The most important skill necessary for success in our "meritocracy"? Brown-nosing the new aristocrats.
I have taken to telling people that if they want to make a decent living they will need to find a job that serves the rich. It's the smart move in a society such as ours. That's where the money is. And it appears that one needs to apply this principle to all issues in our society. Even the government is getting into the act:
On a crisp morning in late March, an elite group of 100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes filed into a cozy auditorium at the White House.
Their name tags read like a catalog of the country’s wealthiest and most influential clans: Rockefeller, Pritzker, Marriott. They were there for a discreet, invitation-only summit hosted by the Obama administration to find common ground between the public sector and the so-called next-generation philanthropists, many of whom stand to inherit billions in private wealth.
“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.
The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt. His family’s Carlson company, which owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, T.G.I. Friday’s and other brands, is an industry leader in enforcing measures to combat trafficking and involuntary prostitution.
A freshman at Georgetown University, Mr. Gage was among the presenters at a breakout session, titled “Combating Human Trafficking,” that attracted a notable group of his peers. “The person two seats away from me was a Marriott,“ he said. “And when I told her about trafficking, right away she was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I want to do that.’ ”
Justin McAuliffe, a 24-year-old heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, was similarly impressed by the crowd. “Hilton, Marriott and Carlson,” he said. “That is cool.”
The daylong conference was organized by Thomas Kalil, a deputy director for technology and innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, with the help of Nexus, a youth organization based in Washington that seeks to “catalyze” the next generation of billionaire philanthropists and other stakeholders.
Mr. Kalil moved nimbly among the affluent participants and through the ornate halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the summit was held. “A lot of this is not just, you know, collaborations between the administration and philanthropists,” he said, “but philanthropists finding each other, finding other philanthropists with shared interests.”
(Disclosure: Although the event was closed to the media, I was invited by the founders of Nexus, Jonah Wittkamper and Rachel Cohen Gerrol, to report on the conference as a member of the family that started the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical company.)
As in the old days of feudalism, if one wants to do something for the people one must petition the King or whomever the local noble might be to seek the funds to make it happen. It's an interesting American twist that we have the government facilitating the nobility's philanthropic hobbies, but it all adds up to the same thing.
Whenever I read something like this I like to reprise this piece from a decade ago by Phil Agre. It seemed a little bit extreme to some people at the time. I'd guess fewer people think that today:
From the pharaohs of ancient Egypt to the self-regarding thugs of ancient Rome to the glorified warlords of medieval and absolutist Europe, in nearly every urbanized society throughout human history, there have been people who have tried to constitute themselves as an aristocracy. These people and their allies are the conservatives.
It's very nice that many of these young idealistic aristocrats want to do good deeds. But this is really nothing more than good old fashioned noblesse oblige which basically leaves the betterment of man to the whims of rich people. One of the big improvements democracy was supposed to bring was that the people themselves decided how to organize society rather than depending on the kindness of aristocrats. Even great philanthropists of the gilded age like Andrew Carnegie believed in a huge confiscatory tax of great estates in order that the government of the people might make the decisions rather than the heirs of great fortunes.
The tactics of conservatism vary widely by place and time. But the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats.
More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them. Of course this notion sounds bizarre to modern ears, but it is perfectly overt in the writings of leading conservative theorists such as Burke. Democracy, for them, is not about the mechanisms of voting and office-holding. In fact conservatives hold a wide variety of opinions about such secondary formal matters. For conservatives, rather, democracy is a psychological condition. People who believe that the aristocracy rightfully dominates society because of its intrinsic superiority are conservatives; democrats, by contrast, believe that they are of equal social worth. Conservatism is the antithesis of democracy. This has been true for thousands of years.
The defenders of aristocracy represent aristocracy as a natural phenomenon, but in reality it is the most artificial thing on earth. Although one of the goals of every aristocracy is to make its preferred social order seem permanent and timeless, in reality conservatism must be reinvented in every generation. This is true for many reasons, including internal conflicts among the aristocrats; institutional shifts due to climate, markets, or warfare; and ideological gains and losses in the perpetual struggle against democracy.
In some societies the aristocracy is rigid, closed, and stratified, while in others it is more of an aspiration among various fluid and factionalized groups. The situation in the United States right now is toward the latter end of the spectrum. A main goal in life of all aristocrats, however, is to pass on their positions of privilege to their children...
But we're going the wrong way again. So if you have a good idea or want to help people or just need a job --- figure out which of the wealthy young scions of the new aristocracy might be amenable to your needs and figure out a way to kiss their asses in exactly the way they like them kissed. That's the major skill we're all going to need in our so-called "meritocracy".
Update: More from Kathy Geier and Harold Pollack.