Pitchfork Democracy


THE DAVOS MEETINGS HAVE CONCLUDED AND, as always, we await the results. Warnings were coming from everywhere prior to the exclusive sessions – possible recessions, the lowering price of oil, global inequality. But as far back as last summer, one of those in the world’s most elite financial club was already sounding the alarm at various levels.

Nick Hanauer helped launch 30 businesses, including Amazon, owns a bank, his own plane, a huge yacht, and qualifies, not as a member of the 1%, but of the .01%. He says that one of his keenest strengths is to possess a kind of instinctive sense of what the future will bring.

What is his sense picking up now? “I see pitchforks,” he states confidently.

“Our problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country (the U.S.) is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.”

Did the folks at Davos hear this message? It seems likely, and from numerous sources. The problem is that many of those who attended the World Economic Forum last week are of the investment kind. They attend because they sincerely want to hear of the problems in order to know where to place their funds. They aren’t out to solve the problems, but to stay clear of the greatest risk to their resources. Hanauer knows this reality and so put his challenge in plain terms: “And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live our gated bubble world: Wake up, people. It won’t last.”

Many in the financial order actually appreciate his forthrightness and candour, but figure they can avoid the troubles he speaks of. What they don’t comprehend is that Hanaeur is saying this great challenge before them isn’t financial but democratic and human. Just so they wouldn’t misinterpret him, he defined it for them:

“If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this didn’t see the pitchforks eventually come out. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.”

We’ll explore more regarding his reasonings in the next post, but for now the contrast between his language and that used in Davos is profound, even exasperating. The jargon largely used in Davos is of the corporate style – technical and vaguely antiseptic. While organizations like Oxfam were providing a clear contrast, speaking with pathos and urgency, the prevailing language is always one of neutrality and a morally numbing kind of objectivity. It focuses on the great problems of the day by analyzing their implications rather than solving their harsh realities. Yes, the great needs of the world are there – poverty, women’s rights, climate change, poor governance, even greed – but they are gathered effectively on the outside, looking in. The fundamental driving force of meetings like those in Davos is how to grow prosperity in order to overcome these problems rather than clearly solving them in human terms.

Just one other thought. If, as presented at the Swiss village last week, over half of the world’s wealth is about to be owned by the 1%, how can we expect them to tackle the great challenges of the age if it would necessarily cut into their profits if more effective measures at reducing inequality were to be undertaken?

This is where Hanauer is helpful, because he speaks from inside the gates, reminding his peers that if they have the most of the wealth, then they will have to apply themselves to the solutions. If democracy is not merely about deregulation, supportive corporate legislation, or access to hordes of capital, but angry citizens coming together, then a day of reckoning might indeed be on the horizon, the modern equivalent of pitchforks everywhere.