Monday, November 7, 2022

Roger Berkowitz on the New Class War

Roger Berkowitz has an essay at Salmagundi in which he puts a recent analysis of our political situation by David Brooks side by side with predictions made by Hannah Arendt in the 1950s. Arendt feared a coming class war between an educated, managerial elite and the democratic masses, and she predicted the rise of demogogues who take power by rousing the masses against their would-be managerial overlords. Brooks thinks that is exactly what is happening now in America.

Brooks long ago dubbed the new American elite Bourgeois Bohemians, or Bobos. They are not exactly an economic class, but a looser grouping of people who share a similar outlook:

The Bobos include Wall Street CEOs, starving artists, lawyers, doctors, tenured and untenured professors, struggling journalists, non-profit workers, and government experts. What unites these creative elites is neither economic nor political interest but, rather, an elitist claim to identity and privilege based on education, intelligence, and a shared social-political worldview. In short, what holds the new ruling class together is an ideology, a shared belief in their supremacy over those others who are less intelligent, less open, less good, and, even, less human. . . .

The Bobos “hoard spots in the competitive meritocracy”; they congregate in “wealth-generating metropolises”; they have “created gaping inequalities within cities”; they have “converted cultural attainment into economic privilege”; and they have come to “dominate left-wing parties around the world that were formerly vehicles for the working class.” The rise of this technocratic and creative elite has spawned a reaction, a new cultural force that has arisen largely in opposition to the bobos. “Trump voters listed the media—the epitome of creative-class production—as the biggest threat to America.” Working class plumbers and tradesmen have united with those who “are doing well financially but who feel culturally humiliated” to form an opposing class united by the feeling that “they cannot share their true opinions without being scorned.”

Which is exactly what Arendt predicted:

Arendt articulates a profound worry that the formation of a class of intellectuals or creatives (to use Brooks’ term) might well emerge as “the really new and potentially revolutionary class in society.” If and when intellectuals were to consciously claim their power in pursuit of their interests, Arendt argues, there is “every reason to be fearful as well as hopeful.” The power of intellectuals as a class, she worries, would be “very great, perhaps too great for the good of mankind.” Arendt’s worry about the rise of a super-class of intellectual mandarins is, in part, that these new elites would subject society to pseudo-scientific social theories and thus elevate a technocratic rule that threatens human freedom. The technocratic elite might be well-meaning advocates for social justice and the common good. But there is no reason to assume, she writes, that “those whose claim to power is based on knowledge and technique will be more benign in their exercise of power than those whose claim is based on wealth or aristocratic origin.”

  A second fear Arendt names is that resentment towards these new intellectual elites whose claim to power is predicated on “brain power” will be intense and that “this resentment will harbor all the murderous traits of a racial antagonism, as distinguished from mere class conflicts, inasmuch as it too will concern natural data which cannot be changed.” It is likely, she speculates, that since “the numerical power of the disadvantaged will be overwhelming and the social mobility almost nil,… that the danger of demagogues, of popular leaders, will be so great that the meritocracy will be forced into tyrannies and despotism.”

  In other words, as the technocratic rule of the intellectual elite solidifies, they will breed a quasi-racial resentment by the masses that will be susceptible to mass movements led by demagogues; and the intellectual response to such movements will be to exert ever more fine-tuned surveillance and social control of society. This is the kind of quasi class-war with racialized undertones that Arendt feared would be our fate when she wrote 50 years ago.

I find all of this interesting and partly true. But one thing that strikes me very strongly about current American political divides is the part played in them by individual choice. The nineteenth-century working class was made up of workers, the bourgeois class of the bourgeois. But in America you cannot predict our politics from our backgrounds. Our intellectual, managerial elite includes people like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Tyler Cowen, all bitter opponents of wokeness and socialism. I do not think they are strange outriders, either; I think there are plenty of conservatives all over the economic landscape. The tech world, which is where the smartest people most clearly wield power, is full of cranky libertarians who hate bossy liberals; the same is true of oil, mining, and numerous other industries full of very smart, highly educated people. I also think that both American political parties include millions of people who would put themselves on both sides of this divide. 

And when you look at the issues that divide western countries, foremost are immigration and other ethnic issues. The connection between immigration and the "educated managers vs. regular folks" dichotomy is not simple, and just twenty years ago the Republican Party was led by the pro-immigation Bush team. 

I guess I am saying that while I see the divisions Brooks and Berkowitz are writing about, they do not, to me, explain very well the situation we are in.


G. Verloren said...

There's a rather sharp divide in Americans which many people seem to miss or ignore - age.

The Republican base is mostly over 50, while the Democratic base is mostly under 50. Each generation you go back in time, the more conservative their values, with the youngest generations being perhaps the most liberal we've ever seen in this country - but their influence is depressed by their poor economic prospects, and the lingering influence of older generations who remain in political office even as they age into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

If you look at the age breakdowns of members of Congress, it paints a clear and grim picture - the elderly run this country, and young people are barely represented at all.

David said...

I think the problem with Berkowitz, et al.'s analysis is that it claims to describe a straightforward struggle between a ruling class (adjuncts? really?) and the masses, whereas a large part of what's going on in America is a struggle between two different sections of the ruling class, each of which aspires to sole power. Executives in resource extraction, showy tech moguls, the old wealth of places like Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and so on, are not just opposed to liberals on grounds of ideology or taste. They see themselves as the proper rulers of America, and they view liberals and the regulatory and social insurance state liberals have created as foul upstarts. That animus is important; it helps explain why even the business-friendly compromises of the Clinton-Obama era Dems were not able to unite the ruling class. Of course, at bottom, most liberals return the hostility.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that people like Thiel and Musk are not simply cranky libertarians. That makes them sound like the beloved local curmudgeon who comes down to town once a month for supplies. That's not who they are. I highly recommend this essay at The New Statesman on Rishi Sunak's intellectual background:

David said...

Okay, fair enough, I looked again and Brooks didn't say adjuncts. But at this point, I'd say an untenured professor is a member of the liberal elite about the way someone trying to start their own small business is a member of the business elite. Sure, some are fanatics, but the ones I've met are mostly focused on pleasing the people they need to please.

Anonymous said...

The Republican base is mostly over 50, while the Democratic base is mostly under 50.

LOL, oh come on. Seriously.