Posts Tagged ‘class’

wage-profit

Liberals like to talk about all kinds of social ills and identity-laden tensions—but not class struggle. That’s their persistent and enduring blindspot.

Except, it seems, when it comes to Donald Trump.

Thomas B. Edsall is a good example. Over the years, he’s produced a series of solid, insightful surveys of liberal research and analysis on a wide variety of economic and political topics. But he hasn’t written much if anything about class—until his latest, titled “The Class Struggle According to Donald Trump.”

And, to give him credit, Edsall is right about one thing:

Trump campaigned as the ally of the white working class, but any notion that he would take its side as it faces off against employers is a gross misjudgment.

But his view of class struggle is sorely lacking. First, Edsall starts with and highlights the recent work of Alan Krueger and Eric Posner, who criticize “labor market collusion” on the part of large employers and maintain that the ideal labor market is one in which “workers can move freely to seek the most desirable opportunities for which they are qualified.”

Presumably, if the appropriate reforms were made—for example, scrutinizing mergers for adverse labor market effects, banning non-compete covenants that bind low-wage workers, and no-poaching arrangements among establishments that belong to a single franchise—the problem of class struggle would be solved.

Second, Edsall accepts the idea that, until the 1970s, class struggle in the United States had mostly disappeared or been held in abeyance, under the “postwar capital-labor accord.” But there never was such an accord—or, as it is sometimes referred to, a “truce.”

As economists Richard McIntyre and Michael Hillard (unfortunately behind a paywall) have argued,

Recent U.S. historical and industrial relations scholarship rejects the existence of such an accord. . .The existence or non-existence of an accord is not only an important matter of history; it has very definite practical effects. During the 1980s and 1990s especially, many in the labor movement and some radical economists sought “cooperation” between capital and labor as a cure for the ills of the American economy, often harkening back to the imagined “golden age.” But if such cooperation is a historical chimera, the time and energy put into “cooperation” might have been better spent in the self-organization of the working class.

Today, under Trump, Edsall and other liberals are attempting to revive that tradition, hoping that reforming the labor market can serve as the basis for more “cooperation” between capital and labor.

Ironically, both Trump and liberal thinkers like Edsall invoke a nostalgia for the exact same postwar period. In the case of Trump, it was a time when U.S. manufacturing successfully exported to the entire world; for Edsall and company, it’s when labor and capital agreed to cooperate and negotiate peacefully.

But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t intense class struggle during that period—or, for that matter, afterward. Only that the conditions and consequences have changed. And employers have been on the winning side for decades now, long before Trump was elected.

Consider the data Edsall himself cites, which are illustrated in the chart at the top of the post. Since 1970, the wage share of national income (the orange line) has fallen by more than 15 percent. Meanwhile, beginning in 1986, the profit share (the blue line) has risen by 164 percent. For decades now, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, a class struggle has been waged by corporate boards of directors and workers—and the working-class has been losing.

It’s true, they’re still losing under Trump. But they also lost during the recovery from the crash of 2007-08. Just as they did in the decades leading up to the greatest crash since the first Great Depression.

In fact, one can argue that capitalists’ remarkable success in extracting more or more profit from workers is precisely what created the obscene levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth that have left the majority of the U.S. population falling further and further behind—and, as a consequence, the election of Donald Trump.

The problem is not, as liberals would like to believe, that exceptional circumstances—market imperfections—have turned the tide against workers. It’s that class struggle is inherent to capitalism, and workers are only useful as creators of the enormous profits captured by their employers.

As I see it, class struggle between employers and workers can’t be solved by reforming the labor market. It can only be eliminated by getting rid of the labor market itself—that is, by moving beyond capitalism.

That’s a real solution to the problem of class struggle that neither Trump nor American liberals are interested in thinking about.

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First there was the Great Gatsby curve. Then there was the Proust index. Now, thanks to Neil Irwin, we have the Marx ratio.

Each, in their different way, attempts to capture the ravages of contemporary capitalism. But the Marx ratio is a bit different. It was published in the New York Times. Its aim is to capture one of the underlying determinants of the obscene levels of inequality in the United States today—not class mobility or the number of years of national income growth lost to the global financial crash. And, of course, it takes its name from that ruthless nineteenth-century critic of mainstream economics and capitalism itself.

Marx

Now, to be clear, there are lots of ratios that can be found in Marx’s critique of political economy—for example, the rate of exploitation, the intensity of labor, the technical productivity of labor, the exchange-value per unit use-value, and the value rate of profit (as illustrated above in a fragment from one of my class handouts)—and the ratio Irwin presents is not one of them.

But that doesn’t make Irwin’s ratio wrong, or uninteresting. On the contrary.

Basically, what Irwin has done is take the data from corporate financial reports (net income and the number of employees) and from a minor provision of the Dodd-Frank Act, which requires that publicly traded corporations reveal the gap between what they pay their CEOs and their average worker (and thus they need to report median worker pay) and calculated a number:

The Marx Ratio, as we’re calling it, captures the relationship between a company’s profits — the return to capital, on a per-employee basis — and how much its median employee is compensated, a rough proxy for the return to labor.

Thus, for example, Wells Fargo, which reported $22.2 billion in net income in 2017, with 262,700 employees and median worker pay of $60,446, had a Marx ratio of 1.40. Similarly, we have the ratio for other corporations—from the relatively small real estate investment trust Duke Realty (37.7) to independent energy company Hess (-12.2).

Irwin is clear: notwithstanding the limitations in the data, “companies with high Marx Ratios offer particularly strong rewards to their shareholders relative to workers.”* But that doesn’t mean, contra Irwin, that “Numbers below 1 signal the reverse: a more favorable return to labor.” Any positive number indicates that, after paying all expenses (including workers’ wages, taxes, interest on debt, deductions for depreciation, and CEO salaries), the net income or profit per employee is positive.

In fact, with a little algebraic manipulation, Irwin’s Marx ratio turns out to look a lot like Marx’s rate of exploitation.**

They’re not the same, of course. First, because corporate net income leaves out many of the distributions of surplus-value corporate boards of directors make—such as interest payments, taxes, and managers’ salaries—and the number of employees refers to all workers, not just nonmanagerial workers. Second, because the Irwin ratio is calculated for all publicly traded companies and therefore makes no distinction between finance, real-estate, insurance and companies that actually produce goods and services. From a Marxian perspective, the former capture surplus-value that is produced and appropriated and distributed elsewhere in the economy (both nationally and globally).

So, the Marx ratio is not Marx’s ratio.

But Irwin’s Marx ratio does tell us a great deal about how wildly profitable American corporations are, especially in comparison to how little they pay their employees—to the tune of 3, 4, 30 times what the average worker makes. And that’s one of the principal causes of the obscene and growing levels of inequality we’ve seen in the United States for decades now.

I, for one, would love to see the Marx ratio reported in the financial news on a regular basis. Alongside the ratio of CEO to average worker pay. And, even better, Marx’s own indicator of capitalist class injustice, the rate of exploitation.

 

*The data are a bit of a problem, especially because median worker pay is based on self-reporting:

The denominator is the compensation to the median employee, as disclosed in the company’s proxy statement, which can create distortions in representing rank-and-file employees.

Companies also have some degree of flexibility in how they calculate median pay, so comparisons are not necessarily apples-to-apples. For example, they may choose to use statistical sampling instead of actual payroll records, and may exclude non-U.S. employees depending on privacy rules in overseas markets.

A better number for the idea we’re really trying to get at would be average compensation for nonexecutive employees, but companies aren’t required to report that publicly.

**Mathematically, Irwin’s Marx ratio is (NI/L)/(W/L), which turns out to be NI/W, where NI is net income, L is the number of employees, and W is the wage bill (calculated by multiplying median worker pay by the number of employees). Marx’s rate of exploitation is S/V, where S is the amount of surplus-value and V is the value of labor power.

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From the very beginning, the area of mainstream economics devoted to Third World development has been imbued with a utopian impulse. The basic idea has been that traditional societies need to be transformed in order to pass through the various stages of growth and, if successful, they will eventually climb the ladder of progress and achieve modern economic and social development.

Perhaps the most famous theory of the stages of growth was elaborated by Walt Whitman Rostow in 1960, as an answer to the following questions:

Under what impulses did traditional, agricultural societies begin the process of their modernization? When and how did regular growth become a built-in feature of each society? What forces drove the process of sustained growth along and determined its contours? What common social and political features of the growth process may be discerned at each stage? What forces have determined relations between the more developed and less developed areas?

Rostow’s model postulated that economic growth occurs in a linear path through five basic stages, of varying length—from traditional society through take-off and finally into a mature stage of high mass consumption.

While Rostow’s model and much of mainstream development theory can trace its origins back to Adam Smith—through the emphasis on increasing productivity, the expansion of markets, and the definition of development as the growth in national income—the development models that were prevalent in the immediate postwar period presumed that the pre-conditions growth were not automatic, but would have to be engineered through government intervention and foreign aid.

Mainstream modernization theory was created in the 1950s—and thus after the first Great Depression and World War II, when world trade had been severely disrupted, and in the midst of decolonization and the rise of the Cold War, when socialism and communism were attractive alternatives to many of the national liberation movements in the Global South. It was a determined effort, on the part of academics and policymakers in the United States and Western Europe, to showcase capitalist development and make the economic and social changes necessary in the West’s former colonies to initiate the transition to modern economic growth.*

The presumption was that government intervention was required to disrupt the economic and social institutions of so-called traditional society, in order to chart a path through the necessary steps to shift the balance from agriculture to industry, create national markets, build the appropriate physical and social infrastructure, generate a domestic entrepreneurial class, and eventually raise the level of investment and employ modern technologies to increase productivity in both rural and urban areas.

That was the time of the Big Push, Unbalanced Growth, and Import-Substitution Industrialization. Only later, during the 1980s, was development economics transformed by the successful pushback from the neoclassical wing of mainstream economics and free-market policymakers. The new orthodoxy, often referred to as the Washington Consensus, focused on privatizing public enterprises, eliminating government regulations, and the freeing-up of trade and capital flows.

Throughout the postwar period, mirroring the debates in mainstream microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, mainstream development theory has oscillated back and forth—within and across countries—between more public, government-oriented and more private, free-market forms of mainstream development theory and policy. And, of course, the ever-shifting middle ground. In fact, the latest fads within mainstream development theory combine an interest in government programs with micro-level decision-making. One of them focuses on local experiments—using either the randomized-control-trials approach elaborated by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo or the Millenium Villages Project pioneered by Jeffrey Sachs, which they use to test and implement strategies so that impoverished people in the Third World can find their own way out of poverty. The other is the discovery of the importance of “good” institutions—for example, by Daron Acemoglu—especially the delineation and defense of private-property rights, so that Rostow’s modern entrepreneurs can, with public guarantees but minimal interference otherwise, be allowed to keep and utilize the proceeds of their private investments.

The debates among and between the various views within mainstream development economics have, of course, been intense. But underlying their sharp theoretical and policy-related differences has been a shared utopianism based on the idea that modern economic development is equivalent to and can be achieved as a result of the expansion of markets, the creation of a well-defined system of private property rights, and the growth of national income. In the end, it is the same utopianism that is both the premise and promise of a long line of contributions, from Smith’s Wealth of Nations through Rostow’s stages of growth to the experiments and institutions of today’s mainstream development economists.

The alternatives to mainstream development also have a utopian horizon, which is grounded in a ruthless criticism of the theory and practice of the “development industry.”

One part of that critique, pioneered by among others Arturo Escobar (e.g., in his Encountering Development), has taken on the whole edifice of western ideas that supported development, which he and other post-development thinkers and practitioners regard as a contradiction in terms.** For them, development has amounted to little more than the West’s convenient “discovery” of poverty in the third world for the purposes of reasserting its moral and cultural superiority in supposedly post-colonial times. Their view is that development has been, unavoidably, both an ideological export (something Rostow would willingly have admitted) and a simultaneous act of economic and cultural imperialism (a claim Rostow rejected). With its highly technocratic language and forthright deployment of particular norms and value judgements, it has also been a form of cultural imperialism that poor countries have had little means of declining politely. That has been true even as the development industry claimed to be improving on past practice—as it has moved from anti-poverty and pro-growth to pro-poor and basic human needs approaches. It continued to fall into the serious trap of imposing a linear, western modernizing agenda on others. For post-development thinkers the alternative to mainstream development emerges from creating space for “local agency” to assert itself. In practice, this has meant encouraging local communities and traditions rooted in local identities to address their own problems and criticizing any existing distortions—both economic and political, national as well as international—that limit peoples’ ability to imagine and create diverse paths of development.

The second moment of that critique challenges the notion—held by mainstream economists and often shared by post-development thinkers—that capitalism is the centered and centering essence of Third World development. Moreover, such a “capitalocentric” vision of the economy has served to weaken or limit a radical rethinking of and beyond development.*** One way out of this dilemma is to recognize class diversity and the specificity of economic practices that coexist in the Third World and to show how modernization interventions have, themselves, created a variety of noncapitalist (as well as capitalist) class structures, thereby adding to the diversity of the economic landscape rather than reducing it to homogeneity. This is a discursive strategy aimed at rereading the economy outside the hold of capitalocentrism. The second strategy opens up the economy to new possibilities by theorizing a range of different and potential connections among and between diverse class processes. This forms part of a political project that can perhaps articulate with both old and new social movements in order to create new subjectivities and forge new economic and social futures in the Third World.

The combination of post-development and class-based anti-capitalocentric thinking refuses the utopianism of Third World development, as it constitutes a different utopian horizon—a critique of the naturalizing and normalizing strategies that are central to mainstream development theory and practice in the world today. It therefore leads in a radically different direction: to make noncapitalist class processes and projects more visible, less “unrealistic,” as one step toward dethroning the “development industry” and invigorating an economic politics beyond development.

 

*At the same time, the Western Powers attempted to reconstruct the global institutions of capitalism, through the triumvirate of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (predecessor to the World Trade Organization) that was initially hammered out in 1944 in the Bretton-Woods Agreement.

**A short reading list for the post-development critique of mainstream development includes the following: Wolfgang Sachs, ed., The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge As Power (Zed, 1992); Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, 1995); Gustavo Esteva et al., The Future of Development: A Radical Manifesto (Policy, 2013); and the recent special issue of Third World Quarterly (2017), “The Development Dictionary @25: Post-Development and Its Consequences.”

***Building on a feminist definition of phallocentrism, I along with J.K. Gibson-Graham (in “‘After’ Development: Reimagining Economy and Class,” an essay published in my Development and Globalization: A Marxian Class Analysis) identify capitalocentrism whenever noncapitalism is reduced to and seen merely as the same as, the opposite of, the complement to, or located inside capitalism itself.

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Special mention

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wealth-inequality

Chris Rock may be right. Still, Americans are well aware that economic inequality in their country is obscene, even though they often underestimate the growing gap between the poor and the rich.

But it’s Frank Rich, who conducted the interview with the American comedian, who made the more perceptive observation:

For all the current conversation about income inequality, class is still sort of the elephant in the room.

All the experts agree—from Thomas Piketty and the other members of the World Inequality Lab team to John C. Weicher of the conservative Hudson Institute—that inequality in the United States, especially the unequal distribution of wealth, has been worsening for decades now. Both before and after the crash of 2007-08. And there’s no sign that things are going to get better anytime soon, unless radical changes are made.

But, as it turns out, even the experts underestimate the degree of inequality in the United States. The usual numbers that are produced and disseminated indicate that, in 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the top 1 percent of Americans owned one third (35 percent) of total household wealth while the bottom 90 percent had less than half (45.3 percent) of the wealth.

According to my calculations, illustrated in the chart at the top of the post, the situation in the United States is much worse. In 2014, the top 1 percent (red line) owned almost two thirds of the financial or business wealth, while the bottom 90 percent (blue line) had only six percent. That represents an enormous change from the already-unequal situation in 1978, when the shares were much closer (28.6 percent for the top 1 percent and 23.2 percent for the bottom 90 percent).

Why the large difference between my numbers and theirs? It all depends on how wealth is defined. Both the World Inequality Lab and the Federal Reserve (in the Survey of Consumer Finances) include housing and retirement pensions in household wealth—and those two categories comprise most of the so-called wealth of most Americans. They just don’t own much in the way of financial or business wealth. They live in their houses and they retire based on contributions from their wages and salaries over the course of their work lives. They produce but don’t take home any of the surplus; therefore, they just don’t have the ability to amass any real wealth.

For the small group at the top, things are quite different. They do get a cut of the surplus, which they use, not only to purchase housing and put aside in their pensions, but to accumulate real wealth, for themselves and their families. If we take out housing and pensions and calculate just the shares of financial or business wealth—and, thus, equities, fixed-income claims, and business assets—the degree of inequality is much, much worse.

Yes, rich people in the United States are very rich—even more than either regular Americans or the experts believe.

But that’s not the real elephant in the room. The big issue that everyone is aware of, but nobody wants to talk about, is class. And that’s the reason there should be, if not riots, at least a sustained political movement to transform the existing economic and social structures in the United States.

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Economic inequality is arguably the crucial issue facing contemporary capitalism—especially in the United States but also across the entire world economy.

Over the course of the last four decades, income inequality has soared in the United States, as the share of pre-tax national income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line in the chart above) has risen from 10.4 percent in 1976 to 20.2 percent in 2014. For the world economy as a whole, the top 1-percent share (the green line), which was already 15.6 percent in 1982, has continued to rise, reaching 20.4 percent in 2016. Even in countries with less inequality—such as France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom—the top 1-percent share has been rising in recent decades.

Clearly, many people are worried about the obscene levels of inequality in the world today.

In a famous study, which I wrote about back in 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans both underestimate the current level of inequality in the United States and prefer a much more equal distribution than currently exists.*

In other words, the amount of inequality favored by Americans—their ideal or utopian horizon—hovers somewhere between the level of inequality that obtains in modern-day Sweden and perfect equality.

What about contemporary economists? What is their utopian horizon when it comes to the distribution of income?

Not surprisingly, economists are fundamentally divided. They hold radically different views about the distribution of income, which both inform and informed by their different utopian visions.

For example, neoclassical economists, the predominant group in U.S. colleges and universities, analyze the distribution of income in terms of marginal productivity theory. Within their framework of analysis, each factor of production (labor, capital, and land) receives a portion of total output in the form of income (wages, profits, or rent) within perfectly competitive markets according to its marginal contributions to production. In this sense, neoclassical economics represents a confirmation and celebration of capitalism’s “just deserts,” that is, everyone gets what they deserve.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, inequality is simply not a problem, as long as each factor is rewarded according to its productivity. Since in the real world they see few if any exceptions to perfectly competitive markets, their view is that the distribution of income within contemporary capitalism corresponds to—or at least comes close to matching—their utopian horizon.

Other mainstream economists, especially those on the more liberal wing (such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Piketty), hold the exact same utopian horizon—of just deserts based on marginal productivity theory. However, in their view, the real world falls short, generating a distribution of income in recent years that is more unequal, and therefore less fair, than is predicted within neoclassical theory. So, bothered by the obscene levels of contemporary inequality, they look for exceptions to perfectly competitive markets.

Thus, for example, Stiglitz has focused on what he calls rent-seeking behavior—and therefore on the ways economic agents (such as those in the financial sector or CEOs) often rely on forms of power (political and/or economic) to secure more than their “just deserts.” Thus, for Stiglitz and others, the distribution of income is more unequal than it would be under perfect markets because some agents are able to capture rents that exceed their marginal contributions to production.** If such rents were eliminated—for example, by regulating markets—the distribution of income would match the utopian horizon of neoclassical economics.***

What about Marxian theory? It’s quite a bit different, in the sense that it relies on the assumptions similar to those of neoclassical theory while arriving at conclusions that are diametrically opposed. The implication is that, even if and when markets are perfect (in the way neoclassical economists assume and work to achieve), the capitalist distribution of income violates the idea of “just deserts.” That’s because Marxian economics is informed by a radically different utopian horizon.

Let me explain. Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

That’s because the Marxian critique of political economy is informed by a radically different utopian horizon: the elimination of exploitation. Marxian economists don’t presume that, under capitalism, the distribution of income will be equal. Nor do they promise that the kinds of noncapitalist economic and social institutions they seek to create will deliver a perfectly equal distribution of income. However, in focusing on class exploitation, they both show how the unequal distribution of income in the world today is affected by and in turn affects the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value and argue that the distribution of income would likely change—in the direction of greater equality—if the conditions of existence of exploitation were dismantled.

In my view, lurking behind the scenes of the contemporary debate over economic inequality is a raging battle between radically different utopian visions of the distribution of income.

 

*The Ariely and Norton research focused on wealth, not income, inequality. I suspect much the same would hold true if Americans were asked about their views concerning the actual and desired degree of inequality in the distribution of income.

**It is important to note that, according to mainstream economics, any economic agent can engage in rent-seeking behavior. In come cases it may be labor, in other cases capital or even land.

***More recently, some mainstream economists (such as Piketty) have started to look outside the economy, at the political sphere. They’ve long held the view that, within a democracy, if voters are dissatisfied with the distribution of income, they will support political candidates and parties that enact a redistribution of income. But that hasn’t been the case in recent decades—not in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France—and the question is why. Here, the utopian horizon concerning the economy is the neoclassical one, or marginal productivity theory, but they imagine a separate democratic politics is able to correct any imbalances generated by the economy. As I see it, this is consistent with the neoclassical tradition, in that neoclassical economists have long taken the distribution of factor endowments as a given, exogenous to the economy and therefore subject to political decisions.

2008_10_banksynatives

Much has been made of the rise of populism in recent years and the threat it poses to liberal democracy.

My view is that liberal critics of populism, standing on their heads, get it wrong. If made to stand on their feet, they’d have to admit that populism actually represents the failure of liberal democracy.

Populism has experienced a resurgence of late—in Hungary, Britain, France, Turkey, the United States, and elsewhere—especially the form of populism variously characterized as right-wing, nationalist, or authoritarian. It has attracted increasing support and achieved notable political victories within the institutions and procedures of liberal democracy.

The problem is that liberal democracy has failed to confront, much less solve, the problems that have led to the rise of populism in the first place.

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source*

Consider, for example, the history of populism in the United States. The three notable periods—in the late nineteenth century (with the rise of the People’s Party, which was also known as the Populist Party), the first Great Depression (around such figures as Father Charles Coughlin and Huey P. Long), and then during the second Great Depression (starting with the Tea Party and culminating in the election of Donald Trump)—all coincided with obscene levels of inequality and severe economic crises that decimated American workers and other classes (including farmers and small businesses) across the country.

Populism has been one of the principal responses to the complex and shifting layers of discontent and resentment that the ideas and policies of the leading political parties, economic elites, and mainstream intellectuals within American democracy first created and then failed to respond to. As I explained last November,

The paradox of the 2016 presidential race is that both major party candidates claim (or at least are identified by those in the media with) support of portions of the U.S. working-class and yet neither campaign offers anything in the way of concrete policies or strategies that actually respond to the real issues and problems faced by the members of the working-class. . .

It’s no wonder, then, that over the course of the past year and a half American workers have rejected establishment politics—as offered by both Democrats and Republicans—and voted in large numbers for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They’re simply fed up with an economic system that has been rigged to benefit only a small group at the top and frustrated by a set of political candidates (not to mention economists and economic pundits) who pronounce fundamental change to be undesirable and unrealistic. Better to stay the course, so the elites preach, and eventually trickledown economics will work.

A different response was, of course, possible in all three circumstances. Instead of populism, marginalized classes in the United States might have been persuaded by and coalesced into a movement with utopian impulses—an association, organization, or political party that combines a critique of the existing order, including the elites that defend it, with an agenda that seeks to radically transform economic and social institutions in a progressive direction.**

As I see it, both right-wing populism and left-wing utopian movements see the existing system as “rigged” against the vast majority of people and level an indictment against “elites” that both benefit from and defend the existing system. Both responses therefore represent a failure of liberal democracy.

But the two reactions are not at all similar, even when both attempt to represent the grievances of workers and other classes that have been left behind.

There are, it seems to me, two key differences between right-wing populist and left-wing utopian movements. First, they approach the matter of alliance and opposition quite differently. Utopian movements identify a basic conflict between the people and an elite or establishment, and then challenge the claims to universality of those on top in order to form a different universality, a set of changes that will create a new humanity and realm of freedom for everyone, including the existing elites. As John Judis explains, right-wing populists exhibit a radically different approach. They

champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group.

The second major difference is that right-wing populists look backward, conjuring up and then offering a return to a time that is conceived to be better. For Trump, that time is the 1950s, when a much larger share of workers was employed in manufacturing, American industry successfully competed against businesses in other countries, and Wall Street played a much smaller role in the U.S. economy.***

That time was, of course, exceptional—in terms of both U.S. and world history. And it’s a vision that conveniently forgets about many other aspects of that lost time, such as worker exploitation, Jim Crow racism, and widespread patriarchy inside and outside households.

Instead of looking backward, left-wing utopian movements look forward—criticizing the existing order but also understanding that it creates some of the economic and social conditions for a better, more just society.

Liberal critics of populism understand neither their own role in producing the circumstances within which populism emerged nor the senses of injustice—especially class injustice—that fuel populism’s gathering strength.

The Left should be able to do better, both in analyzing the rise of populism as a failure of liberal democracy and in offering a utopian alternative to the status quo. But for that, it will have to look beyond the idea that populism alone represents a threat to liberal democracy.

If liberal democracy is under threat it is because of its own failures.

 

*The chart illustrating the wealth shares of the top ten percent and top one percent is from Richard Sutch, “The One Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Concentration of Wealth in the United States,” Social Science History 41 (Winter 2017): 587-613.

**Such a movement did in fact gather strength during the first Great Depression, the Thunder from the Left, which is precisely what led to the second New Deal in 1935 (after the 1934 midterm elections and before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign).

***Joshua Zeitz argues that the Populists of the late nineteenth century also looked backward and that the parallels between then and now are striking:

Ordinary citizens chafed at growing economic inequality and identified powerful interests—railroads, banks, financial speculators—that seemed to control the levers of power. Many came to believe that the two major political parties, despite certain differences, were fundamentally in the pockets of the same interests and equally unresponsive to popular concerns.