Are You an Elitist? Class Warfare and the New Nobility

Class warfare reflects a dysfunctional divide-and-conquer society.

One of the easiest ways to put someone on the defensive in America is to accuse him/her of being an elitist. The power of this accusation derives from a complex mix of dynamics. At least one goes all the way back to the founding principles of the nation: a profound and abiding distrust of monarchy and landed nobility, and a well-grounded fear that democracy could be subverted and a new form of feudal monarchy returned to power.

It is increasingly clear that a new form of feudalism has indeed subverted democracy, and that the New Feudalism is powered by concentrations of private wealth and centralized state control: what I call the New Nobility.

Recall my Feudalism Corollary #1:

If the citizenry cannot replace a dysfunctional government and/or limit the power of the financial Aristocracy at the ballot box, the nation is a democracy in name only.

This is why politicians bred in the hothouses of elite universities must perform “I’m one of you” rituals such as publicly enjoying low-brow snack food and attending mid-brow music performances. That such transparent immunizations against charges of elitism still work is testament to the credulity of a media-soaked populace.

There is an uglier aspect to the accusatory power of charges of elitism: as the sense that hard work and integrity are no longer guarantees of upward mobility in America, a corrosive class envy is coming to a boil.

This is the subtext of the emergent topic of the day, wealth and income inequality.

Since the vast majority of us cannot lash out in any satisfying way at the top .01% who own most of the wealth and control the political machinery–in other words, the New Nobility–we seek some other accessible target.

Expressing anger at the representatives of authority–police, Homeland Security, etc.–is a risky proposition, as being beaten and hauled off to jail or being shot are distinct possibilities.

Beyond the overwhelming use of raw force, authorities maintain an arsenal of soft weapons such as false public accusations, vague legal charges that keep morphing as the accused demolishes each specific charge, IRS audits, and so on.

This rage at the dominance of essentially feudal elites and their armies of underlings willing to enforce their rule is increasingly being directed at the elected toadies and lackeys. In response, craven politicos are restricting their exposure to angry serfs.

That leaves the top 10% as the only accessible target for class envy and the generalized rage of a peasantry that cannot identify the causes of their servitude.This is misdirection, of course; the top 10% of professionals and technocrats have benefited within the New Feudalism, but they are functionaries, not the New Nobility.

It’s clear that the top 10%–the class of technocrats, professionals, entrepreneurs and creatives–has managed to increase their wealth despite the dominance of the top .01%, whose wealth and power has pulled away from the top 10% and even the top 1%.

The Richest Rich Are in a Class by Themselves: top .01% and top .1%

The top 5% has done marginally better than the top 10%, and the top 20% have done better than the bottom 80%:

A household income of around $150,000 a year qualifies as a top 10% income:

$145,000 to $149,999: 90.20%
$105,000 to $109,999: 81.09%
$190,000 to $194,999: 95.21%

Because the super-wealthy are in the top 5% and top 1%, the average incomes of these groups are heavily skewed by the enormous incomes of the top 01%. As a result, it would be more accurate to remove the top .1% from the top 10%, top 5% and top 1%, but I haven’t found any statistical charts that reflect this.

For their part, the top 10%/5% are feeling unfairly targeted by this class envy, as they pay the vast majority of income taxes: CBO:Top 40% Paid 106.2% of Income Taxes; Bottom 40% Paid -9.1%

The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes

While inherited wealth plays a part in the top .1%, most of the top 10%/5% have earned their wealth the old-fashioned way, by obtaining professional degrees or starting businesses, and by being married/having two incomes: Explaining income inequality by household demographics.

Rather than being “the enemy,” the top 10% feels they’re the good guys, the ones providing jobs and paying most of the taxes that support the bottom 40%. While the bottom 90% focuses on their own set of resentments, the top 10% have their own resentments: the public services they pay for are often marginal or poor quality.

This reality is fueling a movement of wealthier communities to incorporate into new cities that are operated for the benefit of their residents: services are run more like businesses than spoils systems (the default model of large urban cities), taxes are kept low and feedback from taxpayers keeps service quality high.

I have covered the various class fault lines emerging in America many times: The Three-and-a-Half Class Society (October 22, 2012)

The New Feudalism a partnership of the Tyranny of the Majority, entrenched incumbents and the top .1% Elites. If the political Status Quo alienates the majority by making them pay more taxes, they risk losing power in the next election. If they alienate the top .1% who fund their multi-million-dollar campaigns, then they will also lose power. So they heap the tax burden on what remains of the middle class.

There is a social dimension to this emerging class warfare, a topic I discuss inBifurcation Nation (June 24, 2013). The top 20% is characterized not just by wealth but by a set of cultural behaviors, values and norms that are increasingly divergent from the norms and behaviors of the bottom 80%.

The haves are married, have college degrees, rarely have military service, attend religious services, and have little contact with those outside their own upper-middle class.

The have-nots are divorced/single parents, less educated, more likely to have served in the military, less likely to attend church, and earn much less than the haves.

I myself am routinely accused of being elitist, on the grounds that few can afford the meals I present here. I have repeatedly proven this assertion to be absolutely false, as home-cooked meals are cheaper than fast-food “value meals” or packaged convenience food. America’s Excuse Book: Take Your Choice, Victim or Heartless Hypocrite (December 2, 2013)

These accusations are especially irksome because I have been low-income for most of my adult life and have carried far too much lumber on far too many jobsites to tolerate any accusations of elitism. I suspect many others routinely accused of elitism feel the same way.

The urge to accuse everyone with something better than you have of being part of an exploitive elite reflects not just generalized rage but the victory of victimhood.Sadly, one of the few ways for the marginalized in our society and economy to “get ahead” is to make claims of victimhood to secure disability, social services, etc. The core of victimhood is “it’s not my fault.” The system rewards victimhood, so it’s no surprise that has become a dominant social norm.

And where does this set of norms lead us? To a dysfunctional divide-and-conquer society in which the top 10% paying most of the taxes is increasingly resentful of the .1% New Nobility above them and the masses below that look at the 10% as the only accessible target of their generalized anger at the injustice of their servitude and powerlessness.

The top .1% New Nobility, which of course includes all the craven politicos in thrall to the super-wealthy, have the means to sequester themselves away in gated estates and private jets. No wonder the top 10% is actively pursuing whatever means are available to avoid the resentments of those below.

Meanwhile, those running the mainstream media and the machinery of governance have to generate targets for the generalized rage other than the actual sources of dysfunction: the centralized state itself and the private concentrations of capital that partner with the state’s elites in the New Nobility.


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  • Charlie Primero

    I define “rich” as anyone who can afford to pay men with guns to stand at the end of their driveway 24/7.

    I predict those men will become very worthwhile American household accessories in the near future, as they currently are in Mexico and Ukraine.

  • mmckinl

    Excellent essay …

    “If the citizenry cannot replace a dysfunctional government and/or limit the power of the financial Aristocracy at the ballot box, the nation is a democracy in name only.”

    And we indeed suffer this condition right now … What are seeing is fascism … albeit right now velvet glove fascism … but this too will change … All the “tools” of a complete police state are in place …

    Martial Law by Executive Order

    “The 2012 NDAA deemed the United States a “battlefield,” as Senator Lindsey Graham put it, and gave the president and his agents the right to seize and arrest any U.S. citizen, detain them indefinitely without charge or trial, and do so only on suspicion, without any judicial oversight or due process. The new Executive Order states that the president and his secretaries have the authority to commandeer all U.S. domestic resources, including food and water, as well as seize all energy and transportation infrastructure inside the borders of the United States. The Government can also forcibly draft U.S. citizens into the military and force U.S. citizens to fulfill “labor requirements” for the purposes of “national defense.” There is not even any Congressional oversight allowed, only briefings.”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-garrison/martial-law-under-another_b_1370819.html

  • Name

    “For their part, the top 10%/5% are feeling unfairly targeted by this class envy, as they pay the vast majority of income taxes: CBO:Top 40% Paid 106.2% of Income Taxes; Bottom 40% Paid -9.1%”

    Try looking at the IRS website (search on “irs stats”) and you will see that both the claim and the referenced story are hogwash.

    • Susan Strether

      Right. Also, positioning the rich as the alleged ‘job creators’ places them as
      necessary to the functioning of ‘the economy’. In recent decades the rich—inherited wealth,
      corporate executives and financiers, have accrued great fortunes
      through ‘rentier’ income dependent on economically inefficient (in
      capitalist economics) market power. Market power is contrary to economic
      democracy the same way totalitarian government is to political
      democracy. However, as regressive tax cuts, bank bailouts and government
      policies to diminish the power of labor demonstrate, it is the rich who
      are driving government policy. The elitists don’t worry about the IRS, they want you to. Hard work and integrity do pay, but not when the very idea has been stolen.

  • Thanks Charles. Quite true.

    One thing I find interesting about feudalism is what made, created, or generated it:

    It is an old saying, nearly a dozen centuries old, that “war begat the king”. It is no less true that war, not civil, but international, begat feudalism.

    And as war begat the King and the military noble, so it also begat the slave.
    There had always been a slave class, a class of the unfree, among the
    English as among all German peoples; but the numbers of this class, if
    unaffected by the conquest of Britain, were swelled by the wars which
    soon sprang up among the English conquerors.

    (American Feudalism – 2).

  • DigitalBluster

    The purpose of classification is to mark off traits that are shared by some but not all. But when we try to classify people based on their income we get nonsense: they all take home an income. We might just as well speak of the top 8.675309% as the top 10%. The choice of one over the other is arbitrary. It’s like placing significance on birthdays ending in zero.

    Our economy is based on production for profit. This requires property laws to enforce the claims of business owners. This implies that not everyone in our economy is an owner. And there is your empirical basis for class analysis. Unlike the income-based divisions, the propertied and non-propertied classes do not overlap as such. The division is not arbitrary.

  • Carlos El Condor

    Wouldn’t immigration affect income “inequality” data?
    The 1920s saw America accommodating huge numbers of immigrants.
    The Great Depression was caused by cheap credit, which in turn allowed poorly-informed investors to bid up prices out of plain, simple greed.
    Gee, sounds a lot like America 2014, don;t it?

  • Why on earth does no one ever talk about elections being rigged (by the elites) on electronic voting machines?
    Think about this: the NSA knows when someone takes a SHIT anywhere in the world, do you think they aren’t doing a much simpler thing such as rigging elections on electronic voting machines?