The Corner

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A Touch of Class Struggle

Demonstrators scuffle with NYPD police officers as they try to march through Times Square during a protest against racial inequality in New York City, June 14, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

There is, I think, a growing awareness of the fact that, however much the current unrest in cities on both sides of the Atlantic owes to anger over the killing of George Floyd, police brutality, and racial injustice, other factors are also at work, most notably a struggle within the elite, or more broadly, within the elite and those who would be in it, much of it a consequence of what the University of Connecticut’s Peter Turchin has dubbed “elite overproduction”.

I wrote about this topic here and here, but, in essence, what matters is this:

Turchin has warned that “elite overproduction” can be a precursor of turmoil to come. To oversimplify, this occurs when members of the elite (or those with the talents to join it) become too numerous for society to accommodate their aspirations. Thus, Turchin noted, the Arab Spring was preceded by “a remarkable expansion of the numbers of university-educated youths without job prospects” — in other words, by elite overproduction.

In the course of an article for Unherd last month, Ed West wrote:

So while around half of 18-year-olds are going onto college, only a far smaller number of jobs actually require a degree. Many of those graduates, under the impression they were joining the higher tier in society, will not even reach managerial level and will be left disappointed and hugely indebted. Many will have studied various activist-based subjects collectively referred to as ‘grievance studies’, so-called because they rest on a priori assumptions about power and oppression. Whether these disciplines push students towards the Left, or if it is just attending university that has this effect, people are coming out of university far more politically agitated.

While the evidence on that is not clear, it’s arguable that a tiny number of very intelligent people being taught the theories of Marcuse or Foucault is probably going to have a limited social impact; when these ideas are disseminated among huge numbers of the young, many of them conformists sensitive to the social cues around them, then quite extreme ideas about dismantling society become normalised.

Meanwhile, in the Bellows, Michael Lind has taken a broader look at America’s complex class struggles, most notably (to me) between two groups in particular:

In German a distinction has long been made between the Besitzbürgertum (propertied bourgeoisie) and the Bildungsbürgertum (educated bourgeoisie). The equivalents of these two groups exist in the U.S. today. They are distinct from the big-organization managers and important in American politics out of all proportion to their numbers. Lumping them together as “PMC” confuses matters. Let us call them the professional bourgeoisie and the small business bourgeoisie.

Let’s just say that these two groups don’t get on. (FWIW, I’d argue — and did (in a way) argue — that some elements of the struggle between them were already clearly visible at the time of the 2008 election.) While much of what Lind has to say will make bracing reading for those on the right (read the whole thing!), his analysis of what the “professional bourgeoisie” is looking for adds, I think, some useful insights into what is now going on:

The goal of so-called progressivism in 2020s America is to expand employment opportunities for college-educated, center-left professionals, while adding new wings to the welfare state that are tailored to their personal needs. The slogan “Defund the police” is interpreted by the bourgeois professional left to mean transferring tax revenues from police officers, who are mostly unionized but not college-educated, to social service and nonprofit professionals, who are mostly college-educated but not unionized. The enactment of proposals for free college education and college debt forgiveness would disproportionately benefit the professional bourgeoisie, not the working class majority whose education ends with high school…

I am not the first to observe that what were initially legitimate protests against the use of excess force and racism by particular police departments have turned into a campaign for greater funding for social-services jobs and diversity officer jobs for members of the professional bourgeoisie in their twenties and thirties.

And then, not so unrelatedly, Ross Douthat in the New York Times:

Imagine yourself as a relatively privileged white person exhausted by meritocracy — an overworked student or a fretful parent or a school administrator constantly besieged by both . . .

Wouldn’t it come as a relief, in some way, if it turned out that the whole “exhausting ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Red Queen Race of full-time meritocratic achievement,” in the words of a pseudonymous critic, was nothing more than a manifestation of the very white supremacy that you, as a good liberal, are obliged to dismantle and oppose? If all the testing, all the “delayed gratification” and “perfectionism,” was, after all, just itself a form of racism, and in easing up, chilling out, just relaxing a little bit, you can improve your life and your kid’s life and, happily, strike an anti-racist blow as well?

And wouldn’t it be especially appealing if — and here I’m afraid I’m going to be very cynical — in the course of relaxing the demands of whiteness you could, just coincidentally, make your own family’s position a little bit more secure?

If you are looking to understand politics (in any era), self-interest is not always the explanation and it is frequently not the only explanation, but it is usually at least a part of it.

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