Only the Right Believes in Class Conflict Anymore

If Trump’s nationalism is too narrow, then so is that of the Republican elites. The elites’ lack of interest in the priorities and struggles of wage-earners created the conditions for Trump’s insurgency. We are going to have some kind of nationalism in our politics. It is up to the rising generation of conservative statesmen to craft a nationalism that upholds limited government and addresses the concerns of American wage-earners of all ethnicities.

What was particularly interesting to me about the above passage – and about the rest of the article, even apart from author Pete Spiliakos’ thoughtful re-consideration of the notorious Romney 47% video – is the by now apparently non-controversial assumption that embodying the interest of “wage-earners” generally (a.k.a., “the working class” or, symptomatically, “the white working class”) is or should be now primarily a task for the Right. Spiliakos does not even pause to consider that the Left might retain a principal claim to this group, which once defined “the Left” – its concept, its aims, its prospects, its organizational emphasis – in America and worldwide.

The Left or nominal left addresses interest groups defined by ethnicity and issue and anathematizes “populism,” while right politicians and intellectuals today, from “alternative” to “movement conservative” to “reform,” aim to address the working class as such. Perhaps for the same reason, self-consciously conservative writers have for years been importing classically left-revolutionary terminology into their writings, now that the Left has largely abandoned it.

In a brief Twitter exchange with OG Dan Scotto – who had linked Spiliakos – I referred for example to the use of the term “ruling class,” and asked who else uses the term outside of the “populist” right. It is invoked at self-consciously conservative web sites, and the still popular Rush Limbaugh employs it on his radio show.1 Using the term in or around the Left will, by contrast, tend to identify the speaker as some combination of quaintly old-fashioned and ridiculous.

For some preliminary evidence, I will offer here a Google search for “ruling class.” Of the first five uses not either related to the film or play The Ruling Class and not definitional, only one was by a writer generally associated with the Left: Economist and Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich: The piece highlights a “revolt against the ruling class” that, in Reich’s view, unites supporters of Bernie Sanders with those of Donald Trump. The other four entries are an “alt-right” post at Radixjournal from August of this year on “Why the American Ruling Class Betrays Its Race and Civilization“; an I believe influential 2010 essay, written by historian Angelo Codevilla in the (conservative) American Spectator on “America’s Ruling Class – and the Perils of Revolution“; a 1994 essay by Libertarian Roderick T Long seeking to re-claim class concepts from Marxism, on behalf of (classical) liberalism; and a USA Today column from this year, by Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds, “Trump indicts America’s ruling class.”2

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren may still keep alive the embers of Old Left workerism, and the latter is still  detectable in traditional Democratic Party rhetoric and residual connections to organized labor, but class conflict as the engine of history seems now to be a concept mainly of the Right (and not just in America).

Image by Cornell University Library


  1. Limbaugh’s orientation towards mainstream or establishment discourse evokes Karl Marx’s: “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.” []
  2. Reynolds’ thesis resembles Reich’s, though it is written from a self-consciously American conservative perspective and happens to quote Codevilla’s essay generously. []

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5 comments on “Only the Right Believes in Class Conflict Anymore

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  1. Not exactly, the dominance of the corporate class, shorthanded by the Chamber of Commerce, over petit bourgeois interest, and their willingness to collaborate with the regime, on a whole host of issues, is indemic, not only on this side of the pond, for Tory/UKIP, UMP/Front National, and CDU/CSU, Alternative, also Populares/Citizens,

    • I agree there are clearly parallels – and I briefly alluded to them with the final link in the piece to what turned out to be overwrought speculation regarding the rise of the National Front (not saying that story’s over, but the FN didn’t do as well in regional elections as some feared). However, there are also so many differences related to the different histories and structures of European political systems, composition of interest groups, vestiges of the workerist Left, the role of Europe in the global system, etc. In Europe the perception of a betrayal of the existing working class – and of national electorates – is also especially tied up with the project of the European Union. Too complex a topic for a short observational post like this one!

  2. the oligarchs in the right and left, will work together against ‘the radical middle’ FN is the Poujade movement redux,

  3. OT, Jonathan Howard has a Cthluthu meets Marlowe type tale, Lovecraft and Carter, out, with some reference from the classic tale ‘thing on the steps’

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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