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  1. The Ideas Interview
7 January 2023

The new class war

Michael Lind on how the rise of the liberal “overclass” triggered Trumpism, Brexit and the return of the nation-state.

By Jonathan Rutherford

Over the past two decades our country has lurched from false start to collapse, and then reaction. The story can be repeated across the Western world, and no one has told it better than the US political analyst Michael Lind, an academic and prolific writer, with decades of experience in the Washington beltway.

In The Next American Nation (1995) Lind foresaw the political realignment in class politics years before it erupted in the surge of national populism and right-wing demagoguery. He has more recently developed his ideas in The New Class War (2020).

Lind offers a challenging analysis of the crisis confronting the Western left. It rests upon three central arguments. The first is that the 21st century is the era of nationalism and the nation state. The second is that the political economy of the future will not prioritise free markets and the pursuit of the four abstract freedoms of goods, capital, services and people. It will be about national social and economic development – what we call levelling up. And thirdly, the class structure of capitalist societies has profoundly changed through the growth of a managerial class and the collapse of the political power of the working class – to the great detriment of the latter. This managerial class is now the dominant force on the left. The vote to elect Donald Trump as US president and the Brexit vote in 2016 were, Lind argues, a populist revolution against the economic interests and cultural values of this class – his own class.

Jonathan Rutherford: Michael, could you explain why you value nationalism?
Michael Lind: Nationalism in the sense of “nation-statism” simply means that the political unit is the nation-state, in which the state for civic purposes “borrows” the language and culture of a majority, even if the state contains cultural minorities. Whatever may be the case in the future, to date the nation-state is the only unit of government that has been able to mobilise extra-political popular sentiments and national identity to improve the condition of the majority of people, not just an oligarchy or aristocracy.

JR: You argue that the 21st century will be the era of the nation-state?
ML: Why not? The 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were eras of the nation-state, and the 21st century will be as well. The characteristic forms of the agrarian era – the dynastic, multinational empire and the city-state – have given way almost everywhere to nation-states.

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The reason is that the nation-state combines the scale of premodern multinational monarchies with the civic patriotism of the republican city-state. A sense of common identity is important, because modern governments and economies are complex and rely on a high level of public legitimacy to function.

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JR: You say, “the left believe in the state but not the nation, while the right believe in the nation but not the state”. Our political ­parties are ill-equipped to pursue this kind of nation-making.
ML: They always have been ill-equipped. In the modern era political parties have benefited from relatively non-partisan, extra-political sources of national identity and national solidarity. Historians, artists and composers have provided the shared imagery of particular nations, while trade unions, churches, charities, sports teams, music festivals, veterans’ clubs and others can promote shared identity. The ability of political leaders, even in despotic regimes, to create and promote a “national narrative” is very limited.

JR: Your comment about the necessity for a “common identity” suggests you reject the idea of multiculturalism.
ML: Multiculturalism is relevant in societies such as Switzerland or Canada (with its Anglophone and Francophone communities)  in which two or more ethnocultural nations permanently retain their distinctness and there is little intermarriage.

The alternative is the “melting pot” model, in which two or more groups amalgamate culturally and – via marriage – demographically. We are constantly being told by the establishment that the melting-pot model has been replaced by the salad bowl metaphor, in which the ingredients retain their distinctness. But that is not the case in the US, where the descendants of immigrants of all backgrounds tend to share American culture and American English. Rising rates of marriage across the arbitrary lines of “race” are blurring lines among so-called non-Hispanic whites, Asians, Hispanics and African Americans in the US, making these categories increasingly useless. The UK has become a melting-pot nation – the Prime Minister is British of Indian ancestry.

If Western societies are becoming transracial melting pots, not multicultural salad bowls, why are government, corporate, academic and media elites doubling down on policies such as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) based on the false idea that gaps among racial and ethnic groups are permanent or even increasing? The answer is that constant emphasis on racial and ethnic disparities diverts public attention from the growing class divide in the West between the college-educated overclass and the working class, whose members of all races have more in common with each other than with elite members of their own “race”, when it comes to wages, worker power and access to education and health care.

JR: This relationship of culture, class and ­economic power cuts to the heart of your understanding of the causes of political realignment, which is the conflict between the working class and a professional-managerial class. How would you describe the managerial class?
ML: The term professional-managerial class was coined by the late Barbara Ehrenreich and her then-husband John in 1977 to mean professionals who are intermediate between workers and capitalists in a three-class system. I don’t use it, instead, for college-educated people in general, I use James Burnham’s term “managerial elite”, or overclass, to avoid the aristocratic or plutocratic associations of “ruling class”. In The Managerial Revolution (1941), Burnham describes the managerial elite as not only the executives of large private companies, but also civil servants, military officers and careerists in the non-profit sector.

I don’t think there is a “capitalist class” distinct from the broad college-educated elite in the US and similar nations. The actual ruling class in the US and similar Western democracies is not a tiny number of freakishly rich individuals, or heirs and heiresses, but the top 10 or 15 per cent of the population – almost all of them with college diplomas and often graduate or professional degrees.

On both sides of the Atlantic this group is the equivalent of the nomenklatura in the former Soviet Union. While some are self-employed business owners or independent professionals, most work for large, hierarchical organisations – corporations, government agencies, non-profits, universities.

They are clustered in what I call “hub cities” such as New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, London and Paris, and they tend to be born into families with at least one college-educated parent, making the “meritocracy” semi-aristocratic, though more diverse in race, religion and national origin than older Western social establishments. The culture of this transatlantic elite is secular and combines social liberalism with moderate economic libertarianism.

JR: How would you define the working class today?
ML: A simple but useful proxy for class is education. Members of the working class do not have four-year diplomas, though they may have some college education. I was criticised for arguing in The New Class War that education, not income, is the major dividing line between classes in the modern West. But in this case, the common-sense view is the correct one: an underpaid professor belongs to the overclass, while a plumber who did not go to university but earns twice as much is a well-paid member of the working class.

The classic petite bourgeoisie class of small business owners still exists; the full-time self-employed are about 10 per cent of the workforce in the US. But many of the successful among the self-employed are in fact consultants or contractors working for large corporations or government agencies. They can be viewed as outsourced employees of large entities, even if in their own flattering estimation they are sturdy yeomen.

JR: And its geography?
ML: There are two working classes, divided by geography and to some degree by origin, in the US and many western European countries. In the expensive hub cities, there is a large class of menial service workers – such as maids, nannies, drivers, restaurant ­workers, dry-cleaners – who work for the local managerial elite and affluent ­professionals. This hub city working class is largely foreign-born, but the immigrants, as soon as they prosper, often move out of expensive downtowns.

Most working-class people in the West live in the suburbs and outside metropolitan cities, which I call the “heartland” (to avoid the derogatory associations of “periphery” and “hinterland”). Contrary to popular belief, this “heartland” is becoming more racially diverse, even as many urban centres are becoming whiter as a result of gentrification. Most physical industries – agriculture, manufacturing, mining, energy, logistics – are located far from dense urban areas, and these and their auxiliary industries employ much of the working class.

JR: And how would you describe the conflict between the two classes?
ML: One need not be a Marxist to recognise that much of what is coded as “cultural conflict” actually involves clashes of economic interests between the overclass and the working class. Immigration is one example. Less-educated, low-wage immigrants are welcomed as cheap servants or service workers by the elite, but viewed as competitors for jobs and in some cases limited welfare-state programmes by many in the working class.

A second clash is over environmental measures. They might make sense to clean up congested cities, but they can threaten the livelihoods of many workers, if applied to the manufacturing or extractive industries in the heartlands. Yet a third clash exists over family and traditional gender roles. In the US, polls show that most working-class Americans prefer a one-earner family with a stay-at-home caregiver; only affluent, college-educated professionals have majorities that favour the two-earner family which is the ideal both of corporate employers and ­conventional feminists.

JR: A repeated liberal-left criticism of The New Class War is that it is an apology for the racism of national populism.
ML: In the book I criticise both “technocratic neoliberalism”, the dominant elite orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic, and “demagogic populists” who exploit popular resentment against arrogant managerial elites but who tend to be charlatans and corruptionists who betray their followers.

I defended Donald Trump against the absurd charge that he is a fascist; he is the US’s Silvio Berlusconi, not the US’s Mussolini. Trump is the first demagogic populist president of the United States, but there is a long tradition of such figures as mayors or governors, most of them as bombastic, ineffectual and corrupt as Trump.

Another ridiculous smear directed at me by some reviewers was the claim that by “working class” I meant “white Americans of all classes”, even when I wrote “multiracial working class”. As it happens, in every presidential and midterm election since 2016, increasing numbers of Hispanic and black voters have left the Democratic Party for the Republicans, while the Democrats owe their national victories in 2020 and 2022 to affluent white voters.

This is a mystery to those who claim that the Trumpian right is a white supremacist movement, but perfectly explicable once it is understood that racial divisions in the US electorate are fading while the educational divide, a proxy for the class divide, is increasing in political salience.

JR: You reject the view that opposition to immigration is simply about racism or ­ethnocentrism, but has an economic cause. Can you explain?
ML: I use the term “split labour market” which was coined by the sociologist Edna Bonacich. It appears whenever the workforce is divided into two groups, one of which is willing, for whatever reasons, to work for lower wages and in worse conditions than the other, allowing employers to pit the two groups against each other while driving down wages and standards overall. Often this phenomenon takes the form of competition between natives and immigrants, but different groups of immigrants can compete with each other as well, as can workers from different regions within a country.

Those who promote high levels of immigration constantly repeat the claim that immigrants never lower wages or take jobs from native or naturalised workers in the US and western Europe. This is true in some occupations. But there are many cases in the US of industries, ranging from meat-packing to janitorial services to home construction, in which employers used access to immigrant labour to replace high-wage, unionised jobs with low-wage, non-union jobs.

In the absence of high levels of immigration, tight labour markets – of the sort that developed for different reasons during the recent post-Covid supply chain crisis – might force employers to raise wages and could increase the likelihood of successful unionisation efforts.

[See also: Ten crucial questions about the world in 2023]

JR: Janet Yellen, the US secretary of the treasury, argues for a “modern supply-side economics” and in the UK we have “levelling up”. What’s your view of this policy trend towards national reconstruction?
ML: Rather than ask what is the ideal constitution for our country, I think the first question is what is the global environment and how do we fit in? At the moment, we are well into the second Cold War and, as we have seen, that determines a lot of economics right off (including domestic policy – how to respond to inflation caused by global supply chain shortages?). Then there is the question of whether our country is a “maker” of world order or a “taker”, like the majority of countries which are small and have limited options.

Once these questions have been answered, the next question is what kind of industrial policy should we adopt to pursue the national strategy we have chosen. I admit this is a rather topsy-turvy and unpopular way of thinking about domestic policy by starting with foreign policy and working inward. But it is how we should think about public policy, in my view. It is not how most elites in most countries think about it. Instead, they are guided by a mix of parochial interests, including class interests, inertia and half-baked ideas and fads.

JR: Would you call the Green New Deal a half-baked idea?
ML: Anthropogenic climate change as a result of the industrial economy is real, and measures to mitigate and adapt to it are prudent and necessary. But there are three potentially fatal problems with the Green New Deal, or “the green transition” as defined by transatlantic progressives.

First, in order to minimise adaptation in addition to mitigation (prevention), activists inflate the danger and pace of global warming, and their apocalyptic hype ends up repelling more people than it converts. Second, the irrational mix of technologies favoured and subsidised by Western governments reflects the political power of some lobbies (investors in wind and solar, for example, and farmers who benefit from ethanol subsidies) and the political weakness of other lobbies (nuclear).

Third, the opportunistic attempt by various movements on the political left to redefine their causes as a contribution to the campaign against climate change. The Green New Deal ends up being a grab bag of unrelated single-issue crusades – organic farming and veganism, urban densification and mass transit, degrowth and anti-consumerism, and even “diversity, equity and inclusion”.

The problem of greenhouse gas emissions is a technical problem with technical solutions, and insisting that it cannot be solved without radical individual behavioural change or revolutionary social change does more harm than good.

JR: What do you mean by the term “democratic pluralism”?
ML: By pluralism I mean the idea that it is not enough to have purely formal, political checks and balances in government. We need to think about the checks and balances within society itself.

Without social checks and balances to reinforce political checks and balances, a state that is a liberal, constitutional democracy in form may correspond to a society that is an oligarchy. Whether it is called tripartism or corporatism, some kind of institutionalised representation of labour, religious and cultural communities, and other major groups – complementing but not replacing legislatures elected from territorial constituencies – is a requirement for a democratic society, as distinct from a democratic state.

During the apogee of working-class power in the three decades following the Second World War in western Europe and the US, the power of managerial elites in business, government and the cultural realm was checked by what the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called “countervailing power”, exercised by trade unions, local political parties, and churches and synagogues like those that played an essential role in the American civil rights movement. All of these institutions, even if they were led by individuals with elite backgrounds, were accountable to ordinary working-class constituencies.

In the last half century, local political party organisations have withered away; religious attendance and belief have declined; unionisation has shrunk under employer-lobby assaults, especially in the US where only about 6 per cent of private sector workers are unionised, a level lower than that of a century ago.

No longer checked by mass parties, mass unions and mass congregations, politics has become much more of a game played by members of a culturally, if not ethnically, homogeneous national overclass, with slightly different flavours of left, right and centrist social liberalism and economic libertarianism. The only role of most working-class citizens is to vote on rare occasions, and choose between candidates backed by obscure and remote cabals of donors, party operatives and political consultants.

In today’s anonymous cities and suburbs, old-fashioned local party machines will not revive, and religious affiliation seems fated to continue to decline on both sides of the Atlantic.

If the countervailing power of the working class in Western nations is to be rebuilt, organised labour will have to play the major role – perhaps in unfamiliar forms, such as  wage boards, or sectoral bargaining, which is familiar in Europe but not in the US.

Any resurgence of working-class power in the workplace and not just the ballot box will be met with ferocious resistance by the managerial elite. In the words of A Philip Randolph, the great American trade unionist and civil rights leader: “If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organisation.”

[See also: Republicans are to blame for their self-implosion over Kevin McCarthy]

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor