Camouflaged Elites

Camouflaged Elites, by Victor Davis Hanson.

Even in the mostly egalitarian city-states of relatively poor classical Greece, the wealthy were readily identifiable. A man of privilege was easy to spot by his remarkable possession of a horse, the fine quality of his tunic, or by his mastery of Greek syntax and vocabulary. …

Throughout history, the elite in most of the Western world were easy to distinguish. Visible class distinctions characterized ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, the Paris of the nineteenth century, and the major cities of twentieth century America.

A variety of recent social trends and revolutionary economic breakthroughs have blurred the line separating the elite from the masses.

First, the cultural revolution of the 1960s made it cool for everyone to dress sloppily and to talk with slang and profanity. Levis, T-shirts, and sneakers became the hip American uniform, a way of superficially equalizing the unequal. Contrived informality radiated the veneer of class solidarity. Multimillionaires like Bruce Springsteen and Bono appear indistinguishable from welders on the street.

The locus classicus is perhaps Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg, who wears T-shirts, jeans, and flip flops to work. …

Second, technology has done its part to dilute superficial class distinctions. The nineteenth-century gap between a rich man in his fine carriage — with footman and driver — and someone walking three miles to work has disappeared. The driving experience between a $20,000 Kia bought on credit with $1,000 down and a $80,0000 Mercedes paid in cash is mostly reduced to the superficial logo on the hood and trunk. …

For a hundred dollars, a man can go into Wal-Mart, buy Chinese-made slacks, a dress shirt, tie, and shoes, and look basically like a Wall Street investor with an ostensibly similar $10,000 imported Italian wardrobe. Brand names, and not always quality, are what we pay for.

Third, the classes often live their lives in close quarters to one another. Walk a Manhattan sidewalk, and try to guess who has a credit line of $10 million and who has one of zero. Take a transcontinental business class flight — who paid $5,000 for it and who saved up his frequent flyer miles for a year to travel in style? The guy in the jogging outfit and the girl in a business suit have no real clue of where the other falls in the social hierarchy. …

Over the last three decades, technological breakthroughs have rendered old Marxist theories of endless class struggle somewhat stale. Consider how smartphones give someone on public assistance infinitely more access to global knowledge and entertainment than did the million-dollar mainframe of a few decades ago. Consider that even the poorest in public housing have hot water and a refrigerator — and that their water is just as hot and their fridges just as cool as the water and fridges in a fancy Upper West Side apartment building. The vast majority of Americans take for granted access to clean water, electronics, cheap food and clothing, and shelter. For most of human history, securing such goods was the major challenge of being alive. That’s no longer the case. …

Visible class distinctions of the past were a result of pride in achievement and old-fashioned snobbery. But their practical effect was to warn that the interests and agendas of the elite were not always the same as those of the public. Today’s billionaire hipsters blur these ancient distinctions. But just because a Master of the Universe looks like us does not mean that his dogged pursuit of tax exemptions, offshoring and outsourcing, and vertically integrated monopolies is in our interest.