JANUARY 28, 2020
A FEW DAYS AFTER Donald Trump’s electoral upset in 2016, Club for Growth co-founder Stephen Moore told an audience of Republican House members that the GOP was “now officially a Trump working class party.” No longer the party of traditional Reaganite conservatism, the GOP had been converted instead “into a populist America First party.” As he uttered these words, Moore says, “the shock was palpable” in the room.
The Club for Growth had long dominated Republican orthodoxy by promoting low tax rates and limited government. Any conservative candidate for political office wanting to reap the benefits of the Club’s massive fundraising arm had to pay homage to this doctrine. For one of its formerly leading voices to pronounce the transformation of this orthodoxy toward a more populist nationalism showed just how much the ground had shifted on election night.
To writer Michael Lind, Trump’s victory, along with Brexit and other populist stirrings in Europe, was an outright declaration of “class war” by alienated working-class voters against what he calls a “university-credentialed overclass” of managerial elites. The title of Lind’s new book, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, leaves no doubt as to where his sympathies lie, though he’s adamant that he’s not some sort of guru for a “smarter Trumpism,” as some have labeled him.
Lind cautions against a turn to populism, which he believes to be too personality-centered and intellectually incoherent — not to mention, too demagogic — to help solve the terminal crisis of “technocratic neoliberalism” with its rule by self-righteous and democratically unaccountable “experts” with hyperactive Twitter handles. Only a return to what Lind calls “democratic pluralism” will help stem the tide of the populist revolt.
The New Class War is a breath of fresh air. Many on the left have been incapable of coming to terms with Hillary Clinton’s defeat. The result has been the stifling climate of a neo-McCarthyism, in which the only explanation for Trump’s success was an unholy alliance of “Putin stooges” and unrepentant “white supremacists.” To Lind, the case is much more straightforward: while the vast majority of Americans supports Social Security spending and containing unskilled immigration, the elites of the bipartisan swamp favor libertarian free trade policies combined with the steady influx of unskilled migrants to help suppress wage levels in the United States. Trump had outflanked his opponents in the Republican primaries and Clinton in the general election by tacking left on the economy (he refused to lay hands on Social Security) and right on immigration.
The strategy has since been successfully repeated in the United Kingdom by Boris Johnson, and it looks, for now, like a foolproof way for conservative parties in the West to capture or defend their majorities against center-left parties that are too beholden to wealthy, metropolitan interests to seriously attract working-class support. Berating the latter as irredeemably racist certainly doesn’t help either.
What happened in the preceding decades to produce this divide in Western democracies? Lind’s narrative begins with the New Deal, which had brought to an end what he calls “the first class war” in favor of a class compromise between management and labor. This first class war is the one we are the most familiar with: originating in the Industrial Revolution, which had produced the wretchedly poor proletariat, it soon led to the rise of competing parties of organized workers on the one hand and the liberal bourgeoisie on the other, a clash that came to a head in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Then, in the 1930s, while the world was writhing from the consequences of the Great Depression, a series of fascist parties took the reigns in countries from Germany to Spain. To spare the United States a similar descent into barbarism, President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, in which the working class would find a seat at the bargaining table under a government-supervised tripartite system where business and organized labor met seemingly as equals and in which collective bargaining would help the working class set sector-wide wages.
This class compromise ruled unquestioned for the first decades of the postwar era. It was made possible thanks to the system of democratic pluralism, which allowed working-class and rural constituencies to actively partake in mass-membership organizations like unions as well as civic and religious institutions that would empower these communities to shape society from the ground up.
But then, amid the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, a “neoliberal revolution from above” set in that sought to reverse the class compromise. The most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the newly emboldened managerial class was “global labor arbitrage” in which production is outsourced to countries with lower wage levels and laxer regulations; alternatively, profits can be maximized by putting downward pressure on domestic wages through the introduction of an unskilled, non-unionized immigrant workforce that competes for jobs with its unionized domestic counterparts. By one-sidedly canceling the class compromise that governed the capitalist societies after World War II, Lind concludes, the managerial elite had brought the recent populist backlash on itself.
Likewise, only it can contain this backlash by returning to the bargaining table and reestablishing the tripartite system it had walked away from. According to Lind, the new class peace can only come about on the level of the individual nation-state because transnational treaty organizations like the EU cannot allow the various national working classes to escape the curse of labor arbitrage. This will mean that unskilled immigration will necessarily have to be curbed to strengthen the bargaining power of domestic workers. The free-market orthodoxy of the Club for Growth will also have to take a backseat, to be replaced by government-promoted industrial strategies that invest in innovation to help modernize their national economies.
Under which circumstances would the managerial elites ever return to the bargaining table? “The answer is fear,” Lind suggests — fear of working-class resentment of hyper-woke, authoritarian elites. Ironically, this leaves all the agency with the ruling class, who first acceded to the class compromise, then canceled it, and is now called on to forge a new one lest its underlings revolt.
Lind rightly complains all throughout the book that the old mass-membership based organizations of the 20th century have collapsed. He’s coy, however, about who would reconstitute them and how. At best, Lind argues for a return to the old system where party bosses and ward captains served their local constituencies through patronage, but once more this leaves the agency with entities like the Republicans and Democrats who have a combined zero members. As the third-party activist Howie Hawkins remarked cunningly elsewhere,
American parties are not organized parties built around active members and policy platforms; they are shifting coalitions of entrepreneurial candidate campaign organizations. Hence, the Democratic and Republican Parties are not only capitalist ideologically; they are capitalistically run enterprises.
Thus, they would hardly be the first options one would think of to reinvigorate the forces of civil society toward self-rule from the bottom up.
The key to Lind’s fraught logic lies hidden in plain sight — in the book’s title. Lind does not speak of “class struggle,” the heroic Marxist narrative in which an organized proletariat strove for global power; no, “class war” smacks of a gloomy, Hobbesian war of all against all in which no side truly stands to win.
In the epigraph to the book, Lind cites approvingly the 1949 treatise The Vital Center by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who wrote that “class conflict, pursued to excess, may well destroy the underlying fabric of common principle which sustains free society.” Schlesinger was just one among many voices who believed that Western societies after World War II were experiencing the “end of ideology.” From now on, the reasoning went, the ideological battles of yesteryear were settled in favor of a more disinterested capitalist (albeit New Deal–inflected) governance. This, in turn, gave rise to the managerial forces in government, the military, and business whose unchecked hold on power Lind laments. The midcentury social-democratic thinker Michael Harrington had it right when he wrote that “[t]he end of ideology is a shorthand way of saying the end of socialism.”
Looked at from this perspective, the break between the postwar Fordist regime and technocratic neoliberalism isn’t as massive as one would suppose. The overclass antagonists of The New Class War believe that they derive their power from the same “liberal order” of the first-class peace that Lind upholds as a positive utopia. A cursory glance at the recent impeachment hearings bears witness to this, as career bureaucrats complained that President Trump unjustifiably sought to change the course of an American foreign policy that had been nobly steered by them since the onset of the Cold War. In their eyes, Trump, like the Brexiteers or the French yellow vest protesters, are vulgar usurpers who threaten the stability of the vital center from polar extremes.
A more honest account of capitalism would also acknowledge its natural tendencies to persistently contract and to disrupt the social fabric. There is thus no reason to believe why some future class compromise would once and for all quell these tendencies — and why nationalistically operating capitalist states would not be inclined to confront each other again in war.