The stark divide especially obvious in the world since 2016 has yet to be described adequately. The old, conventional dichotomies are redundant: “right/left,” “conservative/liberal,” “populist/progressive.” There’s a useful insight in “anywhere people/somewhere people,” but this is more an elaboration than a categorization. Even “working class/elite” doesn’t cut it, for it ignores what used to be called the “mendicant classes” and casts no light on recent fundamental shifts.
I suggest we think of these divisions in terms of “concrete,” “virtual,” and “subsidized” classes. By “concrete” I mean those who do physical work, expending sweat and muscular energy—those who make, mend, wash, clean, stitch, paint stuff, cook, and bake, as well as those who engage in activities like apprehending malefactors, extinguishing fires, shooting at state enemies, and whatnot. In short, the people without whom the Western world would grind to a halt before 10 a.m.
By the “subsidized” classes I mean those, other than retired workers and people with disabilities, who live off welfare—those previously referred to as the “underclass,” including, in many societies, growing numbers of undocumented immigrants.
And by the “virtual classes” I mean the remainder of the “working” population: those who work at keyboards, overwhelmingly on the Web, who deal in finance and information, governance, administration, and pushing paper.
Superficially, one might label this division “labor/sedentary,” but that designation is no longer especially helpful. The virtual classes have so evolved from the old category of pen pushers that they are unrecognizable as the same tribe. There was a time when those who sat at desks pushing paper around were in a symbiotic relationship with the concrete classes. They calculated and wrote up the activities of those who made and mended the world, usually with a view to ensuring they were remunerated, or relieved of their tax contributions, or compensated when they fell off ladders.
In the old days, there was a two-way respect between the labor classes and the sedentary classes, which, though they dressed differently, spoke differently, and took their showers at different ends of the day, nevertheless exhibited a mutual regard for the worth and importance of the other. The poet and the clerk had friendly nods for the plumber and the chimney sweep, who responded with a tipped cap (for the poet) or a slight jerk of the head (for the clerk).
The sedentary classes in general earned more for doing less than the “working class,” though not so much as to cause outright enmity, and not invariably. In general, they tended to vote for different political parties, but this was neither cut-and-dried nor necessarily indicative of some underlying mutual animus. The two categories simply had different interests, though not necessarily in conflict.
Today, the two inhabit altogether different worlds. The sedentary classes inhabit the virtual world, which is as far from the concrete world as hell is from heaven—which is to say that nobody can measure the distance or describe the spatial relationship between the two. The virtual is a location at once accessible and unknowable, a destination without being a place, a kind of afterlife in the present, which confers a new, special status on those who inhabit it. The virtual classes also adhere to an ideology sometimes referred to as “liberalism,” but which is better understood as “freedom—for us.” The virtual classes inhabit the more rarefied parts of the “real” world, areas from which the concrete classes are essentially excluded by virtue of culture or economics, except when their services are require to mend something.
This, above all, marks out the concrete classes as comprising a distinct kind of humanity: They can never belong to the virtual classes, can enter the virtual world only on short-term visas. They also profess no collective ideology—unless it be common sense. They are “excluded,” you might say, but not in a manner that grants them victimhood status, which the subsidized classes—whose status has changed too, but for the better—now claim as their exclusive prerogative.
Yet here is an anomaly: The virtual classes continue to live in parts of the world constructed and maintained by the concrete classes, even while obtaining all of their newfound status from a place that the concrete classes cannot enter or even locate.
Some rationalize all this virtualism by arguing that it amounts to a new kind of economy, but this is humbug. The virtual classes do not make things. Aside from provoking pseudo-activity under headings like finance, entertainment, news, administration, or mass communications, they do not “produce” anything apart from the occasional movie. And since most of these categories have been corrupted out of all recognition, their activities are culturally harmful rather than helpful. If you work for Twitter, for instance, you cycle to the office to spend eight hours undermining Western civilization. You are a peel masquerading as the fruit. Virtually the entire virtual “economy” is like this, and is supported by a massive public debt weighing down upon concrete and virtual classes alike, but mostly on the former.
We find a clue to what has changed in the relocation of the subsidized classes. These classes used to constantly separate from and rejoin the working classes, discrete from them in certain respects but sharing certain outlooks and interests and broadly the same cultural contexts. Lately, they have acquired a new function. They are now human shields for the virtual classes. This places them above rather than below the concrete classes, so that permanent membership in the virtual classes is far more attractive to them than membership in the concrete classes. The subsidized classes now vote with the elites, who are at once their protectors and usurpers, advocating their interests but also hiding behind their victimhood and exploiting their power. In a certain light, the term “subsidized classes” is unfair, since the elites, as outlined by Christopher Caldwell in his new book The Age of Entitlement, are subsidized also, mainly though tax-shielded “philanthropic” foundations which protect their self-protecting ideologies from fiscal justice and criticism. The bills for both forms of subsidization are paid by the despised “deplorables.” As Caldwell notes: “[B]oth kinds of minority, elite ones and marginalized ones, live under threat from democratic majorities, and benefit in the same way from laws passed to constrain majority power.”
An undiagnosed envy rooted in these shifts is at the root of much of the bile now coursing through the arterial tubes of Western societies. The main cause of the enmity is the resentment of the virtual classes. They resent the solidity, the tangible, skilled engagements with the world by which the concrete classes earn their keep. But because the virtual classes have for the moment commandeered the levers of cultural control, the “war” is in large part a battle for a status that draws its energy from power rather than skill. The virtual classes struggle to maintain their unearned status, and their play for power becomes increasingly frenzied. The concrete classes resent the arrogance and parasitism that characterize the virtual classes, and have become increasingly resentful on this account.
Much as I would like to claim that I belong to the concrete classes, and much as I avoid participation in virtual networks, the form of my work puts me among the virtual classes. Where I deviate from the majority of virtualistas is that I remain unwoke. Wokeness is rooted in the virtual classes. It is the armory of their doomed battle against the concrete.
We saw these various phenomena in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The concrete classes voted for Trump, the virtual and—generally speaking—subsidized classes for Clinton.
Interestingly, Trump voters have roughly a 15 percent average income advantage on Clinton voters, but this is mainly because the incomes of the subsidized human shields pull down the average of the super-rich, thus muddying the picture. Clinton voters formed a hidden coalition between the super-rich and the subsidized classes—in effect, a battering ram to enable the super-rich to retain their piles and privileges while affecting to stand up for underdogs. An irony here is that, while the elites pity the lack of education among the subsidized classes, they treat with contempt the same lack in members of the concrete classes.
Elite Democrats use minorities, migrants, and “the poor” as human shields to pass themselves and their driving ideology off as altruistic, when in effect they appropriate these categories to sustain their increasingly creaky model of reality. While affecting concern for “minorities,” they in truth wish to maintain them in economic enslavement, subsisting on food stamps and pills, so that they—the elites—can continue to duck behind them. This conceals the fact that they themselves are in the “business” of creating useless, often damaging “products” while the Trump voters get out early in the morning to build cars, clean windows, bake cakes, and put out fires.
What is called Cultural Marxism is really a form of political armor in which the virtual-class elites clothe their proxy-warrior client base of subsidized classes and push them out into the public arena. Meanwhile, they themselves recline, pretending to give a toss and getting a free ideological pass for their wealth and lifestyles as a result. These tendencies define an emerging political divide in the world that no longer adheres to old concepts of right and left, or right and wrong. Instead, it is predicated on the difference between people who live in two different worlds, one untenable, the other allegedly staring obsolescence in the face. And yet this putative obsolescence is itself untenable.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.