Centrist populism and the "double horseshoe" theory of class

Twenty years ago Michael Lind called for a "radical center" - and not much has changed.

Populist politics are nothing new in the United States — certainly not on the left. Even on the right, where some pundits have detected an uptick in populist rhetoric, Republican politicians and their media counterparts have long railed against various “elites”: academics, celebrities, journalists, and so on. Centrists, meanwhile, have always had their own rhetorics that position the heartland and main street against the sneering politicians.

What has really changed in recent years is not the emergence of populism so much as an attention to its strictly economic dimension, to class. It is hard to overstate just how serious the taboo against anything called “class warfare” was in the United States even as recently as the Bush administration — but over the past decade or so, movements like Occupy Wall Street and the embryonic socialist faction that accompanied the rise of Bernie Sanders seem to have significantly eroded that taboo. Among socialists of course, this notion of class has been significantly informed by the Marxist tradition.

As Mike Konczal noted in a recent piece, certain strains of the populist right have begun to develop their own economic agenda — albeit one that mostly dresses up the old one in new rhetoric. And as he also notes, this agenda has been embraced by an even smaller group calling itself the “post-left,” exemplified in a new publication called The Bellows. If I had to define this post-left tendency in two points, I would say that it

1) Maintains a persistent critique of the existing US left as hopelessly dictated by economic elites (often called “the PMC”) who dominate its media and activists — a critique that often, I would argue, dabbles in class identitarianism; and

2) Claims to have transcended the narrow confines of left vs. right politics through a commitment to a more authentic class politics.

To understand what all of this actually means, I would like to take a look at a recent article published in The Bellows by Michael Lind: The Double Horseshoe Theory of Class Politics. On its surface, Lind’s article seems to be proposing a bold new understanding of class that bridges the left-right divide. But I do not think there is much new here, or much class analysis for that matter, and I think that its publication in The Bellows gives us some real insight into what this post-left is actually up to.

The radical center

Before delving into the article, a little background is in order. The author, Michael Lind, is an odd fit for a movement that stands in protest to the domination of elites among the American left. He is the son of a politician, an Ivy Leaguer, and a career intellectual who has migrated from one prestige post to another. Lind launched his career at Heritage Foundation, and moved on from there to an endless succession of high-gloss liberal publications including Harper’s, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. Today he is a professor at UT Austin and a fellow at the think tank he co-founded, New America — a decidedly centrist organization.

Lind has published a whole shelf of books, but here I would like to touch on one in particular: The Radical Center, written with co-author Ted Halstead. Here, the author advances an argument that most readers should find familiar. The parties, he argues, “have been captured by their own extremes,” and “centrists are constantly overshadowed by the more extreme elements in their own camp.” He continues:

To his credit, President Clinton did forge a new middle ground on some issues, such as fiscal policy and welfare reform, though he often had difficulty bringing the Democratic Party along with him… Bush’s early experimentation with triangulation was also a failure, but mostly because it was disingenuous.

This analysis — and Lind’s persistent anxiety about deficits, welfare programs, and socialists — should be instantly recognizable as textbook American centrism. He sees a nation populated by “moderates” in the distinct sense of Lieberman and Brooks, insisting for example that “many Americans…believe in reproductive choice as well as school choice” and are unfairly forced to choose between “the goal of a more competitive marketplace and that of a more sustainable environment.”

Elsewhere Lind provides some insight into his theoretical perspective on politics:

Most political theories tend to view only a single aspect of society… For example, socialists have long described the United States as “capitalist” or “bourgeois” regime, while libertarians are equally focused on the “market,” though far more favorably. Yet both capture only the economic dimensions of American life.

None of this should substitute for a specific consideration of Lind’s double horseshoe theory, but it should at the very least prompt some simple questions. First: how, beyond rhetoric, has Lind’s radical populism substantively changed from the ordinary capitalist triangulation of The Radical Center? And second: is this new “theory of class politics” a class theory in the materialist sense — or does he still maintain his objection to socialist theories that focus on the economic dimensions of American life?

Searching for a theory of power

On to the article. The most important claim in Lind’s Double Horseshoe appears early on when he argues that

by the mid-twentieth century, power had passed from individual bourgeois business owners to a new ruling class of technocrats or bureaucrats, whose income, wealth, and status is linked to their positions in large, hierarchical organizations.

Looking at the title of his article and the diagram it refers to, one might expect an elegant explanation of this claim, detailing how power somehow shifted from the class that controls the means of production to some larger group. What we get instead, however, is paragraph after paragraph with an elaborate taxonomy of vocations, organizational roles, wealth sources (hereditary vs. entrepreneurial), business sizes, “genuine contractors” vs. “gig workers,” and so on. If we try to reconcile Lind’s diagram with his complicated explanation, it ends up looking something like this:

This is the top of Lind’s “double horseshoe.” But what do all of these people have in common? What is it that distinguishes this “overclass” from everyone else? Consider for example just two of the distinctions that appear here: some of the clergy (who are the overclass) versus other clergy (who are not); and “genuine contractors” (who are the overclass) versus “gig workers” (who are not). What specific analytical principle distinguishes these groupings?

In an attempt to tease out just what it is that makes Lind’s overclass the overclass, I combed through his article and made a table of the various groups that he associates it with — as well as what he has to say about them. To organize my analysis, I’ve sorted these descriptions into two rows. The first row includes what Lind has to say about the economic power that each group wields. The second row includes what he has to say about the benefits that accrue to them.

It’s not hard to see what is actually going on here: Lind’s operative claim is that power has shifted from Marx’s bourgeoisie, but his exposition is overwhelmingly a story of benefits. Whenever it is time to describe these distinct groups, his focus is not on the control they wield over the material economy, but on what they’re getting out of it.

The distinction I am relying on here between power and benefit should not be difficult to grasp for anyone who appreciates the difference between things like “controlling capital” and “receiving a wage.” Marxist analysis has always understood that the bourgeoisie compensates workers for their labor and delegates power to managers in the course of extracting profit, and that this may create varying conditions for different workers at different moments in history. And yet — it remains the case that they are workers who must sell their labor in order to survive, who in the long term face ever-increasing immiseration and precarity, who will compete with each other in order to maintain or advance standard of living, and who may be afflicted with false consciousness about all of this. One only escapes this class if one has accumulated enough capital to live off of; gradations of wealth and “status” below that threshold, while certainly meaningful, don’t get you out of capitalism’s fundamental trap.

Lind, to his credit, does manage to repeat his central claim several times. Thus we learn not only that power has passed to the overclass, but that they are “important in American politics out of all proportion to their numbers,” and that “American politics is little more than the internal politics of the overclass”.

But where is the actual explanation for this? The closest we come is a brief digression where the author notes that

the working class majority has lost the grassroots, mass-membership institutions that once gave it collective bargaining power—private sector trade unions, influential religious organizations, and local political parties. Members of the working-class majority play no role except as occasional voters.

There is some truth to this, but it’s also perfectly explicable within an ordinary Marxist framework that does not position kindergarten teachers as power players in the domination of global capitalism. If Lind wants to overthrow that theoretical framework, all of his work is still ahead of him.

Class and the partisan elites

So much for a materialist theory of the “overclass” — but if the double horseshoe doesn’t emerge from an analysis of the relations of production, where does it come from? This is where Lind’s previous writing on the so-called “radical center” may lend some insight. Consider this tangent that appears halfway through The Double Horseshoe:

The upper horseshoe schema explains American political factions… When the professional bourgeoisie allies itself with the Managerial Elite, you get Clinton-Obama-Biden left-neoliberalism. When the small business bourgeoisie allies itself with the Managerial Elite, you get George W. Bush-Paul Ryan-Nikki Haley right-neoliberalism.

In other words: it just-so-happens that the two wings of Lind’s “overclass” correspond exactly to ideas about who the “elites” are advanced by the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Perhaps it is just a testament to both the power of Lind’s theory and the analytical rigor of populist rhetoric deployed by our two parties of capital that one ended up mapping so perfectly onto the other. Instead, however, I’d like to offer an alternative explanation.

Lind’s conception of the overclass tells us that the populism deployed by party officials and their media allies is essentially correct, albeit incomplete. Democratic politicians and MSNBC pundits are basically right to vilify as “elites” a certain segment of sometimes undereducated, often suburban middle-to-upper-middle-class contractor or franchisee types; their Republican counterparts are equally right to vilify journalists, doctors, and so on. This is the “populism” that has always featured prominently in US political rhetoric, deployed even by its most mainstream and powerful actors; Lind, a consummate centrist, has with his double horseshoe theory simply made centrism’s classic move of insisting that both capitalist parties are right about capitalism in their own way.

And that is really all this theory is: not some kind of radical transcendence of left and right, but the standard “both sides have a point” centrist synthesis. The “bourgeois” factions he has identified here are just a pseudo-materialist rebrand of the “special interests” he railed against in The Radical Center; all he has done here is give the old argument a pseudo-materialist gloss.

Once we understand Lind’s theory as rebranded centrist populism, it’s easy to understand his second, textbook centrist move:

Only the most primitive Marxists believe that a tiny group of individual capitalists—to the manor born or self-made—controls modern societies from behind the scenes.

Set aside the “behind the scenes” flourish and Lind isn’t just at odds with “primitive” Marxism — he is explicitly downplaying the control wielded by the capitalist class itself. That’s always the endgame of Democratic and Republican populism, and as we can see here, it is also the endgame of the centrist populist synthesis: to shift our focus away from the capitalist class towards some broader group of workers subjectively defined as “elites”. That’s why the teaser to Lind’s article advises us that “the class war isn’t where you think it is.”

Socialism in the United States is not somehow unduly concerned with capitalists to the neglect of some broader nebulously defined “overclass”. On the contrary, if we have made any progress at all over the past decade or so, it is in the narrowing of our focus — from Occupy Wall Street’s protest of the 1% to Bernie Sanders’ critique of the top one tenth of the 1%. Any “class analysis” that does not move us in that direction should be regarded with extraordinary suspicion.