April 3, 2020


A Tale of Two Nations? Populism, Plutocrats, and the Managerial State : Michael Lind's The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (WILLIAM HAY, 4/02/20, Public Discourse)

Quoting James Burnham's adage that "only power restrains power," Lind frames present discontents around the tensions that first arose in America in the late nineteenth century out of industrial capitalism. By that time, large enterprises, run by salaried managers rather than owner-operators, had come to dominate manufacturing and related sectors. While Lind does not cite the book, Alfred Chandler's The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business makes a similar point, tracing a story about changes that reached beyond the economy. Industry may have generated work and wealth, along with a wider range of consumer products, but it also concentrated power. In the twentieth century, class conflict, exacerbated by the pressures of two World Wars, divided societies until a settlement rebalanced the equation.

The economic part of the settlement that Lind describes involved "a state-brokered system of bargaining over wages and working conditions, among employers or employer associations and independent trade unions, compatible with representative democracy." Mass-membership parties, with accountability up and down their structures, filled an equivalent political role. American Progressives, Lind notes, held politicians in contempt, while idealizing purportedly nonpartisan civil servants, "who would apply expertise in social science to the making of policy in the public interest." They accordingly treated the public as subjects to be administered rather than as citizens who governed themselves. Politicians, who could not ignore constituents without losing office or the support that gave them influence, put a check on both oligarchs and the administrative state.

Lind also discusses how religious and civic groups, whose leadership came from the communities they served, gave their members a voice in culture and education. The Catholic Legion of Decency imposed a check on Hollywood by rating films; local Protestant groups imposed community standards on schools and libraries. They restrained both mass media that rewarded "sensationalism, obscenity, and violence" to turn a profit, and elites that imposed their own preferences or intellectual fads. Far from seeing these efforts as censorship or small-mindedness, Lind sees them as democratic participation that gave individuals and families more power--more than merely the choice to reject offensive material.

The settlement was dismantled in the later twentieth century by what Lind calls a neoliberal revolution from above. Deregulation removed constraints on business that had benefited workers. The offshoring of production and immigrants' entry into domestic labor pools weakened native workers' position. On matters beyond economics, judicial review "usurped much of the former authority of legislatures," thus curtailing voters' power to check the government through elected representatives. Neoliberals were able to push aggressively a "counter-majoritarian, rights-based liberalism" that became antidemocratic. Elites withdrew from cross-class membership organizations and associated instead with nonprofits, which were themselves staffed by university graduates and funded by wealthy donors. These nonprofits in turn sought no longer to cooperate with a cross-section of fellow citizens, but rather to do things for or to them. The people did not respond with humble gratitude.

Neoliberal elites, Lind argues, pushed their pro-market economic policies and anti-traditionalist social policies against the wishes of the working class. The latter sought, not a more open society, but "a combination of economic and cultural protection" against the changes that had disrupted their lives.

There's an insight here, just not the intended one.  the rise of the Labor movement was indeed an economic/cultural protection racket, engineered by and for white men.  It endured for awhile, largely because the rebuilt economy of the post-War period was so productive that it could withstand employment and salaries disconnected from market economics.  But the Civil Rights era required managers to bring blacks, women, etc. into the workforce too.  And, since unions had already secured job protections, the new employees were simply added to the old--they weren't displacing them--and with union contracts levering salaries ever higher we got the inevitable explosion of inflation.  Then Thatcher, Volcker, & Reagan intervened and accelerated the long decline of manufacturing employment that we're still in, even as we manufacture ever more.

But we are never going back to the world the Populists want, where white men worked in splendid isolation, while their wives tended the home, and minorities were largely unseen. Instead, the markets are coming for the insanely bloated managerial class with computers and robots serving as the new class of workers. the Pandemic should accelerate this process as employers realize just how little work most employees do.

The upside for Mr. Lind's white working class is that once unemployment/underemployment becomes a problem of the elites too, we will take the sorts of social welfare steps that will protect everyone: UBI, lifetime savings accounts, free college, etc.  And his subjects will be reintegrated into America instead of adhering to Nationalism.  

Posted by at April 3, 2020 8:23 AM