Mike Konczal, a man after my own heart on most issues, posted a link to an article from the 1980s discussing the student loan system as a recrudescent form of the indentured servitude system that was once used a way to finance the importation of needed cheap labor. It’s a fascinating and prescient analysis, and it also reminds me of another troubling trend that has reemerged as a function of the accelerating concentration of wealth among fewer and fewer persons and institutions.
One of the most interesting things about the American Revolution that we don’t learn about in most high school curricula is the profound changes in social organization and relations that it wrought. Of particular interest to me is the breakdown of the patron/client system, a patriarchal system as old as the Roman republic. The breakdown of that system put stress on the ancient institutions of slavery and patriarchy and culminated in the civil rights movements of the 20th Century.
The patron/client system was so universal as to probably be invisible to the Revolutionary generation; indeed, many of them were practitioners of it, which you quickly realize if you’ve ever read their correspondence. Because of the way property, and through it institutional political power, was held, currying favor with “important men” either personally or through marriage was the standard way young ambitious men (and it was just men) moved up in the world. Before credit ratings and statutes forbidding negative job references without permission, access to the property and influence of important men was the only way, or rather the surest way, to secure the resources necessary to build a business, enter a profession, and be taken seriously in politics and even the arts.
Before the abolition of primogeniture and entail (first abolished by Georgia in 1777), wealth, particularly in the form of property, was difficult to dislodge. Thus the head of a household would inherit a typically undisturbed, massive estate, and the various dependents associated with it: not only household staff and laborers, but also the attorneys and middle managers who ran various enterprises, political allies who owed allegiance in return for appointments to desirable government commissions, and so forth. Communities, even in cities outside of the nascent dense industrial pockets, were structured this way. A young climber would identify himself in part by his association with a particular family and structure his life–his social obligations, clubs, career, education, and of course marriage–based on that association. Association with a family or group of families compelled a type of loyalty that is absent today, requiring from the client fealty to the political and business ambitions of his patron, up to and including whom he could vote for, marry, and entertain.
The immiseration of labor over the last forty years has brought us back to a similar, though much more impersonal, situation. The ambitious young person today, particularly in the professions, has a very narrow range of options for very practical reasons: the financing for meaningful education requires significant debt, and the jobs that allow for manageable service of that debt are concentrated in fewer and fewer firms and sub-fields. Professionals graduate with enormous debt that quickly becomes unmanageable if you do not go to work for a major employer, or have access to significant capital to start your own business.
Unpaid internships are the most stark example of this new patron/client program. Just getting a valued internship often requires connections either through a university that, in turn, requires wealth and connections to get into, or through a familial or social relation. These internships are often necessary to “build relationships,” i.e., curry favor, with one of the small coterie of institutions controlling immense marketshare. They’re also often subsidized by family wealth, reinforcing the representation of socially connected elements of the upper classes in the professions, political institutions, and the arts.
The need for debt to finance education is unique to those outside of the upper classes. In turn, debt places pressure on those individuals to contour their professional practices and social lives to secure favor with the comparably small social cohort that enjoys control over capital and how it is spent.
The result is much different from meritocracy. While not a mirror of the essentially hereditary and patriarchal patronage systems of pre-Revolution America (and pre-Augustine Rome), the debt requirement for access to the only institutions that grant any kind of economic security has impersonalized the patronage system while serving its basic function: to keep wealth within a particular social milieu, with a hefty cost of admission that requires de facto conformity with particular sets of values and norms that contribute to class cohesion.
Here’s a picture of my dog: