U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Occupy Wall Street: The Culture Wars of the “New Class”?

In January of 2009, shortly after Obama’s inauguration, I gave my first public talk on the culture wars, research that was relatively new to me at that stage. In the talk, I discussed the politics of higher education in the 1990s through the lens of conservatives like Allan Bloom, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, and Lynne Cheney. In the Q&A that followed, an audience member whom I will call Liberal Academic Superstar asked me some version of the following question: “In light of Obama’s historic victory, which ushers in a new era of liberalism, and in light of the financial meltdown, which ushers in new intellectual priorities, isn’t all this talk about conservatives and culture wars quaint, even outdated?” Flabbergasted, my response was something to the following effect: “Just wait.”

At the time, I believed Liberal Academic Superstar’s question was incredibly stupid. I still do, and my guess is that if Liberal Academic Superstar could actually be persuaded that he or she in fact asked that incredibly stupid question, say, if he or she was caught on video and made to watch his or her performance, then Liberal Academic Superstar would be quite embarrassed, given all that has since transpired. And yet, despite its stupidity, I have given a great deal of thought to that question. So, if nothing else, it was a productive question and I am glad to have been asked it. (Granting him or her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps this was Liberal Academic Superstar’s purpose? Na…) It has forced me to think about what has changed since the heyday of the culture wars (the early 1990s), and what remains of the culture wars. It has given me time to reflect on the “Passover Question”: Why are the culture wars important as a topic of historical research? I had assumed their importance went without saying. But nothing that serves as the subject of a book, especially a history book, should go without saying.

Conservative reactions to the Obama presidency and the economic crisis brought discussion of the culture wars back into fashion. The Birthers and the Tea Party screamed, “don’t forget about us culture warriors,” even if the coordinates of the Obama-era culture wars did not map neatly onto the Reagan- or Clinton-era culture wars. But I want to argue that another phenomenon, even more recent, and from the opposite end of the political spectrum, can also be understood through the lens of the culture wars. Or, at least, the culture wars help us understand the varied responses to the phenomenon. I’m talking, of course, about the riveting and important Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS).

A few weeks ago, ubiquitous blogger Matthew Yglesias wrote a short post, titled, “The Economy as Culture War,” where, in tantalizingly brief fashion, he made the case that “economic policy debate in the United States is in part just another culture war issue.” On the one hand, Yglesias contends that a genuine clash of economic interests drives the divide between the private-sector business class and the public-sector knowledge class. He describes this as “a kind of bitter feud between businessmen and the kids they went to college with who didn’t go on to become businessmen. What did they do instead? They became teachers or doctors or nurses or professors or lawyers or scientists or nonprofit workers. And they fight with each other in part because of genuine economic clashes of interest. The businessmen tend to be targeted for tax hikes, while the people they went to college with tend to actually capture some of the public sector expenditure streams.”

But on the other hand, Yglesias qualifies his analysis of the economics behind the clash that is driving OWS with the type of insight that is often used to explain the culture wars. He argues that if either side were objective in their pursuit of rational economic interests, they would realize that a healthy economy needs both profit and non-profit enterprises. But people tend to be irrational: “Layered on top [of rational economic interest politics], I think, is a raw gut-level dislike — both kinds of people think the other kind of people are clueless about what really matters in life.” “The business coalition sees the service coalition as composed of useless moochers, and the service coalition sees the business coalition as greedy bastards.” So Yglesias is extrapolating from the Thomas Frank “what’s the matter with Kansas” model of understanding the culture wars. Frank’s well known thesis, oft critiqued, goes as follows: cultural or religious conservatives often voted against their own economic interests due to their irrational obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians cynically lent rhetorical support as they attended to more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of the economic royalists. To his credit, Yglesias does not merely think conservatives are irrational. He seems to be painting everyone involved in the great economic debates as somewhat irrational. But more to my point, the reason Yglesias seems to think economic debates play out in culture war terms is because they emit elements of the irrational. Culture wars equals irrational.

Beyond trading on recent punditry tropes, Yglesias’s understanding of the culture wars, whether he knows it or not, also echoes the “new class” analysis innovated for a post-1960s American context by early neoconservatives such as Irving Kristol, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Midge Decter, among many others. Moynihan first used the term “new class” in writing about the “education lobby” in a 1972 Public Interest article (prefiguring Yglesias): “The social legislation of the middle third of the century created ‘social space’ for a new class whose privilege (or obligation) it is to disperse services to populations that are in various ways wards of the state.” Similarly, take notice of the following long quotes from an Irving Kristol article, titled, “Business and ‘the New Class’,” published in the Wall Street Journal in 1975:

What is commonly called a “bias” or an “animus” against business is really a byproduct of larger purposiveness. There are people “out there” who find it convenient to believe the worst about business because they have certain adverse intentions toward the business community to begin with… These people constitute what one may simply call, for lack of a better name “the new class.”

This “new class” is not easily defined but may be vaguely described. It consists of a goodly portion of those college educated people whose skills and vocations proliferate in a “post-industrial society (to use Daniel Bell’s convenient term)… It is, by now, a quite numerous class; it is an indispensable class for our kind of society; it is a disproportionately powerful class; it is also an ambitious and frustrated class.

The “new class”—intelligent, educated, energetic—has little respect for such a commonplace (business) civilization. It wishes to see its “ideals” more effectual than the market is likely to permit them to be. And so it tries always to supersede economics by politics—an activity in which it is most competent, since it has the talents and the implicit authority to shape public opinion on all larger issues.

Based on a reading of Kristol, it’s clear that some early neoconservative “new class” thought was strictly a way to express anti-anti-capitalism. It was obliquely in this context that Lewis Powell wrote his infamous 1971 memo where he argued that the business class must meet the threat posed by anti-capitalist academics on their terms, by creating a sort of counter-academy under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce, which “should consider establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system.” I trace Yglesias’s characterization of the contemporary clash between the businessman and his critic—both of which display a “gut-level dislike” for the other—to this mode of “new class” analysis.

But most “new class” thought extended far beyond an analysis of any particular clash of economic interests. Much of it was rooted in Lionel Trilling’s famous examination of an “adversary culture,” mostly about avant-garde modernists—the lens through which the neocons read the 1960s. A private memorandum written by Moynihan for his boss President Nixon in 1970 exemplified how “new class” thought was shaping the coming culture wars, as refracted through the 1960s: “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.” Nixon lapped up this type of rhetoric because he saw himself as the leader of the silent majority that stood toe-to-toe with 1960s adversarial types. The neocons saw Nixon in this light as well, which explained why a Democrat like Moynihan saw fit to work for him. As Podhoretz wrote (not long after Watergate, no less): “The 1960s ended… not with a revolution but with the election of Richard Nixon: Richard Nixon, who better than any single figure in American public life seemed to epitomize everything in opposition to which the adversary culture had always defined itself.”

Midge Decter nicely captured the 1960s “adversary culture” of the neoconservative imagination in her harsh 1972 rebuke of feminism, The New Chastity and Other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation. Decter argued that women had it better than ever, for example, in their newfound abilities to secure gainful employment and control pregnancy through birth control. And yet, even with such advances, or perhaps because of them, the “women’s liberation” movement objected that women were subjected to patriarchal strictures. Decter contended that women feared their newfound freedoms, because with such new freedoms came new responsibilities. For instance, if women were going to enter the workplace like men, then they had to be prepared to compete alongside men in a dog-eat-dog world that men had long grown accustomed to. In short, Decter believed that feminists wanted to shirk the responsibilities of living in capitalist America. They were adversarial to the discipline enshrined in American traditions, such as the Protestant work ethic that the mostly Jewish neoconservatives came to adore.

The importance of work ethic, Protestant or otherwise, informed neoconservative new class thinking. In this, neoconservatives led the conservative movement more generally to the type of colorblind rhetoric of individual merit that now shapes its discourse. For example, Podhoretz claimed that the new class was anti-liberal because it supported quotas to its favored groups as opposed to equality of opportunity. This “could be understood, then, as an extension into concrete social policy of the adversary culture’s assault on the ‘Protestant ethic.’” Similarly, Gertrude Himmelfarb, historian and big fan of Victorian-era values, wrote: “In its denigration of ‘bourgeois values’ and the ‘Puritan ethic,’ the new class has legitimized, as it were, the values of the underclass and illegitimized those of the working class, who are still committed to bourgeois values, the Puritan ethic, and other such benighted ideas.” Alarm over the death of the Protestant work ethic is not merely leveled against the baby boomers who violently rejected society in the 1960s. Now, the so-called millennial generation seems not to have the proper attitude towards work. Hillary Clinton’s words on the matter, as Bhaskar Sunkara writes in his generational analysis of OWS, “could have been ripped out of National Review”: “A lot of kids don’t know what work is. They think work is a four-letter word. … We’ve got to send a different message to our young people. America didn’t happen by accident. A lot of people worked really hard. They’ve got to do their part too.”

The most common conservative argument made against OWS is that the protestors are lazy, elitist ingrates who want to blame their own deficiencies on Wall Street and are looking for a government handout because they fear the responsibilities that accompany freedom. This is the argument that informs the message-based images against the movement that have gone viral (in an appropriation of a popular movement tactic). Take for instance the 53% guy (pictured just below) who advises OWS protestors to “suck it up you whiners.” His incredible sacrifices show that with grit and determination anyone in America can, well, stay afloat, without so much as health insurance, and without whining. In this he continues the fight taken up by the neocons, who vehemently defended American intellectual and political traditions, such as the colorblind rhetoric of equal opportunity, which they believed had served them well. Most neoconservatives were from Jewish immigrant families and felt the sting of discrimination growing up. Yet, such biographical barriers did not inhibit them from “making it,” as Podhoretz titled his 1967 memoir. In this context, the wide-ranging demands made by rowdy campus protestors on campuses across the country in the 1960s, such as for affirmative action, struck the neoconservatives as brazenly anti-American. Many view the OWS protestors through the same lens. This is a culture wars lens, even if not precisely in the way Yglesias maintains.

Although Yglesias probably thinks conflating economic debate with the culture wars is a way of not being an economic determinist, he is repeating the vulgar determinism of Thomas Frank by maintaining that people who don’t act in their obvious economic interests, people who act on “gut” instincts, or worse, in identity-based ways, are irrational. To argue, as I do, that the culture wars were not epiphenomenal, is not to deny the importance of economics, but rather, to point to what Marx called a “social formation” (analyzed with much skill recently by David Harvey), where culture, ideas, and economics interact in complex and unpredictable ways. As large historical forces, such as the deindustrialization of the economy that disempowered labor unions while empowering those who worked in the information economy, shaped the culture wars, the culture wars in turn reshaped the social formation in dialectical fashion. The tribal clashes that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, as brilliantly told by Village Voice journalist Paul Cowan—whose excellent 1979 collection of essays, The Tribes of America, was recently re-released with an introduction by Rick Perlstein—polarized into two great camps by the 1980s and 1990s: James Davison Hunter’s “secular-progressives” and “orthodox-traditionalists.” Even those who sought to transcend the culture wars, for example Christopher Lasch, whose work often defended traditionalism as a means to ward of the evils of capitalism, were sucked into the culture wars vortex, as feminists like Susan Faludi lumped Lasch with anti-feminists like George Gilder. As part of this polarization process, cultural conservatives or traditionalists often came around to conservative economic or anti-statist positions that would have shocked their forebears. As Leo Ribuffo shows, pro-family activists in the early twentieth century most often blamed the market for disrupting traditional life. But by the 1970s, the state was to blame, situating the Christian Right smack dab in a Republican coalition that sought to dismantle the New Deal Order.

As Robert Putnam and David Campbell argue by way of sociological analysis of poll data, in their new book American Grace, religious and political positioning are more inextricable than ever. Whereas the degree to which a person was religious in the 1950s had little bearing on whether they identified as Democrat or Republican, today it matters greatly, as the more religious someone is the more likely they are to vote Republican. Conversely, people who are conservative but not religious gravitate towards religion because they find likeminded people in churches. And the same goes for liberals who are quitting church, or atheists who are quitting the Republican Party. This polarization is a microcosm of the culture wars.

The polarization of the culture wars, I suggest, helps us to understand the response to OWS, or perhaps more compellingly, the differences between the Tea Party and OWS, both of which were nominally anti-Wall Street. The popularity of the Tea Party could initially be partly explained by the antipathy to the Wall Street bailouts. But the Tea Party became a political force more as a conglomerate of conservative positions that tended towards austerity—towards the notion that the state could not help us out of this mess, that if anything it would make matters worse. Furthermore, the Tea Party’s anti-tax messages evinced opposition to laziness and government handouts, the sort of anti-“loser” rhetoric that fired up the traders who surrounded Rick Santelli when he lashed out at a plan to relieve foreclosed upon homeowners. Polarization also shapes the style or aesthetics of the two movements, as James Livingston has been arguing about OWS in several compelling blog posts. Tea Party activists dressed up as 18th century patriots and often talked as much about God and Country as about Taxes. OWS activists look like hippies, smoke weed, and often talk as much about the spiritual evils of consumerism as they do about anti-austerity. Style, identity, and culture: these things seem to matter to both sides as much as politics (which is not to argue that these things can replace politics, if reform or revolution be the goals). Style, identity, and culture: these things are as polarized as politics. This is the legacy of the culture wars that helps shape our understanding of the great debate taking place right now.

23 Thoughts on this Post

  1. AH,

    This is an excellent, content-rich post deserving of holistic commentary, but I have to begin by asking for a clarification. My question centers on this passage (bolds mine):

    To argue, as I do, that the culture wars were not epiphenomenal, is not to deny the importance of economics, but rather, to point to what Marx called a “social formation” (analyzed with much skill recently by David Harvey), where culture, ideas, and economics interact in complex and unpredictable ways. As large historical forces, such as the deindustrialization of the economy that disempowered labor unions while empowering those who worked in the information economy, shaped the culture wars, the culture wars in turn reshaped the social formation in dialectical fashion.

    Can you clarify what you mean by epiphenomenal? My sense of that term’s meaning is literally from my dictionary: “A secondary phenomenon that results from and accompanies another” (noun). Used as an adjective, one might say that the Culture War-S (plural) are or are not related, as resulting from or accompanying another.

    You assert they (Culture Wars events) are _not_ in the first sentence of this passage, but then seem to say that they are, either (a) dialectically or (b) in Marxian mash-up fashion (unpredictably).

    Can you help me here? Which parts of the Culture Wars are related, and which are not?

    I think you’re saying that those parts, here at least, meaning each Culture Wars phenomenon, are not related by economics (are not epiphenomenal economically), but only cultural factors (non-economic events with larger meaning, i.e. they are epiphenomenal culturally).

    In this way you’re saying that Livingston is right to point out the cultural affinities and intersections. But let’s not confuse OWS’s culture wars relationships with the economic grounding of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, Aughts, and the Twenty-teens (2011-2019) Culture Wars events.

    But if one can point out the common American neoliberal problems during the Nineties, Aughts, and Twenty-teens (e.g. faith in free-trade agreements, privatizing public assets), and show that resistance to those characterizes the cultural factors that played into WTO riots and today’s OWS movement, then isn’t your “not epiphenomenal” thesis falsified?

    …I hope this comment isn’t too Rube Goldberg to be deciphered.

    – TL

  2. On the New Class, has anyone checked out the work of Steven Brint, on “social trustee professionalism” versus “expert professionalism”?


    I found him in Stephen Schryer’s book *Fantasies of the New Class* (which I disagree with a lot, but the bibliography alone makes it interesting reading).

  3. Basically, what the neoconservatives were worried about was that “social trustee professionals” would have an outsized voice as the counterculture entered the professions, and the government would grow at an unmanageable rate. (“Social trustee professional” is Brint’s word–neoconservatives just used the term “new class” in a politically convenient, broad brush way.) But the neconservatives were wrong. Social trustee professionalism *diminished* in power–what Brint called “expert professionals” rose in power to replace them. Here’s a short summary:


    So what we get is a liberal weakening (a diminishing of “social trustee professionalism” in favor of “expert professionalism”) and a mobilization on the part of conservatives against a rise in social trustee professionalism that never happened–an error that neoconservatives never recognized. (OK, maybe David Brooks and David Frum finally recognize it to some extent.)

  4. Tim: Thank you for forcing me to clarify my concluding points, about how I conceptualize the culture wars, in contrast to Yglesias and the neoconservatives. I admit that my conclusion was unclear and a touch cryptic. Party this is due to the fact that what I am attempting to argue is complex enough to require an entire book to lay out–which, though I am in fact writing a book on the culture wars, is a cop out. So here goes:

    As you and many regular USIH readers know, I find Marxism compelling in its explanation of historical process. Historical particulars, such as widespread political shouting matches about what it means to be an American (another way of describing the culture wars), need to be situated in broad or even total structures, what Marx called social formations, in order to be fully understood. These social formations, as elaborated upon by several thinkers in the Marxist school, most famously Althusser, might in the last instance be thought of as “economic,” but this is not to say that understanding history in terms of social formations is a vulgar form of economic determinism. If I were an economic determinist, it would be absurd that I chose intellectual history as my disciplinary niche. What would be the purpose of studying ideas, even contextually rooted ideas, if those ideas did not evince power? Thus, I find David Harvey’s recent rendering of the Marxist social formation intriguing. As I wrote in a previous post on this:

    Harvey argues that “cultural norms and belief systems (that is, religious and political ideologies) are powerfully present but do not exist independently of social relations…” Pretty standard stuff, and not far removed from Althusser or from Marx for that matter. Harvey calls these cultural norms and belief systems our “mental conceptions of the world,” one of seven “distinctive activity spheres” that comprise the historical development of capitalism. All seven in Harvey’s words:

    1. Technologies and organizational forms
    2. Social relations
    3. Institutional and administrative arrangements
    4. Production and labor processes
    5. Relations to nature
    6. The reproduction of daily life and the species
    7. Mental conceptions of the world

    This last “sphere” of course speaks most to intellectual historians. Harvey sees all of these spheres as mutually constitutive: no one sphere dominates even as none of them are independent. “Each sphere evolves on its own account but always in dynamic interaction with the others.” So though this is a structuralist account of historical change, in that a contrived mental conception like a metaphor cannot take on a life of its own apart from the other spheres, and although it’s “total” or even “totalizing” in its sense of a social formation, which postmodernists of the world have united against, it is not economically determinist in the “vulgar” sense that economics underlies all else. Cont…

  5. This conception of history–transposed onto my understanding of the culture wars–is distinct from Yglesias, Frank, and the neocons, because culture and ideas act in ways that are more than merely superstructural, or more importantly, as compelling in their own right, independent of economics (more then “epiphenomenal,” as I cryptically put it in the post). As such, just because someone is acting on non-economic impulses does not make that person irrational. Our cultural understandings often shape, and are shaped by, new social and economic contexts, as Bethany Moreton shows with regards to how cultural conservatives in the Ozarks were reshaped by the Wal-Mart economy, but also reshaped it. Similarly, as I have argued several times at this blog, the so-called “spirit of the sixties,” even at its seemingly most radical, was shaped by and in turn reshaped neoliberal social practices, such as the commodification of identity, or the feminization of the workforce. None of this is to say that the larger social formation, and its economy, is rational, or more importantly, fair–far from it. But how individuals adjust to new contexts, including how they think about them, should not be interpreted as irrational simply because it seems unreflective of economic self-interest on first glance.

    So I see the culture wars as a new form of solidarity in the face of the neoliberal or postmodern social formation.

  6. J.J. Thanks as always for your many citations on the “new class” and the neoconservatives. What you help make clear is that the new class theory was specious in that, beyond merely being sociologically problematic, it was wrong at the descriptive level since many in this so-called class were not of the “adversary” culture as imagined by the neocons. Plenty were conservative.

    One thing I’d like to qualify from my post is the notion that OWS are all pot-smoking hippies. I don’t actually think that, even though OWS has been described by Jim Livingston and others as carnivalesque, especially as OWS has grown to encompass unions and an increasing number of college students. Rather, the caricature/stereotype feeds a perception that places OWS in a culture wars framework.

  7. AH: Thanks as always for the thorough answer and explanations. I like your idea about the Culture Wars that turns it upside down: we’re not really battling each other, but rather the deeper ideas driving the change. We battling each other’s perceptions of those deeper ideas, and not the fundamental change itself (i.e. neoliberalism). In other words, the culture wars are sort of missing the boat—arguments about deck chairs.

    I think I still have a technical quibble with your use of the term epiphenomenal. The dictionary definition implies connections—i.e. an adjective describing a secondary phenomenon that “results from and accompanies another.” This means there are connective tissues, or webbing, between the events, battles, and/or situations at hand; disconnects are apparent and not real.

    In relation to the theory you lay out (or, more accurately, that Althusser and Harvey lay out), the deepest connective tissue is economics, but in a foundational and not deterministic way. Harvey’s seven spheres represent nodes, of independence and interplay, that make evident foundational “economic” relationships. Each has a dialectical relationship with each other, introducing independent variables that foster complexity and, hence, problems of perception and conception. It’s a kind of Buckminster Fuller dome/prism of beauty and madness.

    …I digress. – TL

  8. Another fascinating post, Andrew, though I feel as if I haven’t entirely digested it…

    Have you ever seen Allan Bloom’s 1988 appearance on Bill Buckley’s FIRING LINE? Midge Dector is the additional interlocutor (there was always someone else invited to question the guest once Buckley himself had gone on for a bit). There’s a facinating, rather uncomfortable moment, where Dector approvingly quotes Buckley (from the ’50s, I think), saying that he’d rather have the first thirty people in the Boston phonebook rule him than the faculty of Harvard University.

    Although intended by Dector to reinforce Bloom’s argument, her Boston phonebook moment makes Allan Bloom squirm because, unlike Dector and Buckley, he was not only not a populist, but not a pseudo-populist, either.

    I mention this because I think some of the political function (if not original intent…I’m not sure about that) of the neoconservative’s latching on to the idea of the “New Class” (which had been lurking on the fringes of sectarian Marxism for a couple generations) is that it underwrote a populist rhetoric that helped provide a (pretty artificial) popular base for neoconservatism.

    Demographically and culturally, Buckley and Dector are probably the world’s two least likely populists. Though Buckley (not, it should be said, a neoconservative, but also not the sort of conservative who was hostile to the neocons) was able to come up with the Boston phonebook quip without the benefit of the New Class critique, it no doubt helped underwrite an imagined reconfiguration of American political economy, in which Business + (ethnic white) Workers (Nixon’s “hardhats”) faced off against the New Class (+ Hippies and Negroes). Presumably the Boston phonebook overwhelmingly contained the names of people who fell into that first, odd class coalition.

    (Sorry if this comment is cryptic…)

  9. One interesting thing that doesn’t match the 60’s is that the protest is basically economic. If you look at the “We are the 99%” tumblr site, the most common fear is peoples’ student loans coupled by a bad economy with no opportunity (followed by health care expense worries). These are young people that would normally be going into the professions, but can’t now. This is very different from the 60’s. The radicalization is under pretty different conditions…

    So that’s different, and then as someone mentioned above, there’s the involvement of labor:


  10. Ben: I haven’t seen that particular episode of FIRING LINE, though it sounds like a must-see. Is FIRING LINE on-line yet? As you know better than anyone, one of the ironies of Bloom’s CLOSING becoming a bestseller and canonized by the culture wars is that those most likely to agree with his apparent argument–conservatives and neoconservatives and some anti-New Left, anti-postmodern liberals–did so on anti-elitist grounds (when nobody was more elitist than Bloom, at least, epistemologically.)

    I think you’re right in that new class thought fit nicely alongside a broader conservative anti-intellectual elitism. But I think it offered the larger conservative movement a more theoretically sophisticated framework for doing battle with left-leaning academics and other intellectuals or knowledge producers. I mean, the early neocons were quintessentially “new class,” thus they seemingly knew of what they spoke.

    JJ: I never meant to imply that the current OWS protests resemble the 60s protests. As you rightly say, the impetus and context is very different. But what I am saying is that the lines drawn in the 60s carried over into the culture wars, thanks in no small part to the neocons, and these lines also help shape the responses to OWS. To a degree: I don’t want to overstate this case.

  11. Andrew, wrote a comment just for you, and then was dazzled by Raymond’s idea, so I put my comment here. I figure I say too much on your threads as it is.

  12. Great post, Andrew. I have a question, or a bleg for a clarification, perhaps. I understand your resistance to labeling choosing “cultural” matters over “economic” ones as “irrational” – but I am wondering whether you would resist finding any form of political position “irrational.” It seems to me that there are at least three positions that can legitimately be labelled “irrational” – each of which comes with a caveat.

    The first form of political irrationality is if one adopts a position that is in flat contradiction to some other position – with the caveat that this may be better understood not as irrational but merely as a tension, or perhaps an irresolution.

    The second is if one takes up a position that is flatly at odds with some known “fact(s)” – though this of course raises epistemological questions of what is a “fact.” (For example, would it be irrational to oppose Obama because one had the idea that he wanted to take all one’s guns away? Or is one was convinced that he was secretly being controlled by little green aliens? The evidence for each of these positions, by the way, is identical.)

    And the third, perhaps most controversially, if one takes up a position that objectively is “bad for you” – though here the question is who’s to judge that.

    I guess my question is, do you think that any of these concepts of “political irrationality” are analytically sound, or is it simply that you believe there’s no such thing as being politically “irrational”?

  13. Thanks for your excellent queries Nils. I did not mean to imply that it is never appropriate to consider political positions irrational. Merely that the usual conflation of cultural politics with irrational politics–the conventional wisdom about the culture wars–is often wrong, or at least, reductionist. Take Thomas Frank’s “What’s the Matter with Kansas” argument. Although it is easy to sympathize with it, if your position is that you want policies that tend towards economic equality, Frank oversimplifies the culture wars in at least two ways. First, he willfully ignores that the two parties have failed to offer substantial economic alternatives since the late 1970s, when the Democratic Party joined the Republicans in prioritizing deregulation, free trade, and tax breaks for corporations. Second, and more important to my argument, Frank elides the historical foundations of identity politics. These attachments, or solidarities, made sense to people in ways that simply cannot be reduced to unreason.

    That said, all of the three possible forms of irrational political behavior seem like possibilities, although they always come with caveats, as you make clear. Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not entirely averse to forms of analyses that imply people can have false consciousness. But, the reductionist way of thinking about this is to assume that one group has it and another doesn’t–the working class has it, the rich don’t, cultural conservatives have it, enlightened liberals don’t. David Sehat and I debated this issue at length a few years back on this blog here. I’m not sure we came to any conclusions or mutual understanding, but it was a fun debate that crystallized these issues.

  14. “I found him in Stephen Schryer’s book *Fantasies of the New Class* (which I disagree with a lot, but the bibliography alone makes it interesting reading).”

    JJ, I’d like to hear about your disagreements.

    Bill Barnes
    [email protected]

  15. Today, October 27th, the Occupy Blono group at Illinois State University had a panel discussion of the movement or at least what the panel members believed was the purpose of the movement is or the purpose of occupy movements are in general. I attended this discussion panel because of I would like to know, from a group of individuals in front of me, what Occupy Blono or Wall Street really means. Although, there may have not been a clear consensus from the panel, I do believe I understand the movement from the intellectual as well as the participants’ side.

    The movement, as explained before the panel began, is a gathering of people in solidarity against the corporations, big business, political parties, and in general those who have neglected the people; those who have put making profits before protecting their neighbor, and those in business and government when who have chosen oppression over equality. What groups on college campuses and I believe the movement as a whole, is horizontally organized- meaning no one has any more power or say than anyone else in the group. What I believe, from the panel discussion today and from what I understand from the Occupy movement in general is the idea that the United States has gotten so far away from direct democracy, that these protestors want the country to refocus on protecting the people instead of big businesses.

    I agree that we do need to return to direct democracy; however, I am fearful of such a system because direct democracy requires an educated population. The United States, on average, can only read at the fifth grade level. To place power back into people who cannot clearly understand or convey ideas is a rather scary idea that I do not want the United States to take hold of, at least now. This movement did not just arise overnight though. This has been a movement growing for the past 30 or so years, beginning with the Reagan/Thatcher years. Inequality has grown exponentially in the past thirty years, with the top 1% having more wealth than the rest of the 99%. Now what Occupy Blono and subsequently Occupy Wall Street have to ask themselves is how long they can maintain public discourse. One of the young ladies at the panel brought up the use of technology as a huge benefit to this movement, which I absolutely agree with. However, technology can also generate a great deal of misinformation about political movements that can disenfranchise middle- class Americans. And political movements need middle-class support for true change to occur. Political movements need those mortgage paying, child-rearing members to get involved and show the government and business the issues matter.

    The final point that was addressed/thrown around in the discussion was the dynamics of the occupation with the State. Typically, in non-violent movements, the State allows the disenfranchised to occupy. With what has happened in only the past couple of days in Oakland; however, new questions are being raised. But the State is not going to get involved until an occupier physically challenges the state. But what occupiers in this movement have done well and why I believe states, as a whole, have not gotten involved is because the movement is not calling out or taking on one official directly. The movement is trying to find cracks in the State to get the message of unhappiness and discontent out there. Perhaps since this is not a goal oriented movement, per se, and about horizontal organization the States are reluctant to condemn the movement. I do believe, as a professor on the panel stated, the State is hoping that the cold weather will dismantle the movement on its own. But as one of the student occupiers stated they will just come back in double strength if that happens in the spring.

  16. ….Continued from above…

    My final point I took away from the discussion panel was actually a questioned I asked directly. I mentioned Chris Matthews a couple weeks on his show discussing the Democrats and Republicans trying to find a place in this occupying discourse. Democrats had not been sure of a stance to take or if they were going to take one at all, which has created an internal divide in the Left itself. Just this week, Obama has announced reform for the repayment of federal loans by students. My question concerned that now with the President changing laws of loan repayment, are the occupiers starting to have their voices heard, is change slowly beginning to happen? The young lady who is occupying on ISU campus said it was only part of a political tactic since national election will be here before we know it. One of the educators slightly agreed with her, but also agreed with what I was thinking in my head. The Left is now divided on this issue and opinions on the occupiers. However, those who see the need for social change and understand what these people are doing, the solidarity and the fact that this pressure has been rising for some time that changes have to be made. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street are not going to stop as long as the government allows corporations to be considered as people too without the consequences of the breaking the law that Americans are forced to deal with.

    Leaving that panel, my mind was swirling, as it is while writing this comment. But one thing I believe is clear to me now that was not before, that State has more control over these movements than most occupiers see. And I hope the occupiers do not do anything irrational or violent to shut down this solidarity movement that I believe has great potential to bring change.

  17. I suspect that this is not accurate: “OWS activists look like hippies, smoke weed, and often talk as much about the spiritual evils of consumerism as they do about anti-austerity.” Isn’t that rather the kind of *perception* that emerges from the cultural binaries that, as you note, the culture wars encourage? Surely some of those down at the OWS protests *look* like that, but others are, for example, mothers or marines or just ex “company men/women” who are out of work. Really just a broad range. Do the people in the Tea Party and the OWS really conform so closely to the reductive models of the culture wars? I mean it isn’t even only happening in the United States anymore. One could read these movements within the frame of the culture wars, but perhaps the desire to get some distance from that academic theme/meme is about being able to perceive historical events in ways that doesn’t always lead right back to those same binaries–because in fact what is happening is always more potentially new and complex and potentially transformative? Just some thoughts. I enjoyed your post greatly.

  18. Ethan: You’re right, of course. As I wrote in one of my comments: “One thing I’d like to qualify from my post is the notion that OWS are all pot-smoking hippies. I don’t actually think that, even though OWS has been described by Jim Livingston and others as carnivalesque, especially as OWS has grown to encompass unions and an increasing number of college students. Rather, the caricature/stereotype feeds a perception that places OWS in a culture wars framework.”

  19. Ooops! That’s what I get for not reading the commentary thoroughly enough. I still wonder, however, what you think about my question about the way culture wars historiography–or rather the impulse to get distance from it–is rooted in a desire to find historical forces at work that will not just lead us to the perception of these totalizing systems of cultural distinction that match each other in their perfect denial of the other side. It’s a question, as I see it, partly of the generative power of historical writing as an agent of historical change itself. I don’t mean that a book will change history, but something more indirect. What does it mean that for you and others the culture wars model seems to explain or circumscribe the primary message of contemporary political movements? What would it mean to say that that model holds, but that it is not the best explanation, or that although it structures the character of political protest these days, that on the ground, where ideas mesh with political actions, it may produce forces that don’t lead right back to the renewal of the culture wars…. Is such an alternative approach possible? Maybe another way to approach this is what kind of historical object are you dealing with here? If this is partly based on a Marxist “social formation” what is the role of the social formation in the larger conception of historical development? Do these culture wars freeze us in time, essentially end history, because they propose alternatives that are merely stylistic and essentially apolitical? Or are they somehow part of larger process of historical change? I don’t know. Perhaps these questions are irrelevant or *way* to general, but your posted prompted such thoughts…

  20. Yes, Ethan, I certainly believe such an alternative approach possible. My take is that, for those on the ground at OWS, and for close sympathizers, the culture wars paradigm is irrelevant. But as OWS relates to the larger national discourse or debate, it has yet to break out of that formula, in spite of itself. But paradigms can shift. Hardly anyone remembers that the cultural conflicts of the 1920s continued well into the 1930s. Because the formation became so disfigured due to the economic crisis that the paradigm shifted.

  21. In the opening monologue of 10/5/11 Daily Show, John Stewart discussed the differences between the Tea Partiers and the OWS protesters and found many similarities. Both sides are voicing their opinions on what they think is wrong with the nation, one side against the government and the other against corporations. Both sides are calling out the 1 percent who makes the choices that affect the rest of the nation. It’s a pretty humorous look at the entire situation. It seems that this culture war is not so much about the rich versus the poor, but the rich versus everyone else.

    With the recent publicity the OWS protesters have gained due to the rash decisions on the part of riot police, many of the Republican presidential forerunners have been making comments that could help to alienate them, especially towards the 99%. The footage of the elderly woman with tear gas and it’s solvent running down her face has become the forefront of the movement. I can only hope that the protesters and their supporters turn out in the polls to have their voices heard. If the political forecast remains the same at the time of the election, the chances of a third party nominee gaining a large part of the vote is extremely possible.

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