That’s one of the major questions that independents around the country are asking—particularly those who were devastated by the Great Recession, and yet have not found the need to defecate in public parks as a reaction thereto.
The theory, put forward by Glenn Reynolds, Anne Appebaum, and especially Kenneth Anderson—who are building on the notion of the New Elite popularized by Christopher Lasch—is that the lower tier within the Upper Middle Class is now rebelling against that top-upper tier; the convulsions we’re seeing are a result of it. The so-called New Class is a big part of the present-day upper-middle-class, and it is fragmenting before our eyes.
Anderson, writing in The Volokh Conspiracy:
It is, for the moment, insistent not just on white-collar work as its birthright and unable to conceive of much else. It does not celebrate the dignity of labor; it conceived of itself as existing to regulate labor. So it has purified itself to the point that not just any white-collar work will do. It has to be, as Michelle Obama instructed people in what now has to be seen as another era, virtuous non-profit or government work. Those attitudes are changing, but only slowly; the university pipelines are still full of people who cannot imagine themselves in any other kind of work, unless it means working for Apple or Google.
The New Class has always operated across the lines of public and private, however: the government-university-finance and technology capital sectors. It is not a theory of the government class versus the business class — as 1990s neoconservatives sometimes mistakenly imagined. As Lasch pointed out, it is the class that bridges and moves effortlessly between the two. As a theory of late capitalism (once imported from being an analysis of communist nomenkaltura) it offers itself as a theory of technocratic expertise first — but, if that spectacularly fails as it did in 2008, it falls back on a much more rudimentary claim of monopoly access to the levers of the economy. Which is to say, the right to bridge the private-public line, and rent out its access.
The OWS movement against this social theory backdrop? (Let’s leave aside the material reality of its occupation, so far as one can tell today from shifting reporting: geographies in which public order was deliberately withdrawn to indulge a certain class of youth and not-so-youth (and the aging generation of New Class professionals projecting its political nostalgia onto it). The result is theft, violence, sexual assault, and levels of filth that, absent the infrastructure of the world’s richest large society, would mean what it means in Haiti — dysentery, cholera, epidemic disease. Epidemic disease is what happens when you shit your nest, unless there is a larger society that will clean up after you. The culture industry averts its eyes in its effort to have its nostalgic dream intact. But leave that aside, and leave aside, too, the folks who send in the organic beet root and goat cheese — for the consumption of the wanna-be New Class that, somehow, has notions of property and entitlement of an intensity that only a born regulator can have, and therefore fine-tuned notions of who eats organic and who goes to the soup kitchen. This is further complicated by the confused politics of the protestors, engaging in confrontations with police, as Harry Siegel reports from New York, who seem to have responded by encouraging the homeless and disturbed to join them. Ann Althouse is right to point to Joan Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” on the decline of the Haight-Ashbury utopia.)
In social theory, OWS is best understood not as a populist movement against the bankers, but instead as the breakdown of the New Class into its two increasingly disconnected parts. The upper tier, the bankers-government bankers-super credentialed elites. But also the lower tier, those who saw themselves entitled to a white collar job in the Virtue Industries of government and non-profits — the helping professions, the culture industry, the virtueocracies, the industries of therapeutic social control, as Christopher Lasch pointed out in his final book, The Revolt of the Elites.
The two tiers of the New Class have always had different sources of rents, however. For the upper tier, since 1990, it has come through its ability to take the benefits of generations of US social investment in education and sell that expertise across global markets — leveraging expertise and access to capital and technological markets in the 1990s to places in Asia and the former communist world in desperate need of it. As Lasch said, the revolt and flight of the elites, to marketize themselves globally as free agents — to take the social capital derived over many generations by American society, and to go live in the jet stream and extract returns on a global scale for that expertise. But that expertise is now largely commodified — to paraphrase David Swenson on financial engineering, that kind of universal expertise is commodified, cheaply available, and no longer commands much premium. As those returns have come under pressure, the Global New Class has come home, looking to command premiums through privileged access to the public-private divide — access most visible at the moment as virtuous new technology projects that turn out to be mere crony capitalism.
The lower tier is in a different situation and always has been. It is characterized by status-income disequilibrium, to borrow from David Brooks; it cultivates the sensibilities of the upper tier New Class, but does not have the ability to globalize its rent extraction. The helping professions, the professions of therapeutic authoritarianism (the social workers as well as the public safety workers), the virtuecrats, the regulatory class, etc., have a problem — they mostly service and manage individuals, the client-consumers of the welfare state. Their rents are not leveraged very much, certainly not globally, and are limited to what amounts to an hourly wage. The method of ramping up wages, however, is through public employee unions and their own special ability to access the public-private divide. But, as everyone understands, that model no longer works, because it has overreached and overleveraged, to the point that even the system’s most sympathetic politicians understand that it cannot pay up.
The upper tier is still doing pretty well. But the lower tier of the New Class — the machine by which universities trained young people to become minor regulators and then delivered them into white collar positions on the basis of credentials in history, political science, literature, ethnic and women’s studies — with or without the benefit of law school — has broken down.
So, despite the real pain going on, the real conflicts we see reflected by the Occupiers have nothing to do with the middle-middle class, or the lower-middle class. This is a problem among those whose families are considered to be “quite well off” by most measures (unless one is, as the pranksters in the park are, comparing themselves to the most fabulously wealthy people in the world). These people are hardly 99% of the population—they are a much more select demographic than that.
Megan McArcle, riffing off of Anderson’s essay, quoting Orwell—and conceding that she can relate to the cultural side of this, as a NYC/D.C. girl:
The class markers are mostly different [from classic British ones]. But there are still all sorts of hidden cultural signifiers that tell us, yes, we’re still in the elite, we know that Formula One is cool and NASCAR isn’t (unless you’re watching it ironically).
. . . Orwell’s next passage points out that it is the lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them–precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen. And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent. One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people.
I didn’t notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn’t heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.
Some of my former classmates now live in flyover country, of course, but mostly, I think, they just didn’t care. No one seemed very interested in the culture war.
So why does that same culture war seem so important to so many of the people that I know in New York and DC?
. . . It’s not entirely crazy to suspect, as Orwell did, that this has something to do with money. Specifically, you sneer at the customs of the people you might be mistaken for. For aside from a few very stuffy conservatives, no white people I know sneer at hip-hop music, telenovelas, Tyler Perry films, or any of the other things often consumed by people of modest incomes who don’t look like them. They save it for Thomas Kinkade paintings, “Cozy cottage” style home decoration, collectibles, child beauty pageants, large pickup trucks, and so forth.
In part, obviously, this is a reaction to the politics of it, since uneducated white people of modest means vote (and attend church) very differently from the hyper-educated but modestly remunerated people in New York or DC. A group of people who are quite empathetic, even tender, in writing about the financial difficulties of lower-middle class whites as workers, can also be quite vicious about them as voters and consumers.
And they’re worse when it comes to the tastes of people in successful-but-not-intellectual people like sales(wo)men. The vehemence makes it seem, at least in part, like a way to say “I may have their incomes, but I’m not like them. I’m better.”
Similarly, in the 1990s, when I worked with a lot of mostly blue-collar and first-generation college grads (with a fair sprinkling of Ivy Leaguers, to be sure), I didn’t hear nearly so much about the rich and how greedy they were–even though in the late 1990s, income inequality was almost certainly worse than it is right now.
And that is the crux of it: the lower tier within the upper middle class is sinking down to lower-middle-class status, and they don’t like it one bit. Partly because none of us likes “reduced circumstances,” but partly because they will be unable, at this rate, to continue patterns of consumption that—in their minds—define who they are.
And that is why they don’t want the homeless in their urban encampments: this is a protest of the privileged, and they don’t want to be rubbing elbows with people who don’t share their tony addresses—who might not, in fact, have addresses at all.