Our Marie Antoinette Elites

Labor must have priority over capital; both the Left and the Right get this wrong

Rare is the New York Times op-ed to which I refer readers and encourage them to read it. But I do so wholeheartedly as regards “This Is What Elite Failure Looks Like” by Oren Cass (July 6; linked below).

Cass pulls no punches. Eighty-three thousand Americans died of opioid overdoses last year. Cocaine and psychostimulant deaths are growing. Cass writes, “[T]he rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States is now similar to the average death rate from alcohol use disorders in Russia during the decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse.” Reread that last sentence. Americans are dying from drugs at rates Russians were killing themselves by alcohol after the USSR fell apart. Except, as the elites told us, “history ended” and we “won.”

Young people today despair of having a life as good as their parents, and their parents pretty much concede that assessment is accurate. Young people aren’t venturing into life, getting married, and having kids. Twenty- and 30-something men are moving back home; 20- and 30-something women still walk the streets in COVID muzzles. And in the middle of an electoral season, this isn’t being talked about.

Cass argues it’s a failure of the elites, and he invokes a pox on both houses: “progressive” Democrats and “establishment” Republicans are both “in the final stages of self-righteous detachment from the economic and social conditions of the nation.”

Why has populism grown, in the United States and abroad? Cass argues it’s because the “establishment” has been so jarringly deaf to what main street America is seeing and saying it needs. The Left continues to push lifestyle libertinism, its destructive effects on individuals and society notwithstanding. The establishment Right continues to push globalism, convinced the market’s “invisible hand” will somehow right all wrongs, and, when told that’s not true, replies in Marie-Antoinette fashion, “let them learn code!”

St. Thomas Aquinas includes among the essential prerequisites for a valid and just law that it be “for the common good.” As Cass notes, our elites have conflated their good with the common good, all the while evading admission that “what they value is not what’s best for everyone — shoddily constructed rationales notwithstanding.”

Cass is bipartisan in his criticisms while bitingly honest in his arguments. Against the fact that in the history of surveys never has more than 1/3 of Americans wanted more immigration, we have record numbers of illegal immigrants crossing a de facto open southern border. Against the fact that Americans want manufacturing jobs, we prioritize climate fundamentalism over creating the employment workers (as opposed to their “betters”) want. Against the fact that Americans want to buy “made in the USA” products, our elites are pushing for more imports from third-world sweatshops, er, countries.

I noted this argument last week (here), criticizing a National Review article that argued cleaner environmental standards were not the result of government regulation but a combination of energy-efficient new technologies and the move to a “service economy.” I argued that there is a qualitative difference between the Cleveland that made a girder in a steel mill still standing a century later in a building somewhere versus the Cleveland that made a cup of coffee at a turnpike rest stop that gets excreted 3-4 hours later by the Indiana state line. The original insight for that comparison actually came from Cass’s wonderful book, The Once and Future Worker, which I discussed in The National Catholic Register (see here).

The heart of the matter, however, is what Cass calls the “work respect” problem (see here). We no longer respect every honest job. We rank jobs in hierarchies and we define our social pecking order by the small talk question, “what do you do?” As Cass notes, it’s not an information query as much as a way of pegging the interlocutor’s social position. Position matters. Yes, we all stood (safely distanced) in windows applauding “essential workers” that kept stores stocked and hospitals staffed during COVID, but four years later the New York Times is still beset by writers anguishing about going back to 40 hours in-office work years after the essential workers that kept them supplied with toilet paper and Grubhub were back in the workplace (if they ever left). That’s what Cass means when he talks about the difference between our “elites” and the essential deplorables.

Pope St. John Paul II hit this problem 43 years ago in Laborem exercens when he spoke about the “priority of labor over capital.” Capital is a thing. Labor is people. Things exist for people and capital exists for labor, not vice versa. Both the Left and the Right get this wrong: the Left by pretending labor is some generic “force” on an auto-pilot “right path” through history, the Right by pretending labor is just another “cost factor” that has to be calculated into the means of production to come up with the “optimal” balance whose human costs the “invisible hand” of the Almighty Market will right.

Only when we remember that people matter over things — a lesson both sides of our political spectrum must learn — will we understand the priority of labor over capital, the moral significance of the “work respect” question, and why our “elites” are failing us, babbling about esoteric issues while Americans are living lives of and dying deaths of despair.


[A link to Cass’s NYT article is here.]


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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