I just completed my second recent George Orwell books. The first was The Road to Wigan Pier, and the second was Such Such Were The Days. What occurs to me this morning is that we need a rethinking of class and patriotism. At this moment in the history of the West, I think none of us are entirely clear about to whose benefit we have amassed and try to direct the powers of law. Nor are we sure about what our national culture is and who best exemplifies it. We are in a muddle of transition of sorts.
I take this angle because of what what I have learned of Orwell in reading his stuff. But let me preface this by outlining my intent in reading him in the first place. You see, I have been unsuccessful in engaging someone I might consider a serious liberal, and I have a difficult time reconciling what they believe they are doing and what is right about their properly motivated civilizing process. I have decided that there is some inate value in the altruism of the Left, which is nothing more or less that the biological attraction we have to baby smell, and our sympathy to the suffering of others. But since we have aggregated ourselves into towns and cities and regions and realms, we suffer from foolish blocky definitions, and our decision process and organizations remain primitive shadows of what they ought to be. As we computer scientists like to say, we have scaled up a kludge. Of course it's breaking.
I remain singularly impressed with Niall Ferguson's explanation of how America won the Cold War. We built and bought home appliances and we played baseball. These are things that could never have been done by central planning. So despite the fact that the Soviet idea had captivated all of the power it needed to survive a millennium, its kludges broke more quickly. I mean it obviously helps that Stalin was an autocratic tyrant, but even if he were a genius, he couldn't control the urge for Levi's, and his flunkies could not build them. The Stalinist Middle Class was a failure because the Soviet Empire could not deliver the goods. It couldn't even know what they were. Moreover, the Stalinist Middle Class was too diverse and too large to be ruled by conditions other than oppression, and so spun out of control because the ambitions of control were too large.
Liberty, and the manufacture of pleasant diversions and home appliances scale under the proper regimes. But we have to identify what we mean by scale. In 1937 when Orwell wrote his arguments in favor of Socialsim, there were some 40 million Britons of whom 20 million were poor. There was this thing called Structural Unemployment which had to do, if I may be reductive, with the fact that in those days every Briton knew exactly what to expect of a man who makes 100 pounds a year. Their class, their accent, their clothing, their needs, wants and aspirations were quite well understood by the educated upper middle class Briton (making 2000 pounds, one presumes). I would extend this by saying that the British Empire, democratically alone among the Empires of human history, rose precisely because so many millions of humans around the world could be budgeted along those very well understood pounds and pence. So many of those humans lived in the sort of misery that could be cured with a 30% raise. All they needed was 60 million more pounds, those poor blighters, and such a proletariat could live in greater dignity, meaning a lot less filth. Considering that so many were miners and such a small fixed constellation of things they were, that it was easy for men with the intellect of Orwell to conceive of a permanent solution which was not the opportunism of war.
Orwell saw the heart of the problem of adopting socialism which was how to actually socialize the idea. After all, welfare for the grubby class that comes at the expense of the pretty if petty bourgeois is not going to fly. The social objections were many, and substantial, although those possessed with the fury for revolutionary change patently sniff at such barriers to ultimate comradeship. But of course the key element is the fact of revolution itself, of changing the relationship between all government power and authority by snatching out of the hands of the capitalists and allocating it to one grand scientifically planned trust fund for the proletariat, overseen by a hand picked vanguard board of trustees. Whose hands do what picking? In Britain and America, we ever found out.
What eventually happened to socialism is that it did not, and to my mind clearly could not, become an internationalist project. Instead the project's ambitions were downsized to fit inside a corporate budget. All any socialist wants today is a 30% raise and most of them work their entire union careers to get it incrementally. It's still about curing 'structural unemployment', but their definition of 'worker' has changed. Today it means any man, not any actual working man. That constellation of fixed skills and the proper fit of the 100 pound to 130 pound lifestyle has lost all discipline.
Today we ignore the scientific aspects of socialism, with regard to the specific fact that 'scientific' referred to the advance of the industrial revolution. No socialism could take place without some massive transfer of natural to man-made resources. The promise of socialism was to be found in the scientific industrial production of all manner of goods. Orwell spends much time describing with fascination the advent of 'tinned food', if you could imagine yourself in an era where markets were never supermarkets and no such thing as branding and marketing of tomatoes ever took place. But somehow, clever scientific businessmen have indeed figured out how to feed the masses affordably. No longer is it about 'big coal bosses'. Our nations economies have evolved vastly, and all that once seemed the domain of the promise of scientific socialism was actually created by scientists working for real capitalist bosses.
As Orwell notes much later after WW2, there's a new middle class working for those industrial revolutionary capitalists and it has extended down into the ranks and files of those previously known as the 'rank and file'. All proletarians wear Levi's now. In 1910, one's accent, style of dress, and education could all be pinpointed with canny accuracy not only by the likes of Sherlock Holmes, but by anyone of his class. And that was that. By 1950 any drill press operator could put on a Sunday suit the like of which Cary Grant might sport.
Now in the 21st Century, we have fossilized the very last Soviet dream of universal health care into a fantastic projection of what the future corporate budgets will be. But we have done so without any corresponding evidence of an impending economic upswing comparable to the modernizations of the pre-WW2 Europe. There are no remaining scientific pockets to pick for the next 30% raise. More importantly, there is no identifiable class of proles upon which to fixate other than the genuine degenerates of the post-industrial world. In other words, us. The middle class is now the beneficiary class of the new Left vaguard board of trustees, and our destitution is defined by our own degeneracy.
Orwell's meditations on the effects of modernization and degeneracy are a model of precise argumentation. His point is partially illustrated in the following passage which is often the very same argument echoed in today's contretemps between liberals and conservatives - most notably about the honor of military service:
And why should physical strength survive in a world where there was never the need for physical labour? As for such qualities as loyalty, generosity, etc., in a world where nothing went wrong, they would be not only irrelevant but probably unimaginable. The truth is that many of the qualities we admire in human beings can only function in opposition to some kind of disaster, pain or difficulty; but the tendency of mechanical progress is to eliminate disaster, pain and difficulty. In books like The Dream and Men Like Gods it is assumed that such qualities as strength, courage, generosity, etc., will be kept alive because they are comely qualities and necessary attributes of a full human being. Presumably, for instance, the inhabitants of Utopia would create artificial dangers in order to exercise their courage, and do dumb-bell exercises to harden muscles which they would never be obliged to use. And here you observe the huge contradiction which is usually present in the idea of progress. The tendency of mechanical progress is to make your environment safe and soft; and yet you are striving to keep yourself brave and hard. You are at the same moment furiously pressing forward and desperately holding back. It is as though a London stockbroker should go to his office in a suit of chain mail and insist on talking medieval Latin. So in the last analysis the champion of progress is also the champion of anachronisms.
Orwell, George (1972-10-18). The Road to Wigan Pier (p. 194). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
It is not military service, per se, that is at issue. Orwell notes with a keen insight that those goods to be redistributed by their redistribution nullifies the benefit of the struggle to create them in the first place. Even in our post-industrial society, we are plagued with the same dilemma. Whomever redistributes the goods must recognize that the skills of the creation of those goods is entirely lost on the beneficiaries of the redistribution. In our case, the most important of these is that skill which recognizes the conditions under which their creation can simply not be afforded. The thief (or the vanguard board of trustees, if you will) has no concept of the actual value of his plunder. He operates in a black market which necessarily withholds information and operates under different rules - the rules of appropriation, not the rules of entrepreneurship. After all, the socialist seeks a new regime, neh? The black market necessarily sells goods on the cheap based on scarcity, not on inherent - the recipients of these benefits are selected for the central planning of the appropriator, not according to their ability to pay, but by their special circumstances. After all, a thief does not want to sell to the FBI informant who is all too willing to pay.
The point of this analogy and of this entire essay is that the definition of class has undergone a vast change since the days in which anyone could clearly identify the proletarian 100 pound misery and prescribe a simple tax on the capitalists and provide the ethical instructions for the upper (educated) middle class to shift their allegiances from the old regime to the new. The middle classes of the West are too large, and most importantly, the principles of socialism are meaningless, unenforceable and therefore lost to a post-colonial world.
What remains is China. And all China can be is a meritocracy of misery, or perhaps a genuinely stunted human who remains blind to the blessings of liberty. North Korea remains small enough for the sort of autocratic tyrannies to persist. China is far too large. So I predict civil war, again. But I do have a bit more to study on the Middle Kingdom.
What I do know is that American class is changing and there is no new revolution in the making. If I am right, then all of the internet's obfuscations will aggreate only to a foolish upper middle class who will continue to play outrageous sums of money for the intellectual and entertainment equivalent of 'tinned food'. It is this effluvia they will peddle to the new ahistorical lower class like so many comic book movie remakes. And they will all eat in and work in chicken joints. But I digress.
My Middle Class is one that I think will emerge on a moral and ethical front. Mine is the lower upper middle class of America. We are the people who use a combination of meritocratic systems and social powers to establish and maintain our status and affluence. We know things that matter and we know how to do things that matter. We are a working class, and this is somewhat unique to an America that provides a great deal more to the common man than England did in the 1930s. For what we have in America is not only automobiles but several manufacturers of automobiles, and in this and other industries, products and services are provided in such a way as to make a larger permanent set of competencies. If England faced socialism because the permanent unemployment of coal miners (due to a small monoculture of capitalist investors), America would not because of it larger, more diverse class of capitalist investors. This, in turn establishes a social momentum that keeps a larger literate class - the upper middle class, and among them, the most capable segment I call The Slice.
I think of The Slice, however as the only substantial meritocracy, and I think of it in feudal terms. They are the people who work directly for the Powers That Be. Yet the upper middle class, which is (I estimate) 3 or 4 times larger than The Slice itself, knows exactly what The Slice should be doing, and is always vying for those positions. It is this large and competent upper middle class that define American culture and society, as everyone in the middle class and below aspire to their affluence and freedom, and the small numbers of the Ruling Class make them ineffective at controlling their creativity. In America, my wild guess is that the upper middle class numbers between 20-35 million, which is about 6-12 percent of our population. More accurately, in 2011, about 38 million households had income of 75-200k per year. The substantial point is that I see this as the proof of the establishment of a class system far beyond the conceptualizations of the early socialists such as Orwell.
America has more than a million millionaires, and that is a divergent enough class of capitalists to establish a continuity of capital that can be robust, even anti-fragile against the sorts of stagnated, narrow investments and under-investments that created permanent unemployment. The interests of the moneyed class and the talents of the upper middle class are both now so substantial that they can support much greater numbers of the needs and desires of the common man. Furthermore, the universality of this global upper class, is the fascinating phenomenon that is transforming the world. This is the new jet set and we know what time it is UTC.
This American upper middle class is accustomed to and aware of the way it works for global capital. It lives in international cities like Los Angeles. It eats a variety of cuisines. It speaks a variety of languages. It has a style and a substance that is evidence of civilization. Where you see its garbage of empty Starbucks cups, and Perrier water bottles, you know that you are in a high rent neighborhood. What I want to suggest re-establishes the thesis - the loyalties of this class is a bit more diverse than that of The Slice. The Slice works directly for the Powers that Be, the upper middle stands in reserve and sometimes creates its own Alternative Slice in anticipation of a future seduction of new Rulers to new rules. The man who is not working for Intel today but finds a way to design tommorows computer chips in a superior way seeks to improve on the current regime. This is a 'bottom up' solution searching for the right investors, and the investor class is well aware of such upstarts. But what of nationalism?
I want to assert in brief that America has maintained liberty through the production of domestic products and services aimed towards the fulfillment of desires of choice above and beyond desires of need for the common man. These are, in many ways, the fundamental interests of the US - to protect the supply lines and trade arrangements that keep global capital invested here. The provide the infrastructure that keeps our international cities attractive to The Slice and to provide such a home for investors who would keep our economy fluid and strong. To provide for the broad open society that encourages the advancement of individuals and families into upward social mobility for the common man, and to maintain the infrastucture of domestic tranquility. This is constrained into nationalism out of tradition and law, but in matters of war and peace the preponderant interests of the upper middle class is unclear. There is too little of the nation's economy, unlike in the days preceeding the World Wars, that stands to benefit from war production.
However, the interests of the upper middle class, are very much like the interests of the Western ruling class in that it cannot afford to operate in pre-industrial conditions. And those who threaten the infrastructure of the West are thus intolerable. That is not necessarily a national interest, but neither is it something dictated or constrained by international law, per se. It is not international law that makes Singapore attractive to the upper middle class. It is not nationalism that motivates traitors like Edward Snowden. It is the fundamental usefulness their talents provide to the Ruling Class and the high rewards that make their social standing - not only in one country, but universally.
My class is the global upper middle class. We may be nationalists only of convenience. We will not be seduced by socialism because our existence is as permanent as the global supply chain of oil, steel and data. The common man still looks up to us - as we are the common man, improved. Our native land is civil liberty.