About a two decades ago, I was happy to say that I was part of what one of the Bush presidents called ‘The Ownership Society’. But around that same time, as the dot com economy went through some irrational gyrations, some doubts about who was running that society grew in my mind. Around 2008 as things fell apart, I had a bit of confidence that what was broken might ultimately be fixed. These days I’m divesting myself of a great deal of all of that hope. Along the way I developed something called The Peasant Theory. I’d like to explain it so that as we move forward together here you’ll be able to make use of it. It may actually need some polish.
The Peasant Theory incorporates a number of concepts, not the least of which is a common sense sustainability, but its primary gist is a look at functional class in the context of American life. As briefly as I can state it, there are three functional classes of Americans, and I think these definitions work in all of the WEIRD world. One of the signature aspects of these functional definitions is that their boundaries are fairly difficult to cross. They are the rulers, the geniuses and the peasants. You pretty much know if you’re going to be a ruler, genius or peasant by the time you are a senior in high school, and if you haven’t decided, then it’s likely to be peasant for you.
There is a streak of pessimism in this look at class. That pessimism is born by the evidence of an ever more tiresome and sloppy populist politics and its failure to sustain a credible faith in nationalism and democratic institutions. I leave it to you to fill in exemplary blanks. I have my reasons, you have yours. Collectively in 2012, for example, we gave the US Congress a 12% approval rating, an unfortunately easy set of numbers to remember.
The Peasant Class (85%)
The American peasantry are those people who are essentially disqualified from the broad critical national meritocracy. Here’s how to know you are a peasant. The biggest boss you report to in your line of work does not work directly for the ruling class. That means if you work at Xerox and your boss’s boss is not in regular contact with the CEO, you’re out. Even if that is the case and your CEO is not in the Fortune 500, then no, you’re still a peasant.
Part of the usefulness of this categorization is to help you understand and take pride in your peasant self. Certainly all peasants are not alike and I want to stress to you that there is no shame in being a peasant. Nor do I suggest that one has a particular duty to your class or your classmates. I am merely delineating class lines and helping people recognize what class actions are more or less likely to actually produce change in the larger society.
The Genius Class (12%)
You are in the GC if you are in a fairly tight relationship in your area of expertise with members of the ruling class. Some of these hierarchies are short, some are very deep, but you have a clear idea where you stand when thinking about disaster or drastic change. If you are the person responsible for setting up the studio mics for Radiohead’s next album then you are GC. College professors, surgeons and top professionals in every industry are the geniuses. The key to being in this stratum of society is that without your ascent and competence the rulers have little or no agency. The genius is the man behind the curtain in the throne room of the Emerald City, without whom there is no great and powerful Oz.
The GC is a meritocracy, but the quality of that meritocracy is subject to the direction of the Ruling Class. The rulers can pick Walter Cronkite or they can pick Keith Olbermann. They can pick Warren Christopher or they can pick Newt Gingrich. Genius is abundant in America, and there are more than enough who are qualified to be on the first team. Indeed this deep bench of genius is what makes America a stellar nation - it is something we still retain. Nevertheless, genius can be ignored. Genius can be fired. Genius can be excommunicated and banished into obscurity.
The Ruling Class (3%)
The rulers rule because they can give you what you cannot give yourself, no matter how brilliant or creative or rich you might be. They they can deliver the opportunity for glory. It is prestigious just to be associated with the Ruling Class. You can’t give yourself a Pulitzer Prize, a Purple Heart or even a Daytime Emmy. Such honors are bestowed by the ruling class. That’s not all the rulers do. They, like all rulers, retain license to wield power, and only the power of rulers yield up power to others and crown them. The rulers are rulers because they make the rules. It’s pretty much that. They are not easily displaced because, first of all, they rule over armies of geniuses to defend their fiefdoms. More importantly, rulers rule because they can break the rules. Theirs are the infinitely crafty ways and means of power.
What’s important to know about the rulers are that they are captive to the abilities of the geniuses and the dreams of the peasantry. None can survive betrayal. Geniuses have loyalties to both the rulers and the peasants. The disgust of the peasants can destroy, the peasants are a force of nature. But mostly the rulers are indebted to each other, holding secrets and supporting deals that keeps shaky edifices of power from crumbling. The rulers are blackmailing each other all the time, lest the geniuses catch wind. Power still abhors a vacuum.
The important part of this essay is to give us some comfort that our primary role as a peasantry can only actually work if we believe that is what we are. I think Americans have been deceived by various sinister as well as good intentioned boosts to our self-esteem. We tend to believe that our social standing, our salary, our opinions, our fashionableness, our personalities and our concerns are more important than they are. If you feel pricked, even ever so slightly by the possibility that you actually are a peasant, then you perhaps have been subject to this boost. In my own case, the boost came from myself as I am capable of great conceits. Most writers like me have similar capacities.
We often say “It can’t happen here.” in America when what we really intend to mean is that “It’s highly unlikely to happen to me.” But if we acknowledge our fungible expendability we are likely to take a more pessimistic or realistic view of matters. Specifically I’m talking about the chances that whatever privileges we enjoy in society might be suddenly revoked. There are chances that our civil liberties will be curtailed. Such a disaster. Why would anyone even entertain such thoughts? This is a democracy. This is a great republic. Yes it is. But it is still run by a Ruling Class through the capabilities of a Genius Class at the general consent of the Peasant Class. All of those classes have their unique vulnerabilities.
Our aim here, my friends and fellows is to make sense of them and insure that we peasants are in good enough shape to live long and healthy lives even if and when these other functional classes default.
I will add to this the following short note. I overlap these broad classes with Mimetic Tribes, but that is for another day.