Donald Trump’s political rise in America, and Britain’s “Brexit” withdrawal from the European Union, are forcing our elites to contemplate something horrible — that too many people passionately reject elite claims to privilege and political hegemony.
Some say a great rebellion against a ruling class is underway.
But to borrow from the conceptions of Karl Marx, sensational events like Brexit and the Trump campaign are only “epiphenomena,” byproducts, popping up as new economic needs change society’s underlying class structure.
Marx argued that a society’s different classes reflect the ownership of different factors of production. As production methods evolve, so do the cultural beliefs and political needs of the different classes.
During the preindustrial age, the principal factor of production was land. Accordingly, the ruling class then consisted of aristocratic land owners.
With the arrival of the industrial age, according to Marx, the critical factors of production became labor and capital. The two principal classes that arose were the owners of capital on one side and those who contributed labor on the other.
Industrial-age politics involved a polarized competition between the interests of capital and labor.
In the United States, starting in the late 19th century, the Republican Party took the side of capital and the Democrats took the side of workers. In the United Kingdom, the Tories were the party of capital and the Labour Party was the party of workers.
But both the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote reveal a profound and probably lasting change in these alignments.
Republicans are now picking up support from the less-educated “working class” part of the traditional Democratic base, while the Democrats are winning over many in the salaried economic elite that long tended to vote Republican.
The new partisan fault line lies between those who run society from positions of professional authority and those who must do as they are told.
Ownership of capital is no longer the primary basis for social power — management authority is.
In our postindustrial age, managerial and knowledge work has largely become divorced from ownership of financial capital. Only in small companies and some large, privately held firms do owners still actually manage. Most owners of stock (now dominated by large institutional funds) are essentially traders who “rent” the shares for a time hoping to “flip” them in a profitable sale to a new trader who in turn only hopes to flip them again.
Labor’s position in postindustrial society has also diminished. Jobs move easily around the world; unions represent only 6.7 percent of the private-sector workforce. Every year, fewer Americans are in the workforce; robots are ever more in use.
The American working class is experiencing declining marriage rates and church attendance, growing drug addiction, poor school performance and even declining life expectancy.
Those who are now getting the short end of the stick are worried and angry. In America, they respond to Trump’s pointing fingers at those who, apparently, can be blamed for the changes. In the U.K., they have rebelled against bureaucratic rule from the E.U. Commission in Brussels.
Both Trump’s support and Brexit have been explained by elite commentators as unexpected, illegitimate, irrational and unforgivable revolts against expert authority.
But the revolts are not irrational. They are understandable protests against the excesses of a “new” ruling class created by postindustrial economic facts.
The economic function that is provided by the new managerial class has been with us since the dawn of industrialism. But it was previously carried out by capitalists.
Adam Smith explained that it was the specialization of tasks and the division of labor that gave rise to new wealth in industrial society. Using pin-making as an example, Smith reported that one worker executing each step in making a pin by himself could scarcely make 20 pins a day. But a factory team of 10 workers, focusing separately on 18 different but integrated tasks that went into making a pin, could produce 48,000 pins a day.
What Smith did not focus on was the need for somebody in the pin factory to oversee and coordinate the 10 workers’ efforts. That somebody was the manager, who either worked for the owner or was the owner.
In Smith’s day, management was ancillary to capital. The principal function of the old capitalist class — the bourgeoisie — was to save, accumulate and mobilize capital and to take risks by investing in new productive enterprises. They created our modern world through the application of science to production of goods and services.
The culture of the bourgeoisie valued individualism, opportunity and the work ethic.
The function of the old working class was to deliver labor to enterprises and reliably follow direction in the processes of production.
Working-class culture valued family, tightly knit communities, reliability and reciprocity, job security, and craftsmanship.
But where capitalists took risks and workers put their backs into their jobs, the “new” class is paid to reduce risk and to think, to plan, to set goals.
Its members, therefore, consist of those who have skills in developing and spreading ideas and norms — those who are needed to oversee and coordinate the postindustrial techno-structure.
The new class values nothing so much as credentials, because credentials document expertise with which one qualifies for positions protected by hierarchy and bureaucratic silos.
So the social and economic function and interests of the new class drive its members toward elitism — disdaining those with lesser credentials and seeking to control society in general and rival classes in particular.
The new class prefers regulated industries to free markets. It is always “nudging” people toward more rational ways of living.
The new class prizes rationality. Its core ideology ranges from center left to far left because the new class offers a secular theodicy, explaining suffering and evil as arising from abuses of private power. The new class aims to eradicate such abuses through law, regulation and the imposition of right-mindedness.
New class politics puts an emphasis on promoting awareness of victimization, thus mobilizing support from those willing to accept its leadership.
As reason is universal, the new class is globalized and cosmopolitan. The working class, by contrast, is tribal and parochial. The old bourgeoisie was urbanized but nationalist.
As its role is to apply reason in our economy and government, the new class culture seeks to liberate individual minds from all received belief systems and constraints in order that reason may have total power to direct them. The new class turns its back on religion in general and rejects any notion of distinctions based on genetic differences or traditional social roles. Its transcendentalism lies in personal spirituality associated with self-actualization. Its message is liberation of the self from society.
As reason is free-floating, members of the new class rarely have strong core values. They swim with the tides of correct opinion. They are comfortable with “spin” and find comfort in celebrity. Social media provides the technology perfectly adjusted to their needs.
Like any dominant group, to rule securely the new class must marginalize rival claims to status and power. In particular, it must discredit bourgeois values and capitalism, and those who have little education. Out with all this dirty cultural bathwater must also go the baby of traditional mores if the new class is to win the right to organize society after its own fashion.
Education and regulation are the means by which the new class attempts to rule. Tenured faculties constitute the “central committee” of the new class. Bureaucrats, right-minded judges, lobbyists, civil society activists, and the staff of charitable foundations are its boots on the ground in its struggle for mastery over the bourgeoisie and the workers.
Those who have lost control of their lives and fortunes to the new class are 1) lower-skilled workers; 2) small-business owners and their families; 3) Christians; 4) lower-middle-class and lower-class whites; and 5) the new minority of straight white males.
These social groups perceive that they are ostracized from the new ruling elite and have become its target.
Donald Trump hears them. Hillary Clinton does not.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.