Chrystia Freeland has an interesting article in ‘The Atlantic’ entitled “The Rise of the New Global Elite”.
It indicates, whether she quite intends to or not, that the time has come to speak of many things.
She is discussing, as she says, the rise of a new class of rich and superrich. This is a super-elite class of new-wealth CEOs of international and global corporations, none more than second-generation rich and many having acquired their wealth in their own lifetimes by their own activities.
This is not the ‘old money’ and the ‘old’ rich of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood flicks: older, having inherited their wealth that had been built up by earlier generations of their family or clan, aspiring to a certain old-Europe aristocratic clawss and detachment, and thinking of ‘the poor’ as being the objects of a certain amount of charity and otherwise separated from them by a comfortable abyss of wealth and social position.
The new “super-elite” are “hard-working, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition”. In a sense, then, they more closely resemble an earlier American type, the founder of great industrial enterprises and corporations and fortunes (think Vanderbilt, Astor, and Carnegie and Ford). The so-called Robber Barons of the Gilded Age but also the individuals who helped – with more ruthlessness as well as savvy self-application than their descendants or the nation at large might care to admit – harness America’s resources (natural, cultural, human) toward the marshaling of huge, corporately-organized Production and Productivity.
In a sense, the new super-elites have done the same thing.
Except that they have been doing it in other countries, using the cheaper labor and determinedly cooperative governments of the former Developing World to increase profits and to actually generate – over there – new huge middle-classes of consumers.
They are repeating the archetypal American magic of turning Resources into Produced Wealth.
Except they are no longer doing it in America.
As I have often noted, it seemed to me that the Beltway’s great strategic deal, struck originally by the Dems for political purposes in the 1970s but soon joined by the Republicans, was: pander to the New Left by granting all the many demands for this and that ‘right’ – especially in terms of employment – while also collecting through Tip O’Neill’s recently-erected PACs nice gobs of cash from the corporations to quietly allow them to pursue profits elsewhere on the planet.
This was a bipartisan gambit almost from the beginning. The Dems would be able to keep their newly valorized Identity demographics happy by pointing to the welter of laws that would force business to accept the burdens of opening up classic American jobs to increasingly numerous Identities regardless of the consequences to productivity and competence. The American job became ‘a piece of the pie’ for this and that group, with the radical-feminists insisting most weightily that employment was an absolute essential for female empowerment and liberation, and that employment in the ‘classic’ male jobs of industrial capitalism and production would also instantly confer ‘status’ and bring about essential ‘change’ in American culture and society. And anyway, smokestack industrialism was so ‘male’ – and mostly ‘white – and all that had to go, according to revolutionary doctrine of the day.
Daniel Bell’s 1973 “The Coming of Post-Industrial Society” (see my immediately previous Post) assured everyone that as a ‘mature’ capitalism, America would be shedding its ‘smokestack’ industries and becoming an economy of highly-educated, networking and net-worked collaborators in the generating of ideas, the shuffling of many papers, and the provision of services ranging from barrista to entertainment to government-employment by one of the dozens of thousands of Federal and State agencies authorized to make hires (according to all that welter of quotas and regulatory policies). And the ‘financial sector’ would no longer be a neutral, sober cash-careful repository of accumulated generated wealth, but would actually be one of the post-capitalist profit-center businesses, merging the old sober and solid banker with the gung-ho Gordon-Gekko tiger-like entrepreneurs and business whiz-kids of the ‘80s.
But the Right, always more business-conscious, had read Bell too. And if America was now going to de-emphasize productivity – in workplace and hiring regulations and laws, in the very warp and woof of the culture – then America was by government policy becoming deeply less Production-friendly. Quietly but definitively, it was time for the corporations to move on. They, unlike Bell, realized that somehow, somewhere, things salable had to be actually made in profitable quantities in order to make the money that Bell seemed to assume, rather airily, would just keep on coming (the Eggs, by divine indult, to keep coming even as the Goose was ‘devalorized’ and kicked to the curb – and maybe had for dinner at the gloating gatherings of this and that gaggle of revolutionary Identity-cadres).
Like the old Boston matron who did not ‘buy’ her hats but simply ‘had’ her hats, America – even in the eyes of the New Left – would not make its wealth, it would simply ‘have’ its wealth. And the only job of the government was to re-slice the pie and pass the plates around.
With increasing speed the corporations began not simply to eat up smaller American businesses but to outsource their production to countries whose people were willing to work for much less and whose governments would be more concerned with Production than with making the workplace a more sensitive and caring and enjoyable life-experience.
It was artfully done, resulting in an enchanting political kabuki that paid off for the corporations and the Beltway: the corporations publically accepted the ever-efflorescing tangle of regulations and laws that imposed increasing ‘reforms’ on hiring and work practices and made a respectable show of being gung-ho and ‘on board’ with it all; this enabled the pols to prove to their client-demographics that the pols could deliver the pie. But at the same time, quietly but surely, the corporations were getting out of town as fast as could be decently managed, assisted by new business philosophies such as out-sourcing, down-sizing, globalizing and this and that (which in Clinton’s time the Beltway erected into a major national Plan).
Meanwhile now, the Developing World host-countries’ price, often, was that an American-chartered corporation would have to create a local subsidiary to oversee things. The host government thus got a primary crack at the swag and the profits, alas, would mostly stay in the newly-blessed host country, where – as is now happening – new working and middle-classes would be created.
Which gets down to the point that one of the great un-mentioned dramas of current American and world-history has been the love-affair between formally American-chartered corporations and host governments and cultures and societies who are more amenable to re-creating the early eras of Industrial Capitalism in America. The Great American Dream is being recreated … just not here.
And since many Western nations that had succeeded in the original Industrial Revolution aped American examples, and were themselves therefore becoming increasingly less Production-friendly as they pursued American-type policies, then their CEO-classes too began to reach out into the Developing World. And again, not simply to create cheaper products to ship back to the home country, but to re-create the Industrial Revolution Moment (or Miracle, if you wish) in more and more of the Developing World, replete with those work-friendly working classes and even those budding middle-classes.
This new “transglobal community of peers” have actually got more in common with each other, Freeland says, “than with their countrymen back home”. And indeed, their ‘homes’ are the great jets that zip them from one venue to the next, for international conferences with each other. As one of them notes, he knows the stewardesses on his flights better than he knows his own family.
Freeland hits it nicely: no matter where they maintain their “primary residences”, “today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves”.
Nor are they embarrassed about the fact. Indeed, “many of them – as a result [of their hard work and unremitting travels] – have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly”.
The whole country, my fellow Americans, has become fly-over country and we are all backwoods trailer-trash to these paragons.
India and China – with their huge populations – are now the new venues of Productivity Capitalism, and their own working and middle-classes will be developed to consume what is made ‘over there’. Meanwhile, back at the (American) ranch, the now burned-out American consumer has been relegated to fly-over status, reaping now the bitter fruit of having been seduced without much objection into the bauble-wealth of Reagan’s borrowing (We became a debtor nation on his watch, rather than the world’s mightiest creditor nation) and the out-sourcing and down-sizing and privatizing sell-off wealth of Clinton’s day, and the somehow-so-appropriate Bubble-based wealth of the George Bush era.
Effecting this huge terra-forming transformation (eerily similar to the Beltway’s profound Identity-Politics terra-forming of American culture and society away from Productivity) makes this new super-class of rich consider themselves to be “the working rich”, whose massive tasks and the marvelous ideas they share at their international conferences to be well-worth their mighty incomes and emoluments. They have no shame and no qualms about the rightness of it all. They are most industriously and generatively content.
In a way children of the very ‘revolutionary’ era in American politics that considered all ‘change’ to be good, and the more transgressive the better, and considered ‘elites’ to be so far ahead of those who ‘just don’t get it’ that they need not waste time and breath ‘deliberating’ in a democratic sorta way, these new mega-rich elites entertain large thoughts of re-shaping not simply American culture (THAT has worked sooooo well) but of re-shaping the world’s cultures (perhaps into a new productive World-Culture, who knows?).
Whether at Davos, or in the first-class lounges of commercial jets, or in the first-class lounge that is the essence of the private corporate jet, or on yachts larger than many countries’ warships, they biddy-biddy-boom with each other, while consulting a welter of personal communication devices that make James Tiberius Kirk’s warbling communicator look like an iron toy.
And who knows but that someday they envision a corporate Star-ship (why not call it the Enterprise class?) that will provide them with a secure and comfy command-post to oversee their planetary plans.
Very much children of their era, spawned here in the past few decades, they see no ‘moral’ dimension to their wealth, nor perhaps to themselves. Like Carnegie they will leave behind Great Works as their undying monuments (although Carnegie sought to evade the ineluctable and implacable Hound of Hell by building free libraries across the American landscape, and who reads – or thinks they need to – any longer?). As the cadres of Identity-Politics plunged the culture into a monodimensional, this-worldly Flatness in which the success of the ‘revolution’ (whichever one you’re a cadre of) justifies all, they see their Great Work of terra-forming great swaths of the planet in the service of Productivity as their greatest service.
And, really, SOMEbody has to make stuff, no? Money doesn’t just grow on trees (although the US is now reduced to killing a lot of those things just to print up more dollars – much as the Germans did in the awful years after World War 1).
Freeland continues: “The good news – and the bad news – for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this new global perspective”. One international hedge-fund manager confided to her that the firm’s master investment committee “often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy”. And in one recent internal discussion, one of his senior executives asserted that “the hollowing out of the American middle-class really didn’t matter”. Said that gentleman, “if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle-class and meanwhile one American drops out of the middle-class, that’s not such a bad trade”.
Congratulations, my fellow Americans. You are now all collateral damage and ‘acceptable losses’.
The hell-hot ironies!
The Boomers hatred of the bourgeois and the Archie-Bunker blue-collars has morphed (or mutated) into this. Nor can the New Left refuse to accept that the whole idea constitutes a world-class ‘liberation’ and ‘empowerment’. Wheeeee!
But not for the ‘acceptable losses’ dwelling in fly-over country (formerly known as the United States). And for its inhabitants, formerly known as The People, but – what they hey? – they just didn’t get it anyway.
They’re going to get it now. Oh yeah!
Freeman quotes the marvelously-Correct Taiwanese-born CFO of a US-chartered internet company: Americans “demand a higher paycheck than the rest of the world … So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheck, you need to deliver 10 times the value”. But of course, the whole idea behind the Revolutions of the Identities, erected into a Plan and a government policy courtesy of the Beltway, was that “productivity” was no longer a priority; that was so ‘masculine’, so judgmental, so ‘smokestack’. *
And as I said, since America already ‘had’ its wealth, then the whole government enterprise was simply to distribute the pie-slices and make a lot more client demographics beholden to their political patrons.
I think that the Bubble-era that seemed to take George Bush and the Beltway by surprise when it ran the whole of Good Ship America into a berg-field back in 2008 was really lubricated by the fact that by then the Beltway and Congress and the Presidency – regardless of Party – had come to realize that the F.I.R.E. sector of the economy was now in the driver’s seat and there was nothing they could do but let it go where it wanted to and do what it wanted to.
But how do you admit THAT to the American People? How admit to The People that you have pretty much lost control of the whole thing and are now just hoping to make your own nest-egg and get out of town before the whole thing goes kablooey? The Beltway had begun to resemble the Soviet nomenklatura of the mid-1970s: they knew the whole thing was coming apart and just hoped to get out of town with their swag before things got too obvious.
Neatly, in a recent report on a January meeting of American economists, those worthies lamented the fact that they were held in such disrepute. They cawn’t think why.
That they had either been witlessly or treacherously wrong about the economy’s health in the past decade(s) did not occur to them. Rather, “they seemed more intent on finding ways in which they could get ordinary workers to accept lower pay and reduced public benefits in the years ahead. This would lead to better outcomes in their models”.
Americans are now not only ‘collateral damage’ and ‘acceptable losses’ but mere statistics in theoretical models (that have proven inaccurate in the extreme). And Americans now have a whole new bunch of things to forget: like the days of decently-paying and reliable employment.
Because, insist the economists, they are going to be needed in the days and years ahead. While the economy will get better (by next year or by 2018, take your pick) yet “the new normal will be worse than the old normal”.
Meaning the party’s over and the good times will not be coming back. Gone, baby, gone.
This being the case, then, a few thoughts arise.
What happens when the corporations outgrow the government that chartered them? And this may already have happened; after all, Congress and the Executive have now proven clearly that they are unable to rein in either the financial or the corporate interests. First, because they are providing whatever actual income, or at least the appearance of wealth, the country can still lay claim to (unless you want to moon over photos and video-clips of huge nuclear aircraft carriers and whizzbang drones). Second, because the entire sitting political class – almost without exception – has indentured itself to the corporate monies piped to them through the PACs.
What happens to democracy when the government has a huge interest in folks not really getting a clear picture of how badly it has frakked up? If you think ‘advocacy journalism’ gave you a skewed ‘reporting’ on all the various happy-face ‘reforms’ of the past 40 years, wait til you see an entire government and elite apparatus that is advocating to make sure it doesn’t get kicked out on its well-padded collective behind.
What happens to the independence of The People when they are distracted by the intensifying urgencies of just putting bread (and I don’t mean that figuratively) on the table? Bad enough that the civic competence of the Citizenry has been eroded in divers ways over the past 40 Biblical years in order to neutralize debate and dissent as to the numerous ‘reforms’ of the Identity Age. But on top of all those Impossible Things the American taxpayer was expected to believe before breakfast, there is now the crazy-inducing requirement that Americans not-notice just how bad things are getting and that there’s nowhere to run and no place to hide (not even at the mall).
We are all poor now. The old cry of ‘social justice’ takes on a whole new meaning when you yourself are trying to raise a family and make ends meet or build a reliable future for yourself when the entire ground of the American experience has been allowed to take flight and leave you a groundling in Fly-over Land.
These promise to be interesting times. And this generation of Americans has a rendezvous with Destiny that will beggar the challenges that faced the Greatest Generation in 1941. Fifty years after he said it, JFK’s “long twilight struggle” has become, implacably, the American Reality.
*I relate this little story again: the same philosophy was deployed against the US military in the heady days of ‘de-masculinization’: the loss of a certain amount of war-fighting efficiency was perfectly acceptable in order to achieve diversity and empowerment. One highly-accomplished US Naval Academy graduate, invited back to address the cadets in the early 1990s, was told by the Academy’s command that he was welcome, but that he could not discuss Personal Achievement and Excellence, Leadership and Command, or Violence (as in war-fighting) … the Academy was now training team-players who would cooperate and be tolerant of each other. The officer wondered just why in hell they had invited him then. Whether this has anything to do with the current Navy’s disturbing record of command-removals and accidents, or to the overall military’s inability to achieve ‘victory’ in recent activities … is a question worth considering.