The Privileged vs. The People
“The Americans never use the word ‘peasant,’” Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “because they have no idea of the peculiar class which that term denotes.” Nor do Americans use “noble” or “aristocrat” or “barbarian.” However, the basic phenomena endure, even if the class structure and therefore the terms have evolved.
Shortly after Tocqueville published his thoughts on the democratic experiment in America, Benjamin Disraeli published Sybil¸ a novel in which he argued that England was essentially divided into two nations, “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy [and] who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, are not governed by the same laws.”
These two groups were, Disraeli wrote, “the Privileged and the People.” These words could be written of America today, though with a twist that might shock even Disraeli: It is our privileged classes that bear the features of barbarians, whereas common Americans are civilized.
Many might regard the terms “peasant” and “barbarian” as interchangeable — both denoting a person of rough mores or depraved sensibilities. But they used to have precise and, in fact, opposite meanings. They reflect social classes in history that came into being during the Neolithic age and endure into the era of modern, industrial societies — even our own. The end of history was supposed to give rise to a final industrialized, bourgeois, democratic society, but history — like peasants and barbarians — proved to be more enduring than expected. (There is even a Journal of Peasant Studies published in the UK that examines questions of rural society “that confront peasants, farmers, rural labourers, migrant workers, indigenous peoples, forest dwellers, pastoralists, fisherfolk and rural youth, both female and male, in different parts of the world.”)
There are four essential characteristics of agrarian peoples: they are rural (tied to the soil), stable (not nomadic), religious (especially devoted to gods of cultivation), and generally peaceful (not given to organized violence). Rural peoples, formerly peasants, can be found today all over the world, from Ecuador to Austria to Egypt. They are spread out geographically, which historically made them susceptible to conquest by invading foreigners — that is, by barbarians. This sparseness also made it difficult for peasants to defend their interests politically, and so aristocracies and later the state assumed that role, though both could be either indifferent or exploitative.
Agrarian life was bound up in place (geography, soil), and peasants found purpose in the permanent things: God, family, community. In primitive societies, peasants lived to cultivate these three things, whereas barbarian conquest invariably meant the destruction of all three.
“Barbarian” typically meant a person or group that was uncivilized and foreign. In every age, barbarians sweep through, exploit, dominate, and either assimilate — that is, become civilized — or move on to conquer elsewhere. The essential characteristics of a barbarian are the opposite of those of agrarian society. Barbarians consume and plunder rather than produce; if they worship beyond the self, they worship gods of conquest rather than cultivation; they are unstable or nomadic, not rooted to a geographic place; and they tend to achieve their objectives through violence or coercion. Some of the barbarian plunderers of Europe settled into the agrarian or town life, thereby transitioning to peasants; some moved on to the next plunder.
Likewise today, barbarians are predatory, destructive, and nomadic: they consume and exploit, but don’t produce. There is no need for a Journal of Barbarian Studies. Just look around: their realm is the entirety of the public culture.
Both peasant peoples and barbarians have their origins in pastoral society. The peasant domesticated animals and used them to cultivate the land; the barbarian used domesticated animals to conquer that which the peasant had cultivated. This all occurred in Neolithic Europe. The tension between peasants and barbarians thereafter played out in a variety of contexts in Western history, especially in Europe. The Graeco-Roman world fought for centuries to fend off the barbarians. When the barbarians finally conquered Rome, they were gradually absorbed—through Christianity—into Europe.
Immigrants to America, primarily from England at first, were often from rural or small town communities of countries as varied as Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, Greece, the Levant, and elsewhere. They quickly became landowners and citizens — equal citizens, invested in their small towns and communities, which Tocqueville saw on his trip through America. But that world was already giving way to the pressures of industrialization by the mid-19th century. Disraeli was joined by Dickens, Hugo, and others, who wrote about the wretched urban poverty that we still witness — not only in Africa, Latin America, and Asia but also here in America. That poverty is both rural and urban. Across the generations, the barbarians have been busy.
America has generated a new class of barbarians today, of the bourgeois variety. The American barbarian dominates the elite institutions of the public culture: government, academia, corporations, and the media (news, entertainment, Internet). They exclude from these institutions those who wish to preserve the things loved by the common American — usually conservatives and Christians. The bourgeois barbarians are as rootless and nomadic as their predecessors — one of the most transient, “unstable” populations on the planet. They don’t plunder rural America’s farms, small businesses, and communities as the barbarians of antiquity did, with physical violence; instead, they use banks, global corporations, rent-seeking, and the severest puritanism on ever-evolving moral issues.
These new barbarians strip away and bundle up the modest assets of the working classes and sell them off to other barbarian elites. In academia, they spread impersonal ideologies that wage a relentless war on the permanent things: God, community, and family — those things the common American loves. They pressure young people, mostly through marketing, to jettison the things their ancestors loved and suffered for without the slightest reflection. They worship violent gods of ideology or greed, whatever their claims to atheism or agnosticism. They plunder the wealth of the provinces and send back welfare checks and opioids. As bureaucrats, they use their power to compel commoners for the commoners’ own good, which they define anew at their whim. The commoner waits patiently, hoping that the barbarians will move on.
Today, the bourgeois barbarians’ ideologies have spilled over from the campuses of our universities to the streets of our cities — a revolt led by and mostly consisting of the decadent bourgeois. Many of the would-be revolutionaries have been indoctrinated by modified Marxists. Marx, like his progeny, was himself a bourgeois barbarian, consuming without contribution, inciting to revolution but never to building anything. He saw everything through the lens of impersonalism and ideology while waging war against the permanent things.
One of Marx’s many errors, as Francis Fukuyama has observed, was to assume that agrarian society was nearly obsolete, having transitioned to the proletariat. (It was, ironically, in heavily agrarian and pre-industrial Russia and China, not England or Germany, where Communist revolutionaries actually seized power.) In America, as in the Industrial-Age Europe that Marx targeted, there has been a massive uprooting and relocation from rural America to its cities. This lured poor whites, African Americans, and immigrants into urban contexts. The jobs they came for frequently disappeared, but they remained in cities, severed from their roots and dislocated from community. For poor whites and others, this dislocation was new. For African-Americans, it had already happened too many times to be counted; their generational dislocation was compounded by traumas beyond comprehension.
The uprooting of people from rural America, relocation to cities, and social dislocation continues to devastate both rural and urban social life in America. The global trend of urbanization, with agrarian peoples migrating to industrialized cities in hopes of higher earnings, is not likely to end well. This trend will continue to put massive pressure on governments, which are incapable of delivering on high, modern expectations of comfortable living. It has exposed the incompetence of central administrators and managerial elites.
The radical shift from rural agrarian to urban proletariat has been one of the most profound social changes of the industrial era, severing the bond between the people and the soil — or, in Marxist terms, severing the people from the means of production. (To be fair, peasants did not always have a stake in their land, but neither were they always dispossessed or exploited; there were mutual obligations that hadn’t existed in antiquity, and this explains in part the persistence of Europe’s old rural order.) All of this has permitted elite exploitation without any of the consequences that existed for the nobility of old, whose duties at least bound them to the land and to those who lived on it, such that they had to manage competently—another point of Tocqueville’s that is relevant today.
Immigrants to America historically transitioned quickly from dispossessed rural peasant to citizen, equal in status with the elite, even if their stake was smaller. That has changed in recent decades. The elite have used every mechanism of power and influence to distance themselves from the land and the commoners while still managing to consume that which rural America produces without any real return to those who do the producing.
Fukuyama termed this habit the “law of Latifundia” in agrarian societies: “the rich will grow richer until they are stopped — either by the state, by peasant rebellions, or by states acting out of fear of peasant rebellions,” he writes. “Left to their own devices, elites tend to increase the size of their latifundia” (essentially rural estates for industrial agriculture). This leaves leaders with two models: side with the people (he cites Scandinavian countries as examples of this) or with the oligarchs (Russia, Prussia, and Eastern Europe). In other words, the elite exploit — they consume without contribution. American elites might refrain from calling their domestic help “peasants,” and they might exercise restraint in not beating or sexually exploiting them. Might. There are more Epsteins among our elite than they would care to admit. They will remain our masters until there are no more common people to exploit—or until the rage of the people boils over.
Common people can endure a great deal of hardship, but there is a breaking point at which they will rebel. This has occurred throughout history, from ancient Europe and China through the Middle Ages to the French and Russian Revolutions. The peasants’ revolt in medieval England was, like the French Revolution four centuries later, more bourgeois than many realize. Rural and small town English had begun to own property, become proprietors of small businesses, and form guilds. English elites of that age continued to become rich while the working classes remained in poverty. In 1381, the English peasants revolted. Their king, the young Richard II, rode out and appeased the common people—whose grievances must have been incomprehensible to the pampered monarch—with promises he couldn’t keep.
Some thought that 2016 was a minor peasants’ revolt of sorts, with rural, agrarian, religious, traditional peoples in the heartland sending a populist to Washington to punish the elite. Four years later, elites have simply refused to accept their punishment — not only refused, but actively fought back by every undemocratic means available. The bourgeois barbarians somehow identify as victims rather than oppressors through all this. (Worse, they are intent to sow divisions along the lines of immutable identities such as race, for this is the only means by which they can retain power: If working class Americans find a common political voice that is indifferent to immutable identities, this would decisively alter the domestic power calculus.)
America’s barbarian elite are substantially insulated from common Americans by wealth, geography, and the coercive powers of corporate finance and the state. But ultimately, all of their privilege is underwritten by people in uniforms with weapons, the military and police, which are substantially comprised of common, non-elite, Americans.
When one sees bourgeois elites of predominantly European extraction protesting oppression by police from the safety of super-wealthy zip codes, it provides a visceral reminder of how fragile civilization is. What has been called “virtue signaling” may be something more primitive and sinister. Some of the rootless, bourgeois elite desperate to direct the wrath of the angry mob away from themselves (lest they suddenly be deprived of their privilege, wealth, and safety) may be in moral solidarity with the oppressed. But they may also be trying to deflect the wrath of the crazed revolutionary mob onto police—or working class rural America or anyone other than themselves. America’s decadent elites caught a glimpse of the violence they have indirectly visited on others for generations. Much of the abstraction and ideology and “social distance” that separates them from the reality of common Americans disappeared this summer. So they mollified and signaled consent and scapegoated the police and knelt—not in penance or solidarity, or perhaps even in fear or self-loathing, but to survive with their latifundia intact.
To “civilize” a people, whether in antiquity or modern Europe, has historically meant to draw them out of barbarism. Rural, non-elite, small-town America is not unsympathetic to African-American suffering—though this is invariably how it’s depicted, especially by people in wealthy suburbs. But they know the difference between spoiled (mostly white) kids and the oppressed. They seem to watch all the chaos of the cities with no small amount of disappointment, but also with patience, clinging to the permanent things. They will never have the wealth of the elite, but they have dignity. And while they have much moral and social rebuilding to do, they can hope to make an ally of time, as rural folk do.
There can be no return to Arcadia, to that tranquil time of social harmony, “when old men had long memories,” for that time and place never quite existed—utopia, as the Greek word reminds us, means “no place.” But there was a time when community, identity, and purpose could be taken for granted; when we were free to love without controversy those things that our fathers loved, before barbarians and ideologues roamed the country, seeking to make all things anew in their own hideous image. We have been conditioned to think that all life before the Industrial Revolution was “nasty, brutish, and short,” but those living it believed they had a purpose—a telos arguably preferable to a life that is nasty, pointless, and long. But getting back to somewhere is not easy.
Americans who are able may, for a variety of reasons — telework flexibility, better opportunities for schools, housing, or land — move further away from cities and even suburbs, toward smaller, more authentic communities and toward rootedness. The more privileged can, of course, afford such a move. For millions of others, their ancestors went to cities poor and there they feel trapped. Creativity will be required to help those trapped in poverty to become re-rooted in the less expensive, less impersonal communities that have hemorrhaged human capital for decades. Such a re-convergence of “the people” and “the privileged” might seem unlikely, and maybe it is: the global trend toward urban, industrial centers is overwhelming. But such a countertrend, however small, might go a long way toward restoring the health of America.
Andrew Doran writes from the Washington, DC area. The views he states are his own.