Telos Returns to ‘New Class’ Analysis and the Critique of the ‘Wholly-Administered Society”

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The critical theory journal, Telos, returns to one of its earliest themes, the critique of what its editors in the 1970s and 80s termed the “wholly-administered society” and “New Class” analysis.  It shifted away from those themes and modes of analysis for a long time, but it has re-opened that discussion with a bang.  Editor Russell Berman, Stanford comparative literature and European studies professor and Hoover Institution senior fellow, introduces a short special section of articles on the New Class with a first rate introductory essay that offers the backdrop to New Class categories and defines their relevance today.

This is a marvelous short essay.  Telos is a difficult, intellectually challenging journal; it is not for everyone.  But its editors – who break along many intellectual, ideological, political, and other lines; there’s a Left Telos and a Right Telos and many others besides – are ferociously intelligent and never suffer fools gladly.  (Its founding editor, the late great Paul Piccone, never suffered fools at all.)  Beneath a tough intellectual language that many will find incomprehensible, Telos is that rarest of things, an intellectual journal of the highest order beholden to no academic department, no academic politics, intrigue, budgets, tenure decisions, careerism, or anything else.  No one’s academic career ever flourished on account of writing for Telos, so far as I know.  On the other hand, its alumns over the decades include a remarkable number of great scholars in social theory.

Berman makes a persuasive case for the relevancy of New Class theory and the theory of the wholly administered society in today’s urgent circumstances.  This will almost certainly not be Telos’s last venture into this terrain in today’s times.  This essay is highly readable; Telos is not.  Be warned.  But it needs to read and debated by intellectuals looking for new ways of exploring contemporary society, and its difficult language and insights deployed into wider intellectual thought.  Pop sociologists on the Left like David Brooks or Thomas Friedman – and many journalists on the Right, too – are instinctively and correctly drawn to these kinds of knowledge class categories.  They have some terms but no theory; and theory is sometimes necessary to understanding, social theory, and not just surface theories of economic rationalism.

To talk of a “new class,” then, conjured up the unquestionable epistemology of class analysis, while simultaneously challenging the notional outcome: instead of the end of the state and classlessness, one was stuck with police states and a new class that, while eminently cooler than the Bolsheviks of yore, still exercised a dictatorship (of the not-proletariat) while skimming off the benefits of unequal power. The phrase turned Marxism against Marxism during those decades when the fall of the Berlin Wall was not even imaginable.

Migrating across the Atlantic, the term took on a new meaning in the last third of the twentieth century as a designator of the rise of a new post-industrial professional class, the cohort of the student movement after 1968 on its trajectory into social, cultural, and political power. At stake was the gradual displacement (if not disappearance) of the old markers of class distinction and the alternative privileging of sets of linguistic and intellectual capacities, combined with the assumption that greater intelligence implied a de facto natural claim on greater power: meritocracy means that the smarter should rule. Yet this trope just reiterated, in a new context, the problem of intellectuals and power, a curious echoing of East European rhetoric. As the best and brightest claimed power in order to rule better and with greater radiance, their critics came to dub them a “new class” in order to draw attention to their sanctimonious aspirations to pursue their own interests by remaking society in their own image. Paradoxically, the conservative critique of the new class could make the “Marxist” move of pointing out how universalist claims masked particularist interests. What ensued was a decades-long conflict between, on the one hand, advocates of more enlightened and ever more expansive administration of society, and, on the other, proponents of reduced state oversight, defenders of society against the state, and the deregulated market against the long reach of political power. The political wrangling of our current moment still takes place within this framework. The complexity of the new class and its culture, however, is that while it sets out to administer society and establish bureaucracies to regulate social and economic life domestically, at the same time it attempts to ratchet down the political and military power that might be projected externally: a strong state toward its subjects, a weak state toward its enemies!

The new class transition to linguistic, cultural, and technocratic expertise unfolded during the profound shift toward a symbolic service economy—new class ascendancy took place during the era of the dramatic decline of manufacturing and the concomitant shift of unionized labor organization primarily into the public sector—and it privileges capacities of semiotic manipulation over material production or even military prowess. Its signature contribution to foreign policy is “smart power,” a term that nobly implies that boots on the ground are dumb and that some—still elusive—strategic rhetorical eloquence will make enemies vanish without ever firing a gun, since language is its ultimate power. The corollary economic policy is negative, defined by discourses of environmentalism that imagine achieving greener national spaces by exporting dirty manufacturing and energy consumption to the developing world: not in our backyard. This is not to deny environmental concerns, but rather to recognize them as laden with implications for traditional economic sectors. Most importantly, the transition to the culture of the new class has, in complex ways, taken part in the revolution of the new technologies, with the new class at first benefiting from them, thanks to their advantaging the educated and wealthy—that social inequality known as the “digital divide.” But the new technologies, especially the new networks of communication, have undermined the former concentrations of media power and opinion-making, allowing for the emergence of new populist forces, decidedly not new class in their character and programs.

As contemporary as these developments may seem, it is equally important to recognize how traditional, indeed classical, is the question that lurks inside the problem of the new class: intellectuals and power, enlightenment and politics, conceptual thinking and lived life. From one point of view, the rise of the new class involves the priority of thinking—not any thinking, however, but a technocratically foreshortened, instrumentalist, and administrative thinking—over the lifeworld of everyday interactions, communities, and traditions, and the orders of human nature. It is the assertion of the primacy of logic against the complexity of living, and it runs the risk therefore of collapsing either into an irrelevant ineffectiveness, an idealism incapable of grasping the real, or a destructiveness, when it tries to refashion ways of life into its own invented programs. Human communities frequently show resilience and creativity, and they can survive more than one expects; but those existential resources are not infinite, and aggressive programs of social engineering can eventually destroy the patterns of living, the structures of meaning—the families, communities, faiths, nations, cultures, traditions—when they try to control them. Dismantling those patterns of familiarity leaves a world less familiar—not more open and freer, as modernists believed, but colder and less welcoming, perhaps the real new class agenda. It lays claim to a higher morality; it wants to make the world better; it wants to make us better, but it may only make us more alone.