Friday, June 30, 2017

links for the weekend--is it the top one percent or maybe the top twenty percent in the United States that is hoarding the wealth at the expense of everyone else?

Over at Commentary Terry Teachout has something about a book discussing the symphonic scene in Germany under National Socialism.

After the 20th century, so full of atrocities and horrors that would be axiomatic if merely saying they were so was not a troubling axiom, the idea that the humanities humanize shouldn't be taken very seriously.  This is not simply a matter of whether poetry can exist after Auschwitz.  Plenty of human activities continued after that evil and will continue.  But it has been easily observed that German culture, for a long stretch regarded as the pinnacle of Western sophistication and genius in the arts, was clearly no barrier against systematic evil.   Cue the quote from Walter Benjamin if you already know it ... .

What American artists who would prefer a more European style state-subsidized arts scene might want to ask here in 2017 is whether they really would want the United States government to subsidize the arts given how vehemently anti-Trump many artists are.  Would not, at this point, it seem to many an artist that the demolition of the NEA and NEH might be inadvertent favors to artists, if only in the sense that if Trump proves to be as despotic as many on the liberal/left side of the spectrum fear he will ultimately prove to be, why would any artists with self-respect want federal funding from that administration, exactly?

Furtwangler assuring Toscanini that people are free where ever Wagner and Beethoven music was played and that, if they are not free at first, they are eventually free listening to the works, sounds ghastly.  It's ghastly for the most literally obvious reason but it's also ghastly to anyone who actually can't stand Wagner's music and prefers Haydn to Beethoven overall.  It's not that interesting music can't be made by those who are imprisoned.  Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time is amazing.  I've been listening to Zaderatsky's preludes and fugues which, as has been reported in the last couple of years by advocates for it, was one of the first cycles of preludes and fugues for piano composed in the 20th century and which was also composed while the composer was stuck in the Gulag.  

But there's a lot of art that is made that is beautiful in spite of evils.  If people on the secular left side hope that truly great journalism will happen in the era of Trump that's not conceptually so different from reactionary right wing dispensationalist fundamentalists Christians believing that some powerful End Times anointing would be at hand if Hillary Clinton were president.  After twenty some years of hearing the red and the blue regard the other team as spawning the Antichrist if they win the Oval Office it seems easier to just assume that whoever actually gets the job ... .

There's more than one angle to approaching the conceit that bad times make for great art.  Take this article over at The New Republic about the emergence of the "thought leader".

However deeply the superrich have degraded American intellectual and political discourse, the Ideas Industry has also created an opening—albeit a very slim one—for a different kind of organic intellectual. The one percent’s attempts to disrupt the media and universities have had the unintended consequence of radicalizing a generation of young writers and academics on the left—those recently dubbed “the new public intellectuals” in The Chronicle for Higher Education. Facing dim job prospects in the academy, leftists who might once have become professors increasingly define themselves as writers or political organizers. Bad times, historically speaking, are good for ideas, and our moment is no exception. We’re arguably living in a new golden age of little magazines: Not only have publications like n+1, Jacobin, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Current Affairs appeared in recent years, but older ones like The Baffler and Dissent have been resurrected or revitalized.

Gramsci’s conception of the organic intellectual was not merely meant to describe the prophets of the European bourgeoisie and its industrial capitalism. The organic intellectual was above all a concept for the left: a name for those who, emerging from working-class conditions, had the inclination and ability to express their vision of society and organize it into action. He envisioned not a savior swooping down from the elite, but thinkers sharing an experience of economic privation, translated into both an intellectual and social struggle.

For those who read and remember the Alan Jacobs lament about the loss of Christian intellectuals this idea that real intellectualism, whether it's imagined to be left or right in foundation or origin, is one of those lapsarian bromides that will probably not die until there are no humans left to express the sentiment. 

But which super-rich do we really want to hold accountable for wrecking the prospects (whatever those may be hoped to be) for the working class?  The proverbial one percent?  What if it's turned out to be the whole range of the "top twenty percent"? Such is the argument, at least, advanced lately by Richard V Reeves.


Trump’s success among middle-class whites might seem surprising, given his own wealth. But his supporters have no problem with the rich. In fact, they admire them.  His movement was about class, not money, and he exuded the blue-collar culture. For his supporters, the enemy is upper middle-class professionals: journalists, scholars, technocrats, managers, bureaucrats, the people with letters after their names. You and me.

And here is the difficult part. The popular obsession with the top 1 percent allows the upper middle class to convince ourselves we are in the same boat as the rest of America; but it is not true.  However messily it is expressed, much of the criticism of our class is true. We proclaim the “net” benefits of free trade, technological advances, and immigration, safe in the knowledge that we will be among the beneficiaries. Equipped with high levels of human capital, we can flourish in a global economy. The cities we live in are zoned to protect our wealth, but deter the unskilled from sharing in it. Professional licensing and an immigration policy tilted toward the low-skilled shield us from the intense market competition faced by those in nonprofessional occupations. We proclaim the benefits of free markets but are largely insulated from the risks they can pose. Small wonder other folks can get angry.


I am British by birth, but I have lived in the United States since 2012 and became a citizen in late 2016. There are lots of reasons I have made America my home, but one of them is the American ideal of opportunity. I always hated the walls created by social class distinctions in the United Kingdom. The American ideal of a classless society is, to me, a deeply attractive one. It has been disheartening to learn that the class structure of my new homeland is, if anything, more rigid than the one I left behind and especially so at the top.

Indeed, the American upper middle class is leaving everyone else in the dust. The top fifth of U.S. households saw a $4 trillion increase in pretax income in the years between 1979 and 2013.  The combined rise for the bottom 80 percent, by comparison, was just over $3 trillion. The gap between the bottom fifth and the middle fifth has not widened at all. In fact, there has been no increase in inequality below the eightieth percentile. All the inequality action is above that line.

The broader case, in case this is a TL:DR weekend for you, dear reader, is that there's what some call income inequality of revenue and then there's other thing Reeves calls "opportunity hoarding". A lot of income inequality is not necessarily found in bankers and deals for plutocrats, though it's obviously found there; it can also be manifest in the ways the upper middle class parents take steps to ensure their kids will have AT LEAST the comfort and access to resources they themselves have enjoyed.  The prospect that your kid may have to live with economic downward mobility is never going to be acceptable, is it?  Reeves suggests that the United States university system abolishes altogether legacy admissions practices.  Just because one or both of you parents went to school X doesn't mean you get a tuition discount or any advantageous consideration compared to someone who comes from a family that never previously attended school X.

I've made this somewhat joking observation before but it's not a surprise to me that in the last decade the signature take on the all-American superhero Batman managed to come from a British director, Christopher Nolan.  Perhaps Americans have been so eager to not think about class, yet between Nolan's version of Batman and the by now iconic take of Batman: the animated series, Batman is the sort of character that most directly interrogates questions folks can have in the United States about how, if there's going to be a one percent, if there's just going to be a plutocratic caste, what kind of conduct do we want from that caste?  That is, somewhat predictable riffs from some branches of the left withstanding, not necessarily an advocacy of "fascism".  Inequality is ineradicable from the human species and the people who are least able to avoid this reality about our species are generally those who were quite literally born with a disadvantage of some kind, what in bygone eras might have been inelegantly called a handicap. 

I'll admit to some frustration that a student who thinks that writers at The Baffler or Jacobin or n+1 signify the emergence of a new intellectual group.  I do read stuff from those publications on a roughly monthly basis.  I also toggle through Commentary (obviously), The New Criterion, The American Conservative, and a few other venues that are not quite left of center.  It's been a little surreal to get the sense that the far left and the far right agree more with each other these days than the proverbial "center" left and right.  Part of what makes this a little odd is remembering a macabre observation by one Richard Taruskin about how the  history of Europe shows that if you move far enough to the left or the right the thing they all agree on is that the bad stuff is the fault of Jews who should get ostracized or punished. 

It doesn't seem like there's much reason to be optimistic about the far edges of the left and right or the center.  It sometimes seems as though agitators and partisans across the board are angling for some kind of race war or class war or all of the above if that can be managed. Those that do angle for those kinds of things very like cannot be disinterested parties.  Revolutions tend to get embraced by those sorts of agitators who ultimately intend to be the next ruling class.  The history of the Soviet bloc suggests, no, more than suggests that regardless of formally espoused ideologies ruling classes tend to end up behaving more or less similarly across the board. 

I'm not so sure that the "thought leader" that a David Sessions at The New Republic decries is ultimately much more than a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" of the public intellectual from an earlier era. 

Let's put it this way, there's no reason the thought leader isn't really the organic intellectual of the top twenty percent and not just the top one percent, but those sorts of people who might be in the top twenty percent and have, say, a penchant for founding left-leaning or socialist `zines might have very powerful incentives to exempt the nineteen percent they are part of over against that one percent in the top twenty percent they aren't themselves part of.
The intellectual institutions of postwar America were far from perfect; universities and think tanks accepted military-oriented funding from the U.S. government and often provided the intellectual foundations for American imperialism. Nevertheless, the three decades after World War II—when corporate power was checked by a strong labor movement, higher education became broadly accessible, and social services were expanded—were the most democratic in American history. Universities and think tanks were able to establish a baseline of public trust, in part because their production of knowledge was not directly beholden to the whims of idiosyncratic billionaires demanding that their “metrics” be met and their pet political ideas be substantiated.


The golden age of little magazines ... I admit to cynicism.  Plutocrats may be more brazenly direct in their interests in influencing policy but I wonder whether it's necessarily worse than earlier eras in which the American university system was in full post-war bloom.  Didn't someone over at Jacobin write a long-form piece about how Jews in American academic became neo-conservatives because, with the emergence of affirmative action Jewish scholars who might otherwise have been on board with civil rights for African Americans balked at the prospect of losing their disproportionately large influence in American letters?  Yes ... I do recall reading such a piece.  What is alternately thought of as neoliberalism or neoconservativism, depending on which left/right polemics you're reading, seems to have been birthed in part from that university/think tank culture.   Not the whole, obviously, and not by a long shot but the idea that the old system was better than the new thought leader regime seems tough to buy.  There are reasons that the contemporary academic scene seems like it would be something people would want to not be part of. 

At length the question that comes up is how much you're willing to reconcile yourself to serving an empire.  That's an unavoidable question.  If you're an academic at a state school you're working for whatever the empire is that you live in.  It can be done, and I'd hardly say you should never be a teacher.  Teaching was one of the career paths I was interested in.  But I was not, at the risk of putting it in terms borrowed from the various polemics cited above, not born into the class or caste for whom those kinds of doors really opened. 

I twas not that long after graduating from college that it began to dawn on me I had had an advantage a lot of people wouldn't have in educational terms, but also that I had graduated into a job market for which my education was not necessarily a preparation.  I had also reached a slowly but steadily firm conviction that whatever I had been told about the power bestowed upon the job-seeker by higher education was at best wishful thinking and at worst a sham.  Class mobility is probably one of the most pervasive myths in the United States.  If injustice is the discovery that you and yours are on a downward trend that's not necessarily injustice, is it?  What if it's the market at work? 

Here in Seattle about two months ago posters and fliers were about saying "no more shit jobs".  There will always be those kinds of jobs and just because a lot of us get those kinds of jobs and don't exactly adore them doesn't mean the jobs don't, in some sense, have to get done.  It seems that people who weren't born into the world with disabilities can't quite get that the world will always have haves and have nots.  You could be born into the world able to digest gluten ... or not.  You don't get to choose that.  If there's something about American society that seems toxic it's that people on both the left and the right in the artsy entrepreneurial scene seem to feel like they are somehow exempt from being I n that previously mentioned top twenty percent.  You don't have to be a Trump or a Soros or a Swift to be born into a ruling class, you might just need to be born into a family where, simply because your parents and/or grandparents went to school X, gives you or gave you a hefty discount on tuition at school X, or that you get a legacy admission for their time and money and ... maybe effort.


chris e said...

I suspect that it's true regarding the top 20% vs the rest. OTOH I suspect that doesn't negate the benefit of the 1% - there are a number of extrapolations based on things like the Panama-Papers leak that seem to indicate that the wealth of the 1% is - if anything - far underestimated because of the types of structures they use to shield their wealth from scrutiny.

Beyond the choice of a particular group to scapegoat, I'm not entirely sure that the 'horseshoe' theory holds. Jacobin has always struck me as a kind of higher rent Vice though, whereas Baffler seems a little bit more depth.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

The disproportionality is probably impossible to measure for the 1%.

Jacobin lost me with their proposed history of the neoconservative movement, which used scholastic jargon to more or less assert neoconservatives were Jews who balked at affirmative action because it was a threat to their disproportionately large influence in American letters. It can be a bit too easy for folks on the left to forget that blaming Jews is not just a right wing thing. And the issue of Jacobin dedicated to Irish national socialism was behind a paywall a while back.

So, yeah, if it's a choice between The Baffler and Jacobin I tend toward Baffler, though even they have some odd articles on a steady basis. The idea that American Indian tribes were just because they had matriarchal governance sounds like yet more reverse-engineering of fantasy Indians who retroactively embody what white progressives want to happen now--Sherman Alexie will probably never run out of opportunities to make fun of white progressives for this recurring habit.

Baffler was one of the relatively few places I could recall reading some actually decent discussion of transhumanism in connection to the original Ghost in the Shell film.

Cal P, since you indicated you didn't plan to catch Ghost in the Shell, this is probably the best overview of Oshii's film and the manga more generally I've come across so far in the wake of the obscenely ill-advised remake:

That said, so much ink has been spilled over the technocratic aspect of the manga and anime television series little serious thought seems to have been given to the possibility that Ghost in the Shell marked the apotheosis of Oshii's explicitly anti-Christian polemics that had been mounting since Angel's Egg over the course of about a decade. That might seem weird to people unfamiliar with Oshii's work but his subversive deployment of biblical texts and allusions would only be possible because he understood their actually Christian meanings. I am probably going to end up writing a long-form discussion of how the remake needs to be seen as weak sauce not necessarily in light of Japanese technological/social history (since that's already been done) but in light of Oshii's deployment of biblical literature and tropes ranging from Angels Egg through Patlabor into Ghost in the Shell. But that may take a while to assemble and this has not been the best/easiest year to put things together because of stuff in the offline world.