Book Review: Michael Lind – The New Class War

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It’s refreshing to read a book about social change that doesn’t pull its punches. Michael Lind’s book The New Class War is a warning that Western democracies are being tested, not just by demagogic populism, but also by neoliberal managerialism and globalised technocratic economics. Globalisation, and the technocratic managers of the free-flowing systems of finance, information and intellectual property exchange, are reducing us, according to Lind, to the status fractured banana republics.

This is the first book in a long time that I’ve read which makes a principled case for the expansion of the economic and political power of the working-class. Lind’s thesis is that the tripartite balance between the state, corporate business interests, and working people (those of us who have no significant assets and depend on wages), which delivered substancial levels of growth for thirty years after the Second World War, has been ripped apart in a revolution from above.

Lind argues that “between the 1970s and the present, the terms of the uneasy democratic pluralist peace treaties between national working class and national managerial elites were unilaterally abrogated by the latter.” The Reaganite and Thatcherite revolution, according to Lind, has left us with a fundamentally destabilised society, in which there is no longer any restraint on the actions of the globalising metropolitan elites over the situated working-classes.

According to Lind, the managerialist, business and technocratic elites of Western democracies have “run amok,” causing, as we have witnessed over the last five years, a “populist rebellion from below that has been exploited, often with disastrous results, by demagogues, many of them opportunists from elite backgrounds” (Lind, 2020, p. 131).

Lind casts the blame on both wings of our body politic. Hollowed out by money, political parties have become a mask for think-tanks and PR agencies. The modern political party is dependent on polling and opinion-forming, and has become, in effect, agencies for partisan antagonism, disinformation, propaganda and contradiction. The modern political party is a public relations machine for entrenched class interests rather than a representative movement of those class interests.

Lind decries the paradox of modern political parties and their political cross-dressing, as once aristocratic parties are now presenting themselves as blue-collar champions; while supposedly social democratic parties are increasingly representative of the interests of the university educated management class who control and populate public authorities, NGOs, think-tanks, charities and marketing and PR agencies. Lind proclaims a plague on both houses, but it’s his corrective solutions that I find interesting.

Rather than seeking all-out war between these classes, with one set of interests fighting against the other, Lind instead calls for a restoration of the tripartite balance of power between state, business and labour that once opperated after the trauma of the depression and Second World War. Lind points out that the only thing that checks power is power, and so if we are to avoid domination by either populist autocracy, or its alternative, technocratic autocracy, then we need to re-establish viable counterbalances that can ensure that neither class or state is left unchecked or unconcerned for the interests and wellbeing of the other parties in this pact.

Lind argues that a renewed sense of social federalism and democratic pluralism is the only viable “alternative to both technocratic neoliberalism and demagogic populism.” As Lind puts it

“The essential insight of democratic pluralism is that electoral democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. Because the wealthy and educated inevitably tend to dominate all parties, if only through their personnel, ‘territorial’ representation must be supplemented (not replaced) by occupational or communal ‘social federalism’”

To achieve this, Lind suggests that whole areas of social, economic and cultural policy should be “delegated to rule-making institutions,” and that these institutions should be representative of the different social interests operating at that level.

This is akin to the model of economic distributionism that was borne out of Catholic social teaching, which asserted ‘that which can be done at the lowest level, must be done at the lowest level.’ Distributionism pushed against both state and business corporate centralism, and sought to ensure that determination of social interests in the marketplace was driven from the bottom-up, rather than from the top down. Lind’s assertion is similar, but he expands the purview of the pluralist society to include the democratic processes of engagement, our cultural institutions, as well as our economic organisations.

Lind’s suggests that self-organising and self-defining community institutions, with a recognised legal right to act in the interests of their communities, would be better able to “represent particular portions of the community.” He sees this in a similar way to how organised labour and business operate when setting wages according to the needs of specific workers in different sectors.

Lind suggests that this engagement should include “sectorial bodies, or representatives of religious and secular creeds in bodies charged with oversight of education and the media.”

The role for the state in this tripartite relationship would be to act as the only “entity with coercive authority,” who is only empowered to exercise oversight functions, and can only intervene to protect individual rights or other state interests. In the “democratic pluralist vision of democracy,” Lind argues, “the government in many areas should reign, not rule” (Lind, 2020, p. 133).

Lind gives this tripartite structure a set of working names. Those that represent the economy he calls ‘guilds.’ Those that represent government and political practice he calls ‘wards.’ And those bodies and institutions of culture he calls ‘congregations.’ As Lind describes,

“In the economic realm, the guild would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working-class citizens against employers and investors. In the realm of government, the ward would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working-class citizens against organised money and organised expertise. And in the realm of culture, the congregation would exercise countervailing power on behalf of working-class citizens against overclass media elites and overclass academic elites” (Lind, 2020, p. 136).

I’m drawn to this model, for three reasons. First, it is the first proposal I’ve seen in a while that advocates for the wholescale reintroduction of the power of organised labour into our economy. I’ve previously described the emasculation of trade unions as like taking one of the shock absorbers off a car and expecting it to traverse difficult terrain without any noticeable difference. Lind’s argument is that active labour institutions who operate democratically and accountably, will act as a natural compensatory mechanism as society and the economy changes.

In this regard, many will agree with Lind’s assertion that neoliberal corporations who whip away factories and businesses from established communities, so they can exploit cheap labour and tax breaks in and from other countries, are responsible for hollowing-out many of our communities, and has given rise to the forces that drive populism – leading to Trump, Brexit and worse.

Lind makes a strong point, which is my second reason for giving his proposals serious consideration, that a democratic pluralist approach to social renewal can’t be secured through electoral democracy alone, but “must be accompanied by power-sharing arrangements among classes and subcultures in the realms of the economy and the culture.”

According to Lind, these power-sharing institutions “need not resemble one-person, one-vote political democracy,” but they must be defined and undertaken on the basis of well-defined “social checks and balances” that are put in place in addition to political checks and balances. As Lind argues,

“Decisions should be based as much as possible on hard-won and lasting consensus among negotiating parties, classes and creeds, not on fluctuating numerical majorities” (Lind, 2020, p. 147).

I would expect to see our media redefined in this arrangement. The corporate media hegemony is proving difficult to shift and repurpose. In the regulation of media in the U.K. either the free-market reigns, or the state is expected to provide. In our media economy not much else exists in-between.

If we follow Lind’s model, however, there would be an equal role for community and civic media publishers and platforms to grow, develop and operate as community institutions in themselves. These community media congregations could be storehouses of social capital. They could be tasked with supporting the development and building of community identity. They could facilitate intercultural exchange between independent communities living together in the commonwealth. Community media would be charged with operating for the social good, rather than private economic interests, or in line with the ideology of an autocratic technical management class that runs the media institutions of the state.

The final factor that chimes with me in Lind’s model of a democratic pluralist society, is the recognition that the wider state that we live in, and share – our commonwealth or social federation – should not be regarded simply as a “mass of individuals to whom a general will can be attributed,” and I would add gamed. But is instead, a “community made up of smaller communities” (Lind, 2020, p. 148).

This goes to the heart of the alienating forces at play in the favour of neoliberalism and the technocentric management society, that devalues independence of mind in the workplace and media. Today we are too often defined as service users, customers, or worse, simply units of information. In Lind’s social federation model, however, we may have the chance to reassert our status as citizens with rights.

It would be naive to suggest that the different communities represented in this process will have the same resources and autonomous power to operate in this social federation. However, this inequity might be tempered by stripping away some of the layers of entitlement and privilege that each of the other groups assumes to be their right and privilege in the processes of deliberation and representation, and consequently for the decisions they arrive at.

If all deliberations are published and shared, and this is down so openly and immediately, then more people might be brought into the process because it is designed to include their views. Countering the cynicism that is deeply embedded that nothing changes under our existing political processes.

Lind rightly points to the differences that mark communities in terms of both their practical wealth and their social capital. Lind proposes that participative engagement by working-class people, in reality, can only keep the state and the managerial class in check by the sheer numbers of people who are empowered to engage in the process of social development. This means building institutions that recognise the participation of people as empowered citizens with a collective identity, rather than clients, audiences or populations passively waiting to be tended by a shepherd.

As Lind argues, only the “reassertion of the political power, economic leverage, and cultural influence” by “wage-earning majorities of all races, ethnicities, and creeds” can stop the “degeneration of the US and other Western democracies into high-tech banana republics.”

To arrest this decline, and to build on the strengths of our conventional electoral politics, according to Lind, we not only need reformers who can rebuild old institutions, but reformers also who can also “build new ones that can integrate working-class citizens of all origins into decision-making in government, the economy, and the culture, so that everyone ca be an insider” (Lind, 2020, p. 170).

I can’t see any reason why community media cannot be one of these institutions.

Lind, M. (2020). The New Class War – Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite. Atlantic Books.