In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the dictatorship of Oceania subjects its citizens, or at least those within the ruling Party, to a ritual known as the “Two Minutes Hate,” in which a giant “telescreen” blares out propaganda to a captive audience. The narrative conveyed is simple but effective enough to repeat every day with only slight variations: Oceania is under attack, usually by either of its two rival superstates, Eurasia and Eastasia, whose battlefield atrocities are luridly recounted on the screen. Underlying the war is an ideological contest: Oceania professes to believe in “Ingsoc,” or “English Socialism,” while the two other powers have their own distinct ideologies, of which Oceanians know nothing other than that they must “execrate them as barbarous outrages upon morality and common sense.”1
It is clear, however, that the purpose of the Hate is to instill a devotion to the regime based not on ideology or ideals but on unthinking emotion, passion, and instinct, better directed at specific individuals than at abstract systems and institutions. This is why the telescreen then lingers on the image of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Trotsky-like arch-traitor and the intended object of fear and vilification, before fading back to the soothing face of Big Brother, who, as the regime’s personification, is the designated focus of love and awe. Indeed, the ritual is so potent that the otherwise discerning protagonist, Winston Smith, is unable to resist its effect:
The dark-haired girl behind Winston had begun crying out “Swine! Swine! Swine!” and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. . . . In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.2
Later in the novel, when Winston gets hold of Goldstein’s forbidden book, he learns that the never-ending war between Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia is not what it appears. The conflict is a means for the rulers of Oceania to maintain their grip on power; to keep the people in a constant state of deprivation; and to bind them—the leaders and members of the Party more so than the masses—in a condition of total conformity and fanaticism, one “whose prevailing moods are fear, hatred, adulation, and orgiastic triumph.”3
What’s more, the supposed ideological differences animating the war turn out to be cosmetic and inconsequential to the preservation of the rule of incumbent elites in all three superstates. These elites are more alike than they can admit, since their “philosophies are barely distinguishable, the social systems which they support are not distinguishable at all. Everywhere there is the same pyramidal structure, the same worship of a semi-divine leader, the same economy. . . . [The] superstates not only cannot conquer one another, but would gain no advantage by doing so. On the contrary, so long as they remain in conflict they prop one another up.”4
Looking at American politics today, particularly at the central role played by the domestic culture war, one cannot help but note its similarities to this description of a simulated war that has the effect of deflecting social discontent.
Oligarchical Culture War in Theory and Practice
Though it has long since become cliché to claim that Orwell’s novel predicted this or that ominous development, it is fairer to say that Orwell, aided in this case by the ideas found in James Burnham’s 1941 book The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World, possessed a great deal of insight into the workings of class and power in the modern age and, no less important, a firm sense of the everyday human fears and frailties upon which tyranny has rested in all ages. And so, in the seventy years since the novel’s appearance, its author has tended to appear prescient across many different places and contexts. At the risk, therefore, of abusing the word by adding to the already prodigious catalogue of assorted cultural and political phenomena labelled “Orwellian,” it is nonetheless worth noting some of the particular ways in which the culture war has effectively reproduced the novel’s dystopian world.
Anger is channeled horizontally rather than vertically. The atmosphere of perpetual war is immersive, all-consuming, and anger-inducing: it is a permanent psychological mobilization that turns one part of the social base against another, redirecting attention away from those at the very top of society’s “pyramidal structure.”
The two sides of the culture war may believe that they are simultaneously waging a class war, but where anti-elite rhetoric is employed, it is done in such distorted or qualified ways so as to blunt any real threat to the material basis of elite power. For instance, the Left will rail against the rich but switch in the same breath to disparaging “whiteness,” placing working-class whites in the same class as white billionaires, thereby diffusing whatever sympathy might be forthcoming from the former and preventing the formation of a redistributionist majority coalition. The entire panoply of “woke” progressive jargon seems almost purpose-built to create this off-putting effect, often even among the very groups that progressives wish to defend.5
The Right may be counted on to be even more consistently skewed in its anti-elitism, since its commentators almost always tend to portray elites as a primarily cultural rather than economic category (lest they be forced to reckon with the problems of free market capitalism). This tactic allows them to turn their fire on the “new class” of academics, activists, and mid-level managers at HR, while sparing the plutocrats from too much scrutiny of their profit-making, especially those who support Republicans or affect conservative values. They might heartily denounce hedge funds and corporations for adopting woke PR, but will generally say little about their actual economic activities and incentives, which are treated as afterthoughts.6
Politics is suffused with an excess of subjectivity. As these dynamics illustrate, the culture war’s divisions are drawn along largely intangible lines of identity, lifestyle, and morality: they shape political discourse in highly subjective, value-laden terms even as material inequality has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age.7 Of course, politics has never been a dispassionate business, but rarely has there been such a disconnect between the subjects of popular controversy (i.e., symbols, slogans, “nonstructural” wedge issues) on the one hand and, on the other, the objective indicators of wealth and income distribution that determine Americans’ life chances.
The political tribes and their ideologies are mirror images. The unending churn of ersatz controversies feeds into a self-reinforcing narrative that encompasses the entire culture war: an in-group is mortally threatened by a wholly illegitimate out-group, whose every action is regarded as a moral outrage to be avenged—justifying perpetual cycles of collective hysteria and rallying around the partisan banner. As with Oceania and its enemies in Eurasia or Eastasia, the two sides of the culture war hold opposed ideologies that, in fact, work to “prop one another up.”
Policy is nothing, personality is everything. Under these conditions, any substantive discussion of public policy issues or alternative economic arrangements becomes impossible to sustain. The void is filled by an outsize focus on personalities, who serve as the ultimate symbolic triggers: like Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, America’s news media, whether conservative or liberal, understands that the correct political emotions can be turned on with Pavlovian regularity by exposure to individual faces that can inspire either boundless love or bottomless hate.
Donald Trump is a seminal figure in this respect since he is ideal as both Big Brother to his followers and Goldstein to his enemies. He has been joined by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Tucker Carlson, Anthony Fauci, Joe and Hunter Biden, George Floyd, Kyle Rittenhouse, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others among a rotating cast of major and minor figures who have alternately played the two parts.
The telescreen is ubiquitous. What ties all of these elements together is the almighty telescreen. In Oceania, screens are present in every home, workplace, and city square, bringing the Party into each of these settings and practically eliminating the distinctions between the private, the public, and the political. Our “telescreens,” which can now be held in the palm of one’s hand, are even more inescapable—the Hate they broadcast is not limited to two minutes a day but runs nonstop, 24/7, on cable news, the internet, and social media.
The culture war, which largely happens on telescreens, is similarly carried into the previously autonomous spheres of family and professional life, politicizing everything down to the level of everyday interpersonal relations. It has also taken over and obviated the ostensible neutrality of the broader public sphere and popular culture, politicizing in like manner such fields as the arts, natural sciences, religion, sports, and nonpartisan civic institutions. It has colonized not only all of politics, but all of life itself, and has now reached a point where, to paraphrase the Fascist credo (which captures the essence of any totalitarianism): everything is inside the culture war, nothing outside of it.
These are some of the main points of comparison for comprehending the culture war as yet another Orwellian prophecy that our age has fulfilled with chilling precision, but there are many other similarities, too many perhaps to be listed here in full. The weaponization of language, which is a speciality of the woke Left, parallels Oceania’s propagation of Newspeak as a means of warping political thought. The subsuming of all political debate into a question of loyalty to a single man, which is a speciality of the Trumpian Right, brings to mind the forced declarations of fealty extracted from dissenting party members in Oceania.
The suspension of a common rational standard of judgment to allow for the toleration of deception, abuse, violence, and hypocrisy—so long as it is committed on one’s own side of the culture war divide—conforms neatly to the definition of doublethink: “To know and not to know . . . to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.”8 This is, of course, one of the few remaining things that can bring the Left and the Right together in perfect harmony.
To many Americans, such comparisons will be nothing short of blasphemous. To imply that the political tribes are engaged in a mutually beneficial racket and to suggest that politics would be better served by reorganization around strictly material economic questions would be to deny or unduly trivialize what for them are the very real moral stakes involved. So long as issues are defined in such Manichaean terms, the thought of diverging in any way from the culture war paradigm is inevitably met with one of the following retorts: “So, do you support racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, etc.?” or, “Do you support critical race theory, vaccine tyranny, and the chemical castration of children?”
But, of course, a reflexive and reductive tribalism that precludes any prospect of programmatic change is the whole point. As dramatic material disparities increasingly separate and cordon off the country’s uppermost elites from everyone else, the ensuing discontent can only find expression in the inadequate symbolic vocabulary of the culture war, that is, through mostly aesthetic and performative gestures that have no power to move the levers of economic policy.
Thus America has, in recent decades, come to resemble the stunted oligarchical despotisms of the East as described by Marx in Capital (or the ones in Goldstein’s book), the ebb and flow of its hypertrophic but materially ineffectual political struggles mirroring “the constant dissolution and refounding . . . the never-ceasing changes of dynasty” all while “the structure of the fundamental economic elements of society remains untouched by the storms which blow up in the cloudy regions of politics.”9
Those who grasp the graveness of the threat posed by this protracted stagnation (and who may resolve to reverse it) will need at their disposal a new theory of the culture war, which like Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution, should aim to explain “what is happening in the world.” But at this point, such a theory can only be of service insofar as its explanatory power transcends the terms of the culture war itself and clears the way for the conception of a new paradigm, which cannot arrive unless the old one is thoroughly invalidated.
This theory will move beyond a simplistic “bothsidesism,” since to take such a position is to settle for the same dangerous standards of relativism and nihilism that are the most debilitating defects of so much culture war discourse. Instead, it will take a hard look at root causes and common denominators: the underlying economic structures, prevailing historical conditions, and affective psychological qualities that shape contemporary American society and politics—and of which both the right and left cultural identity configurations are but particular and contingent outward expressions.
In looking at the class structures that exist beneath the façades of culture war politics, such a theory will also be mindful of the different gradations of elites, namely the distinction between what Orwell, in Goldstein’s book, refers to as the “High” and the “Middle” segments of the pyramid, in addition to the relationship between either of these elite strata and the masses who constitute the “Low.” Since it has historically been the Middle region of subaltern elites that furnished the leadership of great social revolutions—and given the prolonged absence of any genuine revolutionary movement capable of displacing the High, the space for such a politics being taken up by a feckless and counterproductive culture war—this intra-elite dimension will merit special attention. It is in this part of the analysis that reference to the ex-Trotskyist James Burnham’s views on class struggle will be most useful. Orwell’s novel is known to have been influenced by Burnham’s works,10 which were in turn deeply influenced by Machiavelli and the Italian school of elite theory as much as anything by Marx or Trotsky.11
The theory will also avoid the paranoid conspiratorial bent increasingly common today. The idea of a cabal of plutocrats coming together to write the plot for next month’s culture war is both less plausible and less interesting than the scenario entertained in the novel, wherein indoctrination into one ideological worldview and the accompanying total war mentality is not so much an elite imposition on the dimwitted proles down below but rather something that is enthusiastically done by elites of all ranks and stripes to themselves and to each other. After all, the Hate is a ritual reserved for the High and the Middle (the Inner and the Outer Party, respectively) but not the Low, since “What is concerned here is not the morale of the masses, whose attitude is unimportant so long as they are kept steadily at work, but the morale of the Party itself.”12
Perhaps most important of all will be the theory’s utility in laying down a clear understanding of how American society came to be this way. For just as in the novel, where nobody can recall a time before telescreens, Americans can no longer recall a time before the culture war became the central organizing principle of their political existence. They might just as well say, “We have always been at war with ‘white supremacy’ or ‘cultural Marxism’ . . . . and always will be.” Reclaiming knowledge of the past by elucidating the culture war’s historical development: how it monopolized the American moral imagination, and how it essentially invalidated all competing forms of politics (such as those based on material and class interests) may yet be a first fateful step toward envisioning how the culture war could be brought to an end and what renewed possibilities for American life may be in store once it has passed.
From the American Revolution to the
It is important here to remember that there has never been a golden age of statesmanship when political exchange was generally elevated or when candidates were civil and generous to each other. Looking at the slanderous names that the founders called each other or the abuse hurled at Abraham Lincoln by his political opponents, even in the midst of the Civil War, will confirm as much. It is not the tone or tenor of today’s political disagreements (as bad as it has become relative to the more recent past) but their substantive content that marks the culture war as an acute historical anomaly. This is because, for 180 years, from the days of the first pioneers to the days of the first astronauts, the primary cleavage in American politics had always been between competing models of political economy.
The passing of each economic regime entailed the rising and falling of rival sets of elites with distinct and clashing material interests. Their battles were essentially won or lost when an economic regime, once established, was given a chance to prove its merits by delivering tangible results in the form of material prosperity and development (or victory in war). If a regime failed to deliver, it would be vulnerable to being overthrown and replaced by a new elite, usually drawn from an ambitious, ascendant portion of the existing subaltern elite. This ascendant elite would be armed with new ideas, new values, and most important of all, new institutional blueprints and designs with which to remake the economic and political regime in its image. This was the rough template of U.S. history up until the postwar era when intangible subjective cultural cleavages replaced material economic ones as the primary political division between Americans.
This reading of the country’s history basically accords with Burnham’s view that “All historical changes finally boil down to the replacement of one ruling class by another,”13 as Orwell put it in his 1946 essay, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” which served as a critical review of The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (1943). When applying this lens to the United States since the founding period, it is also necessary to note that in the American context, such social revolutions, whether violent (the Civil War) or nonviolent (the New Deal), have always occurred within the framework of the existing Constitution. So as Michael Lind has noted,14 instead of the French example of a succession of formally distinct First, Second, and Third Republics and other regime types, there has constitutionally been only one American republic since 1789 under which have existed multiple economic and legal-institutional regimes. But the differences between each regime were usually significant enough that the transitions between them can be considered “revolutions” in their own way.
Absent formal constitutional breaks, the importance of elite circulation is even more pronounced in defining and driving these epochal changes, both material and moral, that have occurred over two centuries. Only within and through such cycles could dramatic material economic developments take place, most notably the transformation of the country from agrarian backwater into industrial superpower. It was through the political reformations called forth by each cycle that the necessary institutional readjustments were enacted, fitting a novel legal and political system to the new economic reality. This process then gave new moral value systems the chance to take root—such as the realization that slavery was wrong, which, however valid as a timeless truth, could not be effectively acted upon unless the economic regime that rationalized slavery was uprooted and replaced by a new one. It is necessary to offer at least a basic account of what some of these cycles were—if only to understand just how far today’s culture war politics has departed from the historical pattern.
The American Revolution amounted to the replacement of one ruling elite by another, namely the colonial elite freeing itself from the economic and political domination of Great Britain. Once independence was won, divisions within the colonial elite would structure politics in the early republic, particularly those between the mercantile classes concentrated in the North, who favored industrial development, and the planter elite of the South, who clung to a slave-based feudal agrarian economy. There were cleavages other than the North-South divide, such as, for instance, the one indicated by the revolution of Andrew Jackson, who championed the rising farmer and pioneer middle class against established moneyed elites. But Jacksonian politics, defined by events like the Bank War, was no less rooted in differences over political economy.
The Civil War that would be triggered by the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 represented the fratricidal battle between Northern and Southern elites to determine once and for all which model of modernization would prevail in the United States. The North’s victory and its subjugation of the South ensured the definitive triumph of industrial modernity over Southern semifeudal agrarianism.
Just as important as the military victory was the economic reformation, which Congress could only enact once rebelling Southern legislators were removed: Lincoln’s Homestead Act distributed western lands to settlers while the Morill Act provided those communities with modern agricultural and mechanical skills training. Along with the expansion of the railways and internal improvements, these policies laid the foundations for a unified national market, giving rise to well-fed cities and well-supplied industries sustained by a regime of stable currency and protective tariffs—a realization of the ideas of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, whose “American System” Lincoln had supported as a young state legislator.15
In this period, the country’s financial class, concentrated in the Northeast and represented politically by the Republican Party, replaced the previously dominant antebellum Southern planter elite at the helm of national leadership (while the South would be reduced to a stagnant backwater).
As the industrial economy grew, so too did its disparities. Great concentrations of wealth, personified by the robber barons, existed alongside the harsh externalities of economic progress in what became known as the Gilded Age. The widespread discontent led to a flowering of reform movements, each with competing but in some cases overlapping programs for how industrial capitalism might be tamed or humanized. These were the Populists, the Progressives, the burgeoning labor movement, the supporters of William Jennings Bryan’s Free Silver, Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, and Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom. But it would take a seismic crisis to translate this momentum into the next great economic transformation.
That crisis would come in the form of the Great Depression, which discredited the laissez-faire orthodoxies of McKinley and Coolidge and called for the construction of a new regime. The call was answered with the 1932 election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised a “New Deal for the American people.” The New Deal was a revolution in the same sense as the American Revolution and the Civil War in that it represented the establishment of a new economic and legal-institutional regime along with the arrival of a different set of rulers. This new elite emerged from an alliance between two sets of previously subaltern elites under the old order, namely the leadership of the Northern urban working class, many of whom came from white ethnic immigrant stock, and the Southern and Western economic elite, who together formed the bulk of the Democratic New Deal Coalition, alongside farmers, intellectuals, and international businessmen.16
Though it happened through the ballot box rather than the bullet, it could be said, in Orwell’s terminology, that the Middle had once again supplanted the High. Such was the antecedent social and political logic without which the New Deal would not have been possible.
But what exactly was the New Deal? What were its origins as a distinct economic and institutional regime? The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed a major economic development centered around the processes of corporate concentration that followed from the logic of advanced industrialization. This was the phenomenon described by Adolf Berle and Gardiner Means in The Modern Corporation and Private Property (1932) and later seized upon by James Burnham as the subject of The Managerial Revolution.17 These studies were concerned with the separation of ownership and control in the capitalist world and the resulting emergence of a “managerial elite” whose technical and administrative expertise gave them ever more power and influence over the central institutions of the modern Fordist industrial economy, namely the large corporation and the government bureaucracy.
Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution held that the managerial elite would come to be the new ruling class, succeeding the traditional capitalist-industrialists of the nineteenth century (just as they had succeeded the old feudal class).18 The managers’ rise would lead to an economic regime that was neither capitalist in the old sense nor socialist in the orthodox Marxist understanding. Instead, it would be a regime of “managerialism,” a term connoting a cold technocratic form of exploitative society which Burnham saw fit to apply in equal measure to Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, as well as to New Deal America, with the qualification that “New Dealism” was but a primitive stage of managerialism (that would presumably morph into something resembling the dictatorships of Europe—a bleak vision that haunted Orwell and helped to inspire the geopolitics of Nineteen Eighty-Four19). As it turned out, a new managerial elite would come to power at the helm of an expanded state with influence over the consolidated firms of industrial capitalism, just not quite in the way Burnham imagined.
Through the course of the Depression and World War II, the federal government, animated by the reforming spirit of the New Deal, built a new economic regime fit for industrial America: it established a modern welfare state with the passage of Social Security; it coordinated industry through the system of regulations mandated by the National Industrial Recovery Act (and its successor programs); and compelled a settlement between capital and labor, creating the conditions for sustained wage growth. Through electrification and infrastructure development, it decentralized the locus of industrial activity away from the Northeast and toward other parts of the country, such as the underdeveloped South and West, while programs like the Federal Housing Authority and the G.I. Bill would enable most Americans to access the requisites of a middle-class standard of living.20
Burnham was off in seeing these developments as harbingers of a grim, nondemocratic, and postcapitalist managerial dictatorship: quite the opposite, this managerial revolution was in fact the beginning of the postwar “golden age of capitalism” and liberal democracy—if one accepts the modification that this was a highly regulated capitalism of the mixed economy type. Under this regime, the United States enjoyed unprecedented levels of economic growth, an egalitarian distribution of wealth and income, and the flourishing of an affluent, mass middle-class society.21 The managerial elite, in this era, would turn out not to be collectivist tyrants but benign and public-spirited “organization men” in government, business, and organized labor.
By the early postwar years, Burnham had completed his transformation into an anticommunist hawk, and as a cofounder of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review, turned most of his attention to foreign policy and Cold War strategy; he never explicitly acknowledged the success of the managerial revolution he once described as a kind of incipient despotism (even as it acted as a bulwark against the threat of communism). But he did, to some degree, notice the humane and apparently idyllic quality of postwar American life under the managers, writing in his 1950 book The Coming Defeat of Communism about a scene he had witnessed while on a cross-country trip. It is worth quoting here at some length:
We saw ahead, again, many hundred of cars, many of them the same that had come from the plant a little earlier. . . . Beyond them were dozens of acres of wooded grounds, with tables, benches, stone fireplaces and heavy iron charcoal grills placed on iron posts (mass produced, no doubt, by Midland Steel Foundries). . . . At the tables, hundreds of families—of workers and clerks and stenographers—were finishing their steaks and hamburgers and hot dogs, and Cokes and beers. Beyond them was a large lake; and there hundreds more were swimming, laughing, diving, shouting, and in the deeper water sweeping or drifting along in canoes, rowboats and outboards (mass produced by Evinrude). There seemed to be values present there in abundance—of friendship and love—that were something more than ‘material’; and yet without the material, without those cars and that iron, that processed wood and well-preserved meat . . . neither the values nor the people rejoicing in them would have been there.22
Burnham could not have distilled such good feeling in a more poignant or, indeed, a more straightforward way: the pursuit of material and moral progress went together. And for much of U.S. history, up until this point, it was through a sustained emphasis on securing the former that Americans believed they could realize and uphold the latter. Every other cleavage, including the sectional, religious, cultural, and even the ancient racial question may either be traced back to differences around political economy—the presence of black slaves and their descendants being a consequence of the Southern political economy—or else were secondary to it. For instance, lifestyle differences between Protestants and Catholic immigrants may have made Prohibition into a major national issue in its time, but this particular cleavage, a culture war unto itself, never superseded material economic issues as the country’s primary source of political disagreement.
Whatever else Americans argued about, the basic structure of the economy—the privileged forms of production, the material conditions of ordinary people, the relative distribution of wealth and opportunity, the proper allocation of capital and investment—were all always up for grabs. The corresponding passions, moralities, subjectivities, and even the partisan fanaticisms and surface-level irrationalities that drove politics were all by and large directly attributable to the central conflict over the objective facts of the American political economy.
These cycles of economic revolution and the accompanying circulation of elites seemed to serve the United States well from its founding to its ascendancy as a superpower. But like previous economic regimes, the mid-century managerial revolution fell victim to its own success.
Post-Materialism: From the Managerial Revolution
to the Silent Revolution
The achievement of a mass middle-class society meant that, perhaps for the first time, the economic structure looked less like a pyramid and more like a diamond. There are many perspectives through which to understand the dramatic cultural changes that seized Western society in this era, but the one that is most directly helpful for comprehending the radical reorientation of politics away from hitherto dominant questions of political economy and toward subjective and intangible disputes is the late political scientist Ronald Inglehart’s notion of “post‑materialism,” which will be key to establishing a theory of the culture war.
Inglehart, who passed away in May 2021, spent a lifetime building up his case through analyzing data from mass surveys conducted from the 1970s to the 2010s. (He was founder and director of the World Values Survey.) His most prominent book is The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics (1977), in which he introduced post-materialism. He published follow-up books over the next four decades, refining and expanding his thesis with new data and fresh insights, right up until the era of Trump and contemporary populism.23
For Inglehart, the affluence of postwar Western society enabled a transformation in values so sweeping that he referred to it as a “silent revolution.” Whereas, as we have seen, previous generations were overwhelmingly preoccupied with economic security, the postwar cohorts, having been freed from this burden, came to prioritize such post-material concerns as subjective well-being, self-expression, and individual cultural autonomy.24 Born into an era of exceptional prosperity, Inglehart observed that these Americans of the Boomer generation, along with their counterparts in the rest of the developed world, were able to move along Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” past concerns over basic physical survival and social belonging and into the new and politically uncharted realms of “self-actualization.”25 This development would have tremendous consequences in shaping Americans’ attitudes toward, and relationship with, their institutions.
In the past, citizens took it for granted that they had to work together through political parties, labor unions, industry associations, and civic groups of various types in order to promote their interests as a class or community. These organizations, especially the larger ones that were mass-based and national in scale, were hierarchical, impersonal, and instrumental; they tended to be focused on consistent, well-defined objectives, such as influencing the laws and policies of the largest impersonal organization of all, namely the state, in ways that materially benefited their members. These were traditional bureaucratic institutions that, taken together, embodied the rational-legal form of authority which Max Weber described as a hallmark of industrial modernity and which, consequently, became anathema to the succeeding ideologies and expressive sensibilities of postmodernity. In other words, a transition took place from what Weber called instrumental rationality to subjective value rationality.26 With the decline of these organizations, the country also lost what had traditionally been a training ground for subaltern counter-elites where they would have been able to cultivate institutional and instrumental modes of thinking.
As Inglehart noted, “Economic accumulation for the sake of economic security was the central goal of industrial society. Ironically, their attainment set in motion a process of gradual cultural change that has made these goals less central—and is now bringing a rejection of the hierarchical institutions that helped attain them.”27 He described the cleavage between the two value sets as a divide between “distinctive and coherent worldviews”: “the Materialist concentrates on the means to survival; the Post-Materialist is more concerned with ultimate ends.”28
On the level of sensibility, the decade saw a generational clash between the traditional middle-class ethos that respected authority and prized stability, on one hand, and what might be described as the postmodern value set that celebrated an ethic of liberation and self-expression, on the other. On the level of identity, the upheavals of the 1960s amounted to an assertion of the rights to equality and recognition of marginalized groups of Americans on the axes of race, gender, and sexuality. Divisions around the war in Vietnam and the questions this raised over patriotism and the right to dissent constituted another axis on which the social and cultural fabric was rent.29
A distinction can be made between the early phase of this movement toward equality, which aspired to the fuller inclusion of disenfranchised communities into the mantle of American citizenship, and the latter phase that sought instead to articulate entirely separate conceptions of identity. For instance, the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early ’60s belonged to the former phase, as it fought for the rights of African Americans while retaining a commitment to the ideals and sensibilities of the American mainstream, whereas the subsequent rise of Black Power belonged to the latter phase and amounted to a (sometimes violent) attempt at secession from that mainstream. Similar trajectories may be traced in the movements for women’s equality, gay rights, or recognition of nonwhite ethnic identities, as well as the antiwar movement, which all likewise developed more radical and militant manifestations toward the end of the 1960s.
A legacy of this counterculture—soon to go mainstream through its adoption by the popular culture—was a deep contempt of institutions ranging from the government and corporations to political parties, university administrations, and the nuclear family. It was a generational attitude summed up by Timothy Leary’s motto: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
By the close of the decade, a reaction had set in on the part of those who had objected to the changes upending the culture—a segment of the country that an enterprising Richard Nixon had marked out as “the forgotten Americans” in his successful second pursuit of the presidency in 1968. As president in 1969, in his effort to rally support for the war in Vietnam, he would christen them “the Silent Majority.”30 This coalition asserted all those values, symbols, and affective attachments that the counterculture derided as at best passé and at worst reactionary. Its ranks were drawn from the towns and cities of Middle America, the states of the South and the Sunbelt, churchgoing people and small businesses; notably, there were traditionally Democratic white ethnic and working-class voters in Northern cities who felt betrayed by their party’s embrace of the New Left and who were alienated by its stances on issues like busing.
Though the post-materialist “silent revolution” emerged on the left, which first opened up culture and identity as fields of political battle in the 1960s, the years of the Nixon presidency showed how that battle could be joined just as readily and waged just as vigorously by forces on the political right. Far from being silent, social conservatives, too, would begin to frame politics as a zero-sum arena for assertive self-expression—except the values to be expressed and actualized would be their own. Though nominally respectful of authority and established institutions, this coalition would see itself as fighting a long war against elites in the media, the universities, and the government, planting the seeds for a pervasive mistrust of institutions that, in time, would become every bit as reflexive on the right as on the left.31
The emergence of this distinct post-sixties conservative cultural identity was best encapsulated in country singer Merle Haggard’s 1969 pean to forgotten America, “Okie from Muskogee,” which he performed at a banquet at the Nixon White House. The defiant spirit of the song was given expression in the 1970s by a new wave of social conservative activists, exemplified by the likes of Phyllis Schlafly, Anita Bryant, and Jerry Falwell, who defined themselves against liberal America through their vigorous opposition to abortion, feminism, gay rights, the sexual revolution, liberal police reforms, progressive changes to school curricula, the era’s “adversarial” popular culture, gun control, etc.
With the exception of abortion (which remains a constant), the controversies that marked the culture war’s fault lines at any given moment might come and go and return again over the course of years. But in their emphasis on the interests of a certain lifestyle (conservative or liberal) and in their common propensity to blot out economic questions through the intensity of the passions they aroused, such topics may generally be described as “nonstructural issues.” And from this point on, this category of issue would come to predominate in media and political discourse.32
Even as culture increasingly replaced material concerns at the center of attention, however, another revolution was taking place in the realm of political economy, and the old cycle of material change would reassert itself one more time. The end of the New Deal coalition was a harbinger of the demise of the New Deal regime itself. The declining productivity of America’s industries in the face of global competition by the 1960s, and the onslaughts of inflation and unemployment in the 1970s (which came together to cause the novel problem of “stagflation”), confounded the Keynesian policy consensus that underpinned New Deal liberalism.33
By the real world’s 1984, the English-speaking nations that constituted the novel’s Oceania did not find themselves living under a totalitarian state. Instead, “Oceania” was under the grip of another type of fanatical ideology which sought to dismantle the state. Reviewing the book that inspired this ideology, Fredrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in 1944, alongside another tome by far-left Labour MP Konni Zilliacus, Orwell pondered a comparison between statist collectivism and free market fundamentalism. Although certainly alert to the dangers of both, Orwell ultimately thought that the latter amounted to “a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.”34 Indeed, at this time, the nexus of possibility for a future tyranny was moving away from the state and the political party and shifting in the direction of other poles like the market and the mass media.
A new economic philosophy stemming from the work of Hayek and represented by thinkers like Milton Friedman and the Chicago school was on the march in academic circles, think tanks, corporate board rooms, government agencies, and soon enough, both of the major parties. It stressed free markets and small governments. Though it was Democratic president Jimmy Carter who largely initiated deregulation, what would come to be known as neoliberalism first emerged politically on the right when Ronald Reagan and the “fusionist” alliance of social conservatives and libertarian ideologues took over the Republican Party. But its reach would soon also extend to the center-left through the rise of reformist “Atari Democrats” and centrist “New Democrats,” who pragmatically sought to pivot their party away from New Deal axioms.
This was not nearly as eventful as the earlier revolutions, nor did it match the others on the level of popular mobilization. The previously subaltern elites who fueled this particular revolution—those keepers of the free market flame who spent the preceding decades at redoubts like the Mont Pelerin Society as well as their benefactors in the business and financial communities—did not seize the commanding heights in circumstances as dire or as dramatic as the Civil War or the Depression. Rather, the Middle, in this case, supplanted the High through less conspicuous processes of institutional capture by neoliberal apparatchiks on one hand and, on the other, via a generational churn favoring the massive cohort of Boomers, the demographic most predisposed to the neoliberal ethos if there ever was one, ascending into leadership positions by the 1980s.
In any event, the changes wrought by the silent revolution ensured that the culture war would effectively eclipse the neoliberal economic transformation as the “main event” of U.S. politics, so that while liberals and conservatives were still ostensibly divided by policy differences over the appropriate size of government or the proper distribution of welfare, their battles would come to be rooted more in distinctly cultural rather than economic motivations. The following years would, after all, see the most extreme levels of polarization between the two parties on countless social and symbolic nonstructural issues even as their policy platforms converged almost perfectly on deregulation, lower taxes, austerity, trade liberalization, labor market atomization, deindustrialization, financialization, and globalization.
The thrust of this free market revolution was against the Fordist institutions of the managerial revolution: it effected a transition from the socially and economically insulated nation-state of the “golden age” to the fluid, globalized economy of today, defined by free flows of capital, goods, and labor. The vertically integrated organizational forms of the old managerial regime were torn apart and reconstituted horizontally as transnational corporate bureaucracies.35 The logical result of the unrelenting conservative crusade against the national “administrative state” of the New Deal, as it turns out, was not the end of bureaucratic-managerial power as such but its severing from the nation-state and consequent subordination to the interests of borderless global capital, unshackled at last from any countervailing, regulatory restraints of the kind that only sovereign state governments could provide.
Quoting the radical Thomas Paine and sounding more like the student revolutionaries of 1968 than any kind of recognizable conservative, Reagan declared in 1979: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” And that is exactly what armies of Heritage Foundation deregulators, Wall Street corporate raiders, and Washington Consensus free traders set about doing, cheered on by organs like Burnham and Buckley’s National Review. By rolling back the achievements of the mid-century managerial regime, neoliberalism reproduced in the economy the transformation that the silent revolution had earlier introduced in culture and politics, namely the overthrow of structure, security, and certainty, as embodied by the old hierarchical institutions, and their replacement by perpetual flux, disruption, and atomization. And it is in the fateful confluence of these two developments that a theory of the culture war may be derived.
Breaking with all previous economic cycles, the Boomer generation succeeded in uprooting the moral from the material and the country’s politics became “stuck on culture war.” With rising economic inequality, the diamond-shaped structure of society would again come to assume its familiar pyramidal form. Except this time, with all the sound and fury of the culture war playing in the background, few seemed to notice or care.
The Years the Locust Ate: From the Silent Revolution
to the Stillborn Revolution
The last decade of the twentieth century began with much promise. Abroad, the United States was flush with prestige as it triumphed over Saddam and the Soviet Union. At home, the Reagan boom of the previous decade seemed to vindicate the free market while signaling newfound American confidence and renewal. George H. W. Bush capitalized on this popular brand but struggled to sustain it as he presided over a recession and faced a reelection contest that appeared, for the most part, to remain centered on material concerns. After all, the challenger Bill Clinton bested Bush in a memorable debate performance while answering a question about the impact of the recession: he took the opportunity to denounce trickle-down as “a failed economic theory,” proving that in the eyes of voters, “it’s [still] the economy, stupid.”
Indeed, the term “culture war” had only just been popularized by University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter. In his landmark 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America he claimed that even at that point, two decades after the end of the 1960s, it “strains our imagination” to think that cultural conflict might become “historically pivotal.”36
That the 1990s are now remembered as the years when neoliberalism completed its conquest of the national policy agenda would have seemed improbable at the time. At the outset of the decade, the possibility of genuine economic policy choice and contestation was still very much in the air.
The challenges to the ascendant neoliberal consensus did not come from Clinton, whose lip service to economic populism was thin gruel compared to his substantive commitment to the New Democrat agenda. The first Boomer president would, of course, go on to enact the priorities set by the free market Right, from nafta and WTO expansion to Glass-Steagall repeal to welfare reform. Rather, opposition to this agenda came in the form of two populist tribunes whose differing approaches to navigating the tides of economic change and cultural division were emblematic of how the culture war eventually killed off the class war and paved the way for the entrenchment of the emerging economic orthodoxy.
One was Pat Buchanan, who opened his 1992 primary challenge against Bush with a denunciation of the latter’s “globalist” post–Cold War policy. But by the time he delivered his infamous “culture war speech” at that year’s Republican convention, he had changed course. In shifting his focus from resisting economic globalism to picking fights with cultural liberalism at home, he effectively dropped his material critique of Reagan-Bush Republicanism in favor of an angry but mostly harmless form of moral and rhetorical chest-beating.
The other insurgent was Ross Perot. While Buchanan sacrificed everything to the culture war, Perot valiantly resisted it.37 He refused to be drawn into divisive social issues and embraced instead the nuances of political economy, playing up his wonkish love of trade and deficit policy to an almost cartoonish extent. He stayed on point and was, by far, the more successful populist, garnering nearly 20 percent of the popular vote in the general election as a third-party candidate.
Unfortunately for the cause of opposing globalization, it was Buchanan’s culture-obsessed approach rather than Perot’s culturally antiseptic one that would outlive that particular political moment. Since it was only the latter who posed a credible threat to the status quo, American politics effectively ceased to have a meaningful opposition party: to borrow from the decade’s most popular sitcom, it became a “politics about nothing.” This outcome was in large part thanks to another key development of the 1990s: the accelerated market-driven fragmentation of the media landscape that came with cable news and the commercial internet. It was Buchanan’s culture war and not Perot’s graphs and charts that would resonate in the new media environment.
Substituting the sensationalism of CNN and the shrillness of Fox News for the staid editorial style of the previous generation, this media environment catapulted all manner of culture war fodder—personal scandals and niche nonstructural issues—to the forefront of the national conversation. So when America’s factories were migrating to Asia or when the earliest signs of an opioid epidemic were emerging, the networks were speculating about a stained blue dress, as if the president’s marital infidelity, and not the underlying dangers of the economic policies he shared with his Republican adversaries, were the true test of the morality of American society.
The decade also saw the publication of John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,” a perfect summation of the hubristic post-materialist ideologies arising from the internet: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. . . . You have no sovereignty where we gather.”38 Though the rise of social media was still about a decade away, the harbingers of the extreme social and epistemic balkanization it would herald were already present in the larger culture that informed Barlow’s assertions. Long before the announcement of the “metaverse,” America’s retreat from the real was already underway.
Where the country once had grand narratives that could embrace all Americans, bridging past and present and pointing the way to a shared future, it now had what Frederic Jameson described as a cacophonous “series of pure and unrelated presents.”39 This was the moment when American media and politics assumed to the fullest the qualities of the Orwellian telescreen: when the heedless indulgence of subjective tribal identities became imperative at the expense of any concern for understanding or even acknowledging objective material reality—which, as Orwell knew, had to be obliterated for tyranny to triumph. The logic of the culture war amounted to a confirmation of the words of Winston Smith’s tormentor, O’Brien of the Inner Party:
“But how can you control matter?” [Winston] burst out. “You don’t even control the climate or the law of gravity. And there are disease, pain, death—” O’Brien silenced him by a movement of the hand. “We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. . . . You must get rid of those nineteenth‑century ideas about the laws of nature. We make the laws of nature.”40
Though there would be no Y2K apocalypse at the new millennium, the shock to the system would come over the course of a decade: a terrorist attack, foreign wars, a massive financial collapse, a botched bailout, a fraying social fabric, and exorbitant inequality.41 These were, as the historian Tony Judt described it, “the years the locust ate, [a time] of wasted opportunity and political incompetence.”42 America had ceded both its prestige abroad and its prosperity at home: the reign of the free market had produced a crumbling, deindustrialized country underneath the dazzling mirage of a high-tech economy. All the conditions were therefore in place for yet another social revolution, but the 2010s represented a break in the historical pattern.
On the left, what began as a movement to confront material inequality, first in the form of Occupy Wall Street and later the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, had by decade’s end devolved into a confused morass of visceral, identity-centered grievance politics. This version of the Left took its cue not from the concerns of working Americans but from the dictates of obscure academic theories grounded in perverse abstractions around race and gender, known as “wokeism.” The contrived dialect of wokeism has since been adopted wholesale by the same banks and corporations that the Left had intended to occupy and break up not too long ago.43
On the right, a populist firebrand candidate for president defied all the odds by promising to punish elites and rewrite the rules on trade and immigration. Shockingly for a Republican, he appeared ready to rein in not just Washington but Wall Street,44 and even to diffuse at least some of the culture war’s rigid partisan dichotomies on abortion45 and LGBT rights.46 Upon taking office, however, this candidate immediately outsourced all policymaking to the Republican establishment and governed almost perfectly in line with the party orthodoxy he was supposed to dislodge, allowing him to devote his term to waging culture war full-time. (See this author’s previous essays on taxation47 and immigration.48) Now there is hardly anything left of the Trump movement beyond a personality cult and conspiracy theories.
Having reviewed the elite-driven cycles of material economic change in U.S. history, it makes sense to see these failed populisms as attempts at social revolutions that were co-opted by the logic of the culture war and effectively neutered as threats to the status quo. These movements can, therefore, be understood as a kind of “stillborn revolution.” And if, in the pyramidal scheme of Orwell and Burnham, every such revolution is a coup d’état by a portion of the elite, it also makes sense to ask: which elites constitute the mutinous Middle in this scenario?
For the survival of neoliberalism, whatever its remaining shelf life, can no longer really be credited to the strength and resiliency of what is essentially a tottering economic regime but rather to the weakness, cowardice, and willful blindless of the subaltern elites who were supposed to have accomplished its overthrow.
In his 2019 essay “The Real Class War,” Julius Krein attributed the left populism of the 2010s to a segment of the subaltern elite known as the “professional managerial class” who are defined by their education, credentials, and their status as salaried laborers rather than capital accumulators or rentiers. Krein described the populist political campaigns of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as an expression of this class’s anxieties, noting that “The socioeconomic divide that will determine the future of politics. . . . is between the 0.1 percent and (at most) the 10 percent.”49
At the other end of the partisan divide, another segment of the subaltern elite similarly drives the momentum of right populism and may be seen as the primary constituents of the Trump movement: the petty bourgeoisie or wealthy small-business owners whose social and economic standing is derived from their independent wealth and profit-making rather than education and credentials (which they generally lack). This class of local elites has been referred to by Patrick Wyman in a recent Atlantic piece as the “American gentry,”50 while Nicolas Villarreal, writing for Palladium, called this “coalition of high income, low education voters” the “Boaters.”51
By setting the professional and the petty bourgeois—the clerisy and the gentry—against each other, the culture war blocks the emergence of a unified Middle capable of displacing the High. The present cultural orthodoxies of the Left and Right are, after all, merely the reflection of the moral and aesthetic tastes of the two classes, which are blown up to baroque proportions by culture war discourse so as to drown out the possibility of a dialogue around common material interest.
The key counterexample here is the New Deal coalition, composed as it was of the leadership of the Northern urban working class and the Southern and Western provincial oligarchies. The effective, if at times unwieldy, cooperation between these two sets of subaltern elites from 1932 onwards should, more than anything, illustrate the basic material logic of U.S. history prior to the culture war and hint at the kind of thinking that is missing in today’s politics.
These were two groups that had almost nothing in common culturally and were, in fact, quite alien to each other in many respects. Indeed, it was only in the previous election cycle of 1928 that these two groups came to blows over the nomination of the Catholic Al Smith as the Democratic presidential candidate. The explosion of ethnic and sectarian prejudice in that campaign could rival anything from today’s culture war. But the necessity of working together in the next election to secure economic (and social) advancement amid an emergency allowed them to coalesce into an effective bloc—“a unified Middle”—to break the stranglehold on power maintained by their common enemy on High, northeastern industrial and financial capital. They, of course, did this not just by winning elections but by using their political power to actively realize an alternative model of political economy. By contrast, one can hardly imagine today’s subaltern elites putting aside their tribal identities and hatreds to form an analogous “intersubjective” alliance of economic reconstruction against their own common enemy, global financial capital.
If populism failed to achieve critical mass in the 1990s, it was largely because the two subaltern elites benefited under the neoliberal consensus. In the 2010s, this was no longer the case. The professional managerial class is, as documented by Krein, undergoing a process of relative decline and proletarianization: competition among its members has become more intense just as employment and social status were becoming more precarious. The gentry, meanwhile, especially those hailing from rural and exurban red state regions, began to realize that their small and medium-size enterprises catered to increasingly hollowed-out communities suffering from material decline and disinvestment—even if the gentry as a class hardly bore the brunt of this social collapse and perhaps even enjoyed somewhat more stability than the urban professional classes. Whereas both subaltern elites cheered on neoliberalism three decades ago under Reagan and Clinton, they now felt they were getting a raw deal under globalization.
By the mid-to-late 2010s, the theoretical outline of a new economic regime to replace the neoliberal one had already, at least to perceptive observers, become apparent.52 It was the common denominator between the demands of the populist Left and Right, which might roughly be described as a reinvigorated state that could exert control over the unregulated flows of capital, goods, and labor that make up globalization (through reining in excessive financialization, free trade, and immigration53), while returning the country’s economic focus back to domestic industrial production instead of global financial integration.
Both the clerisy and the gentry could have benefited: the former from the expansion of demand for elite managerial talent that would come with reindustrialization and the decentralization of economic activity away from finance and other bloated prestige sectors in coastal metropolises; and the latter from the reinvestment and revival that reshoring would bring to the left-behind regions that they preside over as local elites. There would, of course, also be plenty of positive externalities for those who constitute the “Low.” Wage-earning Americans, particularly those who work with their hands—whether they be persons of color or of the white working class—are more likely to find gainful employment in a reindustrializing country where they are relieved from having to compete with sweatshop economies abroad or undocumented labor at home. Making America Great Again and making Black Lives Matter could mean doing the same thing.
But against the genuine threat of an anti-neoliberal realignment, the status quo had one last defense mechanism. By the beginning of the 2020s, it had kicked in just in time: riots in the summer, a postmodern putsch at the Capitol in the winter, and a hyper-politicized pandemic all coming together to prove the seeming permanence of the culture war. Neither the most routine electoral procedures nor the most extraordinary viral outbreaks were spared from culture war co-optation, extinguishing yet again any chance of a populist convergence across party lines.
If the theory of the managerial revolution sought to explain how one ruling class succeeded another in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the theory of the culture war may explain how such a transition failed to take place in the twenty-first. In the previous cycles of American history, the Middle had always supplanted the High by seizing power and redesigning the economic and political institutions of the country. But that was before post-materialism had set in and made self-expression the paramount goal of politics. By diverting the energy and attention of the two classes of subaltern elites into an endless, zero‑sum conflict of symbols, identities, and lifestyles, taking place in an immaterial realm of unfettered subjectivity, the culture war robs the Middle of the capacity to think in concrete material, structural, and institutional terms. It thereby infantilizes and paralyzes the subaltern elites in their place—and renders them wholly incapable of mounting a revolution against the High.
This is the theory of the culture war. In Weber’s scheme, the Middle is trapped in a state of pure value rationality and left without any access to the instrumental kind, finalizing the divorce between the moral and the material and making progress beyond the present stagnation impossible to conceive.
No allegations of a conspiracy need to be made for the effect is all the same. It is comparable to Marx’s notion of religion as the “opiate of the masses”—a straitjacket to constrain the revolutionary tendencies of a subordinate class. Except the culture war cannot be called that since it is not directed at the proletariat but at upper-middle-class elites, and unlike opium, its effect is not to sedate the targets into passivity but to excite them into a frothing rage against each other. Therefore, the culture war might be better understood as “the bath salts of the bourgeoisie.”
The billionaires and plutocrats who occupy the High may contribute to the culture war, not just as distant funders and benefactors, but as full participants who lose themselves like anyone else in its subjective ecstasy. The vast bulk of the culture war industry, however, from cable news networks to issue advocacy foundations to much of political social media, will always be of, by, and for subaltern elites in the Middle (who are, of course, the ones who staff these kinds of organizations on the left as well as the right). It is to their tastes and anxieties that culture war narratives cater. Just as in Oceania, Inner Party members may sit in for the Two Minutes Hate, but the spectacle is primarily for the consumption of the Outer Party.
In The Managerial Revolution, Burnham observed that “All history makes clear that an indispensable quality of any man or class that wishes to lead, to hold power and privilege in society, is boundless self-confidence.”54 This is a quality that is utterly lacking in today’s Middle. Orwell took Burnham’s sometimes adulatory pronouncements on the virtues of the ruling class as evidence of an unhealthy fixation with power. But if Orwell could accuse Burnham of “power worship,” today’s clerisy and the gentry alike may be accused of the inverse, a fear of and aversion to power—what might be called kratophobia—which permeates American politics.
The two subaltern elites have had to make various moral and psychological adaptations to their peculiar state of being perpetually on the cusp of power but at the same time having no real desire to actually seize it or wield it in any meaningful way. This impasse results in the embrace of powerlessness as a virtue.
In the clerisy, it comes in the form of the victimhood narratives embedded in woke ideology, which in their variety and malleability, allow even the genuinely privileged to claim the status of oppressed victims. Otherwise, there are meek words and gestures available to deny one’s moral agency or to downgrade one’s privilege (which has become a dirty word) in favor of deference to a woke cosmology that conveniently predetermines moral worth based on ascribed identity.
As an analogous means of hiding their privilege, the right-wing gentry regularly indulge in the aforementioned tendency to play down their economic status as well-off entrepreneurs and to play up their general lack of education and cultural refinement—that is, their alienation from the progressive orthodoxy of their clerical adversaries—as indicators of their underdog status. In this way, they pass themselves off as “working-class” or as “forgotten Americans” while expecting to benefit from the considerable political sympathy that comes with these labels.55
Through such tactics, the two classes are able to shrug off the prospect of assuming any of the sense of duty and responsibility—“noblesse oblige”—that would come with accepting the mantle of the ruling class. A more responsible would-be elite would find ways to translate their moral convictions from aesthetic statements into structural reforms and public policy.56
Aside from the endless performance of innocence and identity, this posture of powerlessness manifests itself through a no less complete aversion to institutions and institutional ways of thinking. Both clerisy and gentry claim to want to overturn the status quo, but possess neither the ambition nor the attention span required to truly take command of the institutions that undergird that status quo, much less to successfully redirect them toward new purposes and designs.
The Left seems to believe that American society was not only founded on but is inherently bound up with an insurmountable legacy of racial hatred and prejudice.57 One comes away from their rhetoric wondering: how can liberals and progressives govern the United States in good faith when they believe its institutions to be the irredeemable carriers of systemic racism and countless other forms of oppression?58 Echoing the libertarian Right,59 the Left has increasingly resorted to a crude negationist vocabulary of “defund,” “abolish,” or “dismantle” to express its demands on the state, betraying the exhaustion of its historic capacity for constructive programmatic reform.
For its part, the Right has aped the sensibilities and idiom of the post‑sixties Left, giving rise to a relativist and radically anti-institutionalist Foucauldian orientation.60 The same nihilistic impulses are evident in the GOP’s lack of concern for policy and governance, neglecting to release a party platform in 202061 and instead merely reaffirming its submission to the quasi-sultanic authority of Trump.62 Like the anarchist Left, the Right now employs deconstructionist rhetoric,63 as if to ask: Why bother to reform America’s rotten institutions when you can watch them burn? Why work to pass laws and policies when the “deep state” is just going to sabotage everything from within?
This rank abdication of leadership fostered by kratophobia spares the subaltern elites from having to contemplate the ills of American society beyond the most superficial level. Thus, the excessive focus on opposing woke ideology or white supremacy, even as all the best analyses of the phenomena to which these polemical labels apply recognize them as symptoms of deeper structural problems.64 It is akin to earnestly taking a side in the ideological war between Oceania and Eurasia or conducting an extended political argument with a scarecrow.
The culture war, with its calls for the constant reaffirmation of one’s identity and tribal allegiance is, after all, just so much more fun than the tedious work of thinking about economic structures and public policy. As one disappointed subscriber to this journal tweeted: “I subscribed to @AmericanAffrs but have to admit it was a mistake. Most of it is legalistic or industrial policy-oriented whereas all I care about is culture war and political philosophy.”65 It is the same post-materialist sentiment that was expressed as graffiti on the walls of the Latin Quarter in Paris during the student revolt of May 1968: “We don’t want a world where the [economic] security against dying of starvation brings [instead] the risk of dying of boredom.”66
Indeed, the riots following the death of George Floyd and the debacle of January 6 were to the subaltern elites of the Left and Right, respectively, what May 1968 was to the French students: a shambolic parody of revolution—a chance to let off steam, to playact at something serious, to relieve one’s boredom, and above all, to express one’s self. As Marshall McLuhan observed, such “forms of violence are a quest for identity.”67
This sensibility that emerged in the 1960s may be most associated with the Boomers, and it is therefore easy to dismiss as antiquated or on the way to the dustbin of history. But since the affective superstructure that sustains post-materialist subjectivity, at least among subaltern elites, remains stubbornly intact (even as the original postwar conditions of growing middle-class affluence have long since faded away), the Boomer sensibility has arguably reproduced itself in newer and even more pernicious forms in every generation since.
In fact, it is probably most alive in the younger generations of Millennials and Gen Zs who, under the hypnotic influence of social media, are even more obsessed with identity and self-expression and even less capable of structural and institutional ways of thinking. From androgynous social justice warriors who advertise their pronouns to “trad” youth who flaunt their fluency with medieval theology or their fondness for weightlifting, this generational anti-politics is conducted through navel-gazing aesthetic and lifestyle subcultures masquerading as radical revolutionary movements. Their aim is never going to be political or economic transformation, for they cannot even imagine it, but always and only self-actualization. As long as this protracted Boomerism persists in the young, all subsequent revolutions are bound to be stillborn ones, ever more frivolous, absurd, and powerless.
A Picture of the Future
The passage of structural reform is still possible without there being a revolutionary break from the status quo, but it would come through a gradual, selective revolution from above, taking place in fits and starts, qualified in its scope and subject to the vicissitudes of the culture war. The improvised economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic under the last administration and the big spending plans that make up the current president’s agenda could represent steps toward such a “revolution from above.” But the momentum for any further reform already seems exhausted by the extreme partisanship and culture war combat that are the norms in U.S. politics, which will only intensify under the predicted return of divided government.
Such an outcome would prove that there is no substitute for another great social and economic revolution, which is now long overdue—one that would make the rupture with small government and market fundamentalist dogmas a permanent feature of both parties’ agendas, so that the reforms of the future will no longer have to rely on fleeting windows of legislative opportunity or hinge always on the whims of one or two swing votes. Where, then, will this revolution come from and who can be expected to bring it about?
Leninist theory holds that the shaping of class consciousness in the proletariat is the responsibility of a vanguard party of professional revolutionaries, armed with knowledge of doctrine and committed against all distractions and contingencies to the coming triumph of the revolution. Given that the revolutionary classes in America today are not the working class but two segments of the subaltern elite, the professional and petty bourgeoisie, the crucial question is, who in America must serve as their “vanguard party”?
If such a vanguard can be found today, it is among young people in their twenties or thirties—the same hypnotized Millennials and Gen Zs—found in junior and mid-level positions in government, law, politics, business, media, academia, and civil society across the Left and Right. They possess knowledge of the intricacies of the law and public policy and are more aware than most as to how the day-to-day business of the nation’s institutions is carried out.
Like Winston Smith, these cadres may be treated as representative stand-ins for the condition of the Middle as a whole. Their proximity to power means that they are the portion of the Middle closest to the High: thus, they are both the most dangerous potential threats and the prime targets of culture war agitprop. Naturally, the entire system of elite reproduction appears designed to compel the cadres’ uniform obedience to the cultural orthodoxies of their respective political tribes, a fact which more than anything else assures the continued survival of the High. Consider that they are almost all credentialed in left-wing universities or in right-wing think tanks and institutes, the very places where the mystifying fog of the culture war is most concentrated and impenetrable. As grim as this situation is, however, it must be recognized that if there is any hope at all for terminating the culture war, it lies with these cadres.
Their conversion to the cause of overthrowing the High is a prerequisite to any revolutionary politics. To that end, the theory of the culture war outlined here, along with the conception of historical progress that it entails, may serve as a map and a guide for such cadres to forge a way out of the “mystifying fog” which envelops them. They would then be able to coordinate the political energies of the two classes of the Middle in a renewed effort against the High. It will also fall on the cadres to articulate and disseminate for the benefit of their revolutionary subjects in the clerisy and gentry the missing politics that will build and sustain the succeeding regime.
Though it is beyond the scope of this essay to elaborate on what this should be precisely, it suffices to suggest that since neoliberalism rested on the depoliticization of the economic and the hyper-politicization of the personal, the next paradigm should be dedicated to doing the opposite. It would strive for a radical repoliticization of the economy and a no less radical depoliticization of identity and private life.
The cultural Left and Right must, therefore, learn to resublimate their moral goals into a broader project of material economic transformation. The recovery of the instrumental rationality needed to develop the institutions of a new political economy will necessarily depend on a cessation (or at least a compartmentalization) of conflict over nonstructural issues. Anything less would simply lead to yet more instances of seamless co-optation by the status quo.
At the end of the day, conservatives concerned about the decline of the family and traditional values will never be able to recreate the world as it had been in their prelapsarian ideal, just as progressives concerned about social or racial justice will never reach their indefinable utopia of perfect equality of outcomes and circumstances. But a post-neoliberal economic regime that can support families and reinvigorate communities through the restoration of abundance and material security for all would be the most feasible way for any of them to arrive at approximate realizations of their moral visions.
There is also, however, the possibility that none of the arguments in this essay will make any sense to those who read it and that the notion of a politics outside the culture war has become incomprehensible. Perhaps the idea of history as having a basis in an empirical material reality that exists prior to the terms of political contestation is now too archaic to even be apprehended.
In that case, something of the prophecy of Nineteen Eighty-Four has already come true, and regression into a static tyranny has not only occurred but, through the enthusiastic assent of those it enfeebles, has become cognitively entrenched and irrevocable. As the character Syme asks in the canteen of the Ministry of Truth: “Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”68
Whichever side their allegiances may lie with, those who remain enthralled by the logic of the culture war should heed the message of Goldstein’s book: “Victory is not possible. The war is not meant to be won. It is meant to be continuous. . . . And its object is not victory over Eurasia or Eastasia, but to keep the very structure of society intact.” For those die-hard culture warriors who wish to fight to the end, the line may be modified: “Its object is not victory over wokeism or Trumpism but to keep the very structure of this society intact.”69
This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume VI, Number 1 (Spring 2022): 179–214.
2 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 17.
3 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 221.
4 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 226.
5 The severe unpopularity of woke politics is well-documented: Megan McArdle, “The Debate over ‘Latinx’ Highlights a Broader Problem for Democrats,” Washington Post, December 10, 2021; Dustin Guastella, “Everyone Hates the Democrats,” Jacobin, August 2, 2021; Thomas B. Edsall, “Is Wokeness ‘Kryptonite for Democrats’?,” New York Times, May 26, 2021.
6 For scrutiny of the idea of the post-Trump Right as a new political home for working-class Americans, see Matthew Continetti, “The Working-Class GOP: A Muddled Concept,” Washington Free Beacon, April 2, 2021. A clear expression of the peculiar “culture-first” conception of class favored by the post-Trump right can be found in: David Azerrad, “Trumpism and Conservatism” (speech, Heritage 2017 Annual Leadership Conference, San Diego, Calif., April 22, 2017, YouTube, 10:38). Note the line, “It’s not about how much money you make. . . .”
7 Ethan Wolff-Mann, “Super Rich’s Wealth Concentration Surpasses Gilded Age Levels,” Yahoo! Finance, July 7, 2021; Bob Lord, “America 2018: Even More Gilded Than America 1918,” Inequality.org, September 28, 2018.
8 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 40–41.
9 Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (1867; reissued, New York: Vintage, 1977), 479.
10 R. B. Reaves, “Orwell’s ‘Second Thoughts on James Burnham,’” College Literature, 11, no. 1 (1984): 14–16.
11 Daniel Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2002), 105–6.
12 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 221.
13 George Orwell, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” Polemic, no. 3 (May 1946): 13–14.
14 Michael Lind, The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution (New York: Free Press, 1995), 20.
15 Michael Lind, Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (New York: Harper, 2012), 139–50.
16 Lind, Land of Promise, 283–85. Members of this coalition could break ranks such as when southern conservatives in Congress cooperated with Republicans to thwart liberal legislation. But the general shape of the New Deal Coalition as a coherent national political bloc would last until the 1960s.
17 James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World (1941; reissued, London: Putnam and Co., Ltd., 1944), 83.
18 Julius Krein, “James Burnham’s Managerial Elite,” American Affairs 1, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 127.
19 Reaves, “Orwell’s ‘Second Thoughts on James Burnham,’” 16–17.
20 Lind, Land of Promise, 285–328, 345–51. For more detail on the uneven pace of economic and social progress for segments of Americans marked out by their race, gender, or national origin in this era, see: William E. Leuchtenberg, “Franklin D. Roosevelt: The American Franchise,” Miller Center, 2022.
21 For accounts of the economic achievements of “golden age” mixed economy capitalism, see: David Goldfield, The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017); Marc Levinson, An Extraordinary Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary Economy (New York: Basic Books, 2016); Lind, Land of Promise, 329–62; G. Calvin Mackenzie and Robert Weisbrot, The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s (New York: Penguin Books, 2008).
22 James Burnham, The Coming Defeat of Communism (New York: John Day, 1950), 252, quoted in Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World, 144.
23 Though this essay relies on Inglehart’s account of a divergence between materialism and post-materialism in the postwar era, it departs from his interpretation and description of the right-wing response to cultural progressivism. In his later works, he attributes phenomena like the rise of Trump, Brexit, etc. to scarcity-induced “xenophobic authoritarian” instincts and counterposes them against the progressive and, in his view, properly post-materialist values of their liberal adversaries—a dichotomy which suggests that the populist Right is operating from materialist premises. This essay posits, however, that post-materialist values like self-expression and lifestyle autonomy became just as important on the right as on the left, and that it would be more apt to view the culture war as a contest between a post-materialist Right and a post-materialist Left, rather than one between an avant-garde post-materialist Left and a holdover materialist Right.
24 Ronald Inglehart, The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles among Western Publics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 15.
25 Inglehart, The Silent Revolution, 22–23, 55.
26 Ronald Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 5–25, 77–80.
27 Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization, 45.
28 Inglehart, The Silent Revolution, 63.
29 Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 2–7.
30 John A. Farell, Richard Nixon: The Life (New York: Doubleday, 2017), 333–34.
31 The president who most embodied paranoia and mistrust toward society’s leading institutions, Richard Nixon, would inadvertently entrench that same anti-institutional prejudice among his fellow citizens when he relieved them of their trust in the nation’s highest office in the midst of the Watergate scandal.
32 Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Evolution: People’s Motivations Are Changing, and Reshaping the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 189.
33 Thomas Borstelmann, The 1970s: A New Global History from Civil Rights to Economic Inequality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 55, 202.
34 George Orwell, “Review of The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek and The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus,” Observer, April 1944, 149, quoted in Dorian Lynskey, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 123.
35 See “The Global Business Revolution” in Peter Nolan, Capitalism and Freedom: The Contradictory Character of Globalisation (London: Anthem Press, 2007), 162–63; quoted in Michael Lind, “The New Class War,” American Affairs 1, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 25–27.
36 James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 34.
37 Steven A. Holmes, “While Perot’s Economic Plans Are Detailed, Other Positions Remain Vague,” New York Times, October 19, 1992.
38 John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 8, 1996.
39 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review, no. 146 (July/August 1984): 72.
40 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 303–4.
41 For accounts of the rise in economic inequality over the last four decades, see: Nick Hanauer and David M. Rolf, “The Top 1% of Americans Have Taken $50 Trillion From the Bottom 90%,” Time, September 14, 2020; Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis, Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International Peace (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 177; Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Ruth Igielnik, and Rakesh Kochhar, “Trends in Income and Wealth Inequality,” Pew Research Center, January 9, 2020; Elise Gould, “Decades of Rising Economic Inequality. . . . ,” Economic Policy Institute, March 27, 2019; Rana Farqoohar, Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business (New York: Crown, 2016): 13–20.
42 Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), 1–2.
43 Shant Mesrobian, “The Left’s Culture War Rebranding,” American Affairs, December 22, 2020.
44 Matt Egan, “Donald Trump Terrifies Wall Street,” CNN, September 16, 2015.
45 Jesse Byrnes, “Trump Defends Planned Parenthood,” CNN, August 12, 2015.
46 Chris Johnson, “Trump Waves Rainbow Pride Flag at Colorado Rally,” Washington Blade, October 31, 2016.
47 Michael Cuenco, “Tax Sovereignty in the Age of Global Capital,” American Affairs 3, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 54–81.
48 Michael Cuenco, “Immigration and Citizenship: The Canadian Model and the American Dream,” American Affairs 5, no. 2 (Summer 2021): 60–92.
49 Julius Krein, “The Real Class War,” American Affairs 3, no. 4 (Winter 2019): 154.
50 Patrick Wyman, “American Gentry,” Atlantic, September 23, 2021.
51 Nicolas Villareal, “Small Business’s Class War Could Finish Off American Dynamism,” Palladium, December 21, 2020. Trump himself has referred to this class as the “Boaters.”
52 Julius Krein, “What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marco Rubio Agree On,” New York Times, August 20, 2019.
53 To the extent that there was ever a period when such a consistent populist counter-consensus existed beyond the theoretical or the abstract, it was a fleeting moment in the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump could still be heard attacking hedge funds and when Bernie Sanders was still quite vocal about his opposition to open borders.
54 Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, 35.
55 Continetti, “The Working-Class GOP”; Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Most Trump Voters Were Not Working Class,” Washington Post, June 5, 2017.
56 The upper clerisy in blue states could, for instance, support retaining limits on the SALT deduction as a means of addressing economic inequality and racial disparities, while the red state gentry could support mandatory E-Verify as a way to make good on their supposed concern about illegal immigration—even if it meant they could no longer hire undocumented labor in their businesses and properties, as many of them are known to do.
57 Joe Feagin, Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression (New York: Routledge, 2006).
58 When talking about “systemic” or “structural” racism, the anti-racist Left often employs very real evidence of long-standing material disparities in the living standards and life outcomes of African Americans, yet their approach to addressing such disparities is mired in personal moralizing and sweeping anti-institutionalism. This is yet more evidence of a severe imbalance favoring subjective value rationality over instrumental rationality.
59 Harry Bruinus, “Why Libertarians Are Joining BLM Calls to Defund Police,” Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 2020.
60 Ross Douthat, “How Michel Foucault Lost the Left and Won the Right,” New York Times, May 25, 2021.
61 Geoff Colvin, “The Republican Party Turns Its Platform into a Person: Donald Trump,” Fortune, August 25, 2020.
62 There is no greater example of kratophobia than Donald Trump’s utter lack of interest in using his power to enact comprehensive immigration reform in the two years (2017–19) when his party had full control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. See Cuenco, “Immigration and Citizenship.” This can be seen in his refusal to entertain mandatory E-Verify as well as in his flubbing of the two Goodlatte bills of 2018, which between them would have authorized generous funding for the wall and E-Verify. These bills, which could have been Trump’s legacy, met with only erratic support from the White House and were defeated by the then House Republican majority. These failures show that the Right was more interested in maintaining the optics of being “tough on immigration” for culture war purposes than in enacting actual solutions to the immigration issue.
63 Philipp Rucker and Robert Costa, “Bannon Vows a Daily Fight for ‘Deconstruction of the Administrative State,’” Washington Post, February 23, 2017.
64 For a sample of analyses connecting culture war phenomena with underlying structural economic causes, see: Malcom Kyeyune and Marty MacMarty, “Crises of Elite Competition in the East and West,” American Affairs 5, no. 4 (Winter 2021): 156–70; Matt Stoller, “A Simple Thing Biden Can Do to Reset America,” BIG by Matt Stoller, January 10, 2021; David Autor, David Dorn, Gordon Hanson, and Kaveh Majlesi, “Importing Political Polarization? The Electoral Consequences of Rising Trade Exposure,” American Economic Review 110, no. 10 (October 2020): 3139–83.
65 Dain Fitzgerald (@DainFitzgerald), “I subscribed to @AmericanAffrs but have to admit it was a mistake. Most of it is legalistic or industrial policy-oriented whereas all I care about is culture war. . . . ,” Twitter, August, 10, 2021.
66 “Nous ne voulons pas d’un monde où la certitude de ne pas mourir de faim s’échange contre le risque de mourir d’ennui.” The slogan comes from the work of Belgian situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem and was taken up by student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit among others during the events of May 1968.
67 The Mike McManus Show, “Marshall McLuhan in Conversation with Mike McManus,” TVO, September 19, 1977.
68 Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 61.
69 This rendition of Goldstein’s argument is taken from the 1984 film adaptation of the novel: Nineteen Eighty-Four, directed by Michael Radford (20th Century Fox, 1984).