Boris, Trump, Brexit, the Gilets Jaunes… The past five years have been characterised by the shattering and reshaping of the familiar political landscape. While the details vary from country to country, this trans-Atlantic phenomenon has one overriding theme: class war.
To be precise, this is the West’s second class war. The first, in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, pitted the big-firm corporate managers and professionals against industrial and service workers, who had not shared in the gains of the early industrial revolution. During the Great Depression and World War II, that class war came to a negotiated end in Europe and America, thanks to cross-class peace treaties such as Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the British welfare state.
Today, many people consider those postwar ‘settlements’ solely in terms of safety-nets that redistributed income or expanded public services like Britain’s NHS. But the class peace that lasted for a generation after 1945 in the West was based as much on power-sharing as on wealth-sharing.
By the mid-20th century, universal suffrage ensured that all working-class citizens in Western democratic nations could vote (a goal finally achieved for nonwhite Americans in the civil rights era). Yet working-class citizens exercised power in the three realms of government, the economy and the culture by more than votes alone.
Thanks to what I describe in The New Class War as ‘democratic pluralism’, non-college-educated workers had their own mass membership organisations that represented their interests between elections. Local political parties were the basis of national party federations, in which messages went up the chain as well as down.
In many major industries, corporate managers were compelled to negotiate with trade union representatives. On top of this, religious and civic organisations policed the movies and the media and education, to align their content with the values of working-class majorities.
Today, the petty tribunes of yesterday’s working class — the local party officials, private trade union officials, and, yes, the censorious church members —are all but extinct as social types in many Western democracies. Power has migrated upwards to national political, economic and cultural elites. At the same time, these have grown more homogeneous and insular, fusing into a single, college-credentialed, managerial overclass clustered into a few major hub cities including New York, San Francisco, London and Paris.
Neoliberalism, a combination of free-market libertarianism in economics with social liberalism in culture, has been the orthodoxy shared by Thatcher and Reagan conservatives with centre-Left leaders Blair and Clinton and Obama.
On both sides of the Atlantic, national elites have promoted the technocratic neoliberal vision of a glorious globalised future of dissolving borders, free migration of goods and people and ever-growing demographic diversity — combined, it was assumed, with monolithically liberal values and opinions.
Today’s populist politics is best understood as a counter-revolution from below against this neoliberal revolution from above. Some try to explain populism solely as a backlash by native working-class whites against increasing racial diversity driven by immigration, but this cannot explain why a third of BAME (British, Asian and Minority Ethnic) voters supported Brexit, or why nearly 30% percent of Hispanics in the U.S. voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
Those who argue that economics is the key to understanding populist revolts are closer to the truth, since across the West, the heartlands of populism are often deindustrialised former manufacturing regions such as the North of England and the American Rust Belt.
Centre-left parties have lost their working-class constituents to populists and conservatives, replacing them with a new alliance of highly-educated white managers and professionals allied with native minorities and many upwardly-mobile immigrants, for whom even low wages and poor working conditions in Western hub cities are better than their former circumstances.
What an exclusive emphasis on economics misses, however, is power — or its absence. Human beings care about power and agency, not just as means to income and wealth, but as ends in themselves. In otherwise quite different societies — many nations in Latin America, the states of the Southern U.S. between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Revolution, and the immigrant-packed Northern cities in the U.S. in the early 20th century — a feeling of powerlessness and exclusion by large elements of the population drove conditions in which demagogic populists thrive.
Populists such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Matteo Salvini sometimes represent the legitimate interests and values of groups that have been excluded by a closed and nepotistic power elite. But history also suggests that populist insurgencies usually fail, through cooptation by the existing establishment or corruption by demagogues who build their own ephemeral cults of personality and personal patronage systems.
A new democratic pluralism is needed to bring today’s class war to an end in the way that the power-sharing pluralism of the 1950s and 1960s ended the first. This is a challenge far greater than merely revising trade or immigration or social welfare policies to win over populist voters. It requires compelling corporate executives, media tycoons and high-ranking civil servants who have grown accustomed to a lack of pressure from below to show deference to less-educated people in the national heartlands beyond a few economic, cultural and administrative capitols.
This, in turn, requires creating the functional equivalents of yesterday’s trade unions, local political machines and civic pressure groups, in forms suited to the twenty-first century. This would allow those citizens who today are alienated and atomised members of an anomic population, disconnected from the centres of national power, to once again belong to organisations that can pool their numbers and amplify their influence.
With their own lesser, local tribunes to represent their interests and values, members of the working-class majority are likely to be less attracted to Caesarist demagogues who claim to speak for the virtuous people as a whole against the treacherous few.
The details of a new democratic pluralism cannot be specified in advance, and by nature must be negotiated by different actors in society, rather than drawn up in advance in 10-point plans by intellectuals or committees. These new class peace treaties will also vary among Western democracies, depending on local conditions and cultures.
It is possible that Britain, the mother of parliaments and the first modern industrial nation, and the one that pioneered neoliberalism under Margaret Thatcher, will now blaze the trail for what has been called “post-liberalism”. Modern British history is rich in traditions that reject the extreme aspects of liberalism without rejecting democracy, from the One Nation Toryism of Disraeli to the guild socialism of members of the early 20th century English pluralist school like Cole and Laski. More recently, Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour and Philip Blond’s Red Toryism have sought to correct the excesses of neoliberalism while avoiding the trap of demagogic populism.
Can a new cross-class peace settlement unite those whom David Goodhart has called communitarian, working class “Somewheres” with metropolitan, libertarian “Anywheres” in the UK and other nations? Failure is always an option. In this case, failure would consist of a few token gestures towards alienated populists by establishment elites who remain committed to the neoliberal consensus of the past generation and have no intention of sharing real power with the powerless of all classes and ethnicities.
But we can be certain of this: the political earthquakes of the past few years are not the last. It is not the beginning of the end of a new era in Western democratic politics, but the end of the beginning.