07 September 2012


Cobb has a rumination on the way that the shape of the contemporary economy produces what Douglas Copeland calls “brazilification”, a shift toward a shrinking middle class, a vast immiserated proletarian class, and a tiny stratospherically wealthy aristocratic class.

So I eventually came up with the Peasant Theory which explains why millions of Americans who think they ought to be middle class actually are not. The middle class is illusory. It is just as illusory as ‘middle management’. Or to put it bluntly, you're either an injun or a chief. Most of us are injuns. Well actually it's not that bad. There are three classes in America, just like there are three classes everywhere. There is the Ruling Class, there are the Peasants and between those two is what I call the Slice. The Slice are the people that the Ruling Class need to run things while they are out enjoying life. And guess what, the Slice is thinner than you think. Think Matrix Reloaded. There was the Merovingian and his bored wife. Rulers. Then there were all of the people at the party at the Merovingian Castle. Peasants. The Slice? Those were the guys you had to kill with the silver bullets and the ghost twins. You could probably count the guys battling in the marble room but really no more than 8. If you don't know at least a dozen millionaires personally, you're not in the American Slice. Or to be more proper about it if we were in England, the Slice would be the holders of Royal Warrants.

But this is America, you say! We are a meritocracy, you say. Ha! Do you really want to live in a meritocracy? No you really don't. You don't want your refrigerator drawings in the Met. You don't want your face on an IMAX screen. You don't want to try and defend against Kobe Bryant. You don't want to race your boat against Team Oracle. You don't want to argue with K Street lawyers. What you want is to play with people around your level. The bad news is that your level is called Peasant. The good news is that you have lots of company, not only now but throughout human history. Peasants persist. Nobody cares what happens to Peasants but the Peasants. What really matters is how well the Ruling Class earns the respect of the Slice, and in that regard I should refer you to Shakespeare's King Lear as the ripe example. Bottom line, you don't want to live in a meritocracy, you want to live in a neighborhood.

His Slice is a bit narrower than what I would call “technocratic professionals” but his picture of the three essential strata of class in America is the same.

Lefties like me talk a lot about the stagnant wages and weakening security of the lower 80% or so, and the stratospheric wealth of the upper 1%, but I see a great deal of weirdness in the in-between of technocratic professionals where I live.

I'm sure that this is partly a symptom of living in left-ish San Francisco, but among folks like me I'm seeing an awareness that the unforgiving American economy is treating us relatively well combined with several kinds of anxiety. First, there's class anxiety that we directly experience in our working lives how we are the courtiers hard at work running the country for the benefit of wealthy oligarchs. Second, there's political anxiety that the majority of the American people rightly should see us as complicit in running the system that screws them. Third, there's the economic anxiety that our economic class lives on a slippery and shrinking ice floe, and it's easy to fall off of it; you see this particularly in the sense of barely contained panic parents have about their children's education.

What's really striking is that my description came in the context of me talking about technocrats like me yearning for a more just economy that would in many senses cost us our relative wealth, while Cobb is a conservative who regards such grumblings as hopelessly naïve ... yet we offer very similar descriptions of what is happening now.

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