The French nobility, observed Tocqueville in The Ancien Regime and The Revolution, supported many of the writers whose essays and observations ended up threatening “their own rights and even their existence.” Today we see much the same farce repeated, as the world’s richest people line up behind causes that, in the end, could relieve them of their fortunes, if not their heads. In this sense, they could end up serving, in Lenin’s words, as “useful idiots” in their own destruction.
Although they themselves have benefited enormously from the rise of free markets, liberal protection of property rights, and the meritocratic ideal, many among our most well-heeled men and women, even in the United States, have developed a tendency to embrace policies and cultural norms that undermine their own status. This is made worse by their own imperious behavior, graphically revealed in the mortifying college admissions scandal in the United States, where the Hollywood and business elites cheated, bribed, and falsified records to get their own kids into elite colleges.
At the same time, these same people continue to boost their own share of the world’s wealth, as a recent OECD report reveals, largely at the expense of the middle and working class. The embrace of inexorable “globalization”—essentially shifting productive work to developing countries—may appeal to the progressive rich even as it, in the words of geographer Christophe Guilluy, “revived the citadels of Medieval France.”
Sometimes the elite policy agenda is justified as part of a “green” agenda that impoverishes the lower and middle classes by expelling basic industries, thereby boosting housing and energy prices. This in turn has set the stage for the kind of peasant rebellions—from Brexit and Trump to the rise of illiberal regimes in eastern Europe as well as the re-emergence of socialism—that threaten their hegemony.
The Gentrification of the Left
In the twentieth century, most business leaders were predictably conservative. Big money aligned with their class allies in the “party of property.” Conservatives in Britain and Canada, Liberals in Australia, Republicans in America, and Gaullists in France all supported—albeit with significant differences—a basic property rights-oriented regime backed by law. Yet, over the last 20 years, the upper classes have adopted environmental and social agendas that are fundamentally at odds with competitive capitalism and the survival of a vibrant middle class.
Today, many traditional left-wing parties are largely financed by the wealthy and supported by the elite classes in Canada and Australia. Large sections of traditionally conservative parties like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, meanwhile, have evolved to embrace the internationalist and green agenda. Only in Britain, ever the eccentric laggard, has old-style class warfare been revived by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
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Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. He authored The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, published in 2016 by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.