Bits of Books - Books by Title

The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite by

Michael Lind

More books on Politics

(London Times) Two years ago, the Cambridge Dictionary announced that its word of the year was populism. Since then, Google Scholar has recorded nearly 20,000 new books, articles and blogs on the topic. Most students who wander into my office to discuss their dissertations want to specialise in this area. Which begs the question: don’t we already know all there is to know about populism?

The short answer is no.

One big challenge is that while our societies are increasingly divided between globalists and nationalists, our understanding of populism is also divided between those who say money is a driver and those who say values.

Most economists and left-wing writers who stand in the Marx tradition argue that the populist revolts are fuelled by economic shocks that flow from globalisation. Populist voters are reacting against a surge of imports from China, crony capitalism and the dwindling status of workers in the developed world.

For a growing number of political scientists, however, these revolts are driven by a cultural (not economic) backlash that has been building for decades, sparked by rising immigration, ethnic diversity and, in America, intense anxiety among white majorities about their looming status as a minority group.

This 'economics versus culture' debate is as problematic as some of the answers to society’s problems that are presented by populists. In reality, the truth lies somewhere in between. It is about how the two interact.

If you look at Brexit, for example, a number of accounts now convincingly argue that it was people who felt economically left behind, and who were living in areas that had been battered by globalisation, who became more likely to feel culturally anxious and hence vote to leave the EU.

This debate is why The New Class War by Michael Lind marks a valuable contribution. It brings both arguments — culture and economics — together, while contending that we need to spend less time obsessing about Russia, Nazism and Twitter bots and more time reflecting on where things have gone wrong.

There was probably never a golden age for democracy. But there was, argues Lind, a time when elites were at least willing to make concessions in economics, politics and culture, forging a compromise with the people we would today call 'the left behind'.

In the immediate postwar era this compromise was reflected in civil-rights legislation, strong trade unions, welfare states, mass-membership parties and religious institutions. But now all that has been torn up.

In diagnosing the roots of populism, Lind looks up, not down. He points the finger squarely at a new technocratic 'overclass' elite: a university-educated managerial and professional class that leans right on economics, worshipping the free market and globalisation, and left on culture, favouring mass immigration, social liberalism and open borders.

Populism thrived as this overclass took over the corridors of power — government, increasingly woke corporations, media and universities. The old compromise with the left-behind was torn up and an older participatory model of democracy made way for a more apolitical, anti-majoritarian, technocratic and elitist model. This left most of the non-elite population in Western countries with no voice in public affairs at all, except for shrieks of rage.

One consequence of all this is that, increasingly, the key divide will be between a non-degree-holding left-behind and a highly educated liberal elite. It is this sharp disconnect that will continue to pour gasoline on populist revolts.

Look at Britain's recent election: had only graduates voted, then Jeremy Corbyn would be prime minister. It was the working class who installed Boris Johnson in No 10, a politician who grasped how the new law of politics runs the other way — most voters lean left on the economy and right on culture.

Lind's argument is compelling and clear, though readers with a long memory will recognise its intellectual ancestry. Pointing the finger at a distant, insular and technocratic elite echoes earlier accounts such as Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites, Colin Crouch's Post-Democracy and Peter Mair's Ruling the Void.

The suggestion that Trump voters have entirely legitimate and even good reasons to rebel, though criticised on the liberal left in America, also has strong overlaps with arguments advocated by David Goodhart, Eric Kaufmann and myself.

What stands this book apart is not its diagnosis but its prognosis. Lind actually has an answer to the perennial question, 'What do we do about it?' It is: return to democratic pluralism.

We need to stop focusing narrowly on electoral politics and cultivate a deeper reply to the moment we find ourselves in; we need to revive forums through which the working class, non-graduates and an insecure lower middle class can rebuild their countervailing power — trade unions, mass-membership parties (ones not taken over by metropolitan elites), citizen assemblies and religious institutions.

Our overclass, meanwhile, will need to radically and urgently carve out a new 'cross-class compromise'. This not only means building new power-sharing arrangements with workers and non-graduates, but meeting them halfway on contentious issues such as immigration. Building new railways in northern England and redistributing capital is a nice start, but it means little unless you are going to redistribute power as well.

Will the elites do so? I doubt it, although some like Boris Johnson are going further than others. But if they do not, Lind warns, then only two possible futures remain: either the technocratic elite will push us into a high-tech caste society, where winners and losers move further apart; or, and most likely in response to this dreary existence, the populists completely take over.

Books by Title

Books by Author

Books by Topic

Bits of Books To Impress