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The Right’s Phony Class War

The populist right’s new intellectuals are abuzz about capitalism and class. Don’t be fooled. Their denunciations of "cosmopolitan elites" actually provide cover for the plunder by the rich and powerful.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) addresses the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Policy Conference at the US Capitol Visitor's Center Auditorium June 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump appeared to upend conservative orthodoxy with a clear message of economic populism: globalization is bad, NAFTA sold you out, greedy corporations are sending your jobs overseas. A billionaire vulture capitalist himself, Trump was an implausible bearer of such a message.

Since in office he has pulled a predictable bait and switch, retaining his xenophobic obsessions while imposing an even more vampiric version of the GOP’s standard economic fare: assaults on Obamacare; gigantic, regressive tax cuts; deregulation of every sort; and attacks on the government’s minimal aid to the poorest and most precarious Americans.

All along, the Trump carnival has attracted intellectuals who see a potential in right-wing populism that, due to his mental and ideological emptiness, Trump can never deliver himself. An emerging class of right-wing populist intellectuals has increasingly taken aim at decades of Republican pro-business orthodoxy, talking about a yawning gap between a bipartisan American elite and everyone else.

But while the Right’s invocations of workers might seem like a positive development, in reality, it has little to do with addressing the country’s deep economic divides. It rests instead on a pseudo-sociology that pits an ambiguous “managerial” or “cosmopolitan” ruling class against the rest of the country — and lets the people who actually hold political and economic power off the hook.

The Mythical Managerial Class

Central to the emerging right-wing class theory is the idea of an elite cohort that has detached itself from the nation and imposes its globalist, progressive ideology on, in Missouri senator Josh Hawley’s nebulous characterization, “the great American middle.” While right populists have been more willing than traditional Republicans to criticize the heights of US economic power — especially Wall Street and Silicon Valley — the real consequence of their theory of elites is mystifying the role of their own coalition in shredding the American social fabric.

An early effort at this kind of class analysis appeared in the first issue of the upstart nationalist journal American Affairs in 2017, in which editor Julius Krein proposed to investigate a “transpartisan elite with its own interests.” The vehicle for Krein’s class theory is The Managerial Revolution, the 1941 book by James Burnham, a philosophy professor at NYU who eventually became a staunch Cold Warrior and an editor at National Review.

Before 1939, Burnham was a leading figure in the American Trotskyist movement, and The Managerial Revolution sprung directly from the debates of the global Trotskyist diaspora over the sociological nature of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Amid the rise of fascism, the New Deal, and an avowed socialist state that upended the expectations of traditional Marxism, theories abounded about a possible “state capitalism” or managerial regime that gave new power to bureaucrats and managers. Burnham was one of the first to unite Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the New Deal United States into a global phenomenon of supposedly post-capitalist societies controlled by an autonomous managerial bureaucracy.

The emergence of highly concerted state action in the United States during World War II and the Cold War, as well as the rise of Keynesian welfare states in Europe, seemed to provide superficial confirmation of Burnham’s ideas in the 1950s, and it became common in liberal social science to view the United States and the Soviet Union as potentially “converging” models of “industrial society.”

Postwar governance everywhere was unquestionably technocratic, and the laissez-faire market of the nineteenth century was no longer in fashion. But the idea that managers’ interest ruled over those of capitalist owners was always absurd: managerial capitalism was as oriented around the interests of the economic ruling class as any other kind — and managers were its willing accessories, not the source of its subversion.

As many critics observed, Burnham’s back-of-the-napkin sociology conflated corporate managers and state bureaucrats into a single class when it was easy to show that they lacked anything like an independent class ideology: they were thoroughly socialized into the aims of their institutions, whether corporations or government. The famous “separation of ownership and control” in American business was no sociological revolution — as the economist Paul Sweezy wrote in an early review of The Managerial Revolution, “Managers are the best-kept salaried workers under capitalism.” State bureaucracies are no more likely sources of an independent managerial class. Hailing from the same families and schools, high-level technocrats in the state always tend to overlap with banking, business, and engineering elites, and are much more likely to champion ruling-class interests than to subvert them.

Nevertheless, Krein has resurrected Burnham’s “managerial class” thesis to create a dichotomy between neoliberal globalism (“managerialism”) and a supposedly better, more patriotic, bourgeois capitalism of the nineteenth century that was grounded in the national political community. “Ownership as managerial control,” he writes, “is radically different from capitalist ownership.” Under this ambiguous managerialism, “it is status as a member of the managerial class, not as an individual property owner, that determines economic and political power.” The managerial class stirs up “consumerism, hedonism, and meliorism” as the basis of its power — unlike the older, more desirable form of capitalism, which had “a certain kind of self-discipline and self-reliance that directed energies and resources into productive uses — the ‘Protestant ethic.’”

Like Burnham, Krein envisions “managerialism” as a supersession of capitalism, in which echelons of managers across society rule for their own benefit, motivated by a globalist, post-national ideology. But not only is such a notion far too vague to be sociologically defensible, it also obscures the real economic forces that created the financialized economy that Krein bemoans as the height of managerialism.

Deindustrialization and financialization, far from being the products of an amorphous managerial cabal, were a class project that stemmed from capital-holders’ demands for higher profit rates than the postwar welfare states would permit. That project was abetted by capital’s political allies in the engine rooms of economic governance — to a man, enemies of the welfare state and the labor movement. Managers untethered themselves from the nation for a reason.

Krein also happens to ignore the bulk of global economic history since the 1970s, in which external pressures shaped the direction of economic policy and the shifting topography of the national economy. Though specific policy directions were political choices, there is no question that they were viewed as the best hope for maintaining competitiveness in an increasingly global economy.

Krein is rightly critical of the post-1970s financial sector and the sociopathic violence it has been allowed to visit both on smaller businesses and on American society in general. But what is the point of obscuring the actual story of these economic transformations and the interests behind them to revive Burnham’s ambiguous and implausible “managerial class”?

Partly, it derives from an ahistorical fantasy of reviving a “national” capitalism. But as other thinkers have noted, few of the new right-populists seem interested in the economic forces that have buffeted American workers. Much dearer to their hearts is a top-down imposition of a religious and racial vision of social cohesion. A culture war needs a cultural enemy, and vulgarized versions of Krein’s “managerial class” theory enable conservative populists to blame an amorphous cabal of globalist elites for the increasing marginal status of their right-wing cultural values.

“Big Business Doesn’t Care About Your Family”

“For years,” Josh Hawley declared at the National Conservatism conference in Washington in mid-July, “the politics of both left and right have been informed by a political consensus that reflects the interests not of the American middle, but of a powerful upper class and their cosmopolitan priorities.”

He continued: “On economics, this consensus favors globalization — closer and closer economic union, more immigration, more movement of capital, more trade on whatever terms.”

It was a generally accurate summation of the economic thinking that dominates both political parties. But even a cursory glance at Hawley’s record shows he has not even a glimmer of an alternative. In fact, as others have pointed out, his whole political career is deeply indebted to this consensus: he takes money from the Koch brothers and the Club for Growth, two of the most aggressive supporters of the libertarian economic agenda he decries; he is a militant foe of labor unions, the primary economic force in US society empowering workers of all backgrounds; he opposes raising the minimum wage and hiking taxes on inherited wealth. His concern for “the people whose labor sustains this nation” apparently doesn’t extend to any practical policy to improve their lives.

Hawley’s real concern is the pernicious cultural ideology of the ill-defined “cosmopolitan elite.” “The cosmopolitan elite look down on the common affections that once bound this nation together: things like place and national feeling and religious faith,” Hawley said in his National Conservatism speech. “They regard our inherited traditions as oppressive and our shared institutions — like family and neighborhood and church — as backwards.”

According to Hawley, the teachings of Jesus gave rise to “the individual” and the American founders’ idea of a “new republic governed not by a select elite, as in the days of old, but by the common man and woman.” This fictional origin of the American republic — a republic explicitly founded on rule by a select propertied and racial elite — is the sacred carrier of the values that the “cosmopolitan elite,” the “ruling class,” the “aristocracy,” or the “leadership elite” have now perverted with their secularism and sexual progressivism.

Hawley’s use of superficially anti-capitalist terminology may be sociologically empty, but it has become one of the populist right’s favorite rhetorical devices for turning America’s class hierarchy into a culture war. Denouncing “woke capital” — business interests voicing support for progressive social politics — has become an obsession. “The main threat to your ability to live your life as you choose,” Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said at the National Conservatism conference, “does not come from the government anymore, it comes from the private sector.” Carlson railed against the monopoly power of big tech, particularly Google’s control over information. But his apparent alarm at Silicon Valley’s monopoly power — a real and frightening problem — turned out to be superficial, twisted into a series of right-wing grievances. He railed against a limited-edition package of Oreos produced for New York’s Pride parade (“a brazen act of propaganda aimed at your kids”) and worried about tech firms making conservative ideas vanish from the internet.

Social conservatives of all stripes have flocked to the “woke capital” meme like flies to a porch light. Rod Dreher, whose blog at the American Conservative is a fever swamp of hysterics over sexual progressivism, frequently publishes lurid reports of routine corporate diversity training paired with quotes from Cold War–era tomes like Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. In June, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton gave a speech on the Senate floor denouncing “the dictatorship of woke capital,” by which he meant “a troubling trend among giant corporations using this wealth and power to force liberal dogma on an unwilling people.”

The freak-out about “woke capital” not only rests upon a fictional sociological divide between a hostile ruling class and a resistant populace, but the residual fantasy of a socially conservative “moral majority.” The basic laws of capitalist marketing dictate that corporations respond to their customers’ tastes. What social conservatives interpret as economic power tipping the scales in favor of progressive values is really a response to what the overwhelming majority of Americans believe: between 65 and 69 percent of Americans, in all ethnic demographics and regions of the country, support gay marriage, and a clear majority supports trans rights.

Most dishonestly, right-wing populists like Carlson deliberately borrow from left politicians and thinkers for ammunition in their new class-conscious culture war and then, bizarrely, claim that leftists don’t really care about those things. Carlson has voiced qualified admiration for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jacobin, and frequently claims that Elizabeth Warren’s 2004 book The Two-Income Trap is the most important social-conservative book of the last decade.

Nevertheless, Carlson devotes most of his energy to teapot-tempests over political correctness and the supposed persecution of white people, painting frightening images of a political left working hand in glove with corporate power to impose radical “identity politics.” To hear Carlson tell it, Warren wrote a good book, but “went crazy” on identity politics — never mind that the centerpieces of her presidential campaign are health care, free college, and breaking up tech giants. “No one on the Left cares” about Google’s monopoly practices, because “those are the shock troops of their ideology” — never mind that the only existing policy analysis and organizing against Silicon Valley comes from leftists of various stripes.

A Class Politics for the Real America

Right populists’ fulminations about managerial elites and “woke capital” are, for the most part, a pseudo-sociology — rhetorical drapery for an agenda whose real aim is not to empower the working class, but to defend their pet forms of social hierarchy under the guise of community and social cohesion. In the face of such intellectual obfuscation, the Left should both insist on a rigorous understanding of the real class divisions in America, and also advance economic emancipation as the heart of any project to strengthen workers’ communities and families.

The first step is to describe America as it is, not as nationalists and social conservatives wish it were.

The vast majority of the American population lives in urban areas, not just on the coasts but also in the South, the West, and the Midwest. Only three states out of fifty have majority rural populations, and those are almost evenly divided; most of the remaining forty-seven have overwhelmingly urban populations. The left-behind American laborer — in the conservative imagination, always implicitly a white man in middle America who hates immigration and political correctness — is more and more likely to be an urban woman of color working in retail or health care. In 2017, only 59 percent of the working class was white, and half was female. In just over a decade, the working class will be majority nonwhite.

If a vast, conservative white working class is a myth, so is the other side of the right-wing populist binary: the domineering, economically powerful progressive elite. It’s true that corporations increasingly align their branding and activism with the mainstream of American public opinion. But by focusing exclusively on surface-level progressive branding, conservatives miss the bigger story: that the force of American economic power is solidly behind right-wing politics, particularly the economic policies that people like Krein, Carlson, and Hawley claim to see as a failure (though Hawley, of course, continues to vote for them). The real class power of US capital doesn’t express itself in rainbow flags at bank branches, but in the highly organized and secretive rigging of the American politics in favor of the wealthy.

Right-wing “class analysis” deliberately groups the very wealthy with an urban, progressive “managerial elite” that includes vast swaths of people who have little more power than the average worker. University administrators, journalists, and tech employees may work in an office and enjoy a higher salary and better conditions than a janitor or home health aide, but they have much less ability to influence the political system than business elites. Nor are they cut off from America by a post-national “cosmopolitanism” — they live and work in cities all across the country, and come from families in smaller cities and towns to whom they remain close.

And while the young, educated people who populate white-collar professions do tend to be enthusiastically progressive voters, their beliefs are not markedly different from the mainstream: clear majorities of Americans in all age, ethnic, and religious groups, in all regions of the country, oppose the social conservatism of politicians like Hawley and Cotton, entertainers like Carlson, and hysterics like Dreher. An overwhelming majority sees immigration as a positive force, and only 35 percent of Americans want less of it.

If neoliberal globalization has hollowed out a “great American middle,” it’s a middle that includes both white- and blue-collar workers in every part of the country. Whether they work in a university in Boston, a hospital in Indianapolis, a factory in West Virginia, or the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, the vast majority of Americans face similar problems: unaffordable housing, insufficient wages, job precarity, expensive or inaccessible health care, and subjection to the private tyranny of their boss. If they’re lucky, they are linked by unions like the UAW or SEIU that foster solidarity between white- and blue-collar employees from across the country.

No matter how much populist conservative intellectuals babble about the working class and the need to rebuild the social fabric, they have no plan to address the real problems that constrain and atomize the lives of most Americans. Like Trump, their modus operandi is divisive rhetoric combined with more of the same oligarchic economics that created our social crisis in the first place. Their vision of reinvigorated American life not only will do nothing to attack the root causes, but it is based on a narrow vision of social cohesion premised on the exclusion of the vast majority of America that doesn’t fit their idealized religious and racial profile.

The Left insists on understanding the American class structure the way it really works, not the way conservatives’ identitarian priors prefer it worked. There will be no restoration of social bonds, no community, no increase in time for family and civil society, without the basic economic empowerment that makes those things possible. And no matter how loudly populist conservatives rage about cosmopolitan elites and woke capital, no matter how much they pretend the Left only cares about political correctness, there’s only one side that has a plan for the real America.