The American Ruling Class (2005)

Some clips from Lewis Lapham's "dramatic-documentary-musical" discussing US elites. Lapham, unlike Half Sigma, has some idea of what he's talking about.

On "WASPs":

Lewis Lapham: Mike was still having trouble with the different meanings of the word class. Despite having gone to Yale, he suffered the pangs of social inadequacy. He associated the word class with New England ancestors, very old money, and the characters in a tale told by F. Scott Fitzgerald. But, he was willing to correct his examination paper.

Mike: Have the old families, I mean the WASPs, really disappeared, or are they just keeping their heads down?

Mike: How do you think that wealth, power is structured anymore?

Samuel Peabody: Well in my case, our case, wealth was rather dissipated by the time it got to my father, who was a clergyman. Groton was, as you know, founded by my grandfather. Much of the leadership of the country, especially in the 30s, were Groton graduates. I don't see that happening today. Isn't it interesting? Where does the leadership come from today? For my money, we're wandering. Where are we going? I don't know. Thinking about it I thought that after the Marshall Plan this country was at its peak. This was the finest moment. After that we've been going bump, bump, bump.

Lewis Lapham: If the country's wealth no longer rests in the exclusive hands of the Protestant social establishment, where then does one look for America's Class A stock? It occurred to me that Mike would profit from a meeting with a well-connected hedge fund manager.

On "merit":

Jack: But I'm still troubled by you calling it a ruling class. I mean, this is America, it's a democracy. People get where they're going based on merit.

Lewis Lapham: All ruling classes are based on merit, Jack. The principle was as true of Nazi Germany as it was of Louis XIV's France. The question is, how do you define merit? Of what does merit consist?

Mike: Right, because in the old monarchies, merit was born in the blood. The question is, where is it born in America?

On our "manufactured" elite:

Mike: I think I'm beginning to understand. The ruling class is still mostly male and mostly white; but outside of those few restrictions, just about anybody can make the grade.

Lewis Lapham: Americans are an inventive people, Mike. We manufacture our ruling elites, what we like to call the meritocracy, in the same way that we build SUVs or 747s. The members come and go, in power for a season or a generation, then replaced by new technology, fresh money.

Or, to plagiarize myself: If we're speaking of Davos types -- high-level politicians and bureaucrats, and upper management of large companies -- these people are predominantly drawn from middle/working class backgrounds. For the most part, they circulate into and out of this elite during their lifetimes. These types are frequently contemptible for sure, but blame the (as it happens, highly-democratized) system that trained and selected them for that, not "upper-class whites", which present international elites for the most part aren't.

Besides intelligence (which probably pretty much every elite in history has been selected on to one degree or another), present elites are selected for rootlessness, conformity, low fertility, etc.

So it's clear where I'm coming from: there will always be hierarchy and there will always be social mobility. But some forms of social organization will be better and some will be worse. The particular "meritocratic" system of selecting elites that grew up after WWII has been a disaster for America's ethnic core. Blame of "WASPs" or the "upper class" typically is misplaced.

Possibly related:

Goodhart's Law: ' When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure'. Universities optimise for grades instead of knowledge. Politicians seek popularity, not the public good. Tomatoes are bred into heavy, flavorless sacks of water. Soviet Nail factories, when instructed to produce a certain number of nails per month, produced tiny, useless nails. Science is no different.
Description of the documentary:
The American Ruling Class is one of the most unusual films to be made in America in recent years -- both in terms of form and content. The form is a "dramatic-documentary-musical" and the content is our country's most taboo topic: class, power and privilege in our nominally democratic republic.

At bottom the film is a morality tale, the story of two Yale students (played by Harvard men) who seek their opportunities upon graduation. As the renowned essayist, author and longtime Harper's magazine editor Lewis Lapham conducts them through the corridors of power: Pentagon press briefings, the World Economic Forum, philanthropic foundations, Washington law firms, corporations, banks, the Council on Foreign Relations, and New York society dinners--our two representative graduates "one rich and the other not so rich" must struggle with their responsibilities in "a world collaterally damaged by the magic of money and the miracles of science." The real-life luminaries they meet on their journey become characters in a story about power, its responsibilities and abuses.

All the while "the Mighty Wurlitzer" plays on, a reference to the massive propaganda apparatus invented by the CIA's Frank Wisner, here used to signify the nocturnal philosophy of acquisition and imperial hubris which continually calls to the young men, the siren song of careerist myopia that was bred into their bones at school.

As we watch these two young men wend their way through what is only a slight fictionalization of their actual lives and choices, as we meet former Secretaries of State and Defense, directors of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, the publisher of The New York Times, Kurt Vonnegut, Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, Robert Altman and a host of others, we have to ask along with Mr. Lapham: "To what end the genius of the Wall Street banks and the force of the Pentagon's colossal weapons? Where does America discover the wisdom to play with its wonderful toys?" The possible answers move beyond the empty distinction of party affiliation and into the heart of American Oligarchy itself. By film's end, the young men must decide: Should they seek to rule the world, or to save it?

Appearing on the screen are a range of leaders and commentators from across the political spectrum, among them: the late Robert B. Altman, James A. Baker III, Bill Bradley, Harold Brown, Hodding Carter III, William T. Coleman, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Barbara Ehrenreich, Vartan Gregorian, Doug Henwood, Mike Medavoy, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., John Perkins, (a.k.a., the economic hit-man) Samuel Peabody, Pete Seeger, Lawrence H. Summers, Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., William Howard Taft IV, the late Kurt Vonnegut and Howard Zinn.


FredR said...

A while back I mentioned Baltzell's "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia", which I think speaks to this issue. Here's a relevant passage (I hope you'll excuse the length):

"It may very well be a sociological law that class authority and deference democracy tend to characterize homogeneous societies; charismatic authority and defiant democracy, heterogeneous ones. If this is so, it is not the contrasting ethics of elitist Calvinism as against egalitarian Quakerism that made the difference between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania but rather their contrasting ethnic and religious makeups. Nevertheless, ideas and social structures are intricately interacting forces in history. Thus, the ethnic and religious homogeneity of Massachusetts in its founding days reflected the ideas of the Puritan gentlemen and clergy who settled the Bay Colony in order to rule themselves in church and state, just as the religious and ethnic heterogeneity of Pennsylvania represented the ideas of one charismatic and utopian leader who wished to establish a refuge in the New World for his persecuted co-religionists. At the same time and perhaps inadvertently, Penn set the stamp of heterogeneity on his colony forever because of his desire to attract as many colonists as possible in order to maximize the economic returns on his colonial investment. To put it another way, egalitarian ideals and ethnic heterogeneity are mutually reinforcing factors in history that tend to produce materialistic plutocracies, as we Americans should surely understand in our day; authoritarian and deference values militate against the growth of pure plutocracies. Money has always talked in all societies, but aristocratic societies also exhibit deference to class manners and culture; plutocracies are subservient to moneyed elements alone."

Anonymous said...

More like "The American Jewling Class" amirite?

sykes.1 said...

I believe the ruling class is becoming less open to social mobility and more hereditary. The top players in government, finance and business all come from a small number of elite colleges. They marry people from the same colleges, and their go to them, too. Admittedly, there is a strong selection pressure for intelligence at the elite schools, but social considerations govern admissions, too. Note Unz's report on the gross over-representation of Jews at Harvard. All of them are in fact smart, but the statistics of intelligence distribultion among races and ethnic groups and the numbers of individuals in the groups indicates that Jews are over-represented by a factor of 5 or 6. Asians are severely under-represented, as are native whites. So, there is active discrimination in Harvard's admission practices.

What this means is that the current ruling class is consolidating its control via access to the credentials needed to become a member of the class. Social mobility exists, but it is being actively suppressed.

Anonymous said...

According to Sailer, "The American Ruling Class" is comprised of northeastern Yankee WASPs who want open borders:

Anonymous said...

Roissy/Heartiste/Chateau Heartiste writes:

"It’s also not a secret that America is morphing into a 2nd and soon 3rd world dump thanks to the traitorous machinations of our ruling class whose lust for cheap labor and neoPuritan Yankee eagerness to stick it to the wrong kinds of white people has eradicated any semblance of border control against the tide of orcs and dissolved the last stirring of unifying national bonhomie."

Anonymous said...

n/a, I believe you are one of the few bloggers who have challenged the popular belief (as in Sailer's article linked by Anonymous at 8:55) that 'Puritan Yankee WASPs' are the ruling class.

Those original Yankee Puritans in many cases moved out of the Northeast in the mid-19th century, and were replaced by immigrants, many of them Irish, Italian, Portuguese and French-Canadian. I always ask pointedly, when people refer to the WASP ruling class, where are these WASPs? Name names. But nobody ever answers, unless they mutter about the Bushes, who are not all Puritan stock anyway.

The demographics, the racial and ethnic makeup of the Northeast is not all that Anglo-Saxon or Protestant anymore. The Puritans' descendants to a great extent moved out to the Midwest, the Mountain West, and the Far West, hence Utah being one of the states with the most English ancestry. At least before the recent influx of 'refugees' and illegals.

Ellis Island plus modern multiculturalism hash changed New England immeasurably -- shades of Lovecraft's short story 'The Street'. Lovecraft was of the old New England Puritan stock and would be horrified at what is happening, and the ethnic cleansing of his New England.
- VA

Hail said...

VA, it's good to see you. It's too bad about your problems with blogger.

"where are these WASPs?"

I posted about the racial and religious breakdown of the 2012 Vote in the Northeast [New England, NY, and NJ] last year.

I got the data from a 2012 exit-poll survey that recorded, among other things, race and religion of respondents.

Persons who identified as White-Protestants were only 21% of the surveyed voters in New England, NJ, and NY -- which I assume was random and thus roughly representative. (See the link for more specifics.) Note that this 21% would actually be an oversample of actual population, because noncitizens, of course, cannot vote.

Hail said...

Also of note:
In NJ+NY+NewEngland overall, 38% of votes were cast for Romney (reaching a pathetic low of only 12% among Nonwhite voters, and a surprisingly-high 29% among Jews). White-Protestants in those states voted 54% for Romney, which is below the national White average but way above the nonProtestantWhite vote-share for Romney in the Northeast (41-42%).

That is evidence against the "WASP Conspiracy" idea, as if any were needed. It's just preposterous. The Conspiracy is so deep that those evil WASPs are busily subverting White-America yet still vote against Obama.

[T]wo-thirds of the white Freedom Riders who traveled to Mississippi were Jewish. Surely not all in the remaining one-third were WASPs, but there would've been some Catholics and so on, too. White-Protestant "Yankees" may, thus, have been represented in that group not much above their population-share of the time, if at all. Thus...uhh, there is an ethnoreligious angle here, but it's not WASP!

The polling says that White-Protestants are the only ethnoreligious bloc that voted firmly against Obama, even in the solid-Democratic Northeast. That's actual data, not empty sermonizing from Mencius Moldbug.

Somebody in the Sailer thread linked to above said "Yeah, but many of them are 'Country-Club Republicans' who support amnesty". Let's assume this is true (though it is slanderous to wave away "Country Club" members as being representative of White-Protestants, generally). Their grandfathers and great-grandfathers were Racialists. Openly so. If WASPs alive today vote Republican but "support Amnesty", it's logical to presume that it's because they've been displaced by the ethnicity that dominated the 'Freedom Riders', and that the WASPs want to hang onto respectability by (frankly) taking "Jewish" positions, being philo-Semitic, and making criticism of Jews a taboo. I'm reminded of a certain memorable essay, which ended with these words: "Thus America was given a Semitic countenance".

Unknown said...

"these people are predominantly drawn from middle/working class backgrounds"

Yet the US has the most rigid class structure in the developed world.

To the extent that education mediates the elite, selection for elite education and the first job based on short term subjective measures (grades) rather than test scores (as almost every other country does it) and the opaque nature of elite uni admissions (which favors Jews) is ultimately to blame for the mediocrity, obedient conformity, and pushiness of the US elite.

BTW on my Dad's side I do come from fallen "gentry".

n/a said...


"Yet the US has the most rigid class structure in the developed world."

I think claims that, for example, the US has less social mobility than the UK are probably mostly attributable to America's black/hispanic population.

Gregory Clark: "The extraordinarily complete long run mobility of England is likely typical of other western European societies. But other countries, in contrast, do exhibit persistent social classes over hundreds of years. In the US, for example, the Black population has persisted at the bottom of the social order, and the Jewish population at the top. [. . .] Racial, ethnic and religious differences allow long persisting social stratification through the barriers they create to this intermarriage."

Focusing on whites alone, I doubt there's much difference in social mobility between countries. I don't think I disagree with the rest of your post.

FredR, sykes, Anonymous, VA, Hail:

Thanks for the comments. Not ignoring you. I'd intended to respond to some of these issues in separate posts (including the one I owe on "Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia"), but still haven't gotten around to it.

Anonymous said...

"Steve Cohen’s (Allegedly) Corrupt “Information Gathering Machine”"

"When I first met Steve Cohen back in 1999, we were discussing SAC’s vaunted trading strategies, the ones that made his hedge fund one of the most successful in the finance world and burnished Cohen’s rep as one of the world’s best traders.

I said that based on my reporting — I was working for the Wall Street Journal at the time — Cohen started SAC in 1992 with a technique that wasn’t that much different than a day trader: He was trading huge blocks of stock by looking for “teenies,” or small price increments, that he could magnify into massive returns because of the sheer size of his trades.

It was the only time Cohen seemed angered during our discussion, as I recall. “No,” he shot back emphatically, “we employ real trading strategies around here. We do research.” Cohen went on to explain how his firm, SAC, had transformed itself into something much more than a day-trading sweat shop — it was now, he claimed, essentially the biggest and best information gathering machine in the world.

That information machine has now been deemed by the U.S. Department of Justice to be a criminal enterprise. Today’s indictment, filed in Manhattan federal court, of the once mighty hedge fund accuses SAC a multi-year “scheme” to profit from the use of illegal tips—also known as inside information.

It’s interesting to note that, according to prosecutors, the alleged scheme began in 1999—around the time Cohen was boasting of the firm’s new information edge. It’s also interesting to note that while Cohen himself wasn’t charged in the indictment, references to him in the documents are everywhere, which means all those headlines of Cohen himself being “out of the woods” are probably wrong.

In other words, don’t be surprised if you see an indictment of Cohen in the coming weeks as well."

Anonymous said...

"Steve Cohen’s (Allegedly) Corrupt “Information Gathering Machine”"

Steve Cohen is on the Forbes 400, world billionaires, and world's richest Jews lists.

Part of the reason this whole "WASP ruling class" myth persists is that people want to believe that it's true. They want to believe that there a bunch of WASPs out there somewhere in command of the ship of state. They don't want to face the facts and admit to themselves that it's people like Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, and Steve Cohen who comprise the "elites" and "lead" the country because it's just too depressing and horrifying.

Anonymous said...

"OVERSTOCK.COM CEO: Steve Cohen Is Directly Responsible For Corruption That Has Cost Hundreds Of Thousands Of People Their Jobs"

" CEO Patrick Byrne colorfully explained in his own words why he took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal mocking SAC Capital's Steve Cohen yesterday.

"Cohen's life work is being destroyed," he wrote in a note to Business Insider, "I feel good. Shooting SAC Capital dead and throwing all of its employees into the streets is simply civilization scraping some dog--- off its shoe. I felt it was time I spent $100k on a derisive ad in order to say that."

A Federal Grand Jury indicted SAC Capital on charges of insider trading this week after years of investigation.

Meanwhile, since 2005 Byrne has been saying that powerful market actors have been working to destroy his company. In 2010 he identified them as Michael Milken and SAC's Steven Cohen."

"Two years later, e-mails accidentally leaked by lawyers representing a number of Wall Street banks described how the banks were allegedly naked short-selling stock and advising their hedge fund clients on how to do the same.

SAC Capital, as you know, is one massive hedge fund client.

"Eight years ago I was roundly criticized by coming out publicly and saying, in brief: A network of dirty hedge funds were practicing all kinds of dicey practices, including insider trading and naked short selling (and being serial killers of firms in the process)," Byrne wrote. "The SEC was not doing its job protecting our markets because it is a captured regulator, and this combination was destabilizing the system."

He continued: "Also that the mastermind, the Napoleon of crime, so to speak, was someone I initially identified as the "Sith Lord" of all that was evil and wrong on Wall Street. In the months after, I gradually dropped broader and broader public hints that I was talking about Stevie Cohen. Of course, through all of this my claims were spun, ridiculed, and mocked."

If the documents leaked by bank lawyers are any indication, Overstock was not only being ridiculed by the media, but also by insiders at Wall Street banks. Naked short selling (or "failing" a stock) is the practice of shorting a stock that has never actually been borrowed. It's illegal, in part, because creates fake supply of a stock, and in 2005 and 2006 claims naked short-selling created six times the actual supply of its stock in the market."

""Cohen is directly responsible for corruption in our capital markets that has cost hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, their jobs," he said. "Now SAC has been indicted, and Cohen's life work is being destroyed, I feel good: Shooting SAC Capital dead and throwing all of its employees into the streets is simply civilization scraping some dogs--- off its shoe. I felt it was time I spent $100k on a derisive ad in order to say that.""