The word “beneficiary” is a legal term defining simply the person or persons designated as the lawful heirs upon the decease of a third person. In the hands of the social justice warriors (SJW), the term has assumed a new and sinister significance. The word’s original usage requires an object, i.e. the full phrase is “beneficiary of –.” The SJWs use the word without an object as a smear.
As an insult, “beneficiary” first entered popular consciousness around 2008 – 2009, when the Occupy Wallstreet protestors repeatedly used it in interviews. Mostly, the protestors threw the word out while waving a hand in the general direction of Wall Street – most of the encampments and rallies were nowhere near the actual financial district – and ranting about a mythical capitalist system that was out to oppress them. This was also the time that the phrases “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent” entered popular vocabulary.
Even early into the protests, it became apparent that the majority of Occupy mudslingers were not the put-upon masses with which they identified. While the nation’s premier openly center-left newspaper, the Washington Post, was (sort of) sympathetic, columnist Ezra Klein wrote,
Let’s be clear. This isn’t really the 99 percent. [….] But imagine yourself as a young person who took out loans to go to college, got good grades, and has graduated into an economy that doesn’t seem to want you. You did everything you were told, and it didn’t work out. [….] The top 1 percent account for 24 percent of the nation’s income and 40 percent of its wealth. There are a lot of people who don’t seem to be doing everything they’re supposed to do, but it seems to be working out just fine for them [….] It’s that 99 percent of Americans sense that the fundamental bargain of our economy – work hard, play by the rules, get ahead – has been broken, and they want to see it restored.
The last two sentences of Klein’s assessment are the crux of the “beneficiary” mentality. For the Occupy people and their apologists, beneficiaries are exactly those who didn’t do “everything they’re supposed to do” but are successful nonetheless.
The parting shot from Klein, that “work hard, play by the rules, get ahead” as a “fundamental bargain,” is an indicator of a cultural factor that has fueled the dialogue around systemic change and success: Americans are obsessed with creating rules, guidelines, frameworks, or any type of rigid structure. This sounds counterintuitive, especially for anyone who has walked the streets of Manhattan or ridden the subway, where incivility and absolute disregard for the rules of etiquette abound, but it is the difference between the micro and the macro. Americans are perfectly happy to have a chaotic micro system, completely ungoverned by rules – “it’s a free country, of course one can throw rubbish onto the metro tracks!” – provided that there is a set of reliable norms at the macro level – “one is immediately entitled to a well-paid job on the strength of a university diploma!”
The mentality is very childish, not unlike a toddler who creates chaos through hurling toys but requires the stability and predictability of fixed meal and nap times. This development of the infantile American is quite recent, really only appearing after World War II. Incidentally, the model suggested by Klein as normative dates to the immediate post-War period, when it was true that university graduates received ample opportunities and recompense simply because they were a miniscule percentage of the population. As degrees became more common, the market, ever impersonal, adjusted. Hence many banners at the Occupy protests featured slogans about people mattering most, e.g. “People not profits.”
The christening of the group that adapted to change as “beneficiaries” reflects both a childlike opposition to change and an overarching vilification of flexibility and innovation. As early as 2004, author Dinesh D’Souza identified the oncoming “inequality” of the systemic divide in his book The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence, which examined the effects of the technology-driven increase in collective quality of life while creating a massive wealth gap (the 1 percent targeted by the Occupy people five years after the book’s publication). Concerning an interview with Eric Schmidt, tech CEO and self-made millionaire, D’Souza wrote,
I ask Schmidt about another group that seems to be excluded from the new prosperity – the hard-working guys who play by the rules and feel shut out of the kind of money that high-tech twenty-five-years-olds make. What does Schmidt have to say to him? “Sorry, buddy,” Schmidt answers, “but you played by the wrong [italics original] rules.”
Schmidt’s answer is the politically incorrect explanation for the existence of “beneficiaries” and the not-really-99 percent who spent approximately two years (police cleared the Zuccotti Park camp in November 2011) raging about the failure of the system. For the protestors, some people had “won” by flouting, to all appearances, some vague rules and rejecting an established system. Since by their logic it was impossible for the system to fail, the only alternative was that the successful achieved through insidious means.
Today, the discussion in America centers on the idea of “rebuilding the social contract.” The word “contract” is a dangerous omen. It implies a promise that will be maintained by someone; there is a suggestion of legal obligation. Since the American context for “social contract” implicitly signifies a pseudo-society that has neither “beneficiaries” nor a 99 percent, it is a promise that is impossible to fulfil. Considering that the “beneficiaries” and their actions have, as Dinesh D’Souza recounted, improved the aggregate quality of the nation’s living standards, there is a question that must be asked: Is the social contract actually broken?