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Monday, December 1, 1980

A Reviewers Notebook: The New Class?

The late Richard Weaver, who wrote a book to prove that “ideas have con sequences,” knew that the efficacy of a concept often has nothing to do with its truth.

To pick a most horrendous illustration, there is the Marxist theory of the class war. The so-called dialectic of the class struggle is responsible for the Russian Revolution, but if it hadn’t been for Lenin’s professional mechanics of the arts of incitement and propaganda (“agitprop”) the idea that the Russian proletariat was bound to take over would never have become more than a slogan exploited by a minority in a St. Petersburg parliament.

Marx never intended to apply his theory to backward agrarian societies anyway. He elaborated it for the industrial countries of the West. So what happened? Instead of coming to a revolutionary confrontation of grasping capitalists and maddened workers, the “struggle” took an entirely different turn. As Eduard Bernstein predicted in Germany, workers became rich enough to constitute a lower middle class. To use John F. Kennedy’s figure, the rising tide of affluence lifted all the boats. The whole western society became bourgeois; Labor Day became the great middle class holiday, and May Day was more or less forgotten.

Now, to fill the gap caused by the failure of the Marxian idea of the “final conflict” between factory owners and workers, we have the theory of the so-called New Class. In our rush to build what Daniel Bell calls “post-industrial society” we have exalted a whole new tribe of symbol-manipulators—foundation employees, research associates, teachers, government regulatory bureaucrats, social workers, publicists, communications experts and “public interest” lawyers. The symbol-manipulators have status and make good salaries. Their productive “property,” as distinguished from a farm, a set of tools or a shop, consists of their brains. In many ways they certainly affect our culture and our politics.

But taken as a group, do the symbol-manipulators manifest the coherence of a class? B. Bruce-Briggs, a former city planner and foundation executive, has addressed himself to this question by inviting twelve theorists, some of whom would describe themselves as neo-conservatives, to provide tentative answers to the question. The book he has edited is called The New Class? (Transaction Books, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 229 pp., $16.95), and the presence of the interrogation mark in the title is quite calculated.

Going to the census figures, Mr. Bruce-Briggs discovers plenty of evidence that proprietorship has been in decay and the role of salaried managers and professionals has been increasing. Meanwhile we have had the growth of the health industry and the swelling of “number workers” (scientists, engineers and computer programmers). If we add the “ballooning of academia, teachers and college students” and %he appearance of well-paid federal officials” to the managers, number workers and health industry em ployees, we have a sizable group.

Mr. Bruce-Briggs says that “one deviant in a community is a troublemaker, ten are a clique, a hundred a club, a thousand a pressure group.” But what does it take to make a “critical mass”?

Twelve Contributors

The twelve contributors to the book are sufficiently unified to indicate there can be small explosions of “critical mass” size, but none of them seems willing to consider that we are in danger of a New Class takeover. Sociologist Daniel Bell thinks the New Class is a “muddled concept.” Historian Andrew Hacker says of the new symbol-manipulators that they have larger vocabularies and greater verbal facility than their fathers, but “when all is said and done they remain workers beholden to the organizations employing them.” As “upper-level employees” they “do not constitute a class by themselves.” They are “bit players who do not even choose their own lines.”

Nathan Glazer, considering the legal profession, makes a good case for the class consciousness of the public service lawyer. And twenty thousand lawyers work for the federal government. But when you consider that there are two sides to every legal case, you are compelled to admit that lawyers live by fighting each other, which means there can’t be much lawyer class solidarity, either “new” or old.

For a moment in the Nineteen Sixties, when the campuses were erupting, Seymour Martin Lipset thought there might be some Marxist class consciousness developing among the professoriate. But he notes that, despite their distaste for the existing order, “the leaders of the American intelligentsia do not know what they want for a new society.” Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, thinks the New Class of symbol-pushers has “second-level stratum” importance in government. But they have not often achieved “apex” positions, and she is glad of it. “As surely as a monopoly of power or wealth is dangerous to the rest of us,” she says, “a new-class monopoly on meaning and purpose is incompatible with the common weal.”

Michael Harrington, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, thinks Irving Kristol’s hope for a “neo-conservative” response from the New Class in favor of a free market is deluded. He worries lest the New Class should succumb to Fascism. Kevin Phillips likes the New Class tendency toward a “neo-populist insurgency,” but he fears it will provoke a reaction of “nationalistic, majoritarian, work-and-productivity-minded” people toward a “strongman.”

The “modernism” of the New Class, deriving from secular up-bringings that have de- emphasized religious values, bothers Peter Berger, who considers that disillusion with “repressive secularism” could lead to “fanatical retrenchments.” Everett Carll Ladd, Jr., acting director of the Roper Public Opinion Research Center, is Olympian, as befits a pollster. He doesn’t claim any proof of a class conflict between the intelligentsia and the “embourgeoised working class,” but he sees some differences emerging “at the level of activism.” This, he says, is to be expected.

Adversary Cultures

The best papers in Bruce-Briggs’ book are by authors who have limited their aims. Aaron Wildavsky, former dean of the Graduate School of Public Policy at Berkeley, ex plores the interest the New Class has in preserving a no-or-little-growth status quo for their own elite cadres. Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, describes the de veloping battle between the “adversary culture” and the neo-conservatives who have revolted against the New Politics liberalism of the McGovern years. Since both the “adversaries” and the neo-conservatives are, roughly speaking, “new class” in their symbol-manipulating capacities, what Mr. Podhoretz has to say points to a serious schism in New Class ranks. It would be relevant to conclude from this that the fight for America’s soul transcends class limits.

Finally, Robert Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal, investigates the sources of the anti-business clamor of recent years. Bartley is specificity itself as he explores the ramifications of the so-called public interest groups that owe their existence to “Mr. Public Citizen—Ralph Nader, Inc.” Nader has been “the prime mover behind some thirty-five books and reports,” and is credited with the passage of much anti- business legislation.

“Predictably,” says Mr. Bartley, “Nader has inspired a host of imitators, founding not only his conglomerate but an entire industry.” So we have the New Class isolated and personified in one towering figure. Mr. Bartley does not challenge Nader’s sincerity, but he thinks that “Ralph Nader and Friends are sometimes wrong” and that the “public interest” might often be better served by “more careful attention to a balance between benefits and costs.” Amen.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.