Mark Mitchell’s book is the latest title published under the FPR Books imprint. If this excerpt whets your appetite, do order a copy of Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class.
It is the crisis of the middle class, and not simply the growing chasm between wealth and poverty, that needs to be emphasized in a sober analysis of our prospects.
Anyone who studies politics must keep one vital principle in mind: power tends to expand and consolidate. If you lose sight of that fact, everything else will go out of focus. Political thinkers have long understood this axiom of power. James Madison, writing in The Federalist Papers, put the matter succinctly: “power is of an encroaching nature.” In light of this fact, he set out to describe the principle of separation of powers built into the United States Constitution. Of course, the underlying assumption is clear: consolidated power is dangerous and undesirable. When power is sufficiently consolidated, the practical consequence is tyranny.
That having been said, any adequate conception of politics requires sufficient power to make collective action possible. If power is absolutely diffuse, political institutions cannot function. If it is absolutely unified, politics will die. Power, then, is necessary but dangerous. Human communities require it but must at the same time constantly guard against power’s natural tendency to unify and grow.
Institutional structures can provide some measure of protection. The U.S. Constitution delegates specific powers to the three branches with the hope that those branches will jealously guard their power against the inevitable encroachments of the others. They “check” each other. The federal structure of our government is also intended to provide the same insurance: the states are tasked with checking the expansion of the national government. However, these sorts of institutional checks are no guarantee. In fact, it is likely that they will fail if two other conditions do not exist. First, Madison admitted that “a dependence of the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government.” By this he meant that virtuous and vigilant citizens are the best means of checking the expansion of power. The second condition is a vibrant middle class characterized by the ownership of private property. These two ideals are related, for the ownership of property calls forth certain virtues that make self-government possible. The virtues of self-control, independence, generosity, thrift, and neighborliness are fostered, at least in part, by a culture of private property. Ultimately, the Founders understood something that we, too, must grasp: property and power are inseparable.
Our constitutional order assumes a populace of property owners, a middle class whose virtues provide the necessary ballast to support our republic. Our founders imagined strong communities, strong families, and independent citizens capable of self-government. They knew if the people degenerate into an insolent plutocracy on the one hand and a disgruntled, insecure, proletarianized mass on the other, the American experiment in self-government would become increasingly fragile and
This unraveling is happening before our eyes. A plutocracy—that is, rule by the wealthy and their surrogates—is emerging as large public and private entities exercise increasing power through both the law and the market. This is characterized by an incestuous union of Big Government and Big Business, neither of which has the interests of the citizen-consumer in mind. As I write, the government is expanding its reach to compel citizens to submit to an array of mandates including Covid protocols, racially charged educational curricula, climate-change standards, pervasive surveillance, and militarized police forces, all ostensibly justified by our fears. At the same time, corporations wield their power by aggressively promoting a radical social agenda and in the process depriving consumers of such basic goods as privacy or a platform for free speech. Employees who don’t toe the line retreat into fearful silence or lose their jobs. As the wealth gap grows, insecure citizens clamor for economic security via government programs, subsidies, and guarantees. Political and economic insecurity provides the opportunity for the plutocrats to entrench their power by means of handouts that only temporarily mask the underlying problems. Trillions in deficit spending assuage present demands at the expense of future freedom. Indeed, we are exchanging the freedom of our descendants for the illusion of security today. They will be justified in destroying the statues we erect to honor ourselves.
Yet wealth is not sufficient for gaining access to the current plutocratic class. What is also necessary is a particular outlook, a plutocratic psychology, if you will. This illusory meritocracy is rooted in the false belief that wealth, or proximity to wealth, is an indication of special moral virtue. Not surprisingly, this belief manifests itself in a disposition of self-righteousness whereby those infected by it come to see themselves as superior to their fellow-citizens who are, alas, not wealthy or connected. They come to see themselves as above the law, for law is necessary for controlling the common citizen, but it is certainly not something that should limit those possessing the moral superiority that wealth would seem to denote. Thus, the plutocracy in America today is characterized by both insolence and self-righteousness, and it is not conveniently confined to either the Left or Right.
I must emphasize here that this is not a polemic against wealth or an argument seeking to justify the state-sponsored reallocation of wealth in the service of some utopian vision of equality. Wealth is not the problem. Any society where citizens are free to buy, sell, and to own and dispose of their property will result in inequalities. Christ told us that the poor would always be among us. So too the wealthy. The problem I am addressing is a particular view that claims a connection between wealth and moral virtue and a political structure that privileges the wealthy over everyone else. There is a world of difference between a society consisting of a majority of citizens who are middle class and who exercise a controlling influence over the political landscape and a society consisting of a shrinking middle class and growing wealth disparities. In such a situation, the wealthy will invariably possess power disproportionate to their virtue. America today is confronted by this unhealthy social and political situation.
A plutocratic class, if it is to survive in a democratic age, must placate insecure, propertyless citizens with state-sponsored benefits that provide the illusion of security. This welfare state will, in time, generate explicit calls for socialist policies and programs. Plutocratic Socialism, then, is a system built on a symbiotic relationship between two seemingly opposed classes: plutocrats and socialists. We are now witnessing this in America. Moreover, the newest iteration of socialism today has joined with the regnant social justice movement creating a toxic brew of social, political and economic pathologies—call it Woke Socialism.
It is important to appreciate the fundamental tension inherent in the union of plutocracy and woke socialism. Woke socialism is rooted in the claim that the world is sharply divided between two classes construed in various ways as the oppressors and the oppressed, the victimizers and the victims, the powerful and the weak. Plutocrats clearly hold the power and those deemed oppressed or marginalized—people of color, women, the poor, those identifying as LGBT, etc.—do not. It is at this point that things get dicey. Plutocrats must appear to make common cause with the oppressed lest they forfeit the perception of moral authority. To do so they must either 1) engage in a cynical charade where they merely pretend to uphold the cause of the oppressed, 2) enter into a deeply conflicted position where a sense of guilt induces acts and words of sympathy for the oppressed all while desperately clinging to the wealth, status, and power that seems to implicate them as oppressors, or 3) convince themselves that their special virtue and status provide them with the unique opportunity to do important work on behalf of the oppressed thereby legitimating their own relentless hold on wealth, status, and power. In short, they must either descend into abject hypocrisy, succumb to the psychic turmoil rooted in self-hatred, or delude themselves with a vision of their own moral superiority and indispensability. The perilous nature of these gambits is glaring.
Some have taken to using the term “woke capitalism” to describe this dynamic, but that does not accurately capture the reality of our moment. We must distinguish between woke capital, which surely exists, and woke capitalism, the existence of which is less obvious. Today corporate, cultural, and political elites harass those who do not bow to the woke agenda. They combine their power to enforce the compliance of private individuals and businesses and to bully local and state officials. The problem, then, is not capitalism run amok. Instead powerful elites use private capital and political positions to 1) leverage government, corporate, and cultural power to compel compliance with the woke agenda, and 2) they champion policies and direct public resources to placate the demands of the populace that is haunted by economic and social insecurity. The incestuous relationship between public and private power indicates the presence of something far different from a free market of goods, services, and ideas.
The combination of plutocracy and insecure, aggrieved citizens can also produce the conditions for revolution. Glaring abuses of power, inequalities widely deemed unjust, and a citizenry deeply distrustful of basic institutions are lethal ingredients and seem to justify those clamoring to dismantle the system by, among other things, abolishing private property and thereby destroying free market capitalism, both of which are seen as primary impediments to a better world.
There exists, then, a natural continuum from an ever-expanding welfare state to the abolition of private property. We might call it “the socialist continuum.” Once aggressive welfare policies are implemented (as opposed to a modest and limited social safety net), the sacred idea of property will gradually dissipate. Confiscation and redistribution undermine the status of property and kindle dreams of a world without private property. After all, if property is the most prominent and concrete expression of inequality, and if inequality is seen as synonymous with injustice, one can presumably eliminate inequality—and injustice—by eliminating property.
Although our current plutocratic class pays lip service to democracy, self-reliance, and liberty, the rhetoric hides the reality where fear, economic insecurity, and petulant demands for autonomy foster the conditions of dependence. The plutocracy naturally favors the welfare state, for it is an effective means of both pacifying insecure citizens and fostering the illusion of plutocratic virtue. However, when the people are organized and radicalized, they can seek to push the logic to its natural end, namely, the total transformation of society and the transformation of property, which if successful, would destroy the plutocracy. Thus, the plutocrats will anxiously dole out enough baubles to keep the citizens distracted, enough services to blunt the despair, and enough fear-mongering to keep them cowering all in an effort to prevent the socialist continuum from playing out to its logical conclusion. Socialist leaders will, in the process, find ways to gain personal advantage from the immense flood of resources pouring in their direction.
Plutocratic Socialism, then, represents a strange alliance that would have stunned and dismayed Marx. It is as if the bourgeoisie and the proletariat decided to strike a secret pact and work together rather than allow their rancorous animosity to ignite a full-blown revolution. The leadership of both classes have much to gain by this seemingly bizarre arrangement. Plutocrats gain moral legitimacy, and socialists gain wealth, status, and power, ironically the very things cherished by the plutocrats. Perhaps this hidden dynamic is one reason why socialist revolutions rarely, if ever, come to a successful termination but instead remain stuck in a “transitional” phase where the plutocrats—and those fortunate individuals drawn into their orbit—secure the wealth, status, and power while the revolutionary energy of the masses is allowed to burn out in frustration.
There is another way. A broad middle class, characterized by the ownership of private property, is the only real means by which citizens possess both the power to govern themselves and the virtues necessary to do so. This suggests a crucial insight: if wealth is unduly concentrated, power will be unduly concentrated as well. The inverse is also true. If property is broadly owned, power will be broadly distributed. The latter ideal is the essence of a healthy democracy.
Many utopian schemers today imagine a world where the inconvenience of private property is but an unpleasant memory and where technocratic wizards make life safe, pleasant, and worry-free for everyone as long as they submit to the “reasonable” standards of the elites. These self-righteous planners see property, at least for everyone other than themselves, as a source of unrest, inequality, and injustice. However, a plutocratic socialism energized by a woke agenda of race ideology and climate hysteria is not a path to liberation but to certain degradation and bondage.
Today we stand at a crucial moment in our nation’s history, and our actions will determine our collective fate. We can choose dependency and servitude at the hands of our plutocratic masters or we can choose the freedom that is inseparable from a society shaped by the ownership of private property. The first step is, as always, to see clearly. We must recognize the basic facts of our condition if we hope to have any chance of providing a remedy. Our analysis must begin with a simple, yet profound, axiom: private property and political freedom stand or fall together.
Looking forward to reading this book. In a curious bit of coincidence, last night we and our guests were talking about this curious union between the corporate and the Woke. And asking each other that question, why? Then again, that may be a very common topic these days by anyone trying to wrap their head around the current zeitgeist. So, this description of the current acceleration of these interests, the threats to our democracy, the collaboration of elites, all resonated as a reasonable assessment of how the marriage birthed the baby.
I do struggle with the use of the term socialist in this piece. For the simple reason that the very concept of socialism has been debased by overuse as a pejorative. Although, to be fair, I also struggle with most of our current political terms, feeling most of them seem to have lost their bearings or meanings. We have entered an alien world, one turned upside down, and language just isn’t keeping pace. As someone who spent a fair amount of time in my youth matriculating among the old class-based left, I ain’t seein’ any commonality. The strong arguments you make, the urgent need for some rephrasing of the struggle to maintain, regain, acquire, what is being lost, just seems ill served by such an imprecise, loaded, and bloated term as socialist. What it should be called, I don’t know.
But I’m totally on board with Plutocrats. It just rolls off the tongue with the right amount of vinegar. No one will wear the epithet as a badge of honor. Although, these days, perhaps Oligarch has more menace and heft.
I agree about the term “socialism.” I also agree that finding another term that fits is difficult.
Del Noce is very helpful here, as he witnessed and wrote about a similar dynamic taking place in Europe in the 60’s. He describes how what he called the Technocratic Right, (i.e., the non-traditional, modernist right) had completely turned “the culture of the left into its own tool.” So while the historical details are different from those of our time the result is very similar: Capital parasitizes the left’s “cultural liberation” and uses it for its own ends.
In fact, I think you can see this dynamic beginning in the U.S. in the 70’s. How long did it take American big business to latch itself to the Sexual Revolution of the 60’s? Those guys had long been aware that “sex sells,” so now that sex was more “free,” why not put that whole idea on steroids? From this foundation Capital has been able to adjust to any new version of “liberation” that has come down the pike.
In any case I’ll be reading this book with interest.
International Socialism (communism) – – betrayed the people.
National Socialism (nazism/fascism) – – betrayed the people.
Plutocratic Socialism – – will betray the people. (is actively doing so now.)
“Plutocrat” is an OK term, although I prefer “Patrician”. It reminds me this problem has been the same problem for millennia. Reading Livy’s mythological history of Rome, the conflict was ever between the Plebeians (who bore the brunt of society) and the Patricians (who thought themselves entitled to rule, “because”). The Plebes only wrested minor concessions from the Patricians when they went on strike, removing themselves from the city until relief was promised. (“Promised!”)
In the end, the Patricians won (the Plebes were reduced to the mobs of Rome), but also lost (Caesarism).
It is worrisome that our Founders kept making comparisons between our young Republic and that of Rome. (Did they know something we Moderns do not?)
“The U.S. Constitution delegates specific powers to the three branches with the hope that those branches will jealously guard their power against the inevitable encroachments of the others”
The important thing wasn’t that the powers were delegated among the branches, it was that the branches were supposed to represent different segments of society, and that was how they’d prevent government from growing too big. But the “progressive” “reforms” threw that all in the trash, so there’s no tension at all anymore. The US Senate is the only tiny vestige of the original intention. What some now call the PMC, professional management class, or the New Class, or whatever, has all the power, as it seems to almost everywhere on the planet.
I agree with Brian M that many terms have become blurred. For example, Capitalism has been promoted in the media as synonymous with Free Enterprise. They’re very different but obviously overlap. The former means whoever owns (invests in) the means of production gets all the income and then doles it out. The latter means that anyone involved in commerce can set prices, buy/sell freely, relocate their business, etc.
Similarly, socialism (egalitarian redistribution) has often been conflated with communism (state ownership of the means of production). I think Mark uses the term socialism accurately, because a lot of the present rhetoric on the left emphasizes equality and redistribution (often contracted to “retribution”).
I also think the second Brian makes a good point, which I personally dubbed “the cult of transferrable expertise” some years ago. Examples include: Shockley the physicist pontificating about IQ, Rumsfeld the industrialist become Sec of Def.
Top-heavy structures have become more common in the business world, with “minders” being hired to keep track of the work of others and/or to lay off enough people to justify their own salary as being a reasonable expense.
Analogies with Rome were and are relevant: supposedly unified power eventually splinters, or collapses under its own weight, or gets deposed by an unexpected source. As someone alive in the present era with descendants who I hope will live beyond it, I often feel “this too shall pass” but I worry about how many will suffer during the chaos that typically precedes something new being born.
So what now, practically? What are the first few practical steps you’d recommend of our lawmakers and courts? Not allowing foreign investors and hedge funds to purchase single family homes would be a great start, I assume. How do we get that done?
I have really appreciated following Matt Stoller’s substack, BIG, lately. Are you familiar with his work?
Just ordered your book, Mark. Looking forward to diving in. 🙌
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