The French nobility, observed Tocqueville in The Ancien Regime and The Revolution, supported many of the writers whose essays and observations ended up threatening “their own rights and even their existence.” Today we see much the same farce repeated, as the world’s richest people line up behind causes that, in the end, could relieve them of their fortunes, if not their heads. In this sense, they could end up serving, in Lenin’s words, as “useful idiots” in their own destruction.
Although they themselves have benefited enormously from the rise of free markets, liberal protection of property rights, and the meritocratic ideal, many among our most well-heeled men and women, even in the United States, have developed a tendency to embrace policies and cultural norms that undermine their own status. This is made worse by their own imperious behavior, graphically revealed in the mortifying college admissions scandal in the United States, where the Hollywood and business elites cheated, bribed, and falsified records to get their own kids into elite colleges.
At the same time, these same people continue to boost their own share of the world’s wealth, as a recent OECD report reveals, largely at the expense of the middle and working class. The embrace of inexorable “globalization”—essentially shifting productive work to developing countries—may appeal to the progressive rich even as it, in the words of geographer Christophe Guilluy, “revived the citadels of Medieval France.”
Sometimes the elite policy agenda is justified as part of a “green” agenda that impoverishes the lower and middle classes by expelling basic industries, thereby boosting housing and energy prices. This in turn has set the stage for the kind of peasant rebellions—from Brexit and Trump to the rise of illiberal regimes in eastern Europe as well as the re-emergence of socialism—that threaten their hegemony.
The Gentrification of the Left
In the twentieth century, most business leaders were predictably conservative. Big money aligned with their class allies in the “party of property.” Conservatives in Britain and Canada, Liberals in Australia, Republicans in America, and Gaullists in France all supported—albeit with significant differences—a basic property rights-oriented regime backed by law. Yet, over the last 20 years, the upper classes have adopted environmental and social agendas that are fundamentally at odds with competitive capitalism and the survival of a vibrant middle class.
Today, many traditional left-wing parties are largely financed by the wealthy and supported by the elite classes in Canada and Australia. Large sections of traditionally conservative parties like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, meanwhile, have evolved to embrace the internationalist and green agenda. Only in Britain, ever the eccentric laggard, has old-style class warfare been revived by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
In the United States, a clear majority of wealthy donors now support the Democratic Party rather than the traditional corporate party, the Republicans. The vast majority of the ultra-rich foundations—including those funded by the offspring of the Rockefellers and the Fords, whose fortunes were made in fossil fuels—now all tilt to the left, particularly on the environment and cultural issues.
Over the past half century, as was the case in pre-revolutionary France, the elite’s worldview has become increasingly detached from traditional morality. But, while the ruling classes of the industrial era continued to pay lip service to the primacy of the family, many in today’s upper classes have embraced an agenda that has little use for traditional values on anything from sex roles to cultural norms. Increasingly, this is no longer a question of mere tolerance, but an aggressive challenge to the tradition familial culture that once laid the foundation for successful societies.
These pervasive progressive memes are now being adopted by vast corporations. In search of the progressive dollar and appeasement of the Left’s noisy social justice tendency, Gillette has produced ads that attack “toxic masculinity”; similarly culturally PC approaches have been adopted by firms such as Audi, Procter and Gamble, Apple, and Pepsi, with varying degrees of success. Today, employees at Google, Microsoft, and Accenture in Britain are expected to subscribe to the progressive orthodoxy on race and gender; and if they fail to do so, employees fear finding themselves without a job.
When in power, the Left does its best to impose its preferred perspective on the population. Legislatures in seven states, including New York, have passed bills expanding abortion availability into the third trimester. In Colorado, Governor Jared Polis, a tech mogul, is considering legislation to mandate sex education, including information about “healthy” transsexual relationships and bans discussion of gender norms.
The emphasis on cultural issues bestows progressive credibility on ultra-wealthy politicians like Polis or Jay Pritzker, the new Governor of Illinois, or former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. However, it also widens the gap between the upper classes and those that British author David Goodhart calls “the somewheres”—the old middle and working classes who steadfastly identify with the old values of family, locality, nation state, and even religion. In the United States, allowing biological males to use women’s restrooms is rejected by two-thirds or more of the population. It is likely that even fewer agree that raising children according to their biological sex reflects prejudice or bigotry, as some progressives insist.
Finally, there is the explosive issue of immigration, which has helped produce developments like Brexit, the shift to right-wing populism in Europe and, of course, the presidency of Donald Trump. In the tech world, in particular, there is strong support for a “borderless world,” which some see as a way to import cheap skilled labor as well as an endless supply of nannies, gardeners, hotel staff, and cleaners, all of whom are required to maintain the lifestyles of the upper crust.
The Green Religion
If our secular elites have a religion, it revolves around the environment. Elements of the old plutocracy remain, such as those old-line energy firms and manufacturers resistant to the orthodox green approach. But the leaders of virtually all the top tech companies—Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook—work assiduously to identify themselves with what are seen as environmental values. The coffers of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, receive huge donations, often as high as $100 million, from wealthy moguls like Ted Turner, Michael Bloomberg, and Richard Branson.
As in the Middle Ages, environmental activism has adopted an apocalyptic tone; when President Obama was elected, NASA’s James Hansen, one of the icons of the climate change movement, opined that the new Chief Executive had just “four years to save the earth.” In 2008, ABC claimed that Manhattan would be “underwater” by 2015, and such claims are routinely accepted in media, academic, and political circles without much skepticism. Like the Medieval church, the acolytes of this movement have little patience for rational debate; those—including one of the founders of Greenpeace and former members of the UN International Panel on Climate Change—who have raised objections to the current direction of climate advocacy find themselves demonized and marginalized.
Climate change is a problem in need of solutions, but the approaches favored by the super-wealthy expose their hypocrisy and may yet lead to unforeseen assaults on their own wealth. Like Medieval aristocrats, our oligarchs have created special dispensations for their own behavior while insisting everyone else follow the green injunctions. Because they want to encourage everyone else to cut back, they fight the climate fight in style but not in substance; as the Guardian recently noted, they travel to Davos in an estimated 1500 GHG-spewing private jets.
Nevertheless, there are grave political risks here, which the well-placed do not appear to have noticed. Wherever conventional green policies have been imposed—in Britain, Canada, Australia, or the United States—the result has been skyrocketing house and energy prices. In California, arguably the global center for climate alarmism, green policies have helped raise energy and housing prices to unaffordable levels, creating the highest poverty rates in the country. This has occurred even though per capita emissions reductions were less than those of 39 other states. California has also exported greenhouse gas emissions, most famously by manufacturing in coal-heavy china, thereby reducing its own carbon footprint, but not that of the world.
In America and elsewhere, these double-standards threaten to stir up a rebellion from the classes that depend on cheap, reliable energy and cannot afford expensive urban homes. Even higher income countries might be reluctant to further burden their already beleaguered middle and working classes just because the “clean rich” demand it, as Emmanuel Macron has discovered in France, with the rise of the “yellow vest” movement. Functioning democracies naturally have a hard time purposely reducing the quality of life of those who vote.
Off with Their Heads?
Ceaseless green agitation among the new generation has the potential to bring about even more lethal results. As the movement’s ideology of imminent apocalypse grows, a fundamentalism has developed, in some ways reminiscent of the grassroots religious movements that threatened Medieval Catholicism. After all, if we are on the verge of a global apocalypse, how can anyone justify the luxurious lifestyle embraced by so many of the world’s most public green advocates, from Prince Charles and Richard Branson to Leonardo di Caprio and Al Gore?
Over time, elites may discover that their green political pets have become untameable. Like the Communist Party in China during the 1960s, the wealthy purveyors of green hysteria seem to be creating a cult that could end up threatening their own interests. In Europe and the United States, legions of child activists, some as young as 14, are pushing for radical solutions to climate issues that could have catastrophic economic consequences. European groups such as YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion are being encouraged by zealots like the Guardian’s George Monbiot to wage a resistance campaign against anything seen as harmful to the environment
In America, the Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would spell the end of many industries, such as aerospace and fossil fuel energy, with the government picking up the cost of employing displaced workers, and even those who cannot be bothered to work. Unlike gentrified progressives, Cortez and her allies are not detained by distinctions between “good” billionaires and “bad” ones—they don’t believe billionaires should exist at all. In this respect, they reflect the notion endorsed by Barry Commoner, one of the founding fathers of modern environmentalism, that “capitalism is the earth’s number one enemy.”
The mixing of environmentalism and socialism may yet become a mortal threat to the current oligarchy. In the American plutocrat-funded Democratic Party, there is more support for socialism than for capitalism. There’s even a growing socialist movement among tech employees in Silicon Valley, much of it skeptical of democratic or constitutional norms such as the electoral college or the separation of powers. Some, like the New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells, suggest that constitutional democracy as we know it—the very thing that brought modern elites into existence—may soon be impractical to meet the challenge.
As the 2020 campaign has got underway, most of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates have embraced policies that call for an ever-expanded welfare state. To be sure, the oligarchs may feel that these policies will be paid for largely by the beleaguered middle class. But, over time, fiscal logic suggests that the ultra-rich will discover that they too are expected to pay their “fair share.” Backing the party of the “people” means something different when that party lurches towards socialism; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos might consider his pet newspaper, the Washington Post, to be a beacon of the “resistance,” but that did not stop his putative allies from driving his expansion plans in New York City into the proverbial gutter.
At the same time, the elite classes must deal with a potential revolution from the Right, driven by what Christophe Guilluy describes as “the great escape” of the working class from the economic system embraced by the gentrified Left. But whether the next revolution comes from the Right or the Left, our elites, like their eighteenth century counterparts, could belatedly awaken to find themselves faced with an existential threat. If this is indeed what comes to pass, it will largely be due to the folly of their own lack of respect for the values and the system responsible for creating their wealth in the first place.
Joel Kotkin is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His next book, On the Return of Feudalism, will be out early next year from St. Martin’s.