Timely meditations: The revolt of the elite

It is always poor people's fault.

The world seems precarious at this moment. The neo-liberal activism since the 80s have destroyed the foundations of the Liberal system, its system of nations sustained by the welfare state: The neat structures of the world order seem to be withering away. 

A Russian president openly talks about the possibilities of nuclear war; the leaders of Britain and Germany precariously hang on to power in the face of right-wing revolutions while the prospect of a left revolution looks real in France; in the United States, private interests of the President trump his public duties. At the turn of 2018, chaos reigns.

If the newspapers have to be believed, it is all due to immigrants or poor people. In fact, it is immigrants AND poor people: Globalization unleashed people movements - from South and Central America to North America, from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe and from East to West Europe - and this has made the poor people in the developed countries revolt against its elite, using their power of the vote to protest against the liberal order, voting down smooth-vowel politicians and promoting tough-talking populists. Therefore, we are told, a populist revolution is underway, and the politically correct environmentally conscious rules-based system of global governance is crumbling.

Remember the last time greedy bankers broke the bank: We labelled it sub-prime and attributed the breakdown to those at the bottom of the value chain - who were lured into buying outsized houses and made to lose them at the first sight of the crisis - for the whole global chaos. This diagnosis allowed for a top-down remedy, the rescue of the banks rather than any attempt to correct the systemic and cultural failures that built the bubble, and locked the world in the same failed system further. That crisis is coming home now. It is no surprise that we have started blaming the poor people again.

But this is more a revolt of the elites than a populist revolt. President Trump, with his billion-dollar name and gilded apartments, isn't a Hitler, but rather a crude modern-day caricature of princes of the ancient regime, who assumes he has a divine right to dominate. Britain, purportedly in the middle of a people's revolution for Brexit, is really torn between the financial interests of the City, pro-EU as globalization is its life-blood, and the landed and parochial interests, which wants to regain its primacy. They are locked in a battle for the public mind, which both have learnt to manipulate. The newspapers may give an impression that the poor people are changing the world, for the worse, but it is really the revenge of the old money, intent on undoing all the little concessions won by poor people since the time of the French revolution.

This revolt of the elites has a number of causes, but technological progress is one of them. The concessions - of political and economic power, in the forms of democracy and welfare state - were made because the existence of this elite, and security of their property, depended on the willing participation and labour of the poor in wage-labour factories and all-volunteer armies. The automated factories and overwhelming powers of technological surveillance, together with sophisticated structures of modern finance and modern commerce, are weening away this dependence, making independence of the elites possible. The world is to become no longer flat but spiky, with islands of Californian prosperity spread in the middle of vast expanses of sub-Saharan poverty everywhere. The emerging elite world of gated communities and exclusive schools, to be migrated someday to an extra-planetary Elysium, have no connection, no dependence and no sympathies with the rest of the world. From that vantage point, not unlike that of the world of Louis XVth, the earth and the ordinary humans exist merely as resources, to serve at their pleasure in a tiered system of labour and consumption: The common human future has indeed become a politically correct absurdity well past its sell-by date.

Notwithstanding the demonising of the poor people and immigrants in the modern media, they are powerless now. Poor people's movements, once led by mighty trade unions, are slothful and out of touch. The trade unions today are as much part of the system of privileges with their legalistic obsession and narcissism of small concessions. General strikes are impossible in the midst of hungry immigrants and automated factories. No robot soldier would join the revolutionary ranks anymore. And, the left revolutionary formula of withdrawing labour has become utterly powerless in the face of a technologically enabled revolt of the elites.

The poor, therefore, are left with the only way of protesting, a totally counter-intuitive mechanics that defy all previous formulations. The poor's yearning to become rich is no longer a revolutionary force; their withdrawal of labour is now inconsequential. Their power, rather, has now taken an impossible form: It resides solely in their renunciation of consumption goals and in their rejection of the cultural symbols of the rich. Without these, the poor wanting to be rich - the American/Chinese/Indian dream - is bound to make them instruments in the ongoing revolt of the elites. In the middle of this, the poor can only advance its cause and not get swept away into the dungeon existence through the renunciation of the 'good life' thesis as propagated by the elites, by returning to social rather than private labour, and by rediscovering common humanity across the natives-immigrant fault line. In this struggle, there is less to be found in the theorists of the advanced industrial age, such as Marx and Lenin, and more in the works of those who spoke of strengths within and the struggles of becoming human.  


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