Beyond the Laptop Class
We can have a good laugh at the expense of the laptop class, but “Rich Men North of Richmond” is not a “silly song.”
Gary W. Houchens, PhD, is a professor of education administration and the director of the Educational Leadership doctoral program at Western Kentucky University. He confesses that he wrote this essay on a laptop.
Oliver Anthony’s song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” was a recent overnight hit in large part because its visceral, scathing indictment of America’s political class transcended the conventional left-right ideological divide. The song immediately resonated with postliberals who, in the spirit of traditional Catholic social teaching, reject the soul decaying aspects of the modern welfare state, but also insist on solidarity with the working class.
Some of the more humorous responses to “Rich Men North of Richmond” (perhaps inadvertently) also bolster the postliberal call for greater solidarity between both “working people” and what postliberal political philosopher Patrick Deneen dubbed the “laptop class.”
Case in point is the parody of the song by the satirist Remy. In this hilarious version of the song, Remy plays an upper middle-class federal employee who laments his own working conditions:
I’ve been working to the break of 4:45
I get an automatic raise and I can’t be fired
Must wait to age 57 until I can retire
With an inflation-adjusted pension that just keeps going higher…
The bureaucrat goes on to complain about the end of remote work on Mondays, the tedium of waiting for an electronic verification code to check his 401(k), being forced to turn on his camera during a Zoom meeting (and thus having to put on a tie), and the hassle of open enrollment for his health insurance plan.
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The video is funny because, of course, these “burdens” are ridiculous in light of the much harsher conditions of the working class Oliver Anthony decries in the original song. It also pokes at the self-absorption and elitism of the laptop class.
Remy creates content for the right-liberal magazine Reason, which called “Rich Men North of Richmond” a fun song of protest, but “silly,” and urged listeners not to take it seriously. Perhaps this is because the libertarians at Reason do not really take the actual plight of the working class that seriously themselves, believing that, since a guy like Oliver Anthony can use the medium of YouTube to get instantly famous, the world really must not be that bad.
Remy’s parody seems to suggest that the villains are not the rich, with politicians tucked firmly in their pockets, but perhaps the innumerable apparatchiks of the faceless federal leviathan. Of course, postliberals have much to complain about our overgrown government. The principle of subsidiarity laid out in Catholic social teaching condemns the vast, impersonal, disconnected overreach we see from the government today. It is not wrong to enjoy a laugh at the expense of technocrats like the one in Remy’s video.
As Deneen points out in Regime Change, members of the laptop class, including those who work in the private sector, may not be “rich men north of Richmond,” but many of them still bear great responsibility for the polarization of our current age. With their technology and information-based jobs, the laptop class has been shielded from and even benefitted by the harsh forces of globalization that have decimated working class communities. Though they may not actually make more money than a talented member of the artisan class like a plumber or welder, the denizens of the laptop class smugly enjoy a sense of cultural superiority because of their college degrees and woke cultural values.
The “regime change” Deneen calls for is one in which members of the laptop class essentially renounce the laptop ethos and identify with the values and needs of the working class to form a new coalition that can promote a policy vision that truly reflects the common good.
Such a vision is not the kind of class war waged by the socialists, which seeks a utopian classless egalitarianism. Rather, Deneen recognizes that there has been and always will be an elite in every society. Healthy societies are ones in which the elites and the working class, while experiencing some natural conflicts, nevertheless share a sense of common collective purpose and solidarity. This is the same view of class unity and cooperation expressed in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931).
Members of the laptop class may be largely unfamiliar with the social decay and “deaths of despair” experienced by the people Oliver Anthony sings about. But in the long run they may be just as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the global economy and what Rod Dreher calls the ever-growing “soft totalitarianism” of the corporate state.
The value of college degrees continues to decline, and many in the laptop class own no means of wealth generation other than their fragile 401(k)s and their ability to manipulate information. For young people hoping to break into the laptop class themselves, the future does not look quite as rosy as it did for the character in Remy’s satire video, and they may be willing to join with the frustrated hourly workers for whom Oliver Anthony has such sympathy.
We can have a good laugh at the expense of the laptop class, but “Rich Men North of Richmond” is not a “silly song,” as the editors at Reason put it. It is an anthem for a postliberal movement that, God willing, might soon include a few middle-class laptop workers too.
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