The U.S. upper class: Soviet blatnoys in capitalist drag.

One thing quickly learned when studying tyranny (and lesser, more gradual, failures of states and societies such as observed in the contemporary United States) is that the ideological leanings of tyrants are largely superficial. Those are stances taken to win popular support, not sincere moral positions. Beneath the veneer, tyrants are essentially the same, whether fascist, communist, religious, or centrist in nature. Supposedly “right-wing” fascists and Nazis would readily deploy “socialist” innovations such as large public works projects and social welfare programs if it kept society stable in a way they preferred, while the supposedly “communist” elites in the Soviet Union and China were self-protecting, deeply anti-populist, and brutal– not egalitarian or sincerely socialist in the least. The U.S. upper class is a different beast from these and, thus far, less malevolent than the communist or fascist elites (although if they are unchecked, this will change). It probably shares the most in common with the French aristocracy of the late 18th-century, being slightly right-of-center and half-hearted in its authoritarianism, but deeply negligent and self-indulgent. For a more recent comparison, I’m going to point out an obvious and increasing similarity between the “boardroom elite” (of individuals who receive high-positions in established corporations despite no evidence of high talent or hard work) and an unlikely companion: the elite of the Soviet Union.

Consider the Soviet Union. Did political and economic elites disappear when “business” was made illegal? No, not at all. Did the failings of large human organizations suddenly have less of a pernicious effect on human life? No; the opposite occurred. What was outlawed, effectively, was not the corporation (corporate power existed in the government) but small-scale entrepreneurship– a necessary social function. Certainly, elitism and favoritism didn’t go away. Instead, money (which was subject to tight controls) faded in importance in favor of blat, an intangible social commodity describing social connection as well as the peddling of influence and favors. With the money economy hamstrung by capitalism’s illegality, blat became a medium of exchange and a mechanism of bribery. People who were successful at accumulating and using social resources were called blatnoys. The blatnoy elite drove their society into corruption and, ultimately, failure. But… that’s irrelevant to American capitalism, right?

Well, no. Sadly, corporate capitalism is not run by “entrepreneurs” in any sense of the word. Being an entrepreneur is about putting capital at risk to achieve a profit. Someone who gets into an elite college because a Senator owes his parents a favor, spends four years in investment banking getting the best projects because of family contacts, gets into a top business school because his uncle knows disgusting secrets about the dean of admissions, and then is hired into a high position in a smooth-running corporation or private equity firm, is not an entrepreneur. Anything but. That’s a glorified private-sector bureaucrat at best and, at worst, a brazen, parasitic trader of illicit social resources.

There are almost no entrepreneurs in the American upper class. This claim may sound bizarre, but first we must define terms– namely, “upper class”. Rich people are not automatically upper class. Steve Jobs was a billionaire but never entered it; he remained middle-class (in social position, not wealth) his entire life. His children, if they want to enter its lower tier, have a shot. Bill Gates is lower-upper class at best, and has worked very hard to get there. Money alone won’t buy it, and entrepreneurship is (by the standards of the upper class) the least respectable way to acquire wealth. Upper class is about social connections, not wealth or income. It’s important to note that being in the upper class does not require a high income or net worth; it does, however, require the ability to secure a position of high income reliably, because the upper class lifestyle requires (at a minimum) $300,000 after tax, per person, per year.

The wealth of the upper class follows from social connection, and not the other way around. Americans frequently make the mistake of believing (especially when misled on issues related to taxation and social justice) that members of the upper class who earn seven- and eight-digit salaries are scaled-up versions of the $400,000-per-year, upper-middle-class neurosurgeon who has been working intensely since age 4. That’s not the case. The hard-working neurosurgeon and the well-connected parasite are diametric opposites, in fact. They have nothing in common and could not stand to be in the same room together, because their values are too much at odds. The upper class views hard work as risky and therefore a bit undignified. It perpetuates itself because there is a huge amount of excess wealth that has congealed at the apex of society, and it’s relatively easy to exchange money and blat on an informal but immensely pernicious market.

Consider the fine art of politician bribery. The cash-for-votes scenario, as depicted in the movies, is actually very rare. The Bush family did have their their “100k club” when campaign contributions were limited to $1000-per-person, but entering that set required arranging for 100 people to donate the maximum amount. Social effort was required to curry favor, not merely a suitcase full of cash. Moreover, to walk into even the most corrupt politician’s office today offering to exchange $100,000 in cash for voting a certain way would be met with a nasty reception. Most scumbags don’t realize that they’re scumbags, and to make a bribe as overt as that is to call a politician a scumbag. Instead, politicians must be bribed in more subtle manners. Want to own a politician? Throw a party every year in Aspen. Invite up-and-coming journalists just dying to get “sources”. Then invite a few private-equity partners so the politician has a million-dollar “consulting” sinecure waiting if the voters wise up and fire his pasty ass. Invite deans of admissions from elite colleges if he has school-age children. This is an effective strategy for owning (eventually) nearly all of America’s decision makers; but it’s hard to pull off if you don’t own any of them. What I’ve described is the process of earning interest on blat and, if it’s done correctly and without scruples, the accrual can occur rapidly– for people with enough blat to play.

Why is such “blat bribery” so common? It makes sense in the context of the mediocrity of American society. Despite the image of upper management in large corporations as “entrepreneurial”, they’re actually not entrepreneurs at all. They’re not the excellent, the daring, the smartest, or the driven. They’re successful social climbers; that’s all. The dismal and probably terminal mediocrity of American society is a direct result of the fact that (outside of some technological sectors) it is incapable of choosing leaders, so decisions of leadership often come down to who holds the most blat. Those who thrive in corporate so-called capitalism are not entrepreneurs but the “beetle-like” men who thrived in the dystopia described in George Orwell’s 1984.

Speaking of this, what is corporate “capitalism”? It’s neither capitalism nor socialism, but a clever mechanism employed by a parasitic, socially-closed but internally-connected elite to provide the worst of both systems (the fall-flat risk and pain of capitalism, the mediocrity and procedural retardation of socialism) while providing the best (the enormous rewards of capitalism, the cushy safety of socialism) of both for themselves.

These well-fed, lily-livered, intellectually mediocre blatnoys aren’t capitalists or socialists. They’re certainly not entrepreneurs. Why, then, do they adopt the language and image of alpha-male capitalist caricatures more brazen than even Ayn Rand would write? It’s because entrepreneurship is a middle-class virtue. The middle class of the United States (for not bad reasons) still has a lot of faith in capitalism. Upper classes know that they have to seem deserving of their parasitic hyperconsumption, and to present the image of success as perceived by the populace at large. Corporate boardrooms provide the trappings they require for this. If the middle class were to suddenly swing toward communism, these boardroom blatnoys would be wearing red almost immediately.

Sadly, when one views the social and economic elite of the United States, one sees blatnoys quite clearly if one knows where to look for them. Fascists, communists, and the elites of corporate capitalism may have different stated ideologies, but (just as Stephen King expressed that The Stand‘s villain, Randall Flagg, can represent accurately any tyrant) they’re all basically the same guy.

Yes, rich kids already won the career game. Here’s why.

Americans like to believe that the modern workplace, like school, is a meritocracy. Sure, some people have a lot of money and don’t have to work, but Americans prefer to believe that, among those who do work, side-by-side in the same environment, it’s a fair competition. To their chagrin, they observe that their co-workers from wealthy backgrounds advance three times as fast, and wonder what the hell is going on. Why does one person, no more skilled than any of his co-workers, advance so effortlessly because of who his daddy is?

I don’t intend to insinuate that companies or managers are knowingly being elitist. No company or manager would intentionally give favor to one who has already enjoyed so many external advantages, especially if that person’s level of talent did not merit it. People in offices are out for themselves, not trying to preserve (or to combat) the social status quo. Rather, this is a subconscious and irresistible force, and it comes from one root cause: rich kids don’t fear the boss. That’s extremely important.

Consider two analysts at a prestigious financial firm, both 24 years old and of equal drive, intelligence, and talent. One is from a double-income family in suburban Connecticut earning $125,000 per year– a decent sum by average standards, but less than the analysts hope to be making by 26. The other’s father is a hedge fund manager earning $10 million per year. Let’s also assume, for now, that none of their co-workers or managers know either analyst’s family background, except through their behavior. The middle-class kid spends the bulk of his time trying not to offend, not to behave in a way that might jeopardize the job he worked so hard to get and could not easily replace if he lost it. He doesn’t invite himself to meetings, avoids contact with high-ranking executives, and doesn’t offer suggestions when in meetings. Thanks to the fear he experiences on a daily basis, he’s seen as “socially awkward” and “mousy” by higher-ups. Nothing recommends him, and he will not advance.

Middle-class kids generally fuck up their first few years of the career game in one of two ways. Either they fear authority tremendously, which is crippling from a career perspective and renders them devoid of creative energy, or they show an open distaste for managerial authority, described by the wealthy as having a proletarian “chip” on one’s shoulder, and fail to advance on account of the dislike they thus inspire. Even when they are cognitively aware of how to manage authority, the stakes of the career game for a middle-class striver, who will fall into humiliation and possibly poverty if he fails it, are so severe that only the well-trained and steel-nerved few can prevent these calamitously high risks from, at least to some degree, disrupting their game.

The rich kid, on the other hand, relates even to the highest-ranking executives as equals, because he knows that they are his social equals. He’ll answer to them, but with an understanding that his subordination is limited and offered in exchange for mentoring and protection. He views them as partners and colleagues, not judges or potential adversaries. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but most of his bosses like this. (Most bosses aren’t assholes and don’t like to be feared, at all. In fact, they’d be happy to forget that they are bosses.) His career advances fast. He’s “up and coming”. This occurs even if no one has any idea that he’s from a wealthy background.

The rich kid, fearless on account of not needing to keep his job, can effortlessly walk the middle path. He’s neither a cowering weakling who crumbles at the sight of authority, nor an obnoxious brat whose sense of entitlement and dislike for managerial authority limit his progress prematurely. He respects others and himself and has an uncanny air of effortless “coolness” (by which I mean freedom from anxiety) that enables him to actually get things done. It becomes common knowledge that he’s “up-and-coming”, a rising star in his company. Even if his performance is smack-average or somewhat below, his effortless rise will not be deterred. It is assumed. With that advantage, he can concentrate on actually getting work done, yet another uncommon advantage.

This “middle path” between self-defeat and entitled arrogance is narrow– a tightrope, metaphorically speaking. It is, I should note, of equal width and tension for both rich and poor. There is no intentional preference given to one class over the other. The difference is that children of wealth traverse it at a height of one meter over a mattress, while the middle-class and poor traverse it at a height of 20 meters over a lava pit.

Thus, I have described the inevitable advantages the children of wealth hold in the career game. This assumes that there is no knowledge of their economic standing. The rich kid, even when no one knows that he is rich, still wins. He has the right air about him, and the same freedom from anxiety and free-flowing creative energy of a college student because, for him, college (i.e. the time of life in which most middle-class peoples’ lives peak) never ended. His entry-level job is not a place of stress, but a continuation of school; a place where he can learn and grow.

If the employees’ economic situations were known, it might be expected that some advantage would be conferred to the industrious “striver” from the middle class. In practice, this isn’t really true. While the worst scions of wealth, rich brats as seen in documentaries like Born Rich, disgust people and generally negate the advantages conferred by their social capital; the majority of rich kids who are well-behaved and decent are valued more highly when their circumstances are discovered. In practice, one finds that people would rather gain the connections and favors available to the rich than satisfy any small sense of altruism by extending benefits to the hard-working middle and lower classes.

What’s more, the attitude shown to the wealthy in the workplace is one of appreciation. Consider the example above, of two fairly identical analysts in a high-stress financial job, and assume that their familial economic standings are known (as is usually the case). The middle-class analyst is assumed to be there because he likes the money. This doesn’t endear him to anyone, and if he asks his boss why he isn’t getting his way in project allocation or career advancement, he can be given a reply like, “That’s why we pay you the big bucks.” (If he responds justly to that comment and makes its issuer a better person, he’ll be summarily fired and, if this action earns him a reputation, unemployable.)  Such an insulting reply, except with gauche irony, would never be given to his counterpart, if his economic standing were known. By contrast, as it’s known that the rich kid has no need to work, he is appreciated for doing so. He is assumed (unlike the middle-class striver) to have a strong work ethic just because he shows up sober to work every day. He doesn’t have to go over the top to establish that he has a decent work ethic; that he is working at a level of reliability taken for granted from his middle-class counterparts is taken to prove his work ethic and stamina.

This advantage held by the wealthy, more prominent on the East Coast and outside of technology, is nearly impossible to compete against in most companies. I wouldn’t advise a person even to try. “Faking rich” is going to lead a person to seem pathetic and materialistic, not refined and free of anxiety. Moreover, feigning the cavalier attitude toward executive authority that rich kids hold effortless is very dangerous if one lacks the requisite social skills. Overdone, it can lead quickly to the unemployment line.

For the individual, I can offer no personal solution to this deep sociological problem. As far as I know, there’s none. I would advise those who are sufficiently talented to work in technology, which tends to be more meritocratic than other industries, and to avoid old-style business. Beyond that, I know of no solution.

So why did I write this essay, if I can offer no solution? First, it’s because I believe my generation will overthrow the arbitrary and brutal authority of corporate capitalism and bigoted conservatism in favor of rationalistic, libertarian socialism driven by a scientific approach and a concern for universal social justice, and I want to encourage this to happen. If I raise awareness of a defective and unfair situation, perhaps I can encourage people to change it. Second: although this is one of corporate capitalism’s milder flaws, leading a multitude to moderate disappointment but with little-to-no acute danger or loss of life, a rising awareness of the career game’s unfairness might result in less energy wasted, across the whole of society, attempting to ascend the proverbial “corporate ladder”. Establishing that a gambling house provides only rigged games is the first step toward depriving it of players, and therefore setting in motion the first stages of its destruction.