‘Compact’ Makes an Impact

“Hello, my name is Anna, and I’m an alcoholic. Oops … those are the wrong notes. That’s for my nine o’clock.” So went the unorthodox opening remarks of cultural critic Anna Khachiyan at an unorthodox venue—the Angelika Film Center, in New York City—for the inaugural event of Compact, a journal of unorthodox thought, launched in March of this year.

The magazine was cofounded by conservative author Sohrab Ahmari, former First Things Senior Editor Matthew Schmitz, and Marxist populist Edwin Aponte. Compact has positioned itself against liberalism, right and left, and claims an impressive medley of authors and contributing editors from across the spectrum, including Christopher Caldwell, Michael Anton, Adrian Vermeule, Glenn Greenwald, Patrick Deneen, and Slavoj Žižek. The magazine has also been the subject of several smears in its short life, with herds of free thinkers at The New York Times and Quillette piling on like angry cattle. It provoked apoplexy among ideological hall-monitors by publishing a statement, signed by a coterie of critics (including this writer), calling for de-escalation in the Russo-Ukraine War.

This first official event of the publication was headlined by Michael Lind, academic and author of The New Class War, a small book that has had an outsized impact on the discourse about the managerial elite, a theme he revisited and expounded upon in his keynote address.

I walked from The Jane, my hotel, to the old theater at The Cable Building, in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. The arthouse provided an elegant, inviting lobby for the crowd that began trickling in as they made their way to the small auditorium: academics, journalists, students—some in suits, some casually dressed, and others in Bohemian digs. Standing against the backdrop of a black-and-white Compact logo displayed on a movie screen, Lind delivered his talk. Understanding his dispatch from the front lines of the class war requires revisiting the thesis of his book, which applies and modifies James Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution.

Two world wars and one Cold War gave rise to a new transatlantic class of elites entrenched in corporate, financial, governmental, educational, and media institutions. Unlike previous elites bound together by, for example, land ownership, these are united by what Lind calls an ideology of “technocratic liberalism.” The death of old capitalism did not usher in the dawn of socialism, as Marxists believed, but something else. Lind said during his lecture that when asked if America is a capitalist or socialist country, he always replies with the same answer: “Yes.” Burnham, Lind’s muse, called it the “managerial society.”

George Orwell, in his essay, “Second Thoughts on James Burnham,” painted a helpful picture of what such a society would look like:

Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralized society that will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham under the name of “managers.” These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. … The new “managerial” societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states but of great super-states grouped around the main industrial centers in Europe, Asia, and America. … Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.

Another disciple of Burnham, the late Chronicles columnist Samuel T. Francis, took particular interest in the political and social character of the managerial society. Francis wrote his own extended treatment of the subject for The Political Science Reviewer, in 1982.

The managers will “shift the locus of sovereignty” from parliamentary assemblies representing the capitalist class to the administrative bureaus of the expanded state. The executive branch and its bureaucracy will undermine the older assemblies and intermediary institutions in the Congress, the state legislatures, local governments, and independent organizations. This shift will assist the fusion of state and economy and will be responsible for the totalitarian character of managerial society.

Lind’s book, which became a bestseller, uses Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution, “supplemented by the economic sociology of John Kenneth Galbraith,” to analyze populist discontent toward the established political order in the West. That anger has manifested most notably in the election that sent Donald Trump to the White House. But its seething resentment has been felt all over the Western world, from Hungary and the Netherlands to Italy and Poland. It is an analysis well-suited for Compact because, like the magazine, it assumes categories like left and right or conservative and liberal have broken down. Lind’s solution is a return to what he calls “democratic pluralism,” a government based on inclusion of a multitude of groups and a spirit of compromise among them.

During and after World War II, it was necessary to negotiate a ceasefire in the conflict between national elites and everyone else. According to Lind, this bargain deteriorated from the 1960s onward. What replaced this arrangement is technocratic neoliberalism, a phenonenon marked by the political dominance of a metropolitan-based, university-educated elite who share no values with and have no interest in the rural and working classes. It is this phenomenon that Lind uses Burnham’s scalpel to dissect. The “demagogic populism” of Trump and others is a symptom of the disease; democratic pluralism is the cure. During his lecture, Lind maintained this view.

It is an interesting thesis, one with which there is much to agree as a student of Burnham. But there are problems, perhaps best highlighted by Lind’s view of religion and culture. An attendee asked if America would witness a religious revival. Lind replied that the number of believers would likely continue dwindling but reach a point and stay there. Driving this, according to Lind, is the secularization of ethics. Today, people no longer “need” to be part of a religion to be good and virtuous but can choose to live according to a secular ethical system. Therefore, one of the traditional reasons for being part of a religious congregation has been removed.

Lind believes this is a lamentable reality of our time because religion acts as a countervailing force; or, to borrow and twist a Gramscian phrase, it forms a system of “fortresses and earthworks” that obstruct the totalizing tendencies of the managerial regime. Thus, Lind views all religions more or less the same—and good insofar as they serve as bulwarks.

But religions are not all the same. Resistance against the managerial regime is led by Protestants, specifically white evangelicals, the religious group most likely to refuse COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. As Christianity Today notes, evangelicals also have, among any religious group, the highest share of gun ownership and, according to the Open Global Rights website, the most skeptical view of “human rights,” the fiction by which the ruling class justifies things like mass immigration and the dissolution of national sovereignty. To be sure, that doesn’t mean there are no Catholics or others in this camp—of course, there are—but those who can be expected to have the most hostile view of social engineering and an overweening state are reliably white evangelicals, 81 percent of which voted for Donald Trump in 2016, according to the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.

Ultimately, Lind seems to believe it is possible for people today with different values, religious or secular, to coexist so long as their needs and wants are met. This is a materialistic view that I think could have been true in a different, more homogenous America, one where our differences were not so radical and visceral.

As we saw in 2020 with Black Lives Matter, some groups that do not belong to the vertical “overclass” are nevertheless willing to ally with it or take support from it to strike at rivals situated more horizontally to their position. Under attack at present are a group that sociologist Donald Warren called “Middle American Radicals.” Francis wrote that these are

essentially middle-income, white, often ethnic voters who see themselves as an exploited and dispossessed group, excluded from meaningful political participation, threatened by the tax and trade policies of the government, victimized by its tolerance of crime,
immigration and social deviance, and ignored or ridiculed by the major cultural institutions of the media and education.

In this way, the class war is the culture war, and it permeates every aspect of our lives. Even Lind, who Khachiyan praised for his dispassionate analysis, peppered his talk with culture-war jabs at leftists that elicited chuckles from the audience. It seems impossible to escape.

Lind’s lecture was well received in the end. He gets far more right than not, and he is a gifted speaker with an encyclopedic knowledge of American political history.

The after-party took us to Botanica, a bar not far from the cinema. Glasses clinked between red brick walls over thumping music and shouted political banter in the small space at the back of the bar. I chatted briefly with Lind; there was a line to do that. He had read my review of The New Class War in Chronicles and said he welcomed the criticism. That’s another thing that made Lind a good fit for Compact’s first event, because the magazine has not shied away from confrontation and has, indeed, even embraced it.

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