Former Labour Party leader Ed Miliband will not be remembered by posterity but he did get one thing right: he foresaw the coming populist backlash. During his tenure as Labour leader, Miliband believed that British politics in the early 2010s had reached a point like the one that enabled Margaret Thatcher to tear up the post-war social democratic settlement in the early 1980s.
However Miliband made two fundamental errors. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, he lacked the personal charisma to overturn the status quo, allowing moribund neoliberalism to limp on for a few years under the tutelage of David Cameron and George Osborne. Secondly, he misdiagnosed the nature of the problem, interpreting it along familiar Left-Right lines. To paraphrase the American philosopher James Burnham, neoliberal capitalism was disappearing but socialism was not replacing it. Instead, new divisions were opening up, and although they are in one sense about class, they are better understood as divisions between insiders and outsiders.
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This is the case laid out by American academic Michael Lind in his just-published book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite, which argues that “Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease”. Lind says that Western society feels as if it is coming apart and this is a delayed consequence of the working class losing the political power it possessed for much of the twentieth century. “The Cold War has been followed by the class war”, writes Lind. This is a war that is being waged against the working class by an ascendant caste of university-credentialed professional elites.
“Social power exists in three realms — government, the economy, and the culture,” writes Lind. “All three realms of Western society today are fronts in the new class war.” We see this class war being waged over everything from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump to the rise of an activist judiciary. And despite the recent populist backlash one side remains firmly on top.
Understanding the class nature of technocratic liberalism is central to Lind’s argument. The ideological war starts with a pretence that class itself no longer exists. The only barriers to ascent that are said to exist in the liberal technocratic mind are racism and misogyny, which are everywhere. What is sought by the bien pensant middle class is ‘representation’ rather than revolution — effectively a corporate boardroom which resembles the middle class. Never mind those who toil away on the factory floor — social mobility, a creed beloved by politicians of all stripes, will ensure that the best and brightest ascend into the bourgeoisie.
Representation is of course not the same thing as democracy. In fact, if representation is the goal we might as well abolish democracy altogether and appoint a ruling class along the appropriate demographic lines. I suspect we will hear arguments like this quite soon even if they are not phrased as bluntly. As Lind writes, “In response to populist rebellions from below, the managerial elites of various Western countries may turn to outright repression of the working class by restricting access to political activity and the media by all dissenters, not populists alone.”
This sounds far-fetched until one recognises that the process has already begun. An online echo chamber — middle class, metropolitan, politically correct — already decides what can and cannot be published in the left-wing media. Transgressors of this unwritten code are increasingly ‘de-platformed’, in other words hounded out of public life.
The populist backlash has its roots in the dismantling of the post-war social democratic order, a “revolution from above” enacted to promote the “material interests and intangible values of the college-educated minority of managers and professionals, who have succeeded old-fashioned bourgeois capitalists as the dominant elite”. Industry has been destroyed and isles of working-class democracy such as trade unions are a declining force. Heartlands have been usurped by hubs – big cities which suck in investment and high-end business and professional services.
Margaret Thatcher once reportedly said that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour: “We forced our opponents to change their minds.” She also changed the make-up of the Labour Party, which increasingly resembles the American Democratic Party as a grouping of city elites and ambitious minorities. As Lind writes, “What used to be parties of the native white working class and rural voters have become parties of upscale members of the native white managerial elite, allied with racial and ethnic minorities and immigrants.”
Lind is no populist himself and worries about a “future of gated communities and mobs led by demagogues at their gates”. His solution is a return to what he calls “democratic pluralism”, a philosophy he associates with New Deal America and post-war western Europe. He believes in “selective globalisation” and an immigration policy whose chief aim is to “strengthen the bargaining power of national workers with employers”.
Until recently this would have been an uncontroversial “centrist” position. But today it invariably crashes up against the twin pillars of contemporary liberalism: the unfettered movement of capital and labour. Both are manifestations of theoretically opposed strands of utopian politics, neither of which brooks any compromise.
To have qualms about globalisation marks one out as a Luddite, whereas an unwillingness to support anything other than open borders leaves one open to the charge of Trumpism or neo-fascism. “Neoliberalism is a synthesis of the free market economic liberalism of the libertarian right and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left,” Lind writes.
The problem with laissez faire liberalism was encapsulated by RH Tawney’s point that “freedom for the pike is death for the minnows”. Freedom breeds discontent. Yet the question is whether the purported cure is worse than the disease, for an authoritarian streak runs through many literary assaults upon neoliberalism. This is especially true when it comes to conversations about culture and a lingering reverence for “traditional values” on display in parts of Lind’s book.
At one point Lind writes wistfully about an era when “The clergy and zealous citizens and civic groups policed the mass media and the educational system to ensure that they did not offend the largely traditional values of the working class majority.” By contrast, he paints today’s working class as “passive recipients” of “sensationalism, obscenity, and violence”.
Yet what were these “traditional values”? Mass censorship? Women chained to controlling husbands and worn out by drudgery? Discrimination against homosexuals?
I do not believe that Lind wants any of these things, yet each was at one time a feature of working-class life — and it was pressure by reforming, paternalistic liberals that brought about change. There was much that was good and decent about the post-war era; there was also a climate of stifling conformity around sexual mores. One cannot forge a new social democratic politics unless one can effectively appeal to millions of people. Romanticising an era in which half the population were chained to their husbands while zealous religious authorities “policed” the morals of people they knew nothing about will provoke storms of indignation, dooming any such project to failure.
That said, in a broader sense Lind is onto something. Lind quotes the American journalist John Chamberlain who believed that democratic pluralism prevails “when you have a state of tension in society that permits no one group to dare bid for the total power”. One might also quote Aneurin Bevan’s simple point about social democracy representing “not an end to struggle but a change in its terms”.
This stands in pluralistic contrast to utopian ideologies which seek to suck the ambiguity out of life. Fascists want rigid hierarchy whereas communists long for a society which resembles a beehive. Utopian liberals merely delude themselves into ignoring the baggage of history that weighs down those with less privileged lives. Democratic pluralists, in contrast, seek a balance between, as Chamberlain put it, “the plutocratic city and the impoverished country…. metropolitan East and plundered West and South”.
Balance – or a rebalancing in this case – requires compromise. The trouble is that today’s liberals are in no mood for it. Buoyed by thirty-odd years of having everything their own way they have learned, in common with ideologues before them, to assimilate each manifestation of discontent into their prevailing worldview; everything from Brexit to Donald Trump to the electoral decline of the metropolitan Labour Party is interpreted as further evidence that the masses are too stupid to be trusted with democracy.
“Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear,” wrote Orwell. Lind’s book is a reminder that we live in a superstitious age. Today’s liberals flaunt their rationality at every available opportunity — while they dream of a workerless paradise.