Economics/Class Relations

Do we need a capitalist civil war?

By Joel Kotkin, The Unherd

We Americans like to think of ourselves as a thoroughly modern people — living proof of what, with enough toil and grit, the rest of the free world can one day hope to be. And yet for all our progressivism and idealism, America’s political culture finds itself unable to escape the past. We may be living in a 21st century democracy, but that “democracy” increasingly resembles something that could have been plucked out of feudal Europe or, perhaps more accurately, feudal Japan.

For much of its history, Japanese politics was characterised by conflicts among its ruling daimyo, and later between the great industrial zaibatsu who replaced them as dominant powers. Similarly, America’s politics is now being shaped by a civil war not between classes, but within the ruling capitalist elite.

As the 2022 congressional elections approach, two sides are polishing their armour and fletching their arrows. In one corner stand the daimyo of the gentry corporate elite, largely drawn from the ranks of tech oligarchs and much of Wall Street. Their focus lies in the creation of a capitalist utopia rooted in paternalistic state control, much along the lines of the corporatist “Great Reset”. In the other corner, meanwhile, stand their opponents to the Right, largely made up of those who own private capital and are therefore anxious not to see their activities curbed.

These divisions reflect profound differences in industry, reminiscent of the 19th-century conflicts between aristocratic merchants and British manufacturers, or the one that broke out between the daimyo who embraced industry and those samurai who stubbornly hewed to traditional ways. Drawing on this, the French economist Thomas Piketty aptly divides our capitalist class into what he calls “the Brahmin Left” and the “merchant Right”. One side, as its caste association assumes, tends to see itself as more spiritually enlightened, as priests of the progressive secular religion. The merchant side, however, is more concerned with market competition (particularly from China), the cost of goods, and the impact of regulatory policies on their core businesses.

Today, the Brahmin Left has its base in large corporations and investors, and has allied itself with the academic and media establishments, financing non-profits and generally supporting increasingly intrusive government. By contrast, the merchant Right draws its natural support from the traditional middle class — skilled workers, high-street businesspeople, and small property owners — who also have become the bulwark of the Trumpian Republican Party.

Until recently, these two opposing capitalist groupings have contented themselves with near-peaceful coexistence. But the recent massive hysteria among progressives over Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter could signal the start of a more heated conflict, pitting competitive, market-oriented business interests against the conformist gentry progressivism of so many of the largest firms.

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