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.