The New Class War Isn’t a Culture War

Since Trump’s victory, authors like Michael Lind have portrayed the “white working class” as victims of metropolitan elites. But seeing the class war as a culture war overlooks working people’s greatest strength: our power to fight for our common interests, above cultural divides.

Main Street of Logan, West Virginia, 1974. Jack Corn / US National Archives

Michael Lind’s The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite follows from a series of works on the “white working class” published in the wake of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election. Seeking to redefine class in terms of cultural belonging and territorial rootedness, these works have dovetailed with a discussion of the new “professional-managerial class,” who want to run society according to liberal and technocratic principles. These are the same “metropolitan elites” from whom Lind wants to “save democracy.”

The authors cited on the book’s jacket, for instance British author David Goodhart, may raise eyebrows on the Left. Goodhart famously portrayed a cultural divide between the territorially rooted “Somewheres,” the “Inbetweeners,” and cosmopolitan “Anywheres” — arguing that this latter group is dominating British political life for the worse. Also cited is Maurice Glasman, the “Blue Labour” guru who advocated that Labour listen more to the supporters of the Islamophobic English Defence League. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the New York Times and the Guardian have accused Lind of presenting Trump voters as victims of liberal elites.

So, is Michael Lind guilty by association — or does his book help us to understand the shape of class struggle today? Doubtless, his central message is powerful — and will resonate with readers. The current class war, according to Lind, takes place between the metropolitan elites living and working in so-called “hubs” and the working class in the outlying heartlands. These powerful managerial elites have captured democracy, hegemonized and homogenized the culture, and effectively disenfranchised the working class through suppressing trade union organization and turning the working class’s churches into places where money means salvation.

In line with much left-wing thinking, Lind takes aim at these powerful managerial elites, arguing that more than thirty years of technocratic neoliberal revolution have created the conditions for a populist revolt. However, this hasn’t given rise to Karl Marx’s “class struggle” between the industrial proletariat and capitalist class. Instead, Lind describes a ruthless Hobbesian war of all against all, taking place in spheres of culture, economy, and politics, in which the working class has little to no agency. This provides some of the main insights of his book — but also an inability to wrestle with the new political realities of our time.

Pointing Out Liberal Hypocrisy

Central to this class war, in Lind’s reading, is the rural-urban divide, which has reared its head in recent electoral contests as well as in social movements such as France’s gilets jaunes. Today’s technocratic liberals want us to believe that metropolitan “hubs” are more productive than the so-called “heartlands.” Yet Lind shows that professionals and managers in these hubs increasingly spend their discretionary income on “luxury services” provided by low-income and mostly immigrant workers.

Meanwhile, the heartlands have moved from an industrial Fordism to a service-sector Fordism, where chain restaurants, shopping centers, and supermarkets have replaced manufacturing and goods producers as the biggest employer. This proliferation of low-wage and nonunion jobs only worsens existing inequalities between the city and the countryside. While Lind might not label these workers “rednecks” or “hillbillies” like other books on the “white working class,” he doesn’t go beyond a narrative of victimhood. Lind thus only focuses on how the wealth created in these hubs depends on a pool of workers drawn from the countryside and abroad.

Lind’s portrayal of a class division mediated by geographical divides does have real political implications. Just look at how current environmental regulations promoted by managerial elites disproportionately affect working-class people. Wealthy city-dwellers can afford to buy a new car in order to go electric, or even live close to their workplace — but rising rents in inner cities have made such moves impossible for the social majority. This iniquity calls for just environmental policies with a redistributive effect; and yet such measures go unmentioned in Lind’s book.

I have come across this exact same division in my day job. A trade unionist from France’s CGT union, who represents security workers at the Louvre in Paris, told me that living in the French capital was so expensive that many of these workers had to commute by car or train, up to two hours each way. For their part, the metropolitan elite have no issue with higher taxes on diesel cars, such as Emmanuel Macron tried to push through in fall 2018. But these same people reject a kerosene tax because it would cut into their businesses’ bottom line or affect their holiday flights to the Caribbean or Southeast Asia.

Yet, Lind shows little interest in going beyond this landscape of hypocrisy — instead taking it for given that working people have no interest in environmental protection. Telling, in this regard, is his failure even to mention the fact that ecological damage is most likely to impact lower-income communities; shamefully, he doesn’t even mention plans to combine the green transition with job creation, as in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s “Green New Deal.”

Another key dividing line in Lind’s New Class War is immigration. He argues that the metropolitan elites seek to hire immigrants as their housekeepers, nannies, and gardeners, on low wages and without labor rights. Lind shows that these elites not only prefer “illegal immigrants,” but have undermined efforts to naturalize them and provide them with equal political and workplace rights. Thus, their “culturally” pro-immigration stance is nothing but an act of self-interest. Yet while these elites face no penalty for breaking labor law, immigrant workers’ wages remain so low so that working-class people — native-born and immigrant — end up competing over social and public services in underfunded communities.

Of course, it is perfectly commendable to accuse rich metropolitan elites of exploiting low-wage immigrant labor and to call for the naturalization of immigrants. This is, indeed, necessary. But if this is going to improve workplace standards in any sustainable sense, it can’t just be a matter of the elites changing their hiring practices. Rather, resisting the race-to-the-bottom on pay and workplace rights demands that all employees have a platform to stand up for themselves — and thus that unions commit to organizing exploited migrant workers. Lind entirely overlooks this important dimension of rebuilding workers’ power.

A Status Group?

The fact that Lind doesn’t call for a Green New Deal or for unions to step up migrant organizing is no coincidence. It stems from the fact that he doesn’t regard class as a social relation. Instead, it is marked by cultural signifiers, social attitudes, and consumption. It is here that his analysis runs into trouble, for it treats the working class as a basically static status group, a mere  pawn in the electoral game between Republicans and Democrats, Tories and Labour. Politically, this leads him to view immigrant workers — in fact an ever-larger faction of the working class — as distinct and separate from the core working class in the “heartlands.” For this reason, he simply ignores the fact that migrant workers’ organizing efforts have been central in rebuilding workplace power in both Britain and the United States in recent years.

This is not to say that he doesn’t see a role for unions. According to Lind, trade unions should be involved in wage-setting across industries. In other words, he is proposing a tripartite or bipartite sectoral collective bargaining system which exists in the Nordic countries and elsewhere throughout Europe — something Bernie Sanders is also proposing. This would allow the working class to exercise democracy at the workplace and voice its interests vis-à-vis the metropolitan elites and technocratic caste of managers. As union membership in the private sector remains abysmally low, sectoral collective bargaining can help to address growing income inequality, as well as create more favorable bargaining conditions for workers.

Often, liberal commentators present working-class voters as gullible and manipulated by so-called populists. Lind avoids falling into this particular trap, but his book has other weaknesses. While he condemns so-called “populists” for their racism and their lack of real solutions, he doesn’t take the rise of a new far-right politics seriously. Across much of Europe, fascists are eyeing for power; as recent events in Thuringia, Germany, showed, technocratic liberal elites are happy to vote with the far right in order to block the Left from getting or remaining in power. It is against this backdrop that the “Brown Scare” which he labels as conspiratorial really is justified — and needs to be fought vehemently, precisely by combating divisive racist talking points.

Lind’s blind spot, here, means he has no issue with moving into the spheres of “Blue Labour” or “social-patriotism.” Yet this is disastrous in terms of any effective organizing efforts able to improve the conditions of working people in general. Today’s working class across the Global North is multiracial and multicultural — it doesn’t only live in white communities in the “heartlands.” And even in the “heartlands” such as Essex or Iowa, immigrant workers are employed in chicken factories and meat-processing plants, and have even been organizing and contributing to Bernie Sanders’s campaign.

The imagined “white working class” left behind in the “heartlands” might be popular with readers on the Right, who have belatedly discovered that the working class even exists. But it shouldn’t be taken seriously by those on the Left who want to rebuild working-class power. It is at these points that Lind’s professed “American nationalism” reveals its limitations and dangers, and why he has the National Review arguing that this book ought to inform the GOP’s strategy going forward.

Rebuilding Democracy?

Implicitly drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville’s On Democracy in America, Lind proposes a new kind of “democratic pluralism” with strong civil society organizations, clubs, and associations, and places of worship. It remains questionable whether his stakeholder-like model, in which different ethnic, religious, and minority groups are consulted in policy making, would really create a level playing field. But most of all, his call to overcome the democratic deficit lacks any sense of agency, appearing more like the lament for lost social bonds offered two decades ago in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. In reality, capital and employers are unlikely to give up their power and wealth, in the absence of significantly higher levels of working-class mobilization. If there are to be new democratic and economic institutions, they’ll first require organizing efforts.

Indeed, the problem of how to link different kinds of working people — urban and rural, native and migrant — is hardly new. In the early part of the twentieth century, European socialist and labor movements placed the question of the countryside at the center of their work. Even beyond the Bolshevik slogan “Peace, Land, and Bread,” the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that the newly founded Italian Communist Party had to build an alliance — a historic bloc — between workers in the northern car factories and peasants in the South of the country. He saw that while revolutions might have been won in the urban centers, they were doomed by a lack of support in the countryside.

This question remains relevant for today — though Lind’s own intervention doesn’t really help us answer it. In the twenty-first century, we will need a politics which can unite the urban, rural, and immigrant working classes of all shades and colors in a common agenda and create a new kind of internationalist culture from below. Lind’s book might offer a penchant polemic against our enemies. But his recipe for change cuts out the political efforts that are going on already, from migrant-worker organizing to the kind of demands associated with Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Obsessed with the notion of the left-behind, Lind fails to note that today’s political realities have left him behind already.