The word “grifter” seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue today. On the left, grifters are identified and called out with ever-increasing paranoia. On the right, the term is thrown around with almost equal ease, and often with good cause. The grifter is a threat to every movement; he lurks in every shadow. Even the most honest and laudable political causes are seemingly powerless in the face of the grifter’s corrupting influence. And so accusations of “grifting” fly around in contemporary America with a frantic energy reminiscent of an earlier era of Soviet folk denunciations. The “grifter” has become modern America’s equivalent of the “wrecker” or “capitalist spy.”
Pause a second here and think about the implications: Did “wreckers” actually exist inside the Soviet Union? Well, probably; studies have shown that even in the world of eusocial insects, some worker ants do the lion’s share of the work, while others find far more joy in just slacking off. Moreover, outright sabotage of industry did occur to some extent, whether for political reasons or otherwise. Still, only the most credulous would conclude that the Soviet Union’s all-encompassing paranoia about wreckers and spies was justified, or that it did not arise from deeper sociopolitical roots.
Similarly, the popularity of the “grifter” narrative to explain political trend lines today—and more often than not, political failures—ought to engender some skepticism. “Grifters,” as typically understood, are particularly shameless individuals whose greed or ambition drives them to find easy marks and parasitize on political movements. The grifter, in this telling, is at least partly responsible for the failure of everything from left-populism to the incompetence of the Trump administration and beyond.
Of course, just like the wrecker of the twentieth century, that these people exist in some number within political movements is not really up for debate. Grifters and con men have existed in every hitherto known society and will likely continue to exist for as long as humans walk the earth. But to what extent do they actually play a systemic role in shaping politics, and how might they do so? The problem with the contemporary paranoia surrounding “grifters” is that, in our haste to morally condemn the greedy or the unprincipled, we ignore a vast social process playing out in front of us: the growth of a social class of increasingly radicalized elites who are dependent on, and seek recognition for, institutionalized “grifts” that are being built into the bedrock of our societies. This phenomenon is increasingly prevalent in the West, though not in societies like modern China.
Today’s popular usage of the term—and the sneering with which the “grifters” are usually dismissed—obscures more than it reveals. At this point, “grifting” in the West is no longer a case of individual or moral failings. Neither is it a mere “industry” that employs people. “Grifting,” in the fullest sense, is a social and political phenomenon that lies at the heart of why contemporary politics has become so unstable and polarized.
Blinded by the Right
One of the unfortunate legacies of Cold War politics and the battle against Soviet Communism is a serious ideological hangover that has persisted for several decades. As a result of this hangover, the American Right has found itself very much unprepared to face—or even to understand—the political forces being arrayed against it since the 1990s. I speak here of conservatism’s blithe, ideological dismissal of material interests and class as the prime drivers of politics, in favor of a view in which abstract metaphysical “principles” are, or at least ought to be, what drives rational humans to make political choices and pick sides. It is impossible to adequately describe just how intellectually vacuous and historically illiterate this “principled” view is, so instead I shall merely point out that it is completely antithetical to the conservative worldview for essentially all of human history before the twentieth century.
To an old-style conservative of any ancien régime, the idea that ideology was the prime mover of politics would not only have been seen as ridiculous, but subversive and dangerous as well. In a hierarchical society, it is the height of folly to imagine that people are somehow free to arbitrarily pick their political positions or interests. In such a society, it is obvious to everyone that the interests of the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, or the nobility are by and large tied to their status as peasants, burghers, or nobles. To try to deny the intrinsic link between political interest and social and economic station would have been the work of subversive political radicals, not defenders of a stable order.
Moreover, the vacuity of the contemporary “conservative” view of politics is proven by the speed of its intellectual and political collapse in recent years. Far, far back in the halcyon days of 2018, Jordan Peterson was taking the right of center by storm; the “intellectual dark web” was gearing up to launch powerful counternarratives against the creeping domination of “cultural Marxist” ideas inside academia and the media; and figures such as Jonathan Haidt were attracting attention as critics of a failed educational apparatus and its “coddling of the American mind” (which was assumed to be behind much of the rising social and political tension).
By 2021, however, this cottage industry intent on defeating the Left by dissecting its faulty ideas mostly lies in ruins. In fact, it has proven itself utterly impotent in the face of a very real political and institutional grand offensive that started in earnest in 2016 and that some people (foolishly) hoped would calm down once Trump was removed from the White House. The “libs,” as it turns out, were at the end of the day hardly just kids who would grow out of their silly ideas once they graduated into the real world.
From Party to NGO: The Grifters Come for the Left
There is probably no better illustration of the populist Left’s structural failures than the attempt by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters to restore a “pro-worker” Left politics to Britain. When Corbyn assumed leadership of Labour, the party had been slowly shedding working-class voters and replacing them with well-heeled, well-educated urban voters for a long time. Labour was not unique in this regard; most of its sister parties on the continent were going through the same process. But Corbyn’s ascent was widely perceived as a welcome break, a return to more “traditional” class politics that had supposedly been kept at bay by various “neoliberals” inside the social democratic parties of the West. In reality, however, Corbyn never halted the trend of shedding working-class votes. In fact, with Corbyn’s hand on the tiller, Labour lost the “Red Wall” and finally managed to complete the process that Tony Blair had started so long ago.
Clearly, there were many signs of the coming disaster that should have been obvious even before the dismal electoral failure of late 2019. For all the talk of a return to working-class politics, the people who actually carried Corbyn to power—and who swelled the membership ranks of Labour—weren’t members of the working class, by and large, but the same well-educated urbanites that the party had long been tilting towards. Yet this fact was overwhelmingly ignored. The Corbyn campaign (like the Bernie Sanders campaign) insisted that it was a working-class movement and that it objectively represented the interests of the working class, regardless of any skepticism on the part of the constituents themselves. Obviously, this did not work out. In 2019, Labour’s remaining working-class voters abandoned the party in droves, either sitting out the election entirely or even voting for the Conservatives.
There is, however, an illustrative postscript to the failure of this putative workers’ revolution. After leaving the party leadership position in disgrace, Corbyn smoothly transitioned into the radical world of . . . NGOs. Of course, a visitor to the website of Corbyn’s newly founded Project for Peace and Justice will be hard-pressed to find much that stands out in an already crowded field of “progressive” NGOs. Upon clicking the highlighted “donate” button, the visitor is told that, while billionaires are always spending their wealth on extending injustice, the Project for Peace and Justice has something the billionaires are not prepared for: you. You (the reader is informed) are more than a donor; you are part of a powerful movement. And for the price of no more than a coffee a month, you can help find, highlight, and end injustices not just in Britain, but across the entire world.
Visiting the “vacancies” tab at the Project for Peace and Justice offers its own delights. At the time of writing, the organization is looking for a “campaigns and communications officer,” who will “help the Project deliver high level campaigns and strategic communications supporting exciting work streams of research and activism work.” Beneath the listings of job openings, there is also a fairly standard (but oddly revealing) diversity statement. It reads:
We are committed to providing equal opportunities for everyone regardless of their background. We acknowledge that people from certain backgrounds are under-represented in progressive movements and we are committed to doing what we can to correct this. We are particularly keen to receive applications from people of colour; disabled people; people who identify as being LGBT+; people who have a mental health condition; and people who identify as working class or have done so in the past.
Though Karl Marx was not exactly known for brevity, it is clear that he lived in simpler times. At the highest levels of the “movement” he inspired, his faithful disciples now finally declare: people who self-identify as working class or have done so at some point in the past, unite!
It should perhaps go without saying that anyone who believes Corbyn’s Peace and Justice Project represents any significant challenge to “billionaires” would have to be supremely credulous—as credulous as anyone who believes Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Haidt are going to change academic culture. In addition, one must be able to overlook the fact that the sort of people who will actually work at an NGO will tend to be people who have already worked for or will work for several NGOs. The vacancies page of Corbyn’s NGO tacitly admits this, with its claim to favor people who identify or have at one point identified as working class. To add such a qualification is in its own way an admission that this is certainly not a working-class job by any stretch of the imagination. Critically, moreover, this point puts the lie to all the formulaic expressions of anti-plutocratic radicalism elsewhere on the site; it is after all the donors who keep the lights on, the wages paid, and most of the entire ecosystem going.
The Politics of Overproduction
Many readers of this essay will no doubt have heard of Peter Turchin and, in particular, his theory of elite overproduction. The idea that societies at various points produce too many elites—who cannot be absorbed into the social structure, and instead cause instability and strife—has a certain natural appeal given the current state of Western politics. Indeed, I would argue that today the most visible political activity of the Left is primarily geared toward satisfying the frustrated material and social ambitions of this “lumpen elite.”
In the same vein, the failure of the Right to understand—and successfully counter—the “darn college kids” of the Left marching through the institutions mainly comes down to its failure to understand that the various “crazy” or “anti-Western” or “anti-liberal” ideas being expressed are intrinsic to the class position their proponents find themselves in. As such, the ideas are not really “just ideas,” and they cannot be defeated simply by exposing their contradictions or social disutility.
A similar case can be made for much of the currently existing culture war. Once class conflict is suppressed (something that the modern Left, with its increasingly affluent social base, and the modern Right both have a stake in), political conflict reappears as centering on “values” or “whiteness.” But scratch the surface of that ideological veneer, and base material politics emerges again.
It is in fact a core feature, not a bug, that every new step in the “culture war” seems to require a new federal commission, corporate diversity department, or university star chamber to be staffed and funded. It is similarly a “feature” that behind every claim that this or that area is “too white,” the expected resolution is always that more resources be diverted to new hires (preferably the particular person or persons raising the alarm) to correct this imbalance, or that some people be fired so that their jobs can pass to the more deserving. Today these fights over jobs, grants, and resources are not understood as fights over jobs, grants, and resources, but as wars over “culture” and “values,” wars that just—by the strangest coincidence—happen to involve all the other material things, supposedly as some sort of trifling afterthought. The immediate payday, we are told, is just a small step on the way to some far-reaching goal.
The problem currently facing the overproduced elite is that their claims to wealth and status cannot be comfortably met by the society they inhabit. As such, their relationship to said society becomes one of parasitism; one of trying, by hook or by crook, to squeeze out more of that society’s surplus and redirect it toward themselves. Thus woke language is deployed in order to make sure a Hollywood movie about black people cannot be produced without hiring a stable of racial “consultants,” or that Hollywood movies without black people are seen as hopelessly racist and out of touch, or that every large company should hire various “diversity consultants” to ensure a “safe” working environment. That is parasitism in action, cloaked behind a veneer of moral rectitude.
This is the true social base of the radical Left. Downwardly mobile professionals who, for structural reasons, find it increasingly difficult to reproduce themselves as a class, and thus try to wield the power of the state to stack the deck in their favor. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx famously denounced the “lumpen proletariat” as “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged convicts, runaway galley slaves, swindlers, charlatans, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, procurers, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, rag-pickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars; in short, the entirely undefined, disintegrating mass, thrown hither and yon, which the French call la bohème.” Seen as true tools of reaction, they were, to Marx’s mind, singularly vulnerable to being bribed with gifts and loans and enlisted into reactionary service by a figure such as Napoleon III.
Viewed through this lens, the panic about “grifters” makes a certain logical sense. The world of the Left—certainly after the defeat of Bernie Sanders in America and Corbyn in the UK—bears an amusing resemblance to the hodgepodge Marx once railed about. Here we find struggling college dropouts, plucky booksellers, adjunct professors angling for tenure, posters on Twitter or Substack or Medium looking for that one big break, discourse cops ceaselessly patrolling the beat hoping to gain by denouncing others, people panhandling for voluntary “reparations” on cash apps, grad students drowning in debt, depressed podcasters who’ve failed their journey through the Western cursus honorum—the list goes on. Often, these people entertain various messianic pretensions of avenging themselves like the Bolsheviks of old on a society that never gave them what was supposed to be their due.
The imagined workers at the heart of the project have mostly all checked out of politics or moved on to the populist Right, and so accusations of “grifting” fly often and easily. Everyone is working some kind of angle, mostly to try to escape their own predicament and avoid the fate of having to stack shelves at Target. What is being passed off as a lack of moral purity (“too many grifters in the movement”) is not actually so; the real problem is that the material incentives of the situation make this fight over table scraps necessary. As such, there was no abandonment of principles behind Jeremy Corbyn’s move from leading a “workers’ party” to leading an NGO begging for donations, with no real popular constituency or clearly defined base of support. As one leftist commentator put it in a 2019 election postmortem, the Left at institutions like Novara Media had hoped Corbyn would give them jobs in his incoming administration; now, out of power, it does look like he is trying his best to do exactly that, with the limited tools at his disposal.
Looking at the culture war itself as the practical mode of politics favored by the overproduced elite lets us see the class conflicts taking shape today more clearly. Today, we see the production and imposition of an ever-growing amount of credentials, and not just in the world of academia. To be judged “anti-racist” enough to be able to produce a movie is itself a sort of credential, and they are sold by increasingly demanding consultants and racial hucksters. To have a properly “inclusive” workplace is not cheap, and it is not getting cheaper. The price—what can be extorted from the productive population through law or by dint of moral blackmail—is the point. In Sweden, for example, there’s long been something of a controversy around the practice of selling “lgbtq certificates” to Swedish municipalities; that is, an NGO arranging workshops and seminars “sells” what amounts to a diploma indicating that the municipality is not intolerant towards lgbtq people, provided the municipality buys those workshops and those seminars. In practice, this is mostly just a protection racket, because what is being sold is a promise that the NGO will not denounce the municipality of Örebro or Eskilstuna to the press and politicians in Stockholm. No doubt these sorts of successful practices will soon cross the Atlantic, if they haven’t done so already.
Your Personnel Is Your Politics
For the Left, the class interest of their actual base forces them—regardless of personal morality—to find ways to secure more and more resources, which sometimes takes the form of moral coercion (hire my identity group, or else), and sometimes appears as naked patronage politics (the push to forgive student debt, the never ending debate on “reparations”). The general insanity of identity politics today is mostly a measure of just how desperate these overproduced elites have become, and how many of them there are.
There are several implications of this. The first is that it is often dangerous to try to reify the various ideological phenomena displayed today into some grand system of analysis. The attack on “cultural Marxism” is a good example of an approach that starts at the point of accepting the stated ideas of the Left at face value, and then tries to predict how the Left will act by tracing these ideas back to their presumed first principles. That this method of analysis has failed to do the Right much good is an understatement.
The second implication, following neatly from the first, is that regime-level class analysis is necessary, both in order to understand the present and to predict the future. The twentieth century is over, and actually existing socialism is rotting in a grave, alongside the belief of ordinary Americans in the superiority of “true free market economics.” For an out-of-touch class of political consultants and potted intellectuals who already have their own cushy sinecures and who are too old to change their spots, warning against the evils of “socialism” still serves a purpose. For a younger generation with few of those vested interests, these paeans to a stale old order are neither intellectually compelling, nor can they be said to be politically useful.
In many ways, the inadequacy of “Conservatism Inc.” in the face of rapidly accelerating polarization merely represents another facet of the elite overproduction crisis within American society. The need to reproduce one’s position of material and social comfort, ideally over several generations, applies just as much to conservatives as it does to liberals. On the left, the age dynamic is very clear: the young serve as red guards eagerly purging the old from prestige institutions so that they can then claim those jobs for themselves. On the right, a similar frustration can be seen with the slow pace of change or “cluelessness” on display from conservative prestige institutions, with the younger people tending towards much more radical and confrontational stances. While young people always tend toward radicalism, this frustration across the aisle also speaks to a profound inability of older political and economic institutions to absorb incoming elite aspirants. Every dollar is already accounted for, every prestigious chair and fellowship already occupied by someone else.
All of this skirts the main point, however. Both the makeup of a political base, as well as the personnel composition of a political activist cadre, invariably exert a magnetic pull on the political priorities of a would-be movement. Personnel isn’t just policy; it is politics itself. Directly after the election of 2016, Trump’s transition team launched the website “greatagain.gov” (the domain now redirects to whitehouse.gov), as a recruiting tool for people without long careers inside the Beltway to send in their résumés. In a way, this attempt illustrates both the political insight of Trump as well as his crippling political limitations. In the end, nothing came of this attempt to solicit outsiders into the political process; the database of résumés was eventually “lost.” Still, Trump’s failure to follow through on this issue should not blind us to its central importance.
The Evil Party and the Stupid Party
Political upheavals—the likes of which the West is certainly in the middle of right now—tend to be resolved through some sort of an alliance between a faction of the failing elite and groups of outsiders who, for various reasons, find their advancement or prosperity blocked by the old order. The Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century saw an octogenarian leadership class (where have we heard that before?) battle against a loose coalition of poor agrarian revolutionaries, a middle class shut out of political participation, and factions of the elite who favored more nationalistic policies than those pursued by longtime president Porfirio Díaz.
As Michael Lind points out in his book The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, though we pretend to be more progressive and cultured than every hitherto existing society, educational credentials are, de facto, mostly hereditary. Where your parents sit on the socioeconomic ladder is a far more accurate predictor of your chances of going to college than personal ability. The ancients would have had no problem with recognizing ours as a class society, and the managerial elite as a sort of semi-hereditary nobility, as much as we ourselves would reject that notion.
Once we recognize the “culture war” for what it is—the struggle between a hereditary class of nobles being squeezed out economically, and a society that no longer has the will or ability to pay for their privilege—we can see that despite its sound and fury, it is hardly anything new under the sun. And paying the tolls demanded by these university-credentialed robber barons, or tithes to this ideological clerisy, comes at a cost both to companies, who are compelled to pay, as well as to workers, who see the resources of the state being diverted to the surplus elite. This is the state of politics, in which the Right finds itself more or less adrift, increasingly cut off from its former bases of power, and ever more reliant on the “losers” of society, those who have been rejected by the progressive and increasingly well‑heeled Left.
For the Right, this situation is both one of opportunity and one of profound crisis. On the one hand, the Right has an opportunity to become the majority party. On the other, it is a crisis because people on the right face their own pressures of elite overproduction, and thus an ever-present incentive to keep the “grifts” coming, even as many of their conventional marks have migrated to the Democrats. Just as the Bernie Sanders movement started out as a populist insurgency driven by small donations from average Americans, only to end up as an oversized patronage operation for various underemployed PMCs, every political movement today faces a real tension between using its resources (whether financial or otherwise) for political ends or diverting them to maintain the status and standard of living of its various clients. The old cliché that the Democrats are “the evil party” while the Republicans make up “the stupid party” flows from a denial of this basic tension. If the GOP and “Conservatism Inc.” can truly be called stupid today, this is a functional kind of stupidity, motivated by social and financial—if not necessarily political or ideological—self‑preservation.
In the long run, however, the Right will face the same choice as the populists of the Left: to either consolidate support among the failing elites of the old order, or to recruit more of its personnel and cadres from the losers of the hypercredentialist economy. This is not a question of “inclusivity,” or of finding people who “self-identity as workers,” but rather one of basic politics. The true failure of the Left here is that it tried to enlist the aid of the working class—who by and large gain very little from diversity drives—as mere shock troops around a cadre of people who were deeply invested in rescuing, not abolishing, the surplus elite class. As a result of that titanic failure, the detritus of the populist Left now find themselves all over the map; the lucky ones working at “progressive” NGOs like Corbyn’s Project for Peace and Justice, the unlucky ones panning for clout and recognition on twitter.com.
In the failure of the Bernie campaign, right-wing sellers of “Socialism Sucks!” T-shirts and similar culture war distractions can, if they are so inclined, look upon a vision of their own dismal political future. Nothing can save a movement from being consumed by “grifting” when that “grifting” is built into the class interest of the people running the movement. No amount of false consciousness could save the Left from the consequences of this iron rule. And until it succeeds where the Left failed, by bringing in people from the two-thirds of America that doesn’t go to college (and that certainly would never be able to land jobs as parasitical consultants)—not just as servants, but as masters of the political process—the “America First” faction of the Right will likely share the populist Left’s fate.