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Review: Iain Macwhirter on the “shrieks of rage” that produced Brexit, Boris and Trump

The New Class War

Michael Lind

Atlantic Books, £14.99

Arguing with Zombies

Paul Krugman

Norton, £22.99

In the early hours of Friday 13 December 2019, the Conservatives seized a raft of seats like Workington, Sedgefield and Bolsover which had been Labour strongholds for generations. It was clear that something very remarkable had happened.

Suddenly, working class people in the north of England were voting in large numbers for an Eton-educated, scion of the British upper class, Boris Johnson. It was a huge blow to the British left – worse even than the Brexit referendum.

That could be dismissed as a momentary aberration, a spasm of nativism. The general election was a repudiation, not just of remaining in the European Union, but of Labour itself, by its own base voters.

According to the journalist and academic Michael Lind, this is all part of a revolutionary upsurge in the West. We are in the middle, he says, of a new class war which cuts across traditional political alignments. This is not the old war between the bourgeoisie and the industrial working class, but a confrontation between ascendant managerial elites in the big cities and the “left behinds” in the provinces.

The war has engulfed France with the Gilets Jaunes revolt. It produced Brexit, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsanaro in Brazil. And it’s not going away any time soon.

Lind is no revolutionary. He calls himself a “democratic pluralist” and sounds a bit like an old-style German Christian Democrat. Twitter would probably call him a racist because he believes immigration should be controlled to prevent the erosion of working class incomes and job security.

Lind’s central argument is that the provincial working classes have seen their lives eroded by “labour arbitrage”. Big companies play groups of workers against each other, not just by importing a reserve army of immigrant labour, but out-sourcing production. Thus, a firm like Apple makes iPhones in China relying on sweat shop labour under conditions that would be illegal in the West. These companies then undermine national governments by using tax havens to avoid contributing to their host countries.

Lind argues that democracy itself is undermined by the erosion of national borders. Not just by multinationals like Amazon and Google, who don’t pay taxes, but by unelected supra-national bureaucracies like the IMF and the EU, which promote globalisation. Just think of how Greece was treated.

Poor people look to the nation state to guarantee their security, not just against crime and foreign invasion, but capitalism itself. The NHS is the NATIONAL health service for a reason. The welfare state can only exist in a defined nation where entitlement is based on membership of a cohesive community.

The nation is also a significant element in the moral universe of non-metropolitans. Working class people tend to love their country. Labour was defeated for many reasons, but patriotism clearly played a significant part, at least in England. Antipathy towards nationalism, however, is so intense on the British left that when Rebecca Long Bailey urged her party to adopt “progressive patriotism” she was accused of racism.

Lind doesn’t appear to want to overthrow neoliberal capitalism, still less place the economy under state control. Like a social democratic Gramsci, he advocates a revival of intermediate institutions of civil society, trades unions, mass membership political parties, churches and local government. He yearns for the days of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal and Atlee’s 1945 Labour government. Trades union collective bargaining is Lind’s model of how best to restore social cohesion. To which one is inclined to say: good luck with that.

Only 14% of workers in the private sector are in trades unions. Unions now largely represent white collar employees in the public sector. Local government, too, has been in long decline.

The churches have also become largely irrelevant, morally and politically, at least in secular UK. Many liberals, myself included, would bristle at Lind’s suggestion that religious groups should be given greater influence.

“Legislation”, he says, “should require the participation of a representative range of secular and supernaturalist creedal groups in government boards and commissions that oversee media policy and education to ensure that the values of all major subcultures in the nation are acknowledged and given deference”.

To me, that sounds like multiculturalism on steroids. It brings to mind those sections of the Muslim community in Birmingham boycotting schools that teach about LGBT. Do we really want all subcultures given this deference?

Lind is a conservative, and it is relatively easy to dismiss his book as an apology for what American liberals like Paul Krugman call the politics of “angry white men”. Krugman’s latest book, Arguing with Zombies, regards Brexit and Trump as products of the dysfunctional politics of “white nationalists” – uneducated people who are afraid of change and who are instinctively racist.

Krugman is Nobel Prize-winning economist, and one of the leading left-wing pundits in America. But his book, based largely on his newspaper columns, is curiously dated. It re-fights the battles over the causes and consequences of the 2007-9 financial crash.

Krugman makes little attempt to understand why the left has failed to advance following capitalism’s greatest crisis in 80 years. Yet, in almost every western country, including the Nordics, the political right has been in the ascendant.

In Britain, the Conservatives have been in power for a decade and just won a near landslide majority. Krugman’s political analysis goes no further than an assertion that populism happened because people are stupid.

This really won’t do. It is a leftist mirror image of Trumpism – a contemptuous dismissal of half the voting population. We have seen much the same in the UK where the left invariably talks of Brexit voters as bigots and racists, as in #thick.

Lind makes a very reasonable case that they are not. They are mostly working people who’ve lost secure jobs and whose self-respect has been destroyed, their communities hollowed out by neoliberal capitalism.

I would quibble with Lind’s analysis of this as being a “new” class war. His analysis is based on Burnham’s 1941 book “The Managerial Revolution”, which argued that the old capital-owning bourgeoisie had been replaced by a class of corporate managers of joint stock companies.

New classes generally turn out to be old ruling classes in new suits, or t-shirts, as in Silicon Valley’s hyper-capitalists. These “woke” managers are just as rapacious as their top-hatted predecessors – just look at the salaries of top CEOs. They are invariably share-holders and have more skin in the game than common or garden bureaucrats.

But Lind’s socio-political geography and his analysis of populism must be taken seriously. The post-industrial economy has created knowledge-based wealth centres in big cities like London. These are cultural phenomena as well as centres of capital accumulation. Most provincial voters feel alienated from the very language of urban politics with its preoccupation with gender and identity.

The election of demagogues like Trump is, Lind says, “a symptom of a sick body politic”. It is the reaction of socially conservative provincials excluded from politics and bossed around by a managerial elite.

They’ve seen their pay dwindle, their children turn to opioids, their jobs sent abroad. They are, says Lind, “left with no voice in public affairs except for shrieks of rage”.

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