Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The New Class War:
Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite

by michael lind
portfolio, 224 pages, $25

Michael Lind’s The New Class War is sure to be one of the most important political books of the new decade. Like many recent publications, The New Class War explains the rise of populism and the decline of liberalism across the West. But it succeeds where others fail. The managerial elite has sought to blame anyone but themselves for the rise of populism. Their culprits include Russian meddling, white nationalism, a vaguely defined illiberalism—anything but liberal values and economic arrangements. Lind, himself a member of the managerial elite, recognizes the culpability of his own class. The elite’s high ideals combined with their base self-interest have precipitated a widening gap between winners and losers in the developed world.

Lind tells a compelling story of how we arrived at the current moment. The elite of the last century were forced to make significant concessions to the working class due to the exigencies of World War II. For Lind, the 1950s were a high-water mark of economic equality and national solidarity, led by an old left that defended the working class. The consensus, in broad terms, was economically left and socially right. It limited immigration of low-skill workers, provided social welfare, defended traditional familial and sexual norms, worked in concert with America’s communal “small platoons,” and was unabashedly religious, especially in its working-class Catholic manifestation.

Then came the deluge. A combination of right- and left-­libertarianism came to dominate both political parties. On the right, an anti-regulatory instinct justified an assault on the gains of organized labor. International trade deals encouraged the ­outsourcing of jobs. A tacitly open-borders ­immi­gration policy brought in millions of laborers whose uncertain legal status meant they could be paid far less than citizens. On the left, sexual libertarianism increasingly dominated the agenda, beginning with the embrace of Roe v. Wade and continuing with the normalization of ­homosexuality and gay marriage and, today, the insistence that one’s sex is a matter of preference. Both positions required, and resulted in, a weakening of traditional associations—from the family to voluntary associations to religious organizations and, finally, the nation itself. They also fostered the rise of a new leadership class.

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. 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.” Backward-­looking, loyal to ­declining places, and benighted, they died deaths of despair that were their own fault.

Lind follows Burnham’s basic thesis that a new elite had arisen to replace first the older land-based aristocracy, and then the industry-based oligarchy. The new elite was distinctive for its monopolization of portable skills that allowed them to manage modern firms. Running these organizations required flexibility, mobility, skills in “symbolic analysis,” and a concomitant disconnection from place, culture, and tradition. Those who exhibited such aptitudes were vacuumed from every city, town, and hamlet across the world and into the urban cores. Those lacking such abilities, or unwilling to become sufficiently flexible and mobile, became the Left Behind. This new ruling class saw itself as a “meritocracy.” It believed that its power was earned and deserved, and that those who didn’t succeed deserved their station. Noblesse oblige was replaced by calls for state welfare as adequate compensation for those who lost the meritocratic sweepstakes.

Populist rebellion against the managerial elite of both parties is the predictable and inevitable reaction to this power grab. Lind describes populism as an “autoimmune response” of a sick body politic. While the elite possess the nation’s wealth, populate its prestigious institutions, and control the mainstream media, the working class has one weapon: the ballot box. In nations across the world where the elite have advanced managerial liberalism at the expense of the life prospects of ordinary people, the result has been the rise of populist parties.

Lind does not believe that populists have the answers, however. Instead of cheering their ascent, he argues for a rebalancing of wealth, political influence, and social power through what he calls “democratic pluralism.” Invoking older theories of “interest group pluralism,” Lind argues that the raw assertion of working-class political power is now needed to counteract the dominance of meritocratic neoliberalism. Echoing older theories of Aristotle and Machiavelli, Lind agrees that every nation is divided between the many poor and the few wealthy, and only a healthy balance of power between the two factions can bring domestic peace and stability.

Lind acknowledges that today’s elite are—for the moment, at least—unreceptive to this suggestion. They have adopted two defense mechanisms that justify their continued ascendancy and forestall consideration of their role in the destruction of the older political and economic settlement. The first of these reactions is the attribution of populist political success to external causes unrelated to class politics, particularly foreign manipulation. Believing that we live in a theoretically classless society—a “meritocracy” that allows the cream to rise to the top—today’s elite are incapable of accepting the most ­obvious reason for their electoral defeats, and instead embrace any number of conspiracy theories. Around every corner lurks either a Russian agent or a ­reincarnation of brown-shirt fascists. There are certainly some small number of both, but the frantic effort to condemn populism as a new totalitarianism is a willful act of denial.

The second reaction is the rise of “woke” leftism, which brings us the bizarre spectacle of wealthy elites rooting out racial and sexual injustice on ultraprogressive college campuses while ignoring the inequality that such institutions foster. The more elite the i­nstitution—and the more it monopolizes economic, political, and social advantage for its members—the ­louder its members denounce the racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia of the working class. Lind traces the origins of this tactic to the now-discredited theory of “the authoritarian personality” first advanced by a group of scientists led by Theodor Adorno. According to this theory, preferences for stability, traditional norms, the centrality of family, and geographic rootedness were evidence of psychological pathology. The opponents of the managerial class do not merely hold different values; they are psychotic and need treatment or ­institutionalization.

The managerial elite have an interest in prolonging these dismissive and condescending explanations indefinitely, but Lind asserts that what will make them face political ­reality—and, once again, concede some wealth, power, and status—is fear. Fear of losing their positions to populist replacements, Lind believes, is the only thing that can motivate today’s ruling class to limit low-skill immigration, narrow the economic divide, and express grudging respect for the traditional beliefs of the working class. His nightmare scenario is a protracted battle in which the elite refuse to cede some power, prosperity, and position, resulting in either an outright liberal illiberalism—an intensification of their present treatment of the working class and religious believers—or a demagogic populism that takes America down the road trod by many nations in Central and South America. His book implores his fellow elites to compromise now, or bear responsibility for losing the republic.

Lind is correct that fear is a powerful motivator, but I am skeptical that it will suffice in this case. The ruling classes of every age have had a great deal of success in squelching populist uprisings. In the American tradition, the subversion of populism has succeeded more through co-optation or patient outlasting than through violent suppression (though the history of violent suppression of organized labor should be recalled). America’s earliest populist uprising led to the Constitutional Convention and a new political settlement. Opponents correctly predicted that it would usher in a centralized government and an economic oligarchy that would leave ordinary citizens feeling politically impotent and voiceless. The Populist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though politically potent for the span of a decade, was eventually bled of its reformist energy by the technocratic, anti-traditional, and elitist Progressive movement. The working-class gains of the 1950s—made possible by the unique circumstance of total military mobilization and the existential threat posed first by fascism and then communism—were largely disassembled within thirty years. Lind’s belief that fear will motivate today’s woke capitalists to provide anything more than Band-Aids to the working class seems belied by the evidence.

By Lind’s own telling, the high-water mark of the 1950s was not the result merely of concessions from an otherwise neoliberal ruling class. Rather, the ethos of the ruling class itself was broadly in line with the values and ethos of the working and middle classes. It wasn’t merely the power of labor unions, local politicians, and religious congregations that forced the managerial elite to respect their demands. The elite actually shared in the organizations of “guild, ward, and congregation,” and thus had a different governing philosophy than the individualistic meritocratic calculus of today’s managerial elite. The sorts of communal organizations that drew on, and cultivated, broadly Catholic values of solidarity and subsidiarity were not restricted to dominantly Catholic working classes but informed the ethos of mass and elite alike. There was an alignment of values between corporations, small business, and Main Street. Hollywood produced and lionized such films as The Song of Bernadette, Boys Town, and It’s a Wonderful Life. Religious figures Fulton Sheen, Billy ­Graham, and Reinhold Niebuhr were admired across classes. The ruling class was not made up of secret neoliberals who grudgingly made concessions to the rubes in flyover country—they were “midwestern” in their broader ethos, steeped in the mid-century values of guild, ward, and congregation.

Not unlike the managerial elite he criticizes, Lind fails to draw the correct conclusion from his own analysis. What’s ­needed is not “democratic pluralism” in which the ruling class remains a neoliberal, managerial elite who strategically concede some wealth and status to their inferiors. What’s needed is a fundamental displacement of the elite ethos by a common-good, popular conservatism that directs both economic goals and social values toward broadly shared material and social capital, toward the support of family and community life. We do not need libertarian overlords who buy off the working class with some welfare, nor a federal government that doles out tax receipts to localities, nor secularists who grudgingly grant some space to religious believers, but a ruling class that is itself informed by the very values that Lind believes were once regnant as the price of admission to elite status itself. Only the fear of not conforming to the regnant ethos will sufficiently move elites, but that fear will arise subsequent to the wholesale defeat, displacement, and discrediting of the regnant elite ethos.

This means, contra Lind, that what is needed is not “democratic pluralism,” which Lind envisions as a balance of power between an otherwise exploitative ruling class and an electorally powerful underclass. Rather, the current ruling class needs to be displaced by the ethos of the underclass: people shaped by and supportive of guild, ward, and congregation. The ruling class, no less than the working class, should be shaped by commitments of solidarity and subsidiarity, and not merely accord grudgingly with those who are. Lind regards the revival of such institutions as the Church as an unrealistic goal and calls for some sort of functional equivalent. Yet the decline of organizational forms of unions, local politics, and Church has been significantly advanced by the ­individualist, materialist, and secular ethos embraced by today’s managerial elite. If these institutions declined due to sustained efforts by the managerial elite, their renewal can be effected through the displacement of that elite with a different one informed by an opposing ethos. The power sought is not merely to balance the current elite, but to replace them. In the end, there is no “functional equivalent” of solidarity and subsidiarity, and only a leadership and working class steeped in such values will restore the ­republic.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift