Interview Two American writers have attempted to grapple with the rise of “populism” exemplified by Donald Trump and Brexit, with both starting (if not finishing) from the Left.
Both Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges and The New Class Conflict by Joel Kotkin both make uncomfortable reading for the complacent chatterati. Both describe the creation of a new bossy middle class elite (you don’t have to look far on Twitter to find it) which abandoned their concerns for the working class, who found new outlets for political expression.
Kotkin’s piercing analysis may be of particular interest to Reg readers as he explains the role of figures such as Google and Facebook in shaping an agenda that isn't just hostile to the traditional working class – it’s hostile to the Enlightenment conception of the human being.
Kotkin's tome incorporates the role that Silicon Valley’s Big Tech plutocrats are playing in reshaping politics. Kotkin still identifies his concerns as “greater social justice and reduced inequality” but when it comes to fixing them, the chatterati is now part of the problem, not the solution. Amazingly, given how class-savvy we are, Kotkin is still little-known in the UK.
I caught up with Kotkin recently as the UK voted to leave the EU, causing the biggest shock to the political system since the Berlin Wall came down. The following are quotes harvested over a couple of conversations we’ve had over several months – and some of Kotkin’s choice observations on the Trump phenomenon.
Who is this new class, and how do they behave?
“I’m one of those displaced old Democrats. I’m not an ideological Conservative at all, I see a decent role for government. But I think that what’s happened to the Democratic Party is that it’s become the Downton Abbey party – of the very rich and the very poor. You have these very powerful, very wealthy people who for whatever reason subscribe to a particular worldview. As the working class are deserting the Democrat Party, it becomes less responsive to them.”
What Kotkin identifies is a fastidiously politically-correct middle class – one that’s characterized by its bossiness and intolerance. This class lives in its own virtual reality, and lectures everyone else. This has historical roots, he writes. The rise of a middle class that was removed from everyday concerns was predicted by Daniel Bell in his 1976 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society..
“For that group, Bell wrote, nature and human nature ceased to be central, as ‘fewer now handle artifacts or things’. This ‘gives rise to a new Utopianism’ that mistakenly treats human nature as something that can be engineered and corrected by instruction from their enlightened betters [our emphasis]. “This approach, although often grounded in good intention, can easily morph into a technocratic authoritarianism,” Kotkin wrote in 2012.
Silicon Valley’s elites had no connection with tangible goods, but instead packaged information. They became detached from “the mundane economy of carbon-based energy, large-scale agriculture, housing, and manufacturing.” Virtue, measured by being green and progressive, cost them comparatively little. You can find this in what gets called in the UK “the blob”: “a growing synergy between science, academia, and these information elites.”
Kotkin borrowed an even older term for this new virtue-signalling elite. 180 years ago, the poet Samuel Coleridge described an educated middle class that sought for itself a priestly function in society, “serving as the key organs of enforced conformity, distilling truth for the masses, seeking to regulate speech and indoctrinate youth” as the “clerisy”. And that’s what we’ve now got: a New Clerisy .
Angry defeated Remain voters for the past fortnight have needed little excuse to exercise this function. Civilsation had been smashed. The old were stupid and should hurry up and die, Remainers moaned. A “Pandora’s Box” had been opened, which means the working class in their natural state are fundamentally uncivilized and need us to restrain their instincts.
Again, Kotkin had predicted this, noting in 2012 that: “Many of [The Clerisy’s] leading lights appear openly hostile to democracy … They believe that power should rest not with the will of the common man or that of the plutocrats, but with credentialled ‘experts’ whether operating in Washington, Brussels, or the United Nations.”
It’s so cool here in Hipsterville
Brexit also exposed a gulf between metropolitan London and the English and Welsh heartlands. But it’s more subtle than that. Kotkin notes that the Left has been focused on urban hipsters for a long time, to the detriment of other urbanites:
“When you have 80 per cent of people who live in metropolitan areas live in suburbs, and the intellectuals hate the suburbs, there’s a bit of a disconnect there”.
Kotkin’s early work is around urban policy – and he notes that in California the Google-backed Democrats pursue an agenda that’s great for wealthy single people but terrible for Californian families. Cities are designed as a hipster-friendly experience for the childless, “which is not not how the vast majority of the population live ... They’re a class that’s now a socially and physically and geographically isolated population – who don’t talk to each other”.
The tech elite:
"It’s partially what happens when you have so much of wealth belonging to people who own media companies or the technology world, or casino gambling – that’s where the money is. There, you won’t have employees to worry about. Your reliance on the physical world is much less. You don’t need blue collar workers. So you create this weird political ecosystem that forgets how the vast majority of people live."
“In practice it makes upward mobility very difficult and hurts the very people it claims to help,” he told the Wall Street Journal after socialist candidate Bernie Sanders stormed California.
I make the mistake of calling Kotkin an academic, but am swiftly put right.
“I’m not an academic! I have this fellowship, but I don’t write for academic journals, I don’t go to academic conferences, I couldn't care less. That’s all bullshit anyway. While there’s some great academic research being done you can find two lines out of 2,000 that are useful. I’m a writer.”
“When I read the people who were writing in academia 20 or 30 or 40 years ago they wrote much better than academics today; they wrote in a broader sense, they were not so hyper specialist. And they were not trying to be (in quotes) ‘scientific’”.
Welcome, our new Silicon Valley overlords
Where does Silicon Valley fit in – apart from its obsession with replacing people with machines, and backing of green policies that raise energy prices for the poor?
“What has really helped the technology people has been free capital for the rich. The mass subsidization of capital with instruments like low interest rates has forced people to go for high risk investments, because they can’t do anything else,” Kotkin told us.
“I used to work for a VC firm. You see that casting-out mentality: ‘We’re going to make a killing in this particular field, then we’ll rush off and do another investment in another field.’ But as you know, many of these companies don’t have any profits. In some cases they don’t even have revenues.”
“I mean, a lot of it is just money seeking some way of making a killing and having relatively few options for doing it.”
“I’d also argue that many of these companies are not doing anything that actually increases productivity. I’m still to meet anyone who thinks Facebook makes the economy stronger.”
I mention that because Google can fund dozens of astroturf “citizens' groups” as well as academics and think-tanks, it can successfully disguise self-interest as internet populism. One example is internet ‘activists’ cheering Google suing a democratically elected State Attorney General who wanted to investigate it. Would the internet cheer Goldman Sachs for using its lawyers to suspend an investigation?
Kotkin is more concerned that politicans – and good examples here including the European Commission and the Conservatives, outsource their political thinking to Silicon Valley’s plutocrats:
“Eric Schmidt becomes the guy who figures out where the Democratic Party should go. You’re talking about companies whose rapaciousness is pretty astounding. And whose business is the mining of data of individuals – stripping away privacy.”
Brexit and The Donald
“Our choice is between the despicable and the dangerous,” says Kotkin. “At least with Hilary Clinton I know what I’m dealing with. Trump is mentally unstable. To tell the truth they both are, but we have seen where Clinton will take us, but there’s no counting on The Donald. I am not a fan of our current President but, I’ll miss Obama’s decent temperament.”
And who does he think will win? “I think Clinton will win by 5 or 6 points. Biden would have won by a Johnson landslide – people don’t feel he’s a twisted person. You do have to wonder about what kind of person allows themselves to be humiliated by their husband so much, just so they can have power. Hilary was humiliated in the most open and demeaning way, and for decades. If I did a hundredth of what Bill did to Hilary, I’d be buried in the back garden – and I’d deserve it!”
“But that being said, Trump is a horrible instrument to lead what I call the Great Rebellion. What we call middle class or working class people – by that I mean a shopkeeper, a mid-level engineer, the machinist, the bus driver – all these are types of people who are turned off by the PC-ness of Labour or the Democratic Party.”
“Trump is a horror, but I do appreciate the attacks on Jeb Bush. Who the hell wanted Jeb Bush to be President? His brother was a disaster. Why are we expected to want to bring back this dynastic family that has messed up royally? What I think Trump has done on the positive side is force the Republicans to say that we’re not the Country Club party any more. The Country Club is so irrelevant, even amongst the rich. The Republicans have also become very linked with the religious right, and that turns off the majority of people who are independents. That’s how the last man standing against Trump was Cruz, who was as bad but in a different, more cerebral way. Obama’s tone is moderate, but the man himself is not. Obama is a pure avatar of the PC Left.”
For Kotkin, at the heart of Brexit was the calculated decision to respond to low birth rates by importing cheap labour.
“You’ve got both Establishments – Labour and Conservative – on the same side, against everyone else. For the life of me I don’t understand what the benefits of EU membership are supposed to be. What future is there, unless you’re at the wealthy end of the social scale, when your labour competition is coming from a rapidly depopulating Bulgaria or Slovakia? I don’t understand – what are the benefits if you’re not in the elite?”
“In Australia something similar is taking place: the gentrification of the Labour party, into an upper middle class party of professionals allied to the immigrants, and particularly to the Muslim immigrants.”
He isn’t “right wing”, but with the left abandoning class solidarity, how does he describe himself?
“I’m politically homeless. I'm for gay marriage, I’m for the WPA, I want to eliminate the advantage for the Mandatory Capital Gains tax – these are progressive policies that bother some of my Conservative friends.”
The intolerant PC left doesn’t – if you disagree, you’re an enemy.
“I can disagree with conservatives. They don’t like it, but they’ll say other things that are interesting. But on the Left, it's almost impossible to disagree. If you don't buy every single part of their agenda, you’re an outcast.” ®
Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow at Chapman University and the executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His most recent book is The New Class Conflict. In the UK you can pick up the Amazon Kindle edition for a few quid.