Victor Davis Hanson pens a characteristically sane and sober column on elite disparagement of the masses. He starts with Mike Bloomberg, who when at Oxford several years ago
dismissed farming, ancient and modern. He lectured that agriculture was little more than the rote labor of dropping seeds into the ground and watching corn sprout — easy, mindless, automatic.
“I could teach anybody,” Bloomberg pontificated, “even people in this room, no offense intended, to be a farmer.”
Hanson goes on to take aim at other liberal targets, citing Obama’s “bitter clinger” remark, Hillary’s famous “deplorable” comment and even Biden’s characterization of some Trump voters as “virulent” and as the “dregs of society.”
Snobbery is not only a liberal thing. Our politics has (mis)shaped up into a set of odd alliances, with the Dems occupying the highs and lows and the emerging Republican party occupying the middle. The charge of racism that is used to discredit the white middle is often leveled against people who judge certain behaviors in a negative way, and as not measuring up to their standards. And the elite Right has always had its own bad habits in deploring deplorables. Bloomberg for one is a former Republican, albeit a “liberal” one.
But Hanson is correct to put a lot of this onto liberals, and he offers several explanations for the phenomenon.
The Political Factor. The snobs are mostly politically liberal and they have a political incentive to look down on their political opponents, who tend to be conservative.
The Peer Support Factor. Liberal self-regard is at or above a critical mass in the institutions, and there is therefore no penalty paid for obvious bias.
The Putz Factor. Liberal elites are nowhere near as smart as they think.
The Psychology Factor. Liberal elites are privately only comfortable among their own Good White crowd, and resort to pointing fingers at Bad Whites as a way of creating distance from touchy psychological insights into their own characters.
All of these seem true but they don’t seem sufficient. Liberals condescend to lower class whites but why do they valorize other groups they would not be caught dead socializing with?
There must be other reasons for the tendency on the part of Good Whites to be the most harsh with other whites. For one, history is at play here, with the residue of the Civil Rights revolution still active in the liberal imagination, well past its sell-by date.
I suspect it is also the case that the Democrat’s shift to the party of finance and globalist wealth resulted in a pragmatic bargain between high and low: you continue to support the Democratic Party and we celebrate your identity, providing bread and circuses on the cheap instead of more tangible things. Better yet, we rely on your support to allow us to sprinkle one of the 20th century’s most potent strains of magic pixie dust where we will, immunizing ourselves from charges of self-interest and hypocrisy .
That bargain is under huge stress this election year, and it will be interesting to see if it survives.
But there is another underlying factor at work in the Deplorable Dynamic that Hanson does not dwell on. It is the simple fact of increased inequality. The fact that very high levels of diversity tends most of the time to be a net negative is liberalism’s dirty little secret. But the fact that very high levels of inequality is corrosive in its own way is the dirty little secret of the Right.
Trump has done more than anyone could expect in moving the Republican Party in the direction of nationalism and the common person. But before they are agglomerations of ideas parties are collections of interests, and so the Republican Party still has way more than its fair share of interests who have no interest in reducing huge disparities in income–disparities that as the renegade old-school liberal Mickey Kaus points out, are made way more toxic as they morph into social disparities, the kind that Hanson’s article references. Republicans have for the most part ignored the corrosive aspects of high levels of income and social inequality in their celebration of markets and capitalism.
The Dems don’t have all the answers here. Forcing low-wage employers to pay a higher minimum wage is likely to backfire. And higher taxes on the wealthy will only go so far. But just as Republicans will need to get used to higher levels of Trumpism in their economic program Democrats ought to shed their one-dimensional reliance of government solutions by way of taxes and minimum wage increases.
One last caveat about Hanson’s article, this one tied to another concern raised by Kaus in the article linked to above: robots.
Yes, technology has never before caused mass long-term unemployment. But technology has never before been able to substitute for virtually all unskilled human physical labor before. If we don’t want to do the Yang thing and give everybody a guaranteed income whether they work or not, what are we going to do to avoid a Player Piano situation?
This is not a trivial question, and Kaus is right to raise it as a first order political problem that no one but Yang even raised.
Kaus recommends consideration of an approach discussed by Noah Smith in a recent article (appearing in Bloomberg Opinion, no less!) Smith argues that we should not get in the way of the greater productivity that technology promises but that in turn we should not be afraid to tax the fuck out of it, using the large revenue dividend to support the kind of labor that machines cannot do, such as health care, education and, for that matter, opinion writing at sites like Bloomberg.
Close readers of Fenster–and I know you are both out there!–may recognize this argument from these pages. Over at Fenster’s companion site he promoted the idea of taxing the fuck out of robots several months back. Getting a lot of revenue in this fashion
ought to be feasible if conditions come into being that justify a big program’s existence. Rapid technological change may increase the productivity of capital (machines) over labor so dramatically as to put masses of people out of work. If so–if the net value added of the robots exceed the net value added of people who will no longer have to be paid–then there is good reason to believe taxes may be raised from the increased productivity of capital to offset labor’s loss. This is the “tax the robots” idea, which sounds kind of silly but is not. . . .
The high level of taxation that might be realized by taxing the robots can be directed towards a UBI program or it might be directed toward any other programs that might in other ways ameliorate the disruption that technology has caused.
It is here, on questions of political and economic philosophy, that a good debate may be had. Is it wise to take a page from Friedman’s negative income tax, and to cast the solution in line with individual choice? Or would it perhaps be better to consider solutions that are more explicitly communitarian and “public”?
So, yeah, Fenster is with Kaus and Smith. Tax the robots and use the revenue not to support private UBI payments but rather labor and projects that technology is less capable of providing with a human face.
Keep in mind that if we do not do this, we will see robotization of the economy anyway. Sure we may enact laws to slow this movement (like Tucker Carlson’s endorsement of measures to slow the shift to driverless trucks). But these will be rearguard actions at best, and if the superior productivity made possible by technology is as strong as seems likely we will be forced to adapt, if only under the pressure of foreign competition from countries that go balls to the wall with robots to hell with their domestic populations.
Further, if we do not tax the robots the economic returns will flow to capital, not to labor. To the owners. The income (and social) inequality that Hanson decries will only grow, and exponentially.
Whether a larger robot tax is feasibly politically is another matter. All systems have tipping points, and if the separation of the very rich from everyone else reaches such a tipping point all bets are off on a solution that aims at the public good, properly understood.
Our elites are already losing the habits of the heart that are essential to the functioning of a republic: virtue, prudence, restraint, even noblesse oblige. If current trends hold we are as likely to see our nation Braziliafied (as Michael Lind has warned) than to see a return to a proper balance between wealthy and non-wealthy, right and left, nation and abroad, citizen and non-citizen, elite and regular folk, and representative and represented.
The subtitle of Hanson’s article is “the billionaires and bureaucrats depend on the skilled workers they mock.” Yet this might be far too optimistic a view.
The world we are hurtling toward may simply have less need for labor of all sorts to get by. If that is the case the very question of what people do and why will have a necessarily collective dimension and will be a matter of public choice. The libertarian small government Right may not want to hear this but, per Marx, in the end ideology always falls in line behind social facts. We may find ourselves with a small minority of the population with most of the wealth and no real interest in parting with it. Worse, they may believe that they do not “depend on the skilled workers they mock”.
Hanson would like to think that the elites are in for a comeuppance and that they will sooner or later learn their lesson. That may be–but only after history travels a fair piece first into very unforgiving territory. Maybe the elites simply won’t need so many people, and their solution will be more bread and circuses celebrating all known identities, with the people castrated politically if not by identity choice. Leaven the bread with the circus of virus outbreaks from time to time to instill obedience and cull the herd. And Ghislane, isn’t the weather in New Zealand just fantastic!
How to stop incipient Brazilification? At the risk of piling even more text and links into an already long post you really ought to read this long one by Julius Krein in American Affairs. In “The Real Class War” Krein suggests that the real monkey in the middle is not the working class put in play by Trump but the upper middle class courtiers who have to date kissed up at the one percent and kicked down at les autres.
He points to data that suggest that the disparites between the one percent and its courtiers are large and growing. Such people–the New Class comprised of professionals, academics, media, senior managers–may have a choice to make. At what point does the gap between the New Class and the ultra-rich become so pronounced that the courtiers will feel the need to kick up rather than kiss up for a change?
Scratch an upper-middle class virtue signaling suburban progressive and underneath you will of course find an Everyman, shorn of delusions and capable of using actual power to protect his interests in the same way as everyone else. But you may have to scratch him pretty hard.
Thanks for the interesting article. I’m not certain how a robot culture will develop but I think, for my two cents, there will be renewed interest in foundation myths. People will look to the past to discover who they are as they find it harder to identify with a bland, paint-by-numbers multi-culture. At least for whites anyway. The blacks and browns are quite popular now but sooner or later the white elites will realize there is no future with them because they are dull and boring. The white elites will develop a secret culture based on European myth and religion. Certain lower order whites will identity with, or maybe certain people from other groups, this perceived kinship. Emptiness and irony will become passé. Either this or the West is doomed.
I have thought for some decades that irony was running on fumes but it keeps morphing, doubling down, escaping and proliferating. I don’t think this can go on forever but who knows?
I wrote at a pre-web film listserv (remember then young-un?) twenty years ago. The group was discussing irony in film and media. Austin Powers? GOOF! David Letterman? GOOF? I wrote the following:
“Does anybody find it, uh, ironic, how irony has become such a central concern recently and how people seem unable to consider it outside of an ironic mode? To tell the truth, much recent discourse on the subject that I have seen appears as a conscious attempt to distance one’s self from the all-encompassing ironic worldview, as though such a worldview has become a trap of sorts (hence the Letterman/tyrant controversy).
Ironies within ironies here, since irony is a distancing in and of itself. But who knows, maybe distancing one’s self from irony is like two negative numbers multiplied: a positive number resulting.
A metaphor to which I keep returning in my own mind is an egg. Irony as an egg. Sleekly designed, no place to grab hold of it, yet curiously brittle, much of its energy directed to its surface to protect the soft stuff inside. That’s what an egg *is* , but what is it *becoming*? It’s becoming a baby bird, which eventually gathers enough strength to peck through the shell. The biology then gets reversed: a “creature” which wears its armor on the outside to protect a gooey center becomes a “creature” which is capable of exposing its softness by virtue of its having a backbone.
It’s kind of funny that postmodernism has come in for such a drubbing. Often portrayed as the arid worldview of an academic elite, it is in a sense simply an extension of lots of forces scattered all about in our culture, forces that have to do with this distancing, this shell, this gooey center, this lack of a skeleton. I guess my question is: what is that pecking sound that I hear?”
Still hearing that pecking sound but no chick has yet emerged.
“In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City held a wide-ranging retrospective of Abramović’s work, The Artist Is Present. For the exhibition, Abramović debuted the eponymous performance piece, in which she sat quietly as museum patrons took turns sitting opposite and looking at her as she gazed back. The chance to participate in the work helped attract long lines of visitors.” – https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marina-Abramovic
Why do people want to participate? And participate in what? She’s a star and they want to sit in the reflected glow? Dunno. This seems so 50s-60s Fluxist I can’t even.
What do you make of her and her fans? I’m not sure myself. Maybe feminism. Feminism doesn’t do irony. A lawyer friend told me over 50% of law students in the US are now women.
I like what you wrote about two ironies cancelling each other. But I think it’s still ends up empty, like yoga or mindfulness.
Thanks again for the thought-provoking articles.
Interesting you should cite Abramovic in the somewhat neutral context of irony in the art world. The references I see to her in the media–and they are numerous–touch on the possibly more sinister aspects of her work.
I am not sure from your comment if you follow that thread but if you have not you should Google her name in connection with “Spirit Cooking” (another piece of group performance art/ritual enactment/satanic style worship) as well as the many prominent people who have associated with her in Spirit Cooking events. The Podesta brothers come to mind but there’s more.
Oddly enough–or maybe not so oddly–the rap against her in this context is that her “work”, and the interest of those participating, is not ironic in the least. The worst case speculation is that she is representative of a quasi-religious impulse, one that is not Christian but essentially pagan. The argument here is that her deep associations with members of our political, artistic and media elites evidence the serious decadence of our Betters, a decadence deep enough that irony may still be useful, but only as a mechanism to create distance with a public that would surely be shocked and judgmental. At heart, so to speak, she and her adherents may be deadly serious, the opposite of ironic.