Bourgeois False Consciousness

May 28, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives get upset when rich people push for policies that will help the poor and the less privileged.  But why? 

It might be the threat to solidarity.  It’s one thing if traditional opponents attack from the outside. But one of our own switching sides adds the insult of rejection to any injury.  Besides, the defector’s actions and judgments can’t be dismissed as mere ignorance. He is an insider, he’s been there. So while we treat prisoners of war decently (they were just playing their part in the game), we get really upset at turncoats.  Desertion and treason are punishable by death.

In the 1930s, FDR was “a traitor to his class.”  In more recent years, the conservative tone in these matters has changed from anger over betrayal to a kind of bemused condescension and questioning of motives as in Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.”  But whether the heretical rich are “traitors” or whether they are “limousine liberals,” the underlying assumption is the same: Rich people should pursue policies that help rich people. They should not make common cause with political movements created by and for the less privileged.

Conservatives here are hauling out the old Marxist concept of “false consciousness” and applying it to the bourgeoisie rather than the proletariat.  If these wealthy people had true class consciousness, they would remain true to rich people’s movements.

The latest version of this reaction came yesterday in an NPR story  about a meeting in London, a meeting of the very, very, very rich – 250 invited guests (including Prince Charles) – to talk about “inclusive capitalism.” Among things such capitalism might include are attention to the environment, to inequality, and to working conditions.

LYNN FORESTER DE ROTHSCHILD: We have $30 trillion of assets under management in the room. So if this bulk of capital decides that they are going to invest in companies that aren't only thinking about the short-term profit, then we will see corporate behavior change.

It’s hard for conservatives to blatantly oppose those goals. Instead, their strategy is to belittle. The NPR story asked Scott Winship for his reaction. Winship, works for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank (they get their money from Koch, Scaife, et al.). Winship’s statements are usually sensible and data based, but his contribution to the NPR story is just snark.

SCOTT WINSHIP: I suspect the return on investment in this conference is astonishingly low.
It sort of surprises me, I think, that you have a bunch of people in the investment community who apparently are viewing this as having a significant return on investment, in some way, whether the return is in people kind of patting them on the back and saying, thanks for caring about us, or in actual changes to policies.

Winship’s guiding principle here seems to be: If you can’t say something nasty, don’t say anything at all. Since he can’t demean the goals, he dismisses the participants’ motives (they are insecure egotists who want to be patted on the back) and says that for a bunch of investors, they’re making bad investment decisions – investing all that effort to get very little return.* Apparently, it’s better to do nothing than to try to ameliorate real problems.

Better still to devote that effort to making themselves still richer. At least that way, they’ll have conservatives patting them on the back and thanking them for being “job creators.” 
*Maybe the NPR interviewer had prompted Winship to be critical. Maybe Winship made more substantive comments that were edited out of the piece. I certainly hope so.

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