The Whalefall, or the Anatomy of a Gifted Kid Burnout: The Brooklyn Notebook Part II

Dearest friends,

There has always been a scene. In the glittering heights of Rome, there were the special ones, who ate and drank and wrote fine things. When horses raced across long tracks to the clink of champagne glasses and gold coins, there was a scene, the beautiful people. It Girls and Bright Young Things, all crystal and shimmering and light, gowns brushing over out-of-the-way cobblestone paths like fingers over secret places, soft warm breaths like gentle caresses, a whispered word to a secret ear, and a secret that is a promise.

Is there any wonder it holds such attraction? In the distance, they see it blazing bright. So far from the humdrum ordinary of their small town, so full of potential and possibility. Imagine a somewhat awkward kid who feels deeply that they don’t belong where they grew up. They know – and feel – that they are more talented than those around them. And some of them are told as such.

“You’re special.” “You’re special.” “You’re gifted.” “This is not your lot in life.” “You are going to go far.”

And where is far? How can far be anywhere but that bright sun over the horizon? Are they headed for their very own sun? Are they kindling for the bonfire? Are they moths to a flame?

Up flies Icarus, towards his destiny.

Once upon a time, the world was in ruins. America stood alone. America stood triumphant. Whatever you may think of China today, being the workshop of the world has made thousands of billionaires and countless steel and glass towers. America was that tenfold over. After WWII, America was the world’s premier industrial power, and all the markets of the world stood available to it.

This was the whalefall, a tremendous surge of economic nutrients that made fortunes across the country. When members of the new Creative Class, the Bureaucratic Class, the PMC, whatever, talk about the blond fratboy Chad as an elite, it is not merely a figment of fevered imaginations. Rather, it is an observation of a newly formed class, the Middle American Nouveau Riche, which came about from the outpouring of prosperity during mid-century. Normally, the rise of a new elite occurs mediated through existing elite institutions. Someone doesn’t just magically become rich, they become rich after going to Harvard. Or they make business deals and create a business network which draws them into contact with the established elite. The New Money of the Gilded Age was assimilated into the social set by being seen, mutually recognized, and invited in. But that didn’t happen in the last mid-century. What was created was “free wealth”, wealth that existed independent of and unaware of existing elite institutions. The closest thing today is the crypto boom – some NEET who bought bitcoin earlier has now become New Money without being drawn into the formal institutions of eliteness or building those social or cultural connections. But Middle American regular white people were able to build their own businesses and other operations that allowed them to amass fortunes of a few million dollars. And lacking any reason not to (it means Anglo-Saxon, right?), they styled themselves WASPs. It made sense, of course.

The reason why the Creative Class sees the Ohio State frat boy as the picture of the WASP elite, something that is almost mind bogglingly confusing to the real elites I talk to, is because that is what they see. And part of this comes from the receding of the WASP from public life. People often talk about the death or replacement of the WASP elite. They’re not dead. But they have gone West, beyond the sea, past the ken of mortal men. This agglomeration of PMCs and nouveau riche readily take the name of UMC because they don’t see any other credible claimants. Why should they? The traditional elite establishment is invisible.

At the same time, the Managerial Revolution was underway, creating a new class, the PMC. When you imagine what people call middle class, what are some things that come to mind?

First of all, there’s the high prole or labor aristocrat. This is an old kind of person. There have been skilled laborers in guilds or other organizations since time immemorial, and they have earned comfortable wages. They, like the regular prole, produce value and receive a fraction of that value back. But their skills allow them to create far more value than the average unskilled laborer, and their rarity means they have a lot of bargaining power: see the Freedom Convoy. In economic terms, they’re proletarian, with a few owning their tools (this does not meaningfully make them not proletarian), but they make as much as the other middle class categories here and sometimes culturally blend into the middle class. And they are usually called middle class in American pop culture. Class is complex and exists on material, cultural, and social levels. These are things like plumbers, truck drivers, electricians, nurses (nurses produce the value of medicine, despite being called “professionals”), and pilots.

Secondly, there are those who teach and culturally condition the population. Because there are so many people, this class is also relatively numerous, because there must be so many for every group of people. A classroom can only be so large. In the past, this was the clergy and clerisy, dispensing the opiate of the masses. Today, it is the teachers of primary and secondary school, still dispensing the opiate of the masses. This is another social relation which is very old and likely to continue.

The last category is the PMC, the new class. As it was being born and expanded, it created a huge demand for people who were brought into it and thereby achieved a middle class lifestyle. But what is the PMC? Does it exist in history? The instinctive answer people want to give is “yes”. But the similar roles in the past are not middle class, but minor aristocracy or haute bourgeois. In business, there were clerks, but clerks were paid much better than administrators now, and clerking was a path upward through the firm to become a partner. Clerks in haute bourgeois family partnerships were more like law clerks today, the larval form of a future haute bourgeois. You might say that the bureaucrats of Imperial China, the mandarins, were the same as modern PMCs, but were they? A mandarin held sway over hundreds of acres of land and earned the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. A mandarin was more like a European baron than he is a modern paper pusher. The same applies to things like UX “programmers” vs the engineers of old. In fact, software allows for easy illustration of this idea. There are many people earning a decent wage being UX *programmers* or UI *programmers* or C++ *programmers*, but the big bucks and prestige belong to *full-stack engineers*, especially when the *full-stack* element is so assumed as to no longer go unsaid – everyone is fully versed in all skills and potentially able to take on all tasks. Here we see what has happened. In the past, you had the service aristocracy, the baronage, which earned income and lived as what they were, which was landed gentry, minor members of the aristocracy. Why do the PMC often make pretenses at being UMC? Partly because they kinda are. But only kinda. What is a PMC? A PMC takes the responsibilities of an old-style baron, but only part of them. The baron’s work is divided among many people. A lawyer is replaced by a small group of paralegals. The old haute bourgeois becomes a team of administrators and bookkeepers. One UMC becomes many MC people. But because they do similar work, in some sense, confusion and pretension is natural. This also helps account for some of the parasitic nature. The aristocracy was already often considered a parasitic class. What the PMC is is a minor-minor aristocrat, an even less skilled and useful version of the old aristocrat. In short, the PMC is a historical novelty that comes from the splitting of UMC work into many people, brought about by the high demand for information processing in the monopoly-managerial mode of production, because a monopoly is always implicitly doing central planning and therefore cannot depend on the easy information of the price signal.

So what happens as prosperity recedes? The whalefall could not last forever. America’s ability to maintain a large amount of PMCs was conditional on it being the world’s greatest industrial power. But the world was always going to recover. Furthermore, all those nouveau riche fortunes require energy to keep going. They must find growth – or at the very least, sustenance. Otherwise, inflation will waste them away into nothing. These newly prosperous classes are facing the void. Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations. Part of why Twitter posters insist the regime is invincible is because they need it to be invincible to guarantee the continuation of their way of life. Without the regime, who will provide these PMC jobs? This huge swath of the middle class was created by managerialism. The crisis of scarcity was brought home by 2008. After 2008, the broad middle realized the good times were over.

No one takes proletarianization lightly. Even though their grandfathers might be proles, of either the skilled or unskilled type, labor sucks. People do not like doing labor. Part of why Marx’s vision seems to never come true is that he thinks there will be a classless, stateless society because people will actually enjoy and find fulfillment in their work. Nah. Only ISTJ freaks think that way. The rest of us need to get paid, son, and desire to do as little work for as much pay as possible. Real work, labor work, is really hard.

For the modern gifted kid trying to hold and or get a middle class lifestyle, only a few avenues remain.

One is to try to shoot for the stars and secure a position in the true upper middle class before the music stops. The horn is blowing, the train is about to depart the station. Last call. But the trip is already overbooked – can you make it? The traditional cutoff to be gifted in America is 130IQ, the top 2%. This is roughly as big as historical aristocracies, as I have repeatedly said in my various posts about the upper middle class. But part of the problem is that there are not many Harvard slots. The top 2% of America is millions of people, but Harvard only admits a few thousand. Now, you could shoot lower than Harvard, but given the fever pitch of competition, you may not make it. And is our gifted kid 130IQ? Are they as talented as the traditional elite? This is in doubt. Nathan J. Robinson, the Plantation Riddler, went to one of these no name gifted schools. He got a perfect SAT, a +3SD result, roughly norming to an IQ of 145. The problem is that he was the only person to do this in decades at that school. If the cutoff to enter a gifted program in Middle America really is 130IQ, then something is fishy, because the rate of perfects should be much higher than that, mathematically. I suspect there are two problems at work. First, the standards in Middle America are lowered, because the point of gifted school, like “good schools”, is not to guarantee a path to the elite, but to avoid minorities. This is why Twitter posters are often incredulous when I explain to them the importance of IQ to the American elite or the purpose of GATE, which is assumed to be occult or some kind of scam. No, in the coastal metropoles, the elite schools really are designed as paths to the elite. But in Middle America, it seems like gifted programs are not full of the top 2%, but often are broader than that, because the real point is to separate white kids from minority kids. This creates a bunch of kids with 110-130IQ, the proverbial midwits, with hugely inflated egos but actually mediocre talents. The other explanation I have is that skilled laborers are often precocious in youth so that they can learn skills in an apprenticeship from trusted community members or their father, before settling down into their skilled labor life. When these kids were creamed into the gifted system, they really were gifted as kids and maybe teens, but that spark burned out. That mental suppleness was used to learn things like calculus, which they will never use again, instead of blacksmithing or how to fix a Chevy. I believe it is a mixture of these two explanations. And that’s just the merit side. Middle class kids exist at a severe disadvantage when it comes to the social connections, networking, cultural context, and financial capital elements of getting ahead in the upper middle class pathways.

So the gifted kid “burns out”.

But they’ve seen enough of what lies above to be resentful and envious. They deserve better than working at Starbucks.

The other path is to fight as hard as you can for what you’ve already got. The scene has always existed. But the scene has gotten worse – more venomous, less creative. Part of the problem is competition. When everyone around you is a competitor, you can’t engage in free and easy collaboration. This goes into my recent thread about Achilles and the political Right, but part of why Frogtwitter and 4chan were so open and creative was the zero stakes environment. You could tolerate all manner of heresy and weird but potentially interesting losers because it didn’t matter. After all, people liked Achilles’ tweeting until they realized who he was. If this thing wasn’t a movement or pseudo-movement, if it didn’t have political pretensions, if there weren’t political sinecures and podcast dollars at stake, would it matter if there were losers among it? No, it wouldn’t. It didn’t matter for the longest time. But these dynamics of gatekeeping and cancellation must occur because there is something at stake. And the stakes are only getting higher because the pie is shrinking, so any slot must be fought for more desperately. A cancellation is an excuse to off a rival and get their job. But this kills the open air, making the space sterile.

Furthermore, part of why the creativity has declined is the inability to experiment. The same has happened with movies. Arthouse movies can still be weird and creative because the budgets are small – they can afford to go wrong and nothing will happen. Indie games still have many gems. But with big blockbusters and triple A gaming, they stick to a formula that guarantees mediocrity because mediocrity is not failure. Failure means being out hundreds of millions of dollars. Mediocrity means a modest profit, even if no one will remember it in future ages. Part of why the scene of the past was more creative was a lack of economic anxiety. If you fooled around in your twenties, you could still return to a comfortable middle class existence. Or you could have rich parents bankroll you. But now, those middle class jobs are in short supply, and those nouveau rich parents are getting poorer by the moment. What can be done?

And these are the origins of the war.

All’s war in love and art,
Monsieur le Baron

PS: These two essays relate to the last part of the series. They were sent to me after the last post. While I don’t endorse everything there, they are interesting.

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