The actual class conflict rests with the wealthy

0
23

Americans live by restoring their deposed oligarchy. President-elect Joe Biden has appointed a Treasury Secretary who previously chaired the Federal Reserve. His election as Secretary of State is another Ivy Leaguer and an integral part of Washington. His top economic advisor is an executive at BlackRock.

At every stage of their life, these people saw an unknown number of followers. Most MBAs never shine on Wall Street, just as most Washington Lifers never land a West Wing desk. Not exactly elite, but too successful to be liked: imagine your piqué.

Peter Turchin, the academic of the moment, does more than that. He quantifies, references other variables, and arrives at a theory. Of all the reasons cited for the political controversy of our time, few are as new as its emphasis on “elite overproduction”. The graduates have multiplied faster than the room above, he says, with the “lawyer glut” being particularly large. The result is a population of nearly men and women whose relationship with their own class varies from peripheral membership to vicious resentment. When this coincides with a bad time for general living standards, an alliance must be forged between these insulted insiders and the rightfully harmed masses.

After getting acquainted with Mr. Turchin's work, it's not just Donald Trump's rise to the White House that is changing. Brexit too. In the de-industrialized cities of Britain there were never enough working class whites to form a national majority. The campaign had to peel off many supposedly rich people, both as voters and as leaders of the movement. The country's wealthy home countries voted to leave the EU. Liverpool, the poorest big city, voted for Remain. It was hard to appreciate the feeling of complaint among wealthy baby boomers in the middle streets of Hampshire.

The theory does not exhaust its usefulness for populist law either. What is waking culture if not the howling of a generation of underemployed humanities scholars? Since Allan Bloom wrote The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, law has regretted the substance of what is taught to young people. "Critical theory" and the politicization of the literary canon of the West are of particular concern.

However, the problem may be the raw number of students, not the exact taste of their indoctrination. There are just so many jobs for her in publishing and in the news media. There are only that many seats in Congress. If postmodern theories went off campus, would that surplus of frustrated graduates really just live as room temperature liberals?

Prof. Turchin is a member of no fewer than three departments at the University of Connecticut. "Cliodynamics," its polymathic effort to give the study of history some of the quantitative accuracy of science, is prone to overreaching. But you don't have to go all the way with him to see his core insight, the narcissism of small differences, repeat itself over time and space. It was not the impoverished people in France who overthrew the old regime. It was these multiple levels above that were held back from the pursuit of happiness by class rigidity.

If Prof. Turchin is right, there is a reckoning for liberals, but a far bigger one for their populist enemies.

The first group has to accept that one of their civilizational successes – the expansion of higher education – also had perverse consequences. Without a corresponding growth in glamor jobs, it stored resentments that always found public expression. It's a pan-western problem, but the ramifications in the US are worse because the university can put the people there in so much debt.

Still, liberals can at least trim the academic-industrial complex over time. For populists, Turchin's theory implies a much less recoverable problem. If their movement unites the not entirely elitist and the hillbilly Elegy classes, no government program can serve them. The more time populists spend in power, the more likely it is that their irreconcilable interests will prevail.

The past four years have highlighted the dilemma. Had Mr. Trump ruled as an economic populist and taxed the rich to build infrastructure, he might have won a second term. But he would also have forfeited the Fox News anchors, the lavish donors, the high-income voters: people who liked him because he easily scandalized those who were slightly above them in the US Prestige League. They are not the same as those who chose him as deliverance from real need. The formal government reveals the incoherence of the populists. Your recourse, says Prof. Turchin, so that we don't relax could be the politics of the street.

[email protected]

Follow Janan Ganesh with myFT