Defensive Elites

In the last couple of years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I term defensive elites. This line of thought began with curiosity about the much-reported hyperbole with which some influential figures within the financial elite of the United States greeted what would barely count as mildly redistributive measures by the then Obama regime. From The Deep State, by Mike Lofgren, pg 255-256:

When Obama suggested eliminating the “carried interest” loophole so that hedge fund managers would have to pay the same federal tax rates on their income that ordinary Americans pay, Stephen Schwarzman, the Blackstone Group CEO, said, “It’s war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” 5 Pretty strong stuff, considering that Obama’s suggestion went nowhere, nor did he even push it very hard. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tom Perkins continued with the Nazi trope, writing a letter to the Wall Street Journal to “call attention to the parallels to fascist Nazi Germany in its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich.’” 6 Oh, the humanity!

When acknowledged leaders within the group feel the need to ‘defend wealth’, it’s hard not to wonder how they perceive the political situation. Is it simply that hyperbole by these people is much more likely to be reported in an era of social media and camera phones? Is this an earnest impulse to ‘make the case for business’ that happens to be tone-deaf about its audience? Or could these people really be as paranoid as some of their pronouncements make them sound? Can we see a latent anti-democratic impulse in the near hegemonic discourse of ‘wealth creators’, representing a resurgence of the view that “the people who own the country should rule it” as the First Supreme Court Justice, John Jay, put it?

Given the structural trend towards the continued consolidation of wealth, it raises the question of how this paranoid streak will find expression in political interventions by these super-elites? As Paul Mason has pointedly asked, is it possible that inequality “could tilt power so far in the direction of a new hereditary elite that there is no return”? If so the political culture of those elites, particularly the affectivity in which it is grounded, must be something of great importance. These super-elites are pulling away even from the 0.1% in a manner which seems likely to generate idiosyncratic mechanisms shaping their beliefs, dispositions and world view. As Inequality.Org summarises:

It used to be that simply being a billionaire would get you into the Forbes 400 list — that was true up until 2006. No more. Our current herd of fatcats has blown past their Gilded Age counterparts to seize an even more gigantic share of the economic pie. According to the magazine, in 2014 you had to have $1.55 billion in the bank vault to make the list. That was $250 million more than in 2013. By 2015, you had to have even more: Carol Jenkins Barnett, whose wealth derives from Publix supermarkets, was too poor to make Forbes with her paltry $1.69 billion.

The hurdle continues to rise rapidly. By 2015, the wealthiest 20 people owned more wealth than half the American population. This group is where you’ll find Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Larry Page of Google, as well as the most successful financiers, like Warren Buffett and George Soros. But the ranks of the very top are no longer filled by mainly by entrepreneurs or even financiers who are self-made. Increasingly, they are populated by people who, thanks to several decades of regressive tax policy, have inherited their wealth; names like Walton and Koch have become common at the apex of wealth. This is the new hereditary aristocracy of means and power

What might seem to be fringe phenomena like funding third-party lawsuits come to seem rather sinister when framed in these terms. What revenge practices are emerging? How do these groups seek to exert an influence? How do they understand the moral valence of their own actions to these ends? These are the questions which I think the concept of defensive elites can be helpful in starting to address.

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