Crossing the Rubicon of class.
By Dominic Green and cross-posted from The Spectator.
The fog of the Trump wars is lifting, the road from COVID-19 rising before us, the outlines of the 21st-century American system emerging. Like the bankruptcy in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the change has happened ‘Gradually, then suddenly.’ The age of the democratic republic is over, the age of the American oligarchy beginning.
Oligarchy is the ‘rule of the oligos’, the few: the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a self-sustaining elite. It sounds quaint, classical even, as though it couldn’t happen here because it already happened there. But it has, in fact, already happened here. Augustus Caesar, who made himself Rome’s first emperor in 27 BC, would recognize the symptoms of our American novelties. The cult of the founding fathers and the cult of entertainment. The elites divided by violent factionalism and united by naked venality. The decay of republican virtues. The widening of the wealth gap and the rise of the populares, the members of the ruling class who rebel in the name of values already overthrown. And then, when all seems lost, the rise of the imperial oligarchy that offers to restore law and order, but installs a different law and a new order.
Oligarchy happens here because it happens everywhere. It is a recurring reality, the precursor of mob democracy in Plato’s Republic; the alternative to liberal democracy in modern China, Russia and the European Union; the endless present in Arab and African states. The Chinese oligarchy is ‘market-Leninism’ under the ‘princelings’ of the party, from whose ranks Xi Jinping emerged to become a quasi-emperor. The Russian oligarchy is a post-communist, sub-czarist parody of democracy whose winners, the looters of the energy sector and the graduates of the spy services, first returned ‘oligarch’ to modern use in the Nineties. The European states were creating their oligarchy too in that decade, in the unaccountable imperial technocracy that is the European Union. The Nineties were not the decade of the triumph of liberal democracy. They were the decade when oligarchy, illiberal, liberal or semi-liberal, conquered the globe.
The first American oligarchy, the industrial oligarchy of the Gilded Age, was sneered at by the universities and the social elite, rejected by rural populists, and finally regulated by Washington, DC, where big-city progressives preferred corporatism to free markets.
Our oligarchy is also rejected by rural populists. Our big-city progressives are still corporatists: see the fusion of the healthcare, pharmaceutical and insurance industries under Barack Obama, and the Biden-Harris administration’s endorsement of one kind of Green New Deal or other. But that is as far as the resemblance goes.
Our oligarchs are the social elite. Our universities sell credentials for membership in a class system that has hardened into a chasm, with the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans on one side, and the desperate majority stranded on the other. The Democrats, heirs to the progressives who unpicked the oligarchy of the Gilded Age, are firmly on the side of Silicon Valley. Our corporate media, with the exception of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, overwhelmingly support the Democrats. Social media, which has functionally replaced the town square and the local paper, is so confident of its progressive principles that it can silence the president of the United States…