Top positive review
The Class War vs. Countervailing Power
Reviewed in the United States on January 21, 2020
Hundreds of books have been written about the rise of Populism, beginning soon after 2010 when the Republican “Tea Party” movement, that rose in response to the Great Recession, unseated hundreds of incumbent Democrats and Republicans. In 2012 and 2013 books like AFTERSHOCKS by Robert Reich on the center-left and COMING APART by Charles Murray on the center-right were written to analyze the discontent. After the 2016 elections in the USA and UK, these books multiplied.
Does this book go beyond all those other books? The answer is “Yes.” It explores the Populist Movement, and how it should be responded too, in more historical depth and with more objectivity than I’ve seen in previous books. Its message is stated in three non-consecutive sentences:
The exclusion of the views of large numbers of voters from any representation in public policy or debate has created openings in politics that demagogic populists have sought to fill.
Only a new democratic pluralism that compels managerial elites to share power with the multiracial, religiously pluralistic working class in the economy, politics, and the culture can end the cycle of oscillation between oppressive technocracy and destructive populism.
What the racially and religiously diverse working-class majorities in the Western nations need is what they once possessed and no longer have: countervailing power.
Michael Lind explains that the current incarnation of Populism has deeps roots began in the 1890s with the populist campaigns of James B. Weaver and Williams Jennings Bryan, and that the rise of today’s Populists was foreseen by George Orwell of “1984” fame, who wrote in 1946:
Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralized society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together...under the name of “managers.” These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands.
Lind sees today’s Populist Revolt as the response:
IN CARRYING OUT their counterrevolution from outside and below, today’s populist demagogues target their overclass establishment enemies in all three realms of social power: politics, the economy, and the culture. In politics, today’s populists champion majoritarian democracy against decision-making by the unelected, technocratic bodies to which much authority has been transferred during the recent neoliberal revolution.
He busts the “overclass” myths that seek to obscure their destructive policies. One myth is “the skills gap” that purports to believe that Populists are harnessing discontent from people who have no one to blame but themselves for their presumed “lack of skills:”
The theory of skill-biased technological change (SBTC) was popular during the bubble years before the Great Recession. SBTC theory explained rising inequality by asserting that the “left-behind” members of the working class had inferior and outmoded skills not needed by the “creative class” or the “digital elite” in the new “global knowledge economy.” The premise has been that US corporations like Apple did not offshore production to China to take advantage of low-wage, unfree workers and state subsidies of various kinds.
…there are relatively few “knowledge economy” jobs as a share of the total. And the well-paid and prestigious ones that are not offshored in the future or given to foreign indentured servants like H-1B guest workers in the US who are willing to work for lower wages than natives will be highly prized, in competitions that the affluent offspring of overclass families are likely to win. The greatest payoffs as a rule will continue to go to investors, bankers, and CEOs, not engineers or scientists.
Having refuted the self-serving myths that obscure the true reasons for the rise of populism, Lind proceeds to recommend a remedy. He rejects “palliative liberalism” whose nostrums are redistribution of income via the Earned Income Tax Credit and the proposed Universal Basic Income; a tax on robots and automation; breaking up big companies to create more employment opportunities; and “education” as a panacea to get people into jobs that no longer exist. He rejects the socialism of government ownership of largescale enterprises in industry, banking, utilities, and natural resource extraction.
If banana republicanism is to be avoided as the fate of the Western democracies, reformers in America and Europe will have to do far more than buy off the population with a subsidy here or an antitrust lawsuit there. Indeed, if a package of minor, ameliorative reforms is handed down from the mountaintops of Davos or Aspen…the lack of voice and agency of most citizens will be made apparent in the most humiliating way.
In the economy, a new class peace treaty to end the new class war would involve the restoration of tripartite bargaining among labor and capital in some form.
“In some form” suggests a return of the labor “guilds” of a few hundred years ago that collectively bargained for wages and working conditions across entire professions but were run by honest tradesmen and small business owners instead of corrupt union bosses. Obviously, the idea of empowering workers to bargain for higher wages will be ferociously resisted by both parties’ corporation-funded establishments. Yet, as Lind points out, it may be the only way to restore economic security to the dispossessed middle classes and calm their political populism. It should be carefully considered by the new generation of workers, business owners, and politicians who came of age during the Great Recession and are now taking over the reins of power.
I only question Michael Lind's view that populist movements are always defeated without effecting change. William Jennings Bryan’s Progressive Populism was decisively defeated by the combined Republican and Democrat establishments in 1896. Yet, his ideas resonated with the public. They were adopted by Progressive Republican Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 and were institutionalized in FDR’s New Deal. Likewise, Barry Goldwater’s Conservative Populism was defeated in 1964. Yet most of his ideas were enacted 16 years later by Ronald Reagan.
I think we have no choice other than to work with the political factions we have now, while building up Lind’s “countervailing power” that will take years or decades to mature. I voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 because I thought they were the candidates most likely to move the country forward in the directions I desire. I believe Obama helped recover us from the economic collapse of the Great Recession. I believe Trump has made progress on the central issues that I, and it seems Lind, agrees with: boosting employment of working class people by restraining excessive (and often illegal) immigration, and limiting jobs-destroying imports from trade predator countries like China. Let us do what is necessary to boost employment for the working classes now, while we consider implementing Lind’s ideas for a sustainable future.
The Conservative Populism of Donald Trump and the Progressive Populism of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and other Democratic candidates, seem destined to collide in 2020. Perhaps they will inspire action on the “countervailing power” ideas Lind mentions. This book gives a heads-up on the issues that will decide the election, and which policies suggested by Michael Lind might alleviate the populist discontent.