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The Vanishing Middle Class (Or Patrick Deneen vs. Capitalism)

There’s a new columnist out there writing for The American Conservative.  You may or may not regard him as conservative. 

Patrick Deneen reflects on a semi-depressing book written by my favorite (because most honest) libertarian writer—Tyler Cowen.  Cowen says the good news is that they’ll be more rich people than ever, and that the keys to wealth will be analytic precision and being comfortable with (because highly competent in) the use of high technology.  That will be a genuinely cognitive elite; a meritocracy of brains and training, if not of virtue.  Meanwhile, the lower part of our middle class and below will continue to sink into underclass lives of  permanent underemployment.

The meritocrats won’t feel the pain of the underemployed enough to provide them with generous or even adequate public services.  But one reason among many why the new proletariat won’t revolt is that our population is aging. There won’t be enough angry young people to overthrow anything, much less the government.

You can add, of course, that they won’t literally be reduced to nothing in some proletarian/Marxist sense.  Our cognitive elite will nudge them with economic incentives, in some cases, toward less self-destructive or stupid behavior.  Still, their family lives, we can predict, will continue to more pathological, which is bad news for their kids getting what they need to break out of this cycle of not-quite-poverty.  Their main compensation for their miserable dislocation will be their ability to lose themselves in the various distractions found on screens—internet porn, football ‘round the clock, video games, and so forth.  There will also be, thanks to our libertarians, legalized marijuana and other soft drugs.

Reading Cowen and Deneen’s commentary on him suggests that idiocracy might the be future for most Americans.

The bottom line—suggested by Cowen’s title Average Is Over—is the middle class of free beings who work is in the process of disappearing.  And, if Deneen is right, neither the Democrats or Republicans care.  Both parties are fundamentally dominated by libertarian oligarchs—some located at places like Bain Capital, others in Silicon Valley.

Deneen adds that Cowen’s prediction is actually enhanced by the libertarian post-humanist scientist Lee Silver in his Remaking Eden.  There, we learn that the cognitive meritocrats will be able to purchase biotechnological upgrades to their natural abilities.  And so the distance between them and ordinary people—who perhaps can’t even afford the basic package of enhancements—will continue to widen.

Not only will Tocqueville’s observation that almost all Americans are middle class be obsolete, so will the stirring words of our Declaration of Independence concerning all men being created equal.

Deneen’s thought that unregulated capitalism creates two giant classes—basically the bourgeois (or bourgeois bohemians) and the proletarians or those who do pure mental labor and those who are only fit to do physical labor—seems too Marxist to me.  In that respect, Deneen appears as a man of the left, a man who doesn’t know (or hides that he knows) that Marxist was exaggerating big-time for effect when he wrote The Communist Manifesto.

Except: Deneen doesn’t hold out any hope for hate-driven revolution.  But: He does write on behalf of resisting politically the “disruptively” dehumanizing logic of the 21st century competitive marketplace.  That means, in a way, Deneen is less Marxist than the libertarians Cowen and Silver, who are more about thinking that economic forces—the progress of the division of labor and technology—can explain everything and inevitably produce change, whether we believe in it or not.

 Deneen’s political leftism causes him to be a Tea-Party fellow traveler:

While the Tea Party receives unending scorn from the chattering classes, forgotten in the mist of time (well, in the course of only five years) is that the anger of this uprising was fomented by the not-unsubstantiated suspicion that there was a deep collusion between government and economic elites in the nation (and beyond) that existed to assure that their growing take would be sustained by policies and even government fiat. This fact, often hidden from plain view by political coverage worthy of ESPN, was exposed in 2008 to ordinary Americans who “played by the rules,” and suddenly plainly saw that their betters had brought their casino to the brink of catastrophe but that access to the levers of power and wealth assured a soft landing, while ordinary citizens were increasingly stripped naked and exposed in a ravaged landscape.

Well, let my introduction to Deneenism stop with those memorable words about being naked and exposed.  It might be even more controversial and confusing for some to go on to notice that he finds moral and political political guidance in the words of the pope, which aren’t Marxist at all.

For me, there is an important philosophical issue here.  The moral argument John Locke gave for a free economy is that the resulting increases in wealth and power would benefit everyone.  Those he called “the industrious and rational” would benefit the most, but almost everyone’s boat would rise some.  But what if at a certain point “the trickle-down theory” stops being true?  It should be disconcerting that one of our most astute libertarians—Tyler Cowen—has lost faith in wealth trickling down to all of us, or most of us.  That doesn’t mean Cowen is right, of course.


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