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America’s conservatives are turning radical

February 15, 2020 - 7:00am

This week’s long read double bill suggests something potentially explosive is afoot among America’s conservatives.

In the religious journal First Things, Why Liberalism Failed author Patrick Deneen discusses Michael Lind’s book The New Class War in an essay titled Replace The Elite. Meanwhile, over at American Affairs, Joel Kotkin paints a gloomy picture of the American republic’s apparently inexorable slide toward a dystopian techno-feudalism in America’s Drift Toward Feudalism.

Both essays address similar territory. Deneen outlines Lind’s argument about the emergence of a power-sharing settlement between working and middle/upper classes following World War II, and the way this was deliberately dismantled to serve the interests of an emerging meritocratic elite:

This leadership class—dubbed by James Burnham “the managerial elite”—intentionally dismantled the mid-century settlement that had broadly benefitted the working class. In its place, it engineered an economic and social order that advantaged those whose political and personal self-­conception was one of authenticity, ethical flexibility, and geographic mobility.
- Patrick Deneen, First Things

This elite is also culturally hostile to the masses it seeks to dominate:

The managerial elite came to see itself as opposed to everything the working class embodied. Its ­representatives denounced “­deplorables” who “cling to their guns and ­Bibles.” 
- Patrick Deneen, First Things

Joel Kotkin tackles the same coming-apart of the elite and the masses, comparing the emerging situation with the political settlement of the Middle Ages. He argues that America is sliding helplessly toward a new feudalism, in which an incalculably wealthy handful of people control enormous swathes of land, money and power via the new data monopolies of the digital age.

This world is anti-democratic, anti-family — “a largely childless college campus environment, where they even pay female workers to freeze their eggs” — and increasingly polarised between a small class of plutocrats and a huge caste of gig workers. Beneath these service drones, “at the very bottom lies an untouchable class of homeless, those addicted to drugs, and criminals”.

Kotkin describes this new feudal order as supported by a new clerisy analogous to the ecclesiastical orders of the Middle Ages. This clerisy, he suggests, has taken on the role of enforcing moral orthodoxy:

Much like the early Church after the fall of Rome, which sought to suppress the memory of pagan civilization, the clerisy now has turned against the inheritance of modern liberal capitalism. In the schools, they have worked to remove the lodestones of that culture—Homer, Cicero, Shakespeare, Milton, and the founding fathers—from the campus curriculum. Instead they favor more politically correct books that tend to focus on the undoubted failings of our civilization.
- Joel Kotkin, American Affairs

Meanwhile, what Kotkin calls the ‘Third Estate’ (which comprises of everyone except the overlords and clerisy) have found their situation increasingly stagnant, constrained and indebted and their ways of life hollowed out and despised. This in turn is leading to a growing radicalisation of American politics, described in Deneen’s essay the ‘autoimmune response’ of populism to a ‘sick body politic’. How, then, is this likely to develop?

Per Deneen, Lind expects the managerial elite to give ground when faced with public anger. Kotkin sees populist pressure as unlikely to result in any greater power-sharing, predicting the emergence instead of a ‘bread and circuses’ techno-feudalism that blends infantilising welfare handouts with the surveillance capacities already evident in China to keep a restive but helpless Third Estate under the oligarchic thumb.

Deneen is as unconvinced as Kotkin: fear, he argues, will not be enough to force the new managerial elite to give up their hoarding of cultural and economic power. Rather, Deneen suggests that without a fundamental realignment of values between the ruling classes and the masses no amount of grudging power-sharing will bridge the political divide.

In their conclusions, Deneen and Kotkin are united: in effect they call for revolution. Though Deneen does not specify the mechanism to be used, he argues that “the current ruling class needs to be displaced by the ethos of the underclass: people shaped by and supportive of guild, ward, and congregation.” Kotkin, meanwhile, calls for the Third Estate “to re­invigorate its political will, just as it did during the Revolution and in the various struggles that followed.”

American conservatism is sounding less conservative and more radical by the day.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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