The New Class Controversy

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By:Christopher Lasch | November 07, 2019

[This article first appeared in the June 1990 issue of Chronicles.]

The recent successes of the American right depend, in part, on its ability to deflect lower-middle-class resentment from the rich to a parasitic "new class" of professional problem-solvers and moral relativists. In 1975, William Rusher of the National Review referred to the emergence of a "verbalist" elite, "neither businessmen nor manufacturers, blue-collar workers or farmers," as the "great central fact" of recent American history. "The producers of America," Rusher said, "have a common economic interest in limiting the growth of this rapacious new non-producing class." The idea of a new class enabled the right to invoke social classifications steeped in populist tradition—producers and parasites—and to press them into the service of social and political programs directly opposed to everything populism had ever stood for.

If the new class is a "muddled concept," in the words of Daniel Bell, it is because we can never be sure just what social grouping it is supposed to refer to. But this imprecision, though it weakens the analytical value of the new class idea, adds to its polemical value as an all-purpose term of political abuse. Played off against the business class, it enables the right to attack "elites" without attacking the corporate elite. Businessmen, it appears, are responsible and public-spirited; they are accountable to the consumers to whom they sell their products, just as practical politicians are accountable to the voters; and the market thus limits any power they can hope to exercise. The new class, on the other hand, is accountable to no one, and its control of higher education and the mass media give it almost unlimited power over the public mind. Yet the members of this class still feel marginal and isolated: the more power they achieve, the more they resent their lack of power.

Another version of the new class plays it off not against business but against the technical intelligentsia. Bell himself, notwithstanding his reservations, has used the notion of a new class on several occasions—not always in the same way. In The End of Ideology, he contrasts the "intellectual" with the "scholar," evidently to the advantage of the latter. The scholar has to assume responsibility for a "bounded field of knowledge," but the free-floating intellectual acknowledges no responsibility except to himself. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Bell argues that the nihilistic hedonism celebrated by adversarial intellectuals undermines the work discipline required by capitalism (though he also argues, well beyond the limits of the neoconservative consensus, that capitalism itself encourages hedonism and is thus at war with itself).

In The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, however, the "new men" refers to the "technical and professional intelligentsia" whose skills have become essential to the maintenance of an "information society."

While these technologists are not bound by a sufficient common interest to make them a political class, they do have common characteristics. . . . The norms of the new intelligentsia—the norms of professionalism—are a departure from the hitherto prevailing norms of economic self-interest which have guided a business civilization. In the upper reaches of this new elite—that is, in the scientific community—men hold significantly different values [from] those authorizing economic self-aggrandizement, which could become the foundation of the new ethos for such a class.

Unfortunately, the ethic of professionalism has to compete for the allegiance of the "knowledge class" with the "apocalyptic, hedonistic, and nihilistic" ethic promoted by literary modernism and popularized by the counterculture. In the closing pages of The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Bell argues that "these anti-bourgeois values . . . go hand in hand with the expansion of a new intellectual class huge enough to sustain itself economically as a class. . . . This new class, which dominates the media and the culture, thinks of itself less as radical than 'liberal,' yet its values, centered on 'personal freedom,' are anti-bourgeois."

In general, neoconservatives take a kindlier view of the new class when they identify it with scientific and technical expertise than when they identify it with cultural radicalism. In Between Two Ages: America's Role in the Technetronic Era, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, praises the technical elite while condemning literary intellectuals and political militants in the usual terms. Since the latter come "from those branches of learning which are most sensitive to the threat of social irrelevance," their "political activism" can be explained as a "reaction to the . . . fear . . . that a new world is emerging without either their assistance or their leadership." Peter Berger makes a similar distinction between responsible specialists and discontented intellectuals, who suffer from a nagging fear of impotence, among other ailments. "Intellectuals," Berger writes, "have always had the propensity to endow their libidinal emotions with philosophical significance. . . . One suspects that the need for philosophy arises from an unfortunate combination of strong ambitions and weakened capacities."

Although the new class often seems to refer only to literary intellectuals and their "adversary culture," it can easily expand, when the need arises, to embrace bureaucrats, professional reformers, social workers, and social engineers as well as literary types. In this version, the new class seems to refer to anyone working in the public sector. According to Irving Kristol, it consists of "scientists, teachers, and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communications industries, psychologists, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the larger foundations, the upper levels of government bureaucracy, and so on." Charles Murray's description is even more expansive: "the upper echelons of. . . academia, journalism, publishing, and the vast network of foundations, institutes, and research centers that has been woven into partnership with government during the last thirty years." Murray includes even politicians, judges, bankers, businessmen, lawyers, and doctors—at least those who are liberals. From this point of view, the new class can be recognized not so much by its culture of hedonism as by its relentless pressure for an "activist federal government committed to 'change,'" as Michael Novak puts it. Professionals in the public sector want massive federal programs, according to Novak, because such programs create "hundreds of thousands of jobs and opportunities" for "those whose hearts itch to do good and who long for a 'meaningful' use of their talents, skills, and years." As Novak, Murray, and Kristol see it, the culture of the new class is not just anti-bourgeois but anti-business. It aims to replace private enterprise with a vast bureaucracy that will undermine initiative, destroy the free market, and subject everything to central control.

These wildly divergent descriptions of the new class make it clear that the term refers to a set of attitudes objectionable to the right, not to an identifiable social grouping, much less to a class. It serves the right simply as a vague synonym for liberalism. Its explanatory power is weakened not only by its sociological imprecision but by the right's refusal to implicate capitalism in its indictment of our moral and cultural confusion. As an explanation of "permissiveness"—itself a shallow description of the contemporary malaise—the concept of a new class overlooks more obvious explanations. Consider the right's attack on the mass media, according to which the new class controls the media and uses this control to wage a "class struggle" against business. In view of the media's dependence on advertising revenues, it is hard to take this contention seriously. Advertising and the requirements of capitalist consumerism, not anticapitalist ideology, govern the depiction of reality in the mass media. The right complains that television mocks "free enterprise" and represents businessmen as "greedy, malevolent, and corrupt," like J.R. Ewing. To see anticapitalist propaganda in a series like Dallas, however, requires a suspension not merely of critical judgment but of ordinary faculties of observation. Images of luxury, romance, and excitement dominate such programs, as they dominate the advertisements that surround and engulf them. Dallas is itself an advertisement of the good life, like almost everything that comes over the media—for the good life, that is, conceived as endless novelty, change, and excitement, as the titillation of the senses by every available stimulant, as unlimited possibility. "Make it new" is the message not just of modern art (the "adversary culture" deplored by neoconservatives) but of modern consumerism. The modern capitalist economy rests on the techniques of mass production pioneered by Henry Ford but also, no less solidly, on the principle of planned obsolescence introduced by Alfred Sloane when he instituted the annual model change. Relentless "improvement" of the product and upgrading of consumer tastes are the heart of mass merchandising, and these imperatives are built into the mass media at every level.

Even the reporting of news has to be understood not as propaganda for any particular ideology, liberal or conservative, but as propaganda for commodities—for the replacement of things by commodities, use values by exchange values, and events by images. The very concept of news celebrates newness. The value of news, like that of any other commodity, consists primarily of its novelty, only secondarily of its informational value. The news appeals to the same jaded appetite that makes a child tire of a toy as soon as it becomes familiar and demand a new one in its place. Propaganda in the usual sense of the word plays a less and less important part in a consumer society, where people greet all official pronouncements with suspicion. The effect of the media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction. Drugs are merely the most obvious form of addiction. If drug addiction is one of the things that undermines "traditional values," as the right maintains, then the need for drugs—that is, for commodities that alleviate boredom and satisfy the socially stimulated desire for novelty and excitement—grows out of the very nature of a consumerist economy.

It is only in their capacity as quintessential consumers—as drug addicts, as it were—that young professionals dominate the airwaves and set the tone of American life. Their distinctive manner of living embodies the restless ambition, the nagging dissatisfaction with things as they are, that are fostered by a consumer economy. Their careers require them to spend much of their time on the road and to accept transfers as the price of advancement. Though they complain about having to move so often, their willingness to travel long distances even in pursuit of pleasure suggests that they would find a more settled life unendurable. "Leisure," for them, closely resembles work, since much of it consists of strenuous and for the most part solitary exercise. Even shopping, their ruling passion, takes on the character of a grueling ordeal: "Shop till you drop." Like exercise, it often seems to present itself as a form of therapy, designed to restore a sense of wholeness and well-being after long hours of unrewarding work. "I feel like hell and I go out for a run, and before I know it, everything's O.K." Shopping serves the same purpose: "It hardly matters what I buy, I just get a kick out of buying. It's like that first whiff of cocaine. It's euphoric and I just get higher and higher as I buy." Sociological profiles of the "compulsive shopper" report that 40 percent are "most likely to buy something when 'feeling bad' about themselves." According to a summary of these studies in the Wall Street Journal, shopping serves as a means of "alleviating loneliness," "dispelling boredom," and "relieving depression." "They don't really need what they are shopping for. Often they don't even know what they're after." A survey of shoppers in malls indicates that only 25 percent come to buy a particular item.

Such evidence suggests that consumerism is a more serious threat to "traditional values" than the allegedly anticapitalist ideology of the new class. It suggests that the threat to those values, moreover, is not very fully or clearly described as a spirit of hedonism and self-indulgence that undermines the work ethic. The new class is just as addicted to work as to exercise and consumption. The intrinsic satisfactions in this work, to be sure, are usually overshadowed by external rewards—high salaries, social status, the expectation of promotion, frequent changes of scene. But there is no lack of willing, not to say compulsive, workers. What is missing is the kind of work that might evoke a sense of calling.

Even if we could agree with the superficial diagnosis of "permissiveness" as the chief threat to the old values, we would find it hard to resist the conclusion, then, that "if there is one clear and ubiquitous source of permissiveness," in the words of Barbara Ehrenreich, "it lies, as it always has, in the consumer culture." Modern capitalism, Ehrenreich points out, is itself "at odds" with the "traditional values" of "hard-work, self-denial, and family loyalty." The attack on the new class is therefore misplaced, according to Ehrenreich. The corporate elite, not the professional elite, is the only "genuine elite, relative to which the [professional] middle class is only another 'lower class.'" It is the "corporate-financial elite," moreover—especially in its frenzied search for short-term profits through mergers, acquisitions, and speculation—that "most clearly exhibits" the moral defects associated with permissiveness: "present-time orientation and the incapacity to defer gratification."

Ehrenreich's recent book on the "inner life" of the professional class, though it contains many valuable observations, shows why it is so difficult for the left to mount a convincing reply to right-wing populism and more specifically to the theory of the new class. Ehrenreich stands on firm ground as long as she argues that new class theory deflects resentment of "permissiveness" from its proper target, the corporations and their culture of consumption. Her decision to join the debate at this level, however, precludes a deeper analysis of the issues that trouble "middle Americans" and of the failure of right-wing ideology to address those issues. The right's inability to get beyond cliches about hedonism, permissiveness, and moral relativism ought to invite people on the left to give a more penetrating account of contemporary culture.

Careful attention to popular complaints about the media, for example, would suggest that people are troubled by something more elusive than "liberal bias" or sexual license. What people find disturbing about the media, it would seem, is their obsession with the young and affluent, with glamour, celebrity, money, and power; their indifference to working people and the poor, except as objects of satire or "compassion"; the prurient quality of their fascination with violence and sex; their inflated sense of their own importance; their insatiable appetite for scandal; their eagerness to uncover unworthy motives behind every worthy act; the encouragement they give to disrespect and cynicism. A number of studies have indicated that television promotes cynicism in children, and this evidence probably sums up popular uneasiness more effectively than "liberal permissiveness." People object to television because it encourages children to be too demanding, to expect too much, to equate the good life with enormous wealth, and to admire those who get something for nothing, but above all because it destroys the capacity for respect. Behind the popular attack on the media, one can sense the same kind of concerns that make the residents of South Boston, Canarsie, and Bensonhurst so anxious about threats to the racial integrity of their neighborhoods. Just as the streets have been taken over by junkies, dope peddlers, pimps, and streetwalkers, so the public airwaves appear to have been taken over by hustlers promoting something of the same vision of the good life, one that mocks decent people with the promise of sudden wealth and glamour.

None of this gets into Ehrenreich's account of the cultural class war. Indeed she denies the existence of such a conflict, preferring to interpret the debate about "values" as a debate confined to the new class. To admit that working people are concerned about such issues and are therefore attracted to right-wing explanations (even if those explanations prove unsatisfactory in the end) would shatter her image of militant workers steadfast in their devotion to social democracy. She therefore tries to exonerate the working class of any responsibility for the "backlash" against liberalism. This backlash, according to Ehrenreich, is a fantasy conjured up by neoconservative intellectuals. Their talk of cultural breakdown and moral anarchy finds an audience not among workers but among upper-middle-class professionals, because it plays insidiously on their "fear of falling" into self-indulgence. In the 60's, neoconservatives led the media campaign against the flower children and student radicals by depicting them as traitors to their class, which is built on discipline and self-denial. They further unnerved the new class by "discovering" working-class opposition to liberalism—another fantasy, according to Ehrenreich, but one that shook liberals' confidence in their ability to speak for Americans as a whole and thus had a deeply demoralizing effect. A "wave of contrition" swept through the new class. The "forgotten" workers came to stand "for what the [professional] class itself had lost, or always seemed to be on the verge of losing: the capacity for self-denial and deferred gratification."

The stereotype of the hard hat blinded the media to the true nature of working-class revolt, according to Ehrenreich. "For all the talk of racial backlash, black and white workers were marching, picketing, and organizing together in a spirit of class solidarity that had not been seen since the thirties." They were "wearing their hair shoulder length, smoking pot, and beginning to question the totalitarian regimen of factory life." Indeed "there was even the possibility, in the late sixties, of an explosive convergence of working-class insurgency and the student movement." The inspirational rhetoric packed into these sentences—"black and white together," "class solidarity," "the thirties," "working-class insurgency," "explosive convergence"—indicates that Ehrenreich has left the land of the living for a visit to the Marxist mortuary, where old revolutionary slogans lie beautifully embalmed. She counters one stereotype of the worker with another, the image of Archie Bunker with the image of revolutionary solidarity enshrined in the annals of the left. The second image bears no closer relation to reality than the first.

Ehrenreich's account of "yuppie guilt" is just as fanciful as her account of working-class "insurgency." The rather obscure title of her book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, refers not to the fear of falling down the social ladder, but to the fear of falling away from the upper-middle-class ethic of self-denial. The professional class feels guilty about its increasing affluence, according to Ehrenreich. It has an irrational horror of "softness," which it tries to "expiate" by means of exercise and overwork. This residual puritanism makes the new class curiously receptive to ideological denunciations of itself "The right's attack on the new class . . . rang true because it touched on the perennial fear within the professional middle class of growing soft, of failing to strive, of falling into the snares of affluence."

The left's reply to the neoconservative version of new class theory turns out to be its mirror image. For neoconservatives, the new class is the source of the attack on "traditional values." For Ehrenreich, its misguided fear of self-indulgence has made it, for the moment, the main bastion of those values. Once it overcomes its irrational need for "expiation," however, the new class can be expected to side with the "insurgent" workers in their quest for social justice. The struggle for the "soul" of the new class is still in its early stages, according to Ehrenreich. The new class has not yet decided what it wants to be, "generous or selfish, overindulged or aggrieved." If it makes the proper choices, it will become the hope of the future. Ehrenreich concludes, with the breathtaking arrogance so often found among professionals, that it has the makings of a universal class and that its "program," accordingly, should seek "to expand the class, welcoming everyone, until there remains no other class."

Neither left- nor right-wing intellectuals, strangely united in their determination to rescue the new class from itself, seem to have much interest in the rest of American society. Their view of the United States begins and ends with the knowledge industry. Other classes enter the picture only as images and stereotypes projected on the consciousness of the new class. It does not occur to these intellectuals that the rest of the country may have only a limited interest in the "soul" of the new class. Nor does it occur to them that universal access to professional status may not describe the ambitions of most Americans, much less an ideal of the good society. Ehrenreich herself acknowledges the limits of her perspective at one point. "Left and right, we are still locked in a [professional] culture that is almost wholly insular, self-referential, and, in its own way, parochial." Her book shows, however, just how difficult it is for intellectuals to break out of this comfortable confinement.

The truth about the new class, if we try to see it from the outside, is that its members, in spite of the diversity of their occupations and their political beliefs, share a common outlook, best described as a "culture of critical discourse," in the words of Alvin Gouldner. They share an inordinate respect for educational credentials, a refusal to accept anything on faith, a commitment to free inquiry, a tendency to question authority, a belief in tolerance as the supreme political virtue. At their best, these qualities describe the scientific habit of mind—the willingness to submit every idea, no matter how distasteful or attractive, to critical scrutiny and to suspend judgment until all the relevant evidence can be assessed. "Nothing is sacred to them," Gouldner wrote; "nothing is exempt from re-examination."

Gouldner's last work, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (1979), remains one of the best explorations of the subject. The concept of critical discourse, unlike "hedonism," "nihilism," "permissiveness," or just plain "liberalism," is broad enough to apply to the new class as a whole, the scientists and technicians as well as the literary intellectuals. But Gouldner too was afflicted with new class myopia. He had no understanding of the terrible limitations of "critical discourse." The critical temper can easily degenerate into cynicism. It can degenerate into a snobbish disdain for people who lack formal education and work with their hands, an unfounded confidence in the moral wisdom of experts, an equally unfounded prejudice against untutored common sense, a distrust of any expression of good intentions, a distrust of everything but science, an ingrained irreverence, a disposition (the natural outgrowth of irreverence and distrust) to see the world as something that exists only to gratify human desires. The positive and negative features of this worldly, skeptical, and critical mentality are so closely intertwined that it is impossible to assign them, as Daniel Bell and others have tried to do, to sociologically distinct sectors of the new class—the good qualities to the scientists and technicians, the bad ones to literary intellectuals. Both the virtues and the vices of the professional class spring from the habit of criticism, which, unleavened by a sense of its own limits, soon reduces the world to ashes.

For the same reason—because the enlightened virtues carry with them a long list of enlightened vices—it is impossible to refute the core of truth in the notion of a new class by claiming that all the evils attributed to it can be blamed on capitalist consumerism instead. Capitalism cannot be absolved, but neither can it be made to carry the whole indictment of modern culture. Capitalism was itself the product, in part, of the 17th-century scientific revolution. Its material achievements rested on the technology made possible by modern science. The "spirit of capitalism," mistakenly traced by Max Weber to the Protestant ethic, derived far more directly from the sense of unlimited power conferred by science—the intoxicating prospect of man's conquest of the natural world. Scientific inquiry also served as a model for the distinctive conception of history associated with the promise of universal abundance. Just as each advance accomplished by the critical intelligence was destined to be superseded by the next, so the definition of human needs and wants was thought to expand as those needs and wants were progressively satisfied. The insatiability of curiosity and desire appeared to give the idea of progress a solid foundation in psychological and historical observation.

As the heir to the critical traditions of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the new class pins its hopes on the eventual triumph of critical intelligence over superstition, cosmopolitanism over provincialism, man over nature, abundance over scarcity. Its belief in progress, chastened by 20th-century events but not yet relinquished by any means, transcends commitment to any particular system of production. We can readily agree with Gouldner's description of the professional class as the "most progressive force in modern society"; the question is whether that can still be regarded as a virtue.

Even if we ignore the unattractive features of "critical discourse" and consider it in the most genial light, we cannot escape the mounting evidence that calls its underlying premise—the limitless possibilities generated by modern science and modern production—into question. The promise of universal abundance has always contained egalitarian implications without which it would have carried very little moral authority. Those implications were open to conflicting interpretations. Some people argued that it was enough to increase the general pool of goods and services, in the expectation that everyone's standard of living would rise as a result. Others demanded more radical measures designed not merely to increase the total wealth but to distribute it more equitably. But no one who believed in progress conceived of a limit on productive capacity as a whole. No one envisioned a return to a more frugal existence; such views fell outside the progressive consensus.

The belated discovery that the earth's ecology will no longer sustain an indefinite expansion of productive forces deals the final blow to the belief in progress. A more equitable distribution of wealth, it is now clear, requires at the same time a drastic reduction in the standard of living enjoyed by the rich nations and the privileged classes. Western nations can no longer hold up their standard of living and the enlightened, critical, and progressive culture that is entangled with it as an example for the rest of the world. Nor can the privileged classes within the West—and these include the professional class as well as the very rich—expect to solve the problem of poverty by taking everyone into their own ranks. Even if this were a morally desirable solution, it is no longer feasible, since the resources required to sustain a new class style of life, hitherto imagined to be inexhaustible, are already approaching their outer limit. Under these conditions, the universalistic pretensions of the new class have to be rejected. They are not only implausible but morally offensive, not only because they embody a very narrow ideal of the good life, but because the material prerequisites for this form of the good life cannot be made universally available. 


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