The strange political dynamic of 2016 in advanced Western democracies has suddenly put what most take to be a new issue on the table: how to deal with the political consequences of social change that expresses itself as a group or class phenomenon. Widespread agreement exists that the consequences of globalization, along with dramatic technical transformations, have deranged preexisting labor profiles, shattered communities, and made life uncertain and unpredictable for many even as it has been a boon to many others. This has, for certain classes of people on the losing end of globalization, created a great deal of anguished confusion, which often leads to fear, which, when harvested and directed by certain types of ego-driven political entrepreneurs, leads to hatred, which often enough leads to violence.
We know this pattern because there is nothing remotely new about there being political consequences to rapid social change. The only thing new in the current case seems to be the appalling historical ignorance of the elites relevant to the circumstance. These are people, after all, who typically think that rapid economic growth in what used to be called “undeveloped countries” or “the Third World,” and which are now thought of as “emerging markets,” simply and automatically promotes political stability and pluralism even in the absence of parallel maturing attitudes and institutions. Those nations “lucky” enough to have undergone such growth experienced a rather different outcome—the Shah’s Iran makes for a pretty good example.
Alas, the term déclassé fills books of European social history that, evidently, no one remembers or reads anymore. Yes, all this has happened before and, as social phenomena go, déclassement sits at the very foundation of the social theories and political ideologies that are the subject of basic political science and history courses. Karl Polanyi’s famous The Great Transformation, for example, has as a central focus the 19th century story of how many artisans lost their occupations as a result of the spread of factories. This process occurred through periods in which most modern historians believe inequality was rising and real wages were declining, but also in periods in which real wages were rising. The most conspicuous losers in the first half of the 19th century were the armies of workers who were spread out over the countryside in small villages and towns toiling on textiles with old-fashioned equipment such as hand-looms. They were put out of business by the application of water and then mechanical energy to weaving or spinning—some of them, led by Ned Ludd, gave rise to a certain well-known English vocabulary term. On the whole they eventually formed the basis of radical protest movements all over Europe—from Chartism in Britain to the revolutionaries of 1848 on the Continent.
Everyone back then had their favorite solution to the problem of the displaced artisans. Probably the most famous literary monument to the struggling artisan is George Eliot’s Silas Marner, published in 1861, with the subtitle “The Weaver of Raveloe.” Raveloe is a remote English village, based on the Warwickshire village of Bulkington, near where George Eliot grew up. It was changing because of the revolution in farming. Old-fashioned crafts were practiced but in decline—as with the ribbon trade, eroded by industrial competition. In 1861, the year the book was published, there were 83 houses left empty in the parish; on one day, six families with 27 members left for Quebec.
Eliot starts with a description of hopelessness:
To them pain and mishap present a far wider range of possibilities than gladness and enjoyment: their imagination is almost barren of the images that feed desire and hope, but is all overgrown by recollections that are a perpetual pasture to fear. ‘Is there anything you can fancy that you would like to eat?’ I once said to an old labouring man, who was in his last illness, and who had refused all the food his wife had offered him. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘I’ve never been used to nothing but common victual, and I can’t eat that.’ Experience had bred no fancies in him that could raise the phantasm of appetite.
Eliot’s solution to what was painted as an existential and not just an economic challenge was a religious one: Silas Marner, the miserly weaver, is first punished and then rescued thanks to his compassion.
Karl Marx, on the other hand, thought that not religion but revolution—the overthrow of all existing social arrangements—would solve the problem. He famously worried about the political allegiances of the drifters who had been cut loose by industrial change. He called them the Lumpenproletariat, and excoriated them. The term occurs in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, the same text in which Marx had worried about the social non-coherence of the French peasantry. They provided the crucial support for populism 19th-century style, in this case for Louis Napoleon’s grab for power, first as the elected President of the French Republic, then as Emperor. Thus Marx:
Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni [beggars], pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars—in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.
Puccini later glamorized what Marx had seen as the key to the support for authoritarianism, and the rest is opera history.
In truth, the working class chose neither revolution nor religion. The 19th-century working classes tried to distinguish themselves by their social respectability at the very moment when nearly everyone else was being marginalized. From the 1830s, temperance movements began. Working-class childhood was carefully disciplined and controlled, eventually giving rise to the re-romanticization of childhood in the backlash “arts and crafts” movement. By the end of the 19th century, the quest for working-class respectability involved a formal parlor (that was never used, or used only for wakes) replete with china dogs, velvet antimacassars, and a piano (that was rarely played).
The déclassé phenomenon was not—and is still not—just a working-class issue. Marx’s collaborator Friedrich Engels extended Marx’s term to cover the lower ranks of the Prussian aristocracy, which had dedicated itself to a culture of gambling, debts, aggressive begging, and political espionage. Hence there was a Lumpenaristocracy. There was also a Lumpenbourgeoisie: Declining gentry—cut off from the extravagant life of the Jacobean court—formed part of the explosive mixture that set off a civil war in 17th-century England. Oliver Cromwell was a perfect representative of this group, and became its charismatic leader.
Count Arthur de Gobineau epitomized a downwardly mobile aristocracy. The family was blue-blooded before the French Revolution, but he was the son of an impoverished government official. The Count, unable to sustain the old aristocratic life, sought refuge in the construction of a racial theory that asserted a golden age of stability, security, and hierarchy now lost. The declining aristocracy of late-19th-century Russia, threatened by commercial change, sometimes became reactionary, sometimes revolutionary. Meanwhile, another son of a government official, also a struggling class in Russia at that time, was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—Lenin.
Now, with all this—and it is but a tiny fragment of the historical record on the déclassé phenomenon—newly in mind or rekindled in memory, we can take a fresh look at recent (and ongoing) headlines.
The British vote for “Brexit” was a profound shock to the political class everywhere in the world. All the experts from the alleged globalization elite—in the British Treasury, the Bank of England, the International Monetary Fund, and almost every academic economist and political scientist—had warned of the catastrophic consequences of a vote to leave the European Union, but a narrow majority of British voters went ahead nevertheless.
The June 23 vote stirred opinion in the United States not so much because of a sentimental attachment to the Old World, or the mother country, or whatever, but because it looked like an omen. If a problematical, self-contradictory, perhaps crazy and fundamentally destructive platform could win in Britain, why not in a much larger and more important country? The same socioeconomic mix that supported Brexit in the United Kingdom constitutes the core of the Trump campaign. Trump’s acceptance speech made his identification with the angry under-heard apparent: “Let me be your voice,” and “I am your voice.”
The campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic replicate each other in an extraordinary mirror effect. Clinton’s slogan as she travels through declining industrial areas is “Stronger Together”; David Cameron’s was “Stronger In.” Brexiteers complained that the European Union was producing vulnerability to job losses and too many too-different immigrants—with terrorists among them. Trump tweeted: “Hillary’s vision is a borderless world where working people have no power, no jobs, no safety.”
Brexit voters were older, whiter, less educated, and less metropolitan than supporters of Bremain. They were confused and angry about their stagnating incomes, the decline of British manufacturing, and the diminished educational opportunities for their children. They didn’t like the new-economy, multicultural Britain, and they did not trust Prime Minister Cameron’s attempt to establish more tolerance. They were afraid. They thought they had lost their place in the world. But most of all they disliked the way that the “other” Britain—including many of the experts—sneered at them for being outs, or “chavs” and “pikeys” in British terminology. Whatever else it was, the Brexit vote was the response of democracy to massive condescension from the elite.
What is the best way to understand the new social divide, and above all the despair and anger of those who, for reasons good enough, see themselves as undeserving losers? It is a global phenomenon, sweeping the aging populations of the industrialized world, and its manifestations include the French National Front’s supporters and Germany’s Pegida and Alternative für Deutschland, not to speak of True Finns and Norway’s Progress Party. For the United States, the editor of this magazine, as it happens, coined the term Trumpenproletariat: a neat encapsulation of the way the educated view the revolt of the déclassé.1
It may be that in November U.S. electoral arithmetic will work in a different way than it did in the United Kingdom: in part because there are many more dynamic hubs of the new economy (Britain had just the cocaine-addicted financial center in the City of London); in part because more African Americans and Hispanics who might like part of the socioeconomic message won’t go along with the racism; and in part because Trump has wrapped his message of resentment about a lost world in an assertion of masculinity that might be expected to irritate at least half the voters. But the electoral-college logic of the U.S. system depends on capturing states, and two very important swing states in particular, Ohio and Pennsylvania, look as if they embody the demographics of decline.
The disappearance of the old working class was the basic fact of the electoral demography of the United Kingdom that led to Brexit. Proletarian Britain is disappearing. South Wales has seen the end of the coal industry and the last spasms of the steel industry. The Brexit campaign coincided with a debate about the future of the last big steel work in Port Talbot, where ironically the best chance for a future lay in European Union support but where voters primarily rejected a British government they thought had not done enough for them. The extent to which working-class Britain voted for Brexit surprised political scientists because, in many cases, it even went against obvious material interests. Derby, a manufacturing city heavily dependent on aerospace and production for a European market, didn’t care about the economics and voted to “take back” control. The fact that the tone-deaf management of Airbus had consistently warned them that they should vote Remain probably intensified the passion with which they chose Brexit.
The U.S. counterpart to the declining North of England is the Rust Belt. The disintegration of working-class America is evident in old steel cities such as the now-desolate Youngstown in Mahoning County, Ohio, or in the industrial suburbs of Detroit, or in western Pennsylvania or upstate New York. These are areas in which Trump does well. He lost the Ohio primary to Governor John Kasich, quite badly, but won in Mahoning County.
Why vote against one’s own objective economic interest? It turns out that the working-out of modern social disintegration involves a much larger loss of previous social identifiers. The collapse of the working class is also accompanied by a collapse of traditional families. Divorce rates are falling for the middle classes and middle-class families seem to be stabilizing; not so for those lower down the social pole. Charles Murray sees an America that is pulling apart, with enclaves of high-income liberals in orderly communities in high-income zip codes, and areas of crime-ridden disintegration and fragmentation.2
But here we must be careful with the words we use, and the lesson here comes from Marx. Marx, who liked describing classes and their identities, carefully explained that the French peasantry wasn’t a class, that “the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.” Murray’s lower-class white “losers,” too, don’t really make a “class” by way of coherence, identity, and confidence: They are simply broken people in a similar fix, individual potatoes in a common sack, as it were. It is unclear if Donald Trump can change that.
The collapse of social and personal coherence interacts in a devastating way with economic insecurity. Throughout the industrial world, the development among young people of a culture of short-term “gigs” fosters the development of what has been termed the “precariat.”3 Changes in economic structure and the advent of new technologies have produced a corporate instability, which means that the old assumptions of secure lifetime employment with one employer are no longer realistic. In some cases, “gigs” are presented as lowly or unpaid internships in which the sole motivating goal for the young worker is supposed to be a valuable work experience, but where the interns then require financial support, usually from parents. But that is the problem. When the parents are poor or distant or absent, there is no real safety net.
And then there is a collapse of religion. It is striking how Trump’s vision of a Republican platform has reduced the emphasis on religion, in contrast to the earlier Tea Party mobilization that formed the on-ramp for the Trump insurgency. Like any good marketer, he is sensitive to his intended audience. So guns are good, but the Silas Marner line is too old hat for serious consideration. The recent discussion of the medical problems of lower-income white America by Angus Deaton and Anne Case has emphasized the effects of alcohol but also of addiction to painkillers.4 In the 19th century, Marx derided religion as the opiate of the masses; now apparently, in the 21st century, opiates have become the religion of the masses.
Some soothing balm is required to deal with social dislocation. The elite of the industrial world largely failed to realize that the problem of massive social disruption in the wake of the trade effects of globalization and of foreign population inflows was genuine. In particular, globalization and technical innovation have been a potent combination in producing both a radical and relatively rapid change of life opportunities. First, there was low-wage competition from emerging market economies that wiped out many traditional blue-collar jobs. Then, while some of the industrial processes are moved back (“on-shoring”) because production needs to be near the major markets (notably in the case of quickly changing products), a high degree of automation means that few jobs are created by their return. The loss of jobs to foreign competition and automation, which began as an attack on the blue-collar way of life (and on trade unions), has now extended to include many routine white-collar activities: secretarial services, legal work, and even some medical processes (such as radiology). Whole ways of life are disappearing, and they are disappearing fast as these things go.
The Inequality Boom
One way of reading the result of the interplay of globalization and technology (perhaps we should call it technoglobalization) is as a change in relative incomes. Rising inequality has been so far the most popular and most influential way of describing the change. So far, the reaction of the political class has been to assume that the new populist, anti-globalization rhetoric is driven primarily by increased Gini coefficients. Indeed, there is something of an academic industry devoted to showing how and when inequality, which almost everywhere in the industrial world had been declining in the interwar years and in the immediate postwar period (what the French like to call “les trente glorieuses”) was rising sharply by the end of the 20th century. That fact is the basis of the thesis that propelled Thomas Piketty’s book to the best-seller list.
In consequence, distinguished academic economists such as Dani Rodrik, Paul de Grauwe, and Jeffrey Frankel call for a compensation mechanism to pay off the losers of globalization.5 But the details of how that compensation should work are problematical, as is the assumption that it is the fact of growing inequality itself that bothers people most.
Once again, the problem and the perception are not new. The age of industrialization, built on new technologies and the subsidiary industries they spawned, also gave rise to fabulously wealthy people squeezed near the very top of the income ladder—railroad barons, oil men, and assorted media tycoons’—that would have, then as now, skewed the whole data set, had there been a data set to skew. There is a good example of how the problem was handled in the past, however, and perhaps that is what the compensation theorists have in mind.
Starting in the 1880s and continuing well into the 20th century, the move toward radical politics in many parts of the world—including the United States and Europe—was driven by farmers who had been badly hit by the collapse of agricultural prices. A key part of the government response then was to put a price floor under farm products. The United States did this as part of the New Deal; the Agricultural Adjustment Act is one of the unsung triumphs of Roosevelt’s approach.
Europe waited longer for a systematic resolution of rural discontent. As in the United States, before and during the interwar era, farmers suffered across the world from a collapse of their incomes as new areas started to produce. Food prices, and then farm prices, collapsed. Over-indebted farmers lost their farms, and the banks to which they owed money tightened credit. The most popular answer of the interwar period—trade protection through tariffs and quotas—were ineffective in raising farm incomes. After the war, however, the EEC’s prime fiscal mechanism, the Common Agricultural Policy, set prices for farmers and offered an elaborate system of subsidies. Managing rural decline proved the most important political payoff of the European process. It took the most contentious distributional issue of the previous twenty years and Europeanized the solution. The financial cushion the policy provided, beginning really in 1957, allowed the gradual shrinking of agricultural employment in a more or less consensual and cooperative fashion. By the 2000s, farming accounted for only a very small proportion of employment in rich countries.
For France, agriculture accounted for 42.2 percent of employment in 1900, and still, at the beginning of the EEC in 1958, stood at 22 percent. It is today 2.8 percent, as it has been roughly since 2010. For Germany, the equivalent figures are 33.8, 16.1, and 1.6 percent; and for Italy 58.7, 32.9 and 4. One of the reasons that the United Kingdom has been consistently semi-detached from Europe is that it did not really need this system of management of the peasant class, with only 9.2 percent of employment in agriculture in 1900 and 4.1 in 1958.6 “Peasant” is a term that does not really have a meaning for most parts of the modern United Kingdom (it does for Ireland, which explains quite a lot of the constitutional history of the 19th century, up to Irish independence in 1922).
It is, however, much harder to think of an equivalent solution to the loss of jobs in manufacturing. In agriculture, the outputs generated during the state-subsidized decline were mostly still useful and desirable. People still needed to eat bread and drink milk, and they even smoked tobacco and drank wine. Sometimes excesses were generated by the subsidy regime; the European Union became famous for its butter mountains and milk and wine lakes. But even these could be managed, and excess wine was made into industrial alcohol. Industrial production is rather different in that there is often simply no market for outdated or surplus products. A few quirky hobbyists aside, no one today wants to ride in a mid-20th-century automobile. And even collectors don’t want 20th-century televisions.
There is a simpler description of what drives the new politics. It is not so much the details of inequality or even really the fact of it, but rather the loss of a livelihood and a social position that went with an occupation. It comes down, really, to a matter not of equality or inequality but of dignity and basic respect. That is why many of the solutions propounded to fix the problem will not work. One alternative that superficially looks attractive is to pay former industrial workers—and perhaps also the enterprises for which they worked—for not producing. Again, this tactic sometimes worked in dealing with surplus agricultural production. But it is problematic in that it prompts a form of destructively competitive thinking about entitlements, of getting something in exchange for nothing. And more important, it fails to give the recipients the sense that they are doing something useful at all (the wine growers who were paid not to produce were still making some wine, after all).
So the question—or at any rate one question—is this: Can modern politicians learn from other historical instances how to cushion the economic blows of today’s technoglobalist disruptions?
Nineteenth-century Europe solved its déclassement problem in a particularly straightforward way: migration. Gobineau derided the emigrants and, in particular, thought of the United States as
…a very mixed assortment of the most degenerate races in olden-day Europe. They are the human flotsam of all ages: Irish, crossbreed Germans and French and Italians of even more doubtful stock. The intermixture of all these decadent ethnic varieties will inevitably give birth to further ethnic chaos.
Americans, by contrast, celebrated the international aspect of their heritage, and they were right to do so. Emma Lazarus’s iconic poem on the pediment of the Statue of Liberty provides the lyrics to the song that is the American dream:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
A great deal of American entrepreneurship is—as emphasized in a brilliant book by the late Thomas McCraw—a testimony to the inventiveness of migrants.7 Maybe just one small farming town in southwestern Germany could serve as an example of the beneficial consequences of migration. Friedrich (Fred) Trump was born on March 14, 1869 in Kallstadt, Palatinate, and moved to the United States in 1882; his wife was born in the same small German town. Donald Trump’s other grandparents come from a similar background. Malcolm Macleod was born on December 27, 1866 in Stornoway, Ross and Cromarty, Scotland to two Macleod parents, Alexander and Anne. He was a fisherman and crofter. Meanwhile, the father of Henry John Heinz, the founder of the Heinz food empire, was also born in Kallstadt (in 1811), the second son of a farmer who emigrated at a time of agricultural crisis. Illustrations of this general phenomenon number in the millions.
A long time ago, the historian of migration Charlotte Erickson tried to identify differences in migration patterns. She used case studies to examine whether emigrants were losers, “people who resisted occupational change,” or “more adventurous people who sought new and different opportunities” because of social constraints in Britain. She concluded that the more enterprising sorts went to the United States, whereas others (less numerous) preferred the security of the British colonies.8
Migrants to the United States and beyond were not stupid, and it would not have been a very sensible idea to try to keep them in their homes by some compensatory mechanism. Besides, by some accounts losing that population did Britain’s own economy more good than harm, just as—the comparison is not meant to be exact—the 14th-century visitation of the Black Death supposedly had a salubrious impact on the European economy of the day. The transformation of Scandinavian countries into rich modern nations in the 19th and early 20th centuries is also usually attributed to the consequences of the emigration of the rural poor.
What is the contemporary equivalent of the emigration valve? It probably isn’t cross-border emigration—although that is the way East and South European countries are responding to economic malaise. But it could be internal migration, away from settings that constrain and repress, the 21st-century equivalents of George Eliot’s Raveloe, and into more dynamic hubs. Only today that internal migration might be away from large cities instead of toward them.9
But being prepared for mass moves like that requires skills and initiative, and some degree of government planning. How to achieve that? Perhaps the kind of movement that is important in the modern world is not so much a physical one as a social and psychological one, for which many people are badly equipped. The biggest failure of policy in the United States (and also in the United Kingdom) is a stultifying and rigid educational system that makes physical and social mobility harder. That is perhaps one of the reasons that the most frequently cited last defense and hope of contemporary Western political elites is to augment state transfer systems to compensate the losers of change rather than to change the losers into citizens who can prosper in new circumstances. Quite aside from working out who would pay for this augmentation, and with what overall effects, it is a perspective that manages to be simultaneously unresponsive to real needs, condescending, and probably on balance counterproductive. It is also backward-looking without realizing it.
The poverty of courage and imagination afflicting contemporary Western political elites would not be remedied of a sudden if these elites knew more history, although it would not hurt. Besides, history furnishes few examples of enlightened and bold leadership in trying times and rather more examples of heartache and tragedy. But doing something deliberate about the unprecedented isolation of these elites from normal life as experienced by most people—an isolation abetted or exacerbated by the very technologies that define the globalization era, as it happens—would truly help. Before offering up yet more technocratic fixes for what at base is not a technical problem, these folks need to get out more.