Are Liberal Elites Destroying Democracy?
on 'The 9.9 Percent', by Matthew Stewart
In the late summer of 2011, the world saw one of the largest and most spontaneous democratic uprisings in modern history. Spreading from an encampment in New York’s Zuccotti Park to marches and protests across the globe, by the end of the year the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement had sprung up in 82 countries and 951 cities across the world. In a movement focused on the massive global rise in economic inequality, the animating slogan that could be heard among protestors from Bristol, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, to Yerevan was this; “We are the 99%!”. It was a radical challenge to the ultra-rich across the globe. The ramifications of the arguments from this movement are still being felt today.
While it’s the American 1% of billionaires, tech-titans, and oligarchs that have been cast as the ‘enemy’ of democracy and equality by figures such as the Anthropologist David Graeber and economist Joseph Stiglitz, there’s been a gradual shift in the focus of fury. What if, instead of the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks of the world, the real problem was much broader, and holding a fair-trade macchiato while eating avocado toast?
This thought seems to really be the thrust of Matthew Stewart’s recent book, ‘The 9.9 Percent.’ In his work, Stewart proposes that there’s a ‘new aristocracy’ in the United States – one comprised of the second-highest tier of national earners, sitting just below a top 0.1 percent made up of people like Bill Gates, George Soros, and Warren Buffett. To him, the 9.9 percent is a class of business professionals, managers, doctors, lawyers, financial consultants, and the like. But for him it’s more than a class; it’s a mindset. It’s a culture that holds rigidly to the ideas of ‘merit’, academic prestige, and ‘professionalism’, and believes that the reins of politics and culture should be in the hands of anointed ‘experts’ in any given field.
His book takes us across the American landscape – from housing to childcare, healthcare to higher education. At all points, he re-hashes a standard (and true) narrative on the collapse of the middle and working classes; it’s things like higher-ed tuition that has tripled since 1989, $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, the loss of home-ownership as a realizable goal for many families, the highest rates of ‘deaths of despair’ since the Great Depression, and stagnant wages for workers across the board – which corresponds neatly with a downhill decline in labor union membership.
But that 9.9 percent – what’s happening to them? Against the backdrop of rising inequality, Stewart contends that this new aristocracy is doing everything in its power to stay afloat – and by consequence, drowning everyone else. For him, it’s the 9.9 percent who are pricing and gentrifying locals out of neighborhoods, doling out at times hundreds-of-thousands of dollars on nannies and tutors, and segregating themselves behind the perfectly-manicured white and upper-class communities that they know are the perfect launching pads for the right schools, the right elite educations, and then the right careers at places such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey.
If this archetype sounds personally familiar to you, then congratulations! You’re probably his audience! And you might just be in the same class as Matthew, too! Throughout his book, Stewart’s very persistent in mentioning how he has to use ‘we’ when discussing the 9.9 percent. He’s a member of the class, and it’s very likely that you are too. That’s not a knock on him. Or, on you! On the contrary, it’s perfectly fine, and actually fruitful for, I imagine, getting the most out of this book.
I picked up this book in the library because I figured it could be a novel, unique approach to understanding how to end inequality as we know it. Truthfully, this isn’t that. It actually has very little do to with inequality, or how it impacts and warps people’s lives. Occasionally, he trods out the people in the underclasses who are suffering the most; single mothers, young people of color, the thousands withering and dying from Covid. But it’s not really about them. In the scope of his book, the struggling-people feel like show pieces, and after-thoughts. He has a different kind of story that he wants to tell. He is concerned with inequality not because the 9.9 percent may have some real role in ending it, or that inequality in itself is somehow morally wrong, but because, if left untreated, inequality will do something possibly even worse; it will destroy the 9.9 percent.
When Matthew Stewart mentions the 9.9 percent, he has a specific kind of person that he wants you to imagine. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s build-a-person. Let’s call them Daniel. According to Stewart, Daniel has been molded all his life like a lump of Playdoh. As a child, he took viola lessons, attended chess club, wrote for the school newspaper, was tutored after school for the SAT and ACT, aced all of the good AP and Honors Classes, and lived all his adolescence as if tinkering with the narratives that would play the best on his college admissions essay. Daniel went to an Ivy or Ivy-Plus. He did the unpaid-internship one summer on mommy and daddy’s dime. He briefly considered the cha-ching of finance or being a do-gooder at a nonprofit, but he instead chose Amazon (or Facebook, or Google. Your pick!). He watches the world morph politically around him. He interacts with it like an accountant – clicking and dragging reactions across different cells of a spreadsheet, arriving at ‘optimal wokeness’ without sacrificing anything of his own. His politics is a kind of mini marketplace. He buys ideological beliefs with the swiftness of two-day shipping. He skims over the words to use, and the words definitely not to use. He takes a selfie at a protest, and writes a clever line on a piece of cardboard.
“Apart from waving signs around in all the right places, however, they don’t actually do much political organizing on the ground. That’s because politics for much (of) the 9.9 percent has become a symbolic or cultural field. It is a place where one goes for spiritual reward, not to secure real change through political action… Why would anyone expect that they are going to be agents of change?”
In a country of 300+ million people, we can be sure that someone pretty damn close to our build-a-human-Daniel exists. But is he all, or even most, of the top 9.9 percent of earners in the United States? Not at all.
According to Gabriel Zucman at UC Berkeley, roughly 40% of the wealth within the range of this bracket is held by the elderly (the crowd of 65-plus). And among the approximately 60% left, there’s no good data to definitely say that they’re largely the socially-liberally, fiscally-selfish constituency that Stewart makes the 9.9% out to be. It’s just as likely that they’re rich, red-meat conservatives who own a few rental properties, a small business in suburban Virginia, and maybe a good stock portfolio too. But of course, that conservative trope of a person isn’t really noted in this book, even though they have all the same economic (and arguably more) political power than the well-off liberal that he pillories.
It’s perfectly fine, of course, to direct an argument at a specific sliver of an amorphous group of people. But to hold that group up as the definition of a wide socio-economic class is bone-headed, preposterous, and dangerous. If I grabbed at the whole field of union-members in the U.S and described them solely as ‘burly, muscle-ridden white men holding lunch pails and driving rivets in Pittsburgh’, you’d laugh me out of the room and slap me on the wrist for forgetting the teacher’s unions, the professional trade organizations, and the rich tapestry of women and people of color that have and are leading the charge in union organizing.
But Stewart follows the same sort of mindset with the 9.9 percent. He expects you to swallow the number without actually considering what and who is inside of it. This is a ‘class’ of celebrity-physicians, Goldman Sachs employees, and lucrative oxycontin sales-reps, sure, but it’s also one of doctors making median wages, professors on the lucky end of the adjunct-trend, and then of course the non-profit professionals, the middle-managers, who make fine wages that barely make a dent in rising tuition and childcare costs.
That the 9.9 percent are actually seeing their size and strength fall relative to the top 0.1% (or more accurately, the top 1%) is not the defining takeaway of his argument. The portrait that he paints of a privileged aristocracy subsisting off of “… just the dead hand of an aging trust fund…” isn’t the damning take that it seems when it’s measured against actual data. When compared with the massive, and expanding mountain of wealth that the top 1% is accruing in the United States, the meager trust funds of the 9.9 percent are pebbles tumbling down the hill.
Numbers really don’t matter – as much as he makes it out to be. For him, it’s cultural norms, thoughts, and feelings that make the difference.
And what’s the animating idea of the 9.9 percent? For Stewart, it’s the ‘Merit Myth’ – a mantra, essentially, that argues that “… everyone gets what they deserve.” It’s an ideology that fits in neatly with a priority on academic achievement, cultural prestige, and using wealth and income as a measure of intelligence. It’s a belief system that sees work ethic as a moral trait, and laboring long hours as a sort of sacrifice at the altar of capitalism. Its ideological cousin (or identical sibling?) is Meritocracy, and years ago we would have called this mindset ‘Social Darwinism’, or just ‘Sociopathy’, but words don’t quite matter in the same way that they used to.
Naturally, fostering a cultural class of people who thinks that they deserve power based on their income, networks, and pedigrees is ripe to create inequity. Stewart plainly acknowledges this. But when he pushes forward on the question of ‘merit’, and ‘class’, he wiggles around and reveals some of the deep-seated beliefs that inform his discussion on inequality.
Because to him, Meritocracy is actually quite a good thing. He describes it as a belief that
“…wherever individuals are in a position to exercise authority, they should be there in virtue of their publicly demonstrable fitness for the position… It simply means choosing the best people for the job, to the extent that that is possible…”.
On the surface, this seems quite reasonable! After all, you wouldn’t want to trust a carpenter to drill out wisdom teeth, or a dentist to drill out a highway of cement. All reasonable people could nod along with this. There is an element of truth to the concept of skills, professionalism, and a degree of expertise.
But the thrust of his argument (and he expects you to agree!) is that the measure of ‘publicly demonstrable fitness’ will be set by the 9.9%, and not the 0.1. That there is another much larger number missing from this discussion is not an error; it’s the unspoken point.
To him, the 9.9 percent has a unique role in modern history. He argues that it was the Western 9.9 percent of lawyers, professionals, and intellectual thinkers that formed as a ‘check’ on the autocratic tendencies of Monarchs and commercial Oligarchs. According to him, they created many of the norms and cultural landmarks that we might recognize today; parliamentary procedures, newspapers, the ivory institutions of higher learning.
While he thinks that his treasured class has drifted a bit in its aim to ‘speak truth to power’, it’s this class of pedigreed, professionalized liberal elites that he argues has huge potential for being a driver of change. Civil Rights for Black-Americans? The Feminist movement? Trade unionism? The LGBTQ struggle? He’d be quick to mention the lawyers and the mid-level managers as a major source of social action.
That he never points to any particular moment in history where this has actually happened is revealing. Because it doesn’t meaningfully exist. He actually doesn’t specifically mention any concrete moments of drastic social change, because by looking at them you’d notice almost how immediately the supposed 9.9% was nowhere to be seen. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Just remember his oozing condemnation of young 9.9 percenter’s politics earlier;
“(Politics) is a place where one goes for spiritual reward, not to secure real change through political action… Why would anyone expect that they are going to be agents of change?”
It’s impossible, of course, for the 9.9 percenter to follow through because they’re not really committed to change. After all, why would they be? Daniel (from earlier) is doing fine enough, financially. He doesn’t need to ask questions about an economic system that still benefits him. Crucially, however, politics is a dead-end for him because being engaged in movements such as BLM or a union-drive would put him in tension with a world that is not his own; he’d be introduced to communities where power was shared, disempowered voices were emboldened, and liberal-elites were not shining beacons of truth. Stewart still sees a role for the 9.9 percent as a privileged elite, albeit a vanguard of ‘truth’. But the democratic movements of today want to challenge authority, and see elitism as something to be dismantled. What place is there for Daniel’s ‘I am right and have earned that right’ mentality in a space where truth is no longer a privileged holding, but a shared ideal?
There are, in his mind, the forces of ‘unreason’. He devotes one of the last chapters of his book to the question of how it is that inequality is linked together with political divisiveness, and partisanship. Much of his lines are focused on the Republican Party, the rise of Trumpism, and the ways in which the rich have preyed on poor and low-income white Americans to foam at the mouth with conservative fear-mongering, and reactionism. He fittingly has very little sustained interest in the actual low-income whites that he mentions in passing, and he chalks up much of the GOP to general ‘stupidity’ in perhaps the one-billionth example of white liberals not understanding people other than themselves.
But there’s another force in American political life that for him spells ‘unreason’. And while he never devotes full pages or chapters to the other political alternative, he grates his criticisms of it subtly into the rest of the book – almost as if he hopes that you’ll digest it without even noticing.
In the wake of rising inequality, there’s been a movement that has questioned the whole underpinnings of the economic status quo. It’s not new, but it is growing pronounced, and it gained renewed focus during and after the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just two years ago, 58% of Americans aged 18-34 reacted to the word ‘Capitalism’ favorably. Now, in the wake of the pandemic, the number has fallen to 49%. Women view the term ‘Socialism’ favorably at 45%, and for 60% of Black Americans, Socialism has a positive connotation. This is a stunning reversal of historical trends. While Socialism was once a career-ending pejorative, it’s now worn proudly by mayors, members of Congress, and candidates for President. Call it Socialism. Or Anti-Capitalism. Whatever its labels, there’s been a rise in questions about the merits and morality of the economy itself.
Stewart recognizes these trends and goes on the defensive. When mentioning ‘The Left’ and its discourse on inequality, he writes
“… they often turn to a single word: ‘capitalism’. Unfortunately, this is one of those words that describes a thing that does not actually exist… it is a way of defining the world in terms of what some people wish it would be, not what it is.”
What he means here is that since a technically ‘free’ and unrestrained market does not exist, Capitalism itself does not actually exist. This is, quite frankly, cow-manure. A simple trip to anyone’s dictionary will point this out.
· “an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations…”
· “an economic and political system in which property, business, and industry are controlled by private owners rather than by the state, with the purpose of making a profit…”
· “The essential feature of capitalism is the motive to make a profit. As Adam Smith, the 18th century philosopher and father of modern economics, said: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”
Often there’s a small addition to these definitions mentioning the aspirations of a ‘free market’. But the clear definer of Capitalism is private ownership and the profit motive. A ‘free’ and balanced market is always a secondary concern, which is what makes Stewart’s attempts at a defense of Capitalism so squeamish. It’s either a monumental misreading on economics, or an attempt to mislead the reader into thinking that down is up and 2 plus 2 equals five. Either way, he should throw the gauntlet down and be honest with his readers, saying ‘actually, I think Capitalism is good, even though it’s bad now, but here is why and how it could be better’. But of course, he doesn’t do such a thing. If he did that, the entire premise of the book would collapse.
In his chapter on housing, Matthew Stewart introduces us to a woman named Elizabeth Magie. In 1893, Magie created a board game where players rolled dice to go around a familiar square pathway. They strode past luxury taxes, coal utilities, properties for rent and sale, and squares that said ‘No Trespassing, Go to Jail’. Her 1904 patent called it The Landlord’s Game, and it was a biting satire of housing, inequality, and the centralization of power in the hands of a few business owners.
It’s the perfect segue for Stewart, who later goes on to highlight some of the startling statistics of monopolization in the modern U.S. In food production, for example, the top four national food processors control 50% of poultry production, 80% of beef, 60% of pork, and 90% of grain (not to mention that three companies, three, control 75% of American beer). The same is true of financial institutions. Since 1994, the shoveling of national financial assets into the giant, too-big-to-fail banks is astonishing; in 1994 these banks held 16% of all assets, and as of 2018 it was 59%. Since 2000, roughly half of the nation’s publicly listed firms have disappeared. Gone. Where did they go? Answer; bankruptcies, partially, but lots and lots of mergers. The big are gobbling up the small, and only growing larger.
For Stewart, of course, this isn’t actually a problem with Capitalism; it’s an issue of a bad mindset entrenched in a gross perversion of Meritocracy. It never crosses his mind that there could be structural, systemic issues with Capitalism as a system and worldview; if something bad happens within the economy, we’re left thinking that it’s just because of a few bad actors, or greed. Inequality, for him, is just caused by bad vibes. That it could really stem from a hyper-commitment to the mantra of ‘profit above all else’ is unfathomable to him – because raising that would threaten the whole basis of the economy.
Inequality – what actually is it? It’s a measurement of how many resources some people have at the expense of others. This is precisely what ‘class’ is; it’s a way that we understand who has wealth, and who does not. High Class and Low Class are our persistent, vernacular reminders that the gulf between the haves and have-nots is tensely grasped by all of us.
As he writes, “One… is united in the universal awareness that there is always someone richer than you.” Equally, we’re united in the awareness that there is almost always someone worse off than us; while looking up at the rich and powerful fills us with envy and embarrassment, it’s equally possible that looking down on the less fortunate fuels a sense of superiority, and power.
It’s why, in the absence of real political agency, liberal elites can easily feel the pull towards smugness, irony, and cultural elitism. With inequality rising (and their own fortunes falling), a subsection of the 9.9% can still claim their pedigrees and credentials over others. It’s a way to preserve their own individualism, and sense of superiority, and almost jokingly nudge the sides of the real ruling 1% by saying ‘See? At least I’m not like those bums and hicks.”. This is a fundamental aspect of class that’s not grasped enough: it’s both a tool of measurement, and a bludgeon. More often than not, the weight of class and privilege is wielded by the slightly better-off to punch down at those below who are struggling.
Maybe this would lead one to think boy, maybe there’s something wrong with class! Yet despite all this, Stewart goes to pretty clear (and upsetting) lengths to stake out his claim that class is essential, unchangeable, and important to preserve. As he writes,
“The invidious form of wealth that goes into producing class is of course a very human phenomenon, and no one should expect or want it to disappear from human experience. We all know that life without it would be less fun and movies would certainly be less amusing.”
It’s a glib and disappointing kind of perspective. Yet a page later, he notes, without a hint of irony,
“Contrary to popular perception, class does not make people smarter; it produces a small group of people who are deluded about the sources of their good fortune and a large group of people who are deceived about the sources of their misfortune.”
Either this is just a mistake on his part, or it’s a real paradox, but Stewart does not see a way out from the current predicament. This is understandable, because he’s trying to do an impossible thing; preserve the noble elite of an enlightened class while addressing the root of economic inequality. It’s impossible to get rid of inequality while maintaining it elsewhere. So he does a version of what his bad, millennial 9.9 percenter does in politics; says all the right words, attends the rally, but never really engages beyond themselves.
There’s no incentive for him to imagine political alternatives, or the big ‘S’ word, because it would question his and his class’s hold on cultural power. This is why, when discussing solutions, he writes;
“The basic form of a solution…. Is not to redistribute wealth from those who have allegedly earned it to those who have not, but to return wealth from those who expropriated it to those who actually created it.”
The caveat here is still enraptured by the Meritocratic ideal that people should only get what they deserve. It’s purposefully vague here who has and has not created ‘wealth’. And who would define who is and is not a creator? Why, the experts, of course – most likely the 9.9 percent.
While Magie was finishing her ‘Landlord’s Game’, she was focused much more pointedly on land than monopolization. She was inspired by a contemporary of hers named Henry George. George had become famous in the 1800s for his pointed critiques of economic exploitation, and monopolization, but he spoke most pointedly at a far broader and agreed-upon concept; private property. He wrote that
“Private property in land is robbery… It has everywhere had its birth in war and conquest, and in the selfish use which the cunning have made of superstition and law.”
It was an incarnation of a thought that had been brewing generations before, when a French writer by the name of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon wrote in 1840
“What is Property?... It is robbery!”
It was an argument that no single person had the right to divvy up the earth and make a profit off of it. The world, in essence, belonged to everyone; the riches of technology and progress belonged equally to the worker as much as the factory owner, and the rights of equality and equity belonged to all genders, all races, and all classes of people. As Leo Tolstoy, the famed novelist of Anna Karenina and War and Peace wrote, it was a world where one could be
“…certain that my piece of bread only belongs to me when I know that every one else has a share, and that no one suffers because of it."
It was a dramatic shift from a world relying on selfishness, profit, and extraction into one based upon democracy, human flourishing, and freedom. For generations, this hope of sharing and usufruct sparked revolutions and movements across the world. In 2011, the Occupy movement grew and spread behind many of the same beliefs that had motivated Magie, Tolstoy, and so many millions of others. For weeks, and months, people gathered in public places across the world and ‘occupied’ them for everyone. They experimented in radical acts of democracy -- creating libraries, schools, and centers of mutual aid on the lawns of city parks.
At the Occupy encampments you could find everyone and anyone; teachers, nurses, firefighters, the unemployed, grad-students, ballerinas, and even a few who wandered down from the stock exchange at Wall Street. It was a radical reimagining of what spaces and land could and couldn’t be; instead of a leafy, secluded space that was designed to keep the homeless from sleeping overnight, parks were transformed into a commons where everyone – rich, poor, the haves and have-nots – could congregate and experiment at what it felt like to create democracy. When the movements were crushed by cities and police throughout 2011 and 2012, the ideas from the occupied spaces spread across the globe, like seeds scattered in the wind. The legacy of Occupy can be traced to the Arab Spring, and partially to the civil rights uprising of summer 2020.
The rise of the ultra-rich and the decline of everyone else is a current that can be found both in this book and the Occupy movement. But they diverge at a crucial point. Speaking, lastly, on the ‘we’ of the 9.9 percenters, Stewart says that their lasting legacy is
“…our collective contribution to the triumph of the 0.1 percent and the fall of the 90 percent. Rising inequality makes accomplices of us all.”
It’s a message of defeatism, and self-focused guilt. Contrary to what this book has argued, the 9.9 percent is not the cause of our woes. Nor is it really anything at all. Those doctors, lawyers, business professionals, teachers – they are as much of the victims as anyone else. There is no 9.9 percent, or all-powerful liberal elite; there is just the richest of the rich, and then anyone else who is courageous enough to fight for a better world.
So the 9.9 percent? No thanks. I think I’ll just remove the decimal.
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