In the past, fears of job losses from automation were often overstated. Technological progress eliminated some jobs but created others, and often better-paying ones. In the early days of the high-tech revolution, many of the pioneering firms—such as Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and IBM—were widely praised for treating their lower-level workers as part of the company and deserving of opportunities for advancement, as well as benefits including health insurance and a pension.
The labor policies of the newer generation of tech giants tend to be vastly different. Firms like Tesla have been sued for failing to pay contract workers the legally mandated overtime rates, and for depriving them of meal and rest breaks. The Tesla plant has wages below the industry average, according to workers, and risk of injury higher than the industry average, notes a pro-labor nonprofit. Given that the high housing prices keep them living far from the workplace, some workers sleep in the factory hallways or in their cars.
“Everything feels like the future but us,” complained one worker.
The largest tech employer today is Amazon, with 798,000 employees worldwide in 2019. Amazon tends to pay its workers less than rivals do. Many employees rely on government assistance, such as food stamps, to make ends meet. When the company announced it was adopting a minimum wage of $15 an hour, it also cut stock options and other benefits, largely wiping out the raises, at least for long-term employees.
The average Amazon worker in 2018 made less than $30,000 annually, about the same as the CEO made every 10 seconds.
Working conditions at Amazon are often less than optimal. Warehouse workers in Britain reportedly were urinating in bottles to avoid being accused of “time-wasting” for taking breaks. Amazon has also patented wristbands that track employee movements, described as a “labor-saving measure.” Those who can’t keep up the pace are written up and then fired, said one British worker. “They make it like the ‘Hunger Games.’ That’s what we actually call it.”
Apple manufactures virtually all its products abroad, mostly in China, although medical concerns and political factors might change that. In addition to its own employees there, the company relies on the labor of more than 700,000 workers—roughly 10 times its U.S. employment—to build Apple products at contractors like Foxconn. These workers suffer conditions that have led to illegal strikes and suicides; workers often claim they are treated no better than robots.
From Proletariat to Precariat
In the old working-class world, unions often set hours and benefits, but many low-status workers today are sinking into what has been described as the “precariat,” with limited control over their working hours and often living on barely subsistence wages.
One reason for this descent is a general shift away from relatively stable jobs in skill-dependent industries or in services like retail to such occupations as hotel housekeepers and home care aides. People in jobs of this kind have seen only meager wage gains, and they suffer from “income volatility” due to changing conditions of employment and a lack of long-term contracts.
This kind of volatility has become more common even in countries with fairly strong labor laws. In Canada, the number of people in temp jobs has been growing at more than triple the pace of permanent employment, since many workers who lose industrial jobs fail to find another full-time permanent position. The same patterns can be seen in traditionally labor-friendly European countries. From 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the EU15 and the United States, or up to 162 million individuals, are doing contract work. A similar trend shows up in developing countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Even in Japan, long known as a country of secure long-term employment, the trend is toward part-time, conditional work. Today, some 40 percent of the Japanese workforce are “irregular,” also known as “freetors,” and this group is growing fast while the number of full-time jobs is decreasing. The instability in employment is widely seen as one reason for the country’s ultra-low birth rate.
Many of today’s “precariat” work in the contingent “gig” economy, associated with firms such as Uber and Lyft. These companies and their progressive allies, including David Plouffe (who managed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008), like to speak of a “sharing” economy that is “democratizing capitalism” by returning control of the working day to the individual. They point to opportunities that the gig economy provides for people to make extra money using their own cars or homes. The corporate image of companies like Uber and Lyft features moonlighting drivers saving up cash for a family vacation or a fancy date while providing a convenient service for customers—the ultimate win-win.
Yet for most gig workers there’s not very much that is democratic or satisfying in it. Most are not like the middle-class driver in Uber ads, picking up some extra cash for luxuries. Instead, they depend on their “gigs” for a livelihood, often barely making ends meet. Almost two-thirds of American gig workers in their late 30s and 40s—the age range most associated with family formation—were struggling to pay their bills. Nearly half of gig workers in California live under the poverty line. One survey of gig workers in 75 countries including the United States found that most earned less than minimum wage, leading one observer to label them “the last of Marx’s oppressed proletarians.”
The reasons for their precarious situation are not hard to locate. Gig workers lack many basic protections that full-time workers might have, such as enforcement of civil rights laws. Workers without representation, or even set hours, do not have the necessary tools to protect their own position; they are essentially fungible, like day laborers anywhere. Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor, has gone so far as to label the “sharing” economy a “share-the-scraps” economy. Rather than providing an “add on” to a middle-class life, gig work for many has turned out to be something closer to serfdom.
Cultural Erosion in the Working Class
The downward economic trajectory of the working class has been amplified by cultural decline. The traditional bulwarks of communities—religious institutions, extended family, neighborhood and social groups, trade unions—have weakened generally, but the consequences are most damaging for those with limited economic resources.
Social decay among the working class echoes what occurred in the first decades of the industrial revolution, when family and community structures and bonds of religion buckled and often broke. Rampant alcoholism spread “a pestilence of liquor across all of Europe,” wrote the Marxist historian E. J. Hobsbawm. In the mid-19th century, 40,000 prostitutes plied their trade in London. The physical condition of British workers was horrible: most were malnourished and suffered various job-related maladies. As late as 1917, only one-third of young males were considered to be in good health.
In America and elsewhere today, the working classes lag behind the affluent in family formation, academic test scores, and graduation rates. Marriages may be getting more stable in the upper classes, as the sociologist Stephanie Coontz has shown, but as many as 1-in-3 births in the nation occurs outside matrimony. In some working-class neighborhoods, particularly those with a large proportion of ethnic minorities, four-fifths of all children are born to unmarried mothers. The rate of single parenting is the most significant predictor of social immobility across the United States and in Europe as well.
These social patterns parallel changes in economic trends. A detailed study in the United States published in 2017 shows that when towns and counties lose manufacturing jobs, fertility and marriage rates decrease, while out-of-wedlock births and the share of children living in single-parent homes increases. In addition, a variety of health problems—obesity, diabetes, disease of the heart, kidney, or liver—occur at much higher rates when family income is under $35,000 than when it is over $100,000. Between 2000 and 2015, the death rate increased for middle-aged white Americans with a low educational level. Anne Case and Angus Deaton say this trend owes primarily to “deaths of despair”: suicides as well as deaths related to alcohol and drugs, including opioids. In Europe likewise, a health crisis including drug addiction and drug-related deaths has emerged in old industrial areas, especially in Scotland.
In East Asia, traditionally known for strong family structures, the working class is showing signs of social erosion. Half of all South Korean households have experienced some form of family crisis, mostly involving debt, job loss, or issues relating to child or elder care, notes one recent study. Japan has a rising “misery index” of divorces, single motherhood, spousal and child abuse—all of which accelerate the country’s disastrous demographic decline and deepen class division.
An even greater social challenge may emerge in China, where some authorities are concerned about the effects of deteriorating family relations, particularly in care for aging parents. The government has started a campaign to promote the ideal of “filial piety,” a surprising revival of Confucian ideals by a state that previously attempted to eradicate them.
The problem of family breakdown is especially severe in the Chinese countryside. The flow of migrants into the cities in search of work has resulted in an estimated 60 million “left behind children” and nearly as many “left behind elderly.” The migrants themselves suffer from serious health problems, including venereal disease at rates far higher than the national norm, but the children left behind in rural villages face especially difficult challenges. Scott Rozelle, a professor at Stanford University, found that most of these children are sick or malnourished, and as many as two in three suffer from anemia, worms, or myopia. Rozelle predicts that more than half the left-behind toddlers are so cognitively delayed that their IQs will never exceed 90. This portends a future of something like the Gammas and Epsilons of Brave New World.
The Gentrification of the Left
In developed nations, as the middle classes are being proletarianized and the working classes fall further behind, the longstanding alliance between the intellectual Left and the working class is dissolving.
Already in the 1960s, New Left radicals such as C. Wright Mills and Ferdinand Lundberg disparaged the mental capacity of average Americans. Most of the population, according to Lundberg, were “quite misinformed, and readily susceptible to be worked upon, distracted.” The general acceptance of capitalism by the working class, as well as questions of race and culture, led many on the Left to seek a new coalition to carry the progressive banner. For its part, the working class has moved away from its traditional leftist affiliation not only in the United States but also across Europe and the United Kingdom.
“The more than 150-year-old alliance between the industrial working class and what one might call the intellectual-cultural Left is over,” notes Bo Rothstein, a Swedish political scientist. He suggests that a “political alliance between the intellectual left and the new entrepreneurial economy” could replace the old “class struggle” model and provide a way to “organize public services in a new and more democratic way.”
Across Europe, traditional parties of the Left now find their backing primarily among the wealthy, the highly educated, and government employees. Germany’s Social Democrats, France’s Socialists, and the British and Australian Labor parties have been largely “gentrified,” as has America’s Democratic Party, despite the resurgence of “democratic socialism” as part of its ideology. They have shifted their emphasis away from their historic working-class base, toward people with college and graduate degrees.
Even more than disagreements over immigration and cultural values, differences in economic interests have driven a wedge between the established Left and the working class. The agenda promoted by the leftist clerisy and the corporate elite—on immigration, globalization, greenhouse gas emissions—does not threaten their own particular interests. But it often directly threatens the interests of working-class people, especially in resource-based industries, manufacturing, agriculture, and construction. Environmental policy in places like California and western Europe has tended to ignore the concerns of working-class families.
The continuing heavy use of coal, oil, and other fossil fuels—still increasing in countries like India and China—may present a danger to humanity’s future, but it has contributed greatly to wealth creation and the comfort of the working class since the 18th century. Plans for a drastic reduction in the use of carbon-based energy by 2050 would force middle-class Americans to be more like North Koreans in their energy consumption.
In Europe, green energy mandates have caused a spike in energy costs. As many as one in four Germans and over half of Greeks have had to spend 10 percent or more of their income on energy, and three-fourths of Greeks have cut other spending to pay their electricity bills, which is the economic definition of “energy poverty.” These mandates have far less impact on the wealthy.
In their zeal to combat climate change, the clerisy have taken aim at things like suburban homes, cars, and affordable airfare. The lifestyles of the middle and working classes are often criticized by the very rich, who will likely maintain their own luxuries even under a regime of “sustainability.” A former UK environment minister said that cheap airfare represents the “irresponsible face of capitalism.” Apparently the more expensive travel done by the wealthy, including trips by private jet to conferences on climate change, is not so irresponsible. New regulations and taxes on fuel imposed by France’s aggressively green government sparked the gilets jaunes uprising, as well as the previous bonnets rouges protests in Brittany.
Those in today’s intellectual Left are concerned about the planet and about international migrants, but not so much about their compatriots in the working class. The French philosopher Didier Eribon, a gay man who grew up in a struggling working-class family in provincial Reims, describes a deep-seated “class racism” in elite intellectual circles toward people like his family.
Working-class voters in France were joyful at the socialist victory in the 1981 election, but then found themselves supporting a government whose priorities turned out to be “neoliberalism,” multiculturalism, and modernization. One result is widespread cynicism toward the political establishment. Eribon recalls his socialistically inclined mother saying, “Right or Left, there’s no difference. They are all the same, and the same people always end up footing the bill.”
As the major left-leaning parties in high-income countries have become gentrified, the political orientation of working-class voters is realigning. Populist and nationalist parties in Sweden, Hungary, Spain, Poland, and Slovakia have done particularly well among younger votes. In fact, many of the right-wing nationalist parties are led by millennials. American millennials too are surprisingly attracted to right-wing populism. In November 2016, more white American millennials voted for Donald Trump than for Hillary Clinton. Their much-ballyhooed shift toward the Democratic Party has reversed, and now less than a majority identify as Democrats.
More broadly, a sense of betrayal among those being left behind by progress is leading to defections from mainstream parties of both Right and Left. Among the working classes and the young, there is a steady growth of far-Left opposition to the established liberal order, as well as strong support for the far Right. This increasing movement away from the center and toward the fringes is not an ideal formula for a stable democratic society.
As Tocqueville put it, we may be “sleeping on a volcano.”
Will the world’s working classes accept their continuing decline? We are already seeing what might be described as “peasant rebellions” against the globalist order that is being constructed by the oligarchs and their allies in the clerisy. In recent years, an insurrectionary spirit has surfaced in the Brexit vote, the rise of neonationalist parties in Europe and authoritarian populists in Brazil and the Philippines, and of course the election of Donald Trump.
At the core of these rebellions against the political mainstream lies the suspicion among the lower classes that the people who control their lives—whether corporate bosses or government officials—do not have their interests at heart. The slow-growth economy that emerged from the Great Recession benefited the financial elite and property speculators, but did little for the vast majority of people. Firms like Apple have profited from soaring stock prices and low-wage Chinese production while less capital-rich businesses have struggled.
These lopsided economic results have prompted attrition from the traditional mainstream political parties in many countries.
In multiparty democracies, a reaction against economic globalization and mass immigration, among other policies, has resulted in pronounced movement to the political fringes. One Harvard study found that anti-establishment populist parties across Europe expanded their share of the electorate from 10 percent in 1990 to 25 percent in 2016. At the same time, center-Left parties are losing ground to far-Left parties or candidates.
Is this only a prelude to a more serious kind of rebellion—one that could undermine democratic capitalism itself?
A Brief History of Peasant Rebellions
Admirers of medieval feudalism highlight the concept of mutual obligation between the classes. The upper clergy and the military aristocracy practiced a kind of noblesse oblige that provided a floor (albeit often insufficient) for the lower classes. But the obligations of the lower to the higher classes may have been no more voluntary than those binding the Cosa Nostra.
The medieval poor did not always accept their miserable situation quietly. Uprisings broke out as early as Charlemagne’s reign in the 9th century, and became more common in the later Middle Ages. Violent peasant armies actually bested aristocratic knights in the Low Countries in 1227, in Northern Germany in 1230, and in the Swiss Alps in 1315. The brutal 14th century brought a rash of peasant rebellions and urban insurrections. French peasants burned down manors of the wealthy in the Jacquerie of 1358, aiming to “destroy all the nobles and gentry in the world and there would be none any more.” After being routed by armies of nobility and gentry, the insurgents were subjected to a campaign of reprisal that cost an estimated 20,000 lives.
In England, a labor shortage following the great plague resulted in higher pay and more mobility for laborers, but Parliament and big landowners took measures to hold down wages and keep peasants on their estates. Then, a new poll tax sparked a large-scale uprising led by Watt Tyler in 1381. A radical priest named John Ball traveled up and down England stirring up peasants, and in a speech outside London he famously asked: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” The rebels’ demands included abolition of serfdom and feudal service, an end to market monopolies and other restrictions on buying and selling, and confiscation of clerical property.
Violent uprisings of peasants or urban poor also broke out in many other places, including Flanders, Florence, Lübeck, Paris, Transylvania, Croatia, Estonia, Galicia, and Sweden. But the biggest social upheaval before the French Revolution was the great Peasants’ Rebellion of 1525 in Germany. Among the demands presented in the “Twelve Articles of the Peasantry” were the abolition of serfdom, restrictions on feudal dues, the right to fish and hunt, and the right of peasants to choose their own priest. The rebels took inspiration from Martin Luther’s doctrine of a “priesthood of all believers,” but Luther himself became horrified by their violence. The rebellion was put down so savagely that it dissuaded further uprisings in Germany.
Only rarely did such rebellions prove successful, like the one by the Swiss peasants. The ruling powers sometimes used treachery to quell uprisings by offering pardons that were eventually revoked. In 17th-century England, Cromwell’s “respectable revolution” quashed the efforts of the Levellers to extend Parliament’s war against the monarchy into a radical egalitarian reordering of society. Southern and western France endured frequent rural protests through much of the seventeenth century.
Peasant rebellions also occurred in other parts of the world, often with greater ferocity. Japan had numerous ikki or peasant uprisings, particularly in the fifteenth century; the consolidation of power under the shogun in 1600 finally put an end to the disturbances. There were numerous uprisings and revolutions in Mexico, but it was only in the early 20th century that the peones finally overturned the quasi-feudal regime left over from the Spanish legacy. They achieved significant land reform, but at the cost of well over 1 million lives.
In Russia, with its overwhelmingly rural society, peasant rebellions were commonplace by the 17th century. A revolt among Ural Cossacks under Emelian Pugachev threatened the czarist regime in 1773, during the reign of Catherine the Great. The rebellion failed, as did some 550 others, but in 1917 the peasants rose up to support Lenin’s seizure of power. When the Soviet regime began to confiscate land for collectivization, the property-loving muzhiks rebelled, only to be put down ruthlessly.
Arguably the most powerful peasant rebellion occurred in China, in 1843. After failing civil service exams several times, Hung Hsiu-ch’uan read some Christian tracts and connected their message with hallucinations he had experienced. He designed his own religion, in which he was part of the Holy Trinity, but with doctrines based mainly on the Ten Commandments, and he preached it to destitute laborers. His Taiping Rebellion called for the overthrow of the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty, land reform, improving the status of women, tax reduction, eliminating bribery, and abolishing the opium trade. The rebellion was finally put down more than a decade later, with massive loss of life. Some of the Taiping program would later be adopted by Sun Yat-sen, who would overthrow the imperial regime, and then by Mao Tse-tung and the Communists.
The Revolt Against Mass Migration
The contemporary versions of peasant rebellions, particularly in Europe and the United States, are in large part a reaction against globalization and the mass influx of migrants from poor countries with very different cultures. The numbers of international migrants worldwide swelled from 173 million in 2000 to 258 million in 2017; of these, 78 million were living in Europe and 50 million in the United States.
Mass migration from poorer to wealthier countries seems all but unstoppable, given the great disparities between them. According to a Gates Foundation study, 22 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa live in extreme poverty, defined as subsisting on less than $1.90 a day. By 2050, the region will be home to 86 percent of the world’s poorest people, and about half that number will live in just two countries, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the extremely poor in such countries, who see little to no chance of improving their condition at home, a dangerous trek to Europe or some other wealthy place would seem worth the risk.
Many people in Europe have welcomed migrants from poorer countries, including former colonies. Political and cultural elites in particular have elevated cosmopolitanism and “diversity” above national identity and tradition. Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” was an effort to highlight cultural diversity as a central part of modern Britain’s identity. Herman Lebovics, in Bringing the Empire Back Home: France in the Global Age (2004), pondered how to redefine what it means to be French in a multicultural age.
When Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, flung the doors wide open to a huge wave of refugees and migrants from the war-ravaged Middle East in 2015, many ordinary Germans were eager to show Gastfreundschaft, or hospitality, as were many people elsewhere in Europe. By the end of that year, nearly a million refugees had entered Germany alone, and the public welcome turned cold. Merkel’s decision came to be widely unpopular with Germans and the vast majority of Europeans.
A year after the rapid influx of refugees began, Pew Research found that 59 percent of Europeans thought immigrants were imposing a burden on their country, while only a third said that immigrants made their country a better place to live. Among Greeks, 63 percent said that immigrants made things worse, as did 53 percent of Italians. In 2018, Pew found 70 percent of Italians, almost 60 percent of Germans, half of Swedes, and 40 percent of French and British citizens wanting either fewer or no new immigrants; barely 10 percent wanted more.
In the years following Merkel’s decision to set out the welcome wagon, virtually all European countries—including such progressive ones as the Netherlands, France, Denmark, Norway, and Germany itself—have tightened their immigration controls. This has been done chiefly to counter the populist (and at times quasi-fascist) nativist movements growing in many countries: Hungary, Poland, Austria, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, and most importantly in Germany.
Much of the support for populist parties comes from the working class and lower-middle class, who are more exposed to the disruptions and dangers that the migrants have often brought, and are generally more burdened by the public expense of accommodating them. Even in Sweden, where the citizens have long prided themselves on tolerance, there is widespread anger about rising crime and an unprecedented level of social friction in a formerly homogeneous country.
Some of the anti-immigrant movements that have sprung up espouse racist views, but others are far less odious, being simply opposed to the globalizing policies of elites and their indifference to the concerns of average citizens. Some have found inspiration in the Middle Ages, such as the example of the Frankish king Charles Martel, who defeated Muslim invaders in the 8th century. Fans of Donald Trump presented images of him as a Crusader clad in chainmail with a cross embroidered on the front.
The conflict over immigration divides largely along class lines. There is a huge divergence between elite opinion, which generally favors mass immigration, and that of majorities in the working and middle classes. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, acknowledged this divergence in 2015 when he said, “The arrival of refugees is an economic opportunity. And too bad if [it] isn’t popular.”
If political elites in Europe regard open borders as good for the economy, corporate elites in the United States are eager to import skilled technicians and other workers, who typically accept lower wages. The tech oligarchs in particular like to hire from abroad: in Silicon Valley, roughly 40 percent of the tech workforce is made up of noncitizens. Steve Case, the former CEO of America Online, has suggested that immigrant entrepreneurs and workers could offset middle-class job losses from automation. Some conservative intellectuals have even thought that hardworking newcomers should replace the “lazy” elements of the working class. Some of the earliest opposition to the Trump Administration focused on his agenda of curtailing immigration.
Somewheres vs. Anywheres
Ironically, the people who most strongly favor open borders are welcoming large numbers of immigrants who do not share their own secular, progressive values. That is particularly true in Europe, where migrants and refugees from Muslim countries often hold very conservative or reactionary views on things such as homosexuality and women’s rights; many even support female genital mutilation. Some European politicians and other leaders, including the archbishop of Canterbury, have proposed that elements of Muslim sharia law, such as a prohibition of blasphemy, could be applied on top of existing national standards.
Giles Kepel, one of France’s leading Arabists, observes that Muslims coming to Europe tend to possess “a keen sense” of cultural identity rooted in religion, while the media and academia tend to promote the “erasing of identities,” at least for the native population. Rather than defend their own values, Europeans and others in the West have been told by their leaders that “they must give up their principles and soul—it’s the politics of fait accompli.” This “erasing of identities” is not widely popular among the working and middle classes.
The British writer David Goodhart describes a cultural conflict between the cosmopolitan, postnational “anywheres” and the generally less educated but more rooted “somewheres.” If the media and most high-level government and business leaders in Europe have an “anywhere” perspective, people in less cosmopolitan precincts outside the capital cities tend to remain more strongly tied to national identities, local communities, religion and tradition. These divisions were particularly evident in the vote on Brexit and the Conservative sweep in 2019.
The “somewhere” sentiment has repeatedly been expressed in votes concerning the European Union. In addition to the Brexit referendum of 2016, French, Danish, and Dutch voters have opted against deeper or broader EU ties, preferring a stronger national “somewhere.” Less than 10 percent of EU residents identify themselves as Europeans first, and 51 percent favor a more powerful nation-state, while only 35 percent want power in Brussels to be increased.
As long as the political and economic elites ignore these preferences, populist rebellions against establishment parties will likely continue and could become more disruptive. Elite disdain for traditions of country, religion, and family tends to exacerbate class conflict around cultural identity. “Liberalism is stupid about culture,” observed Stuart Hall, a Jamaican-born Marxist sociologist.
In the United States, discontent with the globalist and open-borders agenda of the oligarchs and the upper clerisy resulted in strong working-class support for Donald Trump in 2016. He won two out of every five union voters and an absolute majority among white males. Like his European counterparts, Trump ran strongest in predominantly white, working-class and lower-middle-class areas—precisely the areas hardest hit by globalization. He appealed most to people who work with their hands, own small shops, or are employed in factories, the logistics industry and energy sector; those who repair and operate machines, drive trucks, and maintain our power grid. Among white voters at least, he did poorest with well-educated professionals.
To many voters, Trump was “a champion for forgotten millions.” When surveyed, these voters put a high priority on bringing back manufacturing jobs, protecting Social Security and Medicare, and getting conservatives on the Supreme Court—ahead of building a wall to keep out undocumented immigrants, who are widely seen as cutting into labor wages for American citizens. Even though he came from the business elite, Trump met almost universal opposition from the dominant classes. Instead, he won over voters who see big corporations as indifferent to the well-being of working people. Like some of the populist movements in Europe, the American populist Right has adopted many of the class-based talking points, although usually not the policies, associated with the pre-gentrified Left.
In the higher echelons of the clerisy, the response to the populist revolt has mostly been revulsion. “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses” was the title of an article by James Traub in Foreign Policy in the summer of 2016. A former New York Times writer, Traub asserted that the Brexit vote and the nomination of Donald Trump, among other developments, indicate that the “political schism of our time” is not between Left and Right, but “the sane vs. the mindless angry.” Larry Summers, a former Obama Administration official, took a more astute view of the matter: “The willingness of people to be intimidated by experts into supporting cosmopolitan outcomes appears for the moment to have been exhausted.”
Is There a Mass Insurrection in the Making?
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the proletarianization of the middle class resulted in widespread support for Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism. Today, as in Europe before World War II, people on both right and left often blame financial institutions for their precarious situation. Anger at the financial services sector gave rise to the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City and the many spinoff Occupy protests in 2011-12. Marching under the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” protesters around the world decried the heavy concentration of wealth in a few hands.
Alienation from the political mainstream today is resulting in strong support for far-Left parties and candidates among youth in various high-income countries. In France’s presidential election of 2017, the former Trotskyite Jean-Luc Mélenchon won the under-24 vote, beating the more youthful Emmanuel Macron by almost two to one among that age group. In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party under the neo-Marxist Jeremy Corbyn in 2018 won more than 60 percent of the under-40 vote, while the Conservatives got just 23 percent. He won the youth vote similarly in 2020, even amidst a crushing electoral defeat. In Germany, the Green Party enjoys wide support among the young.
A movement toward hard-Left politics, particularly among the young, is also apparent in the United States, which historically has not been fertile ground for Marxism.
In the 2016 primaries, the openly socialist Bernie Sanders easily outpolled Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined among under-30 voters. He also did very well among young people and Latinos in the early 2020 primaries, even as other elements of the Democratic Party rejected him decisively. Support for socialism, long anathema in America, has gained currency in the new generation. A poll conducted by the Communism Memorial Foundation in 2016 found that 44 percent of American Millennials favored socialism while 14 percent chose fascism or Communism. By 2024, Millennials will be the country’s biggest voting bloc by far.
The core doctrines of Marxism are providing inspiration for labor unrest in China today, particularly among the younger generation of migrants to the cities. Activists often find themselves prosecuted for threatening “the social order.” Communist officials have been put in the awkward position of cracking down on Marxist study groups at universities, whose working-class advocacy conflicts with the policies of the nominally socialist government.
Democratic capitalist societies need to offer the prospect of a brighter future for the majority. Without this belief, more demands for a populist strongman or a radical redistribution of wealth seem inevitable. A form of “oligarchic socialism,” with subsidies or stipends for working people, might stave off destitution while allowing the wealthiest to maintain their dominance. But the issue boils down to whether people—not just those with elite credentials and skills—actually matter in a technological age.
Wendell Berry, the Kentucky-based poet and novelist, observed that the “great question” hovering over society is “what are people for?” By putting an “absolute premium on labor-saving measures,” we may be creating more dependence on the state while undermining the dignity of those who want to do useful work.
The future of the working class should concern us all. If too many lack any hope of improving their condition, we could face dangerous upheaval in the near future.