Lawrence, KS. First, a confession of authorial bias. The night before I started to write this review, I dined with friends at the restaurant 715 in Lawrence, KS (so named, lazily and trendily, for its address). No doubt you’ve been there too: it’s exactly like every other hip college town restaurant in the country, with exposed brick and stone, “craft” everything, and prices boosted by 40 percent to create the immediate illusion of elite quality.

While eating my salad, I listened in to the chatter at tables around us. On one side were two older couples discussing a recent trip to Spain and the resurgence of that nation’s rioja wine, as well as a decline in the quality of the Sundance Film Festival. On the other side was a newly minted mathematics Ph.D., dining with his fiancée and his father. They were discussing various Mandelbrot sets and the implications for financial markets. At our table, meanwhile, my wife and I were discussing with friends the high cost of our children’s private school tuition and plans for international travel.

All of which is to say that when I review a book arguing against “the managerial elite”—those well-educated and culturally sophisticated Americans who have opinions on the worth of Basquiat and complain about The New Yorker arriving late—I’m pretty much the denounced party. After all, I too have opinions on rioja, Sundance has gotten too corporate, and I spent two years in graduate school studying the philosophy of complex finance and its epistemological assumptions. In fact, if you are reading this review, there’s a more than decent chance that you too are a member of this dreaded class.

But: you should read this book anyway. Because something has gone seriously wrong, and no one seems to have any idea how to fix it—including, alas, Michael Lind.

Lind, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a founder of the New America Foundation (it has since dropped the final word), is angry at people like you and me who have “tried to steal the rights of the working class.” (To which you may reply, as I first did: me?) We have hijacked the three realms of power—governmental, economic, cultural—and now “all three realms of Western society today are fronts in the new class war.”

Democratic pluralism, Lind’s North Star of social organization, has given way via overt and covert means to “technocratic neoliberalism.” Let us catalog the ills: “global labor arbitrage,” offshoring of jobs “to poor workers abroad,” de-unionization, “parties controlled by donors and media consultants,” legislative powers “usurped [by] transnational bodies,” “employing immigrant workers,” “and “activism by judges born into the social elite.” Whew! All this comes before you hit a single Arabic numeral.

Now, though, a “populist backlash from below” is shaking the foundations of the old order. It is manifested in the usual suspects: Brexit, the yellow vest protests, the existence of Nigel Farage, the election of President Donald Trump (is there anything Americans won’t blame on that event?) and other “demagogic populists.” Lind gets right to the point: “Demagogic populism is a symptom. Technocratic neoliberalism is the disease. Democratic pluralism is the cure.”

I have some quibbles with this tripartite assessment. First, it’s not quite clear what “demagogic populism” is, despite Lind’s statement that “populist demagogues tend to be charlatans [who] are often corrupt. Many are racist or ethnocentric.” Well, okay, except this is also a great description of someone like Lyndon Johnson, and surely charlatanism is mostly in the eye of the beholder: I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t describe Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Joe Biden in 2020 as at least vaguely corrupt in a backscratching kind of way.

Second, “technocratic neoliberalism” is as hard to define as “obscene” or “grace.” Is it the market-driven logic of Hayek and von Mises that crystallized in, for example, the Mont Pelerin Society? Is it short-termism and shareholder primacy on the part of corporations? Is it the gradual erosion of civil society thanks to bowling leagues giving way to endless Netflix and Main Street USA being hollowed out by Amazon? (If that’s the case, then again, I suspect you and I and all those who order from Amazon are sitting in the author’s crosshairs.)

Lind calls technocratic neoliberalism “the new orthodoxy of the credentialed managerial overclass whose members simultaneously dominate the governments, corporate suites, universities, foundations, and media of the Western world.” Unless you are one of FPR’s actual agrarian readers, then this probably describes you and nearly everyone you know. But is there value to a category if it corrals so many different people in one socioeconomic pen?

I return again to my eavesdropping at 715. Because they were not shy about it, I know that the older couple closest to me had recently paid $550,000 for a condo here in town. (In Kansas. Let that sink in.) I know they flew NetJets to Spain and are Sundance veterans. So yeah, I’ll grant that those people are part of an “overclass.” But what about, say, me? Would Lind consider me part of this class? True, I have a Ph.D., I teach at a university, and I am that person who laments when The New Yorker is late and thinks Basquiat is massively overrated. By that standard, sure: I’m part of an “overclass.”

However, I also drive a 13-year-old Camry, live mostly paycheck to paycheck (I’m betting you do too), live on a decidedly lower-class street often cursed with trash and noise, and struggle like everyone else with the rising cost of seemingly everything. Do those characteristics eliminate me from the overclass? If not, why not?

It’s worth asking this question because Lind seems to want the definition both ways: economically and culturally. The actual lived-experience Venn diagram between me and the average Davos attendee has zero overlap besides a knowledge of what Davos is, and yet here is Lind lumping us into an “overclass.” I am far closer in economic status to my blue collar neighbor Gary than I am to Jeff Bezos. So why am I in Bezos’ category?

An answer, and a possible challenge to Lind’s thesis, emerges in a recent American Affairs essay by Julius Krein, that journal’s founder. Krein uses impressive data to marshal the argument that “the real class war,” as the essay’s title has it, isn’t between Gary and Bezos—it’s between Bezos and his vice-presidents. Krein argues that the working class has been collapsing for so long that the collapse is scarcely worth talking about anymore. The real conflict, he says, is between the true elite (the top 0.1 percent) and the roughly 10 percent under them.

This group used to have a reasonable chance of securing elite status when rising tides lifted all boats, but that tide flowed out a couple generations ago. We still peddle the same lies about getting there, though. We hoodwink freshmen into majoring in computer science because IT engineers start at $81,000 per year, but we don’t tell them that anywhere they’ll make that salary it will be impossible to live on it. We tell all high schoolers they need to go to college to succeed, but wage gains for the skilled working class have been increasing faster than for my class for some time now, and the college premium has long since eroded.

Things for this class—let’s call it the sub-elite or 9.9%—have gotten so bad that, as we saw in 2019, its members were reduced to bribing college coaches to get their kids into USC (a school that will earn your kids all the right contacts… in the world of club drug purveyors). This class lives in houses it can’t afford, takes out second mortgages to finance useless degrees, and competes to see who can have the most existentially meaningless job. And note well: it is precisely among this class—and, even more importantly, those who aspire to join it—that support for class revolution, in the form of the ersatz socialists Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, has congealed. It isn’t the auto mechanics leading the anti-elite revolution; it’s the adjunct professors.

In other words, it’s not the people Lind seems to think it is who are agitating for a revolution, and his prescription for the “disease” of technocratic liberalism ain’t exactly the stuff that stirs men’s souls in the way a speech by Huey Long did. Lind wants more democratic populism in the form of “social federalism,” with “substantial areas of policy delegated to rule-making institutions which must represent particular portions of the community.” This brings elimination of bias, apparently, which frees democratic populism “from many of the defects” of democracy itself. Indeed, Lind says, “legislatures can cede large areas of policymaking to those with higher stakes and expertise.”

Hmm. Ceding control to the experts and “unbiased” rule-making institutions? In a book that spends 100 pages denouncing technocracy, that sure sounds an awful lot like… technocracy.

Lind envisions a movement from below, made up not of the adjunct professors but of the auto mechanics. But simply wishing a benevolent populist revolution into existence doesn’t quite suffice. After all, the working class in America has spent generations in cyclical poverty, extreme breakdown of families, drug and alcohol and now painkiller abuse, collapse of civic and religious institutions, and declining job opportunities. And now we expect them to rise up as noble yeoman artisans who spend days in the family shop and evenings reading Tocqueville?

I refer to Michael Anton’s now-famous 2016 essay “The Flight 93 Election,” which I assign to students every semester as mandatory reading: “What can they do against a tidal wave of dysfunction, immorality, and corruption? ‘Civic renewal’ would do a lot of course, but that’s like saying health will save a cancer patient. A step has been skipped in there somewhere. How are we going to achieve ‘civic renewal’? Wishing for a tautology to enact itself is not a strategy.”

I’m all for more power to workers. I happen to be a decentralist-localist-conservative myself, and I lament with Lind the growth of a class that seems to exist solely in order to extract wealth from the economy. But assuming the uprising will be led by the auto mechanics instead of the adjunct professors, despite plenty of data telling us that the most radical members of our culture are the latter, is a serious miscalculation. And do we even want an uprising from this group of armchair radicals? I hear almost daily on my campus, from students and colleagues alike, that as a straight white male I am always and inescapably the center of an unbreakable web of oppression and injustice. These are the people I want leading us into utopia?

Lind’s book is a valuable contribution to this conversation. Despite my negative tone, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the book. He is often quite funny; I rather liked his description of meaningless terms like “creative class” and “thinkpreneur” as “flattering terms in the lexicon of overclass self-idolatry.” (Amen to that: if I hear one more unemployed graphic designer here in Lawrence describe himself unironically as “a creative,” I’m going to smash his avocado toast.)

His diagnosis is largely correct: the great American path of shared opportunity and upward mobility really has disappeared, probably thanks to a self-enriching class of paper-shufflers and pixel-manipulators. But is it the fault of “technocratic neoliberalism,” a term which seems almost impossible to define if it includes you, me, and Bezos? And is the answer a “democratic pluralism” whose description reads like Madisonian fan fiction?

Perhaps a better and more realistic answer is this: members of the sub-elite class should get to know some working-class people. I have to think that an actual conversation between my cultural studies Ph.D. colleagues and, say, a locksmith and gun owner, might do infinitely more for civic discourse and even democratic populism than a single “multi-interest commission.” A well-known professor at a top-ranked public university calling for a “democratic populism” and lamenting the rise of a powerful “overclass” has unsettling similarity to the coffeehouse radicals of 1950s Greenwich Village: they’re complaining about the system that benefitted them. To paraphrase the old Texas folk saying, it’s like being born on third and complaining that not everyone has hit a triple.

As it is, this “overclass” embodied by me and by Lind and likely by you is essentially just talking in circles to each other as we try to crack this working-class code. Witness the rise since 2016 of what might be termed Heartland Safari Journalism: the intrepid coastal reporter in a $600 Canada Goose jacket, veteran of Exeter and NYU, dropping by Cracker Barrel in rural Ohio to unironically ask waitresses why they vote against their economic interests. That’s not journalism, and it’s certainly not an attempt to understand someone different. Rather, it’s good old-fashioned virtue signaling: the same impulse that prompted three (!) of my colleagues to dress up their infants as Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Halloween.

Instead of weeping and tearing of hair, how about all of us Overclassians make an attempt to get to know some other people? Next time you get your oil changed, strike up a conversation. Or: change your oil yourself and acquire another practical skill, instead of outsourcing everything so you can read yet another Vox article? Perhaps getting to know different people could convince the adjunct professor class (a class that includes yours truly) that high levels of education do not necessarily correlate with virtue—often the opposite, in my experience.

As the “demagogic populists” (read: “people who say what most people only think and who therefore win elections”) know all too well, people want more than anything to belong to the glorious cause. Deep in our DNA we want the idea to rally around, the bloody battlefield to survey, the line to charge with weapons extended. There’s a reason you tear up during Braveheart. By contrast, here is Lind describing the paradise of democratic populism: “Legislation should require the participation of a representative range of secular and supernaturalist creedal groups in government boards and commissions…”

Ask a Christian about his faith and I doubt you’ll hear the term “supernaturalist creedal group.” Ask an American solider why he would die for his country and I doubt you’ll hear “government boards and commissions.” Lind is right about the diagnosis: something has gone very wrong. But as for his prescription? Well, nobody ever put his life on the line for “substantial areas of policy delegated to rule-making institutions which must represent particular portions of the community.”

If this is the best the populists have, I’d bet on the survival of the overclass. Maybe I’ll bring it up at the next meeting.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture

18 COMMENTS

  1. As I began reading this my disdain meter was at “11”. My pencils were sharpened. Then he did a nice hat trick and pulled me back in to his thread. Nicely written and an excellent review. Thanks.

  2. I agree with Brian: an excellent, and sharp, set of reflections here. Of course, I would insist that if you would just add “socialist” to your “decentralist-localist-conservative” self-description, just recognize that Lind’s typically smart attacks on American managerialism go off the rails only insofar as he remains blind to the fact that “democratic pluralism” really does remain Madisonian fan faction–wonderful line, by the way–so long as social and economic power itself isn’t also democratized and pluralized, and just acknowledge it is in those moments when Bernie Sanders’s democratic socialism is less ersatz that you really actually like the guy…well, the result would be a set of reflections even better than what you’ve produced here. I wish I could have shared this with the my little Democratic Socialists of America chapter here in Wichita at our monthly meeting yesterday evening (only six showed up: a computer programmer, an office manager in a pharmaceutical company, a gun-range owner, a Dillon’s grocery stocker, an unemployed guy, and me), as I suspect, in the midst of our conversation about Martin Luther King, Jr., they would have all agreed.

    (Also, just to show off my class and Gen X bona fides: Braveheart is at best mediocre movie, which stole the Best Picture award from Babe. Look into your heart, and you know this to be true.)

    • ~~if you would just add “socialist” to your “decentralist-localist-conservative” self-description~~

      Despite my sympathy for certain aspects of socialism, I’ve not yet come across a defense of it which explains how it can avoid ultimately devolving to statism. This is why I remain basically an agrarian-distributist (which admission tends to garner howls of derisive laughter from certain neo-conish and economically leftist friends, some of whom, surprisingly enough, are the same people).

      As for Lind, I wonder if this book and his book on big business should be read in tandem. It would be interesting to see how he balances the theses, given that on initial consideration (I haven’t read either book yet) they seem to be somewhat contradictory.

  3. This is a very well written and interesting essay. Thank you very much for sharing.
    My immediate comment is that a major problem is that we are using “elite” all wrong. There is absolutely nothing “elite” about Joe Biden, for instance. Being in government for 50 years does not make you elite. You have to actually accomplish something. Navy SEALs are elite. Admirals may be, or they may just be succesful at playing the promotion game. Similarly I’ve had mechanics who could diagnose and fix any problem on a car within minutes of inspecting it, and others who can’t do so after repeat all-day visits. The former is clearly elite. By our system saying that someone with a certain piece of paper, or holding certain office is “elite” or “expert” is self-justification in them having seized authority that they by no means should have.

    • See Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites. It has lost none of its pertinence in the 25 years since it was published. It was the first book I read after the 2016 election, and I was amazed at how prescient (and relevant) it was.

  4. 1. Showing my “Overclass” bona fides: yesterday’s New York Times Book Review had a piece on Lind’s book, and described its main flaw as stating that an African-American public elementary school teacher in Atlanta as ‘overclass’ and the owner of a plumbing business in Waycross with seven employees and $500K/ year in revenue as a poor mistreated peasant. That review, unlike this one, thoroughly analyzed Lind’s failure to discuss the effects of anything other than holding a college degree as a component of elite status.

    2. Please expand your definition of ‘working class’ beyond the stuff sweaty males do. The fastest growing field in the industrialized world is home health aide. Those are mostly women and mostly not white who do exhausting and underpaid labor for sick and old people but who somehow never get mentioned by conservatives as part of the ‘working class.’ The availability of building trades jobs fluctuates with the housing market in a way that makes them just as insecure as any other position. There is also the fact that anyone who cares about the environment should want the number of bulldozer drivers in the world to collapse. Someone who actually cared about secure jobs for those who don’t want to go to college should work to increase the wages and numbers of home health aides.

    3. The problem with college at the moment is that it is expensive and financed by debt because conservatives slashed state support for tuition. Return state support to levels from the 1970’s and insist that the government money go to reduce tuition. There is absolutely no downside whatsoever to having a more educated populace. (And there is a subtle insult to the building trades in the idea that kids who can’t get scholarships to State U should all go into trades. Stupid people make bad electricians. The world would really benefit from more with philosophy or English degrees going into skilled trade positions. It would simultaneously improve the taste and politics of their coworkers and improve their own respect for such jobs.)

  5. It looks like my original comment got nuked somehow, so let me just chime in to say that yes, Babe is the best movie of the past 40 years.

    • I was wondering if Michael Lind was the Lind who wrote an essay on Gore Vidal in Salon. He was. I ran across him and FPR’s own Bill Kauffman after hanging out on an online forum with a cat who is a Vidal fan.

      If I recall correctly, he wrote another book called Big Is Beautiful. I didn’t read it, but I must say that I am the kind of worker who fits in better in large organizations.

    • I have not seen either Babe or Braveheart in about 20 years. I liked both a lot at the time, but the latter more. My guess is that if I watched them again now the reverse would be true.

      For the record my favorite movies of the past 40 years are, in no particular order, Mulholland Dr., The Tree of Life, and Ran.

  6. I appreciate the attempt here, to try and think about what terms like “working class” actually mean. Example: You average auto mechanic now probably has more computer expertise than your average adjunct professor. (Which, incidentally, is why my newest vehicle is a ’95 and I don’t ever intend to drive a newer one).

    Older typologies of classes still have some power though. I’m a college professor, and I still have an unironic inferiority complex that I’ve never gotten a real job.

    Russell: Without redefining terms so that they because useless, how does socialism not promote statism? Examples of where this has actually happened?

    Great review.

    • Aaron,

      If I’m going to do so without “redefining terms so that they become useless,” I need to know your definition of the terms in question first, so I can avoid redefining them. For example, if the only definition of “socialism” you accept is “state ownership of the means of production,” then I will surrender; you’ve got me. If, however, you’re willing to accept “state actions designed to democratize wealth through social empowerment”–which might include such things as “socialist” health care arrangements which take economic leverage away from insurance companies (as we see in the desperate tyranny of Canada), or “socialist” education arrangements which provide access over economic obstacles (as we see in the dictatorship of Ireland), both aims having had a long history within self-described “socialist” movements, parties, and governments–as a working definition, then we absolutely could talk. Of course, your response might be that universal health insurance or free public education are also, by definition, statist, so that would take us back to square one, but we have to start somewhere.

      • Russell:

        Part of me wants to argue that “state ownership of the means of production,” or its converse, that “property is theft,” is the only really useful definition of socialism we can have. This is as much a matter of tactics as anything. Who wants to be associated with either the theorists or the practitioners of this? Not me, and not you either, as I read the specific examples you gave.

        The rub then, is if we can ask “how much” state control of property, without that inaugurating a slow descent to the the answer “all of it,” yes? As your examples show, a “some” answer is possible, though things would have to get several orders of magnitude worse here in the US of A for me to remotely consider living in either Canada (gun laws, hope you don’t need a hip replaced) or Ireland (too damn crowded, too warm, too wet).

        I’m just musing here, but my point is this: I think that terms have a kind of historical shelf-life, and sometimes, terms just get too loaded with historical baggage to be of much use anymore. I take socialism to be one of those terms. Fascism fits the bill too, for that matter. If we’ve got to use the same word for the state that murder their own citizens (Stalinist Russia) and states that don’t (in utero citizens excepted), then our problem is a language problem.

        How much localism can survive the notion that the state should control more property than it currently does? That’s an interesting question, but we don’t need to make things terminologically complicated to discuss it. If you want to argue about it, I’ll be in Haviland in May….

        Cheers, Aaron

        • Aaron,

          Your point about the shelf-life of terms is a solid one, but I’m going to keep fighting for “socialism”–my own particular localist, left-conservative version of it, anyway–for a while yet. “Christianity,” after all, has been used by crusaders, Grand Inquisitors, and Quaker pacifists, and somehow, for all that confusion, it continues to serve fairly well. The push to “socialize” that which is claimed (wrongly, in my view) a belonging to the individual as opposed to the commonwealth is a push that, whether dressed up in Marxist or Catholic or populist garb, allows to engage with the “how much” question you rightly pose as central, or at least I think so. Maybe the terminology does get in the way, but I’m not persuaded of that yet.

          I assume you’re making a stop at Barclay College? What’s taking you there? Anyway, do let me know when you’ll be there; by that time the semester will be over (or at least nearly so), and it would be fun to get away and meet face to face and continue the discussion!

  7. Lind’s theory is a little too neat and tidy to describe the dynamics driving populism’s rise. I think Krein’s corrective is a little closer to the money, but in reality there is truth in both. Economic populism really does appeal to the Middle American Radical identified by Donald Warren and Samuel Francis and those regions that proved decisive in swinging the electoral college to Trump were populated disproportionately by those blue-collar workers adversely impacted by labor arbitrage, opioids, automation and the post-9/11 wars. At the same time, the professional-managerial class, complicit in neoliberal financialization, is now being hollowed out from within by the same forces that destroyed the manufacturing economy. Their response is populist-socialism, while Middle America’s is populist-nationalism.

  8. I enjoyed your article, though I think people–including college professors and auto mechanics–are not quite so pigeonholed as you and the official opinion assert. Do you really only hang out with other college professors and have you never really done anything else. If so, I’m so sad for you. And I’d be curious to know why you would assign the pretentious and monumentally misguided “Flight 93 Election” to anyone. There were lots of reasons to vote for Trump, but Anton couldn’t have seen them with the Hubel telescope. Yes, he was right about Clinton, but who (other than a Clinton), wasn’t? Voting while nauseous defined that election.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here