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Bad and Bourgeois

The super-rich talk to one another about a rising tide lifting all boats, all the while arming their yachts ahead of potential crisis.

The opening of the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. US Embassy Bern, Switzerland / Flickr

“Conjuncture” is a fancy term Louis Althusser came up with to describe the emergence of phenomena that bubble to the surface like sulfur from the same deep crack in the sea floor. Events appear, not as causal chains, but as symptoms of the same disease.

And though we need no further reminders of our current gangrenous capitalist conjuncture, with its wound from the 2007 financial crisis festering untreated, we got some. In the week leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration as president of the United States, the world’s wealthiest people met in Davos to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, Oxfam declared that eight men held as much wealth as half of humanity, and rap group Migos scored their first chart-topping single with “Bad & Boujee.”

Migos’s hit is an especially appealing riff on the traditional themes of trap music, an extremely formalist hip-hop subgenre that specializes in pioneering new slang terms for selling dope and threatening rivals while bedding their women. Before getting down to that important business with their signature staccato triplet flows, Migos member Offset muses, “We never really had no old money, we got a whole lot of new money though.”

In a country where a $500 expense puts most people into debt, popular culture reboots the old myths in grittier styles. It’s difficult to find paeans to the old-fashioned ideology of making it rich through hard work, but trap music provides a continual 808-fueled stimulation into the American dream, in the parodic surreality of so much hip-hop.

As that pinnacle of white sophistry, Genius, describes it,

“Bad and Boujee” is a mesmerizing trap anthem about making money and spending time with women who have expensive taste. “Boujee” is an intentional misspelling of “bougie,” which is slang for bourgeois, and refers to the materialism of society’s middle class.

Kudos to the intrepid Genius annotator for diligently looking up each word in the dictionary, but “bourgeois” is only “middle class” when you’ve got a decaying aristocracy ambling around. It’s up for debate whether “bourgeois” describes our current wealthy rulers; their cultural practices speak to the dictates of mass consumerism rather than that of a social-climbing ascendant class measuring itself against the glories of royalty. Mark Zuckerberg (number six on the list) wears T-shirts everywhere, Warren Buffett (number three) lives in the same house he bought in 1958, and Carlos Slim (number four) purchases clothes off the rack from his Sanborn department stores.

Neoliberal policies have hollowed out even our humble non-bourgeois middle, exactly the point of Oxfam’s dramatic statistic. And this polarization is also, ostensibly, the raison d’etre of a conference like Davos: it lets the ultra-wealthy come up from their Scrooge McDuck money pits for a bit of air so they can catch their bearings. As one Wall Street Democrat put it, the conference is “where millionaires are explaining to billionaires how to talk about the middle class.” At Davos, private jet owners consult the passengers in first class to get a perspective on the economy section.

Universal basic income (UBI) is one of these desirable perspectives, increasingly influential among Silicon Valley thought-leaders, as a solution to scandalous rates of exploitation. If the ruling ideas of any epoch are, as Marx would have it, those of its ruling class, then universal basic income advocates are in powerful company.

UBI’s appeal among Silicon Valley is twofold. It’s a “hack” for the welfare state that purports to solve, simply and elegantly, the complexity and unevenness of the contemporary welfare state — which, since capital is unwilling to pay decent wages, stands posed to be the last resort for increasingly numbers of people. And it is the kind of paternalist solution liberal tech elites love, convinced as they are that in fifty years the only nonautomated jobs will be, well, theirs.

How will the hoi polloi subscribe to startup business models reliant on on-demand Ikea construction and Netflix Original Series when living in a scorched-earth cybernetic dystopia? UBI offers a way.

And what a way. Like so many futuristic scenarios, Davos’s UBI-topia changes everything to keep everything the same, its infographic featuring an all-but-literal scattering of crumbs. Inequality remains, but at around 1970s levels. Each quintile must know its place, but with a retro feel, somewhat like an Instagram filter gussying up your mediocre lunch photos.

Of course, as Jeff Jacoby petulantly reminds us, these billionaires have pledged their fortunes to charity. The solution to the problems of rampant global inequality, then, if one follows Jacoby’s logic, is the imminent death of these scions of industry.

And yet, even after death we are sure to be haunted by the specter of these capitalists. Gates has convinced several other billionaires, including Warren Buffett and Zuckerberg, to donate their wealth to his titanic “philanthrocapitalist” charity, the Gates Foundation, which seeks to address poverty by controlling the health, education, and food systems of poor nations, organized like a vertically integrated multinational corporation. Insulated from democratic oversight, we are potentially stuck with this Death Star of do-gooders even once Bill joins Clippy in hell.

The “Elite Eight” can afford to concern themselves with managing the lives of the dispossessed towards less insurrectionary ends. But what of your run-of-the-mill 1 percenter, with only eight or nine figures to their name? Their benighted minds overflow with intimations of their own apocalyptic demise, driving them to doomsday preparations that span all manner of activities, from laser-eye surgery (in order to eliminate reliance “on a nonsustainable external aid for perfect vision”) to stocking up on Bitcoin.

“I will probably be in charge, or at least not a slave, when push comes to shove,” hypothesizes Steve Huffman, founder of Reddit. Truly, nothing confronts you with humanity’s boundless capacity for inhumanity quite like reading Reddit every day.

We can return to Migos as a guide to this new breed of prepper rich. For Migos, the good life presents itself not merely as an immense accumulation of ostentatious commodities, like Lamborghinis and extremely heavy jewelry. It’s also about another expensive luxury: security, and specifically guns. From Uzis to Dracos to hundred-round-magazines, their investment in the right to bear arms runs towards the eclectic. And resembling its astonishing stratification of riches, the US also suffers from gun inequality, although it’s a much more moderate inequality than wealth: 20 percent of gun owners possess 80 percent of all guns. Perhaps it is in the interest of increasing parity that venture capitalist Marvin Liao has forsworn guns for a trusty bow and arrow. A classic never goes out of style.

The less DIY-inclined elite, can rely on governments around the world for protection. Trump advisor and actual vampire Peter Thiel secretly obtained citizenship in New Zealand: whether he’s “Going Galt” or simply LARPing his favorite fictional universe, Lord of the Rings, is an open question. After Kim Kardashian’s robbery, Paris has stepped up security for its billionaire luxury shoppers.

It’s easy to laugh, but this is part of a larger, disturbing trend: that clacking sound you’ve been hearing since at least 2008 is the wealthy pulling up the ladders. In the coming years they may simply detonate them and throw a few universal basic life preservers to the rest of us huddling below. In fact, these fears of imminent apocalypse have been stoked by the same Davos set of do-gooders, who line the pockets of reactionary intellectuals like Niall Ferguson and Francis Fukuyama.

Make no mistake, no matter how many foundations they start or even how devastated the environment gets, the rich are not in the same boat as the rest of us. They’re in armed yachts.

In light of these two sides of our bad bourgeoisie — those who seek to solve every problem but themselves, and the rest who throw cash at their silly doomsday scenarios — I much prefer Migos’s philosophy of what it means to be rich.

There are no outsized ambitions, no science-fiction dystopias to flee, no adolescent desires to assign meaning and significance to hoards of capital. Migos says something else: such wealth in the face of so much misery is fundamentally absurd, and so it is best consumed on ridiculous vehicle customizations, diamond-encrusted chokers, and Louboutin sneakers. They know that being bad and being bourgeois go together like white and T-shirts.