August 3, 2012
The Nation's Editor-at-Large and MSNBC’s weekend host, Chris Hayes, recently published a book documenting the fundamental failure of America’s elite institutions and exploring the causes and solutions: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. What makes this book genuinely outstanding, and so rare, is that it is actually difficult to decide whether one agrees with many of its arguments. That’s because, as is typical of Hayes, he is more interested in grappling with complex questions in novel, non-obvious ways than he is in eliciting pat answers and easy agreement.
The highest compliment one can give a writer is not to say that one wholeheartedly agrees with his observations, but that he provoked — really, forced — difficult thinking about consequential matters and internal questioning of one’s own assumptions, often without quick or clear resolution. That achievement, at its core, is what defines Twilight of the Elites, and it’s what makes it so genuinely worth your time to read and think about. Provoking that type of questioning in people is a much more difficult task, and a much more valuable one, than inducing clear-cut, unequivocal agreement (which is often, though not always, accomplished by simply validating someone’s already held convictions). For that reason, Hayes’ book stays with you long after you are done reading it.
I spoke with Hayes yesterday not only about the book but numerous related issues, and the 55-minute discussion can be heard on the player below (or downloaded in mp3 format here). We discussed the prevailing ethos in America’s elite institutions that have rendered them so corrupted and the seminal episodes that made Hayes abandon his previously held trust in institutional authority. In the book, Hayes described how American elite culture is so insulated that it "produce[s] cognitive capture," meaning that even those who enter it with hostility to its orthodoxies end up shaped by — succumbing to — its warped belief system and corrupt practices. Given that Hayes pronounces this "cognitive capture" to be "an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion" in that world, I asked him what steps he is personally taking to inoculate himself against being infected now that he’s a highly rewarded TV personality and employee of one of the world’s largest media corporations.
One of the issues that has most interested, and most baffled, me, about all of these matters is the palpable lack of elite fear. In the past, the nation’s plutocrats were instilled with at least some fear — a healthy and necessary fear — of what would happen if inequality became too pronounced, if the 99.9% began suffering too much as a result of elite plundering and greed. Sometimes this fear led to extreme precautions (tycoons stashing wealth on a ship able to flee at the first sign of a Socialist Revolution), while other times it led to symbolic gestures (public acts of charity) or more substantive appeasement (the New Deal) as a way of placating mass anger. Especially when, as now, the force of law ceases to operate as a constraint on them (because the rule of law breaks down and no longer applies to the powerful), this fear of mass rage-fueled uprising imposed at least some limit on elite corruption, all grounded in self-interest: the worry that too much abuse would upend the system responsible for their wealth, status and power.
Yet even in the wake of the oligarch-caused 2008 financial crisis that has spawned extreme levels of sustained suffering around the globe, and even as social unrest emerges in several places in the Western world as a result of this insecurity and sense of outrage and betrayal, the American elite class still seems remarkably free of any such fear. The main reason I was and remain so enthusiastic about the Occupy movement is precisely because something is needed to pose a credible threat of unrest if America’s elite class continues on the same course. Yesterday, New York Magazine published a profile of Jeff Greene, a typically vapid, bombastic American billionaire who has devoted his wealth to piggish, flamboyant personal consumption and yacht parties with Lindsay Lohan, but what struck me was this passage:
But over the past few months, it’s become clear that rich people are very, very afraid. Sometimes it feels like this was the main accomplishment of Occupy Wall Street: a whole lot of tightened sphincters. It’s not a stretch to say many residents of Park Avenue harbor vivid fears of a populist revolt like the one seen in The Dark Knight Rises, in which they cower miserably under their sideboards while ragged hordes plunder the silver.
"This is my fear, and it’s a real, legitimate fear," Greene says, revving up the engine. "You have this huge, huge class of people who are impoverished. If we keep doing what we’re doing, we will build a class of poor people that will take over this country, and the country will not look like what it does today. It will be a different economy, rights, all that stuff will be different" . . . .
"There are all these people in this country who are just not participating in the American Dream at all," he says. This makes him uncomfortable, not least because they might try to take a piece of his. "Right now, for some bizarre reason, a lot of these people are supporting Republicans who want to cut taxes on the wealthy," he says. "At some point, if we keep doing this, their numbers are going to keep swelling, it won’t be an Obama or a Romney. It will be a Hollande. A Chávez."
I see no evidence that "rich people are very, very afraid" — at least not by their actions. And that, to me, is the problem. That fear — a lot more of it — is necessary. Their ability to rope themselves off from the society they are degrading, combined with the para-militarization of domestic police forces (aggressively displayed in response to the Occupy movement and related protests), and the rapidly increasing domestic powers of surveillance and detention (designed to intimidate the citizenry and thus deter and guard against mass protests), have convinced them, I think, that they need not fear any protest movements or social unrest, that America can and will become more and more of a police state to suppress it. An elite class that is free to operate without limits — whether limits imposed by the rule of law or fear of the responses from those harmed by their behavior — is an elite class that will plunder, degrade, and cheat at will, and act endlessly to fortify its own power. That’s the conundrum Hayes’ book was written to examine, and it was the crux of our discussion below: