Economics/Class Relations

Is the Neoconservative “New Class” New?

As much as it pains me to have to agree with the late Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neocons, on anything, it seems his theory of the “new class” was largely correct. James Burnham argued that capitalism had assumed a new form in the mid-20th century (managerial capitalism) that was qualitatively different from classical 19th-century bourgeois capitalism. Kristol opposed this view (probably because he wanted his movement to be able to get donations from managerial capitalists) and instead postulated the concept of a “new class” that had emerged among professionals, academics, the media, and public sector bureaucrats that was hostile to bourgeois capitalism.
Kristol’s theory does not seem to have been entirely wrong in the sense that while Burnham may have been right about the superseding of bourgeois capitalism by managerial capitalism, the “new class” identified by Kristol could be seen as an insurgent force within managerial capitalism, from what were then its lower middle rungs. However, the mid-20th century model of managerial capitalism (the Lee Iacocca/Jack Welch kind) is now being superseded by digital capitalism, which has produced a modern class of new oligarchs similar to the “robber barons” of the period of bourgeois capitalism.
Much of the contemporary left/right conflict can be understood as a conflict between an alliance between the digital capitalist oligarchs and the new class (which has now evolved into what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the “professional-managerial class”) on the left end, and the remnants of mid-20th century managerial capitalism on the right end (defense contractors, fossil fuel companies, “country club Republicans,” and National Association of Manufacturers and Chamber of Commerce types). The digital capitalists and “new class” are in conflict in many ways, but they are aligned in the same way that bourgeois liberals and socialists in the 19th century were allied against the throne and altar traditionalists, because they both shared the same Enlightenment culture, the same way the digital capitalists and new class/PMC share the same “Age of Aquarius” culture today.

By Andrew Hartman, Society for US Intellectual History

Last week, I took issue with Kevin Mattson’s view that neoconservatives didn’t offer anything very new in their critique of intellectuals. Mattson’s argument pivots from his belief that the neoconservative use of the sociological concept of the “new class” was an unoriginal adaptation of conservative anti-intellectualism that had already been well established by William Buckley and his stable of writers at the National Review. Mattson writes the following about the neoconservative version of anti-intellectualism, perhaps best enunciated by Irving Kristol: “their criticism of the ‘new class’ [was not] all that different from the previous [old right] critique of the ‘liberal establishment’… Kristol defined the new class as ‘an intelligentsia which so despises the ethos of bourgeois society, and which is so guilt-ridden at being implicated in the life of this society.’ Nothing new there.”

Perhaps there is “nothing new there,” at least in this particular Kristol quote, or in Mattson’s very brief historical analysis of neoconservative “new class” thought (in his Rebels All!). Certainly Buckley and a host of other conservative thinkers made a career of lambasting liberal intellectuals well before Kristol and his ilk made their fateful turn to the right. As I argue at length in Education and the Cold War, the longstanding conservative critique of John Dewey set the tone of conservative anti-intellectualism during the Cold War. Taking his cues from traditionalists like Richard Weaver, Buckley played a big part in this. His 1950 treatise against Yale professors, God and Man at Yale, was a lamentation that “the teachings of John Dewey have borne fruit, as there is surely not a department at Yale that is uncontaminated with the absolute that there are no absolutes, no intrinsic rights, no ultimate truths.” His mission was to convince the Yale Board of Trustees and alumni to retake the university from the professors who subverted the curriculum to their “secularist and collectivist” ends. Buckley, ever the humorist, peppered his later writings with delightful anti-intellectual ripostes. “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” (You gotta admit that’s funny.)

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