It may not be quite accurate to say that it’s all over but the shouting, but something of that sense seems to be catching on in America these days. The collapse of the Democratic attempt to get rid of Donald Trump via impeachment is one straw in the wind; another, even more telling, is the frank confession by several Democratic movers and shakers that impeachment was the only way to stave off a Trump victory in this autumn’s election—and we don’t even have to bring up the Keystone Kops fiasco of the Iowa caucuses, which is still unfolding one embarrassment after another as I write these words. Still, regular readers of mine will not be surprised to learn that the signs I’m thinking about aren’t anything so obvious. One of them is a giddy absurdity, the other is an admission of total defeat, and it’s among the ironies of the situation that neither author realizes that these labels apply to their work.
The first of these signs, the absurd one, is a news story—tip of the druid’s hat to reader Earl King Jr. for this one—and you can read it online here. Yes, it’s a CNN article, and yes, it’s really, truly, seriously trying to insist, in so many words, that if eating monosodium glutamate (MSG) makes you ill, you’re not actually ill, you’re racist.
A little background may be useful here. MSG is found naturally in small amounts in some foods but is manufactured in gargantuan quantities for industrial food production. It acts as a flavor enhancer. That’s why the food industry adores it—you can dump some into a food product that’s cheaply made of low quality ingredients, and the result comes out tasting better than stale cardboard. (Well, a little better.) So there’s a lot of MSG in a lot of processed food these days.
Some people are sensitive to it. Here I’m not just talking about the people who get the full-blown syndrome: dizziness, light-headedness, nausea, and so on. There’s also a larger penumbra of people—I’m one of them—who just feel a little queasy for a while when there’s too much added MSG in their food. That happens, by the way, whether or not they know there’s MSG in the food; if you know people with MSG sensitivity, you quickly get used to hearing the words “Crap, there must have been MSG in that,” and glancing at the label to find out that they’re right. It also happens whether or not the food in question belongs to an Asian cuisine. (MSG is in a lot of cheap salad dressings and flavored potato chips, for example, and people who are sensitive to it can’t eat those either without reacting. How is that racist?)
The food industry is quick to point out that there have been all sorts of studies purporting to prove the nonexistence of “Chinese restaurant syndrome,” as the effects of MSG sensitivity are sometimes called. Do those studies exist? Sure. Care to guess who paid for them? If you said “the food industry,” good—you’re paying attention. Nearly all the research into the health effects of food these days is paid for by the food industry, which means that researchers who want to keep getting grants know perfectly well what results they have to turn up, and if you know the first thing about experimental design and statistics you know how easy it is to gimmick a study to get the results your sponsor has paid for. If you think this doesn’t happen, go to your favorite search engine and look up the phrase “replication crisis.”
That, in turn, is why so few people believe the food industry and their paid researchers when these insist that MSG doesn’t make anyone ill. That’s also what’s behind the massive crisis of legitimacy that’s shaking the industrial societies of the Western world right down to their foundations. Too many people have realized that expert opinions are simply another form of corporate public relations, meant to promote someone else’s bottom line at their expense, and have learned to ignore claims to expertise that contradict their own lived experience. Yes, that’s also why Donald Trump is president of the United States and why Britain left the EU and put Boris Johnson back in No. 10 Downing Street, despite the unanimous clamor of the experts.
All this is necessary background to the CNN story cited above. A lot of people these days read the labels on processed foods while shopping, and if MSG appears on the label, a good many of them put the item back on the shelf. This is a problem for the food industry, of course, because food products that are cheaply made of low quality ingredients are among their biggest profit engines. Previous attempts to convince people not to notice what they experience when they eat foods too heavily dosed with MSG haven’t accomplished much, and so CNN has leapt into the fray with a last, forlorn attempt to convince people to eat MSG, even if it makes them feel ill, as a means of virtue signaling.
This shows, among other things, that the social justice movement has just jumped not merely the shark but the giant squid and three or four great whales to boot. When a social movement gets turned into raw material for advertising, you know that it’s over and done with. When Virginia Slims cigarettes started using feminist slogans in their ad campaigns, that was the signal that second wave feminism had given up on making significant changes in the system and settled for getting women of the privileged classes a larger share of the goodies; when the environmental movement turned into a comparable collection of sales gimmicks—well, you can do the math as well as I can. All corporate advertising has as its subtext the maintenance of the status quo, so when your movement becomes an advertising resource, no matter how loudly you insist otherwise, you’re not a threat to the status quo: you are the status quo.
It’s at this point that I’d like to shift to the second of the signs I have in mind—tip of the druid’s hat here to reader Kevin Fathi for the heads-up. You can’t read it online; instead, you’ll have to shell out twenty-five bucks to get a copy of the just-released hardback edition of The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite by Michael Lind. (One of the articles that turned into the book is available here.) Unlike the CNN article cited above, it’s not absurd; it’s calm, reasoned, and thoughtful, and it makes some of the points I’ve been making on this and my previous blog for the last four years and more. It’s also the precise equivalent of waving a white cloth on a stick over the parapet of a trench in wartime.
To understand this, it’s helpful to know that the author is a consummate insider, a member of the very managerial elite from which he insists democracy has to be saved. He’s been an editor or staff writer at The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest; he’s taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and currently teaches public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s one of the carefully vetted people to whom the managerial elite allots the tasks of teaching its prospective members and providing its current members with interesting reading material. Keep this in mind as we proceed.
What Lind proposes in his book is that in recent decades, a privileged class—in his terms, the managerial elite—has taken over the public sphere, silenced dissent, and pushed through policies that benefit its members while loading all the costs onto the working class majority. The populist backlash that put Trump into the White House and popped Britain out of the EU, he argues, arose in response to the takeover of the public sphere by the managerial class, and will continue until the working class majority knows that it can get its concerns addressed and its needs met by those in power. None of there concepts will be unfamiliar to my readers, but it’s quite something to see them being admitted, right out there in public, by an insider like Lind.
It’s the conclusion that Lind draws, and some of the reasoning that guides it, that turns Lind’s book into something comparable to the white flag mentioned above. He insists that the populist movement has no policy goals of its own—no, of course not, it’s simply reacting blindly against the policies of the managerial elite—and that if the populists win and displace the managerial elite entirely, then the result will be the triumph of demagogues who have no constructive policies to pursue and who will not enact any of the reforms Lind considers necessary. It would be much better, he insists, for the managerial elite to welcome working class majorities back into the decisionmaking process in politics, economics, and culture.
Such proposals are an invariable feature of the final stages of the kind of social transformation we’re undergoing right now. You can see the same thing in fine detail, for example, in the history of countries that used to be European colonies and then became independent nations. With epic inevitability, the functionaries of the former colonial government admitted that yes, of course colonialism was a bad thing, and of course change is necessary, but the native peoples can’t possibly administer their own affairs, you know, so the best choice for everyone is a power-sharing arrangement that allows the former colonial functionaries to keep their present positions while paying a little more attention to the needs of the native population.
The native population, for its part, knows better. It knows that the point of the power-sharing arrangement is to enable the former colonial functionaries to cling to privileged positions and to retain control over which needs of the masses get met and which still get ignored. It knows that when a nation wins its freedom, and has to staff its institutions with people who don’t necessarily have the training for the task, there will be a longer or shorter period of relative confusion, followed by stabilization—and that only by putting up with that period, and building an administrative class from below, does freedom become more than a word. So they tell the former colonial administrators to pack their bags and leave the key on the mantel, because they recognize that the former colonial administrators are, in effect, suing for terms—and they know that the best response to that act is to demand unconditional surrender.
I expect Lind’s proposal to get the same response, because he’s making the same error as the colonial administrators he’s unwittingly copying. The insistence that the working classes have no policy goals of their own is as central to the ideology and mentality of the managerial elite as the corresponding insistence, on the part of those colonial administrators, that the natives can’t possibly govern themselves. In both cases, those statements simply aren’t true, but each of those untruths exist to camouflage an utterly unpalatable reality. For the colonial administrators, that reality is that the natives are perfectly capable of governing themselves—they had been doing so for thousands of years, after all—just not in the way that the colonial administrators want them to govern themselves. For the managerial class, similarly, that reality is that the working classes have one overriding policy goal: to be free to live their lives and make their own choices as they wish, rather than being expected to wait for administrators to set policy goals for them to follow.
If you’ve built your career and your identity around the notion that people are incapable of living their own lives without having you around to tell them what to do, discovering that they’re ready, willing, and able to do without your services can be a shattering experience—and discovering that they see you as an officious and intrusive petty tyrant, rather than being grateful for all the help you think you’ve given them, is even more so. Both these experiences, however, are routine for the losing side in the kind of transfer of power that’s under way in today’s America.
Part of that transfer of power is taking shape in a straightforwardly geographical way. The Trump administration is relocating large parts of the federal government away from Washington DC, and they’re not going elsewhere in the bicoastal bubble of privilege—they’re moving to flyover country. Two of the main bureaus of the Department of Agriculture, for example, will soon be moving to the Kansas City area, while the Bureau of Land Management is heading for Grand Junction, Colorado. That’s fiscally prudent—office space costs a lot less in Kansas City and Grand Junction than it does in Washington DC—and it also makes much more sense to put the Department of Agriculture in the middle of farm country and the Bureau of Land Management out west, where most federal lands are located. Yet the political implications are lost on no one inside the Beltway. When the eager young people who show up for their first day of work at the Department of Agriculture come from farm-belt schools rather than the Ivy League, a tectonic shift in the landscape of American power will have been accomplished.
That shift, however, is only part of a much broader transformation, one that’s been building for some years now and will become a massive political fact in the decades immediately ahead. The ideology and mentality of the managerial class take it as a fundamental truth that human societies can only thrive if they are controlled and manipulated by an educated elite of experts. Those readers with a taste for intellectual history can trace that notion all the way back to Plato’s Republic, that fantastically dystopian Utopia of philosopher-kings spouting “noble” lies and sending heavily armed Guardians to enforce their will, so that human beings could be made to behave the way that Plato thought they should behave. It’s been a theme in politics and history ever since Plato’s day, but it had its greatest flowering in our own time—specifically, in the seven decades between the end of the Second World War and the era of Trump and Brexit.
Faith in managerial omnipotence, and the inescapable passivity of the individual in response to it, became so widespread during that era that even those who condemned the cult of expertise generally accepted its pretensions and contented themselves with denouncing its effects. I’m thinking here among other examples of French Situationists such as Guy Debord, who saw industrial society as a system in which spectacle was substituted for reality and the consent of the helpless masses was manufactured at will by an almighty technostructure, against which radicals could at most carry out a series of hit-and-run attacks with no hope of final victory. For a while, too, you could hardly go onto the internet without seeing people talk about the claims made by Edward Bernays, the man who first applied Freudian psychology to advertising, and who claimed that people were helpless pawns in the hands of the clever ads that, please note, he was selling to clients. (To give him proper credit, it was apparently an effective sales pitch.)
Somehow that faith in the system’s omnipotence remained unshaken by all the ad campaigns that fell flat, all the attempts to sway public opinion that went nowhere, and the desperate scrambling that was sometimes needed when the elites tried to go one way, the masses went a different way, and the elites had to scurry over and put themselves at the head of the line of march, insisting that of course that was where they were leading people all along. The managerial classes became emotionally dependent on the belief that they were in control, that everyone and everything else in the world was an instrument they could manipulate at will, and that only their unceasing efforts would make it possible for the world to march onward, up the winding stair of progress, toward a shining Utopian future that somehow seemed to get further away with each bold step the self-anointed masters of humanity directed the rest of us to take.
I think, though, that the insurgent populism of our time is proving to be too much for even the most devout and purblind believer in managerial omnipotence to take in stride. The fact of the matter is that we’ve had seventy years of increasingly intrusive management by highly educated experts, and the world has gotten worse. Machiavelli pointed out that people will forgive the murder of their parents before they will forgive the confiscation of their family assets, and thus it should have come as no surprise that the flashpoint turned out to be economic. The neoliberal economic policies that were supposed to bring prosperity to all brought impoverishment and immiseration to most, while allowing a privileged few to wallow in kleptocratic absurdities: that was where the match met the fuse and the fuse led straight to the powder magazine.
Of course more was involved than that. The CNN article I cited at the beginning of this essay can stand in for all the efforts of officially approved experts to insist that people ought to ignore their own experiences of the world when those happened to be inconvenient for some corporate interest or other. At this point, when somebody in a white lab coat gets up in front of the media to shill for the food industry, or the medical industry, or the pharmaceutical industry, or one of the other bloated masses of corporate power that comprise so much of our economy these days, a very large number of people think reflexively, “He’s lying.” The mere fact that this assessment turns out to be right so much of the time is simply icing on the cake.
It was probably necessary at some point to explore the possibility that an elite of human beings, equipped with the kind of education and expertise we know how to give them, could do a better job of managing our collective affairs than all of us, using the clumsy but functional methods of representative democracy, can do on our own. (We’ve already tested out the competing claims of charismatic dictatorship and bureaucratic socialist totalitarianism, and the results are in: those produce mass murder and other ghastly human rights abuses on a far greater scale than representative democracy does.) Our seventy-year experiment has proven that a managerial elite with the best educations we can give them can still be catastrophically stupid and cause huge amounts of pointless and unnecessary misery. That’s worth knowing—but at this point the experiment has run its course.
Here again, though, we’re in familiar territory. American history can be usefully described as a sequence of attempted journeys toward distant shining cities that do not and cannot exist. When one such journey fails, as of course it must, we pick ourselves up, gather up whatever of value we’ve learned in the process of the last journey, and set out in a different direction. The managerial class didn’t pick the previous directions—not even the one of which it turned out to be the main beneficiary—and it won’t pick the next one either. Two weeks from now, I’ll have something to say about what that next America might be.