The Rage of the Almost-Elite

Kenneth Anderson has written a long blog post on the origins of the Occupy Wall Street. I expect that many people will find a lot to disagree with in it. I expect I may agree with some of those disagreements -- I am still processing what I think.

But one section does seem true to me: Occupy Wall Street is mostly the lower elite revolting against the upper elite:

The problem the New Class faces at this point is the psychological and social self-perceptions of a status group that is alienated (as we marxists say) from traditional labor by its semi-privileged upbringing.  It is, for the moment, insistent not just on white-collar work as its birthright and unable to conceive of much else.  It does not celebrate the dignity of labor; it conceived of itself as existing to regulate labor.  So it has purified itself to the point that not just any white-collar work will do.  It has to be, as Michelle Obama instructed people in what now has to be seen as another era, virtuous non-profit or government work.  Those attitudes are changing, but only slowly; the university pipelines are still full of people who cannot imagine themselves in any other kind of work, unless it means working for Apple or Google.
. . . Even more frightening is the young woman who graduated from UC Berkeley, wanting to work in "sustainable conservation."  She is now raising chickens at home, dying wool and knitting knick-knacks to sell at craft fairs.  Her husband has been studying criminal justice and EMT -- i.e., preparing to work for government in some of California's hitherto most lucrative positions -- but as those work possibilities have dried up, he is hedging with a (sensible) apprenticeship as an electrician.  These young people are looking at serious downward mobility, in income as well as status.  The prospects of the lower tier New Class semi-professionals are dissolving at an alarming rate.  Student loan debt is a large part of its problems, but that's essentially a cost question accompanying a loss of demand for these professionals' services.

The OWS protestors are a revolt -- a shrill, cri-de-coeur wail at the betrayal of class solidarity -- of the lower tier New Class against the upper tier New Class.  It was, after all, the upper tier New Class, the private-public finance consortium, that created the student loan business and inflated the bubble in which these lower tier would-be professionals borrowed the money.  It's a securitization machine, not so very different from the subprime mortgage machine.  The asset bubble pops, but the upper tier New Class, having insulated itself and, as with subprime, having taken its cut upfront and passed the risk along, is still doing pretty well.  It's not populism versus the bankers so much as internecine warfare between two tiers of elites.<

The downward mobility is real, however, in both income and status.  The Cal graduate started out wanting to do "sustainable conservation."  She is now engaged in something closer to subsistence farming.
Immediately this made me think of Orwell describing a similar uncomfortable divide in The Road to Wigan Pier:

I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class.  The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the 'eighties and 'nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded.  Or perhaps it would be better to change the metaphor and describe it not as a mound but as a layer--the layer of society lying between £2,000 and £200 a year: my own family was not far from the bottom.  You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood.  Nevertheless, the essential point about hte English class-ystem is that it is not entrely explicable in terms of money.  Roughly speaking it is a money-stratification, but it is also interprested by a sort of shadowy caste-system; rather like a jerry-built modern bungalow haunted by medieval ghosts.  Hence the fat that the upper-middle class extends or extended to incomes as low as £300 a year--to incomes, that is, much lower thna those of merely middle-class people with no social pretensions.  Probably there are countries wher eyou can predict a man's opinions from his income, but it is never quite safe to do so in Engliand; you have always got to take his traditions into consideration as well.  A naval officer and his grocer very likely have the same income, but they are not equivalent persons and they would only be on the same side in very large issues such as a war or a general strike--possibly not even then.

. . . Before the war you were either a gentleman or not a gentleman, and if you were a gentleman you struggled to behave as such, whatever your income might be.  Between those with £400 a year and those with £2,000 or even £1,000 a year there was a great gulf fixed, but it was a gulf which those with £400 a year did their best to ignore.  Probably the distinguishing mark of the upper-middle class was that its traditions were not to any extent commercial, but mainly military, official, and professional.  People in this class owned no land, but they felt that they were landowners in the sight of God and kept up a semi-aristocratic outlook by going into the professions and the fighting services rather than into trade.  Small boys used to count the plum stones on their plates and foretell their destiny by chanting "Army, Navy, Church, Medicine, Law"; and even of these "Medicine" was faintly inferior to the others and only put in for the sake of symmetry.  To belong to this class when you were at the £400 a year level as a queer business, for it meant that your gentility was almost purely theoretical.  You lived, so to speak, at two levels simultaneously.  Theoretically you knew all about servants and how to tip them, although in practice you had one, or at most, two resident servants.  Theoretically you knew how to wear your clothes and how to order a dinner, although in practice you could never afford to go to a decent tailor or a decent restaurant.  Theoretically you knew how to shoot and ride, although in practice you had no horses to ride and not an inch of ground to shoot over . . . 

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about here is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working class family above the level of the dole.  Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagence.  Practically the whole family income goes in keeping up appearances.  It is obvious that people of this kind are in an anomalous position, and one might be tempted to write them off as mere exceptions and therefore unimportant.  Actually, however, they are or were fairly numerous.

Obviously, the cultural markers do not map perfectly onto the divide between elite and semi-elite in the US, especially today.  We have no hereditary aristocracy; all fortunes originated, fairly recently, in "trade".  Except for a small and peculiar class of people in relatively old coastal cities, we don't celebrate people who "don't have to work"--and don't.  And though I have been surprisingly* often consulted by panicked people worried about "using the wrong fork"**, the class markers are mostly different.  But there are still all sorts of hidden cultural signifiers that tell us, yes, we're still in the elite, we know that Formula One is cool and NASCAR isn't (unless you're watching it ironically.)

But I the anxiety that Orwell describes does map rather well onto the current situation.  The almost-elite is very concerned for securing to itself the things that the elite pays for rather easily, especially the "good" schools that reinforce your position in the elite.  But those things are expensive.  Income insecurity threatens people who are already barely maintaining their position.  And the more money the upper elite has, the harder it is to procure those things that maintain your precarious elite status.

Orwell goes on to point out that it is the anxious lower-upper-middle-class who have the most venom towards those below them--precisely because to preserve their status, they have to keep themselves sharply apart from the workers and tradesmen.  And I think that that does apply here as well, at least to some extent.  One of the interesting things about going back to my business school reunion earlier in the month was simply the absence of the sort of cutting remarks about flyover country that I have grown used to hearing in any large gathering of people.   I didn't notice it until after the events were over, because it was a slow accumulation of all the jokes and rants I hadn't heard about NASCAR, McMansions, megachurches, reality television, and all the other cultural signifiers that make up a small but steady undercurrent of my current social milieu, the way Polish jokes did when I was in sixth grade.

Some of my former classmates now live in flyover country, of course, but mostly, I think, they just didn't care.  No one seemed very interested in the culture war.

So why does that same culture war seem so important to so many of the people that I know in New York and DC?  ("The intellectuals", as one of my classmates laughingly called us, when I started dropping statistics in the middle of cocktail chitchat, and then lamely explained that this is kind of what passes for fascinating small talk in DC.)

It's not entirely crazy to suspect, as Orwell did, that this has something to do with money.  Specifically, you sneer at the customs of the people you might be mistaken for.  For aside from a few very stuffy conservatives, no white people I know sneer at hip-hop music, telenovelas, Tyler Perry films, or any of the other things often consumed by people of modest incomes who don't look like them.  They save it for Thomas Kinkade paintings, "Cozy cottage" style home decoration, collectibles, child beauty pageants, large pickup trucks***, and so forth.  

In part, obviously, this is a reaction to the politics of it, since uneducated white people of modest means vote (and attend church) very differently from the hyper-educated but modestly remunerated people in New York or DC.  A group of people who are quite empathetic, even tender, in writing about the financial difficulties of lower-middle class whites as workers, can also be quite vicious about them as voters and consumers.  

And they're worse when it comes to the tastes of people in successful-but-not-intellectual people like sales(wo)men. The vehemence makes it seem, at least in part, like a way to say "I may have their incomes, but I'm not like them.  I'm better."

Similarly, in the 1990s, when I worked with a lot of mostly blue-collar and first-generation college grads (with a fair sprinkling of Ivy Leaguers, to be sure), I didn't hear nearly so much about the rich and how greedy they were--even though in the late 1990s, income inequality was almost certainly worse than it is right now.

As IT consultants, we were mostly working around some of the richest people in the world--investment bankers, traders, and money managers.  And they did occasionally abuse their power.  I received some rather astonishing invitations from men who were literally my father's age, on the basis of the fact that . . . I had entered their office to check up on something.  And one trader at a mutual fund liked to throw things at the IT staff when his screens didn't work--at least until the day he winged one of the techs with a stapler and had to apologize with a very expensive gift.

But in all that time, I'm not sure I heard any complaints about rich people, or even traders or bankers, as a class.  Since OWS started, I've occasionally wondered: does this explain why there seem to be so many more educated white kids than long-haul truckers or home health care aides occupying Wall Street?

There are a few explanations for the phenomenon, of course.  The first is that I was simply missing a seething wave of resentment that was all around me, but not shared with me, in the 1990s.  This is hard to prove one way or another, so I'll leave it at that, and explore the other possibilities.

The second is that things have changed--that as in Orwell's time, the upper-middle class has gone from prosperous to "a wreckage left behind when the tide of prosperity receded".  In the 1990s, people in the middle were optimistic.  Now they're not, which means that they're more frustrated.  And an obvious target for that frustration is the people who have not fallen as far as they have--especially since at least a few of those people were at the center of a financial crisis that has knocked a lot of people flat.

And the third is that the people I worked with didn't feel entitled to be very rich, and so it didn't bother them.  I don't mean to say that they didn't want more money--everyone very much did, as far as I know.  Or that they were content to occupy their place below the great and mighty bankers; maybe people really did feel like that in Victorian England, but my colleagues would have given that idea short shrift.  We just weren't comparing ourselves to the bankers.  We were comparing ourselves to the  people on our blocks, and the people in our industry.  We were far more keenly sensitive to differences in the pay and perks that our colleagues received, than to the weekend homes and luxury automobiles of the financiers.  

Of course, you might think my outlook was jaundiced because I identified with the bankers; I did go to an Ivy League school, and I eventually went to business school and spent a summer with Merrill Lynch.  But I didn't know I was going to business school until shortly before I applied; it was what I did when I realized that I was never going to care as much about the inner workings of a computer as most of the guys I worked with.

And if Orwell (and I) are right, then it is I who should have had the most resentment.  I did all the same things they did--went to the right schools, got good test scores--and they ended up in banking, while I ended up making a small fraction of what they did.  In fact, this happened to me twice: once after college, and again after business school.  My first job at the Economist paid approximately a third of what the management consulting job that I'd originally accepted had promised to pay.

And yet, I was the opposite of resentful.  I spent a summer at a bank.  I've never been under any illusions about what it took to be really rich, on top of all the lucky breaks I got in terms of education: a willingness to work immense hours at tasks that are not very interesting to me.  I was quite clear about the tradeoff I was making, and that I was getting the better end of the deal.

At my reunion dinner table, one friend asked another "would you do what you do if they didn't pay you?"

The response was unprintable on a family blog.  It was also the consensus of the table (and of everyone else I asked at the reunion.)

"But I would," I said.  In fact, I did, for years before the Atlantic hired me.  Obviously, I couldn't do it in the same volume--but the fact is that the work I have now is something that I chose as a hobby long before it became a profession.

My unprintable friend gave me a gimlet stare.  "Journalists," he said imperiously, "do not count for the purposes of this survey."

But of course here's the difference between me and the outraged lower-upper-middle-class: I chose it.  I decided to have terrible grades and major in English, and then job hop in New York before settling down as an IT consultant.  After business school, I picked a job at the Economist instead of searching for something that might have enabled me to move up the food chain from ramen.  And at each step I understood perfectly the risks I was taking, the things I was giving up--if anything, I was too pessimistic.

The people at the We Are the 99% blog didn't choose this; they expected something different.  They didn't see it coming. Yes, yes, maybe they were naive about the possibilities of a fulfilling and secure life in the field of non-profit environmental management.  Probably they should not have sunk tens of thousands of dollars into acquiring a BFA.  But these mistakes didn't usually used to be crippling.  They were a drag, as you paid off those huge student loans with your tiny little income.  (Ramen and cheese doodle surprise again?  Yummmmmm . . . )

Unfortunately their choices became utterly, horrifyingly disastrous just at the moment when we had a terrible financial crisis that spiked our unemployment rate up to 10%.  We can argue about exactly who is at fault and to what extent, and how much longer our public sector spending would have been sustainable without the financial crisis.   But whether or not you think their reaction is empirically correct, it certainly isn't surprising.  To them it looks like a bunch of greedy, stupid bankers stole the jobs that they were entitled to.  And why the hell do a bunch of thieves get to drive around in BMWs while I take the bus?

Update:  Over at his blog, Cranky Professor notes "lot of ourstudents want to work for non-profits. They don't even talk much about government work (though Teach For America and the Peace Corps certainly are). Luckily for the survival of the self-perpetuating institution lots of them want to become members of the 1%, too."  In the comments, he adds "I think many of our students want to work in virtueocracies and still pay their student loans and eventually send their offspring to schools like this...and that's just not going to happen with a non-profit job." This piece has been edited for typos and clarity.

I do think that at least some of the anger comes from the fact that many people in the lower-upper do not perceive many of their consumption choices--attending an elite private college, living in a desirable urban area--as fundamentally consumption choices, not basic human endowments that you are supposed to be able to choose without regard to cost.  An income which would be very comfortable in Omaha requires real sacrifice in New York or Los Angeles, and if you don't perceive the choice to live there as a choice, it's apt to seem very unfair.

I don't want to push that too far; tuition inflation has been enormous, and there have been all sorts of quite real dislocations in the middle class over the decades.  But I do suspect this is at least a small part of the feeling of betrayal.  More on this later, maybe.

  Surprising in that it has happened every couple of years, not that it happened every few days; I am shocked that it still happens at all.

*  If you, too are beset by this anxiety, the answer is: start outward and work in.  The few exceptions are specialized implements that usually go with some sort of be-shelled sea creature, such as oysters or escargot.  If not served with the dish they are meant for, these tools will usually be found lurking around your spoon.

However.  There is no reason that you should be bedeviled with the Victorian mania for fancy silver.  As long as the food remains on your fork while it is being conveyed to your mouth, and you chew with your mouth closed, it's no one's business what fork you use.  Personally, I don't recommend eating anything that looks like mucus anyway, which solves 90% of this problem.

*** Sure, I understand the feminist and environmental objections to the last few.  But anyone who regularly travels abroad/domestic long-haul is probably emitting roughly as much as the owner of that pickup truck, yet I've never heard anyone expressing visceral disgust for people who travel to Asia.

This post has been updated for clarity and typos.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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