The tyranny of the managerial elite

Michael Lind talks to Brendan O’Neill about his book, The New Class War.


Topics Brexit Politics UK USA

Ever since the twin earthquakes of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, commentators have prophesied the death of democracy. But what if these votes were not a threat to democracy, but rather a reaction to the fraying of democracy from those who have been excluded from power? This is the subject of Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite. Lind joined spiked editor Brendan O’Neill for the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. What follows is an edited extract. Listen to the full conversation here.

Brendan O’Neill: The first thing I want to ask you about is democracy. If you were to ask the average liberal at a dinner party in London or New York what they thought was the greatest threat to Western democracy, they would probably say Trump or Brexit, or they might say neo-fascism. But you have argued that the greatest threat to Western democracy actually comes from the well-educated, well-mannered and well-funded centrist, neoliberal political class. That would strike some people as a surprising answer. Can you explain what you mean by it?

Michael Lind: The argument in my book, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, is that Western societies, although formally democratic, are actually oligarchic in structure. This oligarchy benefits what James Burnham in the mid-20th century called the managerial class, which he and I define broadly to include a college-educated elite in public service, the non-profit sector and the private sector.

This is a class which in the United States is no more than 30 per cent of the population, if you define it broadly as people with undergraduate bachelor’s degrees. If you define it a bit more accurately, as those with postgraduate and professional degrees, it is about 10 per cent of the population. So you have 10 per cent of the population supplying the leadership in the business sector, in journalism, in government and in the non-profit sector.

I also argue that the policy agendas of Western democracies reflect the class interests of this group, and reflect their values, which tend to be moderately libertarian on social issues. In that sense, we have not had democracy in a substantive form for several generations.

I define democracy differently from most of the people who talk about liberal democracy. I don’t like that term ‘liberal democracy’, because the premise is that it is all very procedural and formal. That is to say, you have free elections, and minorities are not persecuted. But you can still have a very oligarchic society if you have free elections and respect basic civil rights, because most of democracy is about policies and not about rights. I argue that in the middle of the 20th century in all of the Western democracies, there was a substantive democracy – I call it democratic pluralism – in which the power of this managerial elite, which already existed by 1945, was counterbalanced by working-class organisations like trade unions, as well as powerful churches and powerful local political machines. And as those have eroded, by default, the college-educated elites have come to dominate the entire system – not by conspiracy, it is just that countervailing forces have eroded.

O’Neill: So you think this managerial class has been able to assume this dominant role, largely by default, because of the shifts that have taken place in Anglo-American societies over the past 50 years or so?

Lind: Yes, I think it is by default. And, to different degrees, it is similar in continental European societies as well. As I say, there was no conspiracy with Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg getting together with the Mont Pelerin Society and libertarian economists like Milton Friedman, and deciding to move towards a socially liberal, economically libertarian system.

In the three realms of government, the economy, and the culture, there were three separate battles, and what I call the overclass – the managerial elite – won all three battles. In the government, there was an increasing shift of decision-making power away from legislators, towards executives and judiciaries, and, particularly in the case of Europe with the European Union, to transnational decision-making bodies. This essentially is a shift of class power, because if you are working class, you are far more likely to influence your legislator, especially one in a lower house of the legislature, than you are a federal judge or a transnational tribunal.

In the realm of the economy, the decline of the unions is the major cause of the shift of power to the managerial class. And that was partly as a result of legal changes, backed by employers, but also partly a result of offshoring, because you can simply avoid unionisation if you shut down unionised factories in North America and Europe and move them to authoritarian states like China.

In the third area of the culture, the churches and synagogues were much more powerful in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now. They may have abused that power, but they used the threat of boycotts to censor content in the media and education that offended their values. And largely as a result of long-term secularisation, their power has faded. So the assumption of unchecked power in all three realms of government, economy and the culture by this very small overclass with advanced educational credentials has resulted more from the weakening of their opponents than from any kind of conscious power grab on their part.

O’Neill: I want to come back in a moment to the question of the slow-motion expulsion of working-class people from decision-making institutions over the past few decades. But just on the issue of democracy, one of the most striking things you say – and some of us in the UK have been saying something similar – is that not all forms of contemporary populism are necessarily positive, and they are not necessarily something you would want to get excited about. But you argue that the greatest threat to democracy does not actually come from populist demagogues, but in many senses comes from the response to populism by this managerial elite. Firstly, could you describe what you understand populism to represent at the moment, and then say why you think the push-back against it poses a larger threat to democracy than populism itself?

Lind: In The New Class War, I argue that populism of the sort that produced Donald Trump and Brexit and many populist parties in Europe is a predictable reaction and a counter-revolution from below – particularly, but not exclusively, of the native white working class. But not just native and white. If you look at the UK, about a third of non-white voters supported Brexit.

This group used to have its greatest hold in the centre-left parties like Labour in Britain, like the Democrats in the US between Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. They were driven out of the centre-left parties by socially liberal, upper-middle class professionals who tended to be somewhat economically free market-oriented. The parties on the right did not pick them up, either. And so in the US, they have been floating between the two parties ever since Ross Perot in the 1990s. The reason Trump won the nomination and then the election was that he appealed to them.

A lot of the grievances that are channelled by populist demagogues – and they are demagogues, they are outsiders who pose as tribunes of the people who were disenfranchised – are legitimate grievances. But because the demagogues tend to be anti-system, they can only protest against this technocratic, neoliberal, oligarchic establishment. In my view, it is very unlikely they can reform it by creating a new, disciplined leadership group, which is what is needed. There is going to have to be a managerial society, it just depends on whether the managers have to share power with representatives of the working class.

What is more, if you look at countries in Latin America, and if you look at the American South, which was the home of the demagogic populists for most of American history, the oligarchs usually win in the end. They have almost all of the educated people, all of the civil servants, all of the executives, all of the intellectuals. The populists can come in and win a few elections, but either they are neutralised by the establishment, or they are simply co-opted. I see populism kind of as a symptom of the underlying disease of technocratic oligarchy. It is not a cure.

O’Neill: I want to ask you about the content of this new class war. One of the very important insights made in your book, and in what you have been writing and saying over the past couple of years, is about the fact that this is not simply an economic clash. I find that when some technocratic leftists talk about the ‘left behind’, they tend to express that in narrowly economic terms. They will say that these people felt economically left out. This is the case even if they have an element of sympathy for some of these communities, for the Rust Belt, supporters of Trump, or the supposedly left-behind communities in the UK who voted for Brexit and then subsequently for Boris Johnson. These technocratic leftists say the working class was let down by globalisation. Undoubtedly, there is truth to the continued existence of economic tensions and economic disparities. But there is something more to it too, isn’t there? There is a deeper and in some ways more important cultural, social question in this new class war.

Lind: That is absolutely right. There is a moral difference that you can document. In my book, I point out that in the United States, working-class people are more likely to describe children as a joy, and upper-middle class professionals are more likely to describe them as a burden. It is hard to separate the culture and the economics because the morality of the college-educated professional elite (to which I belong) is shaped by its career pattern. That is, you go to a university, preferably a prestigious one, usually outside of the town or county or region that you were born in. You then travel thousands of miles to a major city to pursue your career, and you hardly ever see anyone else in your family, your parents, your aunts, your uncles, your cousins. And that is necessary if you want to flourish on Wall Street or in Hollywood or in Washington DC or in London, as the case may be.

If you are a working-class person, most of the jobs that you will end up having are available everywhere – that is, the ones that are not manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced. So there is really no reason for you to leave where you were born. And one of the things I point out in The New Class War is that geographic mobility is very low for the majority of the working class. And this is true in Europe and in the UK, as well as the US. In the US, the average American lives 18 miles from her mother (they use women because they live longer). This comes as a great shock to college-educated people when I point this out, because very few college-educated professionals live in the same town they grew up in. There is a kind of communitarian value system among working-class people, which I would argue is the normal human value system through most of history. And this extremely libertarian, meritocratic, geographically nomadic value system, is a kind of peculiar mutation limited to a specialised kind of managerial capitalist elite.

O’Neill: That taps into some of the ideas that have been developed in the UK over the past few years. For example, David Goodhart’s idea of the ‘somewheres’ versus the ‘anywheres’, and maybe a few in-betweeners who are somewhere in the middle. That distinction between a class that is increasingly defined by its global nature and its connected nature and the fact that it does not necessarily stay attached to the community from which it comes, and the other class, largely the working class, who still do have those local attachments, family attachments, community attachments.

But I wonder if you could just describe what you think are the other cultural divides between these two classes in terms of the approach to identity politics or the approach to questions of social liberalism? Do you see huge divides over some of those fundamental questions of culture and society in relation to this class war?

Lind: I think the biggest divide has to do with views of tradition. That is, if you are a working-class person, you want to pass on the cultural traditions you were raised with. This is bound up in your identity, to the extent that you do not have a separate identity of yourself.

This is quite alien to the mentality of the Western overclass. For members of that class, your identity is your achieved identity – you are a graduate of a particular university, you pursue a particular profession, you are proud of your education, of your economic function, of your profession. They would never say they were proud of their hometown or region. To them, that is hopelessly vulgar and déclassé.

Again, I think that there is another aspect of this. What you find is a convergence of the desire for constant creativity on the part of the intelligentsia with the desire for constant novelty on the part of capitalism. That is, both of these groups, for different reasons, are trying to overthrow everything that existed before yesterday.

You can even divide the intelligentsia among social scientists, and artists and creative people. When it comes to art, our view of the arts comes from early 19th-century German romanticism. In the arts, instead of focusing on traditions passed on by craftsmen, there is the original genius who overthrows everything done before, and comes up with something uniquely individual. In social science, the premise is that society is a subject of scientific study, like physics. And just as you would not use 1950s physics, why would you use 1950s politics or economics? You make a name as a social scientist by overthrowing everything done before last week. And of course, if you are a corporation, everything has to be new and improved. You have what to my mind is an ultimately unsustainable strategy by an elite which pretty much wants to overthrow all existing cultural traditions as though they were consumer products on the production line. I do not think that is sustainable.

Michael Lind was talking to Brendan O’Neill in the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:

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