Piketty on the "Brahmin left" and the "merchant right"

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/09/15/brahmin-left-merchant-right.html


The Right in the U.S. has used lower-class resentment of “high-education, socially liberal elites” to hammer its political opposition for decades. It’s true that the Democratic Party hasn’t been as supportive of the working class as it could have been, but the other party IMO is certainly worse in that respect. Nevertheless, the Right has used anti-intellectualism, and the culture war issues of guns and abortion, to demonize its opponents and to get people very much not in the elite to vote for the party of plutocrats.



Piketty’s deck makes for an accurate summary of the evolution of American party politics ever since the Dems started pissing their pants over how to respond to Reaganism (a similar situation seems to have occurred with Labour in the UK).

Where Piketty gets most interesting is in speculating about where this might lead. Elites, he notes, tend to club together to defend their interests, so he wonders if the Brahmin left and merchant right might not form a single bloc, in a new great alignment?

For the moment there’s still a great gulf between the “reality-based community” of the educated Brahmin left and the denialism and anti-intellectualism of the merchant right. If the views of the latter group concerning global warming and economic inequality prevail, with even more empowerment of right-wing populists and Identitarians as a consequence, that unified bloc of both elite groups is likely to form mainly in response to the great duress the entire population will be under.

Or will there be new New Deal that racist left parties embrace to help white workers, incidentally lifting the fortunes of all workers, including racialized ones?

While there are certainly racist and sexist lefties out there, I don’t know if there are enough of them in the U.S. to form a party that could place such a Nativist new New Deal in place (that sort of programme is more associated with fascism). What’s more worrying in this regard is phenomena like eco-fascism, which tries to appropriate (or, based on the history, re-appropriate) aspects of what’s currently regarded as a left-wing movement.

It’s a gloss that explains the incredible establishment disdain for the likes of Sanders and Corbyn

There’s at least one substantial difference between the two, though, despite their opposition to their respective liberal establishments: the former has a forward-looking programme that takes into account current broken and outmoded situations that need to be fixed, where the latter sees the breakdowns caused by those situations as an opportunity to try and recreate a mythical past.


For a lot of people, this is current U.S. politics summed up in one sentence.


45 posts were split to a new topic: Economics, egalitarianism, and Ayn Rand

So…anybody want to talk about Piketty?


I think this is unlikely to happen, because the two groups would need to acknowledge their shared interests, and I believe the cultures of the two groups would prevent that recognition.



But back on topic, I’m interested in how the drop off in access to higher education corresponds to rising inequality (especially given the discussion in the other thread about tuition and debt forgiveness).

I’m sort of interested in how he’s defining the “left” here, too? Seems like that’s a moving target in and of itself (which he seems to hint at in the slides… I’m half way through them now).


Well, if you go by Roman history, what the Optimates (Brahmins) and Populares (Merchants) did next was launch a series of bloody civil wars leading to a military dictatorship


I do not see a “great gulf” between centrist Democrat (what I read as “Brahmin left”) and GOP (merchant right) on:

  • Trade unions
  • Foreign policy/US militarist adventuring and gunboat (or should I say ‘air base’) diplomacy abroad
  • Investment in universal basic assets (education across the lifetime, single-payer health care system, etc.)
  • Anti-corruption
  • Shortening the work day and the work week

I do see differences, but they’re not fundamental restructurings of wealth distribution: both centrist Dems and GOP have had neoliberalism as gospel economic truth for decades.

Edit: I guess my question is Does my read on ‘Brahmin left’ jibe with Piketty’s? When he speculates whether merchant right and Brahmin left will form a unified bloc, is he in effect wondering whether, in Gore Vidal’s words, we have one political party with two right wings?


The real lesson that lots of people will be trying to ignore is that when the left gives up on universalist egalitarianism, it loses.
Which illustrates the path forward for anyone trying to make the world better. The traditional left should join forces with the anti-establishment left, as we have seen in Italy with the formation of the 5-Star DP government, and push a programme designed at helping the working -class majority, rather than digging the trenches in further for the culture wars.


Yeah, one element of the slides that I find questionable is Piketty treating the mid-century Democratic party as "left’, even though it included segregationists. I understand why he would do that, but I think it oversimplifies, and it rubs me the wrong way from a contemporary perspective. As far as I’m concerned, folks like George Wallace should be left out of the left.


Agreed. As I said above, the only thing that would bring them together in a an overt political programme is extreme duress, likely caused by some combination of climate change and revolutionary insurgency.

On a more informal level, though, there is a sort of truce between the two groups despite the cultural gulf. Look at any Western alpha-level global city and you’ll see the coarsest and most anti-intellectual members of the merchant right living side-by-side with the most refined and educated members of the Brahmin left, living in the same neighbourhoods and condos, eating at the same restaurants, walking in the same parks, and subscribing in one degree or another to the same economic and meritocratic consensus.

[thanks for bringing things back to a grownup discussion of political economy]

More than anything what I’m describing is a fundamental cultural divide that prevents them from working together.

Richard Reeves discusses this in detail as part of his larger thesis about the 20% (which can be considered while still acknowleding that the same thesis applies even more intensely to the 10%, the 1%, and the 0.1%).


That is important. Still: there’s the de jure ‘working together’ and the spectacle of public Congress, and then there’s the de facto ‘working together’ of ensuring consistent policies in my bullet points above.


Absolutely. I was responding to Cory’s point about formal co-operation to the point of forming a single political bloc. Right now it’s sort of a broad informal consensus on the items you mentioned, but with mutual low-level and situational cultural hostility.


I think for Piketty “egalitarian” = “favors policies flattening the Gini curve.” He’s an economist interested in egalitarianism, and despite his rhetoric about not being a Marxist, he sees economic egalitarianism as radically fundamental to all egalitarianism.


A good point… there are still some who identify as being on the left and refuse to see issues of race and gender as an important part of the discussion. There is the problem of not seeing these as issues critical to an analysis of class divisions within a society.

And that’s ignoring a big chunk of how we got here in the first place more generally. As the 1619 project is reminding us, much of the wealth of the western powers came from the original sin of taking a slave labor system and making it a class in and of itself via racial categorization. That was not tangential to the rise of the capitalist system, but it fully enabled it in the first place.


From outside the US it does look like one rightist party with a centre right faction and a right-wing-nut faction.


Which is even more questionable/surprising given that he hs French - they know a left wing when they see one - and the US Democrats - even mid-century - would have been to the right of pretty much any and all French leftist parties and probably some centrist.