Continuing Walker Bristol’s weekly column on social activism at Tufts, in Greater Boston, and beyond.
“We are cursed with an overclass convinced they’re scrappy underdogs.”
In America, the emperor is without clothes (sometimes it seems like he spends a lot of time that way—must be getting cold) but across the political spectrum, no one is quick to say so. There’s a reason spell-check didn’t recognize the word “overclass” in the above quote: discussing how our meritocratic elites are distant from, and in their distance have failed the rest of American society, is outright non-mainstream.
Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites identifies this as a more pointed problem than mere class inequality. It plagues each of our society’s many institutions based in meritocracy—described by it’s coiner, Labour Party thinker Michael Young, in his dystopian Rise of the Meritocracy, as equating merit and success with “intelligence-plus-effort”. Young actually mocks the idea itself, presenting a future wherein people are literally selected based on scientifically identifiable “intelligence”. In Twilight, Hayes—currently the host of MSNBC’s Up with Chris—argues not that we’re in danger of meeting such a 1984esque fate, but rather that these institutions cannot function in a free and open democracy like America’s, and are bound to collapse if the tension-inducing distance between the elite and the proletariat of the American meritocracy is upheld.
But as I mentioned earlier: the failure of these elites, and thereby the failure of the meritocracy in producing them, is a systemic problem that manifests as water to us fish. Both major parties agree that our meritocracy is stable, hence why, for example, education reform seems to find support from either side. Hayes makes the argument that the “myth of equal opportunity”, in a system that “cedes inequality”, naturally produces corruption and incompetence at the top. Not that our overclass is without ambition and intelligence—rather that when our institutions reward those virtues at the expense and slander of those equally perseverant who occupy the underclass, the elites inflate their false sense of self and can easily ignore the plight of those they stand upon. Bring on the manipulation of Libor (we deserve the power to influence the derivatives markets because we made it to these seats by our own bootstraps). Bring on the denial of manmade global climate change (we’re secure in our privileged positions and don’t see the subtle effects of global warming, so it must be a ruse). Bring on the Kerrys and Romneys.
Central to Hayes’s thesis, and a prescription for change, is that salvation could manifest if the tremendous distance between the overclass and the rest was removed. If, for instance, “Ben Bernanke or Alan Greenspan were in a neighborhood where…they were walking down their street every morning and seeing foreclosure signs,” perhaps these executives of the Federal Reserve, the elites of our central bank, would have nailed the subprime crisis earlier and harder.
Even in non-meritocratic institutions, this distance destroys accountability and compassion, inspiring dishonesty and corruption. Hayes writes:
“The dysfunction revealed by the crisis decade extends even past the government and the Fortune 500. The Catholic Church was exposed for its systematic policy of protecting serial child rapists and enabling them to victimize children. Penn State University was forced to fire its beloved football coach—and the university president—after it was revealed that much of the school’s sports and administrative hierarchy had looked the other way while former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky allegedly raped and abused young boys on its own property…“I’m 31, an Iraq war veteran, a Penn State graduate, a Catholic, a native of State College, acquaintance of Sandusky’s, and a product of his Second Mile foundation,” wrote Thomas Day, days after the Penn State scandal broke. “And I have fully lost faith in the leadership of my parent’s generation.””
Twilight threads together the shortcomings of our divided institutions with the divisions in American society proper, and in doing so prescribes a paradigm shift brought on by social activist movements in the underclass, as they have done so in the past. Both the New Deal reforms and the civil rights evolution of the mid-20th century came, Hayes notes, as a result of tremendous inequality (be it wealth, race, gender, sexual orientation) and the insurrection of the oppressed against their failed leaders. The wedding of these achievements, an era where the somewhat equal distribution of wealth of the early 1900’s, and the equal distribution of social rights that is now coming to a fore of the political discourse, may coexist, is on Hayes’s horizon. The path in that direction demands a megaphone on the voices of those at the bottom, to bridge the distance that keeps those above feeling secure in their vices.