From Brussels to Washington, the global ruling class is facing an unprecedented revolt. At heart, it is a rebellion against materialism
A recent poll has Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton. Handicapping this horse race is futile, given the volatile American electorate. But the question remains: how can a reality TV “blowhard” with an enlarged, fragile ego, impulse-control problems and bad hair be so close to becoming President of the United States? Some answer that it’s economic hard times for those left behind by globalisation. Others point to income inequality. Still others blame an increasingly minute and punitive political correctness. And of course there’s the omnibus explanation that lots of Americans are racists, homophobic and anti-immigrant.
Each true, perhaps, at least to some extent. Something else is at work, however. Over the past generation, our ruling classes have become increasingly homogeneous and now form a global elite. They present themselves as indispensable technocrats, ensuring global prosperity and protecting human rights. Trump’s unexpected ascendancy, like the shocking Brexit vote and rising populism in some countries in continental Europe, is a vote of no confidence in the ruling class.
What defines this ruling class? Crucially, they are anti-metaphysical: economic analysis, they believe, gets us to the bottom of what’s really going on in human affairs. More than 50 years ago, the University of Chicago economist Gary Becker pioneered economic analysis of social phenomena that, at first glance, seem far removed from the marketplace. He wrote about the economics of racial discrimination and family life. In this work a key anthropological assumption gets made. The essential characteristic of the human person is “preference maximisation”.
In itself, emphasis on preference maximisation captures a deep truth. As St Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee.” His Confessions are, in a sense, accounts of the economy of the God-desiring human heart. However, our global elite prefers preferences that are oriented toward material well-being. Technical expertise concerns that which can be measured. Economic analysis, therefore, ends up reinforcing a reductive materialism. This same is true for the technocratic elite who claim expertise in other areas.
The anti-metaphysical dogma leads to the rhetoric of unmasking. If Northumbrian voters opted to leave the European Union, it is because they resented (wrongly, according to some experts) wage competition from immigrants. Or they suffer from a psychological disorder: xenophobia. It’s difficult for a member of the global elite to formulate in his mind the possibility that someone cherishes patriotic solidarity for its own sake. The anti-metaphysical dogma rules out such desires, just as it rules out a desire to rest in God.
Economics serves as the first philosophy for today’s global elite, so let’s take a look at the central bankers. The chair of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, is an outlier: her PhD is from Yale University. Her predecessor, Ben Bernanke, got his from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where, as an assistant professor, he shared an office with former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, then a visiting scholar. Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, got his PhD from MIT.
With a few exceptions, economists in powerful positions have degrees from five or six US economics departments, all of which teach the now world-dominant consensus developed at MIT after 1960. Perhaps the best term for this consensus – a vexed term, admittedly – is “neo-liberalism.” London’s Institute for Fiscal Studies was an early outpost of this consensus. At lower levels of the global economic elite, educational backgrounds are more diverse, but they too trace their heritage back to neo-liberalism.
A neo-liberal presumes the superior efficiency of free markets and marries this to a further assumption that our understanding of the laws of economics provides tools to expand markets and adjust and regulate them in ways that promote the common good. The remarkable homogeneity of the kind of training which economists in positions of power have received, over the last generation, has globalised neo-liberalism. This means that dogmatic anti-metaphysical beliefs have been globalised too.
So has another belief: the efficacy of expertise, which supersedes political leadership as the key to a more prosperous and just future. Well-trained economists can formulate policies that reduce the extremes of the business cycle, promote economic growth, guide redistribution and generally alleviate the politically volatile dimensions of capitalism that were so destabilising in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The dogma of economic expertise encourages a broader technocratic mentality. The global elite assumes that smart people with the right technical skills are the key to progress. By this way of thinking, the well-trained people are not making political decisions. Technocrats are just bringing society into alignment with the laws of economics and “progress”. Or they are applying legal definitions of human rights arrived at by legitimate international bodies. Or they are implementing therapeutic and multicultural techniques of social management that are value-neutral.
A good example can be found in recent musings by the Yale economist Robert Shiller (another MIT PhD). He argues that our increasingly globalised economic system will eclipse the nation state, ushering in a more just world in which economic benefits will be more evenly distributed. This transformation is not a political project. It is being driven by technological change and the laws of economics (Paul Samuelson’s “factor-price equalisation theorem”). Shiller allows that the inevitable future “still faces strong competition from patriotic impulses”. There’s political work to be done, perhaps, but we only need statesmanship to remove inherited impediments and blunt popular resistance to the emerging empire of utility.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, capitalism in one form or another has become the default assumption. It’s wrong, therefore, to treat anti-establishment sentiment as anti-capitalist. Instead, voters have become sceptical of the dogma that the smart, the well-trained and the credentialed can make life better.
During the first half of the post-war era most people in the West got healthier and richer. Things were getting better all the time. During the past few decades, not so much. The European Union was sold as crucial for maintaining peace – and yet the European Community was impotent in the face of the crisis in Yugoslavia, and the EU may end up unable to maintain Europe’s political stability amid a refugee crisis. It was also sold as the key to renewed economic prosperity, a return to the glorious post-war decades. That promise has not been fulfilled.
In the United States, we went from a technology stock bubble to a housing bubble to what is now nearly a decade of radical experiments in central bank policy without much general prosperity. Over the past three decades, the economic experts have succeeded only in sustaining congenial conditions for the rich.
It hasn’t only been the economic experts who have failed. In Europe, cultural experts sought multicultural harmony. It was to be brought about by carefully designed diversity programmes, therapeutic empathy and affirmative welcome. That doesn’t seem to be working.
In the United States, black Americans are angry and frustrated. Marriage is collapsing and life expectancies are declining for lower-class whites. Elite American universities have become fraught, unhappy environments. All of this is taking place after decades of politically correct cultural experts have talked a lot about empowerment and inclusion.
Neo-liberalism’s technocratic dogma, that experts can make life better for everyone, is being discredited. The economic engineers and multicultural managers are pulling levers with greater and greater urgency, and yet without positive results.
It’s hard to know if technocratic policies truly work. Maybe we would be even worse off, economically, without those MIT-trained economists running our central banks. Perhaps our societies would be even more riven with conflict without the ministrations of the multicultural therapists. Counter-factuals always caution against a rush to judgment.
Which is why I believe it’s the other elite dogma I mentioned – the anti-metaphysical dogma – that provides the more powerful explanation of why our global elite is losing legitimacy.
The populism ascendant throughout the West revolves around concerns about the future of our national projects. It’s not a coincidence that this resurgent nationalism comes in response to the threats Islam poses in Europe. Muslims are not confused about the foundations of society, which they know are legitimated by a still deeper loyalty to the divine. We should be thankful for that clarity. It guides us towards a better understanding of today’s populism, not just in Europe but in the United States: it reflects a desire for loyalty to something higher – and more particular – than the neo-liberal empire of utility.
Faced with this desire, our global elite is at a loss. Robert Shiller accounts for our “patriotic impulses” in the following way. They are “rooted in a social contract among nationals who have paid taxes over the years or performed military service to build or defend what they saw as exclusively theirs”. Patriotism is really nothing more than the impulse to protect one’s investments. He seems unable to imagine patriotism as a natural love, a desire to inherit and pass on a living tradition worthy of self-sacrifice.
Others offer cruder and more derisive explanations of today’s populism. They fall back on familiar tropes: racism, fascism, xenophobia, and so forth. But these slurs follow the same pattern as Shiller’s. All of them are downward-moving, reductive explanations. What was once thought to be a noble sentiment is really mundane, or even malign. Our global elite, trained in the neo-liberal consensus, which is part of a larger post-World War II culture of unmasking, looks below for the true explanation of events. And thus their leadership is always taking us toward a baser, more animal-like existence.
I believe we are heading towards a political and cultural crisis in the West. The most important and perilous political reality of the 21st-century West is a resurgent nationalism. After World War II, for obvious reasons, the West sought to expel from its political imagination the perennial impulse towards strong loyalties and national solidarity. The Cold War delayed the full force of this project. After 1989, it took hold without resistance. This is why neo-liberalism became so dominant, not just as an approach to economic management but also as an overarching vision for social reality as a whole. Now we are rejoining the rest of the world, where an intense loyalty to place, culture, faith and nation is the norm.
As this is occurring, those most credentialed and certified to lead us are worse than useless. The very training that they imagine legitimates their power blinds them. The global elite, which is really an Ameri-centric Western elite and their Western-trained (again, Ameri-centric) clients, cannot grasp the true economics of the soul, which St Augustine described so well. They cannot see that men do not wish to live in an empire of utility overseen by the hearth gods of health, wealth and pleasure. We long for nationalism because we long for something higher and more rooted, nobler and more alive.
The affairs of men are muddy and uncertain, now perhaps more so than at any point in recent decades. Plato knew that. He teaches that we live in a cave, bewitched by the play of shadows we imagine to be reality. Today’s populism participates in deceptions of this sort, and is therefore politically dangerous, as public passions always are. But the spiritual trajectory of Plato’s thought is otherwise than that of today’s global elite. The truths that can purify our confused, even perverted worldly loyalties, are above, not below.
This article first appeared in the October 7 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.