On Monday, the New York Times featured, on the front page of its website, a long piece of giddy gush about the latest trend in luxury hoteling: super-suites for the super-rich, costing up to $28,000 a night.
For more than 1,100 words, the Times gives us an uncritical (indeed, adoring) panorama of the new high-swankery expected by our owners as they perambulate around the global plantation. There's the $25,000-per-night room in the New York Palace, a three-story "penthouse Versailles," the Times, all atremble with excitement, tells us, which comes complete with a million dollars' worth of designer jewellery on display to refresh the weary eyes of the travelling titan. Or New York's Mandarin Oriental, 3,300 square feet of even greater opulence -- a steal at $28,000 a night.
Such elite enclaves are springing up all over the country, say the many industry insiders and financiers quoted in the piece. (Despite the vast acreage of news-hole available, the 'paper of record' could not find any space for comments voicing even the slightest hint of unease at these developments. Of course, it would be very hard to find anyone within the ambit of a NY Times business reporter who would object to such brutal ostentation; still, you'd think the paper could drag out some wheezing moderate-liberal-centrist type academic who could offer up a bromide on how this trend is, potentially, something that could possibly be somewhat troubling. I mean, the paper's rolodex is crammed with such worthies. But apparently not even the mildest moderate's most gentle murmur was to be allowed to besmirch the story's sweet, glossy bussing of oligarchical posteriors.)
However, you shouldn't think the frenzied construction of these gilded hog pens is simply a matter of Heep-like toadying to every whim of super-rich (although it is that). No, it's also a question of 'brand-building,' of luring in envious middle-class patrons who want to catch a faint whiff of elite effluent as it wafts down from on high. As the Times notes:
Hotel industry professionals say these over-the-top suites serve a dual purpose. “A large part of what we do is creating an image,” Mr. Tisch said. Super-suites cater to the needs of billionaire travelers as well as the imaginations of middle-class tourists.
“This hotel already had a fantastic flow of high-net-worth people using our suites,” Mr. Chase said, listing Saudi diplomats and royalty, as well as Hollywood and sports stars, as regular guests.
They also indirectly attract a middle-class, aspirational traveler, Mr. Chase said. “It is the attention — the halo effect — doing a suite like this brings,” he said. Even if they’ll never be able to drop the cost of a new compact car on a night’s stay at a hotel, some travelers want to brush elbows with that level of wealth.
Yes, work really, really hard, and you too might one day be able to afford one night on the bottom floor of a hotel where a Saudi prince or a movie star once actually took a dump hundreds of feet above you. Now there's something to fire up your pathetic little middle-class imagination!
The story is summed up with a piercingly accurate phrase from one of the chief quotees in the piece, Pam Danziger, the "president of the luxury marketing firm Unity Marketing and author of 'Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury.'" (Follow-up volumes will include Putting the Use Back in Usury: From Payday Loan-Sharking to the Penthouse, and Putting the Pen Back in Penury: Parking the Poor Where We Don't Have to See Them.) Eschewing the gauzy rhetoric of a "halo effect" and other euphemisms for protecting the power and privilege of the rich by exciting envy in everyone else, Danziger cuts right to the heart of the matter:
Ms. Danziger described it as a “shock and awe” campaign that would help drive bookings of regular rooms.
Shock and awe, baby: that's right, it's war -- class war. And guess who won?
But it's not enough just to win; you must be seen to have won, you must have your conqueror's status confirmed for you, at every turn, in the most ostentatious way, so that your victims know they have been crushed and dare not rise again.
2. On the same day -- the same day -- that the NYT's grovel-and-gush piece appeared, Oxfam released a report on the astonishing, well-nigh incomprehensible level of inequality between the Times' celebrated super-rich and the rest of the human race.
The Oxfam study showed that the richest 85 individuals on earth have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people on the planet. 85 people control as much wealth as 3.5 billion.
This is not the natural fruit of the market's mythical "invisible hand." It is the result of carefully crafted, deliberate policies put in place over the past 40 years by elected leaders who have been bought, like chattel, by the rich, and have used the power of the state to skew the political, economic and social structure of nation after nation toward the ever-increasing domination of an ever-smaller circle of elites. As Larry Elliot points out in the Guardian:
For much of the 20th century, the more far-sighted business leaders … understood that their workers needed reasonable wages so that they could buy the goods and services they were making. They grasped the idea that a market system in its rawest form was incompatible with democracy and so acquiesced while some of the rough edges were knocked off via progressive taxation, welfare states and curbs on capital. Deep down, they feared that the Russian revolution would provide a template for disaffected workers in the west.
Attitudes have changed in the past 30 years. The so-called Great Compression of incomes seen from the 1930s to the 1970s went into reverse, with the top 1% grabbing the fruits of growth. The rich used their money and their influence to ensure that governments did their bidding. After the Berlin Wall came down, there was no rival model and less need to show restraint. With the arrival of a unipolar world came a return to a more aggressive form of market economics that had not been seen since the early days of industrialisation.
Elliot then quotes the Oxfam report:
"When wealth captures government policymaking, the rules bend to favour the rich, often to the detriment of everyone else. The consequences include the erosion of democratic governance, the pulling apart of social cohesion, and the vanishing of equal opportunities for all. Unless bold political solutions are instituted to curb the influence of wealth on politics, governments will work for the interests of the rich."
Anyone see any sign of one of these fatcat-curbing "bold political solutions" coming down the pike anytime soon? In most countries -- including most emphatically the US and UK -- even the so-called "progressive" or "liberal" factions who one might wistfully expect to wanly offer such solutions long ago sold themselves, happily, giddily, to Big Money. Who dismantled most of the (few) "curbs on capital" that had been instituted during those 40 years of growing income equality (and more widespread prosperity)? Why, Democrat Bill Clinton and Labour's Tony Blair, who else? Both of these cool, young, swinging liberal-type guys did more to destroy the restraints and unleash the elite dogs of domination than their conservative predecessors such as Reagan and Thatcher.
And the beat goes on under the even cooler, younger, hipper more liberal progressive-type guy in the White House today. As Elliot notes, one of "the most striking findings of the Oxfam report is this little nugget:
"…In the US, the wealthiest 1% have captured 95% of post-financial crisis growth since 2009 while the bottom 90% have got poorer."
Yes, this is the real truth of the much-vaunted "recovery" of the U.S. economy under the leadership of Barack Obama: 95 percent of the tepid growth since he took office has gone to the 1 percent. A full 90 percent of the American people have grown poorer. This is because Obama's carefully crafted, deliberately chosen economic policies have been designed to use the power of the state to skew the nation's economic, social and political structures toward the super-rich, in some of the most brazen ways imaginable. From the very beginning, the focus has been almost exclusively on "saving" the financial sector that caused the crisis, bailing it out, protecting its privileges, extending its reach and -- as the statistics clearly show -- enriching it at the expense of every other sector of American society.
Obama's defenders will point to the intransigence of the Republicans as the reason why the rich are getting obscenely richer under Obama while the rest get poorer and the 'safety net' and social structures (and infrastructure) of American life are relentlessly degraded. But of course, it is only this intransigence that has saved us so far from the even greater degradation that Obama has been seeking since his first days in office: the "Grand Bargain" that will slash the remaining threads of the safety net and gut most non-military spending in order to "balance the budget" (while maintaining a world-encircling military machine and all-pervasive "security" apparatus).
Over and over, Obama has offered the Republicans savage budget cuts and safety-net gutting that were beyond the wildest dreams of the arch-conservatives of yore -- or even, say, Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, or George W. Bush's administration. But the GOP is now dominated electorally by theocratic extremists who believe any tax rise (even the minuscule bumping Obama meekly suggests as part of his "bargain') is of the devil, while the corporate interests who let these theocrats front for them have decided to vanquish even the pretense of any restraint on their power once and for all. Their scorched-earth campaign and the zero-cooperation stance of the zealots have blocked Obama's frantic efforts to destroy the remnants of the New Deal, but one day, they may take the bait -- and then you can tell Granny to go dumpster-diving, because the state ain't gonna feed no useless eaters no more.
And let's not forget that it was Obama's choice not to spend the enormous political capital of his first election triumph to rescue the millions of workers and homeowners going under, but to instead put all his energy into "saving" the perpetrators of the global collapse -- and pushing a "health reform" plan created by a right-wing think tank in the 1990s: a wretched piece of corporate profiteering that cleverly, and completely, co-opted the "left" into defending an elitist boondoggle and effectively killing genuine health care reform for years, perhaps for generations.
No; we are where we are because our elected officials, of both parties, on both sides of the ocean, have long been and still are the prostituted servants of a rarefied, ravening, bellicose elite. The elite have won the war; they've imposed a brutal occupation on the vanquished -- and now they are withdrawing beyond the clouds, to golden citadels and 'specialist suites,' where they can disport themselves in luxury and safety, while looking down, with a satisfied smile, on the billions and billions of worthless suckers they've left behind.