05.07.2010 Policy Points

Bourgeoisie Bearing Pitchforks

James Kwak of The Baseline Scenario asks just who is driving the so-called “populist” backlash.

Michael Lewis, in an interview with Christopher Lydon, said that in his book tour, a lot of his audiences are well-off and moderate well-off professionals — doctors, dentists, lawyers, small business owners, etc. These are people who (at least according to them) followed the rules, worked hard, paid their taxes, made a fair amount of money, etc. — and just saw the economy almost collapse because of what they see as the shenanigans of a tiny, tiny elite that plays by a different set of rules. Lewis or Lydon (I can’t recall which) called it a “revolt of the petty bourgeoisie.” And it is true that one of the societal forces behind the French Revolution was a traditional official class that saw its status threatened by the new capitalist class. (Yes, this is the opposite of what Marx and Engels thought.)

I don’t want to make too much of this. But I think it is true that the pitchfork-wielders of today are not rock-throwing Trotskyites; they are, largely, politically moderate (or conservative) people who believe in capitalism and in making money. And I also think that there has been a relative shift in economic fortunes away from the small business owning class that we like to think of as the bedrock of American society (the modern version of the yeoman farmer of the eighteenth century), and toward a new elite made up of corporate CEOs, investment bankers, and hedge fund managers. Where this will end up I do not know.

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