TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Telos 150 (Spring 2010): New Class, New Culture

The paradigm of a “new class” originated in socialist Eastern Europe among dissidents and other regime critics as a way to describe the ensconced stratum of managers, technocrats, and ideologues who controlled the levers of power. The rhetorical irony of the phrase depended on the implied contrast with an “old class” as well as the good old class theory of the orthodox Marxism that once served as the established dogma of half the world. The history of class struggle, which had been history altogether, had culminated in the victory of a proletarian class that in turn had ushered in—or was well on its way to ushering in—a classless society. Or so the grand narrative went. To talk of a “new class,” then, conjured up the unquestionable epistemology of class analysis, while simultaneously challenging the notional outcome: instead of the end of the state and classlessness, one was stuck with police states and a new class that, while eminently cooler than the Bolsheviks of yore, still exercised a dictatorship (of the not-proletariat) while skimming off the benefits of unequal power. The phrase turned Marxism against Marxism during those decades when the fall of the Berlin Wall was not even imaginable.

Migrating across the Atlantic, the term took on a new meaning in the last third of the twentieth century as a designator of the rise of a new post-industrial professional class, the cohort of the student movement after 1968 on its trajectory into social, cultural, and political power. At stake was the gradual displacement (if not disappearance) of the old markers of class distinction and the alternative privileging of sets of linguistic and intellectual capacities, combined with the assumption that greater intelligence implied a de facto natural claim on greater power: meritocracy means that the smarter should rule. Yet this trope just reiterated, in a new context, the problem of intellectuals and power, a curious echoing of East European rhetoric. As the best and brightest claimed power in order to rule better and with greater radiance, their critics came to dub them a “new class” in order to draw attention to their sanctimonious aspirations to pursue their own interests by remaking society in their own image. Paradoxically, the conservative critique of the new class could make the “Marxist” move of pointing out how universalist claims masked particularist interests. What ensued was a decades-long conflict between, on the one hand, advocates of more enlightened and ever more expansive administration of society, and, on the other, proponents of reduced state oversight, defenders of society against the state, and the deregulated market against the long reach of political power. The political wrangling of our current moment still takes place within this framework. The complexity of the new class and its culture, however, is that while it sets out to administer society and establish bureaucracies to regulate social and economic life domestically, at the same time it attempts to ratchet down the political and military power that might be projected externally: a strong state toward its subjects, a weak state toward its enemies!

The new class transition to linguistic, cultural, and technocratic expertise unfolded during the profound shift toward a symbolic service economy—new class ascendancy took place during the era of the dramatic decline of manufacturing and the concomitant shift of unionized labor organization primarily into the public sector—and it privileges capacities of semiotic manipulation over material production or even military prowess. Its signature contribution to foreign policy is “smart power,” a term that nobly implies that boots on the ground are dumb and that some—still elusive—strategic rhetorical eloquence will make enemies vanish without ever firing a gun, since language is its ultimate power. The corollary economic policy is negative, defined by discourses of environmentalism that imagine achieving greener national spaces by exporting dirty manufacturing and energy consumption to the developing world: not in our backyard. This is not to deny environmental concerns, but rather to recognize them as laden with implications for traditional economic sectors. Most importantly, the transition to the culture of the new class has, in complex ways, taken part in the revolution of the new technologies, with the new class at first benefiting from them, thanks to their advantaging the educated and wealthy—that social inequality known as the “digital divide.” But the new technologies, especially the new networks of communication, have undermined the former concentrations of media power and opinion-making, allowing for the emergence of new populist forces, decidedly not new class in their character and programs.

As contemporary as these developments may seem, it is equally important to recognize how traditional, indeed classical, is the question that lurks inside the problem of the new class: intellectuals and power, enlightenment and politics, conceptual thinking and lived life. From one point of view, the rise of the new class involves the priority of thinking—not any thinking, however, but a technocratically foreshortened, instrumentalist, and administrative thinking—over the lifeworld of everyday interactions, communities, and traditions, and the orders of human nature. It is the assertion of the primacy of logic against the complexity of living, and it runs the risk therefore of collapsing either into an irrelevant ineffectiveness, an idealism incapable of grasping the real, or a destructiveness, when it tries to refashion ways of life into its own invented programs. Human communities frequently show resilience and creativity, and they can survive more than one expects; but those existential resources are not infinite, and aggressive programs of social engineering can eventually destroy the patterns of living, the structures of meaning—the families, communities, faiths, nations, cultures, traditions—when they try to control them. Dismantling those patterns of familiarity leaves a world less familiar—not more open and freer, as modernists believed, but colder and less welcoming, perhaps the real new class agenda. It lays claim to a higher morality; it wants to make the world better; it wants to make us better, but it may only make us more alone.

Much of the material in this issue explores aspects of the new class and, especially, its cultural formations. Keith Gandal opens the discussion with a historical and sociological look back at the antiwar movement of the 1960s and its relationship to the rise of the new class. His analysis traces how new standards of scholastic merit in the post–World War II mass society shifted symbolic value from traditional military masculinity to the prowess of intelligence. The antiwar movement provided an opportunity for this new cultural capital, the claim on membership in the new elite, to display its self-confidence and the contempt in which it held traditional values, such as military service. The argument provides, additionally, a compelling account for the phenomenon of the gender divide within the “movement,” as part of the process of defining the new countercultural hypermasculinity. James Barry follows with an essay that builds a historical bridge from the Vietnam era to the debates around the Iraq War, while shifting the discussion from the sociology of meritocracy to the political-theoretical consideration of the “nonrelation between facts and decisions,” as he quotes Arendt. Her essay on “Lying in Politics” is the touchstone for his argument, as he redeploys her earlier arguments into the age of missing WMDs. To be sure, there is a world of political difference between Gandal’s critique of the antiwar movement and Barry’s dissection of the government’s arguments for war; what the two share, however—and what becomes clear in Barry’s dogged interrogation of the rhetoric of belligerence—is a concern with the prioritization of the conceptual over the real: “defactualization.” For Barry, the issue is not only the politicization of intelligence, not only the ideological occupation of policy formation, but the way certain intellectual domains (on the left or the right) displace experience. Thought crafts the representation of the real to meet its needs; certain facts are disallowed because they conflict with policy goals—a statement that holds arguably as much for the premature assertion of the presence of Iraqi weaponry as to the no less premature insistence on the absence of Iranian nuclear ambitions. First comes the policy, then come the data: is this just the way of Washington or of all political decision-making?

The theory of the new class involves, at its core, the problem of knowledge as power. Mark Rectanus provides a new context by directing our attention to the historicity of knowledge technologies and, specifically, their transformation, not only across recent decades but also in terms of generational divides: participation in the new networks of technologically mediated knowledge is very much a function of generation cohorts. The results include profound changes in the conventional and established markers of intellectual prominence, especially universities and parts of the publishing industry. This transition in turn implies tensions within the institutions of intellectual elite formation and points to the unresolved question of the fate of the new class within the same “information society” through which it was once able to ascend to power. The question here is not only the anxieties (e.g., for flat-earthers like Thomas Friedman) about global competition in the age of information but the very character of learning and student development within the contemporary educational systems. Can the new class reproduce itself? Can it invent learning environments adequate for contemporary youth culture? Rectanus’s essay begins to address a crucial issue that the current public debates over education have largely sidestepped.

The rise of an intellectual hegemony hits different cultural spheres in different ways, perhaps none more directly than philosophy. Do we live in the age of the philosopher king or the managerial technocrat, for whom knowledge is solely instrumental? Postmodernity involved, famously, the end of grand narratives—which would point to the rise of managers rather than reflective philosophers—but the end of history arguably also came to an end through the terrorism of 9/11. Two essays explore the vicissitudes of philosophy. For Chantal Bax, the debates around Wittgenstein, from Marcuse through Lyotard to Badiou, exemplify an insecurity about the role of philosophy and, by implication, the role of the intellectual. Bax argues however that Wittgenstein already provides the answer that eludes his critics, neither succumbing to the temptations of idealist generalizations nor opting for the infinite indeterminacy of a universe of particulars. He allows, she claims, for investigations of the individual and the particular, without reifying either. Andrew J. Mitchell, in contrast, turns to Heidegger, especially Heidegger’s reading of Trakl, to elaborate the question of pain—the very alternative to subjective and conceptual thinking, and therefore, the example, no matter how uncomfortable, that Heidegger deploys in order to describe experience and the entry into the world. In Mitchell’s words, “. . . pain is exposure, the mortal experience of the limit and of our essential belonging to what lies beyond (the world).” It signals the capacity for sensation, but it also names the experience of suffering, the reality of which is, after all, the most profound critique of the new class account of the world as solely semiotic.

The issue continues with a set of material introducing a figure new to the pages of Telos, Susan Taubes. Born in Budapest in 1928, she emigrated to the United States with her family in 1939. She studied philosophy at Harvard, with a focus on religion: her 1956 dissertation (directed by Paul Tillich), The Absent God, explores Simone Weil. She would later publish on African and American Indian myths during the 1960s, and she was active in the Open Theater. She was also the first wife of Jacob Taubes; she describes the end of that marriage in her 1969 novel Divorcing. Christina Pareigis provides a capsule introduction to Taubes, an intellectual profile that emphasizes the tension of her relationship with Jacob, as they move between New York and Paris, Jerusalem and Zurich. Pareigis writes of her especially through the private correspondence, now archived at the Center for Literary and Cultural Research in Berlin, as well as her writings on religion and philosophy. At stake is the emergence of a post–World War II discourse of negative theology, the reflections on the catastrophe of the Holocaust, the metamorphoses of Judaism between secularization and Zionism, and Susan’s own intellectual itinerary in relation to and often in tension with Jacob. Her simultaneous alienation from German or more broadly western Christian culture amplified her own ambiguity regarding any ties to a traditional Judaism. She pursues these topics through writings such as her “Gnostic Foundations of Heidegger’s Nihilism.” Yet whether with regard to Heidegger or to Weil or in her exchanges with Jacob, she is constantly struggling with the legacies of modernism and modernization, the brute unmooring of the century, trying to find an answer that would not unwittingly repeat regression. As she wrote to her husband on February 22, 1952: “the world is mostly in darkness, and judgment does not illuminate it. If there is a supreme judge he is waiting for us to enter into judgment freely. And this for me is the meaning of the day of the Messiah, when we shall all sit around a table, and all will be told and each man shall understand in his way.” Pareigis’s introduction is followed by a letter of Susan to Jacob of April 4 of the same year. It shows her navigating between Heidegger and Nietzsche, Christianity and Judaism, the suspect “inwardness” of Christianity and the fanaticism of orthodoxy, including Jewish (she writes from her parents in Zurich to Jacob in Jerusalem).

The Susan Taubes section leads to Sigrid Weigel’s rich and extensive discussion of certain crucial philosophical and theoretical points. She begins with a reading of Taubes’s early “Nature of Tragedy,” which, far from a narrowly literary genre theory, investigates the threshold between philosophy and divinity; it draws on Nietzsche as well as on American and British criticism and philology. Weigel places it in relationship to the work of Peter Szondi (see the special issue on Szondi, Telos 140) and of the philosopher of religion Klaus Heinrich, while offering a detailed characterization of the important distinctions. Weigel also examines Taubes’s work on The Absent God, her “religious atheism,” and her engagement with thinkers of modernity, both Jewish and Christian: Kafka, Heidegger, Barth, Brunner. Through this thinking, Taubes recovers an encounter with Gnostic thought that blurs confessional distinctions, which take on less importance than shared formulations of negativity, paradox, and absence. As Weigel puts it, “Susan Taubes’s specific contribution to a theory of modernity is her identification and illumination of a correspondence: between, on the one hand, a post-assimilatory, post-confessional or secularized culture in which loci of Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers can no longer be clearly distinguished; and, on the other hand, a transitional historical moment in which antique Judaism and early Christianity together largely formed a fused culture, because the programs of Jewish and early Christian Gnostic heresy were not yet polarized.” Weigel’s essay is an important statement that locates Susan Taubes clearly within the history of the philosophy of religion and in the discourses of a critical theory of modernity.

Taubes’s engagement with religion and philosophy revolves around the problem of nihilism, the erosion of traditional values and order in modernity. The new class, one can conjecture, represents an effort to impose a conceptual regimen by fiat and then only makes things worse. Aspects of this topic are pursued in the robust collection of notes and reviews with which this issue concludes. Ejvind Hansen posits a homology between Kantian antinomies and digital communication media in order to warn of a constitutively dogmatic element in the new technologies (further problematizing Rectanus’s discussion of the media revolution). David Kishik presents a focused examination of life and violence in Agamben, Arendt, and Benjamin (including a surprisingly early Arendt reference to Agamben). While James Barry, earlier, expressed concern about the loss of reality, as “defactualization,” in policy formation, Jeffrey Folks looks at the rise of the real and its consequences for public culture in “reality television.” The reviews cover a philosophical waterfront. Robert D’Amico, long associated with this journal, is welcomed back with his review of Santiago Zabala’s study of Ernst Tugendhat, and Karen Ng reviews Detlev Claussen on Theodor W. Adorno. Paul Gottfried provides a double review, pairing Panajotis Kondylis’s Machtfragen, with Paul Piccone’s Confronting the Crisis. Piccone was the founder and long-time editor of this journal, and Confronting the Crisis is both a significant philosophical statement as well as a seminal intellectual diary of the late twentieth century. With no finality implied, the issue closes with Roy Ben-Shai’s review of Michael Marder’s book on Derrida.

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