To have and to have not

By Michael Lind, in Harper's Magazine, June, 1995

Judging by the headlines that have been leading the news for the last several years, public debate in the United States at the end of the twentieth century has become a war of words among the disaffected minorities that so often appear on the never-ending talk show jointly hosted by Oprah, Larry King, Jenny Jones, and the McLaughlin Group. Conservatives at war with liberals; Christian fundamentalists at odds with liberal Jews; blacks at war with whites; whites at war with Hispanic immigrants; men at war with women; heterosexuals at war with homosexuals; and the young at war with the old. A guide to the multiple conflicts in progress would resemble the Personals pages in The Village Voice, with "versus" or "contra" substituted for "seeking" (Pro-Sex Classicists versus Anti-Sex Modernists).

The noise is deceptive. Off-camera, beyond the blazing lights, past the ropy tangle of black cords and down the hall, in the corner offices (on Capitol Hill as well as at General Electric, The Walt Disney Company, and CBS News), people in expensive suits quietly continue to go about the work of shifting the center of gravity of wealth and power in the United States from the discounted many to the privileged few. While public attention has been diverted to controversies as inflammatory as they are trivial. Should the Constitution be amended to ban flag-burning? Should dirty pictures be allowed on the Internet? The American elites that subsidize and staff both the Republican and Democratic parties have steadfastly waged a generation-long class war against the middle and working classes. Now and then the television cameras catch a glimpse of what is going on, as they did last year during the NAFTA and GATT debates, when a Democratic President and a bipartisan majority in Congress collaborated in the sacrifice of American labor to the interests of American corporations and foreign capital. More recently, with a candor rare among politicians, House Speaker Newt Gingrich argued against raising the minimum wage in the United States---on the grounds that a higher minimum wage would handicap American workers in their competition with workers in Mexico.

The camera, however, quickly returns to the set and the shouting audience, while assistant producers hold up placards with the theme for the day: the Contract with America, the New Covenant, Affirmative Action, Moral Renewal. It's against the rules to talk about a rapacious American oligarchy, and the suggestion that the small group of people with most of the money and power in the United States just might be responsible to some degree for what has been happening to the country over the last twenty years invariably invites the news media to expressions of wrath and denial. Whenever a politician proposes to speak for the many---whether he is on the left (Jerry Brown), right (Patrick Buchanan), or center (Ross Perot)---the Op-Ed pages in the nation's better newspapers (the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal) issue stern warnings of "demagogy." Yes, the pundits admit, economic and social inequality have been growing in the United States, with alarming results, but the ruling and possessing class cannot be blamed, because, well, there is no ruling and possessing class.

The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist, but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight. Anybody choosing to see the oligarchy in its native habitat need do nothing else but walk down the street of any big city to an office tower housing a major bank, a corporate head-quarters or law firm, or a national television station. Enter the building and the multiracial diversity of the street vanishes as abruptly as the sound of the traffic. Step off the elevator at the top of the tower and apart from the clerical and maintenance staff hardly anybody is nonwhite. The contrast between the street and the tower is the contrast between the grass roots and the national headquarters, the field office and the home office. No matter what your starting point, the closer you come to the centers of American politics and society, the more everyone begins to look the same. Though corporate executives, shop stewards, and graduate-student lecturers could not be more different, the people who run big business bear a remarkable resemblance to the people who run big labor, who in turn might be mistaken for the people in charge of the media and the universities. They are the same people. They differ in their opinions---and in almost no other way. Almost exclusively white, disproportionately mainline Protestant or Jewish, most of the members of the American elites went to one of a dozen Ivy League colleges or top state universities. Not only do they have advanced professional or graduate degrees---J.D.'s, M.B.A.'s, Ph.D.'s, M.D.'s---but usually at least one of their parents (and sometimes both) has advanced professional or graduate degrees. They dress the same. They talk the same. They walk the same. They have the same body language, the same gestures. They eat the same food, drink the same drinks, and play the same sports. They read the same publications. They . . . but I should say we. As a second-generation professional with an Ivy League diploma, having worked for liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, business lobbyists and pro-labor intellectuals, among professors and journalists and lawyers and Foreign Service officers, I am a card-carrying member of the overclass. So, in all likelihood, reader, are you.

Amounting, with their dependents, to about 20 percent of the population, (1) this relatively new and still evolving political and social oligarchy is not identified with any particular region of the country. Homogeneous and nomadic, the overclass is the first truly national upper class in American history. In a managerial capitalist society like our own, the essential distinction is not between the "bourgeoisie" (the factory owners) and the "proletariat" (the factory workers) but between the credentialed minority (making a living from fees or wages supplemented by stock options) and the salaried majority. The salaried class---at-will employees, lacking a four-year college education, paid by the hour, who can be fired at any time---constitutes the real "middle class," accounting, as it does, for three-quarters of the population.

The white overclass, then, properly perceived, is neither a middle class nor a high bourgeoisie but a sort of guild oligarchy, like those that ran early modern Italian and Dutch city-states. Our latter-day oligarchs (lawyers, bankers, publishers, anchorpersons) are the contemporary equivalents of the plump and goateed syndics, haloed by starched collars, who gaze smugly back at us through honey veils of impasto from the paintings of Rembrandt and Hals. The precedent for our class war can't be found in the slapstick melee pitting thick-necked proles against top-hatted, umbrella-wielding bourgeois that enlivens Sergei Eisenstein's Ten Days That Shook the World. We should think, instead, of the civic discord between great guilds and lesser guilds---the bankers and merchants versus the artisans---that troubled cities like Florence and Milan in the Renaissance, and that resembled the struggle over universal health care between the insurance lobby and the AFL-CIO.

At least the syndics of Amsterdam and the Venetian families in the Golden Book did not add insult to injury by insisting that they were not "elites." The most remarkable thing about our own American oligarchy is the pretense that it doesn't constitute anything as definite as a social class. We prefer to assign good fortune to our individual merit, saying that we owe our perches in the upper percentiles of income and education not to our connections but solely to our own l.Q., virtue, brio, genius, sprezzatura, chutzpah, gumption. Had we been switched at birth by accident, had we grown up in a ghetto or barrio or trailer park, we would have arrived at our offices at ABC News or the Republican National Committee or the ACLU in more or less the same amount of time. The absence of black and Hispanic Americans in our schools and our offices and our clubs can only be explained, we tell ourselves, not by our extrinsic advantages but by their intrinsic defects. Compared with us (and perhaps with middle-class East Asian immigrants), most blacks and Hispanics must be disproportionately lazy, even (if Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein are to be believed) disproportionately retarded. What other explanation for their failure to rise can there be---America, after all, is a classless society.

Or rather a two-class society. The belated acknowledgment of an "underclass" as a distinct group represents the only exception to the polite fiction that everyone in the United States, from a garage mechanic to a rich attorney (particularly the rich attorney), belongs to the "middle class." Over the past decade the ghetto poor have been the topic of conversation at more candlelight and-wine dinner parties than I can recall, but without looking at the program or the wine list it is impossible to tell whether one is among nominal liberals or nominal conservatives. The same kind of people in the same kind of suits go on about "the blacks" as though a minority within an 12 percent minority were taking over the country, as if Washington were Pretoria and New York a suburb of Johannesburg. Not only do the comfortable members of the overclass single out the weakest and least influential of their fellow citizens as the cause of all their sorrows but they routinely, and preposterously, treat the genuine pathologies of the ghetto---high levels of violence and illegitimacy---as the major problems facing a country with uncontrollable trade and fiscal deficits, a low savings rate, an obsolete military strategy, an anachronistic and corrupt electoral system, the worst system of primary education in the First World, and the bulk of its population facing long-term economic decline.

To be sure, upper classes in other societies have often fretted, sometimes to the point of panic, about the lower orders, and in Japan, as in Britain and France (to an even greater degree than in the United States), the people in charge tend to go to the same schools, not a dozen but one or two. But in those countries people at least acknowledge the existence of an upper stratum, and the public-school old-boy network or the inarquate retains some tradition of responsibility for the less fortunate, some sense of noblesse oblige based on self preservation if not on superior morality. (As Disraeli observed in 1848, "The palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy.") Among all the industrial democracies, only in the United States do the members of the oligarchy absolve themselves with the comforting notion that their class does not exist. Willing to pursue collective economic interests but lacking any sense of a political commonwealth, the American overclass at the end of the twentieth century takes as its own what Adam Smith identified as "the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.... All for ourselves, and nothing for other people." The sentiment is heartfelt and bipartisan.

During the past generation, the prerogatives of our new oligarchy have been magnified by a political system in which the power of money to buy TV time has become a good deal more important than the power of labor unions or party bosses to mobilize voters. Supported by the news media, which it largely owns, the oligarchy has waged its war of attrition against the wage-earning majority on several fronts: regressive taxation, the expatriation of industry, and mass immigration. Regressive taxes like the Social Security payroll tax and state sales taxes shift much of the tax burden from the rich to middle-income Americans. After the Reagan-era tax reforms, 75 percent of the American people owed more taxes than they would have owed had the 1977 tax laws been left untouched; only the wealthiest 5 percent of the public received any significant benefit from the tax cuts. Continuing the program, Newt Gingrich's Republicans are sponsoring yet another windfall for the wealthy. Under the tax cut legislation passed by the House, which Gingrich called the "crown jewel" of the Contract with America, individuals earning $350,000 a year would receive a tax reduction of $13,000, while families making $30,000 a year would get only 50 cents a day. (Some crown. Some jewel.) (2)

Owing in large part to the bipartisan preference for regressive over progressive taxation, and despite the cries of anguish from Senator Phil Gramm and the editorial writers employed by the Wall Street Journal, the United States now stands second to last among the major industrialized countries in the rate of taxation on income---and dead last in terms of economic equality. The replacement of progressive income taxation by a flat tax, along with the adoption of national sales taxes (reforms favored by many conservative Democrats as well as Republicans), would further shift the national tax burden from the credentialed minority to the wage earning majority. Average Americans have not only been taxed instead of the rich; they have been taxed to repay the rich. Borrowing, which accounted for only 5.3 percent of federal spending in the 1960s, increased to 29.9 percent in the 1990s. Interest payments on the debt (which last year amounted to $203 billion) represent a transfer of wealth from ordinary American taxpayers to rich Americans and foreigners without precedent in history.

On the second front of the class war, corporate elites continue to use the imperatives of global free trade as a means of driving down American wages and nullifying the social contract implicit in both the New Deal and the Great Society. U.S. corporations now lead the world in the race to low-wage countries with cheap and politically repressed labor forces. Concentrated in "export-processing zones" in Third World countries, and usually not integrated into the local economy, much of the transnational investment brings together foreign capital and technology with inexpensive and docile labor to manufacture consumer electronics, shoes, luggage, or toys. The export-processing zone is nothing new; it used to be called the plantation. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, plantations owned by American, British, and European investors produced raw materials and agriculture for export; modern technology now permits factory work to be done in the same countries. The banana republic is being replaced by the sweatshop republic as national, middle-class capitalism gives way to global plantation capitalism.

Many advocates of free trade claim that higher productivity growth in the United States will offset any downward pressure on wages caused by the global sweatshop economy, but the appealing theory falls victim to an unpleasant fact. Productivity has been going up in America, without resulting wage gains for American workers. Between 1917 and 1992, the average productivity of American workers increased by more than 30 percent, while the average real wage fell by 13 percent. The logic is inescapable. No matter how much productivity increases, wages will fall if there is an abundance of workers competing for a scarcity of jobs-an abundance of the sort created by the globalization of the labor pool for U.S.-based corporations.(3)

Even skilled production often can be done more cheaply elsewhere. Software research and design is now being done by local computer specialists in India, in Russia, and in Poland. Since 1919, the real wages of high school dropouts have declined by 20 percent, while the incomes of workers with more than four years of college have risen by 8 percent. There are two ways to interpret the better performance of professionals relative to other workers in the new, internationalized economy. The most common explanation (the one preferred by the overclass and its publicists in the major news media) is that the world economy, in some vague way, rewards expertise and high-tech skills---though if this were so, one would expect multilingual physicists to be growing spectacularly rich rather than bond traders, corporate vice presidents, and partners in large law firms, whose skills have little or nothing to do with high technology. A more plausible explanation is that professionals in the United States benefit from a vigorously enforced form of protectionism based on credentials and licensing. A corporation can hire an Indian computer programmer to do the work of an American computer programmer for a fraction of the wage, but it cannot hire an Indian lawyer to try a case in the United States. Permit legal briefs to be written in India and submitted to American courts by fax from Indian lawyers, and legal fees in the United States would quickly plummet, the skill, education, and productivity of American lawyers notwithstanding.

Not all nonprofessional jobs can be expatriated to Mexico or Malaysia, and a great many low-skilled services---from truck driving to nursing and sales and restaurant work---still must be performed in America. Accordingly, on a third front of the class war, the American gentry support a generous immigration policy. Enlarging the low-skill labor pool in the United States has the same effect as enlarging the labor pool through the expatriation of American-owned industry. From the point of view of members of the white overclass, of course, this is good news---if mass immigration ended tomorrow, they would probably have to pay higher wages, fees, and tips. In the 1980s, during the "Massachusetts Miracle," the state's unemployment rate fell to half the national average, 2.2 percent. As a result of a tight labor market, wages for workers at McDonald's rose to more than $7 an hour. So unfortunate a development prompted a study from the Twentieth Century Fund in which author Thomas Muller took note of the awful consequences: "In many areas of the Northeast, a scarcity of clerks in the late 1980s caused a noticeable deterioration in service.... This is not an argument that long lines or flip behavior by salespeople will fundamentally affect America's well-being, but they do constitute an irritant that can diminish the quality of our life [emphasis added]." In a seller's market for labor, it seems, there is a danger that the help will get uppity.

"As the number of working mothers increases," Muller wrote, "such [household] help, once considered a luxury, is becoming more and more a necessity. Were it not for recent immigrants, nannies, maids, and gardeners would be a vanishing breed ..." Although the vast majority of Americans still do not consider the employment of "nannies, maids, or gardeners" to be a necessity rather than a luxury, the 1 percent of the population that employs live-in servants (c.f., the recent difficulties of Zoe Baird, Kimba Wood, and Arianna Huffington) cannot enjoy an appropriate degree of comfort without a supporting cast of deferential helots. Our own overclass Americans are as dependent on Latina maids as were the members of the nineteenth-century Northeastern establishment on Irish "Bridgets" and the antebellum Southern planters on house slaves. (In this connection, J. P. Morgan's definition of the leisure class, which he saw as the bulwark of civilization, is instructive: "All those who can afford to hire a maid.")

The Wall Street Journal, ever mindful of the short-run interests of the overclass, has called for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution consisting of five words: "There shall be open borders." If the United States and Mexican labor markets were merged (together with the capital markets already integrated by NAFTA), then American investment would flow south to take advantage of cheap labor, and tens of millions of Mexican workers would migrate north to better paying jobs, until wages stabilized somewhere above the contemporary Mexican level (between $4 and $5 a day) but below the current American minimum wage of $4.25 an hour. The numbers of the white overclass would remain fixed, while the pool of cheap labor expanded, and Muller's dream of heaven would come true: every American who is not a maid or gardener might be able to afford one.

Although the inequalities of income in the United States are now greater than at any time since the 1930s, and although numerous observers have remarked on the fact and cited abundant statistics in support of their observations, the response of the American overclass has been to blame everybody but its nonexistent self---to blame the ghetto, or the schools, or the liberal news media, or the loss of family values. In a characteristic argument that appeared in early April on the Op-Ed page of the Washington Post ("Raising the Minimum Wage Isn't the Answer"), James K. Classman dismissed the idea that public policy can help the majority of workers whose real wages continue to fall: "[T]he ultimate answer lies with workers themselves . . . . Government can help a bit through tax breaks for education, but ultimately the cure for low working wages may be nothing more mysterious than high personal diligence."

In any other democracy, an enraged citizenry probably would have rebelled by now against a national elite that weakens unions, slashes wages and benefits, pits workers against low-wage foreign and immigrant competition---and then informs its victims that the chief source of their economic problems is a lack of "high personal diligence." But for whom could an enraged citizen vote? The American overclass manages to protect itself from popular insurgencies, not only through its ownership of the news media but also by its financial control of elections and its use of affirmative-action patronage.

Of the three defenses, the uniquely corrupt American system of funding elections is by far the most important, which is no doubt why campaign finance reform was left out of the Contract with America. The real two-party system in the United States consists not of the Democrats and the Republicans but of the party of voters and the party of donors. The donor party is extraordinarily small. Roughly 10 percent of the American people make political contributions, most of them in minimal amounts. The number of large political donors is even smaller. Citizen Action, an independent consumer group, found that in the 1989-90 election cycle only 179,677 individual donors gave contributions equal to or greater than $200 to a federal candidate: "Thirty four percent of the money spent by federal candidates was directly contributed by no more than one tenth of one percent of the voting age population." One may reasonably doubt that this one tenth of one percent is representative of the electorate or the population at large.

We were taught in civics classes that the United States is a "pluralistic" democracy in which Madisonian "factions" balance one another, ensuring that no single minority or economic interest will prevail. We were lied to. Labor does not balance big business; consumer groups do not balance big business; nobody balances big business anymore. Contrary to conservative claims that liberal and left-wing "special interests" dominate Congress, PAC funds come, overwhelmingly, from business. Citizens vote occasionally; dollars vote continually. During the first two months of this year, "soft money" contributions, chiefly from industry, flowed into the coffers of the Republican National Committee at the rate of $123,121 per day, and during the recently ended two-year congressional campaign cycle, then Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D., Mo.) accumulated PAC money in the amount of $1,001,400, while Speaker Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.) received $763,220. As recently as last April, President Clinton appeared at a $50,000-a-couple fund raiser at Steven Spielberg's home in Hollywood. Because the same economic oligarchy subsidizes almost all of our politicians, our political fights are as inconsequential as TV wrestling.

Armed with the political advantage secured by the purchase of congressmen, senators, and presidents, the overclass shores up its defense against genuinely representative democracy (i.e., a popular coalition uniting middle-class and working-class Americans of all races and regions) by adopting a strategy of divide and rule expressed in the language of multiculturalism. The dynamics of a divided society similar to our own were noted in 1947 by Gunnar Myrdal: "In a society where there are broad social classes and, in addition, more minute distinctions and splits in the lower strata, the lower class groups will to a great extent take care of keeping each other subdued, thus relieving to that extent the higher classes of this otherwise painful task necessary to the monopolization of its power and advantages." Centuries before today's multiculturalists adopted the slogan "Celebrate diversity," William Smith, a slave trader, explained his reasons for celebrating diversity among the exploited:

As for the languages of Gambia, they are so many and so different, that the Natives, on either side of the River, cannot understand each other, which, if rightly consider'd, is no small Happiness to the Europeans who go thither to trade for slaves. . . . [T]he safest Way is to trade with the different Nations, on either side of the River, and having some of every Sort on board, there will be no more Likelihood of their succeeding in a Plot than of finishing the Tower of Babel.

Unified along the lines of economic interest, the wealthy American minority hold the fragmented majority at bay by pitting blacks against whites in zero-sum struggles for government patronage and by bribing potential black and Hispanic leaders, who might otherwise propose something other than rhetorical rebellion, with the gifts of affirmative action. The policy was promoted by Richard Nixon, who, as much as any American politician, deserves to be acknowledged as the father of racial preferences.

"What most militants want," Nixon explained in 1968, using the language of gangsterism to support his proposal for minority contracting preferences, "is not separation, but to be included in . . . to have a share of the wealth, and a piece of the action." Racial-preference policies give middle-class and wealthy blacks and Hispanics "a share of the wealth and a piece of the action." The ritual that symbolizes civil-rights "progress" in today's oligarchic America is the "integration" of an all-white country club, which invariably means admitting one of the wealthiest black citizens who can be found in the local community. Similarly, in the matter of presidential Cabinet posts, diversity means appointing rich professionals educated in the Ivy League who happen to belong to different races and sexes.

The Ivy League, in its turn, rigs its admissions policies to disproportionately benefit well-off black and Hispanic Americans (at Harvard, for example, 70 percent of black undergraduates are the children of parents in managerial or professional fields, while at Cornell twice as many minority students, in some years, come from the suburbs as from the cities). In order not to lose accreditation, most colleges and universities try to have approximately as many black students as there are black Americans in the general population, around 12 percent. These goals and timetables can be met only by drastically lowering admissions standards for black students, who for obvious historical reasons are far less academically prepared than many of their white competitors. (4)

"To get past racism, we must here take account of race," McGeorge Bundy, the former aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, declared magisterially in "The Issue Before the Court: Who Gets Ahead in America?", an article in The Atlantic Monthly that appeared in November 1977 during the formative period of affirmative action in college admissions. Bundy could afford to be generous in redistributing opportunities from middle-class whites to middle-class blacks and Hispanics because so many members of his class are safely insulated from the effects of racial preference by the largest affirmative-action program in the United States: legacy preference. (5)

Legacies, or children of alumni, are three times more likely to be accepted to Harvard than other high school graduates with the same (sometimes better) scores (at Harvard, the dean of admissions reads legacy applications---but not those of non-legacies). Children of Yale graduates are two and a half times more likely than non-alumni kin to be admitted to Yale. According to a former Princeton dean of admissions, legacies at "one Ivy League university" had average SAT scores of 1,280, compared with the average of 1,350 out of a possible 1,600 for the total freshman class. (6)

As the number of black and Hispanic students at selective universities and partners in prestigious law firms is artificially maintained, the average wages of black and Hispanic workers, along with those of white workers, continue to stagnate or decline. The tokenism embodied in racial preference and multiculturalism is thus about as threatening to the American elite as an avant-garde sculpture in the lobby of a bank.

Meanwhile, behind the Potemkin Village facade of contemporary America, with its five separate-but-equal official races and its racially authentic folk art, the American oligarchy goes busily about the work of constructing its own enclave society, an America-within-America, linked to the international economy and detached from the destiny of the native middle class. What Lewis Lapham has called "the new feudalism" reverses the trend of the past thousand years toward the government's provision of basic public goods like policing, public roads and transport networks, and public schools. In the United States---to a degree unmatched in any other industrial democracy---these public goods are once again becoming private luxuries, accessible only to the affluent few. Federal spending declined in the 1980s for services like law enforcement and government (by 42 percent), for education and training (by 40 percent), and for the transportation infrastructure (by 32 percent); and most of the growth in government spending in recent decades has taken the form of non-means-tested entitlements, like Social Security and Medicare, that benefit middle- and upper-income Americans.

If the notion of a neo-feudal United States seems far-fetched, consider the "feudal" elements of modern America. Increasing numbers of affluent white Americans have been withdrawing into gated suburbs, many of them indistinguishable from private cities, whose community associations provide not only security but trash collection, street cleaning, and utilities. The inhabitants have sought permission from local governments to block off public streets with gates and other barriers to traffic (a California appeals court recently ruled that seven metal gates installed by the Los Angeles suburb of Whitley Heights represented an illegal "return to feudal times"---but only after their installation had been approved by the Los Angeles City Council). Some of the richer residents within the walls seek not only permission to barricade themselves but exemption from taxes---on the argument that taxes for public municipal services on top of the fees they pay their private community associations constitute "double taxation."

Because the affluent would rather hire mercenary forces than pay for police, the number of private security guards in the United States now exceeds the number of publicly employed policemen. To help those who cannot afford to rent police officers, the right is trying to make it easier to carry concealed weapons at the mall, in the office, and on the subway; holsters and body armor may once again become fashion accessories. A chorus of conservative voices proposes the replacement of public schools with taxpayer subsidized vouchers to private schools, and the idea of replacing the national highway system with private toll roads is not a fantasy confined to dystopian science fiction. More than ten states now have projects for such roads, which would allow the happy few to drive their expensive cars on state-of-the-art computer-enhanced highways while ordinary Americans fume in traffic on crumbling public streets.

The new American urban architecture reflects the same evolution of American society from republicanism to feudalism. Downtown office complexes begin to resemble medieval castles-collections of towers connected by skyways and sealed off from the growing horde of the unemployable poor. The celebrated architect Frank Gehry specializes in what cultural critic Mike Davis calls "carceral" architecture---for example, "stealth houses" for the wealthy, hiding their opulent interiors from thieves behind plain gray walls. Gehry's 1984 Goldwyn Branch Library in Hollywood (inspired by the same architect's fortified U.S. Chancellery in Damascus, a building bristling with ten-foot steel stakes and stylized sentry boxes) prompted Davis to describe it as "probably the most menacing library ever built, a bizarre hybrid of a drydocked dreadnought and a cavalry fort."

The dream of withdrawal probably explains the enthusiasm in overclass circles for the "virtual corporation," a dematerialized entity consisting solely of a small management team temporarily contracting out work, here to Mexicans and South Koreans, there to Hungarians and Czechs, in the manner of the nabobs who lived it up in eighteenth century London on their rents from Caribbean plantations run on their behalf by thuggish overseers. This is the vision expressed by the television commercials for IBM and the American Express Card and the magazine advertisements for new computers and fax machines that show a middle-aged executive communicating with his office from a beach resort or a corporate lawyer tucking in her child via a videophone in a busy airport. Virtual capitalism thus meets the virtual family in the utopia of the American overclass: Dad will bask in the Caribbean sun sketching out marketing designs on his laptop computer while Mom keeps an eye on Baby, via satellite, as she flies from New York to Frankfurt to Tokyo. Off-camera, never seen, is the Latina maid who actually changes Baby's diapers, and, in this or that Third World shantytown of tin roofs and open sewers, the employees, or rather the independent contractors, of Dad's or Mom's virtual corporation, workers as likely as not without benefits, without insurance, without civil rights, without a voice in their governments, laboring to make products they can never afford to buy.

Some American executives have begun to follow the factories to Fortunate Isles. The Wall Street Journal and Fortune recently portrayed, with considerable sympathy, a number of rich American expatriates, among them the heirs to the Dart container and Campbell's soup fortunes, who have renounced their U.S. citizenship and begun new lives in more humane societies, like the Turks and Caicos Islands and Belize. Senator Phil Gramm last spring denounced a proposal to tax these expatriates as a measure reminiscent of "Nazi Germany," apparently secure in the belief that the old American republican ideal of civic obligation is nothing but totalitarianism in disguise. No doubt, when the overclass revolution is completed, persecuted tycoons will no longer be driven out of their hostile homeland. In America libre, it will no longer be necessary to move to Jamaica to be able to afford maids and chauffeurs on a lawyer's salary, or to relocate production to Honduras in order to pay the working classes no more than a few cents an hour (House Majority Leader Dick Armey favors abolishing the minimum wage). North America shall come to resemble Columbus's mistaken perception of it as simply one more Caribbean island populated by dusky masses born to be servants. The United States, which the eighteenth-century American elite sought to refashion as a new Roman Republic, and which the nineteenth-century American patriciate conceived of as a new and greater Britain, shall be renovated by the new white overclass as a New Honduras or a New Belize.

Until that blessed day, the bipartisan white overclass, secure behind urban fronts and suburban walls, as well as the metaphorical moats of legacy preference, expensive schooling, and an impregnable interest rate, has neither reason nor incentive to moderate its ruthless pursuit of its own short-term concerns. In a more homogeneous society, the growing concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a privileged minority might be expected to produce a strong reaction on the part of the majority. In present-day America, however, no such reaction is likely to take place. Although heavily outnumbered, the unified few rest secure in the knowledge that any insurgency will almost certainly dissipate in quarrels among the fragmented many rather than in open rebellion; during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, black, Hispanic, and white rioters turned on Korean middlemen rather than march on Beverly Hills. The belligerent guests on the never-ending talk show, urged on by the screaming audience, will continue to enact allegorical conflicts, while, off-camera and upstairs, the discreet members of the class that does not exist ponder the choice of marble or mahogany for the walls of the executive suite from which they command.


  1. Defined as individuals with professional or graduate education (which is roughly correlated with high income), and without counting dependents, the members of the over-class account for no more than 5 percent of the U.S. population. return
  2. In the version of the Contract with America legislation first passed by the House, two thirds of the spending cuts would come from programs for low-income families, while roughly half the money from the cuts would go to the wealthiest 10 percent of American households. Fully one fifth of the savings would go to the wealthiest 1 percent of families. return
  3. According to Common Cause, the leading first-time contributor to the Republican National Committee since the 1994 congressional elections, Fruit of the Loom, gave $100,000 to the RNC in February 1995, three days before the House Ways and Means trade subcommittee held hearings on a bill to ease quotas on low-wage Caribbean countries in which the corporation has commercial ventures. The subcommittee approved the measure. return
  4. In 1989 a black high school graduate in California with the minimum high school GPA had a 70 percent chance of being accepted to Berkeley, while a white high school student with the same score had only a 9 percent chance of admission. Between 1985 and 1990, the average LSAT score for white students admitted to the University of Texas Law School was in the ninety-second percentile as compared with the fifty-fifth percentile for black students. This enormous gap gives the lie to the argument that affirmative action affects only marginally qualified whites---the "margin" in this case is thirty-seven percentile points. return
  5. Bundy was born into a rich Boston Brahmin family. On his mother's side, he was kin to the influential Lowells. His father, Harvey H. Bundy, a partner in the elite Boston law firm of Choate, Hall and Stewart, succeeded John Foster Dulles as board chairman of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. After attending Groton and Yale, McGeorge Bundy became dean of Harvard College. His older brother William, married Dean Acheson's daughter; his sister Katherine was related by marriage to Jacqueline Onassis and Louis Auchincloss. return
  6. The late Christopher Lasch, in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 1995) excerpted in the November 1994 issue of Harper's Magazine, describes "the professional and managerial class" as a `meritocracy' or an aristocracy of talent." However, the fact that the white overclass, by means of legacy preference, has rigged higher education in its favor proves that it is afraid of genuine meritocracy. return

World History Archives Gateway to World History Images from World History Hartford Web Publishing