Older readers may recall the once famous but now largely forgotten Cold War figure of Milovan Djilas. While other dissidents from Communism like Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Whittaker Chambers acheived a more epic historical stature, Djilas was the first high Communist official, the adviser and likely successor to Yugoslavian dictator Tito, to turn against Communism as a system. More importantly, Djilas wrote New Class in 1957, a damning analysis that accurately castigated the hierarchy of Communist Party and government officials an exploitive and tyrannical ruling class that in the Soviet context was later termed “Nomenklatura“. For this act, Djilas would suffer in Tito’s prisons, but he outlived both Tito and Communism and his Party enemies were never able to shake off the truth of his bitter critique.
Claremont scholar and Boston U. international relations professor Angelo Codevilla has published in The American Spectator a very lengthy, often brilliant, sometimes meandering, essay that is part analysis, part cri de coeur, but primarily the most devastating attack on America’s emerging, bipartisan, technocratic Oligarchy that I have ever read:
….Never has there been so little diversity within America’s upper crust. Always, in America as elsewhere, some people have been wealthier and more powerful than others. But until our own time America’s upper crust was a mixture of people who had gained prominence in a variety of ways, who drew their money and status from different sources and were not predictably of one mind on any given matter. The Boston Brahmins, the New York financiers, the land barons of California, Texas, and Florida, the industrialists of Pittsburgh, the Southern aristocracy, and the hardscrabble politicians who made it big in Chicago or Memphis had little contact with one another. Few had much contact with government, and “bureaucrat” was a dirty word for all. So was “social engineering.” Nor had the schools and universities that formed yesterday’s upper crust imposed a single orthodoxy about the origins of man, about American history, and about how America should be governed. All that has changed.
Today’s ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters — speaking the “in” language — serves as a badge of identity. Regardless of what business or profession they are in, their road up included government channels and government money because, as government has grown, its boundary with the rest of American life has become indistinct. Many began their careers in government and leveraged their way into the private sector. Some, e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, never held a non-government job. Hence whether formally in government, out of it, or halfway, America’s ruling class speaks the language and has the tastes, habits, and tools of bureaucrats. It rules uneasily over the majority of Americans not oriented to government.
The two classes have less in common culturally, dislike each other more, and embody ways of life more different from one another than did the 19th century’s Northerners and Southerners — nearly all of whom, as Lincoln reminded them, “prayed to the same God.” By contrast, while most Americans pray to the God “who created and doth sustain us,” our ruling class prays to itself as “saviors of the planet” and improvers of humanity. Our classes’ clash is over “whose country” America is, over what way of life will prevail, over who is to defer to whom about what. The gravity of such divisions points us, as it did Lincoln, to Mark’s Gospel: “if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”
That passage captures the zeitgeist. Read Dr. Codevilla’s article in in its’ entirety here.
I am not in harmony with everything Codevilla has written. Neither is Dr. James Joyner. Codevilla’s personal, very socially conservative, cultural preferences are not mine and, like Joyner, I would quibble with some of his descriptions as immoderate. In general, this essay would have benefited from either having been edited down to be more concise or expanded into a book to leverage greater evidentiary support of diverging political worldviews, which is out there. What is hard to deny though, is that Codevilla is pointing a finger at a visceral problem of a self-aware ruling class in the process of ossifying and separating itself culturally and legally away from and over the ruled – an alien thing in American history. Something the ancient Greeks as well as the Founding Fathers would recognize as an “oligarchy“, a threat to democratic self-government and constitutional liberties.
Unlike Milovan Djilas, Angelo Codevilla will not face prison or lose his job for his criticism. Our oligarchy is in its newborn infancy, but it is hungry for power, venal in its corruption, covetous of security, impatient of democratic accountability and intolerant of dissent. Beware of legislative moves, cloaked in high-sounding phrases, to regulate speech, circumscribe criticism of public officials, grant police powers to private corporations like BP, tax farm the many to benefit the few, and generally exclude the public from important policy decisions by making citizen participation in governmental process more complex, opaque, indirect, financially burdensome and personally risky.
If any proposed government action would seem likely to legitimize an activity that would be unethical or illegal if an ordinary person did it, that is a time to make your voice heard against going down the slippery slope.