THE STARS ARE NOT IN ALIGNMENT. A wave of disgruntlement has been sweeping across our country’s paragons of success. Not those masters of the universe at the absolute top of the hierarchy, to be clear—most of whom have invested a tremendous amount of capital and ingenuity in keeping themselves out of the public eye. On the whole, they are content to leave well enough alone, sated with their sky-high stock market returns and the whack-a-mole decapitation of any serious challenges to the political-economic order.
But just one rung down the ladder, a sense of victimization and resentment has begun to grip the American elite. Prompted by the pandemic-era elimination of a Seamless meal-expensing benefit, junior analysts at Goldman Sachs are, according to New York magazine, in full “revolt.” Wealthy award-winning journalists are fleeing their publications for the Wild West of Substack, convinced that editing is a form of censorship. Most recently, thirty-eight big-name Harvard faculty signed an open letter decrying the unfair treatment of star anthropologist John Comaroff at the hands of the university administrators who issued a slap-on-the-wrist sanction against him for sexual harassment in January. (Thirty-five of them eventually issued a non-apology “retraction.”) The Ivy League named-chair professoriate, not usually known for stand-taking, finally found its conscience roused by the prospect of bureaucratic circumscription of its “pedagogical” prerogatives.
Outside the Acela Corridor, the liege lords of middle-American suburbia have also embraced a put-upon affect. This was the demographic from which the Capitol rioters of January 6, 2021, were disproportionately drawn. A team of University of Chicago researchers found that the mob determined to “take America back” was stuffed with “CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants.” They were “middle-class and middle-aged.” Forty percent of those arrested and charged worked in white-collar jobs or owned a business; they were denizens of the sort of respectable zip codes in which American dreamers have traditionally aspired to own property. Now, the fearsome specter of Democrats winning elections has apparently placed quiet bourgeois contentment out of reach for them.
These are the little bosses, the super-employees—from Harvard Yard to Waukesha County. They have their Priuses and F-250s, their healthy portfolios, their enviable school districts. They were the winners of the New Economy of the turn of the twenty-first century. The reappearance of Gilded-Age levels of income and wealth inequality was supposed to be the price we paid to keep them happy: the stars and entrepreneurs on whom innovation and prosperity allegedly depended. And for a while they were happy. But now the persistence of the bigger bosses has begun to grate, especially since it allows subordinates to go over the little bosses’ heads with their complaints. As Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn observes in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, there’s always a bigger fish.
Our workforce-wide star system—the valorization of the super-employees at the expense of everyone else—is the legacy of the consultants, management gurus, and corporate “restructurers” who sought to restore the American economy to “competitiveness” amid the doldrums of the 1970s and early 1980s.