Going to extremes

The middle is the liberal space, the Free Space, the vacuum left by tradition. Nothing is set in stone, and so everything is mobile and restless.

The Top and Bottom are secure, contained within (the remnants) of a traditional way of life, whereas the Middle is insecure because it has no fixed identity. So while aristocrats play the game in order to keep alive the tradition, and have nothing to prove by winning, the bourgeois play in order to distinguish themselves through victory.

Lack of constraint - evasion of scaling traps - allows excess; lofty peaks and abysmal depths. The excesses of mobile, globetrotting capital allow for an increasingly independent and enriched overclass and an increasingly brutalised and dispossessed underclass.

Rich and Poor
In my role as a Bikeability instructor I have the opportunity to work with children from varied backgrounds. My pupils run the gamut of the socioeconomic spectrum: from the bottom, to the middle, to the top. To my surprise I’ve noticed certain parallels between those at its extremes. Indeed, those at the top and those at the bottom often seem to have more in common with each other than they do with those in the middle.

My work involves teaching basic road knowledge to children between the ages of nine and eleven. Whilst its not always the case, I’ve often noticed that kids from the more extreme backgrounds - the very rich and the very poor - do not engage with the lessons. Of course, I teach many kids who, for various reasons, do not engage, but I draw attention to these because there was something notably different about their attitude. Furthermore I found it interesting that, in spite of their distance on the socioeconomic spectrum, the attitude that they displayed towards the course was remarkably similar.

Its hard to define this attitude, other than to say they seemed entirely detached. They went through the motions, but I was left in no doubt that this was all they were doing: going through the motions. What they communicated to me was a sense that they were above the course; or beneath it. This stuff simply wasn’t for them; not necessarily because it was boring, or challenging; but because it was irrelevant.

Overworld and Underworld

Society exerts a form of gravity upon the great mass of people, binding them to its surface through its culture, norms and laws. But as we travel further from its centre, this force lessens, and those norms and laws no longer have quite the same pull.

Bookending our society are two worlds: the overworld and the underworld. Whilst they may appear to be opposed - one a positive pole, and one a negative - I see them more as two moons circulating a planet. They may take opposing positions in space, but in their relationship to the planet they are alike. Both orbit it, but are not quite of it.

I have no interest in saying whether the kids I teach belong to either of these worlds. They may or they may not. But their approach to my course showed me something interesting.

I realised that they were not, to paraphrase The Wire’s Howard Colvin, learning for our world - they were learning for theirs.

What I had to teach them came from the middle ground, from that place of strong gravity at the centre of society. It was, therefore, designed for an audience that lived within this middle ground and that accepted its norms.

The attitude of these kids struck me because they came from an unfamiliar place: from the fringes. They showed me that the currency of the middle ground is significantly devalued - if not worthless - in their world.

Going to extremes

In spite of - or perhaps, because of - existing at the fringes of our society, these worlds have a significant influence upon it.

Its been said that the gangsters at the top of society are not very different from those at the bottom. From the hands on gangsterism of the underworld, to the hands off gangsterism of the overworld, both find common ground in their exploitation of those in the middle. Indeed, it seems to me that their very existence depends upon it.

It is easier to exploit something when you are distanced from it, when you do not identify with it.
This is, perhaps, one outcome when a society allows its members to travel too far from its core; when it allows too great a disparity between them.

A structure - be it a body, or a society - can only produce an extreme through concentrating certain of its resources in a pointed direction. If I want to become extremely muscular then I must devote resources - time, energy, money - to the task. If I want to remain in this extreme state, then I must continue to devote my resources to it.

But a structure must also maintain its equilibrium - thus a heavy weight on one side of the scales necessitates an equally heavy weight on the other. Extreme wealth demands extreme poverty.

Opposites meet

What I noticed through my work - this meeting of the top and the bottom - was something timeless and archetypal. It is only one example of a larger truth; that, when pushed to extremes, all opposites will eventually meet. This pattern can be represented by the symbol of the ouroboros, the snake that swallows its own tail.

In this sense, those that go to extremes always have much in common, in spite of their apparent differences. Thus, the saint and the sinner may well be cut from the same cloth - separated by only a slim sliver of fate.

Spending money on public goods (better public transit, universal health care and so on) is a way to improve the quality of life for the average person.

But by definition, the bigger the income inequality in a society, the greater the financial distance between the average and the wealthy. The bigger this distance, the less the wealthy have to gain from expenditures on the public good.

Instead they would benefit more from keeping their tax money to spend on their private good - a better chauffeur, a gated community, bottled water, private schools, private health insurance.

So the more unequal the income is in a community, the more incentive the wealthy will have to oppose public expenditures benefiting the health of the community.

[Robert Sapolsky]
'Sick of Poverty'

In America, as elsewhere, aristocracy represents money and position grown old, and is organized in terms of families rather than of individuals. Traditionally it was made up of those whose families had had money, position, and social prestige for so long that they never had to think about these and, above all, never had to impress any other person with the fact that they had them.

They accepted these attributes of family membership as a right and an obligation. Since they had no idea that these could be lost, they had a basic psychological security, similar to that of the religious and workers.

Thus like these other two, they were self-assured, natural, but distant. Their manners were gracious but impersonal. Their chief characteristic was the assumption that their family position had obligations. This noblesse oblige led them to participate in school sports (even if they lacked obvious talent), to serve their university (usually a family tradition) in any helpful way (such as fund raising), to serve their church in a similar way, and to offer their services to their local community, their state, and their country as an obligation.

They often scandalized their middle-class acquaintances by their unconventionality and social informality, greeting workers, recent immigrants, or even outcasts by their given names, arriving at evening meetings in tweeds, or traveling in cheap, small cars to formal weddings.

Another good evidence of class may be seen in the treatment given to servants (or those who work in one’s home): the lower classes treat these as equals, the middle classes treat them as inferiors, while aristocrats treat them as equals or even superiors.

The working class in the United States is much smaller than we might assume, since most American workers are seeking to rise socially, to help their children to rise socially, and are considerably concerned with status symbols. Such people, even if laborers, are not working class, but are rather petty bourgeoisie.

The real working class are rather relaxed, have present rather than future preference, generally worry very little about their status in the eyes of the world, enjoy their ordinary lives, including food, sex, and leisure, and have little desire to change their jobs or positions. They are generally relaxed, have a taste for broad humor, are natural, direct, and friendly, without large basic insecurities of personality.

This middle-class character was imposed most strongly on the United States […] At its basis is psychic insecurity founded on lack of secure social status. The cure for such insecurity became insatiable material acquisition.

From this flowed a large number of attributes of which we shall list only five: future preference, self-discipline, social conformity, infinitely expandable material demand, and a general emphasis on externalized, impersonal values.

[Carroll Quigley]
Tragedy and Hope, ‘The Future in Perspective,’ p.784, 787-8

Fundamentally it is a distinction between playing the game and playing to win.

The aristocrat plays for the sake of the game or the team or the school. He plays whether he is much good or not, because he feels that he is contributing to a community effort even if he is on the scrubs rather than a star or starting player.

The newer recruits to former aristocratic educational institutions play for more personal reasons, with much greater intensity, even fanaticism, and play to excel and to distinguish themselves from others.

The petty bourgeois are rising in American society along the channels established in the great American hierarchies of business, the armed forces, academic life, the professions, finance, and politics.

They are doing this not because they have imagination, broad vision, judgment, moderation, versatility, or group loyalties but because they have neurotic drives of personal ambition and competitiveness, great insecurities and resentments, narrow specialization, and fanatical application to the task before each of them.

[Carroll Quigley]
Tragedy and Hope, ‘The Future in Perspective,’ p.806-7

The self-reliant individual has gradually changed into the conformist “organization man.” Routine has displaced risk, and subordination to abstractions has replaced the struggle with diverse concrete problems.

Most crucial have been the demands of the modern industrial and business system, because of advancing technology, for more highly trained manpower. Such training requires a degree of ambition, self-discipline, and future-preference that many persons lack or refuse to provide, with the result that a growing lowest social class of the social outcasts (the Lumpenproletariat) has reappeared.

This group of rejects from our bourgeois industrial society provide one of our most intractable future problems, because they are gathered in urban slums, have political influence, and are socially dangerous.

In the United States, where these people congregate in the largest cities and are often Negroes or Latin Americans, they are regarded as a racial or economic problem, but they are really an educational and social problem for which economic or racial solutions would help little. This group is most numerous in the more advanced industrial areas and now forms more than twenty percent of the American population. Since they are a self-perpetuating group and have many children, they are increasing in numbers faster than the rest of the population.

Their self-perpetuating characteristic as a group is not based on biological differences but on sociological factors, chiefly on the fact that disorganized, undisciplined, present-preference parents living under chaotic economic and social conditions are most unlikely to train their children in the organized, disciplined, future-preference and orderly habits the modern economic system requires in its workers, so that the children, like their parents, grow up as unemployables.

This is not a condition that can be cured by providing more jobs, even if the jobs are in the proper areas, because the jobs require characteristics these victims of anomie do not possess and are unlikely to acquire.

[Carroll Quigley]
Tragedy and Hope, ‘The Future in Perspective,’ p.774

The United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand stand out as standard-bearers of the new species of capitalism.

In countries such as Spain, in which the extended family remains strong, the underclass of workless households that is so depressing a feature of Anglo-Saxon societies hardly exists. This is despite the fact that in Spain, to a greater degree even than in the other economies of continental Europe, unemployment has reached very high levels in recent times.

This can partly be attributed to the fact that policy over the past two decades has not been dominated in continental Europe by objectives such as deregulation of the labour market. But this is unlikely to be the whole, or even the chief reason for the persistence of such differences.

None of the countries of continental Europe has ever had an age of laissez-faire; market institutions have not achieved the independence from constraint by other social institutions that characterises the Anglo-Saxon free market. No European society has the long and deep experience of individualist forms of family life and property ownership that distinguishes England, the United States and other Anglo-Saxon societies.

In every country, the new and more volatile strain of capitalism is transforming economic life. The impact of anarchic global markets on the economic cultures of continental Europe institutionalises high levels of structural unemployment.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.73-4

Remoulding American society to suit the imperatives of free markets has involved the use of corporate power and federal government to bring about levels of economic inequality unknown since the 1920s and far in excess of this found in any other advanced industrial society today.

It has encompassed an experiment in mass incarceration, accompanied by an elite retreat into walled propriety communities that has left the United States far more divided than Latin American countries such as Argentina and Chile.

[...] America is no longer a bourgeois society. It has become a divided society, in which an anxious majority is wedged between an underclass that has no hope and an overclass that denies any civic obligations.

In the United States today the political economy of the free market and the moral economy of bourgeois society have diverged - in all likelihood permanently.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.106, 111

We live in an age of multiple truths.

He who warns of the “clash of civilizations” is incontestably right; simultaneously, we shall see higher levels of constructive trafficking between civilizations than ever before. The future is bright—and it is also very dark.

More men and women will enjoy health and prosperity than ever before, yet more will live in poverty or tumult, if only because of the ferocity of demographics.

There will be more democracy—that deft liberal form of imperialism—and greater popular refusal of democracy. One of the defining bifurcations of the future will be the conflict between information masters and information victims.

[Ralph Peters]
‘Constant Conflict’

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