The Cold War has been followed by the class war. A transatlantic class war has broken out simultaneously in many countries between elites based in the corporate, financial, and professional sectors and working-class populists. Already this transnational class conflict has produced Brexit and the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. Other shocks are likely in store.
None of the dominant political ideologies of the West can explain the new class war, because all of them pretend that persisting social classes no longer exist in the West. Neoliberalism—the hegemonic ideology of the transatlantic elite—pretends that class has disappeared in societies that are purely meritocratic, with the exception of barriers to individual upward mobility that still exist because of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Unable to acknowledge the existence of social class, much less to candidly discuss class conflicts, neoliberals can only attribute populism to bigotry or irrationality.
Like neoliberalism, mainstream conservatism denies the existence of classes in the West. Along with neoliberals and libertarians, conservatives assume that the economic elite is not a semi-hereditary class but merely an ever-changing, kaleidoscopic aggregate of talented and hard-working individuals. Meritocratic capitalism is threatened from within by a “new class” consisting of progressive intellectuals—professors, journalists, and nonprofit activists—who are said to be vastly more powerful than CEOs and investment bankers.
Marxism at least takes classes and class conflict seriously. But classical Marxism, with its secularized, providential theory of history and its view of industrial workers as the cosmopolitan agents of global revolution, has always been deluded.
Fortunately, there exists a body of thought that can explain the current upheavals in the West and the world very well. It is James Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution, supplemented by the economic sociology of John Kenneth Galbraith. Burnham’s thought has recently enjoyed a revival among thinkers of the center and center-right, including Matthew Continetti, Daniel McCarthy, and Julius Krein. Unfortunately, Galbraith’s sociology, along with his economics, remains out of fashion.
In their politics, Burnham and Galbraith could hardly have been more different, despite their shared friendship with William F. Buckley Jr. The patrician Burnham was a leader in the international Trotskyist movement before becoming zealously anticommunist and helping to found the post–World War II conservative movement. Galbraith, in contrast, was a passionate liberal throughout his life.
Yet both believed that a new ruling elite had displaced the old bourgeois and aristocratic estates. Burnham, following Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932), coined the term “the managerial elite” in his worldwide bestseller The Managerial Revolution (1941). Later, in The New Industrial State(1967), Galbraith called the same group the “technostructure.” In his memoir A Life in Our Times (1981), Galbraith wrote: “James Burnham, partly because he was a stalwart right-winger well out of the political mainstream and partly because he was not a certified academician, never got full credit for his contribution. In early editions of The New Industrial State I was among those in default.”
In his essay “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” George Orwell provided a succinct summary of Burnham’s thesis:
Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralized society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of “managers.” These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. . . . The new “managerial” societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centers in Europe, Asia and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.
The thesis of this essay is that the theory of the managerial elite explains the present transatlantic social and political crisis. Following World War II, the democracies of the United States and Europe, along with Japan—determined to avoid a return to depression and committed to undercutting communist anti-capitalist propaganda—adopted variants of cross-class settlements, brokered by national governments between national managerial elites and national labor. Following the Cold War, the global business revolution shattered these social compacts. Through the empowerment of multinational corporations and the creation of transnational supply chains, managerial elites disempowered national labor and national governments and transferred political power from national legislatures to executive agencies, transnational bureaucracies, and treaty organizations. Freed from older constraints, the managerial minorities of Western nations have predictably run amok, using their near-monopoly of power and influence in all sectors—private, public, and nonprofit—to enact policies that advantage their members to the detriment of their fellow citizens. Derided and disempowered, large elements of the native working classes in Western democracies have turned to charismatic tribunes of anti-system populism in electoral rebellions against the selfishness and arrogance of managerial elites.