How Does the Ruling Class Feel When It Rules?

At the beginning of Theodore Dreiser’s 1912 novel The Financier, the protagonist Frank Cowperwood, a boy of modest means, observes a lobster and a squid placed in a large tank on a wharf. Cowperwood returns day after day to a primal scene of the lobster slowly dissecting the quicker but cornered squid, snatching a clawful of flesh whenever the squid drops its guard. Transfixed by this developing drama and its inexorable resolution, Cowperwood is both shocked and exhilarated, transformed into a proto-tycoon: “The incident . . . answered in a rough way that riddle which had been annoying him so much in the past: ‘How is life organized?’ Things lived on each other—that was it.”

Dreiser intended for this psychological moment to summarize the entire soul of Gilded Age capitalism, to expose better than any muckraker the passions and vital forces driving the money lust of the haute bourgeois. In that era of outsize capitalists (Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and the like), the urge to comprehend the capitalist’s innermost compulsions had been a constant preoccupation of novelists, historians, and sociologists.

In a renewed Gilded Age of weak unions and unchecked accumulation, that urge’s immediacy seems only to have increased of late, as the previously disavowed reality that the US has a ruling class has finally sunk in. Answering that urge, works like Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind and Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites have, based on their authors’ continued public presence, become a part of the common sense of a fair slice of the left in the United States, and as such deserve a reappraisal. Are their portraits of the ruling class and their readings of the elite’s passions and interests accurate? What do they offer in the way of a vision for the left? What can be learned from this diagnostic impulse and what is beyond its reach?

“America feels broken,” begins Twilight of the Elites. With that wan intransitive verb, Chris Hayes signals his entry into a long tradition of works—from Walter Lippman’s Drift and Mastery near the beginning of last century to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone near its end—that diagnose a national malady. Such works have certain generic constants. They summarize a “national conversation,” and then look beneath it. They paraphrase our public lives in order to pathologize our inner lives.

For Hayes, the pathology is meritocracy, which manifests as a cult of smartness, a refusal by financial and political elites to see the costs as well as the benefits of placing unlimited faith in an “aristocracy of talent,” or in “the smartest guys in the room.” Running down a well-stocked roster of collapses, crises, and scandals from the past decade—Enron, Lehman Brothers, Katrina, the Catholic sex abuse scandals, steroids in baseball, etc.—Hayes adeptly picks apart the presumptions and justifications used to elevate decision makers in policy, business, education, sports, and religion above the non-elites, construed as the losers or also-rans.

Hayes argues that the societal damage incurred by the accumulation of these embarrassments and tragedies is much more than the simple cost of lives ruined, fortunes lost, homes foreclosed, and innocence taken. “The drumbeat of institutional failure echoes among the populace as skepticism. And given both the scope and the depth of this distrust, it’s clear that we’re in the midst of something far grander and more perilous than just a crisis of government or a crisis of capitalism. We are in the midst of a broad and devastating crisis of authority.” Yet somehow meritocracy, the styrofoam philosophy insulating authority from insurrection, has retained its trustworthiness. Meritocracy doesn’t cause crises: people cause crises.

That continued faith in meritocracy, Hayes argues, is doubly concerning: elites have been conditioned to use the meritocratic creed to discount the opinions of those who have been weeded out by its strictures, and non-elites are reluctant to seize authority and claim stronger rights to self-government or a seat at the bargaining table. What ultimately emerges is a nearly intolerable situation: mass distrust of elite institutions without a concomitant political will to change them, a conflict of distaste and disbelief—distaste for the present, and disbelief in the future.

Hayes is acute in analyzing some of the trickier justifications elites use to plug the holes in this sinking yacht. His notion of “fractal inequality”—meant to describe the way rich bankers always feel less rich than richer bankers, “a strange, surreal M. C. Escher–style tower, the top of which recedes ever upward the higher you climb”—is especially useful. Yet Hayes undercuts the force of his diagnosis by simply making the contradictions of meritocracy—and class distinctions more generally—into emotional contradictions. Such an argument permits no solution to the current crisis but one grounded in the emotions, in a class-based feeling strong enough to counter this conflict of distaste and disbelief. Hayes’s proposed solution will satisfy few on the left: he asks us to look at the potential of “a newly radicalized upper middle class . . . people with graduate school degrees, homes, second homes, kids in good colleges, and six-figure incomes. This frustrated, discontented class has spent a decade with their noses pressed against the glass, watching the winners grab more and more for themselves, seemingly at the upper middle class’s expense.”

After 200-some pages of proofs that a reliance on technocrats to save us has been disastrous, to find that Hayes’s commitment to a baseline of class privilege remains undisturbed is deflating. He entertains no hope of cross-class solidarity, no hint of that “newly radicalized” upper middle class recognizing in the working class anything other than people who are worse off than they. On the penultimate page of Twilight of the Elites, Hayes turns to the Occupy Movement, but the promise that he sees in it is primarily (even merely) organizational. He values the innovation of planning a “leaderless movement” rather than the way Occupy brought together the working poor and indebted students, disaffected bankers and the homeless. If social distance—and not just financial inequality—between the haves and the have-nots is, as Hayes argues, one of the most destructive effects of meritocracy on the elite, it is not at all clear how or even that Hayes means to shorten it.

Like Hayes, Corey Robin uses affect and psychology as his insight into the mechanisms of elite politics and social control. His goal is “[to] listen for the ‘metaphysical pathos’ of conservative thought—the hum and buzz of its implications, the assumptions it invokes and associations it evokes, the inner life of the movement it describes.” But the way he defines conservatism—“a meditation on—and theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back”—takes a rather lordly lack of interest anything below affect, in what forms of power are being threatened (the means of production or a seat on a city council?), and under what conditions (violent revolution or electoral reform?).

The Reactionary Mind has enjoyed a lively debate since its publication, with the seemingly indefatigable Robin continuing to extend its thesis on countless blog posts and in a substantial Nation article on the Nietzschean roots of Hayekian libertarianism. Most reviewers of and respondents to The Reactionary Mind have focused on the ambition of the book, praising or denouncing what they see as its central claim: that conservatism or libertarianism or reaction (Robin is forthrightly fluid about nomenclature) is historically continuous and consistent, fundamentally revanchist rather than preservative, and arrayed less like a spectrum than a rowdy, motley club. “I treat the right as a unity, as a coherent body of theory and practice that transcends the divisions so often emphasized by scholars and pundits,” Robin asserts, “I seat philosophers, statesmen, slaveholders, scribblers, Catholics, fascists, evangelicals, businessmen, racists, and hacks at the same table: Hobbes next to Hayek, Burke across from Palin, Nietzsche in between Ayn Rand and Antonin Scalia . . . .”

It is understandable that debate on The Reactionary Mind has focused on the imperious definite article of the title, and, to a lesser extent, on the appropriateness and limitations of the adjective. But Robin’s energies lie elsewhere. Confirmed by replies to his critics, the Right’s “unity” or “coheren[ce]” is something which he takes for granted, and mostly doesn’t analyze. What fascinates him is the texture of that coherence, and the forces creating that unity. If reaction or counterrevolution is more than just a reflex, then what does it feel like? What dark magnetism might it possess?

Robin’s clearest answer doesn’t come until the volume’s last essay, “Easy to Be Hard.” His argument is straightforward: far from their preferred self-image as the party of law and order, conservative elites relish the disorder and violence of open struggle. Particularly after the casual violence of the organized responses to the various Occupy and austerity protests, this contention may seem like second nature, but Robin pushes his claim even further: conservative elites don’t just enjoy seeing the riot gear deployed now and then, but they believe that they need recurrent doses of violence to avoid folding soggily into decadence or desuetude.

Robin presents us with an interesting proposition: what happens when the ruling class gets bored with ruling? He seems to suggest by the choice of his examples—the French Revolution, the Civil Rights Movement, September 11—that it waits for those whom it has subordinated to rise up and mount a formidable challenge; at that point it can rejoice in the opportunity to shake off its lassitude and reassert its will to power. “Violence, the conservative intellectual has maintained, is one of the experiences in life that makes us feel the most alive, and violence is an activity that makes life, well, lively. . . . Counterrevolutionary violence,” Robin conjectures, “may be the Everest of conservative experience.”

But this account is at once too modest and too extravagant. Robin acknowledges only a derivative, defensive Right, incapable of renewing itself except by testing itself against the imagination and energy of revolutionary movements. Such a characterization precludes the rather fearsome ability of conservatives to fabricate villains or threats, and to initiate violence or repression through preemption. Conservatism may not be so dependent on revolution or reform for these refreshing draughts of new ideas about mass politics; to assert that this is how conservatism adapts is to condemn the left to being constantly surprised when the right acts dynamically without the aid of a progressive breakthrough. Furthermore, the idea of a derivative right badly fits the current situation where a Democratic President continues and extends the tactics of violence and surveillance initiated by his Republican predecessor. It is extremely difficult to find, in Robin’s imagination of the political spectrum, the common ground between military neoliberalism and counterrevolutionary conservatism that is obviously extraordinarily crucial to understanding our present moment. (Neither “neoliberalism” nor “neoliberal” ever appears in The Reactionary Mind.)

However, Robin’s emphasis on counterrevolutionary violence (or the fantasy of it) as a “peak experience” of conservatism also claims too much. By drawing an implicit—and invidious—line between “lively” violence and tedious administration, Robin disregards the enormous effort conservatives routinely put into nonviolent institutions of coercion and cajolery, such as religion or law. While those institutions may at times encourage and prosecute violence, it is difficult to see violence as the factor which most often enlivens them. Instead, they are capable of drawing out extraordinary efforts of intellect, will, and imagination from conservatives hoping to use them to maintain or reinforce existing hierarchies, even if they call for nothing more bellicose than filing an amicus brief or organizing a Bible study.1

While the violence behind policies of mass incarceration and the militarization of the US–Mexico border is undeniable, the stunningly creative successes in scores of states in administratively and legislatively limiting basic civil and human rights indicates a certain zest for a counterrevolution bound in red tape. The suppression of dissent at the Texas Capitol by police during the recent controversy over a punitive state abortion law depended as well on conservatives’ mastery of arcane parliamentary procedure. They also rule who only stand and administrate.

More than individual flaws or lapses in their diagnoses, however, both Hayes and Robin run into a larger structural problem of the genre itself. These works begin by setting apart a category of individuals—the ruling class—who share a set of preoccupations or desires, anxieties or motivations. But the stronger their acts of definition, the more difficulties they encounter in explaining the linking-up of those drives to anything outside of that class (i.e., middle- and working-class concessions to ruling class agendas) without resorting to pallid explanations like false consciousness or misdirection.

This is, in a word, the problem of hegemony, but it is also more straightforward than that: the ruling class is never really treated in works like these as a class, but as an agglomeration. Inter-class relations are imagined ultimately as occurring between the one and the many, not between the few and the many. That cannot be the basis for a theory of hegemony, only a theory of hierarchy—a boss ruling over his employees, not bosses struggling with employees. Robin and Hayes’s predisposition to psychologize is, therefore, much more than a decision about methodology or genre. It reveals a major blockage in the way the left can think about—and ultimately act against—the ruling class as a class.

Robin in particular is quite forceful in foregrounding hierarchy and removing hegemony as the appropriate model of power struggle. The only two instances of “hegemony” in The Reactionary Mind come in a chapter on US empire, where the concept serves as a synonym for what has otherwise been called “soft power.” Robin quotes the architect of that theory to elucidate his own understanding of hegemony:

As Joseph Nye, Clinton’s assistant secretary of defense, would come to argue, “soft power”—the cultural capital that made the United States so admired around the globe—was as important to national preeminence as military power. In perhaps a first for a US official, Nye invoked Gramsci to argue that the United States would only maintain its position of hegemony if it persuaded—rather than forced—others to follow its example. “If I can get you to want to do what I want,” wrote Nye, “then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want to do.”

Despite Robin’s indifference to the term (intermixing “hegemony,” “cultural capital,” and “soft power”), the definition we can imply from this passage is instructive, telling us much about the direction and limits of his thinking about the struggle for power. For Robin, hegemony is soft power: diffuse, persuasive, surreptitious, operative on an impersonal level, but also clearly directed from a central position. And, we might infer from his larger project, it is increasingly dispensable in practice and irrelevant in theory. Power deployed by thousands of semi-autonomous little tyrants on an immediate, personal level, nakedly, blatantly, coercively, and increasingly commonly—such is Robin’s definition of hierarchy, the manifestation of power he regards as truly pertinent.

Robin shares with many left writers this understanding of hegemony as something that is both created from a centralized set of almost disembodied actors and deployed almost subliminally to gain consent, and, given this understanding, the concept reasonably seems obsolete. Much of the theoretical work of the past twenty or more years has sought not to rework the concept but to shake off its baggage in favor of something much more like the model of power struggle that Robin offers. More than any of his colleagues, however, Robin has found an appealingly crude framework for articulating his rejection of hegemony for hierarchy: feudalism.

“The conservative does not defend the Old Regime,” Robin writes, in probably the most complete iteration of his revival of the term,

he speaks on behalf of old regimes—in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate. Long before Huey Long cried, “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, though to different effect: the promise of democracy is to govern another human being as completely as a monarch governs his subjects. The task of this type of conservatism—democratic feudalism—becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, while descanting on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future.

Robin’s invocation of feudalism is not entirely original within recent work on the left,2 yet the reception of his usage has suggested that it is a powerful innovation. This appreciation is misplaced: even beyond his intellectual precursors (whom Robin acknowledges), Robin is in fact relying on one of the most common topoi in popular representations of the rich and powerful: reimagining the ruling class as feudal lords. Gatsby, Kane, the Corleones and the Sopranos, Gone with the Wind, Dallas: these are our standard visions of a ruling class in a democracy. That Robin’s reintroduction of a vocabulary of feudalism to describe the power relations between a counterrevolutionary elite and a determined but often overwhelmed non-elite has caught on is therefore no surprise: it rhymes with preconceptions not yet articulated except as myths—the neoliberal lord and his manor, the boardroom as a sort of throne room, corporations and universities as fiefdoms, employees as vassals.

Robin does much with this linking of neoliberal/neoconservative reaction to feudalism that is fresh—and certainly polemically useful. With it he captures the sense of arbitrariness and cruelty that describes extremely well measures like forced sonograms for women seeking abortions and intentional delays for voting to disenfranchise the poor, not to mention the virulent passions behind the cries for harsher border- and drug law enforcement, or the empowerment of vigilantes through “Stand Your Ground” laws. There is also no denying that much of the ruling class does desire to restyle itself along feudal lines. (It watches the same television shows.)

These things aside, there is much to be concerned about with this redescription of conservatism as feudalism. First of all, Robin’s feudalism is not a valid analytical concept: it melds widely different periods of premodern history together, mashing up completely different arrangements of power and hierarchy indiscriminately. Robin’s invocations of feudalism owe more to Shakespeare’s villainous Richard III than they do to Perry Anderson or Ellen Meiksins Wood; by feudalism he means, essentially, capricious autocracy.

Feudalism was a much more complex system than this polemical usage allows. This poses a problem not because it creates historical inaccuracies, but because the way Robin oversimplifies feudalism produces a schematic model of contemporary capitalism. Robin’s favorite example of the feudalistic mode is the despotic rules governing the duration and frequency of bathroom breaks in factories. Robin imagines these rules not as the structural demands of capital to extract ever more value from workers and thus requiring less total time away from the assembly line (as Marx would have described them), but as the sovereign decision of a single person on top of a hierarchy determined to extend his power indefinitely. In a 2002 piece (not printed in The Reactionary Mind), Robin writes, “Today’s workplace can sometimes seem like a battlefield of the bladder. On the one side are workers who wanna go when they gotta go; on the other are employers who want to stop them, sometimes for hours on end.” The employer wants what? Profit? Productivity? No, he simply wants to stop his workers from doing something they want to do.

Robin’s account will work up to a point, but it will consistently fail to explain both the range of less overtly dehumanizing exploitations workers face and the ways in which the employer acts not alone but in concert with all other employers—and with some of the workers—to preempt or foreclose resistance to such exploitations. It is not the employer’s will that quells dissent, but the bleakness of the job market and the unlikelihood of finding another, more humane employer.

Finally, even on psychological grounds, Robin’s atomization of the ruling class and emphasis on individual arbitrariness and power-seeking misses an extremely crucial dimension: the ways in which members of the ruling class think of themselves as embedded as part of a class, not just as the top of a hierarchy, with their existence dependent on the prior existence of the class, not the other way round. Their self-consciousness is not merely vertical, but often—even primarily—horizontal. Incidentally, it may be this horizontal or lateral dimension where hegemony might truly be said to take hold: imagining the job market—the lateral forces of your competitors in “the rat race”—as inescapable, or the formal equality of the rule of law—a jury of your peers—as sovereign, unchallengeable.

It is this missing dimension that has led some critics from the right to fault Robin for a certain cartoonishness in his imagination of reactionaries. Each one profiled seems to think only about his power, his desires, his fears, his place at the top of the heap. Not class power, not class fears, not class desires. Robin’s ruling class is a bunch of selfish genes that somehow perpetuate the existence of the species.

However, this is not just Robin’s problem. An aversion to thinking seriously of the ruling class as a class is and has long been endemic on the left, an aversion demonstrated keenly by our most shopworn abstractions that telescope groups into singularities: Wall Street, Empire, “the corporation.” There is even, after all, a buried literalness to the slogan of the 1 percent and the 99 percent: we begin, in fact, imagining society as sets of 100, blown up to scale.

Hierarchy is far easier to imagine than hegemony, or whatever else we might call it. One percent is easier to hold in the mind than what that in fact works out to 3,139,000 people (based on the 2012 US population). Both hierarchy and hegemony, both 1 percent and 3,139,000 people, are abstractions, but they are abstractions of very different kinds. One can talk comprehensibly about what “the 1 percent” is feeling, whereas it sounds much stranger to speak about the feeling of 3,139,000 people. One can speak with much greater detail, precision, and vividness about the oppressions that occur within a hierarchy, but hegemony is always a cloudy proposition.

We need better rhetorical, analytic, and imaginative tools for figuring the ruling class as a class, for conceptualizing not how a member feels but how the group acts. Hierarchies, and the preference for psychologizing that travels with them (what an older generation might have called bourgeois humanism), draw us toward character. We need to be thinking about plot.

Such a shift would not necessitate an abandonment of the kind of work Robin and Hayes are doing—part anthropology, part intellectual history. It might even be done best in a novel. One of Dreiser’s greatest gifts was his ability to demonstrate how one person’s emotions impinge upon another’s, how the vividness of an interaction between two or more people recalibrates them all and constructs the plots of their lives. For Dreiser, the verb “to feel,” even when technically intransitive, most often had a transitive, even tactile force. Finding similarly transitive, tactile formulations for the incursions and exploitations of the ruling class has always been the great task of the left. Knowing the plot better than the characters has often been—and may again be—the source of its success.

  1. Two rather recent books are among the best examples of the creativity and liveliness which can go into nonviolent efforts to maintain or re-establish hierarchies: Bethany Moreton’s illuminating To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise and Steven Teles’s The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement: The Battle for Control of the Law. 

  2. In the acknowledgments to the book, Robin writes, “Intellectually, this book owes its inspiration to Arno Mayer and Karen Orren. No two scholars have done more to advance my understanding of ‘the persistence of the old regime‘—in Europe and the United States—than Karen and Arno. Against the conventional wisdom of the left and the right, which assumes that medievalism has been washed away by modernity, Karen and Arno opened my eyes to the ‘belated feudalism’ of our postfeudal world. While they undoubtedly would disagree with my interpretation of conservatism, I could not have come to it without their enormously generative work.” 

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