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Classless Utopia versus Class Compromise

In March 2018, China’s state-controlled internet, amid rumors that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was secretly visiting China, rendered the term “fatty” unsearchable. In China, “Fatty the Third” is a derogatory nickname for Kim, who inherited his position from his father and grandfather.

This occurred shortly after Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, arranged to abolish presidential term limits. Like Kim, Xi was to the manor born, as a “princeling”—a term used for the privileged children of earlier generations of Communist Party members. Similarly, in Communist Cuba, the Castro dynasty has survived Fidel.

Dynastic politics seems to be on the rise in quite different political systems. In postcommunist Russia, President Vladimir Putin is the grandson of Lenin’s and Stalin’s cook—a sensitive position in the court of the “Red Tsars.” In the United States, before Donald Trump’s entry into the race and surprise victory, many observers expected the presidential campaign of 2016 to pit Hillary Clinton, the wife of a recent president, against Jeb Bush, the direct relation of two recent presidents.

A widely shared sense that hereditary class lines are hardening in many contemporary societies is undoubtedly a factor in the rise of populist movements around the globe. But what exactly does this mean?

A Definition of Class

In academic and journalistic discourse, class is usually equated with an income or wealth category. On the basis of annual income or asset ownership, a national population is divided among two or more classes—quintiles, perhaps, or the 99 percent versus the one percent. But saying that a janitor who won the lottery, a fourth-generation trust-funder, and the upper-middle-class child of lawyers who became a start-up billionaire are all “upper class” is both uninformative and at odds with what the term means in ordinary usage.

Defining classes in terms of specialized social or economic functions is an improvement. Ancient Indo-European societies from South Asia to western Europe tended to share the idea that the community was divided among warriors, priests, and peasants, an idea which gave rise to the Indian caste system and the medieval European society of estates.

In modern industrial societies, Marx’s claim that the major division would be among capitalists who control the means of production and proletarians without productive assets other than their own labor has proven to be influential and useful. In these pages (Summer 2017), I have argued that the Marxist conception was usefully modified by James Burnham and others, for whom a bureaucratic, managerial group in both the private and public sectors displaced an older, owner-operator-investor bourgeoisie. In this view, modern advanced industrial societies are divided chiefly among two classes. One is a substantial managerial-professional minority, as large as 30 percent or so if all recipients of college degrees are included in it, but arguably no more than the top 10 or 15 percent. The other is the working class, increasingly working in the nontraded domestic service sector as manufacturing jobs are eliminated by a combination of offshoring and automation.

But a vocation, or a constellation of related vocations, is not in itself a class, any more than an income category is. In ordinary discourse, one is born into a class. What turns a mere vocation or income or wealth category into a class is a high degree of persistence of its membership across generations. The source of hereditary class advantage need not be formal legal privileges, or even inherited wealth; it can also take the form of attitudes, skills, and connections bequeathed by parents to their children.

Thus the best definition of a class, I would suggest, is this: a class is a group of families within a society whose members are disproportionately likely to work in certain vocations and also disproportionately likely to marry and have children with one another. This definition unites the functional and nepotistic aspects of class.

Some clusters of vocations provide more access to political power, economic wealth, and social prestige than others. If broad groups of vocations have somewhat separate recruitment pools, the result will be classes arrayed along a vertical axis from upper to lower, with some classes partly monopolizing powerful, prestigious, and well-paid vocations, and other classes condemned to low-income and low-prestige occupations.

Most if not all stable societies have had some sort of enduring class divide between upper-class and lower-class families. The classes sometimes have shared a culture and ethnicity and at other times have belonged to different ethnic groups. Hereditary aristocracy, often united with hereditary monarchy, seems to be the default setting for sedentary civilizations. The societies of Montezuma and Hernán Cortés evolved in isolation from one another, but they were alike in being structured around monarchs and nobles and commoners, so that it was relatively easy for Spanish upper-class adventurers to insert themselves at the top of the Aztec imperial hierarchy, replacing the native nobles. In the Old World, barbarian invasions likewise often took the form of newcomers replacing an old aristocracy and ruling over the existing peasantry.

Illusions of a Classless Society

In spite of its universality and persistence in premodern civilization, the conviction that hereditary elites are anachronistic in an age of science-based industry was shared by all of the major ideologies of the twentieth century. Marxism-Leninism promised to abolish class distinctions. So, in its own way, did German National Socialism, which preached inequality among races but social equality within the Aryan-German Volk. For their part, the social democrats and social liberals of the Western democracies sought to euthanize the class system through reform rather than revolution.

So powerful was this current of thought that traditional conservative defenses of hereditary classes more or less vanished after World War II, replaced by utilitarian arguments that differences in income, wealth, and inheritance were beneficial for society as a whole. In the United States, William F. Buckley Jr. and the postwar conservative intellectual movement outsourced all of their economic thinking to free-market zealots like Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek. These libertarian purists rejected the term “conservative” entirely and described themselves as classical liberals.

The influence of libertarianism on the European postwar Right was limited in Germany by the social market ideal of Ordoliberalismus, and in Britain by the persistence of a strain of Disraelian “One Nation” conservatism among Tory “wets.” But the fusionist conservatives of National Review enthusiastically embraced the libertarian economic program of slashing taxes, repealing the New Deal, and privatizing as much of government as possible, even as they disagreed about foreign policy and social issues.

In this hyperindividualist vision of a meritocracy of money, wealth would trickle down to the untalented and lazy majority from the talented and hard-working minority who acquired their riches chiefly through personal exertions. The rich might have a moral duty as individuals to contribute to charity, but in American right-wing ideology they should not be taxed at a higher rate than the poor. This explains American conservatives’ obsession with proposals for a “flat tax,” putting them at odds with their hero Adam Smith, who observed in The Wealth of Nations that “it is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.”

For its part, the neoliberal center-left, like the libertarian center-right, treats modern Western societies as near-meritocracies. The critique of inequality on the left tends to take two forms. One is what the journalist Mickey Kaus calls “money liberalism.” For some on the center-left, the problem is not persistent inherited family privilege in all its forms, but mere differences in income among individuals, which can be remedied simply, if expensively, by more redistribution of income funded by higher taxes.

Others on the center-left focus on inequality among individuals of different races and genders, rather than among families in different classes. In this narrative, diversity means that categories defined by race or gender should be represented in elite institutions (corporate management, prestigious universities, etc.) in rough proportion to their numbers in the population. The ideology of managerial-elite diversity holds that working-class African Americans, Latinos, and women can be adequately “represented” in elite institutions by affluent African Americans, affluent Latinos, and affluent women. In reality, however, there may be vast social distance between, and inequality of life chances among, the designated category representatives and others who share their ancestries or genders.

Even when it comes to intergenerational inequalities of wealth, the quasi-official intelligentsia of the academy, the media, and the nonprofit sector focuses on crude statistical differences among racial categories as a whole, ignoring differences among classes within racial groups. But averages based on race which ignore class are misleading. As Matt Bruenig has pointed out, the top 10 percent of white families in the United States owns 65.1 percent of national wealth, while the bottom half of white families owns only 2 percent, and the bottom 32.1 percent of white families has a net worth of zero.1 These numbers contradict the popular center-left argument that white working-class Republicans enjoy significant benefits in wealth and income from white privilege.

In reality, the truly privileged white economic elite has been shifting toward the Democrats, even as the white working class has become more Republican. The disproportionately Democratic media spins this as a shift of “educated” voters toward Democrats. The more honest interpretation is perhaps too discomfiting: “A look at affluent suburban returns on a district and town level suggests that some combination of income, education, culture, and geography—in a word, ‘class’—drove Clinton’s most dramatic gains,” wrote Matt Karp of the Democratic Socialists of America.2

Thus both the mainstream Right and the mainstream Left in America are deeply invested in the claim that a classless society can be achieved in the near future, if only the government would get out of the way (the Right), or redistribute more income (money liberalism), or remove residual racial and gender barriers to individual achievement (identity-politics progressivism). The gap between these perceptions and the reality of class mobility in Western societies is enormous.

In the United States and Europe, the rates of intergenerational mobility, measured crudely by the index of correlation between the earnings of fathers and sons, are strikingly low. According to Julia B. Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, roughly half of the “parental earnings advantage” is inherited by sons: “If trends hold, it would take an average of six generations for family economic advantage to disappear in the United States and the United Kingdom.” In Canada, Norway, Finland, and Denmark, social mobility is somewhat higher, such that “it would take three, not six, generations, to essentially cancel out the effects of being born into a wealthy family.” If only America were more like social democratic Europe, it would only take three generations to make a gentleman!

What is more, there never existed a golden age of intergenerational upward mobility in America or any other liberal democracy. According to Claudia Olivetti and Daniele Paserman, social mobility in the United States peaked between 1870 and 1940—but even this can be explained chiefly by the one-time boost to working class incomes that accompanied industrialization, which was concentrated in the northern states.3

The persistence of class in Britain is even more striking. In 2013, Gregory Clark and Neil Cummins demonstrated that Britons with Norman French surnames like Darcy, Mandeville, Percy, and Montgomery had been at the top of the British social order for twenty-seven generations since the Norman conquest in 1066, while families with Anglo-Saxon names like Sidwell, Tonbridge, and Goodhill still tend to be poorer and less educated.4

Even the most progressive and redistributionist versions of Nordic social democracy have failed to do more than slightly increase the chances that individuals will end up in social classes different from those into which they were born. And as the rise of dynastic Communism has demonstrated, any truly radical, prolonged attempt to create a classless society—by means of universal expropriation, coercive reeducation, and mass executions—is likely to backfire by creating a new aristocracy, possibly even more nepotistic and tyrannical and exploitative than the old.

Is there anything that can bring about something like the ideal of the classless society, an ideal shared in different ways by liberal democratic, communist, and fascist regimes? According to Walter Scheidel in The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2017), large-scale declines in social inequality have historically been associated with mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues. Yet, as we have seen in the case of Communism, even transformative revolutions can be followed by the conversion of revolutionaries into aristocrats. So perhaps we are left with only three horsemen of apocalyptic egalitarianism: war, state collapse, and pestilence.

Moderating Class Conflict

All of this suggests that the goal of moving toward a classless society is utopian. This is not to say that efforts to make careers more open to talents are not worthwhile. But because only a few members of the lower classes are likely to move up in any generation, this cannot be the focus of attempts to help low-income and low-status individuals as a group. Rather than engage in futile attempts to completely eliminate largely hereditary classes, the objective should be to replace class wars with class truces.

The project of moderating, rather than eliminating, class conflict was central to Western political thought for two millenia. In his recent book, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, Ganesh Sitaraman writes:

For most of the history of constitutional thinking—the twenty-three hundred years from the ancient Greeks into the modern era—the hardest, most intractable problem was at the nexus of social and constitutional structure: the economic division between rich and poor. Aristotle, Polybius, Cicero, Machiavelli, and other political thinkers all paid considerable attention to how constitutional structure would intersect with economic inequality. They worried that economic inequality would lead to political inequality and, with it, oppression and ultimately revolution. Their primary answer was to develop mixed forms of government that built economic classes directly into the structure of government. Each class would thus have a stake in government and a check on the other.5

Sitaraman calls these mixed forms of government “class warfare constitutions.” In the Roman Republic, patricians controlled the Senate while plebeians were represented by tribunes. Although the Roman Republic collapsed into civil war and was replaced by despotism, thinkers from Polybius to Machiavelli were inspired by the idea of formal representation of different classes in different ways. For some, the goal was to prevent the poor from attempting to expropriate the property of the rich. Machiavelli, however, viewed the greed and ambition of elites as the greatest threats to republics, which needed to be safeguarded by popular power.

The American founders kept the idea of constitutional checks and balances but rejected the idea that bodies like the presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives should formally represent different social classes. Jefferson and Madison did not believe that this mere formal equality could work, however, in the absence of a high degree of equality among a dominant class of free family farmers in a society with few landless laborers. Jefferson hoped that the homesteading of the continental domain of the United States by family farmers, combined with the voluntary movement of freed slaves to colonies abroad, could preserve a white yeoman farmer utopia for many generations. Madison, more pessimistic, calculated in 1830 that a century later, in 1930, a majority of Americans would be landless laborers “necessarily reduced by a competition for employment to wages which afford them the bare necessities of life.” As a result, “the institutions and laws of the Country must be adapted, and it will require for the task all the wisdom of the wisest patriots.”6

Right on schedule, following America’s evolution from a society of farmers to a society with a wage-earning majority, President Franklin D. Roosevelt presided over the New Deal—the American version of the post-Depression/post–World War II “settlements” that were associated with three decades of widely shared prosperity in the United States and its western European and East Asian allies.

Two stories are told today about the “thirty glorious years” between 1945 and the mid-1970s. One, popular in the bipartisan neoliberal establishment, holds that the spread of high school and college education in the mid-twentieth century increased “human capital,” raising the wages of workers by making them more productive and thus more deserving of higher pay. The secret to higher wages today is, therefore, more education.

The other story, associated with the labor Left and social democrats, and some populists on the right, emphasizes the bargaining power of the working class relative to employers. Central to the bargaining power of national working classes in the golden age of postwar Western capitalism was the institution of “corporatism” or “tripartism”—government-brokered deals among employers and unions. In many European countries, this kind of government-employer-union negotiation was highly institutionalized. In the United States, a weak version of it existed for a generation following the Treaty of Detroit in 1950, in which the United Auto Workers union made deals with the big three automakers. Although no more than a third of Americans were ever unionized, these deals in the concentrated manufacturing sector served as models for corporate-labor relations throughout the economy.

The Treaty of Detroit regime can be thought of as an informal, extragovernmental version of Sitaraman’s class warfare constitution that enhanced the bargaining power of the working class. So can the postwar party systems of the industrial democracies that incorporated two large groups which had been left out before the world wars and the Great Depression: the industrial proletariat and family farmers. The farmer-labor coalition that was the backbone of the New Deal Democrats was similar to the alliance of industrial workers and farmers responsible for the “cow deal” alliance of 1933, in the early years of Swedish social democracy.

The real significance of the post-1945 settlements in Europe and North America is not that they created a wholly new middle class. The white-collar, college-educated group expanded, to be sure, but it was and remains a minority in developed nations even today. And as we have seen, intergenerational mobility was not that much different half a century ago than it is now.

What really happened in the generation after World War II is that the balance of political and economic power among the preexisting managerial (in Burnham’s terms) and working classes shifted, and so did the distribution of gains from growth. The working class in 1960 was pretty much the same as the working class in 1930—but with more money, more leisure, and better benefits. Likewise, the managerial class was not that different in 1960 than it had been in 1930, but it paid more taxes and was far more constrained in its authority over employees.

The human capital story favored by elite neoliberals cannot explain why inequality in wages and wealth, which was compressed in the third quarter of the twentieth century, has increased since then. The bargaining power story, however, has a simple and plausible explanation: globalization, operating mainly through corporate-orchestrated labor arbitrage—in the form of offshoring jobs to foreign workers or importing immigrants to compete with native workers—weakened the bargaining power of immobile native workers in the developed democracies. Employers’ use of a transnational “reserve army of labor” to discipline wage earners, together with the decline of private-sector unions and the transformation of political parties from grassroots organizations into brands purchased by rich donors and lobbies, is more than adequate to explain how the well-paid, highly unionized national proletariats of the 1960s were replaced on both sides of the Atlantic by the “precariats” of today. Had there been, say, 100 percent tariffs and zero immigration from the 1970s onward, there might be fewer auto workers in the United States thanks to automation, but they would probably be very well paid indeed. And in the absence of immigration, tight labor markets almost certainly would have boosted the wages of janitors, construction workers, health care aides, and others in purely domestic service industries, with the costs to working-class consumers of those services offset to some degree by higher workingclass wages in general.

Bargaining Power

It is easy to come up with a list of policies that might shift the balance of raw bargaining power in favor of nationally rooted working classes at the expense of managerial classes in a zero-sum way. Some of them are conventionally thought of as right-wing, like immigration restriction to create tighter labor markets. Others are considered left-wing, like more private-sector unionization, government as employer of last resort (ELR), or the socialization of necessities like health care and education, which in the United States must be (at least partly) purchased out of wages rather than provided as civic entitlements out of taxation. Many on both the labor Left and the populist Right favor protectionist measures that would thwart the ability of employers to employ global labor arbitrage and therefore strengthen the bargaining power of workers in traded sector industries.

The challenge is not a lack of ideas but a lack of power. Forced to share power with labor unions and small-town politicians representing rural populists in the second half of the twentieth century, the managerial class in the West managed to break free of its post-1945 fetters during the last generation. Having used offshoring and mass immigration to weaken organized labor, managerial elites used campaign finance and personnel to capture former labor parties like the U.S. Democrats, British Labour, and the German Social Democrats. And by means of their role in funding universities, think tanks, and the prestige media, the same elites have created a neoliberal intellectual monoculture that rationalizes the interests of the managerial class in a regime based on low wages, labor arbitrage, weak unions, and eviscerated democratic institutions.

What might be called the class culture of the elites of Managerialism 2.0, arising after the Cold War, is strikingly different from that of Managerialism 1.0, which lasted from World War II until the end of the Cold War. The managers of the great national corporate, governmental, and nonprofit bureaucracies of Managerialism 1.0 inherited much of the patrician culture of the high bourgeoisie and the hereditary upper class, into whose ranks they had disproportionately been born. As a rule, they combined a version of collective class responsibility or noblesse oblige—it was shameful to avoid military service, or to refuse to pay taxes—with toleration of class cultures other than their own—twentieth-century managers golfed and drank daiquiris but did not care if their workers bowled and drank beer.

The newer ruling class of Managerialism 2.0 is the opposite. Its more successful members are often generous philanthropists, but the founding myth that modern society is an individualistic meritocracy is incompatible with any notions of collective responsibility on the part of an identifiable, largely hereditary upper class. The converse of this rejection of class-based noblesse oblige is a perverse form of egalitarianism, in the form of lifestyle evangelism by the newer managerial elite.

Under the first managerial dispensation, once the whistle blew the proletarian could leave the factory gate for the safety of a world that excluded the bosses, a world of working-class neighborhoods, churches, clubs, and taverns. Under Managerialism 2.0, however, the boss class pursues the poor proletarian home, trying to snatch the unhealthy steak from the worker’s plate and defining the theology of the worker’s church as unacceptable and possibly illegal, while blocking the racy prole-oriented tabloid as “fake news” on the internet. The second wave of managerialism in the West has replaced the distant and snobbish—but thankfully indifferent—bosses of the post-1945 years with a new “woke” nomenklatura. This new elite, like the Communist nomenklaturas, is not content merely to rule the workplace, but also demands willing assent to the ever-changing ideological party line of the bosses in their version of the Mao suit: the T-shirts and blue jeans of Silicon Valley. It is no wonder that the working classes of the Western democracies are rebelling against their new overlords.

Given the control of most institutions in Western societies by the newly ascendant managerial oligarchy, it follows that politicians who advocate working-class majority interests rather than those of managerial-class donors and organizations are likely to be found only among outsiders like Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, and Beppe Grillo—eccentric populists and maladjusted leftists, demagogic politicians, and other rabble-rousers. Only if particular reforms advocated by these gauche outsiders show an enduring potential for mobilizing great numbers of voters are members of the complacent managerial ruling class likely to pay attention and respond. And even then, different factions within the managerial class may adopt different strategies. Some factions in the elite may favor populist reforms, if only to avert more radical changes. Others may respond in an authoritarian manner by seeking to reduce the already limited power of working-class voters. They might, for example, seek to further transfer decision-making away from institutions that are more accountable to working-class voters—legislatures, nation-states—to other institutions more insulated from popular accountability, such as executive and judicial agencies, transnational organizations, and treaty arbiters.

Will today’s populist revolts on the right and left be ephemeral and ineffectual? Demagogic tribunes of the people can disrupt managerial hegemony now and then, but the national organizations of the managerial class minority can only effectually be checked by the countervailing power of national organizations that are dominated by and accountable to the working-class majority.

Grassroots Institutions and Countervailing Power

Working-class movements capable of contesting the domination of politics and government by the managerial minority must have their own institutions which do not depend on the elite for funding or approval. This is the lesson of the twentieth century.

The New Deal in the United States would not have existed, or would have taken a different form, if organized labor and organized farmer communities had not possessed their own local institutions and subcultures, independent of control by industrial capitalists and metropolitan bankers, from which they could launch bids into politics. The Second Great Awakening fueled Jacksonian nationalism and populism. Later American populism and progressivism both drew on evangelical Protestant organization and values, and the American labor movement was allied in many communities with Catholic churches of an immigrant diaspora. The African American church was central to the Civil Rights Movement.

Local government is another such institution. Even if they have college degrees, lower-level public officials from working-class families are likely to have greater sympathies for ordinary Americans and local communities than the cosmopolitan meritocrats and aristocrats of the corporate, financial, media, and nonprofit worlds. During the decades of bloody labor violence before the New Deal, local sheriffs, city councils, and juries sometimes sided with the workers or miners against corporations backed by the state and federal government, as in the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921.

My argument is not that local civil society can be an alternative to national politics. I am not making a case, like the one made by Yuval Levin, for greater policy-making decentralization in general. Global rivalries among great powers in the dangerous multipolar and mercantilist world of this century will prevent that. It follows, then, that the balance of power within Western nation-states cannot shift back toward national working-class majorities unless their representatives can contest, capture, retain, and exercise political and bureaucratic power at the national level.

My point is rather that some new set of “little platoons” is necessary to provide the grassroots foundations of national organizations and networks that can challenge the domination of the managerial class in national politics, exercised today by parties, media, and think tanks which are almost wholly funded, controlled, and staffed by people born or assimilated into the managerial elite. The old national grassroots parties and unions answerable to working-class citizens no longer exist, so their functional equivalents must be created, in the form of federations at all levels, each accountable to the level below, from the neighborhood or ward all the way up to the national capital.

These authentic working-class movements, the twenty-first-century successors to the Grange, the Knights of Labor, and the American Federation of Labor, are unlikely to resemble the managerial oligarchy’s conceptions of the socially acceptable Right and Left, much less its idea of “local community activist groups” dependent on benevolent coastal billionaires and deferential toward Ivy League–educated technocrats. Like their working-class constituents, these movements would mix patriotism and economic egalitarianism, religious communalism and support for entitlements and free public goods. They would probably combine crude demotic speech and civic rhetoric in ways quite alien to managerial-class conservatives, centrists, and progressives alike.

For example, religious institutions, found distasteful or threatening by the secular managerial ruling class, are likely to play a role in any vigorous working-class politics. The genuine threat to American pluralism once represented by the failed attempts of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition to legislate sectarian values into law has been thwarted and is unlikely to return. Moreover,  religious affiliation in the United States is declining. But churches, synagogues, and mosques are among the last remaining influential institutions which are not controlled by well-educated funders and administrators residing in a few big cities and national capitals, and which at least sometimes reflect the values of working-class citizens. For this reason alone, American society has an interest in defending the institutional autonomy of diverse religious subcultures, as pockets of ancient moral and intellectual traditions that can resist the top-down secular evangelism of the imperial overclass, whose Vaticans and Meccas are found in Davos, Aspen, and the Hamptons.

Carving out autonomous spaces for the working-class majority that the managerial class cannot control and manipulate also requires us to defend and perhaps incrementally expand existing islands of local civic socialism. Basic civil rights should be identical everywhere within a nation, and in a federal system social insurance is most efficiently handled at the national level. But there remain many local institutions that can be provided as amenities for all citizens and paid for out of taxation at the municipal level—public clinics, public libraries and museums, city and county parks, even public golf courses, basketball and tennis courts, and swimming pools.

To be successful, national, working-class grassroots movements must not only have institutions immune from dependence on the charity of managerial-class elites. They must also have permanent officials, not just volunteers. The permanent staff of institutions answerable to the working class must in turn have adequate salaries—but in the interests of institutional independence, those salaries cannot be paid for by donations from corporations, banks, billionaire-endowed nonprofit foundations, and rich individuals. The money for the salaries of civil society’s representatives of the working-class must come from other sources—small donations, membership dues, and, in the case of local elected officials and civil servants, taxes.

Democracy, then, requires strategically strengthening institutions that working-class people can control or at least influence. That means, among other things, defending the institutional independence of diverse religious communities, while sometimes favoring pragmatic municipal socialism. Whatever form an authentic grassroots working-class movement might take in the twenty-first-century United States, it is likely to look like historic precedents, including old-fashioned Milwaukee-style “sewer socialism” (municipal ownership of public utilities) and the Salvation Army. It will not look like the campus-based social justice and climate-change NGOs of progressive upper-middle-class professionals or, for that matter, free-market agitprop groups funded by the libertarian rich.

Quite apart from empowering the transracial working-class majority of the nation, a new bottom-up civil society might help to arrest the decline of parts of the American working class into an anomic and alienated Lumpenproletariat. In the United States and similar nations, what was once a flourishing ecosystem of communal organizations has withered away, replaced by a social desert in which many semi-employed individuals, living alone in low-rent apartments, play video games. Meanwhile, the college-educated isolate themselves according to their own fashion, listening to music with earplugs as they mortify their solitary flesh in the gym after work. Humans are social animals, and the contraction of life in hyperindividualist, late neoliberalism into a division between work and cocooning in front of a glowing screen at home is dehumanizing. It seems likely that the pendulum will swing back in favor of clubbability at some point.

In a new working-class, neighborhood-based dispensation—as in the old—there might be clubs and meetings and bake sales and conventions, neighborhood barbecues and ceremonial banquets and annual dances. And this can only benefit working-class citizens, whose chief political resource must always be their membership in organizations capable of wielding collective influence, because, unlike members of the managerial oligarchy, they lack wealth, prestigious school connections, celebrity, and other personal assets that can be converted into political influence.

It might be objected that such localism and communitarianism have been rendered impossible in today’s fluid society. But in every modern Western democracy, geographic mobility tends to be a characteristic of the managerial overclass, not the working-class majority. The average American lives only eighteen miles from his or her mother. The situation is similar in Europe. International migration is also exaggerated. Only about 3.4 percent of human beings live in countries other than those in which they were born.

The rootedness of most working-class Americans and Europeans in their home towns and regions is often lamented by the intellectuals of the managerial class: why don’t the shiftless, stick-in-the-mud losers in hinterland communities show some initiative and move to the Bay Area to invent an app, or move to London to work in finance? But the geographic immobility of the working class is both a political challenge, in a world of mobile capital, and a political opportunity—an opportunity to build bottom-up, multigenerational communities that are homes, not hotels.

Two Possible Futures

The elimination of largely hereditary social classes is unlikely. For generations or ages to come, most people in the United States and other technologically advanced societies will be assigned by birth to the status of managers or proletarians, and only a minority will move up or down. If there is not to be perpetual conflict among these two broad classes, the class war must come to an end in one of two ways.

One possibility is that there will be a cross-class compromise, embodied in a new class warfare constitution that allows working-class majorities at least partly and imperfectly to check the domination of the managerial minority. The updated class warfare constitution should be a virtual one, like those of the Western democracies from World War II until the end of the Cold War: an informal, extragovernmental, extraconstitutional system of institutions rooted in the autonomous private and public institutions of the working-class national majority, and providing the working class with greater collective bargaining power in employment and politics.

The other possibility, perhaps more likely, is that today’s class war will come to an end when the managerial minority, with its near-monopoly of wealth, political power, expertise, and media influence, completely and successfully represses the numerically greater but politically weaker working-class majority. If that is the case, the future North America and Europe may look a lot like Brazil and Mexico, with nepotistic oligarchies clustered in a few fashionable metropolitan areas but surrounded by a derelict, depopulated, and despised “hinterland.” What Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—with its managers in skyscrapers and its oppressed factory workers underground—was for the first industrial era, Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium (2013)—with its sybaritic elite in orbit and its desperate earthbound slum-dwellers—might prove to be for the second managerial era: a prophecy in the form of a nightmare.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 2 (Summer 2018): 17–34.

1 Matt Bruenig, “The Top 10 Percent of White Families Own Almost Everything,” American Prospect, September 8, 2014.

2 Matt Karp, “Hillary Clinton Won the Rich Suburbs, But Not the Working Class,” Democratic Socialists of America (website), December 14, 2016.

3 Claudia Olivett and Daniele Paserman, “A Land of Opportunity No More: Poor Intergenerational Mobility in the US Is a Feature of Both the Past and Present,” London School of Economics, USApp—American Politics and Policy (blog), November 4, 2015.

4 Steve Doughty, “So Much for Social Mobility . . . 1,000 Years after William the Conqueror Invaded, You Still Need a Norman Name Like Darcy or Percy to Get Ahead,” Daily Mail, October 29, 2013.

5 Ganesh Sitaraman, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic (New York: Knopf, 2017), 7–8.

6 Sitaraman, 104.

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