Champagne socialism. The slightly more radicalized cousin of liberal elitism, champagne socialism is increasingly becoming the default position for very wealthy people who also want to be (or be perceived as) good progressives. It’s leftism for people who have personal drivers. It’s political fence-sitting, and it’s so incredibly interesting.
Can we believe in a wealth tax and still want to become wealthy ourselves? Can we espouse the importance of universal pre-k and still send our children to the elite private schools that churn out senators regularly?
These are the questions of champagne socialism, rooted in the eternal battle between capitalism and whatever else is out there.
It’s the Emily Ratajkowski of it all, and it’s what I’m talking about in this week’s episode of Thinking Is Cool. The absence of ethical consumption, the question of ethical production, the justification of wealth and wanting, and where we fit into the paradigm of late-stage capitalism.
Listen now to confront your own ideas of good, bad, and worse.
Hello everyone and welcome back to Thinking Is Cool, the show where I, your host Kinsey Grant, do everything in my power to 1) get my parents to second guess my liberal arts education and 2) help ensure your next conversation is better than your last.
This episode is going to be about champagne socialism, the myth of the benevolent capitalist, and the politics of money. And it’s going to be under 20 minutes. Now before we get into it, the what, here’s the why.
If you’ve been along for the ride these last couple of weeks, you know I’ve been trying to push the creative boundaries I self-imposed when I started this show last year. A lot of that urge to do something different stems from a bigger identity crisis I’ve had lately…see, I’m working on this highly produced, really comprehensive capsule of eight episodes about the American Dream in its modern context. Those eight episodes are coming out in a few weeks, but already as I write them, I’m facing an internal reckoning.
Why am I doing this? Why are any of us doing this? Why am I so obsessed with success? And ambition? And making money? Can I want those things and still believe in universal healthcare and the wealth tax? Can I ever really commit to honoring the unseen forces of creativity that move me if I’m also trying to make a bunch of money being creative? Can my artistic ambitions coexist with the logical and likely pre-programmed goal of material comfort at some point in my life?
It’s a complicated question that, as I’m sure you can guess, I unpack quite meticulously in that American Dream capsule you’ll hear in a couple weeks. But here and now, I want to start the conversation because it’s, frankly, consuming me. I can’t stop thinking about it. And as the saying goes, thinking is cool.
It’s time we all hold a mirror up to our own relationships with so-called success, material or otherwise. And it’s time to start today.
Today is going to be, in a word, experimental. It’s about questioning means and motives and opportunities. It’s about thinking for the sake of it. It’s about money and virtue-signaling. And it’s all unscripted.
Starting after the transition music you’re hearing right now ends, I’m going off-script. In front of me I have a brief outline that consists mostly of questions that my editorial assistant, Natalie, and I have come up with over many hours of rambling hypothetical-driven conversations about what it means to be a reluctant capitalist in a capitalist's world.
Our purpose today is to start thinking, nothing more. I’m not committing to AOC’s re-election campaign, I’m not moving to Scandinavia, I’m just thinking out loud. And sharing with you some of the most interesting conversation-starters I’ve encountered lately.
So…Nothing is off limits. Everything is on the table. Take it anywhere. And remember, thinking is cool and so are you.
*Fade out transition music*
- What inspired this episode? I read My Body in November and it truly struck me. Here was EmRata, a noted Bernie Sanders supporter, writing openly about the conflicts she faced within the capitalist framework. For as much as I sometimes loathed the way she wrote as if filtering herself through an Instagram sieve, I understood at some level her internal strife.
- VOICE MEMO
- This idea—that there might not be any ethical production under capitalism, set my brain ablaze. Thought about it constantly. I don’t come from financial security, but I always envisioned it for myself because of the nature of my work—startups.
- But I’ve also really come into my own in recent years, politically and ethically speaking. Now that I know more about systemic racism and inherent classism and education gaps and wage gaps and feminism and corruption…I believe in things I never considered before.
- What do I believe in?
- Universal healthcare
- Universal pre-K
- A wealth tax
- The formation of unions for the purpose of protective collective bargaining
- I’m sure that my Dad, speaking on behalf of all Dads, would probably say something along the lines of “you’ll change your mind someday.” But it’s been a couple years, and I’ve accumulated both more money and more experience, and I still think these things.
- Is that socialism? Do I subscribe to a socialist belief system?
- I think sometimes yes → Coleman, internet friends, liberal media – have I been radicalized because that’s hip?
- I think sometimes no → I still feel enormous reservations about labeling myself politically, partially because journalism and partially because I don’t want to look stupid if I do change my mind
- What is socialism? Britannica definition: “socialism, social and economic doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another. Furthermore, everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members. This conviction puts socialism in opposition to capitalism, which is based on private ownership of the means of production and allows individual choices in a free market to determine how goods and services are distributed.”
- I know the free market doesn’t work → I’ve seen who gets funded and who doesn’t and it would make you all sick. It should make you sick.
- It doesn’t matter what it means by definition to believe in things like universal healthcare and unionization. What matters more is that I am clearly fed up with the capitalist status quo. It is not working.
- Capitalism narrows the frame of imagination. It suggests that there are only a handful of versions of success and if you can’t get there, it’s on you.
- And yet…here I am benefitting enormously from capitalism - I’m a white woman with a college degree.
- I am also starting two businesses in one year
- The purpose isn’t just to make money, but that’s a big part of it and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that. I want to be well off. I want to live a comfortable life. I want my future children to be good people but also to want for very little. I want a big house. I want a fancy dog. I want to go on vacations and I want to fly first class, if only one time.
- Am I a bad person for wanting those things?
- Maybe—if I truly believed in socialist ideals, I would not likely believe in accumulating wealth to a dramatic extent. Perhaps a little but not a ton.
- Maybe not—think of all the celebrities who endorsed Bernie Sanders. If Celebrity Net Worth dot com is to be believed…
- Ariana Grande - $200M
- Cardi B - $40M
- Jack Nicholson - $400M
- Jeff Koons - $400M
- Lizzo - $10M
- Neil Young - $200M
- EmRata - $8M
- The big question here: How do we make sense of our conflicting politics around money? Why use a celebrity as a proxy when I’m experiencing the same thing? How do I handle my desires and pursuit of success when I have such strong political beliefs that go directly against that? What does it mean to exist in my political sphere and my business sphere?
- I think it’s bad to cast ourselves as one or the other in anything - I reject the idea that a good person can’t be a wealthy person and vice versa
- There are shades of belief systems and politics and they’re not always identical and how boring would it be if they were!
AD HERE → We’re about to unpack a really big and really important idea, and it’s going to very much Pandora’s Box this conversation. So you need a drink…take it away, Massican.
Now, let’s get back to the one-woman show. Before the break, I was talking about the intersection of political belief systems and internal pursuits of wealth.
- This brings us to the idea of Champagne Socialism - the radicalized cousin of the liberal elite. The people who espouse socialist ideals but go home to their mansions. It’s complicated for many reasons…
- What is the value of their words vs. their money? Example about Hasan Piker from libertarian magazine Reason: “[Piker] bought a $2.7 million house in Beverly Hills, complete with a swimming pool and an outdoor widescreen perfect for entertaining", yet "Piker could sell his Beverly Hills house and give most of the money to charity to show his commitment to equality. Talking about socialism is cheap (indeed, even lucrative); a $2 million donation is not.”
- Today, it’s en vogue to talk about socialism. It’s something the likes of EmRata have benefited from, and probably me too. Take off journalist hat - I’m a liberal who’s creating content for largely liberals. That’s something I do as a job. I’m lucky that my job includes space for me to talk about what I believe in, but the reality is that there’s a market for people like me to signal things like this.
- The root question: Is it possible to have it all? Can we be rich and still be good card-carrying leftists?
- What if we redefined what it means to be successful and to relish abundance?
- Natalie: Champagne socialism is classic political fence-sitting so there’s a beautiful opportunity to discuss what it would mean to integrate ideas of abundance with ideas of sharing; many wealthy people report loneliness, lack of connection and immense anxiety - have we replaced money for the things which make life truly abundant?
- If the promise of champagne socialism is that you can have it all, what is the cost of having it all and is it worth it? - Russell Brand talking about what therapists to billionaires reveal (TL;DR - they’re miserable)
- If we stopped saying “Hasan Piker has a big house” and he should share that money with everyone…we might be able to expand the definition of abundance in a really meaningful way.
- It’s in human nature so seek expansion. But capitalism makes us seek expansion of wealth and money and nothing else. At the end, pose what if we could expand love or hope or kindness?
- And if we redefined success and abundance, I think we’d see a lot more people fed up with capitalist ideals. We’re already more and more over it now.
- Natalie: Equally, many folks on the left struggle to resolve the question of self-determination and personal agency; we could ask then - who can we become without the drive to fuel capitalism?
- This is big
- Natalie: It’s not about Emily or any one individual (theoretically) - the question is about awareness - and individual/ collective responsibility;
- Are we feeding a delusion (i.e. that the way I make decisions about my money doesn’t impact others) or are we facing reality head on (i.e. I have a growing awareness of the consequence of every decision I make about my pursuit of wealth)
- Natalie: In Emily’s book, she constructs a narrative justification for her wealth, which is very common when you hit 1 million plus; you simply become a different person with a different experience of the world and therefore a different story; in your reflection, I’d love to see you imagining who you are becoming as you imagine this new status, and who you thought you’d be before you arrived where you are now
- Benevolent capitalist? Is that bullshit?
- From conversation with Coleman: Would we say something like I am wealthy and I want to be taxed more and if I’m not taxed enough to satisfy what would be my liking I’ll donate the difference?
- Important: Are we ever satisfied? Can we stop once we start making money? Can we ever say hey that’s enough?
- What needs to change for us to make change happen?
- Natalie: What Arnold Mindell calls “the consensus reality” - the critical mass of people who agree about the nature of reality itself ((think about your disillusionment with Twitter and imagine it unfolding across every aspect of life not just for you but for everyone who listens to TIC - what would emerge from that disillusionment and which worlds are made possible from it?)
- Conclusion: I wrote this note down as Natalie and I were talking about this episode. She said, “When we know what we don’t know, that’s when things become interesting.” And boy was she right.
- There is so much I don’t know about my relationship with success, about the upper limits of wealth, about being a good person. But I’m trying to figure it all out. And I hope that you’re encouraged in hearing this episode to do the same. We can be honest about our ambition and our belief system at the same time—we’re all works in progress and every single one of us will be figuring it out for the rest of our lives.
- Signoff: Thank you so much for listening to this episode. I’m Kinsey Grant and remember, thinking is cool and so are you. See you next week.