Horny-handed sons of toil protest at a Harvard v Yale game (Photo by Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

June 10, 2020   7 mins

“That strange revolution which sees the sons of the bourgeois throw cobblestones at the sons of proletarians.” So observed the French writer Jean Cau of Paris in 1968, when student protests about living conditions at the university erupted into a historic rebellion against the old guard.

That year, the United States was rocked by riots, assassinations and political crisis, and half a century later, history seems to be, if not repeating itself, then certainly rhyming. Yet while there are huge differences between the 1968 and 2020 disturbances, the one continuous theme running through both uprisings, and indeed all revolutions down the years, is the prominent role of the middle class. In particular, the upper-middle-class, the haute bourgeoise, are the driving force behind revolt and disorder throughout history, especially — as with today — when they feel they have no future.

Today’s unrest involves two sections of US society, African-Americans and upper-middle-class whites, who together form the axis of the Democratic Party, but it is the latter who are far more engaged in racial activism. The “Great Awokening”, the mass movement focused on eradicating racism in America and with a quasi-religious, almost hysterical feel to it, is dominated by the upper middle class.

Of course, when journalists say that any group of protesters are ‘middle class’ (in the British, rather than American, sense) they often mean to downplay their grievances or the value of their argument. Political debate, in British life in particular, is often about who genuinely represents the mystical proletariat, or ‘real people’, and opinion formers are obsessed with class and elitism. Most discourse goes something along the lines of ‘you’re the elite’, ‘no, YOU’RE the elite’, an endless, tedious game played by both Right and Left. I don’t think the composition of a group gives it any more moral weight, but it is true that revolutions and protests, even those ostensibly about the working class or other downtrodden groups, have historically been a bourgeois thing — and 2020 is no different.

The rich have always paradoxically been radical, something G.K. Chesterton observed over a hundred years ago when he wrote “You’ve got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists: they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn’t; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists.”

Before the industrial age established a political divide in which a middle-class conservative/liberal alliance opposed a working-class socialist movement, radicalism was usually an elite or at least bourgeois concern. The Reformation was disproportionately popular among the urban educated; later, while the Whigs were dominant among the wealthy London merchants, Toryism was much more common in the country as a whole.

When the French Revolution degenerated into violence a few intellectuals and aristocrats based in what is now Notting Hill sympathised with the Jacobins, but the English poor were largely unsympathetic, and showed their feelings with the brutal Priestley riots in Birmingham.

That revolution was itself largely a bourgeois affair, most of its leaders being lawyers, journalists or similar. The sans-culottes were idolised as an almost sacred group everyone had to pay lip service to, but they were often preferred in the abstract. Jean-Paul Marat called his newspaper L’Ami du peuple but in reality he despised them, partly because ‘the people’ are not that radical.

This the revolutionaries learned when they tried to overturn the old order and build the world anew, met with fierce resistance by the conservative peasantry in the Vendée region. In southern Italy French Jacobins invaders intent on liberating the country from religious oppression faced the Sanfedismo (‘Holy Faith’), a rural army fighting to defend the faith and king.

Likewise, the Russian Communist movement. While Karl Marx made endless references to the proletariat, he made very little effort to actually deal with them in the flesh, and when he did, he was disappointed by their moderation; when Marx’s comrades formed the First International they made sure that working-class socialists weren’t allowed anywhere near the important positions.

Marx had one proletarian colleague, Wilhelm Weitling, who he ended up putting through a ‘quasi-trial’, in Paul Johnson’s words, because he didn’t agree with all of Marx’s doctrine. The great communist intellectual believed that workers had to be instructed with a “body of doctrine and clear scientific ideas”, and because Weitling had his own opinions, he was cancelled — although Marx’s followers had a more permanent way of cancelling people.

Lenin’s Bolsheviks followed in this fashion, radicalised by their experience at universities, not factories. The Russian revolutionaries were so bourgeois that, as Daniel Kalder observed in Dictator Literature: “Only one solitary worker ever sat on the executive board of Lenin’s party, and he turned out to be a police spy.”

That noble tradition of haute bourgeoisie revolution continues today, especially in the US. The Occupy movement, for example, is deeply opposed to the 1% but largely because they come from the 2-5%; Amy Chua cited figures suggesting that in New York, more than half it members earned $75,000 or more while only 8% were on low incomes, compared to 30% of the city. They also have hugely disproportionate numbers of graduates and post-grads among their members.

The wider Great Awokening, of which the 2020 disturbances are a part, is a very elite phenomenon, with progressive activists nearly twice as likely as the average American to make more than $100,000 a year, nearly three times as likely to have a postgraduate degree, and only one-quarter as likely to be black. Likewise with the radicalisation of American academia, with the safe spaces movement most prevalent at elite colleges, where students were much more likely to disinvite speakers or express more extreme views.

This indicates a significant radicalisation of the rich, a process that began in the 1960s when the heavily class-based politics of the 20th century began to shift. That social revolution, referred to in Britain as the permissive society, was entirely led by from above, a conflict epitomised in Britain by Midlands housewife Mary Whitehouse and her hopeless crusade against the public school liberal Hugh Greene.

In France, while Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy made huge headway among students of philosophy and future Cambodian mass murderers, it was less successful when he turned up at a Paris car factory to proclaim revolution. In 1968 the workers of Paris famously refused to side with the students, while in the US, as Christopher Caldwell noted in The Age of Entitlement, that year’s protests and the wider political conflict was partly about social status, with Ivy League students fighting working-class cops, many of whom had sons or brothers in Vietnam fighting a war they still believed in.

“When 135 students affiliated with Students for a Democratic Society occupied Harvard’s University Hall,” Caldwell writes: “the Harvard professor of Irish literature John Kelleher, a working-class Irishman from Lawrence, Massachusetts, called them ‘spoiled brats with an underdeveloped sense of history and a flair for self-protection’”. After 1968, “privileged Americans took out of the Vietnam era a sense of their own moral authority that was not battered but strangely enhanced.” The new class war had begun.

This trend would only accelerate, driven by a combination of media, expanding education and globalisation. In his highly prophetic The Revolt of the Elites, published after his death in 1994, Christopher Lasch argued that the new ruling class was becoming far more radicalised as its values diverged from a more parochial lumpen bourgeois. This more global-minded elite, used to seeing the world at 30,000ft, now embraced diversity as a mark of status but also a faith, with identity politics a replacement for religion — “or at least for the feeling of self-righteousness that is so commonly confused with religion”.

The Great Awokening certainly draws on America’s sectarian religious tradition, in a country formed by Calvinists, Quakers, Baptists and a dozen other Christian sects, but there are also materialist causes, in particular the expansion of the university system and runaway housing costs.

High house prices, in particular caused by planning restrictions, make it harder for the urban elite to settle down and have families — something likely to have a civilizing effect — and also pushes them radically to the Left.

Meanwhile, the expansion of the university system has created what Russian-American academic Peter Turchin called ‘elite overproduction’, the socially dangerous situation where too many people are chasing too few elite places in society, creating “a large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable… denied access to elite positions”.

So while around half of 18-year-olds are going onto college, only a far smaller number of jobs actually require a degree. Many of those graduates, under the impression they were joining the higher tier in society, will not even reach managerial level and will be left disappointed and hugely indebted. Many will have studied various activist-based subjects collectively referred to as ‘grievance studies’, so-called because they rest on a priori assumptions about power and oppression. Whether these disciplines push students towards the Left, or if it is just attending university that has this effect, people are coming out of university far more politically agitated. 

While the evidence on that is not clear, it’s arguable that a tiny number of very intelligent people being taught the theories of Marcuse or Foucault is probably going to have a limited social impact; when these ideas are disseminated among huge numbers of the young, many of them conformists sensitive to the social cues around them, then quite extreme ideas about dismantling society become normalised.

This has been bubbling up for years — and then along came the coronavirus, throwing millions of people out of work, many from exactly the sort of sections most likely to cause trouble. And what makes it slightly spooky is that a few years back Turchin predicted that there would be a violent flashpoint in American politics — in 2020.

History teaches us that disaffected and bored members of the elite can become a destabilising influence on society. In medieval Europe, the younger sons of lords, destined to never inherit land, were at the centre of numerous rebellions and wars, with the crusades acting as a pressure valve for their violent impulses. In China the term ‘bare branches’ is used to describe those excess males unable to find mates and who then went on to cause trouble, and modern America has record numbers of single people.

Perhaps the most famous example of elite overproduction is the War of the Roses. Edward III’s seven surviving children married into the most powerful families in the realm, helping to stabilise politics during his reign, but this fecund group produced huge numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren chasing a limited number of baronial positions, during a period when post-pandemic population decline had hugely decreased the wealth of the landowning class. When the king descended into listless insanity the rival factions turned English politics into a Shakespearean bloodbath.

The lesson of that crisis, as of every crises since, is that discontent and boredom among the rich and powerful can quickly descend into violence; it is they, in the words of the Beatles’ 1968 hit, who usually want to change the world.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable