I wrote previously of my respect for the way Michael Lind parses our current situation. As I noted Lind sometimes appears to tilt right and other times left, suggesting an Andrew Sullivan-like tippy brilliance. But whereas Sullivan really does switch sides, at least in matters political, Lind is pretty constant in his worldview. The apparent tippiness in his opinions is a function of the tippiness of the world around him.
Divisions such as right/left, liberal/conservative and Democrat/Republican push us to view the world in binary terms that are not built on ideas and principles but things like power, coalitions and the need for coherent doctrine in our various Big Tents. And we are expected to align ourselves with whatever binary choice is on offer.
In actual fact people are free to believe what they damn well please. And when they do and do it well, as Lind does, their opinions are not bound by the binary strictures that are expected to define our identities. Individuals may hold numerous contradictions but it is hardly the case that they must hold more contradictions than the allegedly coherent systems that we are to live by. It is no wonder that his ideas appear to be veering back and forth. Lind’s thinking is actually pretty constant but swirling artifacts of power create an optical illusion of movement.
Lind is at it again, publishing what is to my mind one of the more brilliant essays I have read in quite a long time. It is “Classless Utopias versus Class Compromise”, and it appears in the most recent issue of American Affairs. American Affairs is more or less behind a paywall but I believe most visitors are permitted a certain amount a free reading each month, and I highly encourage you to track the article down and read it if you can. Here is a link to the article that may work for you.
Lind starts by poking at the concept of class. In his view the concept of class by its nature must consist of both “functional and nepotistic aspects.” That is, a class will consist of individuals and families who are “disproportionately likely to work in certain vocations” but who are also “disproportionately likely to marry and have children with one another.”
(Note that Lind does not bring in the genetic component that is in the air at present. Under that view one might not only have functional and nepotistic aspects to class but a genetic one as well, as with, say, potential genetic differences baked into the long history of intermarriage within the Indian caste system. This is a missing aspect that might have been woven into the discussion but its absence does not undermine where Lind goes with his policy ideas, as we will see.)
Americans like to think of themselves in classless terms, hostile to anything as rigid as the Indian caste system and suspicious of British snootiness—at least as long as we are not watching Downton Abbey or a royal wedding. But as Lind points out “(m)ost if not all stable societies have had some sort of enduring class divide between upper-class and lower-class families.”
Seeing things as they are is an important skill. Lind criticized libertarianism some years back arguing “(i)f libertarianism was [sic] a good idea, wouldn’t at least one country have tried it? Wouldn’t there be at least one country, out of nearly two hundred, with minimal government, free trade, open borders, decriminalized drugs, no welfare state and no public education system?”
His treatment of class in the article takes a page from this pragmatic way of looking at the world. Ideas about the world ought to pay serious attention to whether they work or not, something which may be fairly evident by looking at human history. We may want to think of ourselves as classless, and an egalitarian impulse can be harnessed to do good things. But when we clear out all the rationalizing clutter class appears to persist, and may have an adaptive quality.
It is wise to see things as they are. One of the reasons for grounding social opinions in social facts is the damage opinions can have if they feel free to just take flight. As Lind points out all of the major ideologies of the 20th century have shared the view that “hereditary elites are anachronistic.” This is true of social democrats and social liberals but also true of Marxism-Leninism and National Socialism. The latter two of these have been tried and found wanting but the appeal of classlessness is still with us in the mainstream.
. . . both the mainstream Right and the mainstream Left in America are deeply invested in the claim that a classless society can be achieved in the near future, if only the government would get out of the way (the Right), or redistribute more income (money liberalism), or remove residual racial and gender barriers to individual achievement (identity-politics progressivism).
Despite all this intergenerational mobility remains low. Further, t’was ever thus. Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins have documented that English with Norman French surnames like Mandeville have been “at the top of the British social order for twenty generations since the Norman Conquest in 1066, while families with Anglo-Saxon surnames . . . still tend to be poorer and less well educated.”
Further, “large scale declines in social inequality have historically been associated with mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse and catastrophic plagues.” And once leveling gets to an extreme state leading revolutionaries become the new aristocrats, a fact noted by both Plato and Pete Townshend.
So does it follow that we should just lie back and enjoy the show? Let the rich get richer? By no means. Income and social inequality are out of control and something needs to be done. Lind suggests, quite reasonably to my mind, that while efforts to eliminate class will be utopian and dangerous managing class conflict is a workable and desirable goal.
What might it mean to manage or moderate class conflict? Here, one should reflect on whether government should mainly concern itself with doing things directly or whether its main aim is to create ground rules for later action in the real world by other parties that may move things in desired directions, or at least avoid predictable traps in a prudential way.
Lind asks us to consider the Founders, especially Madison. The division of government into three parts was hardly a concept built on an ideal fancy, and it was not intended to achieve any particular goal. It set the stage for action, and grappled with messy truths.
There will always be a yearning in government for something unitary. Something there is that does not love a wall. But if we note, with our eyes open, that too much unity leads to disastrous ends then let us break the coercive power of government up into separate components: one for deciding, one for acting and one for reflection and judging. And just as the power of government must be broken down into pieces, with the pieces then balanced against one another in as careful a fashion as possible, so too with the outside actors that government must inevitably concern itself with. Faction must be made to counteract faction.
Moreover, it is but a hop, skip and jump from Madison’s 18th century concept of faction to the emerging 19th century fixation on class. Indeed, as Lind points out, in 1830 Madison predicted that in a century “a majority of Americans would be landless laborers ‘necessarily reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessities of life.’”
A century later the New Deal arrived “right on schedule.”
So then let’s ratchet that New Deal period forward several decades. What are we to make of the period from the New Deal through the 1970s, that famed era of American economic growth and stability? Lind argues that success in that period was less about following a set of ideals and much more about a grand bargain between what Madison would call factions and what Marx would call classes.
“What really happened in the generation after World War II is that the balance of political and economic power among the pre-existing managerial . . . and working classes shifted, and so did the distribution of gains from growth.”
In today’s world we face another situation out of control and ripe for reform, with our new tech robber barons and with a political establishment not at all interested in change. The Democrats—supposedly the tribunes of the workers—are in many ways the least interested in upsetting any apple carts. What is needed is something relatively basic and simple: “policies that might shift the balance of raw bargaining power in favor of nationally rooted working classes at the expense of managerial classes. . . “
Further, “the challenge is not a lack of ideas but a lack of power.” And if you don’t have power, how do you get it?
The sometimes inchoate populism that is looked down on by our betters is one answer but it is incomplete. Trump comes at the thing from a pro-business point of view and while his policies may yet benefit middle America more than the consensus globalism will, isn’t there something missing? An explicitly pro-labor, pro-little guy way of approaching the issue? That would not be in total harmony with Trumpism but it would allow for the the struggle to be defined properly, creating the right playing field for combat–two different but somewhat related ways of addressing national problems from a national perspective.
The fight between Right and Left has morphed into a war over how the elites will divide the spoils in a globalized world built to the specifications of management. And then we have sideshows over immigration, identity politics and the rest. Isn’t the main event what it has always been: to balance the needs of factions/classes, and to enhance the power of the class that is out of power before things go totally off the rails?
Elites we will always have with us: Madison saw that too, as it is central to the notion of a republic. But elites must act with prudence and wisdom, even if it takes something as crude as a blow to the head with a heavy stick to come to the necessary epiphany.
Lind then sketches out his vision of how Madisonian countervailing power might be harnessed to allow for a pragmatic rebalancing of class interests. Since the federal government is in bed with managerial interests and will likely stay in bed with them for some time, Lind argues that we need to look elsewhere for the “little platoons” that will assert power. This can involve local governments, which are closer to the people and probably less willing to tow the company line the way the feds do. But it also involves a host of other civic actors.
Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.
This is a lovely vision, and probably the best one could hope for. But is it possible? Even Lind is skeptical. After laying out his vision of new “little platoons” he frankly acknowledges another possibility, one that is “perhaps more likely.” That is the victory of managerial minorities, with the future North America looking like Brazil or Mexico, with “nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated, and despised ‘hinterland.’”
Politics ain’t beanbag, as the saying goes. But neither does it exist in an idealized realm. It exists in the here and now, and what is to be done must always be cognizant of the way the world really works and be attentive to The Law of the Situation. In this case past is prologue. In Madison’s time and so with ours: power must be made to counteract power, and then let ‘er rip.