Dear Reader (except those of you running nude through St. Peter’s Basilica),
One of my favorite things about America is the food, but that’s not important right now.
Another thing I dig about America is how often it messes with political theory, particularly European political theory. The ruling worldview—monarchy, empire, aristocracy—in the 18th century was utterly vexed by the American Revolution. The fashionable, if not always ruling, political theories of the 19th and early 20th centuries—Marxism, German historicism, various racial theories—had a devil of a time reconciling themselves to the reality of America, because we were taking history in a direction not of their choosing.
Broadly speaking, the primary sticking points were various theories of class. Aristocracy is obviously a form of class theory. Marxism even more obviously so. Racial theory is sort of class-adjacent, but it too rests on the idea of certain groups being both clearly defined and better or worse than other groups. German historicism is more complicated, but trust me: Notions of class—expert classes, ruling classes, etc.—are caught up in it.
The whole debate about American exceptionalism, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s travelogue, to Werner Sombart’s lament about the lack of American socialism, through Stalin’s rage at the notion that communism could not find purchase in American soil, has its roots in America’s stubborn refusal to embrace rigid class distinctions and, of course, socialism.
American communist Jay Lovestone endorsed the widespread view among even American communists that “thanks to its natural resources, industrial capacity, and absence of rigid class distinctions” America doesn’t fit into Marx’s laws of historical development, in no small part because American workers lacked a desire for class-consciousness-fueled revolution.
At a 1929 Comintern meeting, Stalin not only read Lovestone the riot act, he threatened him.
“Who do you think you are?” Stalin shouted at Lovestone and his fellow delegates. “Trotsky defied me. Where is he? Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? Bukharin defied me. Where is he? And you! Who are you? Yes, you will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives.” Lovestone barely got out of Moscow with his life, but he was expelled from the party and excommunicated from the faith, for the “heresy” of endorsing “American exceptionalism”—a term, though not a concept, widely attributed to Stalin.
Up until the triumph—for now—of race and “intersectionality,” economic class remained the primary prism of the American left. But this doesn’t let the right off the hook, either. The right has its own theories of, and obsessions with, class. The old WASP hegemony was a class thing. So is all the talk about “globalists,” the “New Class” (a theoretical construct I have longed subscribed to), to all of the rhetoric about “elites.” The only intellectual movements that substantially reject the whole class-based approach to political theory can be found among anarchists and libertarians. And even here, it’s not hard to find plenty of talk about classes.
And I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m just saying it’s messy, in part because to the extent “class” is a meaningful term in America it has less to do with economics than it does with status, cultural affiliation, and power. I don’t want to recycle all my stuff about elites, but every society has elites. The Iron Law of Oligarchy really is a law, as far as any sociological observations can count as an actual law.
For those unfamiliar, the TL;DR of the Iron Law of Oligarchy holds that any organization or institution will inevitably be run by a small group of people. There’s nothing necessarily sinister or even undemocratic about this. It’s just how life works. Whether it’s an army, hippy commune, or a canned food drive for a local school district, a handful of people will emerge as the ones largely running the show. (Oligarchy doesn’t mean “rule by the rich” it means “rule by the few.” It just turns out that in large societies, the few who rule usually end up, or start out, rich).
Anyway, the messiness stems in large part because we tend to talk about “elites” as a class and then we talk about the non-elites as another class. It’s not always wrong, depending on the context, but this tends to blur or conceal more distinctions than it reveals. People talk about the “billionaire class” or the “donor class” or the “laptop class” as if these are coherent and monolithic things. We like doing this to give ourselves extra righteousness and sound fashionably rebellious. But for every rightwing member of these classes, I can name a leftwing member. George Soros belongs to the billionaire and donor class, but so do the Kochs. Most of the time someone rails against this or that “class” what they really mean is a “faction.” And they want their own faction to have more power relative to the faction they dislike.
Anyway, this is all a longwinded introduction to a completely different topic. (I sometimes imagine my editors at The Dispatch unscrewing the cap from the Pepto-Bismol, or Maker’s Mark, every time they see a sentence 800 words into a G-File with the words like “anyway” and “completely different topic.” It’s good to be a boss.)
The cusp of the revolution.
I remain passionately ambivalent about artificial intelligence. I mean, when even boosters admit that “extinction-level” threats are a serious concern, caution seems warranted. Unbridled enthusiasm is only ever justified when the potential for significant downside is very limited or non-existent. No one ever said, “This new toaster is a game-changer, I don’t care about the possibility it could wipe out human life or make us slaves in their English muffin factories.”
I’m less wary about fusion, even though I’m sure there’s the possibility of downsides. But let’s imagine for a moment that both work out great—and in tandem. What then?
A while back, I wrote about techno-Marxism, and how Marx’s fairy-tale utopia of pure communism might not be as fairy-talish as many thought. In Marx’s fundamentally religious fantasy, he imagined that there would be no physical limits to our ambitions. Life would be like a real-world holodeck where we could be poets, fisherman, cattle herders, and literary critics on any given day. On very practical terms, in the era of the steam engine, this was nonsense.
It was, and probably remains, nonsense because not only was the mechanical technology inadequate to such unlimited personal freedom, no political technology existed—and probably can exist—that lets everyone just do whatever they want without other people telling them, “You can’t do that.”
But what if—and yes, it’s huge if—a combination of fusion and AI really do take the shackles off? You don’t have to worry about where your next meal comes from. Everyone has a nice home. You may still have to work, but only at things that give you real satisfaction. AI takes care of the drudgery. This is literally what all of those economic revolutionaries from the Diggers to the Bolsheviks and Maoists claimed they were fighting for.
Let’s go back to the explanation(s) for why class-focused socialism never took hold in America. Our white, non-native population was made up largely of refugees from the class-obsessed old world. Material abundance, including a massive frontier with plentiful land, combined with a radical ideology of liberty, self-reliance, and limited government made both the old aristocratic and new economic notions of class seem alien or irrelevant. Obviously, this is a wild exaggeration: Millions of people disagreed with this, as the history of organized labor alone attests. But as Lovestone tried to explain to Stalin, they just couldn’t convince enough people they were right.
Well, what if a new frontier is coming into view? What if the story of unfolding material abundance and the (relative) eradication of material deprivation is about to go into hyperdrive? Will it be the nirvana long foretold?
The decoupling of economics from politics.
Before I get to that, I think it’s worth noting that this process is unfolding in front of us already. The evidence for this can be found in the fact that our politics is increasingly dominated, not by economics—the recent debt ceiling brouhaha notwithstanding—but more by arguments about status and cultural power. The politically engaged people on Twitter don’t go home from work and argue about tax policy and the minimum wage all that much, and even when they do it’s more about demonizing the people who disagree with them than anything else. Most of it is about people being wrong about the words they use or the things they like or don’t like.
Indeed, most of the complaints about elites—defensible and ridiculous alike—have to do with the fact that a relatively small and finite faction of people control various institutions. The people who run “the media” or “Hollywood” or the universities get to decide what “narratives” dominate. We already can see how weak the grip of these factions has become. Cord-cutters don’t care about cable news. The internet hasn’t quite democratized the production of movies and TV shows, but that’s the direction things are trending.
Elite universities are still controlled by small groups of people prone to infuriating groupthink but it’s important to note that they don’t have control over “education,” they have control over the status that is conferred by getting a piece of sheepskin from these institutions. For the most part, you can get the education Harvard and Yale offer elsewhere, what you can only get from Harvard and Yale is the ability to brag that you got in and got out with a piece of paper proving it. If people stopped caring about the status and networking benefits of attending the Ivy League, the Ivy League would be as relevant as the Hanseatic League.
Flip it around. Let’s say we went into a massive economic depression. How many culture war fights, and culture warriors, would survive the sudden change in priorities for most Americans?
Status > class.
And that gets to what fascinates me—and maybe me alone.
Fred Hirsch, an Austrian-born economist, coined the term “positional good.” A positional good is similar to a Veblen good, but different in important ways. Both have to do with scarcity. A Veblen good is something expensive you buy to show off that you can afford it. That’s why Veblen goods get more expensive in response to greater demand. No one needs a Lamborghini, but plenty of people buy Lamborghinis at least in part to show off to the world that they can afford one. But positional goods are goods whose scarcity usually cannot be changed. There’s only one Mona Lisa. If you own it, nobody else can. So, buying the Mona Lisa is not only a Veblen good, it’s also a positional good.
You may recall that from time to time I talk about how “dog economics” are dominated by positional goods. At the dog park, there’s essentially an infinite supply of sticks. But the dogs all chase the dog with one specific stick, because that’s the stick everyone wants.
Positional goods are always going to be finitely distributed. You could make enough Lamborghinis for everyone. Heck society can get rich enough where almost everyone can afford a Lamborghini (and in the process blow up their business model). But you can’t, for instance, create a society where everyone is the fastest, tallest, handsomest, etc. The best basketball player in a given high school possesses a non-transferable positional good.
I don’t normally say “Rousseau was right” but he was onto something when observed that “He who sang or danced the best; he who was the most handsome, the strongest, the most adroit or the most eloquent became the most highly regarded, and this was the first step towards inequality and at the same time towards vice.” Where he got things horribly wrong was in thinking we could do anything about it. Rousseau had interesting things to say about politics and culture, but he was a moron when it came to anthropology.
Still, this is the crucial point: All things being equal, people crave status more than they crave wealth. Indeed, after a certain baseline, much of the desire for wealth has less to do with the material comforts delivered by it than by the status derived from it. This is why so many studies find that being rich isn’t nearly as likely to confer happiness or satisfaction than being richer than other people.
In other words, the richer a society gets, the more important social status becomes because material possessions confer less and less of it. When you’re the first family on the block to have a car, you have a certain status. When everyone has a car, the status evaporates, even though you still get all of the practical utility out of the car you did before. Only so many people can be Harvard professors. While some are surely rich, as a group they’re richer in status—but poorer in material terms—than the owner of a successful car dealership.
Hirsch argued that the rise in importance of positional goods explained why, even though America was getting richer all the time, America could “no longer deliver what has long been promised for it—to make everyone middle-class.” He should have said “feel middle-class” because in purely economic terms it’s totally possible to make everyone middle class by some objective metric. Heck by historical standards, not counting homeless people and the like, our poor people are materially richer in many ways than rich people were a century ago.
Seen through this light, you can understand where so much of the culture war comes from. Identity politics—of the left and right—is very often more about status (some might say “respect” or if you want to get fancy, thymos) than anything having to do with material circumstances. Without commenting on the particulars of any individual transgender person, the fights over the issue often have a lot to do with status-related concerns, including the desire to force others to bend to your view.
Indeed, the desire to force your social preferences, including your preferred language, on other people is often a status-play. You get to demonstrate that you have power over other people by getting them to comply, or shut up, or be castigated as bigots. A lot of the performative jackassery we see on a daily basis on social media reminds me of the young, status-starved warriors in Mad Max: Fury Road shouting “Witness me!”
That’s because in the increasingly immaterial world of the attention economy, being witnessed is the new source of status. One of the flourishes I really liked in the Hunger Games was how all the wealthy denizens of the Capital District dressed—and surgically altered—themselves to get everyone else’s attention.
There’s a long tradition of Marxists hating on culture war controversies on the grounds that they’re a distraction from the fight against material deprivation. You can still find this attitude on display in people like Bernie Sanders who loves to talk about “Medicare for All” but gets exasperated with cultural issues. What this worldview, as admirably quaint as it sometimes is, always missed is that politics isn’t just about the distribution of material resources but of the intangible resources of status and power. There’s a reason all these rich people want to be president—power is a positional good.
More wealth, moar culture war!
Let’s just imagine that the technological revolution really does wipe out many of the last material conditions that make poverty a meaningful economic term. What happens? For a certain breed of progressive, this is almost literally the promised land. Where do the activists go? Well, the one place I don’t think they go is away. For the corncucopians and the Marxists, unlimited material abundance is a kind of promised land at the end of history. But I suspect that the new era of artificial abundance will also yield new artificial divisions in a quest for status. I mean the “billionaire class” essentially lives in that world now. That hasn’t depoliticized them.
This isn’t an argument for killing AI or fusion in the crib. I want doodads that can clean up the oceans, fix climate change, and, of course, lift people out of material poverty. But the human condition won’t go away. Again, we’re crazy rich by historical standards. That wealth hasn’t eliminated cultural fights; it has elevated them. Because in an environment where humans don’t have to fight over scarce physical resources, they still fight—over status, culture and power.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: Not much to report this week. The girls are thriving though they don’t like the sudden turn to excessive heat. People keep asking me how Zoë can swallow the jerky treats in the daily treat videos so quickly. I can’t speak to the specific techniques, but I think people forget that in her youth, the Dingo would often catch fairly large rodents. She learned that we didn’t approve and we would often try to remove the kill from her jaws. In response, she had two strategies. One was to run off in the woods and, after some gruesome self-indulgence, bury the victim in a shallow grave covered over by her schnozzle. But if the creature was smaller than a squirrel, she would often throw her head back and, like one of the characters from V, simply swallow the chipmunk, mouse, or vole whole. It was disgusting, but impressive. So a jerky treat is nothing for her. Anyway, Pippa has been quite cheerful of late—and why not? She generally gets her way (even if that requires the occasional treat–face). But that hasn’t stopped her from the important work of keeping the wall at the bottom of the stairs from collapsing. And Gracie’s rule continues.
And now, the weird stuff