An interesting article from the latest Atlantic Monthly highlights the emergence of a new plutocracy: global in scope, fabulously wealthy, ambitious, hard-working, and given to projects on a grand scale. The author, Chrystia Freeland, argues that members of this plutocracy are bound by class consciousness, and have transcended national identities, bound only by “interests” and “activities.”. In one telling passage, she quotes one of these new plutocrats as saying: “‘…we are engaged as global citizens in crosscutting commercial, political, and social matters of common concern. We are much less place-based than we used to be.’”
Common concern to whom? And the cost of this loss of place is quite high. As another member of the plutocracy said: “‘We know airline flight attendants better than our own wives.’”
The author argues that these plutocrats see themselves as global citizens who have no national identities, who engage their conscience in large-scale projects designed to solve big problems, and who have contempt for those in the classes beneath them.
Two observations: first, I am struck again by the confusion of global economic exchange and dependency with a social order and the demands of citizenship. Such confusion only exacerbates the fiction of being a global citizen, which is the conceit of the well-off who benefit from such exchange, and have the means to travel anywhere they want. Second, it reveals how the idea of being a global citizen masks a moral nihilism, wherein one can give the appearance of morality by sacrificing inconsequential portions of  massive assets all the while avoiding the hard work of an actually ethical life: dealing with neighbors, friends, family, and colleagues. I’m reminded of Chesterton’s passage in Heretics:
It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
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Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I suppose the confusion is because finally, we can never escape ourselves and what we nature are.

    In reading the quote by Chesterton I’m reminded of long ago of my attempting to explain to friends how the tiny Catholic college I was at actually gave me a far better opportunity to know my fellow school mates than they, and I, had at the state U.

    Of course my coming from a completely secular large school suburban environment, I expected just what they thought, and then some to the point where I ended up experiencing some kind of culture shock.

    But it is that experience which was my introduction to what had been lost with the loss of integrated cultural neighborhoods because in them what Chesterton describes and far more besides.

  2. “In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”

    Hmmm. Very good. I hadn’t known that Chesterton said anything like this. C.S. Lewis made a similar observation in The Great Divorce.

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