American Affairs Journal

Capitalism’s Character Types

The development of global capitalism also drives economic conservatives to be selective in their historical memories

Former Senior Fellow

Writing in the Atlantic, in an article titled “How Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration” (July/August 2017), Peter Beinart asks why Democrats moved from evenhandedness on the issue of immigration to a fervent belief in open borders. Why did they move from support for patriotism to contempt for the nation-state? Why do they refuse to downplay diversity for the sake of unity, if only to attract more voters? Despite raising these questions, Beinart shrinks from answering them, hoping to moderate what he considers to be unwise behavior among Democrats without identifying the cause of that behavior.

Curiously, many economic conservatives engage in similar obfuscation, and on the same issues. Republicans, too, shifted toward leniency on immigration, pursuing policies weakening the nation-state while exploiting patriotic rhetoric. For example, many argue that restricting immigration is un-American, even though the United States curtailed immigration during much of the so-called American century. As with the Democrats, one senses that their arguments are never real, never frank. We have everything but the truth.

The answer to Beinart’s questions lies in the accumulated incentives of the global economy. The development of global capitalism also drives economic conservatives to be selective in their historical memories. This truth risks embarrassment for both parties. For progressive Democrats, who supposedly distrust capitalism, the truth risks exposing them as shills for unrestricted capital and markets; for economic conservatives, who love capitalism, the truth risks their finding fault with what they love.

Global capitalism’s role in all this deceit is best understood through the analysis of its most recent character type—the globally mobile, be they technocrats, entrepreneurs, or the new leisure class. American history has often been portrayed as a series of such character types, including the Yankee Protestant, William Whyte’s Organization Man, and David Brooks’s Bobo (Bourgeois Bohemian). These character types are always exaggerations and caricatures—not all Americans conformed to each particular type even during its heyday. In addition, the types crystallized the cultures of their respective eras but lacked predictive value. Each type eventually disappeared and was largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the types share two important traits.

First, each type captured the spirit of the American upper middle class at a particular moment. This is important because only the upper middle class has sufficient numbers, influence, and wealth to control culture. Second, each type rationalized the capitalism of its day. Although capitalism improves living standards, it comes with a kind of duplicity—for example, political equality standing beside economic inequality. Each new generation of the upper middle class must guard itself against capitalism’s undesirable questions and complications by means of a systematic hypocrisy, whether to legitimate itself more broadly or simply to ease the conscience of its own elite. This systematic hypocrisy does not merely remain a matter of custom, but sometimes acquires a political character. Instead of being just a social habit it becomes a governing philosophy—and a culture.

Today’s globally mobile character type has emerged from this tradition. It represents upper-middle-class men and women during the age of global capitalism. Because they benefit from global capitalism while others do not, the globally mobile must rationalize their good fortune by dodging painful truths—hence, the hypocrisy. In fact, it is where the globally mobile are most hypocritical that global capitalism’s intentions and consequences are revealed. Today’s Democratic Party, as well as the establishment wing of the Republican Party, is the party of these “citizens of the world.” The answers to Beinart’s questions lie in a deeper understanding of what makes these people tick.

Capitalism’s Character Types

Let’s start with the character types preceding the globally mobile and the hypocrisy they engaged in. Max Weber inspired the first upper-middle-class character type: the nineteenth-century Protestant Yankee manufacturer. The major cultural tension during this period was between an economy that often left lower-income people to fend for themselves and a religion that commanded everyone to “love thy neighbor.” To ease this tension, the nineteenth-century American upper middle class proclaimed the road to wealth open to all. Horatio Alger stories flourished. Although possessing an air of truth about them, the stories glorified the holiness of thrift and self-reliance while camouflaging other, darker truths about poverty. The notion that poor people had only themselves to blame for their situation neutralized the unpleasantness posed by their existence. The new narrative also pushed a corresponding negative character type: the malingerer, or someone kept in line only by the threat of the almshouse. The prejudice was so ingrained in upper-middle-class minds that few people noticed the absurd contradiction involved in the situation or saw that the truth of life went hand in hand with hypocrisy.

The new narrative confused workers. For centuries, at least in Europe, they had been encouraged to integrate themselves into their communities through the guilds that dotted Europe’s urban landscape. Religion had ennobled them. Now they were suspected of being shiftless and lazy.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the old regional economy in the United States had given way to a national economy based on a few large companies mass-producing consumer goods, with the majority of Americans living in cities and working as dependent employees. In the 1950s, journalist William Whyte defined the new culture with a new character type: Organization Man. Again, the white-collar upper middle class was the culture’s center of gravity.

The major threat to Organization Man under national capitalism was not socialism—indeed, the liberal welfare state that began under Organization Man rule was a variation on socialism—but rather, the worker eager to strike out on his own, who refused to be a team player or to work for and with the Organization. That threat was neutralized through a new culture that labeled the troublesome worker abnormal, even mentally ill, and someone best referred to a human resources department or company psychologist for counseling, or simply fired altogether. The upper middle class suffered no pangs of conscience thinking this way. To their minds, the Organization gave the working man a job, fed him, and clothed him, but also counseled him, cared for his inner spirit, and gave him a feeling of belonging—more than the old capitalist system did.

The new system had its share of hypocrisy. The sociologist David Riesman, for example, coined the phrase “antagonistic cooperation” to describe company managers who pretended to work for the team, all while secretly advancing their own careers. On the bottom sat workers, confused once again: in the past they had been told to follow Horatio Alger’s creed, to be ambitious and entrepreneurial, and now they were told to be good company men and women; in the past they had been told to be provident, and now they were told to load up on consumer goods and fuss over marginal differences in product lines.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the United States went from being a national economy to being the central economy in an ever-expanding international economy, which demanded a more dynamic upper-middle-class businessperson. Newspapers proclaimed the end of Organization Man and the rise of Entrepreneurial Man. Ambition and drive were back in vogue. Wealth grew. Still, some people benefited more than others. Pangs of conscience returned.

The upper-middle-class narrative changed to fit the situation. Entrepreneurial Man was someone who succeeded through cleverness, even greed, while also remembering the most unfortunate. He made money but was ready to sacrifice to perform a community service. He worked a lot, played a lot, slept little; he read leftish magazines and on weekends wore old jeans, just as the workingman did. He spoke with confidence in the boardroom, but his favorite pastime was pickup basketball. Although Entrepreneurial Man was less interested in institutional protections for the working class than Organization Man had been, he was more interested in looking like the worker. David Brooks’s character type, the Bobo, captured the desire among upper-middle-class professionals to copy workers in almost everything but salary.

Nor did material for hypocrisy stop at a worker’s clothes. John Rawls’s Theory of Justice proclaimed that justice was served when economic arrangements benefited the least advantaged. Many upper-middle-class professionals glommed onto the theory, for it let them ignore the working poor and focus their attentions on the homeless and the underclass through legislation that left their financial positions untouched.

Again, workers were confused. The message of Organization Man had been to buy the latest consumer products. Now they were told that their old jeans and work shirts were fashionable after all, that their white trash cooking was a subgenre of “cuisine,” and their shabby furniture was “antique.” Moreover, although the upper middle class aspired to look like them, its real sympathies lay with the underclass beneath them.

In the last twenty years, capitalism has moved from merely international to “global.” Both capital and labor stream across borders. It is the era of the globally mobile. It is what capitalism has been moving toward from the beginning: a world without nations, without peoples; an entire world organized solely for production and consumption.

Class and Cultural Conflict

The major threat to the globally mobile comes from those who retain a more customary—and often territorial—sphere of human activity and operation, who possess persistent attributes that have been bringing them into greater tension with the globally mobile.  These new “provincials” are not provincial because they have chosen to abandon the cities for the provinces. Indeed, they sometimes live in cities. But unlike the globally mobile, the new provincials retain an attachment to the groups that have articulated personal identity for centuries—whether religious, tribal, ethnic, national, or class-based. They follow traditional norms of gender differentiation and family construction, values that the upper middle class themselves once embraced—until they became the globally mobile—and in many cases still quietly follow. Worst of all, these new provincials, left behind in the new capitalism, also speak and behave in ways that the globally mobile now view as backwards. They are, in short, people for whom the global economy has no use (except in low-wage service jobs), and whom the globally mobile otherwise disdain.

The globally mobile are at war with the new provincials. Like their predecessors, they have become champions and propagandists of a new set of moral principles to neutralize the threat that these unfashionable, “useless” workers pose. Yet the struggle between the two character types signifies more than just upper-middle-class Americans trying to rationalize their good fortune. It also represents a new struggle to realize the highest ambitions of modernity (which includes both progressives and conservatives). The modern world says human beings are infinitely malleable; all one needs is the right educational institutions, with teeth in them, and society can produce any kind of person it wants. If the globally mobile can defeat the new provincials—destroying their attachment to traditional groups, norms, and ways of life—then the greatest dreams of the modern project can be fulfilled. If not, then perhaps modernity was never completely realizable, and the ancients were wiser than many give them credit for.

The globally mobile see themselves as citizens of the world. They take a “dispassionate,” clinical view of traditional groups, praising some while condemning others, calling them “cultures” of a sort but feeling no particular connection to any group other than to humankind, and seem almost proud to have transcended the need for one. The globally mobile especially dislike patriotism, as national borders threaten the mass movement of peoples that global capitalism demands and expects. Taking a page out of the nineteenth-century Yankee manufacturer’s playbook, the globally mobile call any person who resists mass immigration not a malingerer but instead a racist “deplorable.” Conveniently for the globally mobile, their own livelihood is generally not threatened by mass immigration. They find moving easy and expect ordinary workers get with the program—or not object to those who do.

Once again, workers are confused. Having been taught that patriotism was right, now they are told it is wrong. Worse, workers suddenly feel hated. Gone are the days when upper-middle-class professionals admired workers, wore a worker’s clothes, cooked a worker’s food, and played a worker’s sports. Today, such professionals often have contempt for workers. True, the new elite might still spend $1,500 on the latest “distressed” jeans—not because they love the poor but because they love the organic; not because they love the underdog but because they love the earth.

The dedication of the globally mobile to economic expansion often leads them to pursue policies that appear contradictory. They embrace group politics (indeed, almost tribal politics) for new immigrants, while also rejecting patriotism for native-born Americans. But an economic logic lies beneath their position.

Their technocratic members encourage immigrants to preserve their ethnic identity and national attachments because it makes sense from the perspective of global capitalism. To be sure, this position is not often a consciously held hypocrisy. But naturalized immigrants must return to their home countries if the labor market demands it. This happened on a smaller scale in the nineteenth century. Intact ethnic groups facilitate this movement. Meanwhile, Americans settled for many generations are expected to become more cosmopolitan—or risk being branded as rubes and worse. They must show that they can share the same international ease of movement that the globally mobile have, for they may—if present trends continue—need to spend their lives abroad.

Critics rightly charge our technocrats with hypocrisy on loyalty to group so long as it is not to America, but they miss the economic logic behind it. The globally mobile do despise patriotism in part because it threatens immigration. But it also threatens emigration. Nationalism not only blocks working-class immigrants from entering the country; it also renders middle-class Americans reluctant to leave. But as economic opportunities change, some of them will have to leave. The logic of global capitalism demands it. Business leaders already complain that capital moves freely but labor has yet to. American middle-class workers are losing their jobs to technology. To earn their living in the future, some middle-class Americans will have to move to where they can get the best return on their labor, which means leaving the country. Stoking attachment to one’s nation prevents this.

Ironically, the practitioners of identity politics fail to see this dynamic. They think they are in the driver’s seat, pushing business practice toward a more inclusive atmosphere. They are wrong. Business is in the driver’s seat. Business is using identity politics to facilitate the movement of labor. Meanwhile, the fracturing and segmentation of the consumer market along the lines of identity politics serves the ends of global capitalism, as it creates an endless supply of slightly (but passionately) distinguished niches in which to hawk its wares. Group identity is separated from and placed in opposition to political sovereignty, turning identity into nothing more than a consumer choice.

Our global technocrats also see men and women as equivalent instruments of labor. Technology makes this possible, Marx observed, as machines let employers make workers out of anyone regardless of physical characteristics, and a transition to knowledge work has the same effect. Gender neutrality doubles the size of the available labor pool. It also improves efficiency and rationalizes business activity, for when all workers are reduced to a lowest common denominator, expressed in dollars, a company’s labor plan has fewer moving parts. Gone are the gender differences that determined what task a worker could do or where that worker could go. Global capitalism demands workers be shorn of their group attachments; it also demands workers be shorn of their genders. In this way the global class’s paeans to gender equality and diversity serve a double purpose: they deflect political attention away from issues of economic class while also providing an egalitarian rationale for the goals set out by contemporary business.

One example is found at Harvard College, which recently demanded its off-campus final clubs become “gender neutral.” Advocates initially trotted out the old line that the men’s clubs were hotbeds of sexual harassment, but the real motivations peeped through. Defending the new policy, Dean Rakesh Khurana declared, “single-gender social organizations have lagged behind in ways that are untenable in the twenty-first century.”1 This was code for “global capitalism demands gender neutrality.” The men in their clubs obviously complained, since they were being accused of harassment, but less heard in the media were the voices of the women in their clubs, who had enjoyed their separate space. For people of all stripes the new policy made no sense. Boys sometimes want to be with boys; girls sometimes want to be with girls. So what?

Yet the new alliance reveals an unexpected truth. Feminists think they are in the driver’s seat, and that they have been pushing business to be more accepting of women. They are wrong. Business has always been in the driver’s seat. As the global capitalist agenda and the feminist agenda diverge, business is leaving its junior partner behind.

At the turn of the twentieth century, it was business, in the form of the National Association of Manufacturers, that pushed to allow women to enter the workforce, since business could then get two workers for the price of one. Instead of paying a married man a family wage, it could pay both the man and the woman an individual wage, and force both to work for the same family standard of living. Business pushed the idea of government-subsidized benefits to ensure that women with children remained in the workforce, while also turning those women into cheap labor. Some conservatives have alluded to this phenomenon—for example, William Tucker, in “A Return to the ‘Family Wage’” in the Weekly Standard(May 13, 1996). But it is not just a conservative criticism. Indeed, Senator Elizabeth Warren makes an analogous argument in her 2003 book, coauthored with Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (Basic Books).  Over the last century, Warren and Tyagi argue, women have entered the labor market, but, despite earning an income, their financial lives have grown more precarious. Warren does not explicitly say that doubling the size of the labor pool let employers substitute two smaller individual wages for one larger family wage, forcing both husbands and wives to work for the same standard of living—and making it especially hard on single women with children—but the ideas are there for anyone to connect them.

In the 1950s, college women were said to need protection as they prepared for their futures as wives and mothers. “Only virgins sleep in Sweet Briar beds,” a college official once declared. Today, college women are said to need protection so they can graduate and become efficient laborers, with business crowning their jobs with the pompous title of “career”—although their work, like most work, remains a dull chore of following rules, procedures, and guidelines. From a global capitalist perspective, a worker without any emotional attachments whatsoever is probably the best worker of all. And while business does not always aim at this goal directly, businesses tend toward the social trends that benefit their bottom line.

Hence business directors, particularly in trend-conscious metropolises, have also begun to shut down ordinary or casual speech. After all, casual talk distracts workers. It risks hurt feelings, lessened self-esteem, a hostile work environment, and other threats to productivity. It also threatens gender neutrality and diversity. Therefore, management thinks it best for workers not to talk causally at all. Directors still profess a belief in free speech, but then hypocritically argue that only politically correct speech should be free.

Many workers today thus fear speaking casually at work. Some hospitals, for example, have installed reporting systems to let workers snitch on each other, often anonymously. Although the stated purpose is to improve patient care, much reporting involves workers complaining that others have insulted them or committed a micro-aggression. Other industries have taken similar paths. Vox Media recently banned staff from “mansplaining.” Google recently fired an employee for voicing an opinion about why so few female engineers work at the company. Employers now hire people to track what their workers say on social media outside of work.

Workers privately grouse about the new order, which confuses them, since everyday banter was once the only part of the job that made work fun. Even in Stalin’s Russia, a worker could say to another worker, “Hey, where ya from?” or “You look great. Have you been working out?” Today, such phrases can get a worker fired.

Caring professionals think they are in the driver’s seat and are pushing business toward greater sensitivity and social awareness. In the same vein, academics think that they are in the driver’s seat, pushing business toward more political correctness. They are wrong. Business is in the driver’s seat, using a therapeutic and academic culture to stifle casual talk. Their motives may sometimes be genuine, but making the workplace more efficient and productive is a goal they cannot resist.

I do not believe our globally mobile new managers are consciously hypocritical. They often do not know it themselves, and they are unaware that other people know it. At most, they believe their hypocrisy sets a standard of decency and decorum. More importantly, their hypocrisy enforces a social order conducive to global capitalism, just as earlier incarnations of hypocrisy enforced an order conducive to regional, national, and international capitalism. By restraining the natural tendencies among workers to feel a group connection, or to distinguish between men and women, or to talk casually, all while using their own advantaged position to dodge any inconveniences, the new managers prevent the moral laxity that would be dangerous to global capitalism if it were accessible to all. In this way their hypocrisy is a kind of conviction, or at least a banner around which they can gather.

Nevertheless, the economic system which governs us is testing the limits of human nature.

The Business of America

America is the land of business, where business gets what business wants. Today, American business wants globally mobile consumers, managers, and producers. It will get them. Global capitalism’s dictates may irritate many Americans, who may suffer a low-grade strain on the nerves. But their psychological immune system seems to have kicked in, and they lack a sense that much is lacking. This is true despite the Trump phenomenon. Many people voted for President Trump more out of anger than to put any specific policy in place. Indeed, they don’t even know what policy could rescue them, given the threat posed by technology and robots to their livelihoods. They go to work and try to pay their bills, marching obediently to the  steady pulse of the capitalist rhythm despite the staccato beats of political theater. It is because they expect so little to change, and think so little can change, that they think so little is lacking.

Meanwhile, upper-middle-class, global culture cements itself. Surveys confirm this. In regard to emigration, only 35 percent of Americans said they would be willing to move to another country for work, the lowest percentage among the large countries surveyed; but 59 percent of Americans between the ages of 21 and 30 said they would be willing to go abroad, which represented the biggest generational shift among all the large countries in the poll.2 In regard to gender neutrality, a recent market survey showed that a third of American teenagers strongly agreed that gender doesn’t define a person as much as it used to.3 In regard to crackdowns on free speech, over a quarter of students believe colleges should restrict expression of potentially offensive views.4 The new, cosmopolitan educational system is working, as modern philosophers predicted it would.

This new paradigm—the globally mobile, the world-wise manager with a social conscience—will exist for some time. The problem with the earlier character types was that their creators failed to ground them in the capitalisms of their day. They failed to see that these types would fade as the capitalism that gave rise to them waned. But the globally mobile will define culture as long as they remain economically ascendant.