When President Obama takes the oath of office for the second time, he will also usher in a new era in American power politics. Whereas the old left-wing definition of “who rules” focused on large corporations, banks, energy companies and agribusinesses, the Obama-era power structure represents a major transformation.
This shift stems, in large part, from the movement from a predominately resource and tangible goods-based economy to an information-based one. In the past, political struggles were largely fought over how to divide up the spoils generated by the basic productive economy; labor, investors and management all shared a belief in the ethos of economic growth, manufacturing and resource extraction. In contrast, today’s new hegemons hail almost entirely from outside the material economy, and many come from outside the realm of the market system entirely.
Daniel Bell, in his landmark 1973 The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, may have been the first to identify this ascension to “pre-eminence of the professional and technical class.” This new “priesthood of power,” as he put it, would eventually overturn the traditional hierarchies based on land, corporate and financial assets.
Forty years later the outlines of this transformation are clear. Contrary to the conservative claims of Obama’s “socialist” tendencies, the administration is quite comfortable with such capitalist sectors as entertainment, the news media and the software side of the technology industry, particularly social media. The big difference is these firms derive their fortunes not from the soil and locally crafted manufacturers, but from the manipulation of ideas, concepts and images.
Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are far from “the workers of the world,” but closer to modern-day robber barons. Through their own ingenuity, access to capital and often oligopolistic hold on lucrative markets, they have enjoyed one of the greatest accumulations of wealth in recent economic history, even amidst generally declining earnings, rising poverty and inequality among their fellow Americans. ...
Let’s be clear — this new ascendant class is no threat to either the “one percent,” or even the much smaller decimal groups. Historically, the already rich and large economic interests often profit in a hyper-regulated state; the clerisy’s actions can often stifle competition by increasing the cost of entry for unwelcome new players. Like Cardinal Richelieu or Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, our modern-day dirigistes favor state-directed capital that has benefited, among others, “green” capitalists, Wall Street “too big to fail” firms and, of course, General Motors.
More disturbing still may be the clerisy’s regal disregard for democratic give and take. Both traditional hierarchies, or new ones like the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, disdain popular will as intrinsically lacking in scientific judgment and societal wisdom. Some leading figures in the clerisy, such as former Obama budget advisor Peter Orszag, openly argue for shifting power from naturally contentious elected bodies to credentialed “experts” operating in places Washington, Brussels or the United Nations.