02 September 2013

Cobb's Slice

Michael David Cobb Bowen is an old friend. He is an idiosyncratic Black conservative; I am an idiosyncratic White progressive. We disagree about damned near everything, but I often find that I profit more from thinking about my disagreements with him than from many people with whom I nominally disagree.

He and I both belong to what I sometimes call the technocratic class, which in his “Peasant Theory” he calls The Slice. (He summarizes his Peasant Theory particularly well in the last section of his post Three Types Of Class.)

His short description of The Slice is

the talented segment of society who, by their work, keep actual rich people rich

If that's a little chilling, well, it should be.

I find this longer meditation on The Slice intriguing:

My Middle Class is one that I think will emerge on a moral and ethical front. Mine is the lower upper middle class of America. We are the people who use a combination of meritocratic systems and social powers to establish and maintain our status and affluence. We know things that matter and we know how to do things that matter. We are a working class, and this is somewhat unique to an America that provides a great deal more to the common man than England did in the 1930s. For what we have in America is not only automobiles but several manufacturers of automobiles, and in this and other industries, products and services are provided in such a way as to make a larger permanent set of competencies. If England faced socialism because the permanent unemployment of coal miners (due to a small monoculture of capitalist investors), America would not because of it larger, more diverse class of capitalist investors. This, in turn establishes a social momentum that keeps a larger literate class — the upper middle class, and among them, the most capable segement I call The Slice.

I think of The Slice, however as the only substantial meritocracy, and I think of it in feudal terms. They are the people who work directly for the Powers That Be. Yet the upper middle class, which is (I estimate) 3 or 4 times larger than The Slice itself, knows exactly what The Slice should be doing, and is always vying for those positions. It is this large and competent upper middle class that define American culture and society, as everyone in the middle class and below aspire to their affluence and freedom, and the small numbers of the Ruling Class make them ineffective at controlling their creativity. In America, my wild guess is that the upper middle class numbers between 20-35 million, which is about 6-12 percent of our population. More accurately, in 2011, about 38 million households had income of 75-200k per year. The substantial point is that I see this as the proof of the establishment of a class system far beyond the conceptualizations of the early socialists such as Orwell.

America has more than a million millionaires, and that is a divergent enough class of capitalists to establish a continuity of capital that can be robust, even anti-fragile against the sorts of stagnated, narrow investments and under-investments that created permanent unemployment. The interests of the moneyed class and the talents of the upper middle class are both now so substantial that they can support much greater numbers of the needs and desires of the common man. Furthermore, the universiality of this global upper class, is the fascinating phenomenon that is transforming the world. This is the new jet set and we know what time it is UTC.

This American upper middle class is accustomed to and aware of the way it works for global capital. It lives in international cities like Los Angeles. It eats a variety of cuisines. It speaks a variety of languages. It has a style and a substance that is evidence of civilization. Where you see its garbage of empty Starbucks cups, and Perrier water bottles, you know that you are in a high rent neighborhood. What I want to suggest re-establishes the thesis — the loyalties of this class is a bit more diverse than that of The Slice. The Slice works directly for the Powers that Be, the upper middle stands in reserve and sometimes creates its own Alternative Slice in anticipation of a future seduction of new Rulers to new rules. The man who is not working for Intel today but finds a way to design tommorows computer chips in a superior way seeks to improve on the current regime. This is a ‘bottom up’ solution searching for the right investors, and the investor class is well aware of such upstarts. But what of nationalism?

I want to assert in brief that America has maintained liberty through the production of domestic products and services aimed towards the fulfillment of desires of choice above and beyond desires of need for the common man. These are, in many ways, the fundamental interests of the US — to protect the supply lines and trade arrangements that keep global capital invested here. The provide the infrastructure that keeps our international cities attractive to The Slice and to provide such a home for investors who would keep our economy fluid and strong. To provide for the broad open society that encourages the advancement of individuals and families into upward social mobility for the common man, and to maintain the infrastucture of domestic tranquility. This is constrained into nationalism out of tradition and law, but in matters of war and peace the preponderant interests of the upper middle class is unclear. There is too little of the nation's economy, unlike in the days preceding the World Wars, that stands to benefit from war production.

However, the interests of the upper middle class, are very much like the interests of the Western ruling class in that it cannot afford to operate in pre-industrial conditions. And those who threaten the infrastructure of the West are thus intolerable. That is not necessarily a national interest, but neither is it something dictated or constrained by international law, per se. It is not international law that makes Singapore attractive to the upper middle class. It is not nationalism that motivates traitors like Edward Snowden. It is the fundamental usefulness their talents provide to the Ruling Class and the high rewards that make their social standing — not only in one country, but universally.

My class is the global upper middle class. We may be nationalists only of convenience. We will not be seduced by socialism because our existence is as permanent as the global supply chain of oil, steel and data. The common man still looks up to us — as we are the common man, improved. Our native land is civil liberty.

I am a lot less sanguine than he is about the resiliency of the the economy that the aristocratic class is creating. And I am a touch more sanguine about technocrats favoring “socialism” than he is; I know a great many technocrats who favor social democracy, and I suspect that the kind of education necessary to produce effective technocrats also produces the capacity for critique of the social order. But he hints elsewhere in that essay that China proves me wrong, and I fear he is right, because the “feudal” conception of society which he regards as realistic strikes me as nightmarish.

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