No issue in America today captivates the imagination more completely than does equality. We long for justice; and we cannot imagine it without equality. We ponder the meaning of toleration, respect, dignity, and recognition; and we cannot do so without at the same time thinking of equality. We attend to the characteristics that divide communities within and from another, and we conclude that equality is a salve for these and all such wounds. Our understanding of what we owe to others and what they, in turn, owe us; our strained effort to penetrate the meaning of our afflictions and the afflictions of others who can give voice to these without the grammar of equality?
Equality today, however, is a hope without a political party. That is because the factions within American political culture do not think about equality and its kindred terms in the same way. When casual media commentators note that the two major parties do not even agree on what the problems are let alone the solutions, they are typically saying more than they understand.
Americans think through the meaning of equality in a number of distinct ways that rely on distinct vocabularies—notably “interests,” “identity,” and “debt.” Each political faction seems to possess a critical insight into the problem, but none possesses them all. Let us see how, first in summary, and then in a more detailed analysis.
Burkean conservatives are suspicious of the Jacobin temper they find lurking in the heart of equality itself. Burkeans believe that our debt is to the tradition that constitutes us as a society and a polity, which we must honor. They discharge their debt in the domain of society, and oppose the Jacobin urge to dissolve what is old and venerable. In America today, they may endorse the idea of a “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue,” as Jefferson famously wrote to John Adams. They may even accept the ideas of equality of opportunity, equality before the law, and presumably equality before God. They worry, however, that these arrangements can be rapidly undone. Tradition is, for Burkeans, a bulwark against Jacobin equality, which, they believe, dishonors what is highest in man, and always tends to undermine tradition
Economic liberals defend the equality of opportunity that market commerce can provide, but shudder to go further.1 They understand debt by the calculus of money, in the market as both real and as metaphor. They discharge their debts in the domain of commerce, so that payments may be balanced. Because they think that debt can be discharged with money, they are oblivious to the deeper problem of fault.
Postmodern progressives in the Democratic Party celebrate equality and advance its cause. But their recourse to identity politics—race, gender, and class—alerts us to debts that run deeper than money can discharge or reason can negotiate. Earlier progressives in American life sought to use the instrument of politics to reshape society, and they did so within the rubric of pluralism. These progressives, who focused more on class than on gender or even race, are not yet extinct. Just as different factions coexist within the Republican Party, so too do different subgroups coexist within the Democratic Party. But 20th century pluralist progressives have largely been displaced by postmodern progressives of the 21st century who share the same aim, but not the same assumptions about means. Postmodern progressives reject pluralism because it presupposes that people are rational beings with interests that can be altered through reasoned conversation. Postmodern progressives believe instead that deeper than our interests are our race and gender, and that these together usually turn class into an epiphenomenon of the “structural violence” of the white-male-dominated American political economy. This understanding of debt foments distrust and silences rather than encourages debate. Furthermore, it encourages implacable envy and hence provides no bulwark against the scourge of retribution. Identity politics offers up a calculus of debt based on the presumption of fault (and its associated logic of victimhood) and wagers that debt can be repaid through a political scheme of compensations and affirmative action.
Being heirs of the Protestantism they have purportedly repudiated, postmodern progressives believe that debt is traceable to faults that are bound to identity more directly, to white identity. They (usually penitent white people) earnestly wish to oversee the discharge of debts that one identity group owes another in the domain of politics, so that equality of “outcomes” may be pursued to the bitter, perfectionist end. The penitent and fatally white Tim Wolfe, former president of the University of Missouri System, reminds America that the invocation of the term “white privilege” amounts to a declaration of an unacknowledged and therefore unpaid debt. And an unpayable one, too. No common world can be built using this calculus.
Postmodern progressives understand that fault lies deeper than monetary debt, but like economic liberals they seek an arithmetic solution for it and so are oblivious to its real depth.2 What they do understand that the others do not, much to their credit, is that the hope for equality cannot be disentangled from the matter of fault. It is, however, no easy matter to determine how fault can be paid off, so to speak. In politics, some payment may be made; so, too, in society. But this is not the end of the matter, for the hearts of citizens must also be un-hardened, which points to religious questions that exceed our scope here.
The modern American conservative movement begins politically with the Eisenhower presidency and intellectually with the publication of William Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953). What is most remarkable is that in the aftermath of the Roosevelt presidency, the intellectual movement that Buckley and Kirk inaugurated to oppose Roosevelt’s progressive ideas did not, aside from the ideas of the Founders, rely on a developed and durable tradition of pre-progressive American ideas. Instead, the central figure was Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) defends tradition against an ignoble form of equality that strips life of its majesty, mystery, and hierarchy:
But now [after the French Revolution,] all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private life, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of the moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the effects of our own shivering nature, and raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.3
Modern American conservatism, in short, fears the very habits of mind that the urge to undifferentiated equality foments. It looked to the French Revolution and the consequent crisis of modernity in Europe to answer American problems amid the post-Depression and postwar flowering of the progressive era.
To be sure, intermixed with Burkean suspicions, post-World War II American conservatism also embraced liberal ideas about limited government, about the socially beneficent results of market commerce, and about a society relatively free to pursue economic improvement. This did not require looking to Europe, for these are the Founders’ principles. Strongly anti-communist, they defended American exceptionalism against a Europe that flirted too much for American tastes with communism and corporatism.
This tension endures. Cultural conservatives following Buckley and Kirk back to Burke have seen the Jacobin impulse playing itself out in America as a banal consumerist culture inhospitable to tradition, orthodox religion, and high culture. They find this ugly and not at all harmless, but find refuge within a country with a more or less functional politics and decent society. Economic liberals who follow Milton Friedman back to other Europeans—Hayek and von Mises, in particular—are less troubled by consumerism, and find fault over the hemorrhage of social trust and virtue when they turn their eyes to government. Holding the conservative political synthesis together has become increasingly difficult since the end of the Cold War. The problem manifests itself whenever cultural conservatives, often with orthodox religious views, sit down with economic liberals who declare that all of life can be understood using market analysis. Economic liberals, for their part, soon become impatient with cultural conservatives who seem to be obsessed with premodern concerns in a modern, or postmodern, world.
These two conservative groups are loosely allied not because of a common vision but because of a common enemy: progressivism. But it’s complicated. There is overlap between Burkeans and 20th-century progressives, because both value social comity as the sine qua non of good and democratic governance, and both believe that pluralism can be the means to negotiate how best to fashion that comity. There is overlap, too, between economic liberals and 21st-century postmodern progressives, in that both dismiss tradition in favor of arithmetic means of generating dynamic balance—albeit the former in the commercial domain and the latter in the political domain. There is also a lesser overlap between Burkeans and postmodern progressives in that both take seriously the vocation of moral reasoning in politics and place it above the market—although the sources of moral guidance that the two subgroups employ overlap but little. And finally, there is also a lesser overlap between economic liberals and 20th-century progressives in that both acknowledge limits to what government can do, and look to the market and the society, respectively, as the font of salvation.
Most Americans don’t think much about the esoteric analyses of political philosophy. But on the question of equality they have a view of what the term means or should mean, even if they cannot fully explain it. Americans have always cared about equality as an aspiration, of course, but how that caring translated into politics has changed over time. We have struggled to expand the equality principle throughout American history and most Americans take pride in both the struggle and the accomplishment. At the same time, thoughtful people have recognized liberty as an equally precious principle and sensed that the two did not necessarily walk hand in hand. Now the conversation about this enduring and, on balance, healthy tension has shifted, decisively, in favor of equality over liberty.
Neither a cultural conservative focused on Burke’s suspicions of Jacobin equality nor an economic liberal focused on the sanctity of market commerce tends to define equality as the postmodern progressive does, which is to say in categorical terms of race, gender, and class. Conservatives wince at the mention of these terms and disparage the project itself. That is partly because postmodern progressives now all but own the grammar of equality, and they possess an identity-based epistemology that loathingly labels all conservative ideas as arising either because they are tethered to a certain race (white), and/or a certain gender (male), and/or a certain class (the 1 percent).
Conservatives and such pre-postmodern progressives as remain look to the traditional pluralism of American politics to talk out the equality issue. But as already suggested, equality no longer has a party. If we accept the postmodern premise that people are born into their troubles rather than are responsible for them, then hope for equality of outcomes—the only fair-minded way to think about the problem in this dispensation—leaves Burkeans with nothing to offer. Economic liberals endorse “equality of opportunity,” but the domain of economics can never redeem the hope for equality of outcomes. (The history of “Enterprise Zones,” dating to the presidential campaign of 1968 when both Bobby Kennedy and Richard Nixon endorsed the idea, shows that African-American urban poverty cannot be solved by increasing economic opportunity alone. The problem lies beyond the reach of economists.) The Republican Party that contains these two elements, then, is of no help at the moment.
But neither is the Democratic Party, which is purging its ranks of all but postmodern progressives who believe that equality must be thought through in terms of identity politics. This approach cannot produce viable solutions in a pluralist democracy, yet the Democrats will probably double-down on identity politics in this election year for purposes of mobilizing votes. If equality is a hope currently without a political party, is there nevertheless a way forward that combines enough of the elements of the various factions to produce a workable politics?
A Road Not Taken
Perhaps there is, and perhaps the political polarization that at once paralyzes and presses us beyond the bounds of propriety can be remedied through it. That way forward comes equipped with a guide: Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville recognized that equality was less to be reviled than to be engaged. We are charged to build a world together in an age characterized by the hope for equality. To build it, we need to think about equality by attending first to those places where postmodern progressives direction our attention: race, gender, and class. But we need to think about it not as postmodern progressives do, but as Tocqueville did, or might have.
Race. Black lives matter; or do they? Within the rubric of postmodern progressive identity politics, “white” identity (especially white/male/heterosexual identity), falls under the heading of debtor; all other identities—African American, Hispanic, Native Indian, woman (especially non-white), gay and lesbian (especially non-white) are creditors. In the identity-based world of postmodern progressives, creditors cannot by definition have anything intrinsically in common except their common debtor. Indeed, their irreducible identities would likely clash if their common debtor didn’t owe them all so much, and so urgently.
Creditors, of course, are not the only ones who can count. Debtors, too, can occasionally make declarations of their own, say, about white identity, and assert a right to rule over the creditors who claim they are owed a debt. This nativism defines the flipside of identity politics and is the far Right’s political counterpoint to it.
It is obvious why nativism is loathsome to African Americans, but is the African-American experience better understood in terms of identity politics? It is not. In the hands of postmodern progressives, African Americans are just one identity group among many. They are not distinguished qualitatively from every other identity by virtue of the agonizing history of slavery, but only quantitatively by virtue of how many debt points African Americans are owed compared to other creditors. African Americans are part of the “rainbow coalition” of non-whites, but that is all. Debt repayment through affirmative action has aimed to increase “diversity.” And that does, of course, include African-Americans. But many other identities included under the rubric of “diversity” suggest that there is nothing radically different about African-Americans that should single them out for undivided attention.
That is not true. However much the “Black Lives Matter” movement serves to attract some who hold malevolent motives bent on retribution rather than reconciliation, its anger is not without reason. The fact that it has been directed first and foremost at the Democratic Party is telling.
Committed in principle to the African-American community far more volubly than the post-Reagan Republican Party has been, the postmodern progressive’s reliance on identity politics belies the Democratic Party’s ostensible commitment to African-Americans, which now borders on fraud. The immigrant experience of other non-whites has often been and continues to be difficult, but within a few generations immigrants tend to become reasonably well integrated into American society. The other prominent “identity” groups today white woman heterosexuals, white gays and lesbians are sometimes debtors and sometimes creditors depending on to whom they are being compared. None of this applies to African Americans. African-American families endured slavery, in some cases for several centuries, and that changes everything. As Tocqueville understood nearly two centuries ago:
In one blow oppression has deprived the descendants of the Africans of almost all the privileges of humanity. The United States Negro has lost the memory of his homeland; he no longer understands the language his father’s spoke; he has abjured their religion and forgotten their mores. Ceasing to belong to Africa, he has acquired no right to the blessings of Europe; he is left in suspense between two societies and isolated between two peoples, sold by one and repudiated by the other; in the whole world there is nothing by his master’s hearth to provide him with some semblance of a homeland.4
African-American history and experience are radically different than that of all other non-whites creditors, but postmodern progressive identity politics cannot recognize that.
To the extent that African Americans have been able to reassemble or recreate their devastated families over the years and find a tolerable equipoise amid the soul of America, they have done so largely through the aegis of religion. The book of Exodus, in particular, has been the centerpiece of the African-American churches since their inception. And through Christianity African Americans have long remained socially conservative even as their politics reached out for change.
Postmodern progressives, however, want nothing to do with Christian religion or the social conservatism it often nurtures. They see it as a mode of oppression and a source of false-consciousness. They rip into Christianity in America at every possible turn, and they say to the majority of African Americans, in effect, that “if the consensus, say, against gay marriage in your churches runs counter to the identity politics narrative on the basis of which we are unequivocally compelled to support that cause, keep it to yourself because it causes us a problem. In the meantime, we’ll count on your vote in the next election.” They have even stripped the annual Martin Luther King Day of its namesake’s Christian message of promise and redemption. The self-absorbed effrontery here is almost too much to bear, and not despite but because there is a Democratic “black” President in office, a rising number of African Americans do not wish to bear it any longer.
The desire for moral cleanliness that is so evident among postmodern progressives, may of whom not unsurprisingly descend from Puritan roots, guides them to the conclusion that through law the wound of slavery can be healed. The affirmative actions of law alone, however, cannot heal it. Deeper than law are the mangled habits of a people subjected to unspeakable violence, hatred, and injustice from generation to generation to generation. Law can graze the surface of habits that refuse to bend or be broken, and perhaps alter them in small ways. Perhaps that is all that is wanted. Perhaps postmodern progressives find in the “affirmative actions” of law just enough to satisfy them that something is being done, but not enough so that a project that benefits them politically will ever come to a close. Law will always provide this just enough, but law can go no deeper. It gives rise to an outcome, to paraphrase Tocqueville, that is “neither completely wicked nor entirely just.”
Most African Americans vote Democratic, but they seem to be liking it less and less. Can African Americans remain truly at home in a party of postmodern progressives? Doubtful, because the African-American churches that hold together both tradition and family, through which the promise of redemption is given form and voice, and by which the habits needed for freedom’s good use are formed, are viewed with incredulity. Postmodern progressives find the answers they seek in politics, not in society. They turn to the apparatus of the state to solve problems, not to the churches. And if, as a result of their insistence that African-American salvation comes not Sola fide, but from the State alone—if, because of this, they happen to undermine the churches that preach hope and hold together tradition and family, then that is merely unfortunate collateral damage, the consequences of which can be remedied by the (state) trinity of welfare payments, more funding for dysfunctional inner-city public schools, and Planned Parenthood. Black lives matter to postmodern progressives because they empower a (largely white) political class that benefits from highlighting the debt owed to the African-American community, a debt measured in points paid, but points that, perhaps by design, can never heal the wound.
If the Democratic Party today is defrauding African Americans, could they find a home in a party of Burkean conservatives? Some have, but it is difficult for most because the tradition Burkeans have in mind when paying their debts lacks broad appeal in the historical memory and imagination of the African-American community. How could it be otherwise? We are rightly fond of John Locke, of course, but he held stock in companies that dealt in the slave trade. When our “inheritance” is mixed, what then?5
Can African Americans find a home in a party of economic liberals? Also doubtful, because the habits needed for commercial success are formed in the family, which, in the African-American community, hangs by a thread despite the residual salving power of the churches. It’s actually worse than that. After the Carter Administration, when in the name of economic efficiency once-powerful trade unions came into the crosshairs of economic liberals, African Americans who had found their way into the middle class through them suddenly faced the specter of losing that standing. A generation later, when, in the name of economic efficiency, public service unions came into the cross-hairs of economic liberals, African-Americans who had found their way into the middle class through them suddenly faced the specter of losing that standing again. Economic liberals sincerely believe that efficiency is a public good; but they are largely tone-deaf to the particular social consequences for the African-American community.
No party and no state can overcome the legacy of the wound of slavery. Republicans offer little in the way understanding the problem. Democrats profess to understand the problem and provide a political remedy—and only make matters worse. The agonizing truth is that only the institutions of society, in and through which our habits are formed and reformed, can the legacy of the wound be touched and healed. The state can supplement and encourage those efforts, but it cannot, as postmodern progressives think, substitute for them.
Gender. Women matter, or do they? Within the rubric of gender politics, a woman understood here as a generative being, as wombed-man is one gender category among an exponentially increasing array of supposedly different genders. The 58 gender options on Facebook that a February 13, 2014 article in Slate was able to identify are now apparently not enough; surrendering to relenting user pressure, Facebook now has no set of pre-defined categories and allows users to self-proclaim whatever gender they wish.
The political trajectory here is already plain to see: The iron-clad logic of identity politics is being fully extended to gender as well. Debt-points will be tallied and the state will make sure that every member of the rainbow coalition of gender-types receives its carve-out. Meanwhile, the debtors, “white heterosexual males” in the main, will never be allowed to forget what they owe their creditors by virtue of their “privilege.” In this, as in the case of African Americans being cast as one identity category among others, a woman as a generative being becomes one gender category among others, and something fundamental is lost.
The term “gender” emerged only in the past half-century but now has come to be seen as a fully adequate replacement for the term “sex.” The term first gained currency through feminism, which invoked it as a way of indicating that women should be freer than their traditional, fixed roles had allowed. In the term “gender” feminism found the plasticity it sought and the vocabulary it needed to ward off the claim of traditionalists that a woman, because of her sex, needed to preserve her traditional role. The term “gender” is agnostic with respect to what a woman can or should be; “sex” by connotation, at least, is not. Through “gender” the equality between men and women in the age of equality is finally expressible.
Had the matter stopped there, with a publicly posed question that begged to be addressed in an earnest yet delicate way, we might have concluded that there is no categorically correct way for woman to go forward, that in the age of equality some women will desire a traditional role while others will not. That would really have been nothing new except for the open acknowledgement of it. We would have noted with proper dismay that, insofar as money becomes the universal measure of value in the age of equality, women in traditional roles would be seen unfairly as having less value than those who earn their own money. We would have wrestled openly with the tension between generating life and wealth that currently plagues women of our money-oriented age—a tension that men may observe but that only women understand from the inside.
Beyond money, there is that other important development wrought by the modern world: the idea of “right,” which emerges when sovereignty is for the first time vested in all adult citizen persons instead of a single royal person. Like money, “right” sits in tension with the generation of new life and can, but needn’t, overwhelm it. Accordingly, we would have recognized that legal abortion can accord with the turn in the modern world to sovereign persons possessing “rights.” It may not be discoverable within the framework of the U.S. Constitution, but it certainly can be sanctioned by state legislators. That fact of legal abortion, however, might have been tempered by an understanding that the “good” of generating new life is not to be trammeled by the immediacy of desire masquerading as a “right.” We might have tried harder to develop language that our daughters and sons could have used to better understand that they have inherited an as-yet unexplored intermediary zone where they are obviously still bound by the need to generate new life even while the language of “right” seems to have set them free from that need.
These conversations would not have resolved the issues, but they might have helped us develop a better way to contend with a difficult problem that admits of no simple solution: The processes of generation, and all that it entails in the way of a stable and durable household, must somehow be protected from the reduction of every aspect of life to its monetary value, or from the one-dimensional insistence that “it’s my right.” In short, we might have learned to live with the unresolvable tension between the irreducibly sexed dimension of generation, and the plasticity of gender that expresses the hardly novel truth that women are much more than generative beings without whom the human race would perish. Among other things, this “much more than” entails being a participant in the moneyed economy that drives the age of equality forward, as well as being a vessel of “right” of the sort that makes this the age of equality in the first place.
We have not taken that course, however. Rather, as 20th-century progressivism has given way to 21st-century postmodern progressivism we do not dwell in the unresolvable and creative tension between sex and gender. Instead, we have arrived at a kind of polarized partisan parsimony with respect to this most unparsimonious of issues. So the Republican Party has hardened around a defense of nature without respect to rights; while the Democratic Party has hardened around a defense of the infinite plasticity of gender without respect to nature. Each bizarre oversimplification needs the other in the ever-escalating drive for funding; each party knows what to whisper to its parishioners—“Right to Life” or “Pro-Choice”—when the tithing basket runs light.
When the party that thinks it is defending nature doubles down, it just says more emphatically what it already believes. Nature being fixed, what room or reason is there to alter the understanding? This is not the case, however, with the party that doubles down on the plasticity of gender. If gender is plastic, why stop with heterosexual-women-who-have-been-wrongly-socialized-to-want-a-traditional-role? Besides, in the original impetus to liberate women from traditional roles, there was something so very bourgeois and disciplined, perhaps even a bit Puritan, about the whole enterprise. In its early formulations, it never occurred to its proponents just how far the claim about the plasticity of gender could go. Today, many more “categories” LGBTQ, and we can only guess which letters will come next have been brought into the Church of Gender Plasticity. There is no logical or principled reason to stop. The very notion of a finite category can have no real meaning once, as Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into thin air.”6
And then what? Well, we don’t really know, and that may well be the point. Consider the possibility that, for all its lofty achievements, society has always involved a measure of organized cruelty defined as generalized constraint. As Peter Berger recently put it: “Institutions are dams holding at bay the howling frenzies lurking in human souls.”7 Part of this cruelty, which others have referred to as deferred gratification, sublimation and so on, entails the shunting of erotic desire down certain paths and not others. This effort is never completely successfully either because nature is too strong or society is too weak. But it is usually good enough for the practical purpose to hand.
Now, if we “liberate” men and women from this organized cruelty with tenderhearted encomiums about infinite gender plasticity, we may be fine so long as bourgeois sensibilities about “consent” and “rights” and “individualism” still endure, despite their having no good reason to do so in a fully “constructed” social world. For a time, civilization and its trappings will remain because the burgeoning of erotic desire into shared public spaces will still be disciplined by those bourgeois sensibilities. Alas, however, those sensibilities cannot linger long without an ongoing invitation to stay—and who wants to be bourgeois anymore?
Certainly not the postmodern progressive majority of the Democratic Party and therein lays the problem: When all things are possible, without constraint or discipline for lack of any foundation for either, all things will in due course appear. That is when this particular revolution will begin to devour its children, especially women who modestly need to negotiate the tension involved in being mothers in a moneyed economy but wish to explore no further erotic territory. The unlimited celebration of the heteronomies of erotic desire now repudiates the link between erotic desire and the generation of new life, leading those women who long for the stable and durable household that generation requires to look with growing incredulity upon a Democratic Party that is attentive to the iridescent and fleeting desires that emerge in the dark of night, but not to the often tedious and necessary daily family labor of sustaining and regenerating a civilization in the light of day.
The doubling-down by the Democratic Party on the matter of gender plasticity has become a threat to the women it was intended originally to liberate. Our ability to regenerate civilization in the age of equality is on the verge of being overwhelmed by the in-principle infinite number of new gender-parishioners being welcomed into the pews by the Democratic Party. Demean motherhood sufficiently, and eventually we will get a lot less of it. When all genders are equal, the original problem of the standing of women in the age of equality, on the basis of which the term “gender” was called forth in the first place, disappears in a frenzied celebration of the infinite plasticity of erotic desire.
Class. The age of equality is the age of middle-class anxiety. Why? Because in an age of equality no one’s social standing is guaranteed by law and custom—as it was in the rigid “estates” of feudalism. It was still so to a lesser degree in the longue durée of early-modern capitalism when the very top of society, those imbued with the “spirit of the gentleman,” and the bottom, imbued with the “spirit of religion,” were more or less stable, but the ever widening middle was a zone of uncharted opportunity and anxious uncertainty.
So it remains, at least in the United States. Some fall, others rise; in America generally, over the course of three generations, few have the same social standing that their grandfathers and grandmothers did. There are exceptions still, though there are fewer of them today in 2016 than there were in 1816, and those exceptions tend to be those at the very top and those at the very bottom. The class at the very bottom can be assisted in some measure by the state; but because certain habits bequeathed from one generation to the next at the very bottom make entry into the middle-class difficult or unlikely, the institutions of society—church and synagogue, family, civic institutions—bear a larger part of the burden for helping them rise than does the state, which is as it should be. The state alone simply cannot manufacture the social capital needed to draw citizens upward into the middle class and beyond. Robust institutions within society then returns the favor to the state by producing individuals who can contribute to that society’s needs and desires. The proof of this recursive relationship is the utter incapacity of the state to produce social capital ex nihilo if the institutions of society are lacking; and if more proof were needed, it rests in the inability of any state to replicate such qualities through so-called nation-building abroad.
The eclipse of the “spirit of the gentleman” and the “spirit of religion” in the modern age, and the appearance of middle-class anxiety—understood as a psychological rather than an objective economic concept—tracks with the emergence of what could be called “the spirit of improvement.” That is because, in the age of equality, nearly everyone has tasted enough of the goods of life to know what it means to enjoy them, but few are secure enough in their possession of them that they do not fear losing what they have. This anxiety-producing configuration tends to generate a restless and relentless “spirit of improvement” that directs our attention to the material world; for that world is the medium of improvement, and to money, for that is the currency needed for improvement.
Into this happy—yes, bourgeois—story comes Marx, who had the good sense to point out that in Europe all was not well: The social mobility promised in this new, post-feudal materialist world of capitalism doesn’t necessarily put an end to fixed social standing. The old aristocracy knew how to game the new arrangement to ensure its continued standing by substituting wealth for cultural status. Many writers before Marx, Adam Smith and Tocqueville among them had warned that this new aristocracy might be worse than the old one because, unlike the old aristocracy, the new one would have no direct obligations to those in its charge. The employment contract having been discharged, the personal relationship between employer and employee would end as well.
Marx, however, didn’t argue that this new class arrangement might happen; he said that it must happen. “Capitalism” is not simply an economic arrangement but a stage of history with an internal logic according to which there must be a “contradiction” between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between the owner of production and the wage-laborer. And of course the voice of Marx today, calling from the grave whether channeled through Thomas Piketty or someone else, is the voice that warns of the discrepancy between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
When postmodern progressives think about politics, they ponder identities that are fixed and immovable; when they think about commerce, they ponder Marx, whose ghost lives in a different room in the same house of immutability. This immutability provides them not simply with the language of class, but with an understanding of it that is also fixed and immovable. The purportedly fixed and immovable 1 percent is therefore the point of departure for their thinking about class, notwithstanding that fact that nothing can logically be immutable in a wholly constructivist social world. That is nothing new about ideological thinking, for the farther out on the ledge of true belief one goes, the more indispensable becomes the ability to hold mutually contradictory premises simultaneously.
Not surprisingly, then, to address the problem of the new aristocracy—or the plutocracy, to use the popular 19th-century term—the thought that comes naturally to the postmodern progressive mind is a variant of the one that came into Marx’s head: The state must regulate corporations and tax those who grow rich because of them. Yet it is precisely here that thinking like Marx the European goes so wildly astray when applied in the American setting. In Europe, the strong state came first, which made it possible to keep a relatively tight rein on commerce as it emerged. In America, strong commerce came first. The United States had a national economy before it had a Federal government capable of regulating and managing it, and it has largely been playing catch-up ever since. The American state, designed from the outset to be weak, grew more powerful over time, but embedded within the structure of the American constitution and law is a set of constraints that enable concentrations of private money to exert outsized influence on the political economy and thus, indirectly, on class structure.
There is nothing new about this, either as a matter of fact or of understanding. Madison’s concern about factions in the Federalist Papers presaged the problem in the American context; William Graham Sumner’s analysis from the confines of Yale University developed it during the first Gilded Age. Mancur Olson’s mid-20th century elucidation and rebranding of an old observation about the logic of collective action and recent analysis of the upward redistribution inherent in the system over the past three decades also testify to the age and dexterity of the problem.8
This is not the place to revisit the entire history of American political economy to illustrate the point. Suffice it to say that we have never been able to solve the problem of plutocracy, only tease it into remission from time to time. The political fact that most warrants our attention today is, yet again, the ever-growing capture of elected officials by commercial interests. Postmodern progressives, thinking like Europeans, want the state to do more to manage the problem. They want elected officials to go after “those bad corporations” that have corrupted politics with the stain of “special interests.” But this is delusional. Those elected officials are not going to bite the hand that fed their campaign coffers. That is why, someday, “green energy” commercial interests will be viewed in no less an unsavory light than the petroleum industry is now. Then a new group of candidates, with even greater funding from commercial interests we cannot yet imagine (perhaps a fusion power lobby), will co-opt national politics in the name, once again, of cleaning up the corporate corruption of politics. This is a vicious cycle whose amplitude can only increase in proportion as postmodern progressives double down on the state, because that amounts to amplifying the stakes involved. The more the state attempts to do the more critical it becomes for moneyed interests to suborn it, and hence the more vigorously candidates will be able to stuff their pockets with the commercial interest money needed to win elections and to do their bidding.
Put a bit differently, the social cost of using the power of the state to purge the commercial interests that have captured it is this: With each new cycle, ever more corporate money buys ever-greater governmental assurance that its interests will be protected by law or regulation. It is inevitable, under the American system of government, that the attempt to solve this crisis by increasing the power of the state only makes matters worse. The paradox of postmodern progressivism is that it aspires to greater equality but, through its actions to ensure it, produces only greater inequality. It is unwittingly enabling a new aristocracy.
This does not mean, however, that economic liberals who think the “free market” will save us are justified in their hopes. There is much to be defended in market commerce, and certainly no other arrangement has produced so much broad-based material improvement. When the parameters for the functioning of markets are right, market commerce is the only arrangement on the basis of which it is impossible to have permanent winners and permanent losers. There will be rich and poor, but not a permanent class of rich and poor. Those parameters include such a dispersion of effort that no one can have sufficient information or power to torque any market to permanent advantage. This is what the tortured history of American anti-trust law is about.
In the age of equality, however, wealth has peculiar characteristics—call them social characteristics to which we must pay attention if we want to avoid a new, permanent, aristocracy of wealth. The parameters of a well functioning market have been altered by huge concentrations of power, not least in the American financial sector, and by a revolution in how much information those concentrations can muster and use. Because of the structural weakness of the American state, we have a widely noted winner-take-all economy these days. For most people, a competition of all against all keeps nearly everyone from rising very much. But a few lucky, highly intelligent, or extra-hard-working souls do manage to rise above the rest, and little stops them from maximizing their advantages. That is why in America we have seen staggering wealth disparities of the sort that in Europe are incomprehensible. The industrial tycoons of the late 19th century, the computer and internet barons of the 21st century, where are their counterparts in Europe? They do not exist.
Maybe there are policy fixes to the current wave of American plutocracy, but maybe we’ve reached a perfect storm in which the structural elements of the political economy are combining with certain generative technological developments to take us to a bad place beyond our historical experience. That jury is not “out”—it has yet to be assembled. And that is why not one but two forms of angry populism are coursing through American politics right now.
What is surprising to many is how the current Democratic Administration, a peculiar admixture of Harvard progressivism and Chicago cronyism, gives the appearance of benevolent post-partisanship while in substance it practices a winner-take-all politics that inadvertently deepens the immobility of the current class structure to the benefit of the new aristocracy—all the while inflaming the politics of identity that produces only grievances and heals no wounds. Note, for example, how the Obama Administration, supposedly in order to get control over the nefarious 1 percent, has called in very powerful commercial interests to do its bidding: CIGNA, Humana, Aetna, UnitedHealth Group, and Wellpoint for the Affordable Care Act; General Electric, Duke Power, and other top-tier corporations who welcome with open arms “green energy” regulations that drive out lesser competitors. That even within the Democratic Party, citizens are saying “enough” to what can rightly be called the crony-capitalist-identity-politics complex on which Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is built, is testimony to the level of disgust everywhere in American political life. In Eric Hoffer’s apt words: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
The hope for equality is not well served by the postmodern progressive turn of the Democratic Party to the identity politics of race, gender, and class. Three changes—each of them substantive—would have to occur for the Democratic Party to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. First, African Americans within the party will have to reclaim the religious legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and demand an end to the language of identity that mocks Christianity and that mixes all non-whites together. Second, women within the party who want families will have to demand an end to the misuse of the language of gender, whose original purpose was not to “celebrate difference” but to highlight the dilemma of modern women who are involved in generation, but who are also much more than that. And third, middle-class Americans within the party must demand an end to the crony capitalism that masquerades as social justice.
And what of the Republican Party, which increasingly seems largely oblivious to the problem of equality? First, cultural conservatives must make peace with the age of equality, and understand that the best—and perhaps only way for religious traditions and high culture to persist is within the pluralist world that the Tocquevillean liberal declares must be defended. Second, economic liberals must renounce the idea that “free markets” alone can save us.
Whichever party straightens itself out first will win elections and get its way. If neither party does, which seems likely at the moment, then change will come from either system collapse or from outside the system—or both—in a way that no one can foresee at present. If that happens, Americans are very likely to turn to a variety of religious ideas to guide and organize their thinking and actions. The presently powerful postmodern elite fringe notwithstanding, that is who we are. In the fullness of time, equality will gain a political party, perhaps two or three of them. Present contentions will then seem quaint, but that judgment waits for a future that is for now beyond our ability to see.
1I mean liberals in the original 19th-century definition, a point of view still called liberal in Europe but usually called libertarian in the United States. Even libertarians today, however, scarcely understand the full resources of liberal thought.
2Reparations for slavery and its legacy are the final consequence of this sort of thinking. If reparations were, in fact, paid, what then? Would the debt be discharged, and the fault atoned? Or would a remainder remain unaltered by what the payment supposedly washed clean?
3Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in Selected Works of Edmund Burke, Vol. 2 (Liberty Fund Inc., 1999), pp. 170-71.
4Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. I, Part II, Chapter 10, p. 317.
5The history is all nations is impure; slavery only adds to the poison already there. Remove the statues of our founders; erase all record of the unsavory past; control language if you can; level buildings if you must—the fault-ridden past will always remain, despite your enthusiasm to begin over, with purity and a clean conscience.
6Marx, “The Communist Manifesto,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, Robert Tucker, ed. (W.W. Norton, 1978), p. 476.
7See “St. Vitus’ Dance and the Rational Actor,” The American Interest, September 23, 2015.
8Note Steven M. Teles, “The Scourge of Upward Redistribution,” National Affairs (Fall 2015).