You are looking at a gold-plated AK-47, sold by Versace for $9,000. There are at least four layers of signifier going on in that photo: the ancient—perhaps even oldest—significance of gold, the postwar guerrilla icon that is the Kalashnikov, and the increasingly decadent brand of Versace. What’s that you say? Only four? Oh, right—the fourth layer of signification comes from knowing that this gold-plated assault rifle, along with the collection of sunglasses and watches surrounding it, belongs to a child. The picture is from Rick Kids of Instagram, a Tumblr you should visit immediately if you enjoy self-righteous resentment.
You know I do. As an aggregator of all the expressions of all the people who regard themselves as important, the internet offers a pretty much bottomless resource for smug disdain. Both smugness and disdain are wrong, of course. A wise person does not regard himself as wiser than others, and while a misanthrope may be regularly confirmed in his worldview, he is rarely happy. Don’t start noticing how badly people handle a four-way stop or how many of them are wearing sweatpants that say “juicy,” or you will become sad and unlikable. Negative thinking can ruin your life, and contempt is a type of negative thinking.
Except for the one kind of contempt that is okay: contempt for the rich. No one likes a smart person who can’t believe how dumb everyone is, but a working person who can’t believe how decadent and soft the rich are is a protagonist. Consider my personal favorite sub-genre of RKofI,the bar tab photo. Unlike a kid who stands on two sports cars, a bottle service receipt comes from a waitress. Probably, she took the picture. Knowing that juxtaposes the absurd life of the hyper-wealthy with the equally absurd but not-in-a-fun-way life of the working world. Perhaps you are familiar with that world and that life, and perhaps you would like to punch this kid in the mouth.
The beauty of contemning rich people is that they are so much better off than the rest of us. Contempt is normally ugly because it is directed at someone beneath you, but the rich are literally above us, in planes. By all measures of value in American society—education, mobility, beauty, hipness, elegance, killing your faculty for self-criticism— they are way ahead. The only area in which they operate at a disadvantage is the decreasingly valuable morality. Morally, a rich person is born in the hole. He has to prove that his character is equal to the largesse he has been given, and generally he is not. Generally, he is seventeen and refers to his friends as “homies.”
Please note the hashtag on that photograph of rich college students having a pool party: #success. I submit that there is the core of class anger in 2012 America. The enormous amount of money that the rich have amassed in the last twenty years, the vertiginous gap between people who work and people who invest, could not possibly be the result of success. For every Herman Cain, there are a dozen Mitt Romneys who made their fortunes after starting with mere wealth. After a decade of tax breaks, union collapses, rising tuition at elite universities you can buy your way into, and a housing bubble that wrecked the economy and saw recovery only in the stock market, they are calling their windfall success.
The rich work less and get more now than they have at any time in the last 100 years, and when we suggest any change to how this country does business—for example, returning the top marginal income tax rate to what it was under Bill Clinton—they accuse us of resenting their success. Somehow, we are to believe that the investment class rules over the working class through hard work. When we suggest that there might be flaws in a meritocracy where a few kids get to stand on Ferraris and many, many more get to work as lookouts for crack dealers, we are accused of wanting a handout. You get money for working. Ergo, if you have money, you must have worked.
It’s not true. In the contemporary United States, wealth is becoming uncoupled from work at a terrifying rate. People with two jobs struggle to stay afloat while people with no jobs wear clothing made of money. It’s been that way forever, but that’s not the American dream. The American dream was that anyone who worked hard could assure for themselves a minimal amount of success—a home of their own, a comfortable living, children with prospects for something better. For the last twenty years, our attention to the maximal level of success offered by the American dream—the summer home, extravagant living, children who will never have to contribute anything to society but their names—has driven down that minimum. Damn right there’s a class war on. The bad guys are winning.