America – Where Next?

Chris Waller - January 2021
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Here at The Groanary (sic), the current Covid-19 restrictions have prompted me to descend into the deeper levels of the basements (modelled on Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell) to rummage among the tea- chests full of ancient texts. On one of my perambulations, flickering candle in hand, I blew the dust off one such to discover ‘Market Whys and Human Wherefores’, written by David Jenkins, quondam Professor of Theology & Religious Studies at the University of Leeds and, until 1994, Bishop of Durham. Published in 2000, it is remarkably prescient, particularly in light of the recent political hiatus in Washington DC, as the Trump imperium approached its ignominious conclusion. Jenkins cites several articles which appeared in The Times newspaper in 1995, written by Lord William Rees- Mogg, and which are of interest to those of our own organisation.

Rees-Mogg writes: “The information age will offer fewer chances to the middling mass of people.” (The Times 10/2/95) He goes on to say that: “The more intelligent people are, the more likely they are to rise in society, the larger their incomes are likely to be, the more useful they are likely to be in society ... Measurable intelligence correlates strongly with social position and that gap between the ‘very bright’ and the rest is widening.” He goes on further: “ ... The cognitive elite is getting richer, in an era when everybody else in struggling to stay even. The cognitive elite is increasingly segregated physically from everyone else, in both the workplace and the neighbourhood. The cognitive elite is increasingly likely to intermarry.”

Rees-Mogg is, indeed, correct in this last observation. By 1997, 8 million US citizens lived in 80,000 gated communities, many of which were surrounded by 12-foot iron fences, security lights and bullet-proof guard-posts. (reported in the Financial Times, 20-21/9/97) These were the very people who formerly led the ‘white flight’ to the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s. Jenkins cites disturbing figures produced in 1996 by the Independent Criminal Justice Commission. Between 1980 and 1995, the US Federal prison population, after remaining stable for 75 years, more than tripled from 493,000 to 1,544,000 inmates.

Returning to Rees-Mogg’s articles in The Times, I have to question what he means by the ‘cognitive elite’ and its putatively direct link to wealth. I see no sign of such a link, certainly not here in Britain. I note that the late Duke of Westminster, heir to an estate worth an estimated £11.5 billion in the year 2000, held, so it is said, a single O-Level in Geography. (At least he would have known where to find the various pieces of his estate, if nothing else.) I also note that Richard Trevithick, the inventor of the high-pressure steam-engine and major contributor to the Industrial Revolution, died in poverty. So too did Nikola Tesla, the man who perhaps did most to lay the foundations of the modern world with his invention of the 3-phase AC electricity generation and distribution system.

I suspect that by the term ‘cognitive elite’, Rees-Mogg means those who have had the great good fortune to be born into privilege and know how to work the system to their own advantage. The events of the 6th January 2021 in Washington DC should alarm us. As the US has moved away from traditional heavy industry and manufacturing – a trend followed by Great Britain – so legions of people have joined the ‘left behind’. It was in large measure those very people who voted in 2016 for Trump and some of whom stormed the Capitol building.

Jenkins’ book asks deep questions about the nature of the putatively ‘free market’, but more so he questions its purpose, its ultimate aims. President Biden has pledged to unite America, but he has an enormous task ahead of him and one which will not be completed in a 4-year term. One wonders if he can turn the US economy to the advantage of all, not just to the benefit of the 1%. If he has not made significant progress by the end of 2024, then the American fundamentalist right-wing will come back with a vengeance and possibly under someone with more political guile than Trump.

‘Market Whys and Human Wherefores – Thinking Again About Markets, Politics and People’ – Jenkins, David, publ. Cassell 2000.
The Times, 1995 and The Financial Times, 1997.

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