The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite by Michael Lind (Portfolio, $34, 203 pages)
In 1941, James Burnham wrote an international bestseller, The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. Even then, Burnham found that the age of capitalism and bureaucracy was being replaced by a group of managers.
Michael Lind, a conservative (early 1990s) turned liberal (mid-1990s) turned conservative again (after moving back to his home state of Texas), has offered as good an explanation of the economic, cultural, and, of course, political power of the managerial elite in The New Class War. It is surprising, considering that Burnham wrote his important book nearly eight decades ago, that barely anyone (excepting the cranky paleoconservative Samuel Francis) has taken up the Manager Class as a starting point to understand current events since then. Lind does so quite ably.
Lind explains what he calls “native working-class populism” in Brexit Britain, the United States, and parts of Europe (even when it doesn’t win), which is identifiable with issues such as immigration and sovereignty. These are symptoms of a larger problem, argues Lind, namely power. “Social power exists in three realms,” Lind explains, “government, the economy, and the culture” and all three realms “are fronts in the new class war.”
Beginning in the ‘60s, there was a “revolution from above that promoted the material interests and intangible values of the college-educated minority of managers and professionals,” who were now the “dominant elite.” Democratic capitalism was replaced by “technocratic neoliberalism” which might be better called cosmopolitan liberalism: an increasingly globalized marketplace for goods and services and the cultural priorities of academics. Lind, in fact, uses the term “cosmopolitan over-class” to describe the manager class that took power – complete power, unleavened by democratic means in which the majority middle- and working-class majority can restrain the impulse to officially privilege every personal inclination and self-interest.
In the last half decade, the political eruptions occurring throughout much of the western world (save Canada), middle-class but mostly working-class citizens embarked on a defensive “populist backlash,” a perhaps momentary respite for the masses that felt utterly disempowered. However, the political gains the masses have made in which the ruling class (elected officials, bureaucrats, and judges) must share some power with voters whom they clearly disdain, is still dwarfed by the economic and cultural power that remains in the hands of these managerial elite.
Lind is incredibly sympathetic to the “defensive reaction” against the manager class, saying that what is often dismissed (and partly misunderstood) as the desperate cries of outdated economic self-interests and/or racial resentment, are, in fact, “legitimate grievances.”
Where Lind comes up short is in the totality of those grievances. He treats moral issues like abortion and homosexuality very briefly, saying that the American judiciary has taken too many issues out of the hands of the democratic process. “Government by judiciary tends to be a dictatorship of over-class libertarians in robes,” he says of courts that have struck down restrictions on abortion as well as labour union rights, while promoting corporate interests and creating new rights for LGBQT. Lind does not say whether most of these actions are right or wrong, merely that courts should move cautiously into policy areas and advocates of court-driven policies should rather create “electoral coalitions to enact democratic legislation.”
Lind’s strength is marshalling evidence (economic data, public opinion surveys), especially when it comes to how the managerial class replicates itself (the children of the elite disproportionately populate the elite universities, which provide the credentials to fill the ranks of the managerial class). His weakness is in talking about the moral and other cultural issues or values that are not related to race, like immigration, tolerance, and multiculturalism, and illustrating the gap between the managers and the masses.
If not long gone, at least in what seems like terminal decline, are the institutions of “countervailing power” that restrained the manager class and gave voice to the masses. Churches or civic association, unions, and local party machines, all gave the middle- and working-class masses a say in how things were run in the cultural, economic, and political realms respectively. But no more.
Lind says: “Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease. Democratic pluralism is the cure.” And that is catchy but ultimately impractical. Why would the technocratic elite, having gained power, give it up? Counting on the benevolence of the manager class seems pointless. It means that when the masses rise up and elect someone willing to shake up the status quo, those politicians must act, and act quickly. Too often, it seems, though, the powerful managers in place – bureaucrats who stifle change, judges who over-rule it, educational institutions that resist it, corporations powerful enough to ignore it – can simply afford to wait it out till the problematic disturber is gone.
Lind has offered a useful diagnosis of the problem. It is up to the electorate to fix it, but that will involve patience. Rome was not built in a day. The managerial elite will not be torn down in one presidential or parliamentary term.