U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Neocon Take on the "New Class"

My most recent post on Daniel Bell, and how his form of thinking about the so-called “new class,” brought comments, especially from Tim, asking for clarification. Here goes (briefly):

Out of their political repositioning in the late 1960s and 1970s, neoconservatives developed a critical theory (co-opted from anti-Stalinist thinking) about a so-called “new class” of intellectuals, broadly defined to include all professionals tasked with manipulating language—although more narrowly applied to humanists and social scientists. Members of this “new class,” so the theory went, had turned their backs on the society to which they owed their high-ranking status. A private memorandum written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan for his boss President Nixon in 1970 exemplified this withering mode of criticism: “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.”

The central reason the neoconservative “new class” theory was so plausible is because the university credential system had become the principal gateway to the professional world, a sorting mechanism for white-collar hierarchy. The numbers tell the story: in 1960, there were about 3.5 million Americans enrolled in universities; by 1970, this number had more than doubled to around 7.5 million, as the size of faculties grew proportionally. Historian James Livingston nicely relates this demographic explosion on the nation’s college campuses to the culture wars, or to what he generally describes as the “debates about the promise of American life.” “By the 1970s,” Livingston contends, “the principal residence of that promise was widely assumed to be the new ‘meritocracy’ enabled by universal access to higher education.” To this extent, class resentment aimed at intellectuals made sense, in a misplaced sort of way, since intellectuals indeed held the levers to any given individual’s future economic stability.*

* See James Livingston, The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). (Or my review of that book, and his response.) Eric Hobsbawm also relates the growing importance of a university education to the redirection of class resentment against “toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us.” Eric Hobsbawm, “Interview: World Distempers,” New Left Review 61 (Jan/Feb 2010), 135.

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  1. This is a useful clarification. So, is it fair to say, in the hands of the neo-cons, this idea of a new class (which I’ve always associated, perhaps wrong, with Trotsky rather than Stalin), was basically an expression of the resentment of the traditional ruling class at being newly obliged to share the space of social consecration (college) with increasingly many people not destined for the ruling class? The ‘new class’ is thus the intellectuals (really the professors) who preside over this humiliation?

  2. Of course, when Milovan Djilas coined the term “New Class,” he meant graduates in technical fields such as engineering and management who were displacing liberal arts graduates. These people (who of course accounted for the great bulk of the expansion of graduates) are by no means “intellectuals” – that was the point.

    Djilas, by the way, was a real Marxist, not one of these CCNY dabblers.

  3. @ Eric: You are right to associate the original “new class” thinking with Trotskyists and other assorted anti-Stalinists (including Milovan Djilas, as pointed out by Mr. Punch). The “neocon” view of the new class is that their au courant ways of thinking condescended to ordinary Americans. But I think you’re right that part of the resentment, unconscious perhaps, had to do with the fact that so-called “new class” intellectuals (such as critical race theorists, about whom I’ve been reading a lot lately), represented outsiders pushing their way inside (at least, on the campuses).

    @ Mr. Punch: Again, I don’t disagree with you, but this doesn’t change the fact that the neocon (CCNY dabbler) appropriation of more serious Marxist thinking was ingenuous, however much you and I find it objectionable–ingenuous, that is, (at the very least) in its partisan uses.

  4. Here is Peter Steinfels on the new class, from 1979. It is important to note that this passage, while looking at the neocons specifically, recognizes a broad interest among American commentators on something like the new class. The neocons distinguish themselves by claiming the new class is unified in its politics and aims. Irving Kristol, as well as other neocons, admitted often they were part of the new class. They claimed, as it were, the alternative path to the one they charged the new class had taken (as a result of the 1960s above all else).

    Peter Steinfels:

    “The “new class” is not, however, a tabala rasa. Despite the polemics exaggeration, and confusion surrounding the term, those who use it agree on certain characteristics. First, the “new class” derives its power from two very different sources: from, on the one hand, “expertise” – technical knowledge and skills, often of a fairly advanced sort — and, on
    hand, from “position” — posts in large, complex organizations that both depend on the expertise of the “new class” and provide the necessary conditions for its exercise. Second, the “new class” acquires its advanced expertise and achieves its positions, at least to begin with, through higher education and the credentials thereby earned.”

    Steinfels, Peter. The Neoconservatives: The Men Who Are Changing America?s Politics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979, p.286.

  5. Here’s a quote from George Orwell’s 1984:

    “The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians. These people, whose origins lay in the salaried middle class and the upper grades of the working class, had been shaped and brought together by the barren world of monopoly industry and centralized government. As compared with their opposite numbers in past ages, they were less avaricious, less tempted by luxury, hungrier for pure power, and, above all, more conscious of what they were doing and more intent on crushing opposition.”

    No doubt, this is influenced by James Burnham.

  6. As far as influences on the Neoconservatives go, don’t miss Nixon’s intellectual Kevin Phillips, and his notion of a “toryhood of change”:


    E.J. Dionne cites Phillips as an influence on Neoconservative thinking:


    I don’t have the essay title, but in one of the first essays of *Neoconservatism, Autobiography of an Idea,* after several paragraphs of discussing his influences, there’s a curious paragraph where Irving Kristol talks briefly about Machiavellians and social scientists (I don’t have the exact quote available). It’s pretty obvious that he’s alluding to James Burnham, but he doesn’t want to actually name him–which would make sense since he would want to downplay the influence of a fellow ex-Trotskyist. But the anti-communist initiated would no doubt get the reference…

  7. One more. Here’s Paul Krugman commenting on Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland (which I linked to in one of my comments above):

    “Here’s what [Nixonland] doesn’t say, which isn’t a criticism. What happened, very crucially, was that Nixonism got institutionalized. The creation of a set of institutions – think-tanks, media organizations, all of it funded by a relatively small number of sources (it really comes down to about six angry billionaires, when all is said and done), creating a structure which perpetuates the political style and political goals that were created during these years. Rick has written a lot about the American Enterprise Institute, but not here – AEI was transformed into what we know today towards the end of the period that Rick covers here. The Heritage Foundation is founded in the last two years covered in this book. Those things create an institutional basis for maintaining this style of politics, and then what happens thereafter, is that although the objective reality of urban riots and hippies and anti-war protesters is gone, they are able to find, to conjure up the appearance of equivalents thereafter. No doubt, my claim is colored by the current politics of the last eight years, but that is what you see today.”


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