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18 December 2019

From Woodstock to Brexit

The tragedy of the liberal middle class

By Jonathan Rutherford

What has happened to the middle class? Being middle class in Britain was once defined by a safe, lifelong career, a 25-year mortgage and an invariable allegiance to the Conservative Party. Patriotic and instilled with a sense of duty, the middle class was the defender of tradition and provided the common values and standards of the Tory nation. Today it has lost its role and the authority invested in it, overtaken by a new middle class fraction forged in the cultural revolution and university expansion of the 1960s.

This new middle class long ago broke with the patrimony of its parents’ generation and exchanged conservatism for social liberalism. It was a product of the growing public sector professions and the expanding modes of communication concentrated in the cities. Its class power was derived from its control over institutions of culture, media and learning, and its function as the national arbiter and communicator of aesthetic taste and values. It produced a liberal intelligentsia that was cosmopolitan, individualistic and, on the whole, anti-establishment.

These people were beneficiaries of the political consensus that opened up national economies and cultures and integrated them into global markets. The gentrification of inner cities provided cheap property which, over time, accumulated into considerable asset wealth. Unparalleled access to cross-border travel, higher education and social mobility encouraged a more cosmopolitan view of the world.

But all this is now threatened. OECD analysis published in May this year shows a weakening of middle-class economic influence. Temporary or unstable work is replacing traditional middle-class jobs. Younger generations have been locked out of the housing market and don’t have the welfare state and free higher education enjoyed by their parents and grandparents.

One-third of 18- 34-year-olds in the UK are living with their parents and one-third of graduates since 2007 work in jobs they are over-qualified for. The young middle class face a global competition in graduate talent as well as the redundancy of professional tasks in, for example, accounting, law, financial advice and analysis, caused by artificial intelligence. The status of knowledge work has declined, and jobs have become more precarious.

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The growth of populist leftist and green politics among the younger middle class is a reaction not only to diminished economic opportunities, but to the loss of the ideal of progress and its promise of a better future. No one captured this loss better than the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher. Writing in the first decade of the new century, he asked the question of what happens when tradition is no longer contested and modified by the new.

Culture, Fisher suggests, withers and dies and with it the social imagination to conceive of a world radically different from the one we live in now. Fisher, who is revered among a younger generation of left intellectuals, popularised the idea of “hauntology” to describe the loss of futures that we had learned to anticipate.

The origins of the crisis of liberalism lie with the baby boomer generation who grew up beneath the protective panoply of American empire. It is a story about the liberal reconstruction of the West and the rise and fall of a liberal middle class whose ideal of universal freedom powered its optimism. It begins 50 years ago.

The Woodstock generation

In August 1969, 500,000 young, mostly middle-class Americans descended upon the farm of Max Yasgur, a conservative Republican, in the town of Bethel in upstate New York. The event was billed as three days of peace and music; 50,000 had been expected to turn up and there was no organised catering, sanitation or medical provision. In the event, with half a million young people gathering in empty fields there was lurid media coverage of an unfolding disaster. It was averted by the US Air Force which provided helicopters to ferry in the musicians and medical teams for the numerous sick and injured. Local people rallied round to provide food. But something more happened.

Woodstock was organised by a combination of hippiedom and high finance, and yet it remained true to its principles. There was no violence. People did not go without.

The unofficial Woodstock slogan was “Do your own thing” and, for those few days, this ideal extended to helping your neighbour. The music and the drugs created a collective exuberance only dampened by the violent storm on the final afternoon of Sunday 17 August. As the event drew to a close, Max Yasgur climbed on stage and surveyed the huge crowds and his devastated fields. “I think you people have proven something to the world,” he shouted. “Young people can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music and I… God bless you for it.”

Woodstock and its music – Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, the Who, Grateful Dead – was the symbol of a break with the old order. It mythologised a generation. But it was also the spectacle of a new class becoming conscious of itself.

This emerging group was made up of the interpreters, communicators and translators of information and learning essential to the new knowledge economy. They were known variously as “symbolic analysts” and the “creative class”. The right condemned them for their nihilism and hedonism. The sociologist Alvin Gouldner described them in glowing terms as the “inheritor of the Enlightenment legacy of universal civilising progress”.

Their cosmopolitan and socially liberal individualism was forged in their sympathy with the civil rights struggle, in the anti-Vietnam War movement and in the social movements around gay liberation and feminism. Woodstock prefigured the emerging capitalism of culture and communications that they would service. This class would commodify the same post-materialist values of self-fulfilment, personal expression and the pursuit of pleasure that formed its counterculture. “We are stardust/we are golden/and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,” sang Joni Mitchell.

But there was no earthly garden of Eden in an America profoundly conflicted by race and war. Four months later, this youthful dream came to an end in the murderous violence at Altamont free festival in California.

At the same time, in Germany, Rudi Dutschke, a leader of the radical student movement, was defining the political task of the new Woodstock generation. He called upon young radicals to become an integral part of the state machinery, urging them to commit themselves, like Mao Zedong’s comrades, to a “long march through the institutions of power”. By 1975, the first political representatives of this new, ambitious generation were arriving in Washington, DC, as new Democrat congressmen.

Randal Rothenberg, writing in 1982 in Esquire, identified a group of “young, handsome, Democratic upstarts” who claimed to be the true heirs of John and Robert Kennedy. They were the “New Democrats” and they called themselves progressive liberals or “neo-liberals”. They included Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, as well as thinkers such as Robert Reich. In an early sign of where the politics of this “neo-liberal club” would lead, Democrat president Jimmy Carter deregulated the trucking, banking and airline industries. The aim was to modernise the sluggish economy by making “good intentions marketable again”. Everything was subordinate to, and a function of, economics. With their paradoxical mix of free-market individualism and concern for social justice these New Democrats spoke for the Woodstock generation.

Matt Stoller, in a brilliant, forensic essay written in 2016 for the Atlantic, describes how the neo-liberals defeated the old Democrat Party establishment and then, over the next 40 years, fundamentally altered American politics. They took on domestic violence, homophobia, discrimination against the disabled, and sexual harassment. They jettisoned many racially and culturally authoritarian traditions. They produced the Clinton presidency and, in many ways, shaped Barack Obama’s as well.

It was a revolution but the outcome was a paradox: in overthrowing the old Democrat establishment, they also overthrew its tradition of populist economic democracy.

In the late 19th century progressives had stood for safe workplaces and a resistance to oligarchs and banking monopolies. But in the name of progress this new incarnation relaxed anti-trust laws, got rid of rules against financial concentration and lifted price regulation. They made America a more tolerant culture, but as Stoller writes, their destruction of the anti-monopoly and anti-bank tradition in the Democratic Party “cleared the way for the greatest concentration of economic power in a century”. When Ronald Reagan dismantled the New Deal anti-monopoly framework there was no political opposition to stop him.

The end of progress

The year 1989 marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. From this moment the neo-liberal revolution of the Woodstock generation looked unstoppable. The conservative intellectual Francis Fukuyama surveyed the state of the world and pointed out that of the two enemies of liberal democracy, fascism had been destroyed and communism was exhausted. The triumph of the West was evident in the defeat of its two enemies.

To Fukuyama, the victory of liberalism had occurred primarily in the realm of human consciousness. A new historic stage of capitalism had emerged, establishing a new consensus around liberal market values and a free market economy.

In Britain this new model of capitalism was already well advanced under Margaret Thatcher. By 1991, the sociologist Anthony Giddens, who would define New Labour’s Third Way politics, wrote that British society was experiencing an acceleration of modernity. Everyday life was continually being transformed. The new capitalist modernisation was creating what he called a post-traditional order. Greater degrees of personal self-expression were weakening class ties. An identity politics of gender, race and sexuality was displacing the politics of class solidarity.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck described the changing relationship of the individual to society as “individualisation”. He wrote that a new kind of “capitalism without class” was freeing individuals from the constraints of the old order. In Britain and the US, the liberal intelligentsia played a central role in this transformation of culture and society.

In 1993 Bill Clinton was elected US president. In 1997 New Labour won the first of three general elections and its leading figures were imbued with the politics of Clinton’s New Democrats. Two years later, Blair and Gerhard Schröder, the chancellor of Germany, made a joint declaration that brought together the progressive politics of the British Third Way and the German Die Neue Mitte (the new centre).

The old left/right ways of thinking had been abandoned. Just as the Democrat neo-liberals had argued, what mattered now were traditional values of social justice combined with the innovation and dynamism of markets. But disquiet was spreading.

Britain’s provinces, the “peripheral” spaces within cities, the urban hinterlands and ex-industrial regions were becoming economic backwaters. Much of the old working class had been dispossessed of skilled work and political power. Traditional forms of solidarity had become obsolete and wages had started to stagnate. In the early years of the new century, unexpectedly high levels of immigration from countries that had just joined the EU contributed to the feelings of insecurity and of a government not in control.

Anthony Giddens’s “post-traditional” society proved to be a model of liberal individualism that over time undermined the cultural and historical continuity of society, generating insecurity. Becks’s “individualisation” was not the end of class but a symptom of its restructuring.

The liberal intelligentsia had re-energised the left but, in doing so, we (I write as one who used to teach cultural studies) had helped to accelerate the decline of the class formations upon which the old social democratic politics had been built. Traditional left parties had become parties of the new liberal middle class, increasingly detached from the lives and experience of mainstream working-class voters.

Liberal nihilism

The social theorist Christopher Lasch issued a prescient warning about progressive politics and its world of “limitless possibility”. In his essay, “The Revolt of the Elites” (1996), he wrote:

Once it was the “revolt of the masses” that was held to threaten social order and the civilising traditions of Western culture. In our time however the chief threat seems to come from those at the top of the social hierarchy, not the masses.

Lasch recognised the class interests of the new elites of the liberal global order. When confronted by opposition to their progressive values they “betray the venomous hatred” that lies beneath their benevolence. Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal values they claim to uphold.

The middle class had once been the upholder of the nation state. It had many unattractive features: it was authoritarian, narrow-minded, racist, and antagonistic to the working classes. But it helped to cultivate a sense of place and to defend the common standards and common culture without which a nation dissolves into nothing.

The old middle class provided boundaries, both real and symbolic, to the social order that protected individuals from arbitrary power. Under conditions of radical economic change it was overtaken and outnumbered by a new liberal middle-class fraction whose progressive politics and ideal of diversity cast these boundaries aside and revolted against the constraints of nation and place. What mattered was that humanity was freed of conflict and injustice.

John Locke (1632-1704), in his Second Treatise of Government (1689), established the liberal world-view. The condition of human beings in nature is free, equal and independent. Instead of mutual loyalties binding human beings into families and communities, the only bond that ties us to one another is consent. This version of liberalism has gained dominance over all other political, philosophical and religious doctrines. But it has nothing to say about the families and communities into which we are born, nor our cultural and religious inheritances. Liberal freedom overlooks the most basic bonds that hold society together.

What then is freedom?

According to the French thinker Pierre Manent, the answer liberalism provides is the inevitable progress towards a state of individual human completeness. The pursuit of happiness will lead to happiness. Freedom of speech will lead to the truth. The goal of humanity is to improve itself. There must therefore be a goal beyond liberty that gives human life purpose. But liberalism does not offer one. Liberty, Manent writes, is the best condition for human action, but it cannot by itself give any finality or purpose to it. Faith in progress has been its fundamental tenet. When this faith is lost, when the future can no longer be anticipated, it exposes an emptiness that constitutes a collective and personal crisis of meaning.

The birth of tragedy

In July 1999, the 30th anniversary of Woodstock was celebrated by 400,000 people at a four-day festival held on a disused air force base near the town of Rome in New York state. The stage was a gaudy parody of 1960s imagery. Ticket prices were exorbitant. No one was allowed to bring food and water into the venue: nothing came for free. The anti-establishment ethos was cynical and manufactured. It was a mythologised, commodified and packaged myth of Woodstock – an expensive, shoddy piece of fakery.

On the Saturday night the rap rock band Limp Bizkit absorbed and projected back the underlying violence of the crowd. Where Santana had once excelled in drug-fuelled ecstatic musicianship, Limp Bizkit pounded out the rage and fury. Lead singer Fred Durst rapped to the crowd, “There’s no motherfuckin rules out there.” “Nothing,” he yelled, “was going to change.”

His message was simple: “Just leave me alone.” A riot ensued.

In its 50-year journey through parenthood and into political and cultural power, something destructive in America’s liberal middle class had turned “Do your own thing” into “just leave me alone”. It was an expression of nihilism exported across the West. But it should not come as a surprise that the first significant political challenge to the progressive politics of liberal economics, transnationalism and unrestrained individualism was from the working class it had politically dispossessed.

By the early years of the new century, the social disintegration suffered by black America in the 1970s was being visited upon whites. An epidemic of self-inflicted deaths born of loneliness and despair has devastated the white communities of the industrial working class. Britain, having lost its industrial infrastructure at a later date, is following in its wake. The symptoms are already well established. In the worst-affected places (and in sharp contrast to the better off), regular work and marriage – which had provided stability and a pathway into adulthood – have become exceptions to the norm. The social bonds that once tied families into society have eroded or disappeared.

Children provide the most sensitive measure of this social disintegration.

In 2004, one in ten children aged five to 15 in England had a mental illness. Today it is one in nine. NHS Digital, part of the Government Statistical Service, reports that up to one in six children in the poorest fifth of families display symptoms of mental illness compared to one in 20 in the richest homes. Those most at risk are white children living in low-income households. By the time they are aged 16, 65 per cent of children in low-income households no longer live with both their birth parents.

Isolation, poverty and feelings of exclusion become endemic, and there has been a dramatic rise in levels of chronic pain and in illnesses such as diabetes, depression and anxiety. What follows is the rise of self-inflicted deaths caused by drugs, alcohol and suicide. Social disintegration, and the threat of such disintegration, has contributed to the rise of nationalist populism across capitalist democracies. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the gilets jaunes in France, the working classes turning away from the left: each new development has confounded the parties of social democracy. Limited by a politics of liberal egalitarianism and its language of equality, parties of the left struggle to understand the effects of cultural and social devastation.

 Today the left seldom speaks of the family, it says nothing about relationships, and it devalues the idea of marriage. It is suspicious of patriotism, and views the nation and national identity as racially exclusive and reactionary. As the Labour MP Jon Cruddas presciently remarked in 2013, the liberal-dominated left has tripped the idea of progress into a “condescension towards the local, and the search for home, family and security”.

In pursuing the ideal of liberal freedom, the educated middle class along the way lost the authority that had once given its political power a degree of national consensus. And it became both victim and perpetrator of the form of globalised capitalism it championed, caught between the plutocracy of the richest 1 per cent and the populist masses. Its politics increasingly brooks no opposition. Street protest has become a bourgeois activity and the abusive behaviour online of many left radicals is unconscionable.

In Britain, “liberal illiberalism” defined the Corbynites, and charged the militancy of the doomed People’s Vote campaign, the expressions of contempt for Leave voters, and the righteous certainty over the wrongs of Brexit. The vote for Brexit also ignited the slow-burning fuse of liberal middle-class disillusion.

The Labour Party has long since been captured by the liberal middle class and now it is home to a new mood of puritan zeal, as exemplified by the Corbynites who too easily betray the venomous hatred that lies beneath their benevolence. Once the Methodists, the Anglican Church and the organised working class were political bulwarks against sectarian extremism. But they are now shadows of what they used to be.

The consequence of these trends was Labour’s political destruction in the general election. The Corbyn leadership repelled Labour’s working-class support in the party’s old heartlands, which voted instead for their historic class enemy: the Tories. This is where we are: in trying to escape from its own nihilism, liberalism will only lead the middle class, as Nietzsche understood, “back into the weary desert of its own abstract culture”.

We have taken a wrong path. Where do we go from here? On Yasgur’s farm that weekend in 1969, no one could have believed it would turn out like this. 

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