This article was first published in The eXile on June 23, 2003.
As Russians openly strive to become elitny, America’s dominant oligarchs and feeble intellectuals live in a state of grotesque denial about their elitism. Billionaires act like hicks and get away with it. Liberal intellectuals try to suckup by learning sports metaphors. The smoke and mirrors works well for the billionaires but not for the nearly-extinct Left. So why are Americans still in the elitist closet?
When I was in America this past January, I visited Old Navy for my first time. It was there that it all came together for me: the whole intertwined web of America’s elites, diversionary elites, the War On Terror, globalization, neo-imperialism, and the anti-consumerism/globalization movements. Pouring through a giant bin of $12 dollar sweaters — with a satisfied feeling that finally I was the one profiting from the Schopenhauerean forces that run this planet — I began to understand how they were all linked, and how they came together right there in that Old Navy bargain sweater bin.
The Old Navy store chain is one of those cultural events that I missed out on, having spent almost all of the 1990s abroad. Before moving to Louisville in 2001 I’d assumed that Old Navy was just a Navy surplus store chain that had been bought out by some multinational and repackaged for the middle classes. Part of the eternal cooptation of bohemian fashion by the consumerist bourgeoisie.
Then I took a temp job at NPC as a data entry processor. I replaced a nineteen-year-old girl, a poor white single mother with a mousy face and a giant ass. She’d dropped out of high school to work at age 16. When I arrived for the first day of work, she was just pulling all the photos of her baby son out of the tacks in the cubicle mesh “walls.” Thanks to my hiring, she was able to move up a tiny notch on the administrative chain. She told me more than once how glad she was to be out of my position, and feared that I wouldn’t stay on as the Small Business Approval Department’s permanent data entry aphid.
“I don’t ever want to do that job again,” she said, moving her stuff down to the opposite end of our beige, chest-high cubicle corridor to share a slightly larger 2-desk space with a divorced woman twice her age and weight.
One day, wearing another one of her oversized navy blue and white Old Navy sweaters which hung over her baggy khakis, she told me how loyal she was to Old Navy, that it was her favorite store and she always goes there for herself or for gifts for others.
“It’s the only place I’ll buy clothes,” she said. “It’s my favorite store in the world.”
A year and a half later, during a one-day vulture-like mall sweep to take advantage of the Bush-economy bargains, I stumbled into the Old Navy store in Santa Monica. Now if I know my reader, then I can see the nauseous sneer crossing your face: “Ew, gawd! Shopping! Malls! New clothes! Third Street Promenade! Ames, what happened to you? How bouge, dude!”
If you’re thinking that, then all I can say is you’re either a fucking idiot or you’ve got very generous parents. I was that fucking idiot before moving to Louisville. Hell, it was places like The Gap that first helped drive me out of the country. But that was before poverty mattered to me. Being poor in America is no fun at all. It’s not only materially horrible, but it’s a national sin, proof of your innate sloth and depravity. You’re essentially a traitor to the State if you’re poor, so the smartest thing you can do is shut your mouth and hang an American flag on your trailer.
But there are some things which make poverty more tolerable. Wal-Mart for one. I’d moved to Louisville with not even a fork or a spoon. Wal-Mart sells all that — hamper, dishes, utensils, dish rack, sheets, telephones, you name it — for prices so incredibly low that I was genuinely grateful. I thought about Wal-Mart’s union busting, its abused work staff of geriatrics and economically desperate wage slaves, its stocks of Third World products which in turn further destroyed America’s manufacturing, its aesthetic Sovietization of America… and then I thought about my own shitty fiscal situation. Conclusion: “Fuck ‘em.”
Wal-Mart is one of the few bones with a little meat on it that America throws to its tens of millions of lower-middle and semi-middle classes. Goods that once may have been unattainable are now attainable, almost free, thanks to union busting, employee abuse, Third World slave labor, the destruction of over-priced ma and pa stores, the homogenization of Middle America and every other horrible sin. When I said “Fuck ‘em,” I didn’t mean it in the sense that I’d turned coat and gone right-populist like some David Horowitz. I just meant that I needed those cheap dishes. And I understood how, from the point of view of the economically struggling millions, you could mistrust and loathe all the natty left-wing intellectuals, all the rasta-haired, chin-studded anti-consumerists who want to steal that one bone that you’ve been given: access to goods. Goods that allow you to keep from slipping down yet another terrifying notch on America’s cruel socio-economic fortress walls. You may not have health insurance, job security or a pension, but if you have goods, even inferior imitations of Crate & Barrel, then at least you’re not entirely out of the picture.
Which brings me back to my Old Navy shopping spree in early January. I’ll admit, as much as I loathe shopping, that was a glorious day for bargains. My boxers, which I hadn’t replaced in years, were in tatters. I bought several new pairs for $3 each. New pants: $19. Socks for a couple of dollars. And sweaters for $12. The store that day was full, but I was the only white person. Mostly young Latino couples and a few blacks.
The tags on the $12 sweaters said “Made in Indonesia.”
Sweat-shop labor. Multinational. The Gap (Old Navy’s parent company). Shopping malls. All the reasons why such authentically middle-class-quality clothes were available for lower-middle-class prices. This, I realized, is The Gap’s strategy: use globalization to make middle-class clothes available to the lower classes at Old Navy; solid middle to upper-middle class-type clothes clothes at struggling middle-class prices at The Gap; and yuppie/upper-middle-class-level clothing at solid middle-class prices at its “high-end” store, Banana Republic. Each offers you an affordable and real climb up the socio-economic ladder. Like Wal-Mart.
Here a cruel and almost funny cycle revealed itself. Think about it. The $12 sweater in the Old Navy bin is made by grossly underpaid Indonesian sweatshop workers. Their exploitation allows me and the Latinos to stock up on nice sweaters for prices far less in real terms than these sweaters might have cost a decade ago. But the exploitation also feeds the resentment against America that draws Indonesians towards Islamic extremism. That extremism feeds terrorism, which leads to America’s military response: war. The war is fought predominantly by America’s underclass — the very people who shop at Old Navy, the very people who benefit from the sweatshop labor that produced the terrorism that drew them back onto the battlefield.
Another nasty cycle: the multinationals move factories out of America due to its high labor costs, thereby adding to the bottom half’s increasing poverty and wage stagnation in order to further enrich the shareholders, America’s thin upper layer. Production of goods is sub-contracted out to a factory in Indonesia which pays its employees pennies and offers no benefits or protections. The Indonesian slave labor camp ships its sweaters to Old Navy stores across America at prices cheap enough for the increasingly impoverished American working class to afford. This is how the nasty effects of globalization are masked: Ralph may lose his job at the factory, but the wages he makes at his temp work are enough to keep him afloat, and the cheap Third -World-produced goods just affordable enough to keep him from being completely disenfranchised.
The lower wages/cheaper goods cycle will continue to work so long as there is mass poverty and misery in the Southern hemisphere, meaning that goods produced there and sold back to the downsized Americans will continue to drop in price in sync with the downward-pushed wages. If all goes well, that is. This downward push on wages is the shareholding class’s biggest advantage: it can shut any factory down at any time and always find a cheaper, more exploitable place; or it can hang that threat over any existing factory’s head in order to force concessions out of it: reduce wages, dismantle unions and strip benefits from its workers, so that they produce goods which other downsized workers can afford.
The real losers, of course, are the Indonesian factory slaves. But what would they be doing if they weren’t being exploited by The Gap? Look no further than Indonesia. Since the crisis in 1997, the periphery is teeming with bloodthirsty separatist movements, while the Javanese heartland is pulled deeper into anti-American Islam, and the whole thing is dotted with tiny oligarchy settlements and multinationals trying to suck as much profit from the place as quickly as possible before it all explodes. So those Old Navy slaves don’t have a lot to look forward to if, by the grace of the good anti-globalization activists, or the will of Islamic xenophobia, their plant is shut down. That would be, of course, even more disastrous, leading to more Islamic terror recruits, and therefore the need for more American soldiers drawn from Old Navy’s lower-middle-class clientele–which, if you think about it, is good for Old Navy’s business, since the US government isn’t likely to shut down the Army and employ cheap Islamic serf labor to man our nation’s defense. Lower-middle class soldiers are good for their money, so long as they don’t die before they pay the bill. The government pays the Army soldiers to fight the Indonesian terrorists; the money gets wired home to wives who use it to buy Old Navy goods in order to purchase something like a middle-class life at a lower-middle-class soldier’s wage. And as Sam Elliot says, “I guess that’s the way the whole derned human comedy works.”
What should the Left’s answer to this be? For now, they’re attacking globalization’s one tangible benefit in the eyes of the struggling classes: The Gap and Old Navy’s affordable class-leaping offerings. It’s idiotic and only serves to further alienate the Left from their natural audience, the economically disadvantaged (or rather, the economically fucked). Hence, the charges of elitism. Whatever the Left’s strategy in combating this, it should NOT by any means try to invoke the lower-middle-classes’ pity for Indonesian slave laborers. They are Islamic, for chrissakes; the enemy. Won’t work.
The rightwing oligarchy and its mandarins explain away globalization’s savage effects on the lower classes as all part of prophet Adam Smith’s wonderful plan for humanity. Or, negatively, the American Right seizes on the affordability of the goods produced overseas to attack Leftist critics for being elitist snobs because they are dismissive of the value of cheap middle-class-quality goods to the lower classes (a fair charge against the Left, though the Left is right to be elitist here) and because the Left wants to interfere with the hallowed “free market” which they claim is economics’ equivalent to “pure democracy.” This is an insane lie, evil quackery, the separation of human behavior from the hallowed “market.”
For the right wing, lying has no consequences. Whatever they say about the proponents of globalization, no one has accused them, America’s oligarchs, of being elitist. Only the natty leftwing critics are elitist. Which matters, because if that vicious feudal wage-price-war cycle I described ever reaches its logical conclusion, forcing workers to actually pay factories for the right to knit Old Navy sweaters which are then given away, with cash bonuses, to customers, someone will have to pay for it. History shows that when things turn bad, it’s the elite who tremble most.
What makes a purge of the last remaining remnants of the feeble Left almost plausible is the fact that, as I said, they’re the ones trying to convince the downsized Americans that it’s immoral and distasteful to shop at Old Navy, it being a Gap store and all. Hell knows what the Left would like Middle America to wear: Bob Marley white rasta cottons and red/yellow knit cap? Thrift store outfits? That sounds way too complicated for most of us. At least at Old Navy they make it easy. Cheap and easy shopping — about the only legal pleasure left in America.
The Left needs to understand how truly sweet this bone of affordable imitation-middle-class clothes feels to America’s poor if it wants at least a hope of connectng. Their hatred of all things Gap, including Old Navy, is elitist. It’s rooted as much in a cultural elite’s disdain for “looking like everyone else” as it is in moral revulsion at sweat shops. That doesn’t mean the Left is wrong, but it is not a popular argument among struggling wage slaves who watch Friends and dream that some day they might be able to afford Banana Republic.
By their fashion choices, their affected poverty, their disdain of all the material things beyond the struggling class’s reach — nice suits and ties, clean haircuts, SUVs — the American Left seems to be literally mocking you at the same time that it tries to take away your Old Navy bone, and they add to the mockery by telling you that keeping you away is all for your own good, pointing to obscure statistics about stagnant real wages, wealth transfer, and so on. As if you don’t know what’s what. What’s what is this: what you can afford. In Louisville, among the real bedrock suckers, I realized that those who attack Wal-Mart — whether socially-committed activists or upper-class left-wing Manhattanites (like Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickled And Dimed) — must be living with the certainty that they’re never going to need Wal-Mart. I too attacked Wal-Mart until I moved Stateside. Then I needed it, no matter how much its hands were soaked in blood.
The Left’s elitism is manifest on a more personal level as well. No anti-consumerist or left-wing academic would want to hang out with the 19-year-old single mother data entry processor I replaced, and vice-versa. They don’t speak the same language. At least billionaire Sam Walton wore baseball caps, spoke plain American, went to church and was clean-cut. He doesn’t appear to be mocking the lower-middle classes. He just wants everything they’ve got, that’s all.
If one thing came through in Ehrenreich’s book, it was that she couldn’t stand being around poor shallow losers who worked wage jobs at Wal-Mart and in maid services, largely because they weren’t sufficiently aware of how horribly their lives sucked. So they were dumped as people, only useful to her as literary objects of pathos for her bleeding-heart bourgeois NPR readership. She even went so far as to attack workers who were fat, the greatest sin among America’s elite. For Ehrenreich, fatness is a choice, not a Schopenhauerian symptom, a secondary disease of poverty and a dead-end life. Junk food is cheap and easy, the fats a tiny buzz of legal pleasure.
So my near life-long revulsion for consumerism was really a kind of elitism, one I was able to maintain not because I got rich but rather because I opted out of the whole paradigm when I moved to Russia. That doesn’t make my “elitism” wrong. Not by any means. It just means that it is valid under certain conditions, and irrelevant under others.
The Left is an elite. Let’s admit it. From bourgeois liberals like Ehrenreich to Hard Leftists like the anti-globalization activists or even us at the eXile (though I’m never really sure how deep our Leftism runs.) Take Debbie, the data entry processor whom I replaced at NPC. I don’t ever want to be like her. Or around her, if I can help it. Or the tens of millions like her. Like many Kentuckians I met, she loathed Clinton for being a two-timer and respected Bush for being “real.” This is as good a reason as any to stay away from the disenfranchised.
As Talking Heads bravely sang, “I wouldn’t live the way those people do/I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to!”
Why shouldn’t the Left acknowledge its elite status? What the hell are we trying to hide? Who are we trying to fool with our denial of our elitism — the Debbies (who don’t listen to the Left anyway) or ourselves? Can you handle being in opposition to your own countrymen, your own targeted class, on the grounds that you know better?
What makes it so difficult to accept the notion that the tweedy Left is an elite is that, compared to America’s real elite — the all-powerful, vampiric right-wing oligarchy–the tweed elite is insignificant. Somehow the kleptocrats managed to invert objective American reality, making themselves “regular folks” in the eyes of the Debbies, while liberals and leftists, whose platforms are designed to help the poor and middle-classes at the expense of the wealthy, have been successfully tagged “elitists.” How did it work out that Bush, a pampered prep school brat who came from generations of wealth and never had to struggle in his life, is considered “regular folks” by the regular folks, whereas Clinton, who came from truly horrible white trash in Arkansas, the kind of poor broken home that Debbie was only a step or two away from and may yet end up in herself, is considered an elitist?
Clinton wanted to give health insurance to the tens of millions of Americans who are without it; the Republicans killed it. Now only an elite few can afford good health care. How is it that someone could call a poor sucker in Ken “elitist” for wanting to help him live longer, perhaps as long as a millionaire, while the millionaires and billionaires, the ones who have been using the Republican power to push through even more radical transfers of wealth into their pockets, are not seen as an “elite”?
The Left blames the rightwing media conspiracy, but I’m pretty sure that even if the American people were given exactly even doses of Left, Center and Right-wing ideology, that they’d gravitate in force towards Limbaugh Radio. First, because the Right loves America, genuinely so as far as I can tell. The Right identifies itself with America. The Right has always had an easier time sounding like convinced patriots: they like the symbols, the flags, Sunday at church, wearing suits and ties as often as possible. The lower-middle classes don’t hate these things the way that the Left instinctively does.
The Left, on the other hand, either likes an America that doesn’t quite exist or loathes what America has become, and that puts off most of the white working poor. Cultures tend towards extremes at certain periods in their history: during Stalin’s time you couldn’t be too anti-bourgeois and unsentimental; in England in the late 1600s, you couldn’t be too Protestant or anti-Catholic; and today in America, you can’t be too patriotic or too hokey.
Secondly, the white underclass — and we may as well call those tens of millions struggling to get into or to keep from getting tossed out of the nominal middle-class as a kind of “underclass” whose tragedy hasn’t yet been hallowed — really identifies with Bush. For example, his diction: this is where educated Leftists and liberals just can’t connect with Middle America. You can’t fake that hazy-headed simplicity of Bush’s. I remember being shocked by Bush’s first post-9/11 speech, which struck me as grotesquely unemotional, insincere, uninspiring and hard to listen to just for his sheer inability to hold thoughts longer than a sentence or two. That day my landlord sent over his electrician to fix my air conditioner. He told me, “Man, did you hear Bush’s speech? He’s angry, and he means business. If I was Osama and I heard that speech, I would be doo-dooing in my pants.” I remember looking at him, thinking, “Who extended the right to vote to this monkey?”
Bush’s mannerisms accidentally harmonized with Middle America’s, the very people who should be looking to lynch him for destroying their lives. But he’s got something they understand on some primordial mammal level. You’ve had to have had spent your youth avoiding homework, cheating on tests and spending weekends sucking a beer bong to speak like Bush does, particularly considering his Exeter/Yale/Harvard education. Amazingly, Bush’s inarticulate simplicity as well as his long years of coke-sniffing, drunk-driving sin are not only forgiven in Protestant Middle America, but are even considered virtues. In the Bible, Jesus says that God looks far more fondly upon someone who spends a life in sin and at the end repents than on a virtuous man who, at the end of life, allows himself to sin. So Bush played his cards right. Even Jesus apparently looks at him like a stand-up guy.
And lastly there is the issue of patronizing. All the good Leftists who come to help out the Debbies of the world are seen as inherently patronizing by the same Debbies. The Republicans talk about self-reliance, which goes over well in a country as crudely Protestant as America. They don’t make a fuss as they pick her pockets. The Left makes a big fuss about her as a victim while they try to fill her pockets, and for most Americans, that is just unbearable.
Another thing I learned living in Kentucky is that the have-nots don’t like seeing one of their own make it. I’ll give you another example. Louisville has produced, to my knowledge, only one alternative music deity, Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. In Europe and on the coasts, in Australia, he packs them in and draws the interviews. In Louisville, even 8 years after releasing his first album and about 5 years since his last local concert, he still wasn’t able to muster up more than 50 people to his lakeside show. I asked a guitar player in a doomed-to-be-local garage band why Oldham, my hero at the time, was so unappreciated locally. Her answer was an earful of invective against Oldham which came down to calling him an “elitist” — and she was a left-wing lesbian graduate student! She and all the others hated Oldham for making it out of town.
There is something pre-destined about Will Oldham’s fame that can be daunting, and, I can see, resentment-inspiring. I think that explains why Clinton is so loathed in Middle America: not because he’s sleazy (in Kentucky, good people are expected to rip each other off), but because he’s one of them. Which is why they’ll never forgive him.
Take, as a counter-example, America’s mega-oligarchy. They’re so fabulously wealthy and hard-working, these Bushes, Cheneys, Kenneth Lays, Jack Welches: they are Superhumans, a breed that Middle Americans simply never have and never will meet in their lives. They’re barely even real, yet at the same time, they don’t openly mock Middle America. In fact, they try to embody it.
Americans have a choice between two elites, the leftwing intellectuals, or their remnants, and the right wing oligarchy. Guess which one will win. Here’s a hint: one side has the money, the industry, the lobbyists, the police, bean-bag guns, APC-mounted water cannons, stun guns, pepper spray, rubber bullets, a near-monopoly on mainstream media contacts and lots of psychologically-impressive expensive dark suits with stern ties. The other side has mountain bikes and the ability to create 10-foot tall papier-mache puppets. Oh no, don’t use the fucking puppets on us!
The American leftwing elite was once a serious threat to the right-wing oligarchy: in the 1930s particularly and again in the 1960s through the late 70s, Democrats used their power to extend benefits to the poor and health coverage to the elderly. This was considered a good thing by the people who benefited from it, while the Republicans and their wealthy corporate backers who tried to nix it all were considered “elitist” and worse. If politics is all about the distribution of wealth, then there was a time when the right-wing oligarchy had to fear some of its wealth being taken and spread about by the liberal elite. From the oligarchy-elite’s point of view, they’ve had their revenge on LBJ and Roosevelt, and then some.
The right-wing elite crushed their leftist opponents from the late 70s onward. Oppression and cooptation work, folks.. Police tactics destroyed the more radical 60s revolutionaries from Marxists to the Black Panthers. Some were killed, others framed or driven to despair. The rest have been co-opted or pushed into the Vegan-treated margins. And no wonder. America’s capitalist business culture forces Leftists either to drop out of mainstream society, which can be terrifying, or drags them into the Office World, which is crushing. In other words, it’s nearly impossible to be a Leftist and a mainstream American, but easy to be a Right-winger and in the mainstream.
So it comes down to the pack mentality. The People are gullible and foolish in political matters and go by what they believe is their gut instinct. I can’t tell you how many people I know voted for Bush against Gore because they “couldn’t stand Gore as a person” or they “didn’t trust Gore” but they “felt comfortable with Bush” somehow knowing that he “isn’t sleazy.”
It’s this that makes the leftwing intellectuals by definition elitist, that is, apart from the Middle. The normals know instinctively that the left is an elite. Denials on the left’s party don’t help — this isn’t a rational argument, it’s about smell. So those of us who identify with the left, the Hard Left, better start facing an uncomfortable fact: not only are we an elite, but we don’t like the People and they don’t like us.
And this is where we turn to Russia and its idea of elite. Mercifully, Russian elitism is much more simple, straightforward and free of hypocrisy and delusion than its American counterpart.
It’s an instructive counter-example — instructive in that it proves how objectively crazy American political culture has become.
In the first place, the word “elitny” in Russian is an entirely positive term. There’s no room for false modesty in Russia. If an oligarch tomorrow decided to dumb himself down like Sam Walton — say, he puts on a Spartak scarf and takes the Metro to work to show that he’s just a regular guy — no Russian would buy it. At the very least they’d think he’s an incredible buffoon. His own deputy would probably ice him on the spot, not only for “showing weakness,” to borrow from American Me’s William Forsythe, but for “showing idiocy.”
One of the best ways of framing Russia’s attitude to elitism was described by Matthew Maly in his brilliant book, Understanding Russia, published about seven years ago but just as relevant today. He described Russian society as consisting of two layers: “Gods” and something like “All The Rest.” Gods, the privileged, the elite upper ten percent, live in a parallel world above what in Russia passes for law. The law as described by Maly is some kind of toxic crust that the masses stuck beneath do everything to avoid. One example: they learn how to walk past cops without getting noticed. It’s not easy, but it works, like fooling the spore aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers: just avoid eye contact and look like you’re on your way somewhere.
The Gods, on the other hand — the Russian elite — genuinely don’t see authority wherever they go because authority tends to defer to them. They take as much as they can, rarely pay for dinners, drinks or anything else in spite of their wealth, and flaunt their status with as much gaucherie and condescension as they are capable of.
Everyone here wants to make it into the elite. And for obvious reasons. Life is better as a God than as a cow. Strangely enough, in a country like America which prides itself on its rugged individualism and striving for excellence, the idea of a class of excellent people is something Americans would abhor and reject, even though this class exists. America doesn’t want to see it; therefore, it doesn’t exist. Case closed.
The first dividing line between the masses and the elitny, at least in Moscow, runs through transportation. If you take the Metro or busses, you’re a schmuck and the cops are likely to treat you as one. The first step out of the narod is getting yourself a car. The reasons are as much practical as anything: the Metro is stuffy and crowded (which makes it unbearably hot and smelly in the summer and a SARS incubator in winter). Women especially can get harassed and hit up on. And the cops: they wait at every crossing like crocodiles in the Serengeti rivers waiting for wildebeests to make their seasonal crossing: no matter what, some Metro passengers are going to become militsia food.
In the car world, the basic distinction is further broken down between foreign and domestic cars. One thing I’ve noticed this summer is how many women now drive cars. Girls behind wheels tend to be prettier than the average girl on the street, and they almost invariably drive foreign cars, whereas men drive mostly Russian cars. I’ve also noticed that most women drivers can be spotted at any given time either dialing or talking on their cell phones while driving (another elitny attribute) while men, at least those in otetchesvenie cars, are hunched over and staring ahead, hoping not to catch the predatory glance of a traffic cop.
The highest layer of elitny doesn’t drive at all. They have drivers who shuttle them around in their German sedans, paying no attention to traffic signals or speed limits. I’ve been in such cars myself. A few times, going about 120 MPH in downtown Moscow, we were pulled over by the militsia. My elitny friend and his driver literally laughed at the cop when he asked for their documents, responding to him in mocking bad English, which deeply unnerved the officer. Only a God would feel that confident. By the end of the conversation, the cop was apologizing profusely, using my friend’s first name and patronymic. My friend tried to pay him a 100 ruble fine, a menacing insult; the cop refused to accept it and finally walked away, bowing and scraping.
The elitny travel, they get good health care, they eat well every day, they don’t have to pay taxes and they party hard. They also like exclusivity — ekslusivnie as it’s called. They don’t like going to clubs, bars or restaurants where regular people are allowed in. Their food, clothes and parties are better than anyone’s. A girl I met from the miserable podmoskovie town of Pushkino told me about the local “baron,” a vodka magnate who, every weekend, throws huge parties including massive fireworks shows at his dacha-castle. She was impressed. It was either that, or dead-end poverty.
Interestingly enough, the opposite of elitny is “demokratichny,” or democratic. It’s not necessarily a pejorative (except to the elite), but it’s not exactly a compliment to a place if it’s described as democratic. Democratichny implies mediocrity because you don’t have to do anything or be anything special to be accepted. Prices can also be demokratichnie, but that’s not as much of an insult. The real issue is one of exceptional status: If you’re not exceptional, then by definition, you’re unexceptional. And being unexceptional is the biggest disgrace a Russian can face. Russia has always proven Nietzsche’s theory that a million humans are sacrificed to create one great one.
It’s obvious why one would want to be elitny here. Objectively speaking, only a sucker wouldn’t want to live like an elite. And really, do ours really live much differently? America’s elite lives essentially above the law; they don’t pay taxes or follow the laws in business or in private life; for them, there simply are no drug laws; they have much higher quality medical care than the rest of Americans, live longer, and own what are called “mega-mansions” which, unlike Russia’s, are well-hidden. The main difference is that America’s elite has much less fun on average than Russia’s, not counting the Hollywood stars of course.
Russia’s definition of elitism hasn’t always been this earthy. In the Soviet period, Russia had a similar battle between the all-powerful nomenklatura, the real elite (like America’s rightwing oligarchical elite), and the intelligentsia, the equivalent of America’s “liberal elite.” Like their American counterparts, Russia’s liberal intelligentsia were often savage critics of the state, only they were far braver and took far greater risks than the American Left.
The nomenklatura took the intelligentsia’s power seriously, far more seriously than seemed necessary at the time. Stalin nearly killed them off as a class, while Khruschev tried to co-opt them and Brezhnev wavered between moderate tyranny and qualified tolerance. Like the American right-wing oligarchy, the Soviet nomenklatura saw the Russian intelligentsia, particularly the liberal elite, as not only a threat to their power, but as inherently anti-Soviet and unpatriotic at heart. And they weren’t entirely wrong, not by a long shot.
The most startling thing to remember about Russia’s intelligentsia is how powerful they once were. The Tsarist-era intelligentsia, at least a part of it, was responsible for helping foment unrest throughout the 19th Century. The Russian intelligentsia was, again, brave, radical and essentially left-wing elitist, unpatriotic, anti-feudal. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, as the “Vanguard of the Proletariat,” made leftwing intellectual elitism a creed. The October Revolution was the leftwing intelligentsia’s crowning moment — and their most fatal. Twenty years later, they were hauled off to the GULAGs.
In the late Soviet period, again the intelligentsia was seen as a bourgeois liberal threat to the nomenklatura, was persecuted, but eventually, it again triumphed, bringing the hated (by the liberal intelligentsia) Soviet state down. And again, like in 1917, their own demise as a class followed. In other words, by their own liberal dissidence, Russia’s intelligentsia has twice committed mass suicide. Give the nomenklatura and the oligarchy in America at least this much: they’d never so much as make a phone call that wasn’t in their direct selfish interests, let alone bring down a state and their own class’s existence with it
Many of the fallen Soviet-era intelligentsia that I’ve met are as snobbish as the new elite, only they’re much poorer and don’t use “blya” every third word. However, they constantly deride non-intelligentsia types for being “nekulturny” or “iz provintsii.” Just recently, when I pointed at a cute bartender to a friend of mine from the intelligentsia elite who today has the manners and elitny apartment of a Soviet aristocrat but not the money or cars, she remarked dismissively, “The bartender looks like a typical Klava.” In other words, a common Russian peasant.
Common — that’s exactly what Russia’s elite avoids.
Common is exactly how Bush, an elite if there ever was one, got himself elected president. By being as common as common can be.
The Russian liberal intelligentsia elite twice destoyed Russia in the name of abstractions like revolution and democracy; the American liberal elite has never come close to seriously threatening the right-wing oligarchical elite, but they have oscillated between periods of limiting the oligarchy’s power and the other extreme where they are today, ceding all ground but a few harmless reservations in universities and the odd newspaper column. It appears that the only reason that the leftwing intellectual “elite” in America hasn’t been completely stomped out is that their continued existence as a harmless Bogeyman serves the Right well. Like Stalin’s saboteurs, the American Right’s “liberal elite” is blamed for everything that can and does go wrong. The feeble Left plays its part well, still trying to reason things out and work incrementally.
Unlike Russia’s elite, America’s liberal elite is completely deluded about who they are and what the American people have become. So I’ll say it again: stop pretending that you’re not elite. Instead, try and be MORE elitist than you really are. It’s the only way you’ll ever get respect.
First: forget about trying to court Middle America. You just get on their nerves when you try. The more you talk about the NBA playoffs or boxing, the more they fantasize seeing you in an orange jumpsuit and manacles at Camp X-Ray. Start off by not talking to The People anymore. Abandon them. At least you’ll feel better about yourself.
Next: enjoy yourselves. Take your cue from the Russians: you’re better than the common herd, so start acting like it. Life for a Leftie might finally become attractive to the masses if they think you’re onto something. And even if they don’t follow, at least you’ll be treated better if you treat people worse and behave like the Intellectual snob that you are.
This article was first published in The eXile on June 23, 2003.
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