Defining Ideas

Camouflaged Elites

Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Image credit: 
istock

Even in the mostly egalitarian city-states of relatively poor classical Greece, the wealthy were readily identifiable. A man of privilege was easy to spot by his remarkable possession of a horse, the fine quality of his tunic, or by his mastery of Greek syntax and vocabulary.

An anonymous and irascible Athenian author—dubbed “The Old Oligarch” by the nineteenth-century British classicist Gilbert Murray—wrote a bitter diatribe known as “The Constitution of the Athenians.” The harangue, composed in the late fifth century B.C., blasted the liberal politics and culture of Athens. The grouchy elitist complained that poor people in Athens don’t get out of the way of rich people. He was angry that only in radically democratic imperial Athens was it hard to calibrate a man by his mere appearance: “You would often hit an Athenian citizen by mistake on the assumption that he was a slave. For the people there are no better dressed than the slaves and metics, nor are they any more handsome.”

The Old Oligarch’s essay reveals an ancient truth about privilege and status. Throughout history, the elite in most of the Western world were easy to distinguish. Visible class distinctions characterized ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, the Paris of the nineteenth century, and the major cities of twentieth century America.

A variety of recent social trends and revolutionary economic breakthroughs have blurred the line separating the elite from the masses.

First, the cultural revolution of the 1960s made it cool for everyone to dress sloppily and to talk with slang and profanity. Levis, T-shirts, and sneakers became the hip American uniform, a way of superficially equalizing the unequal. Contrived informality radiated the veneer of class solidarity. Multimillionaires like Bruce Springsteen and Bono appear indistinguishable from welders on the street.

The locus classicus is perhaps Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg, who wears T-shirts, jeans, and flip flops to work. His reported wealth of $71 billion makes him the world’s fifth-richest man. The median net worth of Americans is about $45,000. Zuckerberg is worth more than the collective wealth of about 1.5 million Americans—or about all the household wealth in Philadelphia put together. And yet, he looks perfectly ordinary. When I walk the Stanford campus—where many of the world’s wealthiest send their children—the son of a Silicon Valley billionaire looks no different from a machinist’s daughter on full support from Akron.

Second, technology has done its part to dilute superficial class distinctions. The nineteenth-century gap between a rich man in his fine carriage—with footman and driver—and someone walking three miles to work has disappeared. The driving experience between a $20,000 Kia bought on credit with $1,000 down and a $80,0000 Mercedes paid in cash is mostly reduced to the superficial logo on the hood and trunk. An alien from Mars could not easily distinguish, at least by sight, between the two cars. Even after a ten-minute ride, an alien might be puzzled: What exactly did that extra $60,000 buy?

For a hundred dollars, a man can go into Wal-Mart, buy Chinese-made slacks, a dress shirt, tie, and shoes, and look basically like a Wall Street investor with an ostensibly similar $10,000 imported Italian wardrobe. Brand names, and not always quality, are what we pay for.

Third, the classes often live their lives in close quarters to one another. Walk a Manhattan sidewalk, and try to guess who has a credit line of $10 million and who has one of zero. Take a transcontinental business class flight—who paid $5,000 for it and who saved up his frequent flyer miles for a year to travel in style? The guy in the jogging outfit and the girl in a business suit have no real clue of where the other falls in the social hierarchy.  

Such integration appears to be a good thing, and often is an American specialty. Over the last three decades, technological breakthroughs have rendered old Marxist theories of endless class struggle somewhat stale. Consider how smartphones give someone on public assistance infinitely more access to global knowledge and entertainment than did the million-dollar mainframe of a few decades ago. Consider that even the poorest in public housing have hot water and a refrigerator—and that their water is just as hot and their fridges just as cool as the water and fridges in a fancy Upper West Side apartment building. The vast majority of Americans take for granted access to clean water, electronics, cheap food and clothing, and shelter. For most of human history, securing such goods was the major challenge of being alive. That’s no longer the case.

Yet the irony of this new camouflaged status is that appearances are conflated with reality. Mark Zuckerberg may look like an average American, but that does not mean he has the same interests or lives a similar sort of life as ordinary citizens. The concerns of an ostensible everyman with $71 billion could not possibly be the same as those of the rest of us. It may be that their casual clothes, cool phraseology, and radical politics serve as penance for exercising power that was once considered inordinate and dangerous.

Which raises an interesting point: People like Zuckerberg are actually far more powerful than their looks suggest. The robber barons of the nineteenth century are disparaged today for their greed and power. But Amazon, Facebook and Google operate virtual monopolies, the influence of which exceeds the oil, rail, steel, and banking trusts of the Gilded Age. The chief difference is that companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, or Apple are worth more in inflation-adjusted dollars than were Standard Oil or U.S. Steel, and their global reach now affects 6 billion people, not a continent of 60 million. Yet because their leaders wear the costume of the ordinary man, they seek an informality to help exempt them from old-style trust-busting and product liability suits from which their Gilded Age predecessors—with their top hats and gold-tipped canes—were not immune.

Why do we take seriously the take-a-knee protests of NFL players? Most are multimillionaires and live rarified lifestyles. In a politically correct age of disproportional impact and proportional representation, coveted and lucrative careers in professional sports are not subject, as most professions, to diversity mandates. The NFL is 70% African-American; no one suggests that race should trump merit or that players are the billionaire owners’ indentured serfs. But the fact that many multimillionaire players are tattooed, don cool jewelry, and wear their hair long gives the impression that they are somehow just ordinary guys exploited by the powers-that-be.

The effort to render elites and their sense of entitlement invisible to the public means that the phrase “limousine liberals” should be replaced with “Uber liberals.”

Take the case of Nancy Pelosi. She goes by her first name among constituents to stress her bond to common men and women, and yet her net worth is $100 million and she owns a palatial Napa villa. Though she acts ordinary in some ways, she is insulated from the ramifications of her own ideology, which harms the very people she purportedly models herself after. When she dismisses tax cuts and bonuses for the middle class as “crumbs,” are we to assume she is not an out-of-touch elite? Or does “Nancy’s” virtue-signaling politics of redistribution camouflage her own privilege and agenda?

One reason billionaire Donald Trump won the Electoral College was that he was transparent. He did not fake a southern drawl or an inner-city patois in the manner of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Unlike Mitt Romney, he exaggerated rather than apologized for his wealth. His loud clothes, garish jet, and American boosterism were in your face, and allowed Americans to draw their own conclusions—and, in contrast, made vastly rich progressive activists like Tom Steyer and Al Gore seem disingenuous.

Visible class distinctions of the past were a result of pride in achievement and old-fashioned snobbery. But their practical effect was to warn that the interests and agendas of the elite were not always the same as those of the public. Today’s billionaire hipsters blur these ancient distinctions. But just because a Master of the Universe looks like us does not mean that his dogged pursuit of tax exemptions, offshoring and outsourcing, and vertically integrated monopolies is in our interest.