The 9.9 Percent:
The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture
by matthew stewart
simon & schuster, 352 pages, $28
The relationship between America’s oligarchy—the 0.1 percent—and the largely professional managerial class that occupies the rest of the top 10 wealth percentiles is central to present-day American political economy. Many writers have come forward to explain this relationship, and members of the 9.9 percent are themselves eager to express their concerns about inequality. The most simplistic, politicized narratives present the two as bitter opponents in the intra-elite class war: the professional classes either function solely as parasites on heroic entrepreneurs, or they are valiant defenders of public institutions against predatory robber barons. More serious analyses explore how the two operate together—in the corporate sector, in NGOs, in elite universities, and beyond—to maintain larger political and economic systems and their own power within them.
Unfortunately, Matthew Stewart’s The 9.9 Percent, which received approving reviews in the Washington Post and New York Times, has surprisingly little to say about any of this. Stewart does illuminate various insecurities and pathologies of the 9.9 percent, mostly by embodying them himself, but he fundamentally fails to explain the problems of inequality that he identifies or to offer any serious solutions.
Indeed, Stewart does not even seem particularly interested in the 9.9 percent. This group, despite lagging far behind the oligarchs in the 0.1 percent during the last fifty years, has still managed to maintain its overall wealth share, which has fallen for the bottom 90 percent. Yet most of the book’s anecdotes, featuring six-figure college prep and live-in servants, involve a much narrower stratum closer to the 1 percent. At the same time, Stewart describes the 9.9 percent as “more a state of mind” than a group of people—a “form of life,” “way of thinking,” and “system of values” that, at some level, we are all a part of.
Having muddled the distinctions between a statistical grouping, a socioeconomic class, and a specific class’s dominant value system, Stewart also seems unsure about whether the 9.9 percent (however defined) have any agency in influencing the larger political economy. “Rising inequality” is more often a cause than an effect in Stewart’s analysis. It turns good values into bad ones, fuels misogyny and racism, and is destroying education and politics. The 9.9 percent’s “willful ignorance” may perpetuate an unfair and dysfunctional system, but at bottom, according to Stewart, the attitudes and behaviors of the 9.9 percent are a response to the underlying condition of inequality, not the cause of it.
Nevertheless, most of the book reads as a moral exhortation to the 9.9 percent. And although the tone oscillates between jeremiad and lamentation, much of the substance is uncontroversial, even banal: the absurdity of elite educational credentialing from preschool to graduate programs, the insanity of “superzip” real estate, the hypocrisy of firms like McKinsey—these are not exactly novel insights at this point. Stewart includes some humorous material, like advertisements for nannies written in woke management-speak, which makes the book readable, but the selective combination of moralism and materialism deprives the argument of any force. If the attitudes and mores of the 9.9 percent are the real problem, why not say so? On the other hand, if these attitudes are merely a response to underlying material and structural forces, then what is needed is serious analysis of those forces and policies to correct them. But Stewart offers neither. He avoids any discussion of underlying financial incentives or economic structures, and he discusses only one policy response at any length—a tax on owner-occupied housing—which would probably be counterproductive and in any case inadequate. Instead, he retreats into moralizing and often nonsensical koans like, “If corn could speak, it would probably write a Bible, too.”
As a book of political economy, or even simple political persuasion, The 9.9 Percent is a complete failure. Anyone already familiar with debates around inequality is unlikely to learn anything new, while those who are presently unconcerned are unlikely to be convinced otherwise. But as a window into the inner life of America’s professional managerial class, the book has some redeeming value—not because of its descriptive power but rather through its own presence as a cultural artifact of, by, and for the 9.9 percent.
The definitive literary genre of the professional managerial class is the college application essay, and The 9.9 Percent is best approached as another submission in this category. Hence the author’s strange insistence on discussing his personal biography and family history throughout the book—apparently his great-grandfather made a fortune as an attorney for Rockefeller’s Standard Oil—and even greater insistence on explaining how anguished he is by all of it. Rest assured, dear reader, that the author is the right kind of person in all possible ways.
Of course, the point of a college application essay is to show that the applicant is clever and somewhat interesting, while demonstrating that his every belief and experience affirms the values of the institution to which he is applying. And that is essentially the purpose of The 9.9 Percent, which is likely to be read only by the 9.9 percent. Stewart’s criticisms of the “market myth” and the “meritocracy myth,” not to mention Republicans and Fox News, are all warranted. Yet they are also fashionable among the coastal urban professionals he superficially indicts. A true critique would likewise question whether the 9.9 percent’s “progressive” values, which Stewart reflects back to them, are complicit in entrenching inequality as well. But despite some careful mockery of liberal hypocrisy, the book does not tread here. Stewart does not ask, for instance, why inequality is often most pronounced in deep “blue” states and cities, or how strident ideological progressivism can coexist so happily with elite credentialing at prestigious universities.
Like seemingly every political book nowadays, The 9.9 Percent contains its share of handwringing about democracy. And indeed, the argument that extreme inequality can threaten democracy does not seem especially controversial, though how such problems could have arisen in a (once) supposedly well-functioning democracy is perhaps a more interesting question. But the college-application style of The 9.9 Percent illustrates a different, less understood problem with American political culture.
It is often assumed that our political discourse is so debased because important issues are simply too complex for the masses, who fall prey to “populists” and “demagogues.” In my experience, this is not really true. Technical policy issues are rarely too complex for the proverbial man on the street, who is often most affected by them, though they may be too boring for mass media. What The 9.9 Percent reveals is that—compared to the rank-and-file voter, who is increasingly checked out of conventional political debates and largely sidelined from policy formation—it is elites who are usually most invested in turning issues of political economy into simplistic morality tales. The contest for moral high ground, rather than political or even professional competence, has become the central battlefield of elite competition. Narratives of technocratic depoliticization are incomplete insofar as they omit this dimension.
That is why today’s ideological debates seem at once intensely polarized yet thoroughly performative, while often having little effect on actual policy. Partisan identification is treated as a commentary on one’s soul even as more and more essential policy is determined, formally or informally, by nonelected bodies anyway.
Today, few if any of the 9.9 percent are willing to sacrifice something for an ideology, yet a great many hope to raise money on one. Climate change is an urgent crisis when it comes to clean-tech subsidies, for instance, but McKinsey and Goldman Sachs are not going to stop working with the Saudis or advising companies to offshore production to pollution havens. Republicans who insist their mission is saving Western civilization likewise will not lift a finger to move critical industries back from China if it might harm a hedge fund portfolio. Whereas at one time a political cause might be criticized for beginning as a movement and degenerating into a racket, now most just begin as rackets—or “grifts,” in contemporary parlance.
Meritocratic selection separates personal worth from personal conduct via credentialing processes. Similarly, meritocratic politics separates political ideology from the concrete political economy by reducing political actions to signals of moral hygiene. Politics becomes an arena of self-realization; elites play-act democracy, with imitation mass ideologies serving as the props.
A few years ago, a common saying held that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But if Stewart’s book is any guide, it now seems much easier for the professional managerial class to imagine the end of neoliberal capitalism than to imagine, in the words of Nancy Fraser, the end of progressive-neoliberal moralism.
Julius Krein is the editor of American Affairs.
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