THR Blog   /   June 29, 2020

Our Chekhov Moment

We find ourselves in a time of “future history.”

Eric B. Schnurer

( Cherry blossoms by Lance Cheung with a portrait of Anton Chekhov near the end of his life.)

It was a beautiful spring day and much of America was burning.

Our extended family of exiled New Yorkers had been self-isolating from the outside world for months at my home in the countryside at the outer reaches of the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Some decided to head out to a nearby lake to kayak for the morning, both to enjoy the summer-like weather, the first this year, and to escape the depressing reality on TV. 

As we pulled out onto the tree-shaded road by our house, the pale blue sky dancing between the green leaves overhead, it all suddenly struck me as a scene from Anton Chekhov: the languid weather and summer sky, the idiosyncratic extended family—a doctoral student, a fencer, a former government official, a dancer-waitress between jobs, a retiree, and, of course, a writer—the temporarily overpopulated house in the far-off countryside with the cherry trees in front, the lake, the air of escapism and desultory plan for the day. All that was missing was a dead seagull.

And just as immediately, it occurred to me that this tableau was Chekhovian in a more fundamental way. Although virtually all audiences experience his works as tragedies, Chekhov conceived of them as comedies, their exaggerated but realistic characters leading lives of needlessly self-absorbed meaninglessness. Watching them on stage, however, I always find them neither comedies nor tragedies but instead specimens of that third Shakespearean category: histories.

Writing before the Bolshevik Revolution, Chekhov didn’t pretend to write histories of the tumult to come, wrestling instead with the subtler social effects of Russia’s ongoing transformation from a feudal to an early-modern society. That “future history” nonetheless hovers above every moment of his plays: The non-laboring classes—the “winners” in the old, and passing, economy who prattle on about their not-very-interesting concerns (and occasionally trying to kill themselves or someone else)—are pointedly removed both physically and emotionally from the larger world around them. But that world, Russia in the last decade of the nineteenth and first few years of the twentieth centuries, will soon come crashing down on them. As, of course, it does in the final moments of his final play, announced by the distant sound of the felling of the cherry trees.

Within a decade or so, most Russians resembling the characters on Chekhov’s pages will be dead or dispossessed, the loss and dismemberment of the beloved cherry orchard having been a harbinger of the far greater dispossession and destruction of the propertied classes to come. Surely, with the ax blows of Russia’s impending 1905 uprising already audible in the distance, Chekhov sensed what was coming, as do we when we watch these characters today, even as they proceed oblivious to it. It is really this obliviousness to the greater reality around them that renders their lives so meaningless—and realistic.

What struck me on that sun-dappled, Chekhovian morning was how similarly oblivious are today’s “gentry,” the self-styled “ascendant majority” of urban, highly educated knowledge or New Economy workers—or what might more usefully be called the new professional class. These individuals appear to be riding high and believe themselves to be the economic and political vanguard, but they actually stand in a precarious position. 

Most don’t see this, being as unaware of what’s coming as they were of the rise of global right-wing populism, and of Donald Trump, in 2016. But the reactionary populism of recent years was already emerging years before—gradually, as Hemingway said of bankruptcies, then suddenly. As early as 2008, angry “anti-elite” messaging dominated the Republican Convention of the seemingly mild and moderate John McCain, deployed especially, but by no means exclusively, by McCain’s running-mate, Sarah Palin. It is unlikely suddenly to subside now, even though President Trump appears to be stumbling and the public seems galvanized by the multiple crises into a progressive consensus. 

On the broader time-horizon, though, the transition from the industrial to the information economy is bringing as much upheaval as the Industrial Revolution originally did, depopulating communities, disrupting families, creating a new geography of work, and recasting the nature of labor—phenomena exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2008–09. It also is destroying the systems of social support that evolved in an industrial society to redistribute the risks and to shelter individuals against extreme dislocations.

Those systems and structures were already under sustained attack. As authors such as Thomas Piketty and Walter Scheidel have demonstrated, wealth tends to concentrate and inequality to rise over time, except in leveling periods that represent distinct breaks, almost always due to violence or widespread death (wars, revolutions, pandemics). The combination of the worldwide Great Depression and World War II brought about a global wave of democratization, social reform, and economic redistribution, remaking America in particular into a great middle-class society. But within a decade, the counterattack began, first with an assault on labor unions, then on progressive taxation, welfare programs, and eventually middle-class entitlements like Medicare and even Social Security. The technological revolutions of recent years have simultaneously whittled away the middle class, particularly in the United States, replacing manual labor with mechanization and fostering a winner-take-all economy that changes the distribution of outcomes (and incomes) from a bell curve to a barbell: lots of people at the high and low ends, few left in the middle. These stresses are increasingly in need of release.

Why has the new professional class—far more than those truly at the apex, who marshalled and benefited from the counterattack—become the target of populist anger and resentment? Historically, it should be no surprise: Virtually all revolutions turn to destroying the upper middle classes. There may be some socioeconomic version of the “Thucydides Trap” at work here: The original emergence and rise of the capitalist middle class—despite, if not indeed because of, the fact that it represented the future—is what earned the enmity of both the ruling class and the lower orders. There is also a parallel in nature, where the most precarious position on the “environmental pyramid” is in the middle—feeding off the producers, even while being fodder for the predators at the top. Mao Zedong, like Karl Marx, viewed the bourgeoisie, not the far wealthier and more powerful aristocrats, as the true enemy of the proletariat. It is the characters in Chekhov’s plays—indolent and largely meaningless figures far removed, both physically and socially, from true power—who will earn the special ire of the coming Bolshevik regime.

In fact, deflecting the anger of the dispossessed at those in the middle is the time-honored tactic of those at the top of human societies, and as events across Europe and the United States in 2016 showed, this has been the story of the right-wing populist rebellion of recent years. (Racial animus or resentments toward others lower down the social pyramid but seen as attempting to rise are, of course, often manipulated to the same ends.) The anti-“elite” revolt of the disintegrating middle classes was fomented, and financed, by those at the true apex, playing upon the very real resentments of a dispossessed class who saw their values and institutions being attacked by condescending professional “elites.” 

Additionally, the bourgeoisie have always seemed a bit parasitical to those whose work immediately springs to mind when you hear the word “work.” What do artists, merchants, lawyers and the like do all day that merits so much more money? They usually don’t even have to get out of a chair. What do they actually produce? This is even less intelligible in an economy increasingly dominated by intangibles. Financiers sit around thinking up new “vehicles” like the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)—the main value of which turned out to be bringing the entire global economy to the brink of collapse—while computer coders, social-media influencers, gamers, and the like receive incomes higher than someone who breaks her back all day might make in a lifetime.

In fact, as Piketty has shown, the main source of inequality today is due not to capital concentration but to variations in earned income: Folks with college degrees—roughly one-quarter of the population—make way more, even as it’s harder and harder for others to see why. Of course, it’s difficult for those who view themselves as meritocrats (despite the fact that “earning” a college degree is increasingly related simply to having parents with college degrees) to understand why this might be a problem.

But the very nature of the new professional class has engendered a deep, brooding resentment against it, not least because the job of professionals consists largely of hectoring everyone else on what they should be doing. Lawyers, bureaucrats, professors, economists—even your child’s school teacher—spend their days telling you what you’re doing wrong, how you could be better, what you need to do to qualify. To all the people who perceive that others are making them feel inferior, it’s the professionals who are doing it. 

And they’re not wrong in thinking that better-off professionals often look down on them and the things they value, as was crystalized in the famous 2008 exchange in which an attendee at a Silicon Valley fundraiser asked why blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania were so unenlightened, and then-candidate Barack Obama responded, to his later regret, that they “cling to guns and religion.” This mutual antipathy has only hardened over the last decade, as the New Economy began to sweep away blue-collar communities and their most supportive cultural and social institutions, and the ascendant professionals extended their hegemony over not just the nation’s economy but also its cultural values. And then, thanks to the undemocratic aspects of our political system such as the Electoral College and US Senate, those they view as “deplorables” struck back.

It may seem that current events are swinging the pendulum back the other way. Political pundits love “pendulums.” And, after all, the “ascendant” really do represent a growing majority, and the long-term economy, not just current political sentiment, is clearly moving in their direction.

But mounting evidence suggests that the counter-revolution against the new professionals is already in full swing, on multiple fronts. It is now clear that the leading industries in which they labor—particularly high-tech—are not the sleek, clean departures from the old ways they were heralded to be, but rather extractive industries that further concentrate wealth and power while exploiting labor. It’s not just that much of the “mining” work is outsourced to the firm’s customers—for free. Today’s new knowledge workers also are getting nothing close to the salaries and stock options that early twenty-something entrants walked away with. They are discovering they have little bargaining power, are monitored and controlled by their employers for any dissenting viewpoints, and are increasingly constrained by industry attempts to snuff out a competitive labor market. 

Moreover, until recently, most of the economic angst behind the global populist revolt has been identified with blue-collar workers whose industries provide less and less of the world’s economic output—and whose remaining jobs are being increasingly taken by machines. But jobs further up the income and educational scales will soon meet the same fate, as AI takes over everything from writing news stories to reading X-rays. Professionals of all kinds—doctors, lawyers, song-writers, even coders themselves—will find their opportunities shrinking, at least for all but those relatively few winners at the very top. 

The sound of the axes chopping has been coming ever closer for more than a decade now. 

This revolution, now in the early stages, may not descend into overt society-wide violent upheaval. It may simply persist through sporadic, low-level violence, reminiscent of the old Luddite uprisings. Or, after a decade or so, it may peter out in the way most populist uprisings do. 

But even if we manage to work our way through the coming economic transition relatively peacefully, momentous social and political change is almost inevitable, change that may ultimately be for the greater good. Yet the most painful change will likely come not to those relatively few at the top of the socioeconomic ladder or to those who labor at the bottom but, instead, to those who have most flourished in the current transition: the professionals.

In Chekhov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, the student Trofimov dismisses the forerunners of today’s professionals as faux progressives: “They call themselves intellectuals, but…they treat the peasants like animals.” As he tells Lopakhin, a former-peasant-turned-powerbroker, “the wild beast which eats everything it finds is needed for changes to take place.” Foreseeing the triumph of those who work, Trofimov views the future optimistically. But his is an outlook shared by no one else as the curtain falls.