A Book review on something a lot of us do NOT understand….
THE NEW CLASS WAR
Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite
By Michael Lind
With 114 percent of Americans now having their own podcast, it is not easy to choose the one with the best title. But I’d go with the journalist Chris Hayes’s “Why Is This Happening?” Were there a German word for emotion-question (and it turns out there is), that title may be our era’s Gefühlsfrage. As people reel from crisis to crisis, outrage to outrage, this Gefühlsfrage hangs in the air and creates space for writers.
The question has inspired many rich explorations. But it can also be seized on by thinkers who have kept pet theories on ice and now sense a pouring opportunity.
“The New Class War,” by Michael Lind, the author of numerous books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry, anchors itself firmly in the why-is-this-happening genre. Unfortunately, because its theory seems to have predated, and been awaiting, this moment, it takes a great amount of jamming to fit Lind’s peg into the hole of the present situation. And the explanation that results is marked by an appalling minimization of the most dangerous administration in our lifetimes and a highly distorted portrait of Trump supporters as victims.
Lind’s originating interest seems to be this: American democracy worked in a certain way in the three decades after World War II, it stopped working that way, and oligarchy ensued. At the heart of the old way was what Lind calls “war-inspired class peace treaties.” In various sectors of the economy and polity, the working class benefited from power-sharing arrangements with business and government, often the result of wartime mobilization. Strong unions helped keep wages high, local political power brokers and party bosses made sure that working-class needs were represented in the marble corridors, and mass-membership organizations put a check on runaway greed by elites.
Then, starting in the 1970s, Lind says, what he calls the neoliberal “managerial elite” challenged this power-sharing and began turning the country into a casino where it always won. A combination of actors, from the left and the right, pushed for ever more public decisions to be made by highly educated technocratic elites living at a remove from the working class. Big corporations pushed for more decisions to be made through global trade agreements than national legislation. Ivy League liberals pushed for more critical decisions to be made by Harvard-trained jurists than prejudiced lawmakers.
“When the dust from the collapse cleared,” Lind writes, “the major institutions in which working-class people had found a voice on the basis of numbers — mass-membership parties, legislatures, trade unions and grass-roots religious and civic institutions — had been weakened or destroyed, leaving most of the nonelite population in Western countries with no voice in public affairs at all, except for shrieks of rage.”
There is truth in this story thus far. But Lind is determined to press the tale of elite capture into an explanation of Trumpism. And this becomes very tricky, in part because Trump is less a refuge from oligarchy than the most oligarchic oligarch around, and in part because Lind’s thesis that “economic anxiety” drove Trump’s supporters is not convincing.
But Lind goes for it anyway….
So dismissive is Lind of the idea that Trumpism has fascist echoes that he refers to such claims as a Brown Scare, a reference to Hitler’s Brownshirts. I’m no stranger to a Brown Scare, but, in my definition, it’s just me being brown and scared of my country losing its liberties, stature and mind.
Somewhere in here is the kernel of a good book: Lind’s original focus was oligarchy, and there is a way to end it, he says. “To supplement conventional electoral politics, reformers will need to rebuild old institutions or build new ones that can integrate working-class citizens of all origins into decision-making in government, the economy and the culture, so that everyone can be an insider.”
Still, what is missing from the book, and might have saved it, is actual human beings. I sometimes ask my nearly 5-year-old how he knows something, and he often says, like the man he’s learning to be, “I just know it in my brain.” This is a book written from the brain more than from the collision with the complexities of experience. It is a book that would have benefited from getting out there, interviewing people, testing theories against reality, heading down to the border, unearthing documents showing how companies think about the issues in question….