Monday, January 18, 2021

Populist elite resentment and contempt in age of instability

An occupational therapist (right) became a US Capitol insurrectionist, Jan 6, 2021

In April 1932, Franklin D Roosevelt, governor of New York and presidential election candidate, in a radio address said: “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Elites inhabit more than the upper rungs of the economic pyramid and in President Roosevelt’s New Deal program, African Americans remained the forgotten.

Rupert Murdoch spreads his poison among the gullible and several of his Fox employees are among the wealthiest in America. In 2018 it was reported that Sean Hannity as a landlord owned 870 houses in 7 states.

These repellent people belong to what elite?

The annual US income for the 0.01% elite is more than $10m.

Elites are not typically static. Hugh Trevor-Roper, the late British historian, noted in respect of the French Revolution that “social crises are caused not by the clear-cut opposition of mutually exclusive interests but by the tug-of-war of opposite interests within one body.”

Populism is branded as anti-elite but that’s a hoax. Viktor Orb├ín, Hungary's prime minister, has made several of his cronies very rich by giving them state contracts, often with the help of EU funding. Last October a former World Bank chief economist, wrote, “Under Trump, the United States has begun to epitomize crony capitalism, whereby political leaders extend benefits and protection to businesses in exchange for political acquiescence and economic favours.”

Communist systems also spawned elites and last year The Economist reported on a working paper titled “Persistence through Revolutions,” which was produced by a group of scholars based in America, Britain and China. It found that Mao’s social re-engineering had a less lasting impact than might be supposed. The grandchildren of the pre-Communist elite have largely regained the status their families once enjoyed.

Lawrence Rosenthal, the founder and executive director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements, University of California, Berkeley, in his 2020 book Empire of resentment wrote:

“The classic emotion associated with populist movements is resentment. Resentment is anger directed at those perceived as above oneself or one’s class. The inverse of resentment is contempt. Contempt is anger directed at those people or classes seen as below one’s class...One of the dynamics of a populist mobilization when populism on the right becomes a political force or a political movement or when it has been roused by a demagogue is that the populists’ sense of resentment is transformed into contempt. The looked-down-upon now collectively feel themselves looking down. The populists together become contemptuous of the elite. This is the social psychological step, the flip-flop, that’s needed to turn populist sentiment into a political mobilization. It is emotionally transformative at both the organizational and individual levels, empowering the movement to act, to cure the pervasive and festering one-down sensitivity that is resentment’s characteristic mood.”

Donald Trump’s US Capitol insurrectionists seem to have been dominated by the well-heeled and that is an American tradition. Two years ago I did write that Trump’s rallies evoked the spectacle of public lynchings in the past.

Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic:

“The notion that political violence simply emerges out of economic desperation, rather than ideology, is comforting. But it’s false. Throughout American history, political violence has often been guided, initiated, and perpetrated by respectable people from educated middle- and upper-class backgrounds. The belief that only impoverished people engage in political violence — particularly right-wing political violence — is a misconception often cultivated by the very elites who benefit from that violence. The members of the mob that attacked the Capitol and beat a police officer to death...were not desperate. They were there because they believed they had been unjustly stripped of their inviolable right to rule. They believed that not only because of the third-generation real-estate tycoon who incited them, but also because of the wealthy Ivy Leaguers (senators Hawley and Cruz) who encouraged them to think that the election had been stolen.

There’s ample precedent for this. When the Ku Klux Klan formed during Reconstruction, according to historian Eric Foner, its leadership “included planters, merchants, lawyers, and even ministers. ‘The most respectable citizens are engaged in it,’ reported a Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau agent, ‘if there can be any respectability about such people.’”

Finfacts: Slavery and myth of American exceptionalism

Jenna Ryan, a Texas realtor, travelled to Washington DC in a private jet and was part of the Capitol mob. According to a criminal charge she said as an insurrectionist, "We are going to fucking go in here. Life or death, it doesn’t matter. Here we go.”

After her arrest, she publicly begged the "law and order" president for a pardon. Wonder what her reaction would be if it had been an African American riot and a black man had begged a president for a pardon after the greatest onslaught on the Capitol since the British burned the building in 1814?

America’s racial caste system remains as durable as the older Indian one and a white racist became president following the first African American president. Even though the overall violent crime rate fell 74% between 1993 and 2019, while the property crime rate fell 71% according to the Pew Research Center, in 2018 the US prison incarceration rate was 639 per 100,000 population compared with China’s 167 rate.

A Harvard University study suggests that half the US adult population will be obese by 2030. About 8,200 people died of an overdose in Europe in 2018, according to the European Drug Report. This was almost 10 times less than the number of overdose deaths in the United States. Blacks and Hispanic/ Latinos Covid-19 death rates to the end of November were 2.8 times the rate of whites.

Black households in the United States have, on average, considerably less wealth than white households. In 2016, the average wealth of households with a head identifying as black was $140,000, while the corresponding level for white-headed households was $901,000, nearly 6.5 times greater.

In 2010 Peter Turchin, a scientist who is a biologist at the University of Connecticut, made a prediction in the journal Nature that “The next decade is likely to be a period of growing instability in the United States and Western Europe...Very long ‘secular cycles’ interact with shorter-term processes. In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020. We are also entering a dip in the so-called Kondratiev (named after a Soviet economist) wave, which traces 40-60-year economic-growth cycles.”

Prof Turchin warned “we should not expand our system of higher education beyond the ability of the economy to absorb university graduates. An excess of young people with advanced degrees has been one of the chief causes of instability in the past.”

Turchin estimates that each year the United States produces about 25,000 “surplus” lawyers while over 30% of British graduates are “overeducated” relative to their jobs.

Last year Turchin said in an interview with The Atlantic, that “Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards — not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before — they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels.

Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies — and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually, the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.”

Public participation in political parties in Europe and the US has fallen in recent decades emboldening partisans.

Ian Shapiro, a Yale academic, has said, “Donald Trump was selected as the Republican presidential candidate in 2016 by less than 5% of the US electorate.

The Tea Party’s takeover of the Republican Party after 2009 was driven by candidates who won very low-turnout primaries. We’re talking 12% to 15% turnout. This is true of the Democrats, too. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading voice of the party’s left-wing, won her primary against the incumbent Joe Crowley, a moderate Democrat, with an 11% turnout in New York’s 14th congressional district...If a seat is safe for the party, this means that the only election that matters is the primary. That’s what produces polarization: The primary voters are pulling candidates toward the fringes. If you ignore your party’s fringe, then you’ll get knocked off in the primary.”

During the presidential campaign some Hispanics told pollsters that they did not want to be called “people of color.” A middle-class person with a similar education background to a neighbour could feel resentment because the neighbour has a better job. However, those sitting higher on the pyramid may have greater angst because inequality has made the super-rich very hard to compete with.

In 2012 a former director of Goldman Sachs, the top US investment bank, was found guilty in the biggest insider trading case in US history. Indian-born Rajat Gupta had been head of McKinsey, the management consultants, and was worth about $100m when he left the firm. However, it’s believed that he suffered from billionaire envy and was sentenced to 2 years in prison.

Trump lied that he was a billionaire and Wilbur Ross, his commerce secretary, lied about his assets for years, fooling Forbes magazine and virtually everyone else into thinking he was a billionaire. He revealed himself to be a millionaire in federal disclosure forms.

Finfacts: Cognitive dissonance and the flawed American democracy

Finfacts: 44% of US workers in low-paid jobs with median hourly pay of $10

Recent research on the French Revolution (from the 1780s) into the roots of modernisation suggests that while angry peasants took to the streets, it was “enlightened elites” who drove the reforms that upended French society in the late 18th century.

The researchers single out scientists and other “knowledge elites” as crucial players in the institutional changes that led to the modernisation of France’s feudal order.