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Save vs Consume
Founders of a republic are it’s leading men throughout the ages, or its ruling class. - Strauss
There seems to be a dual class structure, characterised by increasing lower and upper classes and declining middle classes in the Western world. Some, and I think successfully, have argued that the class divide is more nuanced and looks more like a ladder with rungs to ascend or descend, rather than a binary upper/lower - aristocrat/bourgeois dichotomy.
In a democratic nation like the United Staes this class structure, the upper and the lower classes, i.e. the nobles and the plebeians tend to have similar aspirations filled with speculation and consumption. Politically this is readily apparent in the Democratic Party, the party that is in power, it is comprised of the wealthy and educated and the poor and undereducated. While the Republican Party is largely comprised of the middle class. The middle class, like the other classes, being comprised of socioeconomic factors, rather than economics alone. Class, at least in the United States, is more of a way of life rather than a box one fits into based on the amount of money one makes.
When viewed through a psychological lens, the relationship between the lower, upper and middle classes can fit into the famous Freudian framework of id (lower), ego (middle) and superego (upper). This fits nicely with the recent wave of normal distribution memes that are floating around the internet.
In this framework, id corresponds to the instinctual animal inside a person, which needs to be satisfied, like sex, hunger and thirst.
Ego is the suppressed part of the human personality that tries to act rationally. Ego is the balance of the id and the superego. The ego is how one views oneself, essentially the opinion one has of oneself, which may not reflect objective reality.
Superego is the human part above all, corresponding to the narcissistic personality, which sees the self above everything and separates the good from the bad. The superego is guided by morality. Being that morality is subjective, it is imperative that one is cultivated in an environment that promotes a virtues and strives toward the common good. In society, education, laws, and consequences build proper moral structures.
The superego feeds off the Girardian principle of mimetic desire shaping ones morality by the people one is around. The Superego is also responsible for finding the happy medium between the Id and Ego. The Id can sometimes be overly dominant when there are humanistic urges. The Ego can be unrealistic in terms of how one views oneself.
One can see how this trichotomy of feedback loops works in unison to keep one balanced and rational to an extent that promotes survival. This is a useful framework when applied to a class structure, because, like the individual, a society is comprised of different components that reinforce one another. When one component becomes dominant over the others and does not respond to feedback chaos ensues.
In Western society, superego is the noble - free, wealthy, educated; id is the plebs - constricted, impoverished, confused; and ego is those in the middle - feeling squeezed by the upper and lower classes, living in what seem like times of decay and disorder. The middle class longs for order while the upper and lower classes like a bit of chaos to keep things interesting. The middle class is classically Apollonian and overly rational while the upper and lower classes are Dionysian and mix rationality with mysticism.
In this context, it can be argued that the nobles (the superego) and the plebs (the id) vote for the same political parties, and share the same political and ideological ambitions and desires. However, the ego, those in the middle, are squeezed from both sides, envied by the lower classes for their material possessions and comforts and debased by the upper classes. The middle is mocked for being traditional, ordinary, and conservative. The middle feels isolated from mainstream media and current societal trends because what they see is in in media is not what they see in their daily lives.
The of power of the upper class, which promotes a parasitic form of life, is seen to deserve the high life as the result of their material and symbolic wealth. The middle is being crowded out and stripped of culture and wealth, while the upper and lower classes grow in power and influence. The middle class is constantly berated with epater la bourgeoisie (to shock and scandalize the middle class) by both the upper and lower classes.
So has morality eroded and left the West with an immoral superego and an id running unfettered? This seems to be the case, which is causing the middle (the ego) to self destruct though increased consumption and narcissism.
This psychosocial context fits into the political economy, which emerged globally in the 1980’s. This era has many names, such as neoliberal or consumer, along with many more beginning with a post- prefix, although all these terms may have alternative meanings in different paradigms. During this period, developed nations restructured their economies through post-industrialization, and shifted to service-based economies in which innovation and technology became essential for an economy to be considered successful and competitive. The membership of the conventional working class has declined due to the impact of outsourced production to developing countries, a process accelerated by globalization. In this process, the conventional working classes have transformed into people dependent on fiat money which prevented them from forming class consciousness. This led to the erosion of class solidarity among them, and the decline of trade unions and class-based politics. The offspring of the working classes became stigmatized through terms such as benefit scroungers, which refer to the lower class or plebeians, or people with neither class consciousness nor solidarity who live in an era of consumption, fame, and social media. They become symbolized through long-term unemployment, low levels of education, and an attitude towards life which can be summarized as nihilistic.
Their situation is legitimized by political actors and those who profit from such a political context. In this new class structure, the conventional middle classes have also experienced a decline both in numbers and prestige, best represented by public sector workers stigmatized for their perceived useless jobs. Their declining status corresponds to a declining sensitivity towards accumulation and planning for the future, since a more differentiated consumer market with many products necessitated a throwaway society, with an apathetic attitude towards the environment, people and the future. The middle classes correspond to an ordinary, conventional way of life, restricted in 9-to-5 schedules, nuclear families, just enough education, and consumption over saving.
However, there are also the winners of this new economic system. Despite their relatively small numbers in the workforce, they had a high social status and important symbolic power in society: they are the new middle classes, the people working in finance, tech, or real estate. Within the new middle classes, new groups emerged, such as yuppies, bobos, and hipsters. Their lifestyle is characterized by an urban energy around nice neighborhoods, fancy grills, cafes, boutiques, small restaurants, art centers, and luxurious retail, residential and business complexes.
At the same time, the nouveau-riche, corresponding to a lifestyle characterized by spending sprees, luxury brands, and seven-star hotels in cities like Dubai, Singapore, Seoul, and New York, which created by world-known architects became highly standardized. The new rich create money out of thin air and can be regarded as opportunistic, people who derive income primarily from speculation. So goes the Fed so goes crypto.
These changes have created a more polarised and unequal class structure. However, many have become fascinated by the power of money and lifestyles of celebrities exacerbated by social media. And in this context, there is a symbiotic relationship between the upper classes or superegos and the plebeians (the lower classes or the ids).
In this relationship, the noble eats most of the cake made of easy money based on a principle of profit. Meanwhile, the plebeian lives with a hope of one day catching up with the status of noble. This continuous hope, fueled by the promise of continued consumption, kills the pleb day by day without them ever noticing. In this relationship, while the noble is free to do anything they want behind closed doors, the pleb feels free to do so in the open. Because of that, we see people who we would never expect to find together in a photograph, such as aristocrats of various ranks and those who can barely pay their rent.
The 10 percenters
How does this framework play out in the West? It is most easily defined by economic factors such as income, but the nuances are clear as well. Family, health, education, location, and meritocracy all play a part in the class structure of society. It is often stated that the 1% are those that truly lead the best lives in a capitalistic society when in actuality it seems to be the upper 10% that really partake in many of the advantages of a developed nation. This class is comprised of those people that are high income earners, educated, health conscious, family oriented, and driven.
I have been blessed throughout my life and currently find myself in the group of 10 percenters. I have multiple advanced degrees, am wealthy by most standards, am married, have two children, and live in one of the safest neighborhoods in the country. My story is one of hard work and luck working in my favor to ascend the existing class structure. I was raised in a lower middle class pleabian home with two working parents that did not have more than a high school education. My parents divorced by the time I was 10 years old. I grew up around crime, violence, drugs, and inequality. When one grows up around these things it is like the fish in water, one is not aware of ones surroundings being sub optimal.
One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in. - Marshall McLuhan
Divorce rates in the United States have been increasing since the 1970’s. Among college-educated households, by contrast, the single-parent rate remains less than 10 percent. Since the 1970s, the divorce rate has declined significantly among college-educated couples, while it has risen dramatically among couples with only a high-school education—even as marriage itself has become less common. The rate of single parenting is in turn the single most significant predictor of social immobility across regions.
Society has silently and collectively opted for inequality, and this is what inequality does. It turns marriage into a luxury good and a stable family life into a privilege that only a small elite can pass along to their children. Cultivation of children plays an essential role in society as it is the time when someone is shown what it means to be virtuous. With a lack of family structure, these ideals often never manifest.
Diseases often associated with excess such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver disease are all two to three times more common in individuals who have a family income of less than $35,000 than in those who have a family income greater than $100,000. At first glance, this seems counterintuitive, how do those who make less succumb to diseases of excess? The reality of consumption is closely tied to quality and education. Those with more money consume goods of higher quality and when it comes to food that means organic vs processed.
Among low-educated, middle-aged whites, the death rate in the United States alone in the developed world—increased in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Driving the trend is the rapid growth in what the suicides and alcohol- and drug-related deaths. Deaths of despair is the most commonly used term. Many people are slowly eating themselves to death while others are self medicating to suppress depression and a lack of direction.
The sociological data clearly sheds light on the growing divide. The 10 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care, and, when circumstances require, serve time in better prisons. They also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce them to new clients or line up great internships for their kids. Location is tethered to many advantages or disadvantages based on who or what also occupy that location.
Desirable zip codes deliver higher life expectancy, more-useful social networks, and lower crime rates. Lengthy commutes, by contrast, cause obesity, back pain, stress, insomnia, loneliness, and divorce. An aristocrat strives to be live in the nicest areas and rarely venture from them. Location is truly a luxury for most and it shows by the costs of living in many of the most desirable parts of the world. One must pay for access.
These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to talk about than high income alone. This class walks around in ath-leisure wear or the jeans and T‑shirts, which signal humble beginnings. They prefer to signal their status by talking about their organically fed bodies, the accomplishments of their offspring, and the environmental correctness of their neighborhoods. They have mastered the ability to launder their money through higher virtues.
Most important of all, they have learned how to pass all of these advantages down to their children. In the United States today, the single best predictor of whether an individual will get married, stay married, pursue advanced education, live in a good neighborhood, have an extensive social network, and experience good health is the performance of his or her parents on those same metrics.
Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.
What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
you position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.
What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?
Hope and fear are both phantoms
that arise from thinking of the self.
When we don't see the self as self,
what do we have to fear?
See the world as your self.
Have faith in the way things are.
Love the world as your self;
then you can care for all things. - Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching Chapter 13
Modern aristocracy (think upper middle class/meritocracy) has made it, they are fine. This group is not worried about fitting in or pleasing their bosses. This class is the fully embodied superego that is satisfied with their ego’s interpretation of reality and satisfies their id through their accumulated wealth.
The 10 percenters are not like those verbose political manipulators from the 0.1 percent. The 10 percenters are a well mannered, fitted suited crowd of lawyers, doctors, dentists, crypto traders, investment bankers, M.B.A.s with opaque job titles, and assorted other professionals—the kind of people you might find interesting.
Money may be the measure of wealth, but it is far from the only form of it. Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too. These non-financial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in modern aristocracy. They define this group, comprised of two parent households, health oriented, stress education, pick the right neighborhoods, and great vocations.
In short, ones surroundings, especially in their youth matter a great deal. The access to quality health care, organic nutrition and higher education are increasingly behind gilded gates. Fortunately, in the United States the gates do not remain locked to those who either work hard or are blessed by Lady Fortuna. So, how does The West return to a stable equilibrium that incentivizes its inhabitants to flourish?
Aristocratic vs Bourgeois
Let’s dive into the details of the antiquarian concepts of aristocracy, bourgeois, and plebeians. Or rather in modern parlance - upper, middle, and lower classes. Note that these descriptions do not fit perfectly for everyone or every circumstance but they are useful heuristics to view the structure of class. The beauty of the current paradigm which allows one to traverse the proverbial ladder in the United States is that although the ladder is shaky in both directions, one has the ability to ascend or descend autonomously.
As with many concepts covered in this piece one cannot view aristocrat or bourgeois through a myopic lense. These matters cannot be measured by wealth alone, they are as much of a lifestyle and abstraction as they are tied to material things. An aristocrat will learn how to play piano, code, and new languages. A bourgeois is more focused on material possessions and the possessions of those they admire so, they will do mainly things that make money. Aristocrats are usually monarchists, they covet power more than money and they stay discreet because every-time a bourgeois started a revolution, they were the first ones exiled or executed. The Aristocrat lives in payoff space while the bourgeois lives in consistency space.
Anything inherited and old is cherished in Aristocracy. Anything inherited is old-fashioned and useless in Bourgeoisie. One could say that one class applies a low time preference to matters while the others applies a high time preference. On the one hand aristocrats want to maintain order through customs and traditions, while on the other hand the bourgeois constantly strives to create their own identity through accumulation. One saves while the other consumes. On balance this can lead to many progresses throughout society, but it can also cause many valuable aspects of culture to decay.
To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history? ― Marcus Tullius Cicero
An aristocrat views time in three phases: past, present, and future. This allows them to discern where they currently reside in the arc of history. It cultivates a respect for the past, a calm for the present, and a drive for the future. In contrast the bourgeoise views time only in the present. There is a disregard for the past and a nihilistic view towards the future. This leads to anxiety and ignorant decision making.
Aristocrats always prefer the invisible kind of government. Think classical liberalism kept in check by christian morals. It leaves them free to exercise their privileges. Modern aristocrats have mastered the ability of getting the government to work for them all the while coercing the masses to believe that the government is in fact working for them. This has changed recently due to a broadening acceptance of fiscal spending, UBI, and increasing social safety nets.
Historical aristocracy has been changed to a system of meritocracy in modern parlance. Rather than blood lines and customs, modern elites are minted through test scores and achievements. This is the ideology of the smartest people being the rulers of others - Platos philosopher kings. Rational, but not necessarily right. Rationality, like capitalism needs guidance from morals and virtues. This meritocratic system has largely replaced the hereditary aristocracy amongst western nations.
Meritocracy goes back the the ancients. It started in Greece with the pre socratics and moved to Rome. Meritocracy is the party to end parties. In a sense it is Hobbseian, people are told what to think and what to do. Progressive in nature, but to what end?
Humanism is akin to Confucianism. Merit is a prerequisite to rule stated Confucius. But how does a society successfully elevate the worthy? The modern Chinese regime is revisiting its ancient roots, while the Americans are abandoning theirs. Chinese citizens know more about Western antiquity than most Americans, yet very few Americans know of Eastern antiquity. Ex oriente lux - The West is the offspring of The East, yet many in The West are ignorant of eastern culture, history, and thought. If you have not read The Tao Te Ching, you should.
What is the best regime? As with most things in The West, one has to study the ancient Greeks to understand the current societal structure. The theoretical framework of most of the West is built upon Platos ideas presented in The Republic. Plato loved education and socialism. However a more practical view of how society functions is needed to discern how society and government at large actually operate. So, we turn to Aristotle, Hobbes, and Machiavelli.
The term aristocracy originally denoted the government of a state by its best citizens, later by the rich and well-born, hence the sense ‘nobility,’ regardless of the form of government. Aristocracy, oligarchy, and plutocracy are sometimes confused as all mean some form of rule by a small elite.
In addition to law, Aristotle believed a large middle class would protect against the excesses of oligarchy and democracy:
The best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant.
In fact, one of Aristotle’s true forms of government is a polity, a combination of oligarchy and democracy. This type of state arises when the middle class is strong.
The US senate is supposed to be comprised of societies wisest constituents. Those that study politics and ethics and have a thorough understanding on how to apply these principles in an efficient manner. The man and the city embodied. However, the modern reality is much different than this idealistic statesman. Political leaders have misaligned incentives and lack moral virtue. They are elected to push a policy and be re elected, they are not empowered to make meaningful aristocratic decisions that will live on beyond them.
Meritocracy is anti democratic on some levels. The political elite/meritocracy should govern for the common good of society, imbue noblesse oblige, to do what is right for the people is an obligation of the fortunate. Unfortunately, many have been elected who cannot rule themselves, thus they cannot rule others.
What happens when one cannot rule themselves and by extension rule others? This is not a new phenomenon it dates back to Hobbes and Machiavelli. When one cannot rule himself one is ruled by another. The Leviathan, the big brother, the despot. The humanist movement in Italy lead to surveillance and added laws to constrict citizens, one of the first instantiations of a panopticon. Corruption leads to laws and more laws lead to more corruption. This is a feedback loop that has plagued societies for millennia.
Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power. - Seneca
Guidance garnered from Machiavelli, can be troublesome if wielded by a class that does not understand ethics and lacks character. Machiavellianism is the enemy of virtue politics, it is only interested in power and how to keep it. A great leader knows what is valuable from Machiavelli’s writings, like the role of chance and virtu in ones life. A great leader also knows that not everyone can lead and to do so is of great responsibility and should be taken seriously.
If the west wants to remain in power or maintain relevance in a multipolar world, its constituents need to educate themselves on the ways of the ancients of both The West and The East. Read The Republic. Read Confucius. Read The Vedas. If society does not understand the underpinnings of their current reality, they will fail to build upon the past and progess/innovation will ossify. Innovation that is inspired by the past is what leads to prosperous futures. We are all paying the price of decaying culture and heritage due to lack of understanding.
As the concept of class in modernity is amorphous and may not fit correctly across all paradigms it is still a useful heuristic when one is trying discern ones current standing in society. Again class is fluid and it encompasses more than just income, it is a way of life. Health, wealth, family, location, and education are what the upper classes truly possess.