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Has the nation's power elite no sense of gratitude? (Photo by Emmanual Dunand/AFP/Getty Images)

Au Revoir, Noblesse Oblige

The sense of duty America’s ruling class once felt to support the greater good is gone.

BY Chris Lehmann

The noblesse oblige ideal could serve as an occasional check on the over-grasping ambitions of America's ruling class.

Wall Street has been overrun with loutish, preening boors, heedless of civility and public order. They belong to an idle class of feckless layabouts, who indulge every passing destructive impulse, regard any serious social obligation as a personal slight and generally act as though the world owes them a living.

Also, some protesters are gathering nearby, in lower Manhattan’s Liberty Park, aka Zuccotti Park.

The public protests against the nation’s investing elite have laid bare one of the hoariest entries in our republic’s social mythology: the notion that our privileged caste bears a special sense of duty to turn their vast holdings toward the service of a greater good.

In more sentimental bygone times, this went by the name noblesse oblige–the idea that something (if not much, strictly speaking) was expected from those who benefited from existing social and economic arrangements. This myth served to make it seem as though large landholders and financial barons were doing the republic a favor by exercising what they took to be their natural prerogative as rulers. That’s why the election of a vulgar soldier such as Andrew Jackson as president came as a shock to the New England elites and Virginia squierarchy for whom affairs of state were a natural extension of their various landed and commercial monopolies. And that’s why Jackson’s overheated assaults on the early Republic’s “monster Bank” seemed so ugly. Did the new landless holders of the franchise have no gratitude, for God’s sake?

Still, the noblessse oblige ideal could serve as an occasional check on the over-grasping ambitions of America’s ruling class–and fuel the effective neo-populist counterinsurgencies of class traitors such as Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. In our own addled neo-aristocratic age, however, the idea that elites who reap outsized benefits in the American social order incur any reciprocal social obligations is a dead letter. Not only is the nation’s power elite unhampered by a residual allegiance to a larger social agenda–they are the nation’s agenda.

Look no further for confirmation of this derangement than the surreal explanation for why the jobs economy remains terminally stalled out amid record-breaking corporate profits. The problem, you see, is that company CEOs are paralyzed by the “uncertainty” of a runaway liberal regulatory state. How could any self-seeking corporate honcho expand his workforce or reinvest in his rickety physical plant when, at any moment, power-mad federal regulators working from the Obama socialist playbook will be swooping down to expropriate yet more of their hard-earned wealth? Here, for example, is Forbes contributor Gary Shapiro, who also happens to be head flack for the Consumer Electronics Association, in full froth about the “army of government bureaucrats” who are implementing a vast battery of job-killing regulations: “These bureaucrats have a dangerous combination of legal savvy, little business experience, and a passionate desire to punish, restrict and regulate business without regard to economic consequences.”

This is all to say nothing, of course, on the overclass’ lovingly adumbrated self-image as swashbuckling entrepreneurs. We hear no end of encomia to the derring-do of our market conquistadors, be it in the adoring obituaries of Steve Jobs or in the vast literature of self-osculating business memoirs. Are we really to accept that these world-conquering souls flee shrieking from the holy mandate of wealth-and-job creation the moment that the EPA announces a comment period on a new toxic waste regulation?

What’s more, you would never guess from Shapiro’s impassioned cri de coeur that American businesses have their very own captive counter-regulatory agency within the executive branch–an office conceived to reduce paperwork that Reagan hijacked into an exceedingly business-friendly outfit bearing the deceptively wan name of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Under George W. Bush, OIRA became a veritable clearing house of obliging end-runs around federal regulations–all that a petitioning business would have to do in the vast majority of cases was to assert that a regulation would produce an adverse economic effect, and presto: the offending rule would be waived.

And how has OIRA fared under that swaggering, class-baiting neo-socialist Barack Obama? James Goodwin, a policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform, has this to say: “OIRA has all too often behaved as if it were still in service of the Bush Administration’s anti-regulatory objectives: giving lobbyists for regulated industries and representatives of polluting agencies a sympathetic ear in their efforts to short-circuit badly needed regulations, and interfering with agency science.”

With this record in view, one can’t help but wonder what America’s business leaders really have to complain about. The Obama White House has already reneged on a central 2008 campaign promise by extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and is dedicated to a central plank of today’s right-wing dogma: deficit reduction. And even if the Oval Office were a hostile anti-business encampment, the GOP controls the House of Representatives and enjoys the solicitude of a Supreme Court headed by former corporate in-house counsel John Roberts.

But this, indeed, may be the final explanation for the vanished shade of noblesse oblige in our neo-aristocratic age: The idea of reciprocal obligations can have no real relevance when all our public institutions tilt in a single, plutocratic direction.

Chris Lehmann, a contributing editor of In These Times, is an editor of Book Forum and the Baffler and the author of Rich People Things (Haymarket, 2011). He is now working on a book about American religion and the money culture.

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