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Angelo Codevilla – America’s Milovan Djilas


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:

America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution

….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 anoligarchy“, 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.

19 Responses to “Angelo Codevilla – America’s Milovan Djilas”

  1. joey Says:

    Comedic Gold.If this is what passes for analysis on the new right America is in trouble.America is the most powerful Empire the world has ever seen, it has a ruling class(political class) that is Imperial in outlook.  Seeking a return to some half imagined past is a profitless exercise, and is not going to change as long as America remains an Imperial power.  The problem is the US has created a global system the needs to be administered,  sometimes the needs of the system trump the needs of the US citizenry.  The elite understands that.Political correctness and general PC behaviour is not the problem, administering a global system, while working within a election cycle is the problem.  To balance that you need a large well trained bureaucracy who are in broad agreement as to how things should run.If you don’t like that you shouldn’t have become an Imperial power,  because no matter how you chop it as long as you aspire to global leadership you are going to need a civil service that is broadly homogeneous.  Read the history of any Empire, this is a systematic problem, look at the British empire, any of the Chinese dynasties, Rome, the French empires.   American attitudes to government probably don’t help matters, since the assumption is that bureaucrats are corrupt and inefficient.  Its hard to find a parallel to those attitudes in Europe.  

  2. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Codevilla’s need for an editor to pare his stylistic and rhetorical excesses is the reason some of his books will never become the classics they could have been. 

  3. Tim Chambers Says:

    This sounds like the usual sort of American Spectator stuff, but it boils down to a shill for the real permanent Oligarchy (the people who control our largest corporations) pointing fingers at a group of elected or appointed officials that it effectively controls. The Oligarchy runs this country by playing the good cop/bad cop game. Whenever the bad cops go too far, they let the good cops run it for awhile, then they brainwash people into voting for the bad cops again by convincing that the good cops are getting unruly and threatening to share too much of the wealth, which might lead to most people being marginally better off. The American people are so jerked around they have no idea what the truth is or whom to point the finger at, mostly because they are so damn busy working two or three jobs just to put some food on the table for the pittance they get for their labor, but it definitely isn’t the left that is to blame because the left has never held power in this country, and definitely never will. 

  4. zen Says:

    Hi Gents,
    JF – Agreed. There’s exaggeration and belaboring of the point here that detracts.
    joey – In all probability, Codevilla would like to return to a kind of Russell Kirkian America, to the extent that such a thing ever existed, which is not going to happen. However that’s irrelevant to the problem which he is identifying.
    The "imperial" ruling class, as you call them, are not resented because "the needs of the system sometimes trump the needs of the US citizenry". That’s something that has been largely accepted, albeit with grumbling, since WWII but because the new elite are a) personally profiting as a class from policies that injure the economic interests of a broad swath of taxpayers b) Too obviously and outspokenly hold values at odds with traditional American cultural and constitutional political values – they are patronizingly antidemocratic technocrats, and c) they are not even particularly competent in how they execute their policies. This is not a recipe for legitimacy.
    Tim – No, the Far Left or radical Left has never held power here but that’s not the entirety of ‘the Left". The American elite is not "Left" in a Marxist sense but it does accept and has internalized into their worldview some of the negative historical and cultural critiques of America that leftist and Marxist intellectuals have articulated during most of the 20th century. The elite holds this unsystematic and usually superficial hodgepodge of ideas – don’t expect that most of them can contrast Charles Beard or Saul Alinsky with Antonio Negri, they can’t – as a vague justification for their own supposed moral superiority and it drives some of their more obnoxious statements and tribal behavior.

  5. Seerov Says:

    "The American elite is not "Left" in a Marxist sense but it does accept and has internalized into their worldview some of the negative historical and cultural critiques of America that leftist and Marxist intellectuals have articulated during most of the 20th century." (zen)
    Very good observation.  Next we have to understand WHY the American elite "accept" such ideas?   Why are ideas of white guilt, superiority of diversity, and open borders "accepted" among the elite?  For some reason they see in their interests for such concepts to be spread through the major institutions?  
    The reason is simple(IMO).  The biggest "threat" to the transnational elite is not terrorists, or Russia, or China.  Instead, its what we think of as "Middle America." Middle America is wealthy, well armed, well educated, and share a common cultural-historic identity. 
    To neutralize this threat, the elites use an technique that the Soviets used.  They break up a potential "problem group" by moving them or mixing their communities with other ethnic groups.  In modern America (or Europe for that matter) the elites push open borders and forced diversity to break up their major "problem group."  
    Obviously no one likes having their community ruined.  So to soften the potential reaction from Middle America, the elites spread the new spiritual regime of Multiculturalism. This spiritual regime has been disseminated through the major information system (education, news, entertainment) for the last 40 years.  The ultimate evil in this spiritual regime are those who oppose forced diversity, and the ultimate good are those who support it.   
    Anything that may even slightly appear to oppose the Multicult is presented as dangerous, backward, and unenlightened (see: Tea Party movement) by the information systems.  The greatest opposition to the Multicult is found on the Internet.  This is what explains the recent talk of shutting down the Internet, and/or the implementation of "hate speech" laws. 


  6. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    What Codevilla seems to be trying to discuss is an inequitable distribution of power in America. But he works backwards, from conclusions as to the nature of that inequitable distribution to not very much – not really a call to action, not really an analysis of where it all might go or how it might be changed.
    I think that many of us have concerns about such inequities, but I’d much rather see an investigation of where the power is concentrated and why. I suspect that there are a number of groups that hold power in various areas: finance is one obvious one, while defense contracting is another. There is likely to be overlap and interaction, but for analysis, it probably would be more manageable to consider one cluster at a time.
    Is that power inordinate? Are the groups unchanging or passing the power down among a carefully selected few? Are laws being violated? Again, I suspect that the answers will differ at least in degree for the various clusters.
    Codevilla also believes that changing societal attitudes can be traced back to manipulation by governmental elites. It would be useful for him to demonstrate this manipulation, rather than simply assert it. And his elites seem all to be governmental. How about business and the manipulation of attitudes toward unrestrained free-marketism over the past thirty years? That’s as much a changing social attitude as those toward the family, and it’s had much more to do with the accumulation of power by particular groups.
    And yes, the essay could use a lot of editing.

  7. zen Says:

    "I think that many of us have concerns about such inequities, but I’d much rather see an investigation of where the power is concentrated and why. I suspect that there are a number of groups that hold power in various areas: finance is one obvious one, while defense contracting is another. There is likely to be overlap and interaction, but for analysis, it probably would be more manageable to consider one cluster at a time."
    Well said, Cheryl. Social network mapping would be of help.
    Unlike the early 20th century, there’s a far more incestuous situation at the top where government officials, bureaucrat and politician, brazenly cash in with the private entities they are supposed to regulate or contract from. They all send their kids to the same "good schools" and hire academics from these same schools as advisers and the elite MSM media is in the same club. It would be hard to imagine Teddy Roosevelt’s son, or an Admiral’s son interning with JP Morgan or a grubby industrialist’s kid getting into Yale but today that is the norm. There’s little separation, competition, check or balance or pause to insure against conflict of interest in this insular little world, while "diversity" usually implies rigid intellectual conformity and a closing of ranks against "outsiders" regardless of their ethnicity

  8. Andy Says:

    Great post and interesting comments.  The root of the problem, IMO, is that our elite class is mainly comprised of professional politicians and lawyers.


    On your last point regarding business, I think a distinction needs to be made between belief in the free market principles that are the basis for capitalism and corporatism masquerading as those free market principles. 

    Also, related to several of your points, one can look to where the "revolving door" between political elites and big business leads.  It’s to a few industries, all dependent on or heavily regulated by government, a couple of which you mentioned:  Defense, finance, healthcare, aerospace, one or two others plus a few big politically-connected corporations in other industries.  Not coincidentally, regulation of these industries by those revolving-door elites has resulted in more corporatism,  greater industry consolidation which resulted in less competition and more influence by the fewer, larger players.  This might partially answer the question of where power is concentrated and why.  

    Perhaps my perception is overly cynical, but my view is that big business and big government do a lot of play-fighting to please the masses, but in reality they are symbionts.  Compare rhetoric vs reality when our political elites (and those who believe in them – mainly the partisans in both parties) speak of the "free market" or the need to "regulate" to prevent corporate excess.

  9. T. Greer Says:



    I will echo the view endorsed by other commentators here. The last 20 years has not seen unrestrained capitalism. The neoliberal view is not pro-market; it is pro-business.


    It is worth remembering the deregulation of American finance was coupled with increasingly large bail-outs of failing financial institutions.  The early 1980s saw a flurry of banks with bad investments in Mexico being bailed out by the federal government; in 1994 the Clinton administration performed the same favor for Wall Street. In 2002 the Fed artificially lowered interest rates to save Wall Street again. And now we have the  the nationalization of Lehman, GM, et. al. Socialize the losses, privatize the gains.


    This can be called many things, but unrestrained capitalism is not one of them.


    None of this saves Codevilla from his own amateurish material, of course. A lack of evidence to back up his assertions – and the contradictions found between the various assetions themselves – makes his case a weak one. I should also note that his argument that America is divided between a ruling class with open God and those virtuous middle Americans  is patently ridiculous. There is no virtuous middle. American society is but a loose collection of group identities sputtering along their own cultural paths. These various groupings are no more similar to each other than they are to the much maligned ruling class. I imagine this is what has made this class so successful: it has a cohesion  the rest of America lacks.

  10. joey Says:

    "The "imperial" ruling class, as you call them, are not resented because "the needs of the system sometimes trump the needs of the US citizenry". That’s something that has been largely accepted, albeit with grumbling, since WWII but because the new elite are a) personally profiting as a class from policies that injure the economic interests of a broad swath of taxpayers b) Too obviously and outspokenly hold values at odds with traditional American cultural and constitutional political values – they are patronizingly antidemocratic technocrats, and c) they are not even particularly competent in how they execute their policies. This is not a recipe for legitimacy."I’m not quite sure what traditional american cultural values are, I’m sure there is no broad agreement on this.The elites have managed to build a broad coalition across america which supports there policies.  This kind of capture is serious problem, since the elites will aggressively defend the system they have captured.  That system itself defys any easy categorization, but is spread across the military and corporate sector and state sectors, each of which reinforce the others.Its this nexus of power that the American imperial system is built upon,   It is my firm belief that the world has never seen anything of this magnitude before,  the British empire was tiddly winks compared to this.  As seems clear in financial crisis this new rentier class has managed to amass considerable power.The great experiment is running, can American democracy can survive as long as it remains the greatest imperial power the world has ever seen?An interesting counter point to this is the EU experience,  There is already a trans European elite which puts European level interests before state concerns.  Those EU bureaucrats, unelected, and divorced from regional concerns, are the modern equivalent of a Chinese emperors eunuchs.  As you can expect they as widely disliked by the great run of European citizens.  America still views itself as a nation state, until it recognizes itself for what it is, a vast empire, it will have difficulty addressing the problems that empires bring.   The only section of american society which truly recognizes what it has become, is for the imperial elite, and a sizable number of those seem to be out to exploit the system as much as the can.

  11. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    I’ll agree with the distinction between pro-market and pro-business.  The revolving door also needs to be considered.
    But I think one needs to be very careful in lumping it all together into one "ruling" or "imperialistic" class. There’s a lot of back-scratching, to be sure, but I think that the right policies, some of which may be being enacted now, can bring out the differences in interests among the various groups.
    And I could be wrong. Unfortunately, Codevilla misses the mark by substituting rhetoric for evidence.

  12. Lexington Green Says:

    "Codevilla misses the mark by substituting rhetoric for evidence."

    I was with Cheryl until then. This is a polemical piece.  It is aimed at identifying enemies, unifying their opponents, and inspiring opposition.  It is Paine’s Common Sense, not Locke’s Second Treatise on Government.  In rhetoric you omit one of the three elements of a syllogism, and substitute what the reader or listener can be assumed to know or believe, the enthymeme.  Codevilla is taking for granted that we have all seen this group of people in action, know they exist, and that the people reading his piece are their opponents, and he is not trying to be fair to these opponents, he is trying to defeat them, or begin the process of defeating them.  He is not bothering to prove they exist.  We, his  target audience of readers, know they do.  If that fact is disputed by some, it is a dispute to be resolved in a different type of publication. 

  13. joey Says:

    http://www.thenation.com/article/37889/no-oligarchyWithout the comedy wailing about the evil professors.

  14. zen Says:

    Hi joey,
    Never thought I’d say this, but there’s a fair amount in that op-ed by Sanders with which I agree. One important point Sanders misses though is that middle-income wages do not stagnate because upper tax brackets are cut. While that causes greater inequality it is not the cause of a decline in real wages for lower brackets. That is driven by a number of causes, specifically and most directly corporate tax laws and SEC regs that make it advantageous for corporations to downsize for the sake of downsizing, move offshore to other taxing jurisdictions and outsource jobs. Restoring the estate tax won’t bring back good wages, changing the corporate tax code will help bring back good wages.
    More generally, there is downward macroeconomic pressure on wages due to deliberately uncontrolled immigration and globalization but illegal aliens and textile workers in Bangladesh aren’t why Company X fired half of their regional sales managers, froze hiring and employee raises while giving the CEO and corporate officers mega bonuses. It’s not why university tuitions are rising at 17 % per year or a host of other anti-middle class/pro-oligarchic actions and policies occur.

  15. Lexington Green Says:

    Mark, "…most directly corporate tax laws and SEC regs…" — this is very important.  Do you have a good source for this?  Or sources, plural?  I am very interested in this subject, how and why the middle class is getting clobbered, and I lack expertise.  Whatever cites you’ve got, dude, I want ’em.

  16. zen Says:

    I will have to dig up the general articles which i read originally from John’s sites – what we really need is a competent corporate tax attorney specialist willing to go beyond generalities to cite chapter and verse on the economic value and effects of particular examptions, deductions and prohibitions a( though I think  VC/investment gurus who can give the side of how the Feds distort business decisions would also be very informative). This is, unfortunately, far from my area (and era) of economic history that I have studied.

  17. joey Says:

    What I find interesting is the board agreement from across the political spectrum that the machine is broken.  Many of the criticisms coming from right and left seem to echo each other.  Social mobility is decreasing, wages are stagnating, the financial situation of the vast middle is deteriorating.   The Tea Party are a joke, and I find it hard to believe that they can expand out of there base.  But I do see space for a third force in American politics.  In Germany you would call them Christian Democrats, other European country’s they would be called Liberal Democrats.A christian party (small c) that seeks to defend the middle classes from the worst excessive of the free market,   but committed to a market economy.  I imagine there focus would be on education, health care, small business, self employed, middle class professionals.   It would draw its support from moderate republicans and democrats.   It would need a coming together of moderate intellectuals from both parties, as I firmly believe that moderate republicans and democrats have far more in common with each other than they do with the extremes of there own parties.Or I could be dreaming, at any rate it can’t go on like this for much longer,   we need a polite bourgeois  revolution, otherwise the door will be left open to something else.  See John Robbs global guerrillas…. 

  18. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » An Interesting “Collapse” Hypothetical Says:

    […] cause with the elite, moderately conservative rentiers of the financial and corporate world to form an incipient oligarchy. One sees their fellow Americans paternalistically as children. The other sees us as sheep to be […]

  19. The Revolution Without the Revolution « Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon Says:

    […] Usually I wouldn’t deign to lower myself to discuss a frankly partisan rant, as this is typically a waste of time and attracts the wrong sort. People shouting in each other’s faces (or doing the contemporary equivalent of this on the internet) is not my idea of intellectual stimulation. Yet there has been a lot of recent discussion of Angelo Codevilla’s essay in American Spectator (July 2010), America’s Ruling Class — And the Perils of Revolution, and now it’s time for my two cents’ worth. But I must confess I did not read this piece through; I can think of better ways to spend my time. I have relied upon summaries and comments at the Scholar’s Stage blog and Zenpundit. […]

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