The plotline of Charles Dickens’ final and most caustic novel, Our Mutual Friend, revolves around the extravagant dinner parties and post-wedding brunches hosted by a pair of young, ambitious socialites, the Veneerings. Mr. and Mrs. Veneering,
were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London… All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their carriage was new…. They themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby.
The Veneerings are charming but manipulative. They collect friends obsessively, and encourage two of them to marry after misleading each of them about the other’s background. Along with others, they ghoulishly seek to profit from a rich young man’s death. The couple are so warm in their hospitality, at least toward their wealthier and better-connected guests, that one is forced to question their sincerity. The high-born Mr. Twemlow (a first cousin of Lord Snigsworth, no less) finds himself in a state of constant befuddlement as to “whether he was Veneering’s oldest friend, or newest friend.” Twemlow serves as the central fixture of the Veneerings’ parties, like an extendable dining table to which guests are added like leaves: “Sometimes, the table consisted of Twemlow and half a dozen leaves … sometimes, Twemlow was pulled out to his utmost extent of twenty leaves.”
Dickens’ furniture metaphor is a leitmotif of the novel, standing in for characters’ crafting of their own lives and identities. As the narrator says in describing the Veneering home, “all things were in a state of high varnish and polish. And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings — the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky.” Even the hosts’ name alludes to the common Victorian practice of covering cheap furniture made of flimsy woods with boards of cherry or mahogany. The Veneerings’ elegance, like their relationships, is impressive to the eye, but shallow. Hence they bring a shallow, soulless politics to Westminster when Mr. Veneering, for the very reasonable price of 5,000 pounds, buys a seat in Parliament.
A century and a half later, the satire in Our Mutual Friend may seem quaint. Today, an ambitious, upwardly mobile young couple in London, Brooklyn, or Seattle (the rough equivalents of the Veneerings) are unlikely to host large dinner parties, their networking taking place on corporate-owned social media or in cramped urban apartments and bars; staffs of servants are a preserve of the truly rich. In addition, our young couple are unlikely to own a single furnishing even with a cherrywood veneer, much less a solid piece of hardwood — hence the joke of the Veneerings’ name has lost its bite.
On the other hand, the Veneerings’ thinly-veiled manipulation and social climbing today seems so ordinary that it is hard to imagine why Dickens expected his readers to find the young Londoners repugnant. They merely knew, it may seem to many readers today, “how to play the game.” The Veneerings represent a social class — the professional and investing class that arose from Britain’s rising industrial and imperial wealth and that provided the bedrock of the Liberal Party. That class has not disappeared, but has grown and evolved into the white-collar professional and managerial elite that sets the general tone of political and intellectual life in the West.
Suppose for the moment that our young couple of today, roughly parallel to the Veneerings (we will call them, in accordance with the forced informality of modern workplaces, by their first names), Jennifer and Jason, are members of the upper middle class, living off their smarts and social connections rather than manual work. They live in the Sun Belt, in some newly gentrifying neighborhood of Queens, or in its equivalent in Montreal or Melbourne. They have college degrees and, even more importantly, college friends, which help to pull them up the slippery slope of middle-class employment. They are part of a scrambled white-collar workforce, drawn from all parts of the country and abroad, a lumpenbourgeoisie squeezing itself into selected wards of a few expensive cities. They follow trends in food, and music, and long-form television. Their politics are probably (but not definitely) liberal.
Let us further entertain the idea that in our time as in Dickens’, life imitates furniture, and that we will learn something about our young couple if we consider where they house their underwear. If we picture Jennifer and Jason’s bedroom, it is not hard to guess what we would see there: a good deal of IKEA. Their IKEA dressers are probably black or white, or maybe covered in a veneer — something light but earthy, such as birch. Beneath the veneer, however, is not a cheaper wood like local poplar, but particle board — a material that would befuddle Dickens and his contemporaries.
Consider more closely where this IKEA dresser and its underlying substance came from. That story begins at a logging camp somewhere in the world — quite possibly in an illegally harvested old-growth forest in Russia or China. (It is impossible to say exactly, since IKEA has torpedoed laws that would require them to disclose their sources.) The loggers in this mystery forest fell trees of various sorts and pass them on to a logging company that might manage scores of camps. The logging company then sells the trees to a sawmill which gathers material from several dozen logging companies and cuts them into boards. Several sawmills in a region then supply the lumber to a larger board-mill that cuts the wood into even smaller pieces. Small suppliers buy the board from several board-mills and transport a portion of it to large suppliers, which in turn gather and pulverize the various materials in a chemical soup and press it into lighter, cheaper chunks. IKEA then buys this “composite material” to cut into the components of a Malm or Hemnes, sorts it into boxes, and distributes it to over 300 stores around the world, leaving the final assembly to the customers. Even a simple desk or dresser contains, by IKEA’s own admission, at least 26 different species of wood from at least 18 different countries — and usually far more. The result is a sleek but crumbly piece of furniture, sure to camouflage into any new apartment. Jennifer and Jason use their dressers every day without a thought as to the work or the materials that made them.
We must not sneer at Jennifer and Jason, many readers are sure to point out, for choosing IKEA. Their incomes, though high in the global scale, are likely to be lower than their parents’ were, and they often have to move in order to climb the employment ladder. It is only reasonable for them to buy something inexpensive, transportable, and replaceable. IKEA fulfills an important niche in the middle-class market — for cheap furniture that still retains a semblance of respectability. The company has exploited this market to become the global empire that Sweden never had, a kind of Viking revenge on the modern age.
Still, there is a good chance that Jennifer and Jason actually like their IKEA dressers, and prefer them to the old oak chest that their grandparents tried to foist on them. Indeed, the extraordinary popularity of IKEA testifies not only to its convenience but to its ability to appeal to the middle-class self-image. Jennifer and Jason are drawn to IKEA because it reflects who they are: they too are modern, movable, and interchangeable, their wants satisfiable in any neighborhood with a food co-op and a coffee shop. More fundamentally, Jennifer and Jason are untraceable, a “composite material” made from numberless scraps and pieces. They have a long catalog of home towns, and their accents are NPR neutral. They can probably rattle off the various nationalities in their family trees — Dutch, Norwegian, Greek, and Jewish, maybe some Venezuelan or Honduran for a little color. From these backgrounds they retain no more than a humorous word or phrase, a recipe, or an Ellis Island anecdote, if that. They grew up amidst a scramble of white-collar professionals and went to college with a scramble of white-collar professionals’ kids. Their values are defined mainly by mass media, their tastes adorably quirky but never straying too far from their peers’, and like the IKEA furniture that they buy in boxes, they too cut themselves into manageable, packaged pieces and market themselves online. They are probably “spiritual but not religious.” They have no pattern or model of life that bears any relation to the past before the internet. For all intents and purposes, they sprang up de novo in the modern city. Whereas the Veneerings’ high fashion covered over an essential vulgarity, Jennifer’s and Jason’s urbane style masks a hollowness.
It may be tempting to call Jennifer and Jason, and the the group of people whom they represent, “cosmopolitans.” ( And indeed, IKEA, with its vaguely exotic Swedish names, provides a dash of cosmopolitanism on the cheap.) However, Jennifer and Jason are something newer and more bizarre than cosmopolitans: as Ross Douthat aptly pointed out in the wake of the Trump election, the increasingly insulated college-educated classes of the coastal cities do not grapple with real, substantive differences in beliefs and values, associating instead with cliques of like-minded classmates. In addition, classic cosmopolitans seek out what is best in others’ traditions while showing a fierce pride in their own — a Jordanian extolling the majesty of Petra, a Mexican diplomat breaking into lines of Octavio Paz, etc. Westerners like Jennifer and Jason show no such pride or attachment, instead leaping at opportunities to mock the foibles of their native lands.
Conversely, we must also avoid cheap epithets. The word “cosmopolitan” is a double-edged sword – long a shibboleth for worldly sophistication, it has lately turned upon its makers, serving as a political weapon against urban liberals; it is not surprising that a Trump spokesman recently attacked the “cosmopolitan bias” of a journalist who questioned the White House’s immigration policies. There is nothing particularly new or insightful about attacking urbanites tainted by association with the foreign, like the Judean exiles railing against the silken whores of Babylon. Still, as shallow and hackneyed as this rhetorical strategy might be, it packs a populist punch because the very concept of “cosmopolitan” is purely relative: since no one, legally speaking, is a citizen of the world, one can be “cosmopolitan” only in contrast to someone else – a “provincial” in the Victorian terminology, or a “xenophobe” in contemporary talk. In other words, the idea of cosmopolitanism carries an unavoidable subtext of class superiority.
Therefore, to be precise, the class of people of whom I am speaking are “cosmopolitan” neither in the idealized nor in the demonized sense of the word. They neither bridge deep social differences in search of the best in human experience, nor debase themselves with exotic foreign pleasures. Rather, they have no concept of foreignness at all, because they have no native traditions against which to compare. Indeed, the very idea of a life shaped by inherited custom is alien to our young couple. When Jennifer and Jason try to choose a restaurant for dinner, one of them invariably complains, “I don’t want Italian, because I had Italian last night.” It does not occur to them that in Italy, most people have Italian every night. For Jennifer and Jason, cuisines, musical styles, meditative practices, and other long-developed customs are not threads in a comprehensive or enduring way of life, but accessories like cheap sunglasses, to be casually picked up and discarded from day to day. Unmoored, undefined, and unaware of any other way of being, Jennifer and Jason are no one. They are the living equivalents of the particle board that makes up the IKEA dressers and IKEA nightstands next to their IKEA beds. In short, they are IKEA humans.
Of course, many readers might object that I am being too hard on Jennifer and Jason: what is wrong with casting off the burdens of hidebound traditions and living in the present? Some will point out the tolerant attitudes of young college-educated Westerners, who are less racist and homophobic than their forebears. This is commendable, but an incomplete foundation on which to build an ethical life. If one is not attached to a way of life structured by inherited values and customs, then one is unlikely to be attached to anything at all. Jennifer and Jason illustrate this: life choices follow arbitrary taste, friends come and go, ties with family are thin, and superficial interactions (largely online) with peers fill the gap.
Likewise, ethical beliefs and principles hang by a thread, ready to be tossed out or rationalized away. Younger college-educated urbanites might tout their liberal values, but evidence suggests that their deeds do not match their words. Most of the corporate crimes that liberals bemoan, from environmental poisoning to securities fraud, are committed, covered up, and defended by white-collar managers and professionals. A chic, progressive image and a $415 million payoff were more than enough to get Google off the hook for illegal wage suppression. As a friend in the intelligence industry once remarked, all it takes is the low six figures to buy off anyone’s principles — assuming that they put up any resistance to begin with. Moreover, IKEA humans are quick to attack the racism of rural “hicks,” yet studies have shown systematic discrimination in the housing and labor markets, perpetrated by white-collar, college-educated brokers, landlords, and middle managers — in other words, Jennifers and Jason’s peers. (Having a characteristically black first name counts against an applicant on the employment market to about the same degree as a criminal record.) Likewise, in the international realm, IKEA humans might offer lip service to “human rights,” but drone bombings, torture, and “regime change” coups go practically unnoticed, and most of them are forgotten or excused at the soonest political convenience. Note the lack of any prosecutions for American war crimes or financial fraud. Complicity is the rule.
In short, most IKEA humans’ professed liberal tolerance serves as a thin veneer for a lack of principle. Jennifer and Jason are unintentional Nietzcheans — having no core commitments or beliefs, they fall back on the will to power as their motivating principle. In their tastes, the IKEA humans gravitate toward fantasies of “anti-heroes,” power-seeking thugs and manipulators hidden behind a thin veil of gentility — from The Sporanos to Breaking Bad to the epitome of the genre, House of Cards. In reality, obfuscation is their way of life: outside of finance, they are most likely to be employed in marketing or “brand management,” euphemisms for manipulation and propaganda, and even the most honest young professionals operate behind curated online personae.
IKEA itself serves as a fitting symbol of the middle-class masquerade. The company’s well-managed brand obscures the fact that its founder, Ingvar Kamprad, at the time that he founded the store in 1943, was a member of Sweden’s pro-Nazi fascist party, in which he continued to be active at least until 1948 and which he continued to praise for decades after; or that the company used forced prison labor in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is fitting that IKEA’s current worth is unknown, since it is technically owned by a phony-charity shell company incorporated in the Netherlands, enabling Kamprad to evade Swedish taxes. This is not to single out IKEA for particular scorn: one could write an equally lurid laundry list about almost any large corporation; a fascist undertone usually lurks beneath the surface of mass-production and mass-marketing. Consider the fact that Apple uses what is slave labor in all but name in China yet none of their customers seem to care.
Once again, some readers will point out that I am being far too hard on Jennifer and Jason and their peers, many of whom choose idealistic career paths in the arts, “non-profits,” or “NGOs.” Indeed we must avoid being overly harsh; the typical habits and personalities of IKEA humans are necessary adaptations to our conditions. Over the past five hundred years, village, clan, tribal, and sectarian communities have broken down under the onslaught of long-distance trade and urbanization. Commerce and industry offer material wealth at the price of social dislocation and inequality. Even unions are decimated and the voluntaristic and fraternal associations so popular in the 20th century, from the Masons to Hadassah, are drastically reduced. The sterile suburbs and cookie-cutter urban condos are the habitiats where IKEA thrives. In such an environment, superficiality, lack of attachment, narcissism, and anxiety are almost unavoidable responses. The truth is that one cannot escape being an IKEA human, any more than an IKEA dresser can change what it is. The question is only what one makes of the situation.
One morning in February, 1972, an unstable dam created by Pittston Coal Company in West Virginia broke, unleashing a flood of black wastewater on the valley below, known as Buffalo Creek. The deluge leveled entire villages and killed 125 people. The sociologist Kai Erikson, in his book Everything in its Path, observed that Buffalo Creek survivors remained traumatized for years after the flood — distant, surly, and anxious — not simply because the flood was horrifying but because the state scattered survivors into mobile-home tracts without regard to previous connections; town and neighborhood communities were never reassembled. (In the same vein, Sebastian Junger observes in Tribe that so many American veterans suffer to the point of suicide not because wars are traumatic, but because soldiers are cast out of the tight-knit community of the platoon into an atomized, individualist society.) In the conclusion to Everything in Its Path, Erikson observes that all of modern American society is a bit like Buffalo Creek, as attention deficit and anxiety disorders afflict dislocated individuals.
On the other hand, the other widely-read book on the flood of 1972, Gerald Stern’s The Buffalo Creek Disaster, presents a triumphal narrative of the flood survivors’ class-action lawsuit against Pittston Coal. Stern, one of the attorneys in the case, downplays the fact that the suit resulted in a small settlement providing only $13,000 per plaintiff after legal costs. Nor does he note the continuing psychological devastation in the valley. Stern’s book is typical of the mindset of white-collar professionals, for whom lawyers are heroes, litigation replaces political struggle, and any problem can be solved with a monetary payoff.
Erikson’s and Stern’s divergent responses to Buffalo Creek reflect the differing effects of modern social dislocation: some are traumatized and fall into despair, while others grasp for an advantage. “Disruption” is the new buzzword as white-collar workers and professionals are trained, like Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger, to look for an opportunity in chaos. The most venal and self-centered rise to the top; sociopaths are champions. The IKEA personality — cheeky, smug, and capricious, concealing a narcissistic quest for status —is the best adapted to the times. In the cities, college-educated professionals flock into destabilized neighborhoods, giving shape to the familiar archetype of the “gentrifier.” Many observers have pointed out the self-obsession common to the millennial generation, while the venture capitalist Bruce Gibney, one of the founders of PayPal, calls American baby-boomers “a generation of sociopaths” for their reckless self-indulgence at the expense of the nation. In both cases, generational animosity serves to distract from the real root of the problem, which is class: at least since the Victorian age, if not longer, as traditional social bonds and duties collapse, the affluent among us have become craven and self-serving.
Can the trend reverse? Certainly, many young professionals are aware of and dissatisfied with their social isolation. There is a good chance that Jennifer and Jason have gone in search of “community” and “identity,” two watch-words of the rising middle class. Perhaps they have joined a yoga or knitting group or an activist organization. These are perfectly harmless responses, but are unlikely to achieve much so long as Jennifer and Jason fail to see that “community” and “identity” are hollow, neutral categories (the words, at base, simply mean “group of people” and “label”), to which we attach our unsatisfied need for belonging. In fact, what we call communities and identities are merely epiphenomena: they are the results, not the causes, of people joining together to cooperate in pursuit of common goals. The most basic such goal is simple survival, the pursuit of which cements the most elementary tribe and clan communities. Other historical groups, ranging from monasteries to labor unions, pursue more tailored visions of what is good and desirable in life; all of them involve individuals’ surrender of some degree of freedom and their commitment to a collective project that spans through time. Through such commitments we have the chance to contribute to something greater than can be achieved in a single lifetime. Identities, at root, are simply labels for those who have made such commitments. In other words, individualism must always be balanced against community. We cannot have our cake and eat it too; modern communities will remain weak and transitory until we are willing to commit to ideas and people with whom we sometimes disagree — the true test of “tolerance.”
Modern mass politics in the West are mainly an expression of the IKEA personality. Politics have become a major white-collar industry involving marketing, advertising, and fundraising. Its practitioners hoover up billions in government and donor money — four out of the five wealthiest counties in the United States are in the Washington area — and like all of the upper middle class, political professionals will go to great lengths to protect their interests while denying their mercenary motives. The IKEA class does not exactly constitute the “ruling class” in the West — that title belongs more properly to a small cadre of billionaire magnates and their families — but like any good middle class, they imitate the tastes and values of their betters. Only an IKEA human could argue with a straight face that a political practitioner can solicit millions in donations and fees from patrons without being biased or influenced by them. Such fairy tales fail to persuade anyone outside of the upper middle class (the donors, for their part, clearly give them no credence) yet they persist because they serve as a comforting lie for the upper middle class to tell itself. Hence, in 2013, the governor of Wisconsin could reassure a major donor (in fact a journalist posing as one of the Koch brothers) that he intended to lie to state legislators in order to trick them into opening a legislative session in which he would ram through the donor’s favored policies.
The manipulative habits of the upper middle class set the tone for politics in America and much of Europe regardless of party. While it is true that the lion’s share of the modern upper middle class (as in Dickens’ London) are liberals, we must first note that not all of them are — some are conservative, some libertarian, some are left-wingers of various sorts, and some apolitical. What unites the upper middle class in terms of politics is not adherence to a single party or a single professed philosophy, but a combination of technocratic elitism, ruthlessness, and deceit, all of which are cultivated in the prestigious universities. It is on the elite campuses that habits of entitlement are instilled, regional accents ironed out, social and monetary rewards promised, and political alliances forged. Two of the leading goons in Nixon’s “Plumbers,” Colson and Hunt, who plotted burglaries, were fellow graduates of my alma mater, Brown University, long considered the most “liberal” of the Ivy Leagues. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that Brown was (and to some degree still is) a major recruiting ground for the CIA, a bloated and unchecked spy agency that has long tapped hip young graduates to join a campaign of sabotage, kidnapping, and murder against foreign states that challenge American dominance. Anthony Scaramucci, who caused such a furor with his vulgar tirades against White House leakers, is a graduate of Harvard Law. His former boss is a graduate of U. Penn’s Wharton business school, the most prestigious in the country.
In the same vein, elite universities have produced a small army of right-wing pundits like Ann Coulter (Cornell) and neo-fascists like Richard Spencer (UVA and U. of Chicago), who cut their teeth by acting as foils to prevailing liberal orthodoxies. While they profess differing political views, these cartoon villains spring from the same white-collar class with the same rhetorical style and mindset as their liberal peers, enabling them to carry out the continuing mock battles of left and right.
Once more, some readers will object that the parade of horribles I just mentioned are the exceptions — most well-educated men and women absorb tolerant, enlightened attitudes from their upbringing. This seems to be true at least insofar as in Western democracies, education correlates with professed liberal beliefs and voting habits. What does this mean, however, substantively speaking? What is the liberalism that so many young white-collar urbanites take up, and what purpose does it serve?
Today, the phrase “liberal elite” is almost unavoidable in discussing the universities and the media. The phrase calls to mind shallow stereotypes of effete academics, but it contains a grain of truth. The mainstream liberalism that currently dominates the Democratic Party in the U.S., the Parliamentary Labour Party in Britain, the Socialists in France, and other ostensibly center-left parties in the West represents the mentality of the professional-managerial class — which is in turn the product of many years of social scrambling and dislocation. The American historian Thomas Frank has traced how the affluent white-collar faction, based at that time in the suburbs, consciously took over the Democratic Party beginning in the 1970s. The party’s new base of support among the “coalition of the ascendant” enabled them, through Congress and the Clinton administration, to undermine unions, lower trade barriers, de-regulate the media and finance, slash the welfare state, and swell the prison population; Social Security only narrowly escaped Clinton’s plan to privatize it thanks to the distraction of the Lewinsky scandal. In addition, the party rejects any attempt to redress economic inequality, which used to be its raison d’etre. This is not to mention the ballooning of the military budget and obsessive involvement in conflicts overseas, both of which reached their peak in the Obama years. The great accomplishment of the Democratic Party in the past forty years is its success in pursuing so many longstanding conservative goals under a center-left guise.
In short, contemporary “liberalism” has come full circle, returning to basically the same meaning that it bore in the Victorian age: a high value on personal freedom and the market, support for empire, and large-scale government spending in such cases as it benefits the professional or business class. Contemporary liberals occasionally pay lip service to socialist policies, but immediately disavow them as “unrealistic.” It is remarkable that our political conversation has again resolved into a contest of “liberal” and “conservative,” just as in Victorian Britain, with liberalism serving as the preferred philosophy of the professional and managerial elite and the working class effectively disenfranchised.
It is not surprising that the Democratic Party, the hired representatives of the upper middle class, has become a party of lawyers. Whereas lawyers once were commonly despised for their insincerity and mercenary character — colonials observed with disgust how small-town attorneys, for an ample fee, would argue both sides of a case — they are now the heroes of the upper middle class. Eight out of the past nine presidential nominees of the Democratic Party have been lawyers (the one exception being Gore, who dropped out of Vanderbilt Law). Six of them received their law degrees at Yale or Harvard. The lawyerly habits of distraction and concealment serve to advance the power interests of the liberal class, and their election, like the Veneerings’, serves to affirm their social status.
Modern liberals have masked this elite takeover of leftist parties mainly by posing as champions of minorities and other disadvantaged groups. How many Americans have been taught the mythology of To Kill a Mockingbird — that the upper middle class, exemplified by lawyers, bravely defends minorities against the attacks of the inbred lower orders — when in fact the lynch mobs were often led by middle-class professionals? Just as the NSA, a secretive bureaucracy that has violated the Constitution by spying on all Americans and lied to Congress about doing so, pastes a picture of three smiling black female employees on the homepage of its website, so the universities, corporations, and political machines justify the existence of a privileged elite by offering a few places in it to women or minorities. Constant appeals to “diversity” in colleges and hiring serve to rationalize social inequality, on the grounds that class hierarchy is acceptable so long as the upper classes include a representative ethnic sampling.
Anyone who has worked at a university in the past twenty years has seen this class ideology cultivated and articulated with a new intensity, in the form of what we sometimes call “identity liberalism.” On the one hand, political discussion at the universities centers on labeling and symbolism. Post-structuralism, though somewhat out of fashion, leaves a lingering effect, teaching that no reality exists beyond symbolic representation; society is only a masquerade. On the other hand, aspiring white-collar professionals mask their status by posing as protectors of victimized minorities. The two strategies converge in an obsession with demographic labels. Speech taboos multiply: “Latino,” “disabled,” “he or she,” and innumerable other words and phrases are banished in quick succession from the confines of polite speech; a non-college-educated bystander has no chance of keeping up. The ancient Greeks equated proper language with civilization, and still today, “barbarism” denotes at once both uncivilized brutality and improper word construction; correct utterances serve as markers of moral character and respectability, and speech taboos shape power and status contests. Several years ago, Brandeis University disciplined a professor of Latin American politics for defining and explaining the history of the derogatory slur, “wetbacks” — apparently the mere utterance of the word constituted “racial harassment.”
It is significant, though, that the speech taboos of the modern educated class constrict the names for every conceivable social group except for class—whereas archaic names and epithets for blacks or gays have been cast into the outer darkness, “white trash,” “redneck,” “hick,” and “hillbilly” remain acceptable, if rather slangy. The liberal obsession with speech regulation serves to reinforce, not to break down class distinctions.
The new liberal obsession with language and demographic symbolism serves as a source of legitimation. In 23 B.C., as the Roman empire consolidated its control over the Mediterranean world, the emperor Augustus propounded the Lex Julia, a series of laws severely punishing adultery and fornication and constricting access to divorce. Augustus needed to cultivate a virtuous image of the Roman upper class in order to justify their newfound power over so many foreign peoples. Similarly, as Britain rose to industrial and imperial primacy in the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria strictly enforced sexual mores at her court and inspired the growing middle class to cover their bodies, banish sex from polite discussion, and build a penal-medical industry to suppress taboo desires. (Only in the 1840s and 1850s did Britain enact its first laws prohibiting obscenity and prostitution, which were previously legal.) The contemporary West, led by America, is already too far past the sexual revolution for any such shenanigans, but instead, stringent reforms of acceptable speech allow the upper middle class to demonstrate their collective virtue and to suppress doubts about their entitlement to wealth and power. Hence liberal pundits deflect criticism of former President Obama for accepting enormous speaking fees from businesses that benefited from his policies by accusing the critics of racism. At the same time, attacks on signs of other social prejudices apart from class reinforce the notion that society is structurally fair and meritocratic, and will be perfect if only a few outmoded prejudices can be dislodged. Hence, as recent events at Princeton suggest, it is perfectly acceptable for a university building to house research funded by war profiteers and fossil fuels, so long as the building does not bear a racist person’s name.
The sincerity of the liberal concern for minorities is called into question by their general indifference to substantive problems in favor of symbolic issues. Liberal activists appear unconcerned that slavery is still widely practiced and that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history, including about 60,000 in the United States, so long as slavery is not depicted in a prospective cable television show. Likewise, the CEO of Uber was recently forced to resign in disgrace not because his business model exploits vulnerable workers to undermine unions and destroy an honorable blue-collar profession, but because he made a sexist joke to Arianna Huffington.
A large part of the growing animus directed toward liberals stems from the fact that, as Hannah Arendt noted, hypocrisy ranks above injustice among the crimes that enrage the public. Racism and blind prejudice are insufficient as an explanation for the growing hatred of liberal elites — this is the convenient shelter for the liberal conscience. Rather, many white liberal politicians and commentators are more intensely hated than are their minority colleagues (Barack Obama remains comparatively popular, for instance, despite the blind fury of the right wing). Whatever the merits of their policy positions, liberals embody the obfuscation and strategic moral posturing of modern politics and more broadly, the IKEA class. The anger grows because the mask is wearing thin.
A great deal has been and can be said about the American presidential election last year. Endless commentary has grappled with the question of why Americans voted for Trump; very little with the question of why slightly more of them voted for Hillary Clinton. Of course, individuals voted for Secretary Clinton for a variety of reasons—among them, that they considered almost anyone preferable to Trump. Nonetheless, we must consider the motives of Clinton’s strong supporters: why did a cadre of about one fifth of the population enthusiastically back Mrs. Clinton, carrying her through the primary and buoying her popular vote, even though in general, she was the most disliked and distrusted candidate the Democratic Party ever nominated? Clinton’s sex certainly excited many who embraced the prospect of a female president, but her campaign performed surprisingly poorly among women, garnering only 54 percent of the female vote.
Instead, the only demographic group among whom Hillary Clinton performed better than Obama did in 2012 is college-educated whites. This should not be surprising, considering that Clinton is the personification of the IKEA class; her strongest supporters chose her for the same reason that they choose furniture – because she reflects who they are. Hailing from Chicago by way of Arkansas by way of Washington by way of Chappaqua, she speaks in a flat, unidentifiable accent; her inoffensive wardrobe, her vague, lawyerly language, and her city-hopping career reflect her voters’ uprooted, mobile lives. Studies found that those who had moved away from their childhood hometown were significantly more likely to vote for Clinton last year than those who had remained.
Clinton herself embodies the upper middle class self-image as smart and ruthless operators who “know how to work the system.” Her intelligence and qualifications seem to place her above petty concerns like honesty or ethics. In the 1980s, Clinton used, like IKEA, unpaid prison labor in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, and evinces no moral misgivings about it. Clinton’s own assertion that she “knows how to get things done” echoes Richard Nixon’s comment that Charles Colson’s “instinct for the political jugular and ability to get things done” made him invaluable; the Clintons reportedly keep an enemies list like the one that Colson compiled for Nixon. Duplicity is her avowed strategy: “you need to have both a public and a private position,” she told a lobbying group for the apartment industry, thus confirming Michelle Alexander’s diagnosis that most politicians seek “to serve two masters — the people who elect them, and then the people who fund them.” Repeatedly, Clinton has claimed to support popular socialist policies while simultaneously arguing against them. A corporate lawyer who met her partner at Yale, served on the board of Wal-Mart, and raised hundreds of millions on Wall Street, yet retains the saintly odor of her single year with a civil-rights non-profit, Clinton is well practiced at hiding motives and interests behind a tableau of identity politics. When rivals pointed to the danger of over-large banks, she deflected by asking, “If we break up the big banks tomorrow — would that end racism? Would that end sexism?”
It is widely acknowledged that Clinton is “divisive” — yet Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen, journalists who have co-written two books on Mrs. Clinton, have observed that people across the political spectrum in fact see the same Hillary Clinton. In other words, the same history and personality that disgust some observers attract others; her strongest supporters embraced her not despite her more unsavory qualities, but because of them. Her campaign focused, despite the candidate’s broad unpopularity, on her persona, emblazoning “I’m With Her” on signs and swag and touting her impressive resume and Washington insider knowledge. Moreover, Clinton’s criticisms of her opponent were overwhelmingly personal — analyses have shown that a larger portion of her campaign ads were negative attacks devoid of references to policy than in any other modern national campaign. Her attacks and liberals’ vitriolic, personal opposition to Trump (however justified they may be) reflect the fact that their differences with Trump are less substantive than stylistic. In fact, with regard to trade and foreign policy, Trump ran to the left of Clinton. Trump is so infuriating to liberals mainly because he refuses to wear the mask of enlightened tolerance that social respectability requires.
Nonetheless, to her strongest supporters, Secretary Clinton represented much more than just a capable politician. As Peter Daou, a Democratic campaign strategist, recently wrote in explaining his fierce loyalty to Clinton, “Lots of people don’t get that ‘Hillary’ is not just about a person at this point, but the worldview that binds her voters together.” The worldview to which Daou alludes is far from clear, but it seems to reflect the aspirations of a technocratic class, which hopes to reform society through a partnership of government and business. The technocrats that run the Democratic Party today aspire to guide the United States into a futuristic, global corporate-commercial order in which regional and national loyalties melt away, as they do among the smart, urbane officers captaining the Enterprise on “Star Trek.” As Clinton told a Brazilian bank, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders.” For all the benefits of free trade, anyone today can see the severe dislocation of local economies that it tends to bring in its wake. Democrats like Clinton are not only indifferent to such disruption, but like the new corporate vanguard, and like Gerald Stern with regard to the Buffalo Creek disaster, they seek to profit from it twice over — by grabbing a share of the material benefits while posing as the champions of its victims. Liberal philanthropists’ (including the Clinton Foundation’s) love affair with “micro-finance,” which serves mainly to create a vast new class of third-world debtors, is a recent manifestation.
Secretary Clinton is to be congratulated for her impressive showing in last year’s election and her garnering of the plurality of her fellow Americans’ votes. Still, the liberal class’ failure to manipulate the electoral system cleverly enough to defeat Donald Trump discredits their claim to technocratic smarts. Mrs. Clinton and her allies should take her defeat as an invitation to leave the public stage as soon as possible. Clinton’s recent creation of a super-pac led by Jim Messina, the same Democratic operative that banished the public option from the recent healthcare debate and that worked for Britain’s Conservative Party in this year’s election, is not a promising sign. Neither is the growing effort to promote Mark Zuckerberg, a billionaire magnate who founded his company on deceit and theft, as another future candidate.
This is not a time for liberals to re-brand or regroup. Regardless of Clinton’s or Zuckerberg’s ambitions, it is time for the liberal masquerade to end. None of the social problems facing modern, mobile society can be tackled so long as the IKEA class, so bereft of integrity or core principles, seeks to hold onto power in its own self-interest. The familiar liberal evasions and the vague platitudes about “values” will no longer do. Nobody is fooled. The Veneerings, in Dickens’ novel, quietly retire to Calais after Mr. Veneering resigns from Parliament; soon after, the narrator assures us, society realizes, “that it always did despise Veneering, and distrust Veneering.” The Veneerings of today should take the hint and bow out of politics graciously while they still can.
Their liberal supporters, meanwhile, must take a long, unsparing look in the mirror. Those of us in the college-educated middle class face an unusual dilemma — being nobody, we must invent ourselves partly through the political commitments and duties we take up. It is time to decide where our loyalties truly lie (in particular, whether with those above us or below us on the social scale), and by extension, who we are. A strong and enduring civilization requires citizens willing to state their core principles and to argue openly for their vision of the good society. That entails a frank and honest contest over how power and resources should be allocated in our world. Some, of course, will opt to pursue naked self-interest – in which case, let them be unmasked for all to see. The rest of us must aspire to be citizens before we can then claim to be fully human.
Samuel Biagetti grew up in Maryland and received a PhD in early American history from Columbia University in 2015. He has had articles published in Early American Studies and the Journal of Caribbean History. He lives in New England, where he co-runs a small art and antique dealership, Labyrinth Antiques, and produces a podcast, “Historiansplaining.”