New Class questions

There was an interesting twitter exchange between Nicolas Villarreal, Vole, and myself yesterday on the question of the New Class. Villarreal opened with a comment that I think is the hinge-point of the entire debate:

Both Vole and I are comfortable with the idea that the New Class is an independent class actor, separate from either the proletariat and bourgeoisie, and that it’s existence can be discerned through the Marxist apparatus itself. Villarreal, on the other hand, is more skeptical—and he offers many good counterpoints and challenges to New Class theories. I don’t think our exchange came to a hard conclusion either way, and the point here in this blogpost isn’t to try and determine its outcome any further (I’m treating this space as a notebook to think through the exchange, since something like a New Class is at the center of what I’m working on at the present moment).

To begin: there are ongoing question around what classifies under the moniker of the ‘New Class’, and my own understanding swings between Alvin Gouldner’s account (as presented most clearly in The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class) and GĂ©rard DumĂ©nil and Dominique LĂ©vy’s work on what they call ‘managerial capitalism’. In the case of the former, the New Class is actually not so new at all, with origins stretching to the point where Latin declined as “language of intellectuals”, the decline of Feudal patronage and the rise of the market for, and the development of public, “multi-class” education systems. The poles at either end of this New Class spectrum are “intellectuals” and the “technical intelligentsia”, unified not only through their position within capitalism (re)production but through a “deep structure”—a “cultural of critical discourse” concerned with the speech act of justification.

DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy, for their part, describe managers as a—if not the—New Class. Drawing upon Marx’s analysis of technicians, clerical workers and management in the 23rd chapter of Capital Volume 3, they offer a “dual theory of labor”. On side there is value-producing labor, the proletariat within the context of capitalist production process, and on the other is profit-rate-maximizing labor (PRM), which consists of managers, clerical workers and the like. The growth of PRM labor is charted out by Marx himself: as capitalists compete against one another for their share of surplus value produced (realized as profit), they engage in the ongoing revolutionization of the productive forces. This leads to an increased reliance on technological innovation and scientific techniques, as well as a more complex—and cooperative—organization of labor. This calls for a host of workers not directly involved in the production process itself, but who are concerned with coordinating and maintaining this complex organization.

DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy suggest that taken as a whole, this ‘new intermediary class’ looks a lot like a “a new petty bourgeoisie”. This quickly becomes more complicated, however: “A new relation of production emerged from the polarization of PRM labor (as a historical process). The separation opposes managerial labor, on the one hand, and clerical labor, on the other, in a new class relation”. One also has to ask about the position of the technician and engineer in this framework. DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy link the growth of PRM labor directly to Marx’s discernment of a phase of ‘real subsumption’ under capital, writing that “the production process under real subsumption introduces a new element: a productive contribution of the capitalist to the production process as coordinator”. They make a brief, single reference to the engineer in this framework, though going by Marx’s comments within “Results of the Direct Production Process”—

The social productive powers of labour, or the productive powers of directly social, socialised (common) labour, are developed through cooperation, through the division of labour within the workshop, the employment of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the production process into a conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., for particular purposes…

— and elsewhere, this figures must receive a deeper consideration alongside both the manager and the clerical worker.

There are both overlaps and tensions with Gouldner’s analysis here. Gouldner is far more concerned, as Vole put it, with “scientists, technicians, intellectuals and professionals” than management—”There is no real theory of management in The Future of Intellectuals“. This isn’t to say, however, that management is absent from Gouldner’s work, as he does make multiple underdeveloped comments on their status within the New Class framework (for example, he discusses and critiques Maurice Zeitlin’s work on Berle and Mean’s The Modern Corporation and Private Property in order to draw out the possibility that “managers, men having great power without commensurate power, are slowly placing the old moneyed class on the shelf”). Bringing the technician and engineer deeper into the fold of PRM labor brings these two approaches together further.

Yet this generates another problem. The justification that DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy give for PRM labor—within the context of the direct production process—is rather distinct from Gouldner’s more historical-sociological account grounded in the development of modern education. There are no doubt overlaps: Gouldner, for instance writes that the position of the New Class is strengthened via “[t]he use of science and technology as a legitimating ideology”. We can also consider that phenomenon that Christopher Freeman has drawn attention to, the development of professional education, technical institutes and the like in the historical evolution of ‘national innovation systems’, that is, “the network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and interactions initiate, import, modify and diffuse new technologies”. More work clearly needs to done in this area to get a clearer picture of how all of this hangs together—or fails to do so.

Returning to the twitter thread, Villarreal offered three good questions and counterpoints concerning the efficacy of the New Class theory:

  1. To what degree does the ‘New Class’ have develop an ideology that is independent from the bourgeoisie?
  2. They do not have an income stream that is distinct from the bourgeoisie or proletariat.
  3. The production of knowledge is not something that can be relegated to a single class alone, but is the byproduct of a rich tapestry of processes that cuts across class lines.

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Point #3 is very good, and within it I see something like the much debated figure of the “general” or “social intellect” that Marx wrote about in the Grundrisse. Knowledge is key in Gouldner’s analysis of New Class culture: for him, knowledge—intimately bound via its production to scientific and technical processes—appears that which the New Class bears, and which aids in the development of its cultural of critical discourse (the act of justification) and its methods of social legitimization. The link then between Villarreal’s comments on knowledge and Marx’s general intellect thus becomes extremely fascinating, especially if we consider the prehistory of the concept traced out in a recent paper by Matteo Pasquinelli.

As Pasquinelli points out, the notion ‘general intellect’ was not unique to Marx, and was derived from earlier socialist and reform movements like the “March of the Intellect” introduced by Robert Owen. The March of the Intellect was inspired by debates around the role of machinery in displacing productive labor as inaugurated by Ricardo (also the ground for Marx’s analysis of the rising organic composition of capital in the falling rate of profit), and hoped to alleviate social ills by increasing social technical competency through the formation of mechanical and engineering institutes. It was subsequently taken up by William Thompson, who wrote at length about the way that mechanization and the exploitative nature of capitalist labor induces a degenerative tendency on the ‘general intellect’ or ‘general intellectual power’ that, paradoxically, arises in the labor process itself. Marx’s comments in the Grundrisse take up both sides of this paradox and plummet them to their ultimate conclusion, seeing in them perhaps the means to overcoming capital itself. “The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production“—a comment that directly foreshadows in the comments in ‘Results of the Direct Production Process’ and the subsequent question of ‘profit-maximizing labor’.

What makes this a fascinating little puzzle here is that in the Grundrisse, Marx seems to suggest that this deepening penetration of production by ‘general social knowledge’ will at some point transform the conditions of production to the point where proletarian labor itself comes to look more like that of the scientist or technician (as Andrew Ure, Marx’s key source for this insight, put it: workers will become mere ‘watchers of machines’), or in other words, as something that looks like what is being described as a portion of the New Class. Gouldner offers a similar suggestion: the New Class is a “prefigured embodiment of such future as the working class still has. It is that part of the working class which will survive cybernation”.

A contradiction emerges at this point. I’ve argued before that there is a shift of positions between the Grundrisse and Capital, with the former tending towards a breakdown theory that, at points, sees the overcoming of the capitalist mode of production as something automatic, and the latter dispensing with this position. The more mature theory finds capitalism tugging ever closer to its self-abolition through the constant revolutionizing of the productive forces, but the limit to this tendency is capital itself. The capitalist will never fully mechanize production, meaning the the fullest penetration of the general intellect cannot take place. All labor might very well become technical or intellectual (or the tendency already at play may be the continued outcome: the increasing brutal and archaic discipline of labor), but the qualitative leap will not be achieved on the basis of this mode of production.

The technician and manager come to take on a great role, appearing as the people who ensure the administration of the technical substrate of the world to come. In Capital Volume 3, Marx—following, once again, Andrew Ure, while also directly anticipating Berle and Means—cites the manager as indicating the redundancy of the capitalist, for ownership and control of production have become bifurcated. The development of productive forces, implying the growth of technical work and coordination, continues to be applauded, and they find their highest realization in the great work of the common plan that serve as the program for the reo-organization of society. These scattered insights were systematized by Engels in Anti-DĂŒhring, a text overseen and vetted by Marx. Engels writes:

The whole mechanism of the capitalist mode of production breaks down under the pressure of the productive forces, its own creations. It is no longer able to turn all this mass of means of production into capital… This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognised, forces the capitalist class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialisation of great masses of means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies… If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees…

This socialized production falls under the sway of the state as the proletariat seizes state power. The state comes to manage production in accordance with the common plan, and at this point its functions transfer into the ‘administration of things’. This thesis is only given the shortest and vaguest treatment. Classes have been abolished, but social functions have not. Who are the administrators? Are they the children of the proletariat, or do they exist in a lineage running backwards into this ‘class’ (?) of engineers, technicians and manager? Clearly from the point of view of a post-capitalist society of the future, this question is meaningless—but what interests me is where the ground of this proposition is within the context of capitalist society. On one side, we have the standpoint of the proletariat, and the unique consciousness derived from this position, from which their political function arise, but the very phrase ‘the administration of things’ jolts into another current. As a concept derived from the work of Henri Saint-Simon, a multi-faced figure described, at various turns, as the last of the utopian socialists (Marx and Engels), the first technocrat (Langdon Winner), the first modern corporatist (Philip Schmitter), the one who resurrected the Platonic ideal of the philosopher-king within the context of modernity (Daniel Bell), and the father of the New Class’s ideology (Bell again). Or his status as a historical individual: an engineer with revolutionary aspirations, who at one point courted wealthy industrialists to implement his schemes, but departed from their circles convinced of their short-sightedness…

To put this all far more directly: the general intellect can be understood as the movement of the totality of knowledge, but the totality consists of particulars—and from the side of the particulars themselves, they are defined against one another. This bears on knowledge’s status as something produced within the context of a fragmented society, which throws it—and, more specifically, its myriad of applications—into competition, deployed in the pursuit of ideology (there is a temptation to raise here the provocation of Boris Groys, who re-installs philosophy as the summit of communism in his own resurrection of Plato: the supersession of fragmentation and paradox by a language beyond language, one capable of rising to the universal). The question becomes twofold: 1) one of the relationship between the totality of knowledge and the socio-material ‘channels’ through which particulars arise, and 2) whether or not a ‘New Class’—if it does exist as something independent—exhibits ideological functions of its own.

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This question of whether or not a class of engineers, technicians, managers, etc. develops an ideological disposition independent of that of the bourgeoisie is the subject of Villarreal’s point #1—it is this one that interests me the most, as the answer seems to be a resounding yes. It is a position based upon particular notions of efficiency, rationalization, and instrumentalization that, at a certain point, break from the bourgeois mold and reverse themselves against the monoliths of price and profit themselves. We might call it, as Marcuse did, a ‘technological rationality’, or perhaps a ‘technocratic rationality’.

Historically, this rationality has emerged from the efforts to coordinate the complex division of labor and integrate it with the cutting-edge of technological and scientific innovation (thus binding it directly to DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy’s ‘profit-rate-maximizing’ labor). It is also a rationality that, while having attracted the gleaming eye of the capitalist, also operates at a distance from the ruling class. The bourgeoisie largely has no conception of efficiency or rationalization: insofar as such things exist, they are but means to an end, the end of course being their own profitability realized under the whip of competition (this is why, at the same time, the bourgeoisie makes no great contribution to culture). It is true, as Villarreal points out, that a germinal form of this rationality can be found in Adam Smith’s work on the division of labor, and likewise we can find it in the studies of Charles Babbage (who Marx readily took up in his own study of the division of labor and mechanization). At the same time, early reform movements and utopian socialist currents—like the aforementioned ‘March of the Intellect’ movement with its mechanics institutes and the technocratic dreams of Saint-Simon—tapped into this seed, and hoped to use it to unleash a grand re-organization of the world and its history.

It is true that this drive to rationalize, to generate efficiency, eliminate waste, uncover higher forms of organization and coordination—all carried out under the auspices of a deeper, more fundamental “rule-bound” logic—is initially mobilized to bring capitalist production to its perfection, not abolish it. This is the legacy of Taylorism, so enthusiastically embraced by Lenin and other early Bolsheviks—though they were not alone in perceiving this liberatory inversion hidden with this most extreme form of exploitation. As history pivoted from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, the engineer, the technician and the manager came to take on greater and greater roles within production, while the ranks of professionals of all stripes swelled. In America, the ‘cult of the engineer’ was in full swing, and professionals found their place in a host of reformist movements, sometimes couched within the bourgeois frame, other times becoming explicitly socialist. Planning transposed itself from the domain of production into society at large; economic planning became a mainstream idea and planning to alleviate ‘social ills’ a hallowed ideal.

In figures like Veblen, this drive to rationalize charted a widening divide (one instantly amicable to the analysis of Berle and Means) between business owners and this technical-technocratic organization. The commitment of the former to profit and price, he argued, would lead them to block the intensification of efficiency and cultivation of technological processes; for this reason, they were a retrograde formation to be discarded in exchange for an all-encompassing industrial policy overseen and administered by the technical intelligentsia. From his pen there grew a host of social movements (such as the Technical Alliance) that sought to implement ideas, while other more practical technocrats found employment within the US government’s planning agencies. Something like the New Deal saw an incredible moment of convergence, arising from, on the one hand, this rising force and its associated rationality, and on the other, mounting agrarian and labor struggles. This is why I’ve suggested that the New Deal best be identified as a technopopulist regime—or as DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy describe it, “the formation of a social order based on an alliance between managerial and popular classes, an alliance to the left in which the privileges of capitalist classes and upper management were dramatically diminished”.

This rationality thus only ever made an incomplete in the US, with bourgeois civilization being its very limit. But what we can say as that which marks its deviation from the bourgeois frame is not simply that it seeks to subordinate—or abolish outright—the market (and perhaps even the formal structures of value production, even if this only ever remained a secondary or accidental concern), but that its notions of efficiency and rationality were taken in two forms: 1) as a means to an end, an end that is not profit, but re-organization of the whole of society; or 2) an end in itself. The full spectrum of virtues and extreme deficiencies of this point of view are on full display here.

Villarreal raises the interesting counterpoint about bureaucracy and what he describes as the ideology of ‘bourgeois collectivism’ that we see exhibited by certain ranks of professionals (in other words, precisely those that would account for members of a New Class). In a recent article for Palladium, he draws out how in the case of the state itself, this ideological configuration is ultimately determined by the bourgeoisie:

[Samuel] Huntington directly compares [military] professionalism to the categorical description of professions such as doctors and lawyers, who consider themselves an organic body separate from society and with a higher duty to it. On the other, he describes this professionalism as the result of a process where the bourgeoisie forced the state, via their struggle against feudal aristocracy, to make the bureaucracy meritocratic—at least in the sense of abolishing aristocratic right or seniority as the primary standard for claiming elevated positions. The result was a modern bureaucratic culture increasingly open to all classes, at least theoretically, and requiring liberal arts education and training for aspiring members.

This analysis exposes something… which even Huntington is reluctant to realize. If we take professionalism to be an ideology of the bourgeoisie, then we see that there is no ideological autonomy of the state. The alien and seemingly arcane bureaucracy is instantly demystified; its ideology is indistinguishable from other forms of bourgeois collectivism in the community of lawyers and doctors.

From one side, I agree with this argument, but from another side, I think it needs an important modifier, which is exactly the point above with regards to the New Deal. The bourgeois ideology—and formal structures of bourgeois civilization—operate as a limit point for potential diverges and cleavages, but prior to this limit we can see a remarkable mutability through which collisions and alliances between classes can force its interior into new shape. We could saw that the bourgeois state-form remains intact across time, but the state-composition, the interiority that conditions the reproduction of social relations, changes.

A further note about bureaucracy: theory of bureaucracy is admittedly a blind spot for me, and it seems that a further interrogation between bureaucracy and management in particular is further warranted. Critics of managerialism such as James Burnham see them as synonymous, while Henri Lefebvre argued that Hegel’s universal class of bureaucratic civil servants were the immediate forerunners to contemporary managers and technicians. But Gouldner has suggested that it is “crucial to recognize that “the New Class not be reduced to bureaucracy, even though complexly interwoven with and socially close to them”. To render these formations distinct certainly has explanatory power in the Soviet experiment: during the Stalinist period, for instance, the party bureaucracy (whose members were often drawn from a proletarian background) held engineers and technocrats at arm’s length, often requiring their efforts but acting as an antagonistic force when they deemed necessary (such as the infamous ‘purge of engineers’). Post-Stalinism, however, witnessed the rise of this technical intelligentsia as a political power, leading to a higher degree of cooperation with the bureaucracy.

As for the US during the New Deal and its successor programs—like Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society—bureaucracy was a defining feature, but it was increasingly oriented towards increasing the nation’s scientific and technologies capacities via research and development, and became increasingly ‘scientific’ in nature itself. Its ranks swelled with technocrats and professionals, and as time went on it jettisoned its more popular/populist dimensions. By the Kennedy administration, ‘rule by social scientists’ was effectively a reality, and the state bureaucracy became staffed experts pulled from the ranks of the RAND Corporation and related think-tanks, who went about applying a series of instrumentalist mechanisms (such as PPBS, the ‘program-planning-budgeting system’, a descendant of wartime ‘operations research) to turn the government into an efficient machine. While this period might have been opened by a left-leaning alliance with organized labor and agrarian populists, this particular ascendancy portended its closure, even if it remained committed to the welfare state (now understood as the management of the working class on behalf of capital). That this whole trajectory ended up in calamity (the immense expenditures of this ‘welfare-warfare state’ crashing into intrinsic capitalist downswing and crisis) needs little repeating here; what I would be interested in knowing more about this contours of this technocacy-bureaucracy marriage, and whether or not divisions and tensions existed therein.

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All of this paints a very confusing picture. Villarreal’s second point may clarify some issues: the New Class, if it does exist, does not derive an income stream that is distinct from the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In the Marxist schema, sources of income have a high correlation to ones position in relation to production: the proletarian receives income in the form of wages and the bourgeoisie in the form of profits (this corresponds further to the factors of production: labor and capital, respectively). Does this disqualify the ‘New Class’ from the status of being a class? I’m not sure it does, as for Marx the income stream is a secondary concern to the social relations of production. To quote from Althusser’s gloss on Marx in On the Reproduction of Capitalism:

Posts requiring ‘manual labour’ of the kind performed by workers as well as certain posts for technicians and low-level supervisors (foremen and, at the limit, the heads of the various departments on the shop-floor) are held for life by members of the working class. The other posts, involving somewhat more elevated organizational tasks and, higher up, ‘planning’ and partial management of the labour process, are monopolized by members of other social strata: engineers and technicians, as well as middle-level and upper-level supervisory personnel. Finally, the most important posts are held by the capitalists themselves or their direct representatives.

The division into social classes is thus present in the division, organization and management of the process of production, by virtue of the distribution of posts on the basis of the class affiliation of the individuals who hold them (and, correspondingly, the number of years they have spent in school getting an ‘education’, whether ‘truncated’ or complete) . The fact that a majority of these individuals—engineers, upper-level supervisory personnel, even directors—are increasingly simple wage-earners makes no difference here. There are class differences among those who work for wages, for source of revenue does not determine class affiliation.

This brings back this idea of ‘profit-maximizing-labor’, but in clearer focus, as for Marx this strata not only forms as means of coordinating labor; it emerges in the context of the antithesis of the proletariat and bourgeoisie. What this means is that this strata is not only a technical relation of production, a particular appearance concealing a deeper essence, a social relation—it already is a social relation of production, that is, a class.

The picture complicates considerably when we pivot from is perspective, informed by DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy’s reading of Marx, to the Gouldner account, which emphasizes the New Class as the ‘owner of special cultures’ (taking on the characteristics akin to a guild). As Vole writes, this provides explanatory power for 1) how scientists, intellectuals, etc, generate a distinct ideology; and 2) the secondary issue of income—why there is a such a stark wage differential between professionals and wage laborers. Villarreal draws out the ultimate implications of this, which is that this theory of the New Class means that they develop independently of the production process. Like the state bureaucracy, they only engage with production indirectly. Their position is more related to a wider matrix where social functions are reproduced.

Here the two accounts come to a complete loggerhead. ‘Profit-rate-maximizing labor’ and ‘ownership of special cultures’ have different groundings; whereas one directly pertains to production, the other is indirect. Resolving this question becomes a vital task in developing a working theory of the New Class.

On the side of Gouldner, I would further suggest that their relationship to production might be more direct than it initially seems, if we take seriously late modernist conceptions of the “culture industry” and Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism as the blurring of the base/superstructure distinction, where culture becomes penetrated by the commodity form and a wide-ranging subject of production in its own right. Such a reading, however, brings in new problems: does the commoditization of culture within the context of ‘ownership of special cultures’ confirm the status of the New Class as merely the petty-bourgeoisie in new guise, or as some other form of rentier class? Or, from the other direction, what does the increasing legalized character of culture and knowledge (via intellectual property laws and the like), which re-orientates ownership towards the usual suspects in the capitalist class, say about this arrangement?

Such questions track across the bifurcations in the incomes of this class. Returning to management makes this most apparent: just as general income inequality and class polarization has increased consistently since the 1970s, management has tended in multiple directions, with the incomes of the upper echelons have increased alongside that of the capitalist class. In DumĂ©nil and LĂ©vy’s view, this occurs alongside a re-orientation from the left-leaning alliance between management and the working class to a right-leaning alliance between management and capital. Managerial function here undergoes an additional transformation: for these upper tiers, no longer is it a matter of maximizing the profit rate in conjunction with ‘retain-and-reinvest’ strategies—it becomes an affair of increasing upper class incomes through a financialized frame, often via an unrelenting emphasis on ‘maximizing shareholder value’. The form of income changes here too: the super-manager receives incomes not only in salaries, but through the same financial instruments through which the capitalists enrich themselves.

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A few final comments on periodization and political trajectories.

Periodization appears as pertinent to grasping the development of the New Class’ ideological disposition. In the framework I presented above, which moves from PRM labor to technocracy before breaking down, it is a trajectory that begins at the moment of real subsumption, gestates into an ideology at the end of the nineteenth century, and then forms into a cohesive political bloc between 1900 and the 1960s. Gouldner’s framework, while existing uneasily alongside this interpretation, operates along a similar timeline, finding the origins deep in the history of capitalism while recognizing that their impact upon

the national political scene in American life does not seem significant until Woodrow Wilson’s administration and until the involvement of intellectuals in the Socialist and Progressive Movements that preceded it. Following the “muckracking” movement and World War I there is evidence of a growing alienation of American intellectuals. This is intensified by the Great Depression of the thirties and by the anti-war and anti-fascist movements.

The importance of ‘ownership of special cultures’ seems, however, to gain a wider relevance during the 1960s and especially the 70s, the period in which Gouldner and many others were writing about the New Class in its various guises (the ‘new working class’, the ‘professional-managerial class’, etc). It’s interesting, then, that there is something of a shift that happens here: the ideological prism that I sketched above largely went into crisis as the Fordist state splintered and the rush to optimize production was confronted by a tendency towards de-industrialization, financialization, and social fragmentation. This was also the point at which the New Left, having emerged as a protest movement in the 1960s that was antagonistic to ‘welfare-warfare state’, was on the cusp of becoming formal political actors in their own right. For Barbara Ehrenreich, the New Left itself was largely a movement of socially-conscious member of the professional-managerial class or New Class. Writing in Radical America in the late year of 1977, she perceived the outlines of an interesting intellectual fissure:

As late as 1966, many New Left leaders held to Veblenesque theories of the unique importance of PMC-type occupations or of students themselves. Carl Davidson, (then SDS-vice president), for example, argued in a highly influential article that a student movement to control the university could be the base for the transformation of all society. But then—somewhere around 1967 or 1968—there was a decisive break which made the sixties totally unlike the earlier (Progressive Era) period of PMC radicalism: Large numbers of young people pushed PMC radicalism to its limits and found themselves, ultimately, at odds with their own class.

In actuality, there are several moments or waves taking place here: 1) the truly ‘Veblenesque’ moment of the New Class, which culminated in the New Deal; 2) the period spanning the late New Deal through the Great Society; 3) this New Left moment that emerged in the context of the Great Society (especially via the expansion of pell grants and the like) but came to reverse itself against it. This ‘Movement’ quickly splintered into a variety of tendencies such as the anti-war movement, the ecology movement, women’s liberation, etc. This points towards 4) the consolidation of these tendencies within the structures of capitalist governance itself, where progressive radicalism itself becomes not a tool to break the status quo, but the very logic of its self-perpetuation.

The great resistance to the New Class, led by actors on the right, gained its traction here. It was initiated by Burnham, in his missives against the ‘managerial society’, that breathed new life into Bakunin’s gloomy rage against the specter of a technocratic society, and pushed it into the formation of the nascent paleoconservative and neo-populist movements. At the root of this tendency was the fear of a great administrative order dissolving the contours of traditional, organic life. A parallel trajectory was blazed by the neoconservatives, with their igniting of the ‘culture wars’ at the end of 70s by painting a portrait of a Manichean struggle between a ‘middle class’ intellectual sensibility typified by their movement, and a New Left-inflected New Class that was coming to power under President Jimmy Carter. Ironies abound: many of these neoconservatives had roots in organized labor and socialist organizations such as the League for Industrial Democracy (an old hotbed of progressive-era radicalism that had initially formed that New Left incubator, the Students for a Democratic Society, as their youth wing before quickly losing control) and the Young People’s Socialist League. Others were working off a script generated by the very social scientists who administered the Great Society—and this is even before one considers their own status as intellectuals, cultural producers, mid-level bureaucrats, etc. The neoconservative culture war, in other words, appears as a schism internal to the class in question.

One former New Left journal, Telos, adopted a similar framing. The capacity for planning may have collapsed as de-industrialization took over, but what emerged in its place was a focus on crisis management, understood as the regulation of social ‘pathologies’ and tensions that intrinsically arose on this basis. Dissident political movements focusing on women’s liberation, ecology, so on and so forth, were key to this management: they were neutralized at the outset, serving as the role of an ‘artificial negativity’ that allowed the legal system—at this point having become the realization of Schmitt’s dreaded ‘automatic legislator’—to self-modify. Searching for a real source of negativity, Telos gradually abandoned a leftist perspective and found the answer in right-wing populist movements, first in the form of the European New Right and later in the American patriot movements. Such outbursts of ‘organic communitarianism’ were viewed as forces that could not be assimilated into this monstrous regime, and focused much of their vitriol against the New Class itself. The tendencies drawing their energy from Burnham’s critique curved and quite naturally melded with the things that Telos was exploring. Paul Piccone:

This populist turn of Critical Theory paves the way for a political convergence between those sectors of the Left which have not altogether forgotten the traditional Marxist critique of liberalism as a “bourgeois ideology” and those sectors of the American Right which, unlike its European counterpart, was never “conservative” in the traditional sense of relegitimating aristocratic prerogatives and has not yet been corrupted by neo-conservatism into a statist version of liberalism. If conservatism ever made any sense in the US it was in terms of conserving the cultural particularity typical of the colonial experience. In this sense, American conservatism, until its capitulation to New Deal cultural hegemony and neo-conservatism, was always in some sense populist. Yet, notwithstanding the euphoria generated by the 1994 election, the American Right is in shambles. The neo-conservatives are diametrically opposed to paleoconservatives and libertarians, while the New Right remains identified with dogma and intolerance.

In the present moment, these trends have been intensified but are also reworked. Popular anger exists against both New Class-style political formations and movements, and against the overly-financialized backdrop of capitalism. It generates three key points that I think are salient and worth probing further:

  1. The relationship between politically-oriented communities, both ‘activist’ and discourse-based, and the splitting of incomes mentioned above (throwing, it would seem, the whole class analysis into potential disarray). This looks something like A) the upper tier of management, aligned with the capitalist status quo; B) the generally upwardly mobile professional middle tier, which accepts the capitalist quo while also pursuing a defanged reformist agenda (for example, Elizabeth Warren’s ill-fated “I’ve got a plan for this” agenda that did little to challenge fundamental power structures), and the ‘proletarianized’ ranks and/or New Class aspirants denied their access to upward mobility (often finding political expression in the new socialist movements, though maintaining meaningful political momentum has been fraught with problems).
  2. The paradoxical relationship between the New Class and populists: on the one hand, there is a legitimate antagonism, while on the other, there are factions in the former that either seek to overcome or overcome this division. This brings to mind a point by Edward Shils, resurrected by Gouldner: the ‘cultural formation’ of intellectuals is often inclined towards populism, as the “belief in the worth of ordinary persons and in the value of their simplicity and wisdom… [it] may dispose intellectuals to praise the folk as truer and wiser than the more artificial, alien-influenced members of their own society’s elite”.
  3. The possibility of an encounter between the tendency in #2 with the upper-tier echelons of management mentioned in #1. By pursuing an agenda that seeks, among other things, to reign in the global dimension of capital and, in a return to the conditions of the 1870s-1890s, ground it upon the nation; re-ignite industrial development; and increase the power of the underclasses and the petty-bourgeoisie alike, they enter into a collision-course with the structures of capital as it currently exists and the class actors with vested interests that this entails.

 

4 thoughts on “New Class questions

  1. I’ve been thinking lately that maybe Marx’s predictions about automation leading to a system-wide drop in the rate of profit has broken down because of how large a section of the modern economy makes its profits from monopolies secured by intellectual property laws rather than ownership of “means of production” in the form of manufacturing equipment (like Apple which doesn’t even manufacture its own physical products), whereas Marx’s analysis was assuming a competitive market where many producers were making negligibly different versions of the same manufactured good. If so, then it might be conceptually useful to define a “new class” specifically in terms of those non-capitalists who are paid primarily for their contribution to the creation of various kinds of intellectual property (I take your point #3 above that the production of knowledge is widely distributed, but only some subset of those who contribute actually earn their living from it, or would at least have the skills to fairly easily switch that type of job in the case of members of the ‘creative class’ working outside of capitalist businesses, like academics or government workers). This could include both professionals like programmers and engineers and artists doing salaried work for companies, and those who manage them., but it might make sense to exclude managers in other areas of the economy that don’t fit this mold, like those at companies that use basically generic manufacturing technologies and techniques.

    Note that those latter types of manufacturing companies would be mostly found in third-world countries these days, especially China; there’s an interesting article talking about issues related to the above at https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/lenins-theory-of-imperialism-a-defence-of-its-relevance-in-the-21st-century/ . I’m not convinced by the argument in the first half of the article that Lenin’s concern with monopolies anticipated the way the modern economy works, or that the U.S. relationship with China constitutes ‘imperialism’ in the traditional sense (see criticisms of these arguments in the response at https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/understanding-imperialism-a-reply-to-sam-king/ ). But what caught my attention was the part starting near the middle of the article starting with the section titled “Poverty of statistics and polarisation of profit rates” where the author argues that profitability in first-world countries depends on a type of international division of labor, with a corresponding stark division of profit rates, in which “Massive MNC [multinational corporation] profitability and large imperialist state revenues give them the capital to reinvest continuously in creating new monopolies – dispersing and disorganising non-monopoly capital as they move. The remaining businesses, and Third World states, are relegated to standardised, non-monopolistic activities in which competition is intense, the market flooded and rates of profit abysmal.” This sort of geographical division of labor would probably also make it more difficult to a manager in a generic manufacturing firm to switch over to becoming a manager in an IP-centered firm, so the two types of managers would be less likely to develop a single unified ‘managerial’ ideology and there’d be more of a case for defining them to be in different classes (not to mention that differences in profitability of the two types of companies also likely mean the typical salaries of managers in each type would be very different).

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