Why populism is popular
Richard Reinsch reviews The New Class War By Michael Lind
On one reading, Michael Lind’s The New Class War unleashes a needed dose of sanity on the turbulent and unpredictable politics in Europe and North America.
Lind analyses the contest between establishment and populist forces using a class-based competitive framework, building his argument on James Burnham’s neglected 1941 classic, The Managerial Revolution.
Burnham, a former Trotskyist turned anti- communist and conservative theorist, argues that capitalism’s dynamism changed the nature of political, economic and social power in western democracies, producing a class of specialist managers who displaced the investor class. e managers ran the companies and the government bureaucracies, giving them the real power.
Lind’s similar attempt is to understand how the twenty-first century neoliberal “managerial over-class” of university-trained managers, lawyers, investors, bureaucrats, academics and consultants have reshaped western democracies and the pushback from populist politicians and their working-class supporters. Neoliberal politics is the disease, Lind says, and demagogic populism is the symptom.
He denounces what he describes as the faux neoliberal cure: call populists “fascists” and proclaim that Hitler’s heirs are rising, see collusions and conspiracies everywhere, and suppress populist voices by labelling them extremist. The cure Lind prescribes is a democratic pluralism that would represent the working class in power-sharing agreements with neoliberal elites in government and politics. More directly, he would end mass immigration, curtail multilateral trade, and reintroduce harsher regulation of banks and multinational corporations.
Elites, however, are inevitable in any society. Lind quotes an old 1960s activist line that “the issue is not the issue”. As in, the contretemps we’ve endured the past few years can’t ultimately be explained by disagreements over immigration, trade, sovereignty or fuel prices. These subjects might drive Trumpistas, Brexiteers or French yellow vest protesters to the polls and to the streets, but “the issue is power,” says Lind. Power exists in three realms: government, economic and culture, he straightforwardly observes. The problem is that the managerial overclass commands all three realms, an effort that spans back to the 1970s.
The overclass congregates in “hubs”, high-in- come corridors in major cities where they dominate the “heartlands” of their societies. Their ideas can be broadly categorised as left-libertarian: market-oriented, socially-liberal, anti-traditional and globalist. The working class consists of mostly native whites who reside in less densely populated areas. Lind refrains from endorsing the populism of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Marine Le Pen, but finds credible the factual predicates of inequality, depleted manufacturing sector, angst about global trade and immigration, and the resultant anger that drive working-class politics throughout western democracies.
Lind’s synthesis would permit the working class to use its numerical advantage to balance the commanding heights authority exercised by the managerial class. The key is the restoration of institutions that best represent working class mass interests: political parties, representative assemblies, unions and religion, among others. These institutions obviously exist currently, but, per Lind, they do so on behalf of overclass prerogatives. Lind has a point here, but the evidence for how that influence came to be, and how subsequently it should be checked or reshaped needs more analysis than just class or power.
Representative assemblies were substantially weakened by neoliberal politics, which removes their power and places it in executive bureaucracies and judicial decisions to secure left-libertarian objectives. As a result, legislatures no longer pose an equal challenge to the elite-dominated executive and judicial sectors of western governments, a fact that is unavoidably true in the United States.
But this ignores that the US Congress, under the influence of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, willingly created and ceded its power to executive bureaucracies. It was an elite programme, but done ostensibly on behalf of the folks. Lind’s democratic pluralism harkens back to this era in many respects. Rather than rebuilding representative bodies, Lind’s invitation to regulation and pow- er-sharing in government would likely build on the same executive bureaucracies that have emasculated legislatures. Another book by James Burnham, Congress and the American Tradition (1959), underscores this point.
Political parties, Lind observes, became heavily conducive to wealthy donor and financial interests. As such, parties no longer represent labour interests and leaders as they once did. But part of how this came to be was a desire in the US to open party nominations to voters and end backroom deals by wealthy donors. The intention wasn’t so much neoliberal but progressive and egalitarian.
Unions once gave workers their strongest ballast against neoliberal degradation, according to Lind, by protecting them from wage cuts and “split markets” whereby corporations play different labour sectors against one another to pay the cheapest wage. Religion represented and affirmed the values of the working class in key entertainment and social institutions. Its decline and replacement with the values of Silicon Valley, the entertainment media, and universities’ social justice moralising has left its mark, if not stoked resentment.
The author’s relentless power checking power analysis conceals more than it reveals. In indicting much of the “neoliberal revolution”, Lind hastily dismisses the rather dismal economic situation that confronted certain reformers in the 1970s. Margaret Thatcher’s almost improbable rise to Number 10 was fuelled by a dysfunctional economy, moribund nationalised industries, the strangling force of labour unions, high levels of spending and taxation, and a regulatory regime that was the enemy of economic growth.
In short, was the Thatcher government part of a neoliberal desire to wrest power from workers? Yes, says the standard left view, which Lind more or less endorses. But the disconcerting economic facts provide more support to those within the Conservative Party who were trying to get the UK on track with economic growth after decades of Labour policies that had been maintained during even Conservative governments. The goal was broad-based prosperity.
For the United States, there was profound inflation in the 1970s, flat equity markets and a deteriorating fiscal situation. Lind glosses over these and other problems that the country confronted owing to President Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to build a “Great Society”. His goal was to boost the working class, minorities, and those in poverty.
This mass of policies pushed in the early 1960s featured a spike in social spending on behalf of education, welfare, poverty, housing and healthcare that led many to conclude a decade later that the consequences were ex-pensive and ruinous. Amity Shlaes succinctly states in her re-cent book, Great Society: “From being a nation that could afford everything, America morphed into a country that could afford nothing.” The domestic policy failures of the Great Society bolstered conservatives and liberatarians to press forward on the claims they had been making about fiscal policy and regulation for decades. President Reagan was their reward.
Lind seemingly equates elite pushback against the working class with one goal: freeing capital and profits from the previous democratic pluralist bargain brokered during the New Deal. Not sufficiently considered by Lind is that the regulatory code of the New Deal itself had become cumbersome, no longer matching the realities created by the dynamics of even its managed capitalism.
Lind tells a well-worn story of how the erosion of labour unions in America and free trade deals have severely impacted the working class by cut- ting their wages and sending their jobs overseas. Even domestic migration of work from un- ion-heavy states in America to mostly union-free southern states is a source of lament to the author. Is is a story that Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, even mutatis mutandis, Jeremy Corbyn can tell. Strangely, Lind omits describing the incredible rise of public sector unions in America, a trend that began with the decline of private-sector unions. But haven’t they picked up some of the wage-earning slack for working class members while also drowning cities and states in pension debt?
It should be no surprise that union industries can feature higher wages than some non-union sectors. At what cost, though, to the larger pool of non-union workers? Lind recounts the robust labour legislation of the New Deal period, but omits mentioning the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that permitted individual states in America to self-select as “right to work” states whereby union coercion of non-union employees is severely curtailed.
Lind chooses labour romance over the hard reality that labour unions are just another cartel whose strength is in their coercive powers the law affords them. The prices they fix are wages, and like any cartel they must be able to enforce their agreements, or they unwind. In this way, unions extract a higher wage than competitive markets would otherwise support. The real losers aren’t elites, but other members of the working class who find their opportunities restricted and must seek employment elsewhere.
Lind points to “China Shock” whereby imports from China during 2001 to 2011 resulted in a 21 per cent decline in manufacturing employment, or a net loss of 2.4 million jobs in the U.S. But during this rather bleak economic period, which also featured a horrific recession, 6 million net jobs were created in America. While America has lost manufacturing jobs, from 19 million in 1979 to 12 million in 2006, during this same time period overall private sector employment grew from 99 million to 150 million jobs.
Lind makes a strong case for flat to low wage growth for many American workers in this century, but the evidence has also turned in the last few years, particularly for workers in the bottom quintiles of income as America enjoys its best job market in 50 years.
His cultural analysis focuses in America on the ways that pastors and other religious representatives were once part of cultural and entertainment boards and commissions, ensuring that work- ing-class beliefs were not disparaged. This arrangement was jettisoned in film and television shows, and more libertine and individualistic values were put in place.
Lind wants to rebuild institutional ways for religion to represent the working class again. But he’s short on specifics. He invokes religion but seems to oblivious to its substance and contributions to a free society. Religion forms communities because it first exercises a salutary influence on individuals. This is sorely needed in America’s working-class neighbourhoods.
Similarly, Lind has almost nothing to say about the family, an intermediate institution that has fallen on hard times for much of the working class, but that is vital and irreplaceable when it comes to the formation of character in citizens. By contrast, as Charles Murray extensively observes in Coming Apart (2012), upper middle class citizens in the US have retained rather stable marriages that produce children. They talk progressive but live more or less traditionally.
Democratic pluralism is a necessary peace, Lind urges. If it fails and the neoliberal overlords suppress their opposition, then Europe and North America will increasingly resemble Latin America. By this, Lind means “nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few swollen metropolitan areas surrounded by hinterlands that are derelict, depopulated, and despised.” To achieve democratic pluralism will mean replacing the “four freedoms” of the neoliberal model — freedom of movement for people, goods, services and capital — with the “four regulations” of multinational corporations, banks, borders and immigration.
Various power-sharing arrangements among workers, capital and government must be negotiated. How this would work exactly in the wildly diverse economies of Europe and North America isn’t broached. I also found his description of these power-sharing arrangements lacking in detail.
Lind wants a restoration of hard borders. Democratic pluralism would limit multilateral global trade agreements. Instead, nations should forge bilateral trade agreements that are responsive to their working-class interests. I think Lind is right to call for limits on mass unskilled immigration, a flow of foreign nationals perceived by many native-born citizens as a threat to cultural and historical identity. People are not goods and services, or in the famous adage, “We wanted workers, but we got people instead.”
He notes the problems such immigration creates for the welfare state and the continual pressure it exerts on the wages of existing unskilled labour, native and recent immigrants. There is also a basic question of citizenship and the slow process by which it is achieved. Mass immigration cuts against such formation.
Lind lays out the competing forces and powers in western politics, but the devil is in the details. Perhaps the more patient work is growing the economy again, rebuilding norms of citizenship and civility, and binding up the wounds of the working class and the poor so that they can thrive. I’m not convinced that democratic pluralism is the cure.
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