Home/Rod Dreher/Class War As Culture War

Class War As Culture War

Yes, they really do deplore you (Mordolff/GettyImages)

Michael Lind has a new book, The New Class War, about which I’m hearing lots of great things. Here are excerpts from J.D. Vance’s review:

It’s an expansion of an essay he published in American Affairs, where he argues that Western democracies are undergoing a significant upheaval because Western elites have rebelled against the working and middle classes of their own countries. Those elites have invested in globalized labor arbitrage in China and other countries instead of building productivity in their own nations. In the process, they have created a labor market where working-class people have found it harder to find the kind of work that enables them to live the kinds of lives they want. And they have made a social world where the institutions—unions and churches, especially—that working class people rely on have been decimated. These two facts are related, of course: the decline of unions is, in part, a story of globalization decimating the American manufacturing sector.

In some ways, this is a story that many have heard before, but Lind explores it in new ways.


I had long assumed that social liberalism’s marriage to the Democratic party was incidental. But Lind’s book has me asking: how is it possible that the best-educated, most well-connected people have increasingly adopted the same ideology? Why have both libertarian elites on the Right and neoliberal elites on the Left both adopted social commitments far more liberal than their voting bases? How did the most significant critic of Purdue Pharma, globalization, and financialization—Tucker Carlson—become the man most hated by the political movement that claims to stand for America’s working people?

The answer is simple: social liberalism is the ideology of the managerial class because it serves their economic interests. It’s Lindian class warfare pretending to be a conscience.

But the GOP is also problematic:

 Over the last few decades, the Republican Party increasingly has made an electoral trade: losing professional class suburban whites and gaining working and middle class (primarily) whites. Yet it has clung to economic libertarianism because that is the ideology of its own ruling class.

Read it all.

And, if you can get past the NYT paywall, read the meaningfully clueless review by Anand Giridharadas, an editor at large at Time. Excerpt:

Lind’s heart genuinely hurts for those shafted by oligarchy. But he is limited by conceptual blinders. And he seems to have an outdated (if widely shared) idea of who is a working-class person. When he thinks about what the oligarchy has done to America, he tends to think of white men as the principal victims. And when he begins to detail how these supporters of populism have been oppressed by the schoolteachers-to-billionaires overclass, things get really weird.

One way the elite functions, Lind says, is through the labeling of white-working-class prejudices as phobias — as in transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia. To call these things “phobias” is, he writes, “to medicalize politics and treat differing viewpoints as evidence of mental and emotional disorders.” Then, outlandishly, he takes it a step further. “If those in today’s West who oppose the dominant consensus of technocratic neoliberalism are in fact emotionally and mentally disturbed, to the point that their maladjustment makes it unsafe to allow them to vote, then to be consistent, neoliberals should support the involuntary confinement, hospitalization and medication of Trump voters and Brexit voters and other populist voters for their own good, as well as the good of society.”

Commenting on this review on Twitter, Ross Douthat said

I have Lind’s book on my bedside table to read when I have more time. I am working hard against a fast-approaching deadline for the manuscript for my next book. Last night I was working on a chapter about the weaponization of the ideal of Progress by the left in our time. Under communism, everything that challenged the Party’s view was deemed as against Progress, which was both inevitable (under Marx’s view of history), but also something that the Party had to make sure was achieved with minimal friction from regressive and backward elements. A Hungarian man I interviewed told me that in his 1950s and 1960s youth, state propaganda relentlessly stigmatized everything traditional about Hungarian life as backwards. “They tried to make us all ashamed,” he said. In this way, communist regimes monopolized and weaponized something that all people in modernity have accepted as essential to modern life: the idea that the present is better than the past, and the future will be better than the present.

It’s easy to see how our own progressives have done the same thing, and institutionalized it as they have captured centers of power in our culture. To be against whatever social liberals demand today is to be regressive, shamefully so. It’s not simply a matter of being old-fashioned. As under communism, conservatives and traditionalists are not simply fuddy-duddys, but rather Enemies of the People. The lack of universal happiness today is the fault of those who resist Progress. If only we can cancel them, justice and harmony will prevail. It is astonishing how much Social Justice Warrior cancel culture, including the polite version within academia and corporations, mirrors what the Soviets and their lackeys did.

It is exactly a form of class warfare, and one of its strategies is pretending that it is not that at all. I bring all this up because late last night, when I took a break from my writing, I found on my Twitter feed this review, by Park MacDougald, of the conservative writer Christopher Caldwell’s new book, The Age Of Entitlement. MacDougald’s review made me think that the book might have some insight to offer about the weaponization of Progress. Here’s why (from MacDougald):

Caldwell’s concern is less legalistic and has more to do with how “civil rights ideology… became, most unexpectedly, the model for an entire new system of constantly churning political reform.” He argues that the act and its subsequent expansions provided a blueprint, a moral rationale, and a legal toolkit for ambitious and frequently unpopular social engineering projects, justified in the name of an ever-proliferating suite of rights and operating outside the bounds of traditional democratic and constitutional legitimacy. “The civil rights model of executive orders, litigation, and court-ordered redress eventually became the basis for resolving every question pitting a newly emerging idea of fairness against old traditions,” he writes.

So, I bought the book, and stupidly began reading it at 12:20 a.m. I carried on for two hours, until I couldn’t stay awake any longer, and dove back in when I woke up. I’ll be finishing it shortly, and will have a separate post about it tomorrow, most likely. (Man, is he ever hard on Ronald Reagan, portraying him as a Harold Hill type.) But I want to say here that Caldwell, though he might not have put it quite this way (or he might; I’m not finished yet) is exactly right that the weaponization of Progress in the hands of the left has come through its taking the civil rights paradigm and applying it to every social conflict it can. If it can successfully frame a conflict as a matter of civil rights, it’s game over. The power of the Civil Rights Movement in our national mythology is like kryptonite on anyone who challenges its invocation.

I first sensed this fifteen or so years ago, when nobody — and I mean nobody — paid attention to the quite reasonable arguments that certain conservatives made explaining how homosexuality and race were two different things, indeed two different kinds of things. Why didn’t people want to argue about this? Because if it could be established that whatever the validity of rights claims by gays and lesbians might be, they couldn’t be accurately or legitimately piggybacked onto black civil rights, then the gay rights movement would lose its most powerful political and rhetorical weapon.

I will address this more completely when I finish the Caldwell book. MacDougald says Caldwell says the only way this warfare against the deplorables and other non-progressives can be turned is to repeal civil rights law. If true, the fact that this is unthinkable by almost everybody shows how deeply unlikely anyone who stands in the way of the progressives’ Grand March is to avoid being trampled. In what I’ve read of the book so far, Caldwell clearly acknowledges that black Americans were treated horribly, and had every right to demand change. He does not fault them for that at all; from what I’ve read, he despises the way the civil rights paradigm has been the universal weapon used by liberals to subdue their opponents, however absurd the claims. We are now facing court cases in which civil rights are invoked by liberals to recognize the rights of biological males who present as female to compete in athletics against biological women, and so forth. And all respectable opinion thinks this is perfectly sound, and those who disagree are the contemporary equivalent of Bull Connor.

You see what I mean by the weaponization of Progress. This is class war as culture war. I’ll leave you with this plus ça change quote from Caldwell’s book. It was the reflection of a left-wing activist about his time as a student radical:

On the one hand, we were angry about the war, about racism, about the countless vicious acts we saw around us. But on the other hand, we viewed America as one great wasteland, a big, monstrous, mechanized, air-conditioned desert, a place without roots or feeling. We saw the main problem, really, as: THE PEOPLE — the ways they thought and acted towards each other. We imagined a great American desert, populated by millions of similar, crass, beer-drinking grains of sand, living in a wasteland of identical suburban no-places. What did this imagined “great pig-sty of TV watchers” correspond to in real life? As “middle class” students we learned that this was the working class — the “racist, insensitive people.”

That appeared in 1969. The deplorables, they shall always be with us. The 1960s and 1970s changing of the landscape of political conflict from economics to culture gave liberal elites reason to hate the lower classes without feeling guilty about it. Construing social and political conflict as a rehash of the Civil Rights Movement allows them to claim the highest of America’s moral high ground, and from that lofty perch dump chamber pot content onto all the backwards people below — who, if they knew what was good for them, would be ashamed of themselves, and recognize that they deserve it. That’s what our news and entertainment media are for — to convince them to be ashamed of themselves.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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