I am curious what our readers make of “new class” thinking. Is it a legitimate way of theorizing about the place of intellectuals in our postmodern, postindustrial society? Or is it anti-intellectual nonsense, an updated version of Julian Benda’s La Trahison des Clercs?
In my research on the culture wars, I credit the popularization of “new class” thinking to the neoconservatives. Out of their political repositioning, they developed a critical theory about a so-called “new class” of intellectuals, broadly defined to include all professionals tasked with manipulating language—although more narrowly applied to humanists and social scientists. Most members of this “new class,” so the theory went, had turned their backs on the society to which they owed their high-ranking status. A private memorandum written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his boss President Nixon in 1970 exemplified this withering mode of criticism: “No doubt there is a struggle going on in this country of the kind the Germans used to call a Kulturkampf. The adversary culture which dominates almost all channels of information transfer and opinion formation has never been stronger, and as best I can tell it has come near silencing the representatives of traditional America.”
In this sense, “new class” thinking seems more ideological than analytical, consistent with the anti-intellectual histrionics of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, amusingly portrayed by David Bromwich in his recent New York Review of Books piece, “The Rebel Germ.” Bromwich describes how Limbaugh mockingly portrays Democrats as the party of wimpish intellectuals—updating the egghead label applied to early Cold War era Democrats like Adlai Stevenson and his followers—“composed of superannuated aristocrats [and] pretentious arrivistes…” If this is the sole meaning of the “new class,” then there’s nothing much new about it. But plenty of historians and other intellectuals think the concept analytically useful.
Take Christopher Lasch’s biographer Eric Miller, who buys into Alvin Gouldner’s argument about the “new class,” made in his 1982 book, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. In a passage cited by Miller to explain Lasch’s early theories about society, Gouldner writes that a “new class” intellectual “desacralizes authority-claims and facilitates challenges to definitions of social reality made by traditional authorities…” Miller continues, in his own disapproving words:
The unintended effect of this way of seeing was on the one hand to diminish the individual’s sense of agency while on the other to empower the individual to think of herself as subject to no authority beyond the particular, socially constructed, historically contingent institutions of her own circumstance. In the end, social-science-inspired historiography only buttressed a vision of the world in which humans, while shaped by powerful social structures, were morally on their own and finally responsible to no authority higher than their own. The atomizing, antinomian tendencies latent in this individualistic ideology did not bode well for communitarian political hopes—such as those that were fueling Lasch’s nascent historical work and political vision (72-73).
In other words, paradoxically, the early Lasch, and “new class” thinkers like him, laid the groundwork for postmodernism in their dismissal of traditional structures of intellectual authority. I say paradoxically because the later, communitarian Lasch worked so hard to put the pieces of traditional structures of intellectual authority back together. I also say paradoxically because the later Lasch used “new class” thinking in both its political and analytical senses, especially in The True and Only Heaven (1991) and The Revolt of the Elites (1995).
So which is it? (I ask somewhat rhetorically, knowing one does not preclude the other.)