Class Hegemony and the American Idealisation of the Super-Rich

In her article on the Tory abuse of sociology, Kittysjones quotes the great American author, Jack London, on American’s attitude to their own poverty and servile condition compared to the wealthy. Americans, according to London, did not see themselves as exploited. Rather, they saw themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. This appears to be true. Others have remarked that American voters tend to support the tax cuts that benefit only the multi-millionaires, while cutting the government services on which they depend, because they see themselves as one day belonging to the same class. It’s a classic example of what Marx called ‘false consciousness’ and the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci formulated as class hegemony. It’s the way the members of the working and other exploited classes take on the cultural values and ideas that justify their exploitation and the power of the ruling classes. In this case, it’s very much a continuation of 19th century ideas of personal advancement through hard work. An article in the Financial Times observed that Americans believe in equality of opportunity for groups, but not collective equality. The idea is the classic Liberal view that once obstacles to advancement are removed, the individual can work his or her way up through society by means of their own talents and hard work. The same idea was held very strongly in 19th century Britain. One of that centuries leading politicians once toured the northern industrial towns. In a speech before a crowd of ‘the labouring poor’, he declared that the power of advancement lay within the reach of all of them. The same attitude continues to permeate and inform modern American attitudes to poverty, class and social advancement.

At one level, there’s nothing wrong with it. People should have the right to use their talents to improve their position in society. One of the great boasts of American political and social culture was that people could do that in the land of free, in contrast to the feudal class systems of Europe. The same classlessness is also found Downunder in Australia. The reverse side of this aspirational attitude, at least in America, is that frequently poverty is seen not as the result of unjust social arrangements, but simply as the individual’s own fault.

This attitude has become increasingly pronounced with the rise of the Right following Reagan’s electoral victory. The Right’s political rhetoric during the last two elections celebrated the achievements of the wealthy business elite. It vehemently demanded further tax cuts in their favour, and attacked any imposition of government controls and regulation as an attack on their freedom and their ability to benefit the economy. Despite America’s strong and admirable democratic tradition, there’s also an extremely disparaging attitude to attempts to create greater equality. Advocates and promoters of such egalitarianism are frequently sneered at by some members of the Right as ‘equalitarians’.

At the risk of once again falling into Godwin’s Law, these attitudes also have parallels with Nazi ideology and that of the German Conservatives, which preceded and in many ways prepared for it. Karl Dietrich Bracher in his book The German Dictatorship notes that Hitler saw the success of business leaders in terms of his Fuhrerprinzip (leadership principle) and corresponding rejection of nationalization. In Bracher’s words ‘The leader principle explained the superior position of business leaders; they had succeeded because of their abilities; socialization or co-determination would be nothing more than a return to democracy and popular rule.’ Six years before the Nazis seized power, the extreme Right-wing author Edgar Jung published a book, Die Herrschaft der Minderwertigen (The Rule of the Inferiors) attacking the Weimar republic and demanding an elitist, Corporative state. Bracher also notes that one of the groups the Neo-Nazi NPD attempted to appeal to in the 1970s was ‘daring entrepreneurs’. I doubt very many respectable businessmen actually joined them, preferring to support the ‘Brown Reactionaries’ their predecessors sneered at in the Horst Wessel Song.

Now I am again certainly not claiming that the modern Conservative Right in American and Britain are Nazis. However disgusting Cameron and co’s policies are, they are not comparable in horror and depravity to those of the Third Reich. I am merely pointing out that they share with the Nazis extreme elitist attitudes that favour the business elite, and governments in their favour, while keeping the majority poor and political inactive.


Karl Dietrich Bracher, The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure and Consequences of National Socialism (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1971).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 Responses to “Class Hegemony and the American Idealisation of the Super-Rich”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

  2. No job, no benefits, no income for a whole year. Thanks, Cleggy. Says:

    I’m not so sure. Godwin’s Law can cram it. Which is more humane: Gassing people, or starving them into suicide?

  3. kittysjones Says:

    Excellent piece,exposing the myth of meritocracy. I wrote about the American Murray, and how his hegemonic ideology, which enshrines the myth of meritocracy were imported from the States via Thatcher,now to resurface in Coalition propaganda sounbites

    The Government are currently developing “better measures of child poverty” to provide a “more accurate reflection of the reality of child poverty.” According to the Tory-led Coalition, poverty isn’t caused through a lack of income. The Coalition have conducted a perfunctory consultation that did little more than provide a Conservative ideological framework to catch carefully calculated, subliminally shaped public responses. This framework was pre-fabricated by the strange déjà vu musings of Charles Murray, the American sociologist that exhumed social Darwinism and gave the bones of it originally to Bush and Thatcher to re-cast. Murray’s culture of poverty theory popularised notions that poverty is caused by an individual’s personal deficits, that the poor have earned their position in society, the poor deserve to be poor because this is a reflection of their lack of qualities and level of abilities.

    Of course, this perspective also assumes that the opposite is true: wealthy and “successful” people are so because they are more talented, motivated and less lazy, and are thus more deserving. Just like the widely discredited social Darwinism of the Victorian era, proposed by the sociologist Herbert Spencer, (who originally coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and not Darwin, as is widely held) these resurrected ideas have a considerable degree of popularity in upper-class and elite Conservative circles, where such perspective provides a justification for extensive privilege. In addition, poor communities are seen as socialising environments where values such as fatalism are transmitted from generation to “workshy” generation. Perhaps that’s why Thatcher destroyed so many communities: in a bid to drive her own demon out. It was invoked by a traditional Tory ritual of blame. Political responsibility was sacrificed, and that’s also a traditional Tory ritual.’

  4. kittysjones Says:

    For me,Gramsci is was one of the most important Marxist thinkers in the 20th century. He s profoundly influenced modern European thoughtwith his writings that sharply analyse culture and political leadership. Cultural hegemony,describes very well how states use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies, and he provides a tool for analysis that we need now more than ever.

    • kittysjones Says:

      the parallels with elements of American and British Conservatism and Nazi elitist ideologies.are so clear. Invoking Reductio ad Hitlerum or Godwin’s Law is unreasonable where such a comparison is appropriate and reasonable, as it is in this case. (For example, in discussions of the dangers involved in eugenics, persecution and stigmatisation of any social group, or tolerance of racist and nationalist political parties, and propaganda campaigns used to promote and justify any of these). In such a context, the dismissal of someone’s proposition on this basis becomes its own form of association fallacy and Ad Hominem attack.

  5. kittysjones Says:

    Reblogged this on kittysjones and commented:
    Gramsci is was one of the most important Marxist thinkers in the 20th century. He has profoundly influenced modern European thought with his writings that sharply analyse culture and political leadership. Cultural hegemony describes very well how states use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies, and he provides a tool for analysis that we need now more than ever. Excellent piece, also exposing the myth of meritocracy

  6. kittysjones Says:

    Reblogged this.

  7. beastrabban Says:

    Thanks for the comments, Kitty. I don’t know much about Charles Murray, but this does sound all too familiar. I have come across the idea of the ‘culture of poverty’ before. The problem is, it sounds plausible. Everyone can think of certain rough areas, sink estates where there is a problem with crime, drugs and employment. And the temptation is there indeed to blame it on the people themselves, rather than their economic circumstances. I think there probably are individuals, who do cause poverty, such as some of the violent street gangs. But it’s certainly not an explanation for widespread poverty or deprivation by any means.

    If cultures of poverty exist, then how do they explain the transformation of working class culture during the 19th century? After all, poverty, crime and horrific squalor were all too present in 19th century Britain. Yet as the century went on, crime fell and working class culture became respectable, to the surprise of the Middle Classes. Some of this was undoubtedly due to the ethic of personal improvement held by the Victorians, but other forces were also involved, not least greater prosperity and opportunities.

    And I agree with you about Antonio Gramsci, though look at the ways the Right on both sides of the Atlantic are presenting him. He is now seen as the architect of ‘cultural Marxism’, which is an attempt by Marxists to undermine the pillars of bourgeois culture, such as the family and conventional sexual morality. See some of Melanie Philips’ articles for this.

    Thanks for agreeing with me that the Reductio ad Hitlerum isn’t always ridiculous. There are clear parallels between them and the present lot. Both regimes are conservative in the sense of wishing to preserve a hierarchical, anti-socialist order. Apart from the fact that Cameron’s lot aren’t demanding genocide and the murder of the disabled, the main difference between them is that Cameron is trying to achieve these goals under a democratic framework by presenting them as empowering and liberal. And there’s a whole article there about the Orwellian use of language involved in that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: