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Do we need a capitalist civil war? The working class suffer when elites agree

America's democracy resembles feudal Japan. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

America's democracy resembles feudal Japan. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images


May 4, 2022   5 mins

We Americans like to think of ourselves as a thoroughly modern people — living proof of what, with enough toil and grit, the rest of the free world can one day hope to be. And yet for all our progressivism and idealism, America’s political culture finds itself unable to escape the past. We may be living in a 21st century democracy, but that “democracy” increasingly resembles something that could have been plucked out of feudal Europe or, perhaps more accurately, feudal Japan.

For much of its history, Japanese politics was characterised by conflicts among its ruling daimyo, and later between the great industrial zaibatsu who replaced them as dominant powers. Similarly, America’s politics is now being shaped by a civil war not between classes, but within the ruling capitalist elite.

As the 2022 congressional elections approach, two sides are polishing their armour and fletching their arrows. In one corner stand the daimyo of the gentry corporate elite, largely drawn from the ranks of tech oligarchs and much of Wall Street. Their focus lies in the creation of a capitalist utopia rooted in paternalistic state control, much along the lines of the corporatist “Great Reset”. In the other corner, meanwhile, stand their opponents to the Right, largely made up of those who own private capital and are therefore anxious not to see their activities curbed.

These divisions reflect profound differences in industry, reminiscent of the 19th-century conflicts between aristocratic merchants and British manufacturers, or the one that broke out between the daimyo who embraced industry and those samurai who stubbornly hewed to traditional ways. Drawing on this, the French economist Thomas Piketty aptly divides our capitalist class into what he calls “the Brahmin Left” and the “merchant Right”. One side, as its caste association assumes, tends to see itself as more spiritually enlightened, as priests of the progressive secular religion. The merchant side, however, is more concerned with market competition (particularly from China), the cost of goods, and the impact of regulatory policies on their core businesses.

Today, the Brahmin Left has its base in large corporations and investors, and has allied itself with the academic and media establishments, financing non-profits and generally supporting increasingly intrusive government. By contrast, the merchant Right draws its natural support from the traditional middle class — skilled workers, high-street businesspeople, and small property owners — who also have become the bulwark of the Trumpian Republican Party.

Until recently, these two opposing capitalist groupings have contented themselves with near-peaceful coexistence. But the recent massive hysteria among progressives over Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter could signal the start of a more heated conflict, pitting competitive, market-oriented business interests against the conformist gentry progressivism of so many of the largest firms.

This corporate shift to the Left, particularly since the Black Lives Matter protests, has created a backlash within the capitalist class, with many concerned at what they see is the creation of a highly regulated, less competitive and openly politicised economy. Add to this Biden’s own embrace of progressive ideology and it’s hardly surprising that many traditional capitalists now fear for their future.

Some of this reflects understandable concern over Biden’s energy policies and taxes on the analogue economy — where food is grown, products are manufactured and shipped, and oil and gas are drilled. In recent years, Republicans have reaped support from many of the families tied to the “old economy” that markets tangible products. Looking at contributions, the differences between business sectors are stark: with manufacturers and agribusiness favouring the GOP by three to one, while the entertainment, internet and publishing industries overwhelmingly support the Democrats. To some extent, this is a conflict between those who invest and make stuff, and those who gorge on media and digital tools.

What makes Musk so different from his tech counterparts is that he remains, primarily, an industrialist, more in the mould of great Valley founders like Robert Noyce or Jerry Sanders — building cars, spaceships, and tunnel-making equipment. Like any manufacturer he needs reliable, affordable energy and worries about overregulation, which sets him against California’s ultra-progressive legislature.

By contrast, Meta, Google, Apple, and Microsoft manufacture almost nothing in the United States, and primarily make their money based on advertising or charging for services without much in the way of competition. So while many industrial firms support some protectionist measures against China, Silicon Valley is largely resistant to the idea. After all, on those rare occasions when they do manufacture products, they outsource their most critical production to China. Wall Street follows a similar post-national script, financing Beijing’s industrial machine with its notoriously high carbon supply chains.

A year or two ago, these elite divisions would not have been so pronounced. After the chaos of the 2020 election, big business seemed to welcome Joe Biden’s presidency as a return to normality. Many capitalist elites, particularly in the tech and finance industries, invested heavily in elevating the somewhat doddering warhorse into the White House. Biden, they reasoned, was far more reliable than Trump, whose greatest talent seemed to be widening already serious divisions in the country.

And at first, this corporate class seemed to support the Biden administration’s priorities on immigration, racial “equity”, gender, and climate change. But the government’s incompetent Afghanistan withdrawal, the intensifying border crisis and its own economic programme weakened this capitalist ardour. Most critical has been Biden’s stunning failure to address the roots of rising inflation. While costs of living soared, his supporters claimed everything was either temporary or Vladimir Putin’s fault. But it is clear inflation was rising rapidly before the Ukrainian invasion, and is now considerably higher than key competitors, such as Japan, Germany, France, Canada and China.

Meanwhile, those who would have previously moderated the Democrat machine, as occurred during Bill Clinton’s ascendency, find themselves unable to restrain a party now dominated by its far-Left fringe. And for all its alleged benefits, wokeness is not generally a good business strategy; it just cost Disney an estimated $50 billion, while causing firms such as Netflix to lose subscribers, in part due to what Musk describes as a “woke mind virus”. Yet so deep are the partisan divisions that it’s unlikely that much of the Silicon Valley and the Brahmin Left are ready to seek refuge in the clutches of the GOP .

Amid a contentious climate, who will win this new capitalist civil war? Hopefully neither side, at least not too decisively. As unromantic as it may seem, the middle and working classes rely on political competition between the elites to survive, as it forces them to make concessions to those below. Just look at the Meiji Restoration, or the socially democratic turn of the British Conservative Party, in Disraeli’s time as well as in recent years. Both are proof that the enemy of mass progress is in the uniformity of elites: when autocracy thrives, and when a small group of people — be they feudal lords, oligarchs or party cadres — control the political field, it is the middle and working classes who suffer.

To put it simply, a capitalist civil war isn’t necessarily all bad news. Although voters should not expect either side to defend their core interests, conflict between corporate moguls gives leverage to the middle and working classes. Like the plebeians in the Roman Republic, the average American could use this conflict to their own advantage. This could, for instance, take the form of a pro-reshoring strategy, which would lead to better paid blue-collar jobs, greater incentives for home-building, more skills education and greater access to healthcare. It’s not an ideal situation; in fact, it’s thoroughly depressing. But it’s far better than letting the rich gorge without conscience or concerns over popular pushback.


Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)

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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Great article. I’m still amazed at how quickly big corporations in the US adopted the woke agenda. Why did that happen so fast? What do they think is the key advantage of wokeism when it has the potential to destabilize society to the detriment of big business?

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

This is probably only a small part of the answer – but I suspect some of the top decision makers are influenced by what seems best for them as individuals. Who’s sometimes the biggest threat to the top execs in any org? The ambitious cis het males one rank below. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an ideology that slows the rise of such challengers… The giga chad – the biggest beneficiary of extreme wokery.

JJ Barnett
JJ Barnett
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Implementation of ESG frameworks is the big reason that woke has infected the whole of the corporate world. ESG is like a credit score, for a company. Just like you couldn’t get a mortgage if your credit score was low, if they don’t have good ESG scores the business can’t easily raise capital, they will be locked out of the big capital markets. ESG scoring is very opaque and thus is used to bully companies into participating in the woke and green agendas, but giving low scores to firms that don’t demonstrate their fealty.

So the globalist orgs such as WEF and their operatives in big finance (example Larry Fink at Blackrock; also on the WEF board) are forcing this stuff onto the market. It’s effectively a mafia style “I see you have a nice company there… be a shame if it got locked out of the markets…” thing.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  JJ Barnett

The Mafia analogy is spot on.
Much of the compliance regimes we have to deal with is simply legalised corruption.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Wokeism is defined by its hatred of straight white men, particularly those who have not caved in to its propaganda. It is similar to the racism of anti-Semitism, but broadly applied to its targets and those who openly resist it.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

One thing I have long admired about the USA is the persistence of small private firms making specialist and innovative mechanical and engineering products and services. The “analogue economy” as the author puts it. Often in “middle America”.

Or world still rests on the shoulders of this analogue “stuff”, although it seems less visible to us.

This economy also survives in Germany but, outside USA, it’s disappearing in the Anglosphere. As an inhabitant of this analogue economy, I can only observe that policy and regulation trumpeted as cracking down on Big Business always ends up having a disproportionately large effect on small to medium business.

“Complexity of regulation is a subsidy from small business to big business” ,(to quote myself), eventually stifling diversity and innovation.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

Yes, the US is no longer the land of small or medium-sized businesses. It’s becoming increasingly monopolistic.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago

It is hard to blame the elites when it seems the majority of the common people (if you believe the polls and election results) seem to be less concerned about the ‘common people’ and more concerned about voting in a self righteous, virtue signalling way so that they can be seen as nice people on social media and get lots of thumbs ups.

Hopefully, more and more people are starting to realise that irrespective of skin colour, gender preferences or sexual choices, we are all common people, unless we are part of the elite.

All for one and one for all and stuff the elites I say 🙂

Last edited 2 years ago by Paul Smithson
Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

I don’t understand why or how reshoring manufacturing, building of homes, more skills education and better access to healthcare can be viewed as thoroughly depressing?

JJ Barnett
JJ Barnett
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

I agree with you, but even if we all came together in this manner, who would we vote for?

This movement would have to produce it’s own leaders, and build it’s own institutions, because the parties and institutions we have now are all ‘captured’ by the same elitist ideologies :/

Last edited 2 years ago by JJ Barnett
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

An excellent, insightful and sadly realistic article. What’s especially sad is the scarcity of an influential elite faction that genuinely wants what’s best for the common people, rather than being liable to make pro working/middle class concessions only when it helps then get one over their opposition. We used to have many such elite – a great many of our former monarchs, PMs, presidents & near presidents – Lord Pitt, Attlee, super Mac & George McGovern being the first out of several hundred that spring to mind. I think these days the selfish elite are better at recognising exceptional altruistic talent early, and not letting them get past 1st base in their political careers.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

You don’t consider Mr Musk or Peter Thiel as potential candidates? Or even the dreaded Ginger Man? And, if he wasn’t so ancient, Warren Buffet?

Last edited 2 years ago by David Simpson
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

I don’t think so – though I don’t know them that well, and I may have too much Keynesian bias to appreciate those types. I’d agree the Donald seems to care more about common folk than most elite – but also seem to have too much ego to be truly for the people.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

Who WILL win this new capitalist civil war, then? Answer: “Hopefully neither side, at least not too decisively.”

Well, what was wrong with the “near-peaceful coexistence” times that had apparently characterised the market “until recently”. That sounds like Germany and Japan pretty much, still, even in the smart phone age. But did not the near-peaceful coexistence times also occur in the 1980s, a decade that saw an increasingly confident West and the crumbling of Communism? Were there capitalist systems in opposition to each other, also, in the 1980s? If the capitalist market, or battleground, is more clearly defined in the technology age now, then if neither opponent will win too decisively, because it is the new healthy competition that dares not speak its name, does that mean a return to the “near-peaceful coexistence” times? Of old? Of recently?

Perhaps the traditional manufacturers, the Trump-friendly and the like, need to win a bit more decisively, a lot more decisively in fact, than these big-boy Brahmin types: if Americans are going to be happy and confident again. (I think Americans are currently, if not seriously glum, certainly much more prone to glumness than ever before. It is marked by the pop culture: there is no cheerful Back To The Future-type culture coming out of America AT ALL, these days. Hasn’t been for a while).

“To put it simply, a capitalist civil war isn’t necessarily all bad news.” Yet 
 “it’s not an ideal situation; in fact, it’s thoroughly depressing.” As you say, “the middle and working classes rely on political competition between the elites TO SURVIVE (my capitals), as it forces them to make concessions to those below.”

Are times so desperate in the smart phone age that the language is thus so? In Germany and Japan do they talk so? Instead of “survive”, what about “thrive”? Is today so gloomy that the word thrive is verboten? In America? I suppose Google’s thriving. Their glum levels must be low, then.

Ye Gods America! No more excuses for trotting out the unromantic life! America really is now as unromantic as it seems. As unromantic as it seems!!!! The land of romance has gone to the dogs. And apparently they’re lovin’ it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Dustshoe Richinrut
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Wasn’t Brexit our little plebeian civil war? I say little because all we were doing was ending a trade agreement. But it was in fact huge because the ‘Brahmin’ elite planned to use the EU to manage everything in the U.K. , without any democratic mandate. And most of the merchant elite didn’t want it either.

I was so bleedin’ proud of the British electorate voting for Brexit as the elites pummelled their senses with horror stories.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Stewart
Andrew Langridge
Andrew Langridge
2 years ago

Extremely confused article, which fails to analyse precisely why most companies, not least manufacturers, now appear to have ‘progressive values’. In this age of lightning-fast information flows, it is hard-nose business sense not to upset a section of your customer base by, for example, polluting local environments, selling products that are bad for their health, or having a discriminatory recruitment policy that prevents hiring the best people. The democratisation of information has led to a re-calibration of business practise and a welcome shift of power towards the consumer and employee.
This shift has got very little to do with left/right voting preference, which is largely controlled by attitudes to financial redistribution.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Langridge
J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago

Woke policies allow companies to do all those things you mentioned while appearing sincere. That’s the value.

Apple manufactures in China which pollutes horribly and uses slave labor, thier products are horrible for the planet and mental health of thier users, and they discriminate in thier hiring policies openly. But they have a rainbow flag in thier headquarters so it’s all ok.

That is why companies have gone woke. For the same reasons the wife abuser and serial cheater wears a cross and shows up in the pews every Sunday.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

I think you’re right. Helpful answer.