal freedoms of individual rights and civil liberties, and limited government. The principle limit on government was to prevent it from imposing restrictions on the free use of property. The dominant class, first merchants, then industrialists, and then financiers, controls the economy.

The idea was that all citizens would be represented by their elected officials. Wood says that the representatives are removed from the people at large, both spatially in the sense that the central government was isolated; and in the sense that the representatives are few in number compared to the number of citizens.

In ‘representative democracy’ rule by the people remained the principal criterion of democracy, even if rule was filtered through representation tinged with oligarchy, and the peoplel was evacuated of its social content. Kindle Loc. 4436; ital. in orig.

The term “social content” means the natural social context in which people live, relations of home, work, church, community. This idea of representation is natural according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 35, quoted by Wood

The idea of actual representation of all classes of the people, by people of each class, is altogether visionary…. Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants in preference to persons of their own professions or trades…. they are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by merchants than by themselves. They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless…. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community. Kindle Loc. 4240.

These words could have come from Plato, substituting a different elite for merchants, or from any other elitist theorist. This obviously is not rule by the people, as in the original meaning of democracy. As I type this, we can see our elitists in action, busily confirming a known liar and a sexual creep to join four other conservative hacks on SCOTUS, where they will decide just how much majority rule we are allowed.

The political sphere is the home of limited government, the home of civil liberties, the home of individual rights. That sphere is separate from the economic sphere, which is put into the hands of the oligarchs, the rich, and their minions. The economic sphere is the area that provides us with the means to live, mostly by selling our labor. The idea is that the political sphere is not supposed to interfere with the economic sphere, insuring that every part of our productive lives are at the disposal of the rich, including our ability to provide our families and ourselves with food and shelter.

Wood sees liberalism as “democracy tinged with oligarchy”. As I explain in this 2013 post at Naked Capitalism, we live in an oligarchy inside a democracy. This and similar posts at FDL are based on Oligarchy in the United States? by Benjamin Page and Jeffrey Winters and on Winters’ book Oligarchy. They argue that Oligarchs share three interests:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

Oligarchs differ on what we call social issues (the carceral state, abortion, gay rights, guns and so on), which in Wood’s telling are the domain of the political sphere. Consequently some legislation on those issues is possible. Their views on economic issues are almost identical. A threat to one rich person is a threat to all. Therefore they unite on economic issues and generally prevail when legislation or regulation threatens any of them. Or when they really want a SCOTUS nominee to be confirmed.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Base, Superstructure and More Definitions

The goal of Ellen Meiksins Wood in Democracy Against Capitalism is to resuscitate the Marxian method of historical materialism. This seems to be a perennial problem for Marxist thought; it was one of the central issues facing the Frankfurt School as we saw in The Dialectical Imagination by Martin Jay. See, e.g. pp. 41 et seq. Part of Wood’s method is argue her definition of some of the critical terms used by Marxists especially in Chapters 2-5. Wood compares her view to those she considers less valid, a typical approach in technical works. My interest is whether any of this can help us understand the rise of neoliberalism.

Chapter 2 discusses a common metaphor, base and superstructure. This from Wikipedia gives a good idea of the problem Wood wants to address:

In Marxist theory, human society consists of two parts: the base (or substructure) and superstructure. The base comprises the forces and relations of production (e.g. employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations) into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. The base determines society’s other relationships and ideas to comprise its superstructure, including its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state. While the relation of the two parts is not strictly causal, as the superstructure often affects the base, the influence of the base is predominant. In Orthodox Marxism, the base determines the superstructure in a one-way relationship. Marx and Engels warned against such economic determinism.

This definition contains more terms requiring a definition. What are the relations of production? This is from the Marxists International Archive Encyclopedia:

The objective material relations that exist in any society independently of human consciousness, formed between all people in the process of social production, exchange, and distribution of material wealth.

Examples of objective material relations are listed in Wikipedia: “employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations”. The forces of production are the unity of the means of production and labor.

Wood gives a her own list of the relations of production: exploitation, domination and appropriation. Kindle Loc. 1175.

And since we’re doing definitions, here’s a description of the term Capitalist Mode of Production from Wikipedia:

The capitalist mode of production is characterized by private ownership of the means of production, extraction of surplus value by the owning class for the purpose of capital accumulation, wage-based labour and—at least as far as commodities are concerned—being market-based.

The Wikipedia discussion of base and superstructure suggests that the general idea is that the economic base exerts control over the superstructure, and that occasionally changes in the superstructure cause changes in the base. Wood thinks that the two are more closely related. Capital has a lot of control over the superstructure, and can force changes in the base. At the same time, changes in the economic base can force changes in the superstructure.

All of this seems quite obvious. Changes in the machines and processes used in production can require adjustments to laws and rules both to allow the use and to protect workers. It’s also true of other superstructure elements, such as law. In the US, for example, the laws have gradually changed to allow non-compete clauses in contracts between employers and the lowest level of employees. Restaurant chains can require delivery employees, cooks, and window clerks to sign non-compete agreements. That obviously is part of the work conditions between employer and employee, which is identified as part of the base while the change in law is part of the superstructure.

The primary use of this distinction for Wood seems to be that we can use the ideas to isolate parts of society for study and analysis, but that we have to remember always that different parts of a society affect each other.

I draw the following conclusions from this chapter, which I’ve now read three times so you don’t have to.

1. Reading this book is tedious, in part because one or more of the terms I’ve defined and a few other terms we all sort of know (social formation, class struggle, etc.) appear on every Kindle page, which for me is probably 100 words. But in this kind of work, careful definitions matter. When we look back at the past, we see a vast number of specific events. Historical materialism tries to make sense of these events in terms of forces that amount to more than the individual decisions of all our ancestors, logic and laws that can be derived from study. Wood describes historical materialism as follows:

A materialist understanding of the world, then, is an understanding of the social activity and the social relations through which human beings interact with nature in producing the conditions of life; and it is a historical understanding which acknowledges that the products of social activity, the forms of social interaction produced by human beings, themselves become material forces, no less than are natural givens. (Kindle Loc. 491.)

To do this, Marxists use the terms I’ve defined here, although often with other definitions. Each definition has the potential to produce a different interpretation of history. Consequently, these tedious definitions and the tedious prose they help create are necessary.

2. The description of the relation of production as exploitation, domination and appropriation is striking. I wonder if there are any large societies in which these relations do not control production?

3. Domination seems to be the most important, perhaps because of the books I’ve been writing about. Pierre Bourdieu made it a central element of his life’s work. I didn’t get to finish Foucault’s Security Territory and Population (maybe I will someday), but one of the main ideas of that book and other works by Foucault is governmentality, and the systems that have arisen to produce it. Domination is a central focus of oligarchy, because it enables the oligarchs to achieve their common purposes:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

I doubt that Marxism is the best way to study domination in a contemporary complex society like the US or France. I don’t see on the google any evidence that Wood engaged with the works of Bourdieu or Foucault. But I am sure that our normal social discourse depends on pretending that we are not dominated.

4. The three relations have deep roots in our individual psyches. It’s easy to see that domination/submission drives behavior in the animal kingdom as pictured in the term Alpha Male. Exploitation and appropriation are frequently found with domination. Perhaps recognition of those fundamental psychological issues drove the scholars of the Frankfurt School to attempt to incorporate Freudian psychology into their revamped Marxism.

5. Ideology is one part of the superstructure, I plan to take that up using this article by Wood.

Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion

Posts in this series; some of the terms I use are described more fully in these posts.
Trumpian Motion
Negative Responses to Trumpian Motion
Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion
Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion
Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

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The driving force behind Trumpian Motion is the economically dominant class. In this post I look for an explanation, using the framework provided by Pierre Bourdieu as described in David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu studies the way social classes reproduce themselves so that the dominated class accepts domination as a fair outcome based on their lack of personal merit;, and the dominant class sees its power as natural and not the result of their birth, selection and grooming. A good example of the latter is that the academically marginal at best W. Bush got into Yale.

Bourdieu describes several kinds of capital, economic, social, cultural, religious and others. The most important is economic capital, and cultural capital is second. Cultural capital is a form of power based on “… verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, information about the school system, and educational credentials…. P. 75.

Swartz offers this summary of Bourdieu’s thinking:

Bourdieu considers conflict to be the fundamental dynamic of all social life. At the heart of all social arrangements is the struggle for power. One of Bourdieu’s key claims is that this struggle is carried out over symbolic as well as material resources. Moreover, it is Bourdieu’s fundamental claim that cultural resources, such as education credentials, have come to function as a kind of capital, and thereby have become a new and distinct source of differentiation in modern societies. P. 136.

The struggles Bourdieu discusses take place in fields. Fields are arenas governed by formal and informal rules of struggle. The field of power has fewer and less clear rules, but it is the most important. P.138. Bourdieu thinks economic capital is engaged in a struggle with cultural capital for domination in the field of power. This field operates as a source of differentiation and ranking in all fields, including political power.

Domination arises from power. The possessors of cultural power (the terms capital and power mean the same thing) have the ability to be dominant in some areas. Thus, artists, physical scientists, social scientists, museum curators, movie-makers, writers, teachers and others possess cultural power. Cultural power includes symbolic power, which controls the way people understand and respond to the social world. Symbolic power manifests itself in all areas of our social lives. I’ll use two examples: our concepts of justice and fairness; and our understanding of the physical universe.

The dominant culture in this country has changed over the last 50 years in the areas of justice and fairness. For example, when Social Security passed, it was designed to give as little as possible to African-Americans, and that was necessary to gain support from Southern Democratic party legislators . That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago (I’m less sure about today). The same thing is true of other forms of discrimination. So, that’s one expression of cultural symbolic power.

The second example of cultural power arises from the hard sciences and technology. Our understanding of the physical universe has increased dramatically, giving rise to huge fortunes and at the same time showing the dangers of the new understandings.

In the US, the cultural elites (those with a lot of cultural power) quit struggling with the economic elites (those with financial assets) and accepted the domination of capitalism. The economic elites largely quit struggling with the cultural elites over almost all matters of justice and fairness, including racism, sexism, and LGBTQ issues.

Economic elites have a mixed record with physical scientists and technology. In general they support it, but in specific instances they attack. For example, we knew from the 1920s on that leaded gasoline was dangerous. The history of getting lead out of gasoline is ugly, as the petroleum and auto industries lied and denied that danger. That opposition was controlled. Industry claimed to use science in its defense, and pretended to rely on their own fraudulent studies and false assertionas about defects in opposition studies.

As our knowledge grew and time passed, there were more and more examples of the free market poisoning the planet and building unsafe products and then lying and denying to cover it up. Just look at seat belts, the Ford Pinto, smog, water pollution, tobacco, other carcinogens, estrogen toxicity, and global warming. The scientists and technicians who study these things have been shouting into the wind about all of them, but industrial giants and their captive organizations fight back with increasing shrillness and personal attacks. With global warming, the attacks have broadened out because the science is so widespread across disciplines, and it now seems that the economic elites don’t care if they wreck the scientific community and discredit scientific methodology.

These attacks would not happen without the implicit assent of the economic elites.

Bourdieu says that economic power requires some other justification for its legitimacy. P. 91. In the Middle Ages that justification came from religion, which linked Monarchs and the aristocracy to divine will. Today it comes from cultural power, and from symbolic power. Or at least, it did before the rise of neoliberalism, a creation of the cultural elites in the field of economics. They purport to have a complete grasp of human nature. They tell the broad public that the market is wonderful and will make everything great. Meanwhile, economists whisper in the ears of the economic elite that they are the natural leaders blessed by the Market; it’s a modern version of Calvinism. Economic elites no longer need the cultural elites to provide legimation, because they are selected by the supreme computer. And so they feel free to attack the holders of cultural capital, to make them the enemy.

And what’s the goal of the rich? As we learn from James Winters and Benjamin Page, the rich have three goals in common:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

They don’t want any interference from anyone, especially the 99%. I’d like to think that there are responsible rich people, but I can’t think of a single example of any of the .01% effectively objecting to any effort of their peers to benefit themselves or the entire group of rich people.

The truce is dead. The economic elites are attacking the cultural elites. The cultural elites ignored the rise of the rich too long, and now lack the capacity to fight back effectively. And that’s why we are suffering from Trumpian Motion. It hides the gluttonous rich behind a wall of noise and fear.

Television by Frank Okay via Unsplash

Corporate Biopower as an Instrument of US Oligarchy

An essay titled FEAR & UNbalanced: Confessions of a 14-Year Fox News Hitman by Tobin Smith offers an explanation of the ratings success of Fox News. Smith says he asked Roger Ailes, the then head of Fox News, about the target audience of Fox News. Ailes said it was men aged “55 to dead”, who look like Ailes, “… white guys in mostly Red State counties who sit on their couch with the remote in their hand all day and night,” and “They want to see YOU tear those smug condescending know-it-all East Coast liberals to pieces . . limb by limb . . . until they jump up out of their LaZ boy and scream “Way to go Toby…you KILLED that libtard!”

Smith says this is addicting: “…Visceral gut feelings of existential outrage relieved by … the thrill of your tribe’s victory over its enemy…” The technique for achieving this addiction is the same as in pro wrestling, where there are two characters, the Baby Face and the Heel. The Heel seems on the verge of winning, but the Baby Face triumphs in the end. At Fox News, there are two characters, the Libtard and the Hitman, both totally scripted.

The Libtard’s goal is to enrage the viewer by reciting liberal or progressive ideas in a predictable, smug superior way. The viewer already hates these ideas and the people who espouse them from listening to thousands of hours of right-wing radio.

Key Point: the viewer’s rage set their brain’s pleasure giving dopamine delivery system into high gear . . .and when their fellow conservative protagonist/tribal hero (aka me the hitman) turned the liberal’s own words against them and vanquished the sniveling apostate into living hell on live TV…WOW…the pleasure chemical rushed through the Fox viewer’s brain like a deep hit of crack cocaine (btw its the dopamine system in the brain that cocaine stimulates and makes it so addictive).

I’m pretty sure this isn’t just pop psychology, although I’m not quite sure he’s got the chemistry right. Here’s an article from Psychology Today, with further links for those interested. This paper says that dopamine/serotonin systems play a role in control of anger, as well as addiction.

Fox News isn’t the only entity out there dishing out tension and release. It’s a staple in the movies. Recently I saw a fragment of a 2008 Clint Eastwood movie, Gran Torino, in which three tall Black guys were pushing around a Hmong girl whose white boyfriend was spineless. Fortunately Eastwood drives by and intervenes with what looked like a .45 caliber pistol he just happened to have in his belt. The tension was palpable as the pushing around and threatening continued for several minutes with pulsating music, then was increased as the old white guy strode up and confronted the three guys, and then was released with the sudden appearance of the gun. This ridiculous movie grossed $272 million worldwide.

Another anecdotal example: how many of us have watched our dads get hooked on Fox News, like my dad did. His hearing and vision were bad, but he wouldn’t let anyone change the channel away from the Fox. He was always a bit angry about politics, but in his old age, he was remorseless. Here’s another anecdote.

We say movies like Gran Torino keep us glued to the edge of our seats; we mean we are waiting for the next tightening of tension and the sudden release. It helps me understand why Tobin Smith says that these old guys on couches hold that remote with a death grip; they want that fix.

Of course, media have always manipulated public opinion. But that at least was done with words, and could be countered, at least potentially, with smarter words. This is a simple manipulation of brain chemistry by a corporation for its own ends. It’s a psych experiment that would never be permitted by an Institutional Review Board.

Let’s put this in a larger context.

Bio-power and bio-politics are terms used by Michel Foucault to explain the way the state controls and defends its population. This recent essay by Rachel Adams posted at Critical Legal Thinking is a good introduction to Foucault’s thinking. For starters, recall that for Foucault “… power ts a relationship in which one person has the ability to guide another, to influence the behavior of another. This is an unequal relationship, but it is in itself neither good nor bad.”

According to Adams bio-power is the power of the State to influence the lives of the people it controls in a positive manner. She says Foucault describes two poles of power in the current era. One is the disciplinary pole, jail, mental hospitals; also, training the young in schools, banning noxious chemicals, and enforcing open spaces in cities. She quotes this from Foucault’s Will To Knowledge:

The second, formed somewhat later, focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity, with all the conditions that can cause these to vary. Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population. (Italics in original).

I interpret this to mean that issues of births and mortality, health, life expectancy, and the conditions that cause these, are properly the subject of politics in the current era, and that it is appropriate and necessary that the State provide a framework for making decisions about those outcomes and conditions. In other words, they become a proper subject of practical politics and of theoretical and scientific study. In a democracy, at least theoretically we all have a role in making decisions about these matters. Foucault makes it clear that such decisions should be made rationally, considering the possible outcomes of possible choices and selecting those that advance the values of the society.

Of course, it’s perfectly possible that the decision-making processes can be hijacked by people furthering only their own personal interests. This is how I view the Fox News crowd. The addiction practiced on their audience makes the target audience suckers for whichever candidate multi-billionaire octogenarian Rupert Murdoch chooses. That addicted audience is the people who now rejoice at the dismay of the libtards at the gutting of government and of health care and of all our international relationships.

It’s a new form of bio-power: the direct manipulation of brain chemistry for the goals of the people who control the vast capital pools in the private sector. It fits neatly into our oligarchy. Not all billionaires support all the garbage Fox spews about cultural issues, but they all support his economic agenda. And quite a few billionaires don’t really believe in democracy; they think they should make decisions about policy and infrastructure themselves. That’s the basis of their support for privatization, public/private partnerships for infrastructure, charter schools and deregulation, all of which are ways of displacing social control and inserting themselves directly in control.

So far, the people subject to this kind of manipulation aren’t a majority. So far.

Obama White House Sponsors Young and Rich Narcissistic 1% Fucktards That Will Ruin the World

Proving it is never too late to shine your lame duck ass for a new generation of 1% oligarchs, Barack Obama laid open the real constituency of national politicians. And proved certain any inference that such was only the constituency and province of the GOP, Koch Brothers et. al is false.

If this is not stupid and ugly to the common Democratic fanchild, it is hard to imagine what is, or could be. From the New York Times hagiography:

On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.

Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.

“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.

“Moon shots!”

I guess the Obama White House couldn’t fathom a better phrase for coming in their pants over big money.

If there is a more sick comment on the perverted state of US national politics, it is hard to imagine what it would be.

We are ruled by a bunch of oligarchs, and political handmaidens that kiss the oligarch’s asses and hew their beck and call. If the fact the great once and forever symbol of the common citizen “hope and change”, Barack Obama, is such a distant leader, constantly beholden to not only the future of the moneyed class, but the current too, then there is no reality for the American public.

The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt. His family’s Carlson company, which owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, T.G.I. Friday’s and other brands, is an industry leader in enforcing measures to combat trafficking and involuntary prostitution.

Oh my. And holy crap.

The New York Times penned a factual report of this sick instance. Will the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or any of the other august opinion pages of national press, deign themselves honest enough to write opinion and/or editorial pieces recognizing this political cancer for what it really is?

If you did not view the video, and listen to the lyrics in the video above, do so. Because that is exactly the class of “super citizens” your elected leaders are beholden to. The handful of billionaires count for far more than the actual billions of people on this earth.

Want proof? Look no further than the “liberal”, “socialist”, “Democratic” Obama White House, who just demonstrated the problem in Technicolor.

And, before you chafe, of course it would be even worse with Republicans in charge. But the question is no longer just which party is in control of the levers of power (though it DOES matter for SCOTUS), but where the values of the country really are.

It is almost impossible to fathom the country’s values are with the pimple faced, Bieber banged, teenager scions of billionaires the Obama White House so calmly and cooly glad-hands.

[Seriously, watch the video from the one, the only, fantastic Tubes:

Young and rich
Everything I desire
Light bulbs with shades
in every room
And work is play–believe me
Nothing must come too hard
It comes in the mail
most everyday

Maybe our leaders should find a more representative, and morally balanced, set of leaders for the future.]

The Elites Cling to Their Jobs

After the job numbers on Friday showed that we continue to tread water on job creation, Chris Hayes tweeted,

Dirty secret about the jobs crisis: A lot of the policy elite in both parties don’t think there’s much to be done.

I asked him whether that was because of political reasons–that they couldn’t pass anything through Congress–or because of ideological ones, because “they think this is structural or there’s no possible room for maneuver.” He responded,

not political reasons. a lot of people buy the structural story and Reinhart-Rogoff post crisis account

(Here’s a Paul Krugman post on Reinhart-Rogoff for background and a critique.)

Though he did retweet Dan Froomkin’s point that “Policymakers have tons of ways to create jobs, many just aren’t possible w/o crushing GOP obstruction.” “Oy. Time to get a new set of elites,” I said the guy who had written the book on such matters.

Twilight of the Elites

I’ve been meaning to post on Hayes’ Twilight of the Elite since I read it months and months ago. I agree with Freddie DeBoer that the book feels kluged together. Unlike DeBoer, I thought Hayes’ description of the many failures of the elite its best part: the Catholic Church pedophile scandal, the Katrina response, our failed and permanent wars, the financial crisis. Hayes’ indictment of the elite is a concise proof that our elites really aren’t worthy of their name.

The rest of the book maps out both what Hayes understands our current elite to be, the reasons for its failures–which Hayes argues is the decline of the educational meritocracy put in place last century, and a proposal to reverse that trend and so, Hayes hopes, to return our elite what he sees as its proper function.

It’s in his conception of the elite where I disagree with Hayes. First, he assumes our elite is primarily based on intelligence.

Of all the status obsessions that pre-occupy our elites, none is quite so prominent as the obsession with smartness. Intelligence is the core value of the meritocracy, one which stretches back to the earliest years of standardized testing, when the modern-day SAT descended from early IQ tests. To call a member of the elite “brilliant” is to pay that person the highest compliment.

In his critique of Hayes, DeBoer unpacks several of the problems why we shouldn’t use intelligence as a measure of meritocracy generally (and I’ll follow up on this in a later post).

Educational outcomes are dictated by a vast number of factors uncontrollable by students, parents, or educators, and the lines are never as bright as “took a test prep class/didn’t.” If it’s anything like the SAT and most other standardized tests, the Hunter exam is undermined by sociocultural factors that condition our metrics for intelligence.

At its most basic, the logic of “meritocracy” is ironclad: putting the most qualified, best equipped people into the positions of the greatest responsibility and import.

DeBoer’s talking about why shouldn’t use education. But I’m not even sure we do, except as a stand-in for a kind of cultural indoctrination (which is sort of what DeBoer is saying).

Our elites aren’t so smart

Among the symptoms of the failure of the elite Hayes offers, after all, are steroids in baseball, the Sandusky scandal, and the financial crisis. The importance of athletic failures should make it clear that book-smart people aren’t our only elites. And while many of the people responsible for the financial crisis came through elite schools (though I can attest that even weak students at those elite schools got great offers from the bankster industry, because they were culturally appropriate, which was more important than academic success), a lot didn’t.

Indeed, I’d like to suggest that the consummate elite–the guy wielding more power in our society than anyone else–is Sheldon Adelson. He’s a working class CCNY dropout who succeeded by making massive bets and also by using all means–with lots of dollar signs attached–to influence elites around the world. Any conception of the elite that doesn’t account for the way Sheldon Adelson can single-handedly play one of the most significant roles in the so-called democracy of two countries is a misunderstanding of what traits our society values. The smart people? They’re just the servants of the ballsy gamblers who rode a string of luck and ruthlessness to power.

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