Yves here. For the record, the word plutonomy became part of the lexicon (and may even have been coined) by Citigroup in a series of reports to its asset management clients in 2005. They argued that a world ordered to suit the whims of the top 1% was well underway. The only thing that might get in the way was that the other 99% had the force of numbers on its side. Michael Moore devoted a section of his Capitalism: A Love Story to these documents.
By John Siman
As I reread in his book Hate Inc. Matt Taibbi’s analysis of how the corporate media have worse-than-cynically divided our nation into mutually-despicable but highly profitable demographic silos, and as I await the publication of Thomas Frank’s forthcoming book The People, No!, which will, I believe, be about the grim suppression of Populism in American history, I have been utterly surprised by the sudden appearance — as if out of nowhere — of Krystal Ball and SaagarEnjeti’s delightful YouTube show Rising, which every day now dispenses brilliantly produced, multiple doses of actual Populist conversation. Glenn Greenwald, who Krystal says is one of her heroes, calls it “the super-perky radical trans-ideological 21st-century subversive sequel to the Katie Couric/Matt Lauer Morning Today Show in its heyday minus all that unpleasantness.” The People, Yes!
And, mirabile dictu, Krystal and Saagar’s Rising originates from within the most bubblicious confines of the D.C. bubble— their studio is literally on K Street — how is this even possible? How, that is, can their show even be permitted to air in the 21st-century USA, where next-level corporate control requires, as Taibbi has explained, the manufacture of media products as strictly standardized and aggressively dumbed-down as McDonald’s food products are, and in an eco-system even more deleterious to the nation’s health?
Perhaps Krystal and Saagar’s new right + new left friendship presages the actual rising up of a new Populist movement in the USA, out of the long-awaited ruins of neoliberal oligarchy. Well, that might be too much to hope for, but in any event their appearance on the political scene is good news coming at a time when I, for one, thought that good news had gone extinct.
And to top it all off Krystal and Saagar have just written a book, The Populist’s Guide to 2020: A New Right and New Left are Rising. It’s a collection of thirty-nine of their YouTube essays (twenty written by the nominal Democrat Krystal and nineteen by the nominal Republican Saagar; all thirty-nine were broadcast between last July and this January), with some useful updates and analysis added. Their essays are arranged not chronologically, but according to four rather audacious themes:
Core Rot (the ugly result of the elites’ utter betrayal of the American working class)
Media (why most all Americans hate it)
Identity (understood as a woke intersectionalist weapon effecting societal division)
Theories of Change (Krystal and Saagar really are envisioning a working-class revolution)
Each of these four themes is introduced by a short, insightful, jointly-written essay. The whole thing weighs in at a very lively and readable 243 pages, and it’s a remarkable feat of modern publishing that so many of the essays in the printed-on-paper book had so recently been broadcast on the Internet — about a quarter of them since Thanksgiving. Soon after its launch on February 8, Krystal and Saagar’s book made it into the top ten on Amazon’s list of new releases.
And while their book was selling so briskly on Amazon, their YouTube viewership continued its months-long increase: “Rising” reached 300,000 subscribers in February. (The now-venerable Jimmy Dore Show has about 700,000 subscribers.) “The runaway success of our show and of so many others on YouTube,” they write, “is a direct indictment of the mainstream media” (p. 82).
So then, if we really are witnessing the risingof a new Populist movement, it seems that it will be characterized by media content of sparklingly high production value and remarkably quick turnaround. Leonidas Lafayette Polk and William Jennings Bryan would be duly impressed.
Indeed Krystal is so TV-polished and camera-ready that when I first saw her electronic image on “Rising” a few months ago (I had never seen her in the three years during which she was a co-host on MSNBC), I instinctively assumed that she would be just another plastic mouthpiece of official Neoliberal opinion, another “super-perky” (pace Glenn Greenwald) robot for the National Security State. Saagar, similarly, who is a decade younger than Krystal, presents himself as a very cheerful, very well-adjusted, very well-dressed (awesome ties!) D.C. politics nerd and describes himself as a conservative Trump-supporter who vehemently opposes socialism. And yet, when they come together, they write and say things like this: “The old order will die. It is dying before our eyes. The only question is how long before a new order is born” (p. 23).
They are intellectuals, and they are writing from the gut. Here is a sentence from Saagar’s essay, “My Dire Warning for the American Right”: “[W]e need to turn an eye toward our decrepit city in Washington to highlight just how exactly we got to a point where polling indicates that almost half the American public wants to burn our institutions to the ground” (p. 194).
Both Krystal and Saagar, I should point out here, are fascinated with the mechanics of the New Deal, with all the details of how Franklin Roosevelt was able to engineer a revolutionary transformation of the federal bureaucracy. Krystal, in fact, has written a book in which she envisions a new New Deal, Reversing the Apocalypse: Hijacking the Democratic Party to Save the World, and Saagar gave us a mini-lecture about the insider political genius whom he calls “the chief architect of the New Deal,” Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran. Saagar’s point was to illustrate just how gargantuan a task it is to reinvent government. It’s something he obviously thinks about a lot.
Also salient: Krystal was born and raised and continues to live in — and to commute to K Street from — rural King George County, Virginia. She retains the good manners of someone who grew up in the South. Saagar, the son of immigrants, grew up in College Station, Texas. Flyover country. My point here is that they both have, in real life, rubbed shoulders with actual … deplorables.
And so it is altogether fitting that it is from Krystal and Saagar that I have learned the revolutionary word plutonomy. It looks like plutocracy, like a word from Ancient Greek, but it isn’t. It is, as we shall see, more badass than that.
Back in Ancient Athens, when Plato and Xenophon were recalling how Socrates had described the type of regime in which private wealth determines public power, Plato used the word oligarchy and Xenophon the word plutocracy. Two words, but a single outcome: the rich rule and the poor are disenfranchised. And so Plato in The Republicobserves the fundamental political failure of oligarchy/plutocracy: it causes a city to be divided against itself, into a city of the rich and a city of the poor, which, though they continue to dwell together in the same spot, continuously plot against one another.
And what then becomes of these disenfranchised poor? In The Constitution of the AtheniansAristotle presents us with a worst-case scenario, but a historical one nevertheless:
[In the time before Solon, Aristotle writes] the Athenian regime was in all respects oligarchical, and the poor and their wives and their children were enslaved to the rich, and they were called Dependents and Sixth-part-sharecroppers, for it was under a sixth-part rent that they farmed the fields of the rich — all the land was owned by the rich. And if they ever failed to pay their rents, both they and their children were liable to arrest….
So much for economic plight of the disenfranchised poor — what of the ruling rich, the oligarchs /plutocrats? Well, they get richer and richer of course. And this is why plutonomybecomes for us an essential term of analysis: it denotes the economic arrangements that arise naturally from oligarchic/plutocratic political arrangements.
Plutonomymeans that wealth grows only for the wealthy. It’s the economy of a plutocracy. And so plutonomy is not, as we have seen, an ancient word, but a modern portmanteau word, a fusion of plutocracy + economy.
And Krystal and Saagar describe the dynamic of plutonomy with vividness, as in this passage from their book:
Our entire economy has become increasingly oriented around the special flowers of Richard Florida’s so-called “Creative Class” [Thomas Frank uses the term “Liberal Class”; during our conversation Saagar used the term “Cosmopolitan Class,” and Krystal the term ”Professional/ Managerial Class”; I am old enough to remember “Yuppie Scum”]. These are the lucky, mostly college-educated, types to whom the entire low-wage service community caters: the ones who came mostly from big cities or were identified as “special” in their small towns and put on the college track. They are the Pete Buttigiegs of the world, whose privilege and particular type of intellect gained them access to the elite world and all the stamps of elite privilege that come with it: the people who expect their sustainable [!] sushi to be available at 2 a.m. and for whom an entire army of exhausted and underpaid workers has been marshaled (p. 22).
Michael Hudson describes plutonomy with statistics: “[A]ll the growth in GDP has accrued to the wealthiest 5 Percent since the Obama Recession began in 2008. Obama bailed out the banks instead of the 10 million victimized junk-mortgage holders. The 95 Percent’s share of GDP has shrunk” (The Democrats’ Quandary – In a Struggle Between Oligarchy and Democracy, Something Must Give). The rich get richer, and the poor get uninsured gig jobs serving the rich.
Krystal told me that she learned the word plutonomy in the context of Wall Street, from an analyst who communicated the message: “Look. All the money to be made comes from catering to the plutocrats — with luxury goods, with luxury experiences, with luxury services. That’s where all the money is to be made because no one else has anything.”
She continued: “So our whole economy has become a plutonomy, where you have a small slice of people who are very fortunate, who have their credentials and their ticket to the elite class, and they can get their sushi on demand delivered to them by Uber Eats at 2 a.m., and the whole society is set up to cater to their every whim and desire. And they are the only people who in their workplace and in their life are actually treated like human beings.”
“The Meritocracy,” Saagar interjected.
“The Parasite Class,” I thought to myself.
Krystal resumed: “Which is why I responded so much to Andrew Yang’s message — the core of his message — which was very simple: that everyone deserves to be treated with humanity, like a human being. But that is the opposite of how our economy is structured.”
Plutonomy is so bad that Socrates and Plato and Xenophon and Aristotle didn’t have a word for it.
How in heaven’s name then is it being shoved down America’s throat? One way is by its being sugar-coated with a gooey layer of identity politics, of intersectional wokeness. Krystal and Saagar write:
There is genuine racism, sexism and hatred in this country — bigotry of all kinds. But what animates American politics right now is not a true desire to make America a place free of the systemic legacy of racist and sexist policies: what animates American politics is the desire for elites to cling to power, engage in rent-seeking behavior and hog all the spoils of plutonomyfor themselves. Identity politics is the sop thrown to working class people to keep them in line [italics mine]. It keeps us all running around yelling: “Racist!” and “Sexist!” and “Un-American” at each other rather than noticing the way that we are all united in a shared struggle” (pp. 134-135).
With the phrase “united in a shared struggle” Krystal and Saagarget to the heart of the matter. For the most horrible of the many horrors of identity politics is its rejection of the very possibility of human solidarity. Oligarchy, as Plato described it, was bad enough, for it causes a city to divide against itself, to divide into two hostile factions, but woke identity politics divides and divides again, into as many hostile factions as there are countable identitarian intersections. And so, just as plutonomy arises naturally from oligarchy, so likewise does a truly anti-human viciousness arise from identity politics.
The horrors of identity politics and woke anti-capitalism can perhaps best be fought by means of satire, as Andrew Doyle has been doing with his Twitter character, Titania McGrath, an imaginary “radical intersectionalist poet committed to feminism, social justice and armed peaceful protest.” He and his colleague Douglas Murray are the two greatest heroes of the war against woke in the UK, and I have often wondered who has risen up to their level of moral and intellectual valor here in the USA. In an important way, Krystal and Saagar’s critique of identity politics is even more powerful than Doyle and Murray’s, for while the two Englishmen write from a sensibility that is at its core literary — Doyle has a doctorate in Elizabethan literature from Oxford and Murray wrote a major biography of Oscar Wilde while still an undergraduate there — Krystal and Sagaar have politics in their bone marrow. They are therefore able to analyze the monstrosity that is the woke corporation, to unveil the intersectionof identity politics with plutonomy. “So the big insight I got from your book,” I told them, “is that Woke is the next level of union busting.”
“I agree,” Saagar said, “I think it’s a pernicious attempt — I don’t think it started out this way, [but now] corporations realize that they can buy off key elements of the left by sponsoring critical race theory and identity stuff, and by using that they can basically not answer for any of the structural and economic damage that they have caused to American workers. I don’t think it started out this way … I don’t think these critical race theorists — [for example] I don’t think the founder of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, was ever like, Yeah, I’m gonna get funded by the Shell Corporation, but, because she thinks that race is the fundamental divide amongst Americans, taking that money is fine…. 1619 to me encapsulates all of this: The New York Timestelling a bunch of upper-middle-class white liberals that they’re actually fundamentally racist from the very beginning, and that race in and of itself — and not class — is the primary dividing line in this country.”
Saagar continued: “And what I would say is: — This is the worst possible thing you can actually do to a lot people of color in this country … who are disproportionately affected by class-based policies, which destroy unions, which go after wages. I mean, who do you think is affected when we have union-busted jobs or low-wage work, which is fundamentally catering to an upper class, to a Cosmopolitan Class which is diverse in name only?” (The contrived diversity of what Saagar here calls the “Cosmopolitan Class” is one of Adolph Reed’s most insightful observations — I asked about this, and of course Krystal and Saagar admire Reed’s work, and of course they’ve had him on the show.)
“Yes,” Krystal agreed, “it’s a way to keep the working class divided so they do not accumulate power — because there’s many more of them than there are of the elites. But the Republican Party uses white identity, and the Democratic Party uses: Look, at least we’re not racists like those guys! — to be able to keep people in the tent so they can center the party around the interests of the Professional / Managerial Class.”
Krystal paused and continued: “Identity politics to me means taking something that is real — bigotry — and weaponizing it to maintain the status quo.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Back to Krystal: “To say: Look, if we have a gay millennial mayor, we’ve made progress, even when he’s pushing the same status quo politics. Or — having the first black president. We have made progress. And I don’t want to say that that’s nothing. It is something. It does matter for children to be able to look up and see a black man as our president. But does it really make you feel better if it’s like Kamala Harris prosecuting you as a single parent for your kids being truant or possessing marijuana? Does it matter to you if it’s black woman who did that? No! Personally, my aspirations are much greater than changing the gender ratio or racial makeup of, of — “
“ — of the Fortune 500!” Saagar interjected.
“Great!” Krystal said, and we all laughed, “We have our first female CIA torturer. Fantastic!”
Ha! What fun it is to visit K Street! The People, Yes! When, a year or so ago, I met Thomas Frank at a similarly bubblicious location and told him that I had travelled there from West Virginia, he entertained me with an anecdote about a trip he had once made westward across West Virginia: each time he crossed a mountain ridge, he told me, the only station he could pick up on his car radio would be broadcasting the Rush Limbaugh Show. Then he’d be crossing over the next ridge, and the station would fade out … only to be replaced by a successor station broadcasting the same episode of Rush on the same schedule. So up and down, up and down, again and again, over a couple hundred miles, Thomas Frank was able to listen to an entire episode of Rush Limbaugh virtually uninterrupted from a half a dozen or more West Virginia radio stations, operating a sort of aural relay race.
Maybe the Thomas Frank Phenomenon works in reverse too, for as I headed home from the bubble, before I crossed back over the mountain and into West Virginia, I heard a broadcast of a new NSO recording of Dvořák‘s “New World Symphony.” As I listened I thought of Thomas Frank progressing happily up and down those West Virginia mountains, and then I thought, Yes, I am hearing an intimation of a better post-woke American futureand this future will be like Dvořák‘s music moving seamlessly back and forth between echoes of Beethoven and echoes of old slave spirituals. Dvořák, I was thinking, had seen what could go wrong in America, but he also had seen what could go right: pure beauty set free from social class or caste or race. America was — is — the place where that can happen. Maybe, I thought, Dvořák‘s symphony could be the theme song for a new, a rising Populist movement. A half century ago Neil Armstrong took a recording of it to the moon, you know.