One might suppose that the voices of mainstream media and elite culture in general would be more self-critical than they are. They seem to have developed an amazing shell around themselves to protect their own intellectual and psychological well-being from reality itself. It’s having to grow ever thicker, which only ends in an ever-graver alienation from the public they seek to rule.
Consider. The betting odds favor Trump for the presidency by 40 percent, whereas Biden is at 31 percent. This follows fully nine years of nonstop attacks, two impeachments, and countless legal harassments. No candidate for public office has been pummeled so many times by so many. And yet Trump thrives despite all of this, or even because of all of this.
Yes, he has rhetorical skill, but there is more going on than pure demagoguery.
We look for writers in the corporate press who seem to understand why. They’re hard to find. Most writings on this topic attribute it all to a wave of cult behavior, the rise of theocratic Christian nationalism, xenophobia, or just ignorance. Sure, there might be signs of this or that, but come on! At some point, one might suppose these people would consider the possibility that normal people are not keen to be forever ruled by a rarified elite that represents the powerful and rich and has no regard for the life aspirations of the regular person.
After the 2016 election, the New York Times sent out an apology of sorts about how they could have been so incredibly wrong. There was some effort to reform under the idea that it is supposed to be the nation’s newspaper of record and hence a downside to completely misunderstanding something so fundamental. But the mea culpa didn’t last. A new op-ed editor was hired and then quickly fired as woke reporters and management dug in with their desire to represent only one point of view.
This has created a wild and pathological paranoia on the part of the 1 percent of masters and commanders of our domain. They are forever looking for signs of the enemy, and ready to believe these signs even if they make no sense. Drive an electric car? Good. Is it a Tesla? Possibly bad. Get vaccinated for Covid and wear a mask at the slightest rumor of a respiratory pathogen floating around? Good. Have kids? Bad. Live in Florida? Bad. Live in California? Good.
So on it goes, with ever more random flexes of virtue that are immune to any facts or argument to the contrary.
A complete lack of empathy is all pretty mystifying whenever it occurs in any corner of society. But this becomes positively dangerous when it occurs in a ruling class. That’s when things in society get wildly distorted and you experience a complete disjunction between the rulers and the ruled, with seemingly no hope of fixing the problem.
At some point, someone recommended to me a book called The Virtue Hoarders by Catherine Liu (October 2020). I’m so grateful. It takes some of the sting out of the problem when someone else understands this fully. I find myself going back and reading it again and again because the prose is so satisfying.
Here are some excerpts:
For as long as most of us can remember, the professional managerial class (PMC) has been fighting a class war, not against capitalists or capitalism, but against the working classes. Members of the PMC have memories of a time when they were more progressive—during the Progressive Era, specifically. They once supported working-class militancy in its epic struggles against robber barons and capitalists like Mrs. Leland Stanford Jr., Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon, but today, they go to Stanford and view private foundations bearing those same names as models of philanthropy and sources of critical funding and recognition.
They still believe themselves to be the heroes of history, fighting to defend innocent victims against their evil victimizers, but the working class is not a group they find worth saving, because by PMC standards, they do not behave properly: they are either disengaged politically or too angry to be civil. Liberal members of the credentialed classes love to use the word empower when they talk about “people,” but the use of that verb objectifies the recipients of their help while implying that the people have no access to power without them.
The PMC as a proxy for today’s ruling class is shameless about hoarding all forms of secularized virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of “giving back” or reified forms of self-transformation. It finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people.
If its politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance. The much-maligned Hillary Clinton was honest in her contempt for ordinary people when, in 2016, she dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Their 2016 defiance of PMC and liberal nostra has only hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism, which another reactionary demagogue will seek to exploit.
PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families, and deplorable child-rearing habits. When the PMC sympathized with the plight of masses of working people, it also pioneered professional standards of research grounded in professional organizations like the American Medical Association, the Association of University Professors, and all the professional organizations that currently dominate academic life. In organizing professional life, the PMC tried to protect the integrity of specialists and experts against the power of capitalists and the markets…..Those heady days of PMC heroism are long gone. The PMC, with its professional discipline and aura of disinterestedness, did very well for itself during the Depression, during World War II, and in the postwar period with the expansion of universities and the growing complexity of the American and social economic order.
When the tide turned against American workers, the PMC preferred to fight culture wars against the classes below while currying the favor of capitalists it once despised….The post-1968 PMC elite has become ideologically convinced of its own unassailable position as comprising the most advanced people the earth has ever seen. They have, in fact, made a virtue of their vanguardism. Drawing on the legacy of the counterculture and its commitment to technological and spiritual innovations, PMC elites try to tell the rest of us how to live, and in large part, they have succeeded in destroying and building in its own image the physical and now cybernetic infrastructure of our everyday lives.
As the fortunes of the PMC elites rose, the class insisted on its ability to do ordinary things in extraordinary, fundamentally superior and more virtuous ways: as a class, it was reading books, raising children, eating food, staying healthy, and having sex as the most culturally and affectively advanced people in human history….
Although the PMC is profoundly secular in nature, its rhetorical tone is pseudo-religious. While the PMC infuriates conservative Christians with its media monopoly on liberal righteousness, it finds salvation, like most Protestant sects, in material and earthly success. In liberal circles, talking about class or class consciousness before other forms of difference is not just controversial; it is heretical. They call you a “class reductionist” if you argue that race, gender, and class are not interchangeable categories. They pile on with the legalistic and deadly term intersectional to accommodate the materialist critique of their politics.
The PMC simply does not want its class identity or interests unmasked. Young people wanting to enter what the Ehrenreichs called the “liberal professions” and gain positions in academia and the culture and media industries have had to adapt themselves to the Procrustean bed of PMC-dominated networks of influence.….
It wants to play the virtuous social hero, but as a class, it is hopelessly reactionary. The interests of the PMC are now tied more than ever to its corporate overlords than to the struggles of the majority of Americans whose suffering is merely background décor for the PMC’s elite volunteerism. Members of the PMC soften the sharpness of their guilt about collective suffering by stroking their credentials and telling themselves that they are better and more qualified to lead and guide than other people. PMC centrism is a powerful ideology. Its priorities in research and innovation have been shaped more and more by corporate interests and the profit motive, while in the humanities and social sciences, scholars are rewarded by private foundations for their general disregard for historical knowledge, not to mention historical materialism.
The rewards for following ruling-class directives are just too great, but the intellectual and psychic price that has to be paid for compliance should be too high for any member of society. In academia, the American PMC has achieved a great deal in establishing the rigors of peer review consensus and research autonomy, but we can no longer afford to defend its cherished principle of epistemological neutrality as a secret weapon against “extremism.” We live in a political, environmental, and social emergency: class war over distribution of resources is the critical battle of our times.
And so on it goes, with the power and passion of white-hot rage from first to last. It makes it all the more delicious that the author herself claims to be a socialist (more of flex than anything) and railing against capital (your eyes can glaze over these sections if you want). Mostly the value comes from its demolition of the strange psychology of professional overlordism.
This book written in 2019 would have been interesting but after the last four years, it takes on new importance. The rest of us watched in horror as the ruling class shut down the whole of society for its own benefit, so it could allegedly protect itself from a pathogen on the loose with nary a thought as to those who still had to drive the trucks and deliver the groceries.
If they thought the virus was so deadly and dangerous, why in the world did they think it was just fine for themselves to luxuriate in digital finery at home while their lessers were working up a sweat each day to serve them essentials? How dare they!
Indeed, nearly the whole of the intellectual class joined in this disgusting display of class-based self-regard, even daring to cheer on the smashing of rights and liberties earned through a thousand years of struggle by regular people against privileged elites. To this day, they as a group have not admitted error. At best, they beg the increasingly angry rabble to grant them amnesty. After wrecking countless lives, they presume we are all just going to move on?
Well, there are still remnants of something approaching democracy still remaining in the system. In an economic sense, it has meant a dramatic turn against EVs, fake meat, censored social media, fake vaccines, and controlled media, in favor of a growing infrastructure of dissidents who reject the whole of the ruling-class narrative in every detail. The public has certainly grown wiser through the fires of lockdowns and shot mandates, and now you have everyone but the people in charge wondering what else they are lying about.
In a political sense, we are waiting to see what unfolds. Even if Trump doesn’t get the nomination or win, that the betting odds show him as the overwhelming favorite should cause some pause.
Let’s say the whole of the Covid response issues are solved. Let’s say somehow we gain ironclad promises that there will never be lockdowns again. There still remains a profound sociological problem: the near-total isolation from mainstream life of the most credentialed, most connected, and most powerful minority. Even worse, these people have no desire to understand.
No social order can function like this. There will always be a grave danger present.
How this ends no one knows. Nothing like this has shaped itself with this intensity in an industrialized democracy before. Someone needs to figure out the peaceful exit ramp in a hurry – ideally through some ruling-class contrition and some institutional reform – because the present gulf that separates the people from the increasingly rarified elite cannot endure for much longer.
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