The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite
by Michael Lind.
Penguin, 2020.
Hardcover, 193 pages, $25.

Reviewed by Bruce P. Frohnen

The rise of populist movements throughout the West and the intense, angry response to them from technocratic elites has been a common subject of (usually angry) discussion. Meaningful analysis has been harder to come by. Michael Lind’s latest book, in part because it is rooted in hostility toward both sides of this conflict, manages to provide important insights into how Western democracies reached their current crisis. Unfortunately, Lind’s analysis is rooted in the same materialist assumptions as most studies of politics. And so it ends by proposing yet more reconfigurations of political power, yet another program to “fix” a system that is broken principally because the people it was designed to serve have lost the character necessary to use and maintain it as they should.

Lind telegraphs his concerns and assumptions before we even get to the text of his book on The New Class War. He begins with a quotation from Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on the necessity and danger of class conflict, immediately followed by a quotation from James Burnham that ends with “Only power restrains power.” Both Schlesinger and Burnham were heavily influenced by Marxian categories, though they rejected much of Marx’s historical analysis. What remained for each, and what lies at the center of Lind’s analysis, is a focus on social structures—class, state, interest group, and even economic supply chains—as the reality shaping political, economic, and cultural struggle.

Lind’s New Class War is one between technocratic managerial elites and the middle and (especially) working classes tied to recent populist revolts. He builds on the work of C. Wright Mills as well as Burnham in describing an “overclass” of educated managers and their (substantially inherited) control over the heights of power in business and government bureaucracy as well as the media and nonprofit organizations that serve as the primary sources of cultural norms today. Central to this analysis, for Lind, is what is missing, namely unions, ward bosses, congregations, and other groups that once maintained a kind of balance of forces between rulers and working classes in Western democracies.

Lind seeks a return to this former balance, embodied in a system he terms “democratic pluralism.” That system was the result of an earlier class war between capital and labor during the industrial era. Once large-scale manufacturing split ownership from management of industrial and corporate structures, Lind argues, the government sided with managers against laborers in a struggle over laborers’ pay, treatment, and power. Management retained control until its greed produced the Great Depression. In response to that economic conflagration, Franklin Roosevelt brought a “new deal” according to which the national government would broker agreements between management and labor concerning wages and working conditions. Lind ignores inconvenient facts in his praise of this system, such as that the deal significantly extended the sufferings of the Great Depression and that it undermined the rule of law and the freedom to operate once enjoyed by sole proprietors (owner/operators of small businesses, a class Lind dismisses as anachronistic in any event). Instead, he asserts that, particularly after World War II, this new deal brought vastly increased standards of living for workers while maintaining corporate profits at sustainable levels.

Lind’s democratic pluralism is more than a system of agreements among government, management, and labor. It also includes a decentralized political system dominated by local machines and a cultural compromise centered on separate elite and working-class social ties. In the post-war era, on Lind’s telling, this system achieved unparalleled prosperity, fairness, and stability. Unfortunately, managerial elites, ever concerned with their own marginal benefit, broke the deal. They launched a “neoliberal revolution from above.”

To his credit, Lind does not simply blame the breakdown of postwar consensus on libertarian ideology and business interests. He heaps plenty of blame on both. He also largely ignores inconvenient structural problems that began to sink in during the late 1960s, especially the launching of aggressive, export-oriented policies in countries like Japan and Germany that had finally recovered from the war. But he illuminates our predicament by concentrating on neoliberal managers from both parties who sought to improve a narrowly defined efficiency in economic relations, regulation, and economic production and distribution. He makes a convincing argument that these forces brought increasing concentration of power in the hands of executive and judicial actors throughout the industrialized world. More than anything, however, Lind’s revolution from above entailed labor arbitrage—outsourcing industrial production and importing masses of gray-market unskilled immigrants and skilled workers trapped into abusive employment contracts with big tech companies. All this, along with various schemes of tax avoidance, succeeded in pushing down wages and increasing corporate power and profits.

There is much in Lind’s analysis that is clearly true. For decades now, neoliberals—supposedly a-political technocrats whose politics range between those of the Bush dynasty among Republicans to the Clinton would-be dynasty among Democrats—have rejected local and even national ties. They are “citizens of the world,” and so think it only right that they should push jobs overseas and import low-cost domestic and indentured workers to improve their own lifestyles. At the same time, they have attacked the cultural grounds of working-class life by marginalizing religious organizations and prioritizing identity politics for their own ends.

Lind points out that neoliberals, now commanding ever larger and more technocratic organizations, have forged what amounts to a new society. Their overclass lives in urban and inner-suburban “hubs” where they conduct business and are served by an underclass of domestic servants, groomers, and service workers. They signal their virtue with various trendy environmental and racial causes while ensuring that their captive, gray-market labor force remains with them and keeps the older working class in line. Workers themselves mostly inhabit exurbs and more rural areas where they once held good manufacturing jobs and now scrape for a living among the ruins, bereft of economic power, political representation, and functioning neighborhood organizations.

This deplorable situation, and the resentment it fosters among workers, is in Lind’s view the source of recent populist revolts in America and Europe. Lind is no supporter of this revolt. He repeats many of the racialist smears levelled at President Trump and various European populists. But to his credit he also debunks most of the conspiracy theories (Russian control and proto-Nazism being the most prevalent and ridiculous) put forward by the neoliberal establishment regarding current populist leaders. For Lind, populism is an emotional reaction to real harms done by a corrupt ruling class to the working class that should be at the center of democratic life. In his words, “Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease. Democratic pluralism is the cure.”

Populism is doomed, according to Lind, because it has no real program of its own and because it lacks the economic and political power to prevail in a war with technocratic elites. But populism and neoliberal responses may put us on the road to Latin American style instability, in which populist revolts are violently put down, after which continued repression brings new, ultimately failed revolts. The last, deeply flawed, American presidential election and its aftermath show the plausibility of this argument. That said, one wonders what exactly makes technocratic elites immune to political forces, what allows them to manipulate the various mechanisms of federal, state, and local government and, at least as important, what allows them to continue dominating our media and educational system after so many decades of open political bias and clear failure.

Lind himself spends many pages debunking myths central to the overclass’s maintenance of power. When one adds to “Russia!” and the Nazi smear the fantasies of Critical Race Theory it seems clear that ideology—a false, second reality imposed upon the concrete world around us—is being wielded as a weapon against any who would defend American constitutional, economic, and especially cultural traditions. Yet Lind focuses almost exclusively on issues of structural power as the key to understanding and potentially changing our current situation.Lind’s structural focus allows him to highlight the increasing centralization among all our institutions that has alienated normal people and left them without the means of self-government. But his materialism blinds him to the hopelessness of his own program of reform because it obscures fundamental changes in those structures and leaves out the central role of shared culture in maintaining any decent social order.

Lind proposes a return to a New Deal-style democratic politics. He minimizes the importance of democratic pluralism’s rampant corruption and the festering vice rooted in its self-interest unenlightened by any recognition of the common good. He sees the world as ruled by power politics that can be cabined by rules of engagement and a consensus (founded on what is unclear) for universal human rights and social insurance. But this is the very system that spawned technocratic neoliberalism, and not merely because corporate managers “broke the deal.” Union managers fought for work rules that protected cronies at the expense of regular workers, then sold out their members in pursuit of opportunities among government employees. Pluralism’s central ethic of narrow, self-interested bargaining led to systemic failures in the economy and a massive redistribution of power to dealmakers and those (especially lawyers) who policed them. The rank materialism at pluralism’s core played a major role in undermining the common norms that had maintained ordered liberty and the rule of law as well as economic prosperity. Most important, pluralism’s mindlessly materialistic mindset fostered hostility toward religion, cultural atrophy, and capture of educational, cultural, and even religious institutions by radicals unalterably opposed to the norms necessary for any decent life and especially for the moral consensus required if pluralism is not to devolve into chaos and/or conquest by the strongest.

Lind’s proposals for pluralist renewal show the weakness of his position. Somehow the federal government is to regain control over its own elites through a combination of immigration and tax reform—the one condemned as racist by one party, the other condemned as economically foolhardy by the other. Somehow the federal government is to be convinced to cede power back to states and localities while continuing to enforce a system of “fundamental rights” that absolutely demands pervasive, commanding rule from the center. And culture is to be recaptured for the working classes by multiplying the number of local boards and commissions (for decades a province of the far left) and making them “represent America” by expanding diversity politics to include religious and “spiritual” groups like Wiccans (once known as witches).

These proposals evince a desire to resuscitate something of the local autonomy and self-government at the root of American constitutionalism. But that local autonomy cannot exist, let alone be reborn, within the confines of the current, pervasive, intrusive, and censorial anti-discrimination and welfare states. What is more, people will not simply take back control over their local governments, even if they could stare down bullying technocrats and identity-politics mobs, unless they rediscover the importance of family, church, and local association. And all this is a matter, not of structure, but of character.

Nearly a century of surrendering power to managerial elites within increasingly large organizations—especially, though not only the federal government—have sapped something like half of Americans of the character of a free people. Nearly a century of open attacks on religion as a public institution and a way of life within our communities has undermined the self-regarding habits of something like half of Americans. Comfortable dependence on distant structures for one’s livelihood, with local institutions used as forums for virtue signaling and petty impositions on dissidents have left something like half of Americans without the character of a free people. Until and unless this situation is redressed, either through a miraculous rebirth of virtue or a difficult process of separation into two peoples, one self-governing, the other ruled by its elites, there will be no return to a system of self-government in America, and no doubt the West, broadly understood. 

Bruce P. Frohnen is Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal and Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University of Law. He is the co-author of Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul (with Ted V. McAllister).

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