Western society has now become a gigantic game of dodgeball. Labels like “nationalism,” “globalism,” “SJW’s,” “alt-right,” or whatever are thrown around as big, red, balls that may be painful when they make contact, and it’s now up to you to dodge them or get thrown out of the game. We saw that at Google this week. We also saw it yesterday with Richard Spencer and his silly, toxic gathering.
All of these labels serve only to reinforce filters and promote confirmation bias. They say more about the person using them than the person dodging the ball.
But where is all this coming from? I think it’s all connected with something that’s been floating around called the “Plutocratic Insurgency.”
Quintus talked about it a few months ago and did a podcast on it.
What is the Plutocratic Insurgency? When the term began to get floated around in 2012, it was described like so:
This is not an abstract exercise. One of the most important global trends of the last few decades has been the tendency of wealthy elites to hole themselves up in walled off enclaves. These islands of elitism are designed to be largely self-sufficient in their ability to deliver health care, food, security, education, entertainment, etc. to their residents, even as they sit amid seas of social misery. (Mike Davis has spent a good portion of his career chronicling this sort of thing, starting in Los Angeles with City of Quartz, and examining it as a global phenomenon in collections like Dead Cities and Evil Paradises.) From the point of view of the denizens of such communities, the primary function of the wider society is to serve as a source of cheap, servile labor, and as a well of resources to be looted. Gated communities, in turn, are merely an example of a broader pattern, in which economic, social, or political enclaves are carved out of a national state and enabled to play by a fundamentally different set of rules from the surrounding territory.
In themselves the creation of such enclaves do not amount to a plutocratic insurgency. Rather, plutocratic insurgency arises wherever you see financial and economic elites using such enclaves as staging areas for making war on public goods. This is what I take to be the defining political-economic feature of plutocratic insurgency: the attempt on the part of the rich to defund the provisioning of public goods, in order to defang a state which they see as a threat to their prerogatives. (Conceptually, plutocratic insurgencies thus need to be separated from kleptocracies—the latter involve the using the institutions of state to loot the population, whereas the former wish to neutralize those institutions in order to facilitate private sector looting. In practice these may overlap or co-mingle.)
It might seem like the story laid out here is a liberal, perhaps even a Marxist one. While it’s true that liberals have long fretted about the “secession” of the rich, increasingly conservatives are also getting alarmed. Ultimately, however, I don’t think this is really a liberal or conservative matter. It’s a question of national and social coherence as such: do people living together in a contiguous territory feel themselves somehow to be “in the same boat,” willing to share responsibilities and risks collectively? Those engaged in the plutocratic insurgency answer that question with a defiant “No!” The plutocratic insurgency from above thus mirrors the deviant globalization insurgency from below, and taken together they embody the contemporary crisis of the nation-state.
I’m sure much of this sounds familiar to you.
If we look at many of the problems facing us today – political, economic, social, etc., I think they can be traced in some way to the “plutocratic insurgency,” or at least the pieces and parts that circle around it.
The plutocratic insurgency works like a pyramid. The lower portions, acting according to their objectives, help to buttress the factions higher on the pyramid, and these actions ultimately help to advance the interests of the top.
I’m not suggesting any kind of conspiracy here. Quite the contrary. Conspiracies are brittle and tend to fall apart because people are generally bad at keeping secrets. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress can show you that. The machinery surrounding the plutocratic insurgency is far more robust, as the actions of each rung of the pyramid reinforce each other to strengthen the layers above and below them. It operates not as a conspiracy, but more a ghost in the machine, or even a standalone complex – many individuals working together with no coordination toward the same end, and ultimately as parts of the same system. This was a central concept of Ghost in the Shell, and in Stumped, I argued that the Trump campaign was an example of a standalone complex.
Many copies without an original. The lower rungs of the pyramid through which the Plutocratic Insurgency operates have little contact with higher ones, but all seem to converge to advance plutocratic interests, even if the motivations and goals are very different.
The Plutocratic Pyramid
The Plutocratic Insurgency is successful to the extent that the pyramid of factions and interests overlap with one another. The bottom reinforces the top and vice versa, even though the bottom might not agree with the top or would actively oppose it were its interests and actions brought to the bottom’s attention.
Level I: The Plutocrats
Examples: Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, etc.
At the top of the pyramid, of course, you have the plutocrats themselves. These are the super, duper rich. Their interests are primarily in generating as much wealth for themselves as possible while escaping any responsibilities to the wider society. They’re increasingly arrogant, to the point of “let them eat cake.” Though that quote is fake, the sentiment is real.
Small Wars Journal describes them as such:
The increasing trend towards the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer individuals—from 43 in 2010 to 8 in 2016 who have equivalent wealth to the poorest half of the world—is indicative of the rise of global capitalism which is in variance with state moderated capitalism. It challenges Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” metaphor, that pertains to the operations of a free market economy, by showing that some sort of sovereign economic regulation is indeed required in order to protect the public good. With few inhibitors, globalized capitalism becomes predatory in nature and efficiency seeking with the creation of vast holding companies and economic strangleholds. The resulting outcome is much like a later stage Monopoly game with wealth being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer players. What we are essentially witnessing is the rise of a ‘global plutocratic class’ with extra-sovereign prerogatives that has more in common amongst itself than with their fellow nationals or for that matter the rest of humanity. Unfortunately—unlike a Monopoly game that at some point will end and a new game will begin—no restart will take place within the global economy. The poorest half of the world presently has few, if any, opportunities to better their economic future or those of their children. This trend ultimately signifies the contemporary crisis of neo-liberalism and the rise of a deviant and mercantilist (zero-sum) form of capitalism that promotes authoritarianism and economic class polarization rather than traditional democratic and middle class institutional forms.
The plutocrats will employ lawyers, lobbyists, and an army of PR people and whoever else they need to influence the system to keep the game going. Some of them may have dreams of remaking humanity in some ways. Here there may even be a left/right split between social engineers like Mark Zuckerberg and those who are less interested in “social justice,” like the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson, though whatever social engineering they do desire, it’s all usually in service of their primary interest.
Level II: The Technocrats
Examples: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, the permanent bureaucracy, etc.
Most prominent among these are the top politicians, but the permanent bureaucracy, supposedly a stalwart to protect the public, is firmly acting in the interests of the plutocratic insurgency and preventing reform from taking place. Politicians need to get reelected and put on shows to make it look like they’re doing something and the plutocrats, with their media mouthpieces (see below) are the biggest sponsors. While Chapter 7 of Stumped (and the subsequent election last year) showed that big donors who can supply big advertising dollars are losing their dominance thanks to social media and crowdfunding, this year has reminded us that those same big donors – the plutocrats, are the ones who also own the social media and crowdfunding platforms. As the controversy over Google this week shows, a crackdown may be in place. A media arms race thus might develop between the plutocratic insurgency and those who wish to challenge the dominance of its narrative (which is propagated thanks to the combined actions of this pyramid).
The technocrats can be described as such not only because they’re the chief operators of the machinery that serves the direct interests of the plutocratic insurgency, but also because their field, politics and policymaking, has in recent decades become further and further divorced from actual people. Instead it’s mostly become a matter of “just something to be done.” It’s become sanitized, exiled from the human condition. All that matters are globs of GDP or some other statistic and not the actual people they’re affecting.
Hence why consistently socially destructive policies continue with little debate (until now). You can almost hear the words as literally: “Hey, GDP grew 2.5%, so let’s keep doing what we’re doing.” Further attention isn’t paid to any social costs (that come with say, excessive immigration or job offshoring) and the fact that for most people, economic growth stopped a while ago and all that growth is now going to those at the top who benefit from the economies of scale, in other words, the plutocrats, who want to make sure it stays that way. And that’s only one example.
The democratic republics of the Western world have now largely become technocracies, with the convergence of political parties toward plutocratic interests. At the same time, the permanent bureaucratic apparatus, staffed by decades’ worth of the politicians produced from this convergence, has become a ghost in the machine itself, resistant to changing any alignment toward general plutocratic interests. The first few months of the Trump administration and the attempts to castrate Brexit are examples of this, however you may feel about those two things.
The next level down the pyramid of the overall plutocratic insurgency often shares a revolving door with this level. It’s a force you might be expecting.
Level III: The Propagandists
Examples: Almost every well established media organization and many of the new tech-based companies.
The days of a free and neutral press, to the extent that they existed at all, are long gone. There isn’t even a pretense of neutrality anymore. This makes sense, because the machinery of the plutocratic insurgency has been challenged in recent years, and the media is owned by those same plutocrats. Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post. Carlos Slim owns the largest share of the New York Times. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is its own media conglomerate that is doing its best to censor dissenting views, and so on.
The media often has some overlap with the technocrats from which they get their information and whose rule they reinforce. Often times those in government go into the media afterward, or were in the media before their tenure, so the second and third levels of the pyramid are very familiar with one another. It’s a revolving door in many ways.
The purpose of the propagandists is to essentially disguise themselves as journalists while spreading narratives favorable to plutocratic interests and restricting the possibility of real dissent. In an important column, James Howard Kunstler (who is an excellent social commentator when he isn’t wandering too far into the peak oil wilderness) described it as “intellectual martial law:”
We’re now living under that condition of “intellectual martial law.” The consequent degradation of thinking means that the polity can’t construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to it (or devise a plan for what to do about it). This is exactly the point where the Overton Window turns into an Overton Bubble, as described by Devers. The bubble comprises ideas that are assumed to be self-evident (though they actually aren’t) and notions that are potentially destructive of society, even suicidally so. Here is a partial list of the current dogmas and shibboleths inside today’s Overton Bubble:
- Russia hacked the election of 2016 (no evidence required).
- Russia (Vladimir Putin in particular) is bent on destroying the USA.
- All immigrants, legal or illegal, have equal status before the law.
- National borders are inconvenient, cruel, and obsolete.
- Western Civilization is a malign force in human history.
- Islam is “the religion of peace,” no matter how many massacres of “infidels” are carried out in its name.
- Men are a negative force in society.
- White men are especially negative.
- Brownie points given for behaviors under the rubric LBGTQ.
- All discussion about race problems and conflicts is necessarily racist.
- The hijab (head covering worn in public by some Muslim women) is a device of liberation for women.
- There should be a law against using the wrong personal pronoun for people who consider themselves neither men nor women (recently passed by the Canadian parliament).
- A unifying common culture is unnecessary in national life (anything goes).
- Colonizing Mars is a great solution to problems on Earth.
To these I would add the following:
- Any restrictions on immigration, legal or illegal, are “racist” or “xenophobic.”
- Any attempt to question or restructure trading arrangements are “protectionist” or “are bad for the economy.”
- Any questioning of America’s interventionist foreign policy is labeled as somehow unpatriotic, in recent times updated with the “pawn of Putin” variant.
- Anyone questioning established politics in general may be labeled as a Russian pawn, as we saw in the controversy surrounding National Security Adviser McMaster this week.
- Those who question leftist identity politics should be censored and censured.
- Free speech and other rights of acceptable targets are to be subordinated to the feelings of what Thomas Sowell calls “mascots.”
- Imagination is an acceptable substitute for reality, so long as it’s the imagination of a favored person or group.
- Emotional outbursts are an acceptable substitute for debate as long as they come from a favored person or group.
- Anyone who questions the self-appointed intellectual class is a low-status rube.
Now, the question of motive. Why does the thinking class in America embrace ideas that are not necessarily, and surely not self-evidently, truthful, and even self-destructive? Because this class is dangerously insecure and perversely needs to insist on being right about its guiding dogmas and shibboleths at all costs. That is why so much of the behavior emanating from the thinking class amounts to virtue signaling — we are the good people on the side of what’s right, really we are! Of course, virtue signaling is just the new term for self-righteousness. There is also the issue of careerism. So many individuals are making a living at trafficking in, supporting, or executing policy based on these dogmas and shibboleths that they don’t dare depart from the Overton Bubble of permissible, received thought lest they sacrifice their status and incomes.
The thinking classes are also the leaders and foot-soldiers in American institutions. When they are unable or unwilling to think clearly, then you get a breakdown of authority, which leads to a breakdown of legitimacy. That’s exactly where we’re at today in our national politics — our ability to manage the polity.
The main job of this class – the propagandists, the media, the “Intellectual Yet Idiots,” as Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls them, is not to inform, but rather, police the public, herding it into those bullet points (we saw this most prominently when CNN went after the random guy that made that Trump wrestling meme in June). This is why they get paid and why they have their status. Again, I must remind the reader that this isn’t even necessarily done consciously. Rather, it just happens as a result of their business models, biases, behaviors, and perceived self-interests. And it’s here that it’s worth noting that all those bullet points help to serve plutocratic finances in the end by keeping attention and thus the pressure of the state (which this class has deep connections to) on those subjects and swatting away dissent. So the propagandists get some status, politicians get re-elected, bureaucracy gets reinforced, and the plutocrats reap most of the financial benefits.
Below the propagandist level comes level four of the pyramid, which still has some connections to the higher levels at its top, but here is where the huddled masses, moving in concert, begin to show themselves.
Level IV: The Activists
Examples: University professors and students, NGOs, etc.
These are the real foot soldiers, the boots on the ground. Their sergeants largely consist of university professors and NGO leaders who have contacts with higher levels of the pyramid and often serve in government or act for the media. The professors are the ones that instruct the young in everything we’ve come to expect – self-hating postmodernism and all that goes with it.
While there are some prominent “people of color” in this group, it’s composed overwhelmingly of middle class to affluent white urban leftists. In doing what they think is the right thing, their interests often converge with those of the plutocratic insurgency.
Level V: The Paupers
Examples: The “refugees” and other poor groups playing the victim Olympics.
At the bottom of the pyramid come these people. Most of them just want to get by and have been swept up in events. Their interests in advancement, say, by moving to Europe, serve those of the plutocrats, who want open borders and cheap labor. They serve as a convenient prop for the other levels of the pyramid to virtue signal with, and thus keep their narrative going. They are often set up against others outside the plutocratic insurgency, while the higher levels attain status and money. This is mostly a servile class, upon which feel-good signaling and cash floats. And the most insidious thing is that this servile state is held up as a virtue by the higher levels of the pyramid.
About the plutocratic insurgency itself, a few more things can be said.
Some old pictures of my grandparents and even their parents surfaced recently, and I’m reminded that my grandfather could work a job as an electrician and not only support a family of four, but live rather prosperously. Those days are long gone. Now even a decent job might be only just enough to pay your own bills, let alone a family’s. Little wonder then why the birthrate has dropped dramatically in the past 25 years.
And that’s even if you can get a job. Jobs have disappeared. Ones that are coming back are largely automated. By some accounts, as many as 35% of the jobs currently existing could be automated in the next 20 years. This would lead to true “armies of the unemployed,” numbering in the tens of millions. Obviously that is not a sustainable social order.
As Quintus pointed out, this situation isn’t new. It’s repeated in history. Whenever there were excessive concentrations of wealth in the hands of an increasing few with little possibility of advancement for the lower classes, social unrest followed. In fact, I would argue that much of the unrest we’ve seen in recent years that’s come boiling up this year – the “Women’s March,” the Berkeley riots, the clash between Antifa and Richard Spencer’s band of Nazi cosplayers in Charlottesville yesterday – can all be traced to a growing sense of economic despair, as advancement becomes progressively closed off to the lower rungs of the pyramid. Again, this kind of unrest isn’t new in history. That unrest always ended in one of two ways – reform or revolution. In early 20th century America, Theodore Roosevelt led the charge for reform and managed to lay the foundations of a prosperous economy that benefited everyone for most of the century. In Rome, the charge for reform failed, leading to the rise of Julius Caesar and the emperors that followed him.
The story of a plutocratic insurgency isn’t new. It’s been repeated many times. It’s up to us to write the ending to this one.
The plutocratic insurgency is discussed at length in the latter half of Stumped. Read it and help write the good ending to this story.