Class War

Michael Lind—Marx or List?

Jonathan Hearn

Michael Lind’s new book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite (2020, Atlantic Books) is a compact argument aimed at a general readership.  In it Lind makes the case for a revival of ‘democratic pluralism’, his term for the post-WWII left-right consensus politics of the US and Europe, exemplified by FDR’s ‘New Deal’, and sometimes referred to as the ‘Keynesian consensus’. 

He emphasises the weakening of the position of labour in the capitalist core countries since the 1970s, both by offshoring of production in search of cheaper labour, and by the importation of immigrant and often illegal workers undercutting wages.  He calls for tighter labour markets so that workers in these countries will have greater bargaining power.  This involves controlling the international investment of national capital, and controlling labour immigration.  The argument is presented as a critique of a neoliberal consensus, and reassertion of the importance of pluralist nationalist politics.

His wider vision is one of a revival of what some might call ‘civil society’, restoring the strength and autonomy of trade unions, universities, religious organisations, and other kinds of bodies that make up a ‘pluralist’ liberal politics, in which people are neither reduced to mere individuals, nor subsumed into a national collectivity.  He supports the thesis that the rightward shift in politics in the US (Trump), the UK (Brexit/Johnson) and Europe (Gilets Jaunes) in a significant part reflects the alienation of a working class that feels materially and culturally ‘left behind’.  He is clear that this working class is not exclusively ‘white’. 

Reading the book I was reminded of the climate of my early PhD studies in a relatively Marxian department of anthropology (CUNY Graduate Center) in the early 90s.  Then it was routinely objected that the turn to emphasise various forms of identity (race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality) risked losing touch with the basic underpinnings of class and labour for politics in a capitalist context.  We did not believe in the ‘end of class’.  Lind would reject Marxism as a utopian ideology, committed to revolutions with unpredictable and totalitarian real-world results.  He wants to make a certain kind of capitalism work again.  But the centrality of labour and its bargaining power gives his argument a Marxian feel, and it is an emphasis I have to say I welcome.  Class is alive and well here.  It is not an argument without challenges.  Neoliberalism is driven by capitalist competition between states to secure rates of corporate profit.  Lind’s agenda asks a corporate business class to choose lower rates of profit in the interest of national solidarity.  That’s a big ask, and there is no clear strategy for what will make them listen.  The upshot of his argument is that fear of losing control of the kind of demagogic populism exemplified by Trump’s presidency may provide motivation, but they seem to be managing with that arrangement.

The other 19th century figure I was reminded of was Fredrich List, whose ‘national system’ of political economy argued against Adam Smith for the necessity of protectionist economic policies for developing states.  He was a forerunner of later critiques of modernising development theory, known as ‘the development of underdevelopment’.  The problems of the US and Western Europe are not those of underdevelopment, but rather of an advanced capitalism that is disengaging from the mobilsation labour in its earlier national frame.  Nonetheless Lind’s argument can be seen as ‘Listian’, asserting the needs of the nation state as the most relevant context for economic policy.  Lind is a kind of economic nationalist, although his primary concern is not with economic development, but with national political culture.

Many will object to Lind on the basis of how he handles Donald Trump here.  Lind doubts that either Russian interference in elections, or mobilising deep racist or fascist undercurrents in society are adequate explanations of Trump’s electoral success, and I agree with him.  He regards Trump as casually racist, objectionable, and unreliable, but for Lind the explanation of Trump’s success needs to be sought in the alienation of an American working class that voted in sufficient numbers for him, and the indifference of what he calls a ‘metropolitan elite’, not racism as such.  While racism is clearly in the ideological mix, like an old-fashioned Marxist, class conflict is the key, now configured in terms of urban ‘hubs’ of the knowledge economy and cosmopolitanism against beleaguered ‘heartlands’ of less educated and more nationally circumscribed worldviews.  For him Trump’s appeal to the latter needs to be taken seriously, because doing so takes that alienation seriously.  But at the same time he is sceptical of Trump’s capacity to truly address that alienation.  Trump is not prepared to really confront the ‘metropolitan elite’ and its neoliberal policies, as his initial presidential action of a large tax break for the wealthy attests.  Trump displaces confrontation onto foreign or transnational bodies and powers (China, the EU, the UN, Mexico) who are not engaging in trade ‘fairly’, milking the US, or mustering invasions of the US by unwanted criminals.  He is not likely to confront the actual national centre of power that Lind identifies as the problem, a national elite committed to neoliberal economic ideas of extreme labour and capital mobility as a way of evading obligations to a look after the welfare of a national working class.

It is a short and somewhat pugnacious book that seeks to provoke debate as much as offer prescriptions.  Lind’s characterisation of a polarised society is necessarily broad-brushed, lacking nuanced analysis of the ideological variety within the denizens of ‘Hub’ and ‘Heartland’.  More of this might provide a clearer sense of where the middle ground lies.  His conception of class rests especially on factors of education and urban-exurban geography, avoiding the uncomfortable fact that the average income of Trump voters was higher than that of Clinton voters.  A more complex analysis would deal with the class connections across, and class divisions within, his great divide, which is a complex hybrid.  Most people on either side live by selling their labour.  At times his notion of democratic pluralism seems to hark back to a golden age (the ‘Trente Glorieuses’), and history doesn’t go backwards.  More generously, one might argue that while we can’t return to the past, we can learn lessons from other times and places, and that that is what Lind is trying to do here.  But what I found most engaging about Lind’s argument was his conception of a pluralist democratic politics that is made up of an ecology of organisations representing various interests, achieving an overall balance of forces that creates space for negotiation, compromise, and reasoned debate.  His invocation of J. K. Galbraith’s clear and simple idea of ‘countervailing power’, originally referring to unionised labour power counter-balancing the power of capital, was refreshing in world where hopelessly metaphysical conceptions of power seem to abound.  Lind makes a compelling case for the persistence of the national state as the most relevant frame for class-based power conflicts, perhaps unintentionally summoning the ghosts of both Marx and List.

Jonathan Hearn is Head of Sociology and Professor of Political and Historical Sociology at the University of Edinburgh.