Commentary Magazine


The New Class

Perhaps the profoundest event of this century in the United States has been the growth-to-dominance of corporations, which have become our chosen form for the social and political control of technology. Apart from the fact that this new system has worked so devastatingly well, the chief effect of the corporate order has been decisively to undermine the previously existing system of private property. In the process, the class of property-holders has been undercut, and a New Class of non-property-holding individuals has been created whose life conditions are determined by their position within, or relation to, the corporate order. They desire and they achieve a privileged standard of living; and while they do gather in some “ldquo;property”rdquo; for personal security, they do not look forward to the accumulation of capital for themselves. They are jobholders, not capitalists.

The propertyless New Class is thus most broadly defined as that group of people who gain status and income through organizational position. With some exceptions, they arrive at their positions—or at least are permitted to enter the race—mostly by virtue of academic qualification. This great change has so effectively sneaked up on us, we are so many of us so completely involved in it, that we do not recognize it for the major historical transformation it in fact is. Most of us thought we were just getting and holding “ldquo;good jobs”rdquo;: actually, we were (for better or for worse) changing the whole world.

To restate the proposition in other terms: Under the duress of modern technology, productive property has of necessity been organized in larger and larger aggregates. Hence the corporate revolution. Control of the major property held by the corporations is in the hands of non-owners. And, as technology gallops forward, its processes require more technologists, and ever more refined patternings of sophisticated men and sophisticated machines. As technology becomes more involved with accumulating know-how, and less dependent on the gross division of labor which characterized industrialism, the central factor in production again becomes people, their particular qualities and capacities: human beings thus once again become more important than machines (even though they may persist inordinately in “ldquo;acting like”rdquo; machines). The truly productive “ldquo;property,”rdquo; then, is the skill of the person. Moreover, this skill is not merely individual, but is implicitly social and political in that it requires not only that the individual be able to do something, but that he be able to relate what he does to what others do. This is the entrée for a great deal of purely organizational or administrative effort, and consequently the opening for a great number of people who mostly organize and administer, and criticize and comment on, the activities of others. To begin with, then, we have technologists and administrative intellectuals as primary elements of the New Class.

How big is the New Class? Perhaps not yet as big as the small-property class or the still-uneducated working class, but these latter are declining in significance as well as quantity, while the New Class grows greatly both numerically and in strategic position. In 1960, some two-thousand institutions of higher learning cared for 3.2 million persons. The figure is rapidly increasing: various Bureau of the Census projections estimate that college enrollment will be two-to-three times as great by 1980. Persons twenty-five years of age or older in the 1960 population who had completed four years or more of college numbered 7.6 million; in 1980 the figure may well reach 14.4 million, nearly double. These people—2 million college graduates a year—“ldquo;capitalize”rdquo; four years or more of their lives not for cultural adornment or use, but for reasons of career.

In attempting to appreciate the scope and character of this major phenomenon of the New Class, one may properly recollect the previous rise to power of the bourgeoisie, the property-owning class. That rise did not occur all at once: pockets of stagnation always existed alongside spurts of growth; at one time, a particular area might be the liveliest, then another; there were important national and geographic differences; and the people responsible for carrying out the change were not, while they were doing so, particularly easy to identify. The currently occurring changeover in emphasis from money-capital to education-capital—to be invested in the status play of organization life rather than directly and personally in the production of commodities for a market economy—is not apt to be simpler, clearer, or in any way less complicatedly “ldquo;historical.”rdquo;

Surely, however, it has by now become fairly clear that the present scramble for educational advantage, and the struggle to translate achieved educational status into organizational advantage, has much in common with the fierce competition of early business growth. It is front-page news every spring when the letters are sent out from the admissions offices of the major Eastern colleges. Even the initial edge of family or propertied background is similar to the advantage enjoyed, say, by a 17th-century aristocrat in an earlier entrepreneurial age. The important fact here is that a particular old class-based advantage, to become fully effective, must be translated into terms appropriate to the new class: from aristocratic status and tenure to entrepreneurial use of property; and similarly, from a property edge to the educational and organizational use thereof. In the 19th century, the education of the upper classes was an occasional adornment; today it is a functional necessity. This being so, the capacity (often called “ldquo;talent”rdquo;) to scramble forward in the environment of the elite academy is competitive with the wealth and family background which once almost exclusively governed admission. Writing in the New York Times on March 14, 1964, Robert Trumbull reported that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were shifting, albeit glacially, from wealth to ability. He cited a study of the New York Social Register for 1963 by Gene R. Hawes to the effect that “ldquo;while nearly two-thirds of the men listed went to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, fewer than half of their sons”rdquo; have done so.

Education, like capital in the past, is now a manipulable and alienable property. With capital alienated from the capitalist by the system of corporate ownership and investment out of retained earnings, the distinction between capitalist and educated proletarian fades into something less profound than it used to be. Indeed, the latter has the more significant and dynamic relation to the means of production in that the system cannot work without him; whereas the capital that works—machines and buildings rather than bank deposits and stock certificates—hardly needs the alienated capitalist at all. More and more he becomes a mere rentier, and his best defense is tradition.

_____________

In his thorough work on the New Deal, Arthur Schlesinger says that the idea of the “ldquo;brain trust”rdquo; had its beginnings in a conversation that occurred in March 1932 between Sam Rosenman and candidate Roosevelt concerning the general lack of ideas as to what to do about the Depression—and especially the fact that the businessmen and politicians did not have anything much to offer. Rosenman suggested going to the universities. The first ambassador from academia to the future New Deal was Raymond Moley of Columbia. Moley then recruited Tugwell, Berle, and some others. Thus began the revolutionary, non-priestly, and ultimately successful onslaught of the New Class upon the heights of national power.

The breakthrough event, then, was the New Deal; but the New Deal itself had roots. Roosevelt, for one thing, had been primed for the event—as for much else—by his tour of duty under Woodrow Wilson. In a speech in 1920 he said:

Wilson's administration would not have been successful in the War if he had not adopted the policy of calling in the experts of the Nation, without regard to party affiliations, in order to create and send across the seas that great Army in record-breaking time.

Then, too, there was the precedent of the Progressive movement. As Richard Hofstadter puts it:

The development of regulative and humane legislation required the skills of lawyers and economists, sociologists and political scientists, in the writing of laws and in the staffing of administrative and regulative bodies. . . . Reform brought with it the brain trust.

Hofstadter sees the Progressive movement as a revolt against organization, and especially against its spiritual consequences. The Progressives and the New Class—although in many social ways similar—differ in this important respect: the New Class knows that it lives in and through organizations. This much at least has been accomplished. Also fundamentally altered is the definition of a key term for both, “ldquo;opportunity”rdquo;: for the Progressives it meant “ldquo;competition,”rdquo; but for the New Class it means “ldquo;education,”rdquo; whether or not competitive (and if so, then competitive inside organizations, not between individuals outside organized life). On this difference, one may reasonably base a new politics.

As an aspect of the New Class adventure, note that both Donald Richberg and Raymond Moley, who were important early New Dealers, used that experience to go over to the big interests somewhat later. Walter Lippmann had done the same thing before them; John Dos Passos and others more recently. These intellectuals represent the rise of a class which, as it rises, makes necessary deals and so “ldquo;amalgamates”rdquo; with previously existing classes. There is really no good reason for this phenomenon to produce the general unease that it does. It is perfectly ordinary and, in the human scope of things, even desirable. What is unsettling, I think, is that these people are intellectuals. But that is exactly what is upsetting about the whole New-Class phenomenon. This sort of thing, not a hero's lonely endeavor, is the pattern for the future of active thought in history. Can it ruin culture altogether?

If so, it is mainly because what we have known as “ldquo;culture”rdquo; was born as dry fruit, with a seed of genetic powerlessness. We may be in for an unpleasant time, while ideas and actions come into a better working relation by reason of the involvement of the intellectual in effective (not merely prescriptive) history. This means that the mode of lawyers—the intellectuals who were dealing with genuine issues of power in that long period when the rest of us were livings in the academic desert—is likely to become a functional model for a large part of the cultural future.

But there are also social aspects of the New Class advance. Writing about FDR's tour of the European front during the First World War, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Schlesinger mentions that Roosevelt “ldquo;ran into”rdquo; Robert A. Lovett, Fiorello H. LaGuardia, and Charles R. Merriam (and he informs us about the rank and service of each at that time). This social coziness is especially characteristic of Schlesinger's writing. It reveals a very clublike view of history: history almost as the conjoint action of talented classmates. Since historians do not merely collect facts but also dream the dream of a better story, I think Schlesinger here reveals his idea of a better story—namely, that America, by now virtually has that ruling elite group, if not ruling class, that it has so noticeably lacked since the Civil War. And it is suggestive that Schlesinger should feel this way, for he more than anyone else is the historian of the New Class—of its great New Deal victory, and of the impressive return to Washington of its elite elements under the managerial style-baron, John F. Kennedy.

_____________

Following along with the basic cleavage in American society, the first great division noticeable among the members of the New Class is between those who work in private bureaucracies and those who work in public ones: perhaps, with more meaning, in profit and non-profit institutions. In each, the important matter for the New-Class individual is his job, and the educational status which has afforded him his hold on the job. But most of the basic productive property in this country is under the control and direction of private corporations; apart from military considerations, the public governments—national, state, and local—are decidedly junior to the power of private bureaucracies. Accordingly, those members of the New Class who work in government partake of its inferior income and status while also suffering or benefiting (according to their particular natures) from the absence of the profit ideology as an organizing principle of purpose in their lives. On the other hand, the distinction between profit and non-profit is being reduced as time goes on: education, for instance, is becoming a big business; and the larger corporations take care of a great number of people who are not genuinely concerned with profitmaking.

The other great division among members of the New Class is between the technologists and the administrators who control and exploit them. (The New Class is the non-owning class: and they non-own everything important, eventually.) The technologist often prefers to concentrate on his work and mostly he needs only to be left alone in order to do so. But in bureaucratic life, this may be asking too much. The irascible Admiral Rick-over, speaking some years ago before a professional group, declared:

The work of professional persons in bureaucracies is severely hampered by administrative interference. We have such interference because we do not draw clear lines between the respective role of the professional man and the administrator and because, of the two, the administrator enjoys the higher prestige and position. He is in fact king.

Concentration on work—especially involving things and tools rather than people—in effect delivers the power of the organization to the people-oriented administrators. Sometimes this power is delivered ahead of schedule: writing about the New Deal experience, Schlesinger refers to a certain Hugh Hammond Bennett, an early crusader against the evil of soil erosion. An important issue at the time was whether the problem was to be approached through the social and economic structure which induced soil erosion, or whether it was to be attacked directly in a physical way. “ldquo;Bennett no doubt felt that one bureau could not do everything, and that the engineering approach, by avoiding the politically sensitive problem of rural poverty, could gain conservation a broader support.”rdquo; So everybody ends up playing politics, and it is not really the height of scientific insight to do so after surrendering power—and, incidentally, distorting the solution of the technical problem in favor of crudely imagined political obstacles. But this is typical, I fear, of the technical wing of the New Class. They are much too “ldquo;rational”rdquo; ever to become effective politicians—or, what is the same thing, non-concentrating administrators.

_____________

Finally, we can sense some of the quality of the New Class from its characteristic habitat—the suburbs.

What is a suburb? It is most obviously the new place where the new people live. The proliferation of suburbs constitutes the big postwar change in America: they are where the new money has been spent, where the much-discussed “ldquo;income revolution”rdquo; has erected its shopping-center barricades. One out of four Americans now resides, or at least sleeps, in a suburb: they grow three times as fast as central-city and rural areas. (Thus, for example, two suburban counties adjacent to Washington, D.C. are expected to increase by one-quarter during the four years ending in 1968.)

The suburbs are affluent frontier-towns, and as such they present an aspect of apparent homogeneity which is frightening even to many of the residents. An astute sociologist, William M. Dobriner, in Class in Suburbia, argues that this is a passing phase. The true and demonstrable differences between cities and suburbs he details as follows:

To summarize, when compared with central cities, suburbs have higher fertility ratios, higher percentages of married persons, lower percentages separated, higher percentages in primary families, high socioeconomic status in the labor force, higher median income, lower median age, a higher percentage of mobile families, and a higher level of educational achievement.

Youthful people in youthful places.

Every town in America was at one time—and not so long ago—a frontier-town. The only thing new here is the upholstery and the purpose. But things change: even Chicago grew up a little bit. There is still a great deal of milling around and fumbling, as to location, for instance: in Nassau County, the average turnover on mortgages has been six-and-one-half years. The society and the culture of the New Class are being created: naturally, it takes time. First, the appeal of gadgets must be overcome; then, the true human scope of the job must be measured and accepted, without unalterable despair; finally, one actually reads some of the books he has bought. Meanwhile, there is PTA, fluoridation, Nice Negroes, and in the end the really illicitly exciting thought of electing a councilman, or even a congressman.

In 1964, the Congressional Quarterly identified fifty congressional districts as predominantly suburban. CQ has also predicted that with adequate arithmetical redistricting under the new Supreme Court rulings, the suburbs would gain something like twenty seats. Seventy Congressmen is a heavy swing group: it almost equals the hard-core Southern contingent. And it is growing, while the latter is declining. James MacGregor Burns divides “ldquo;political”rdquo; issues into style-of-life and economic ones; and he suggests that the new swing-group of voters in the new suburbs can be appealed to, and given a political character, through style-of-life issues. Indeed—and probably through no others. Which indicates a very substantial change in American politics—based on the New Class, and involving matters that go somewhat deeper than ideological liberalism.

The new suburbs seemed to be all-out Republican at the beginning only because of their newness, the fact that the earlier suburbs were unrelentingly wealthy, and because of the Eisenhower magic. But President Johnson did just about as well in the suburbs as Eisenhower (except for the South), and the fifty suburban seats in the House were split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans in 1964.

Political power to the suburbs will heighten the conflict, and induce adjustments, between the different and as yet undeveloped elements of the New Class who live there. Through political activity, they will come to know themselves better: their style will jell. With redistricting—state-legislative as well as congressional—the increased importance of the suburbs will provide an ideal atmosphere for the increased participation of New-Class people in politics. And political participation, wherever and however it begins, is a learning process—not a rigid, standstill thing. Once they seriously begin to try, these people will learn how to operate their own society.

The regular “ldquo;downstate”rdquo; Republican leaders have been no fairer to the new people in the underrepresented suburbs than have the city Democratic bosses. In this sense, the suburbs are truly in the middle—and it is a question of which old-line force sends the most effective ambassadors, and does so first; or makes and accepts the surer alliance sooner with indigenous “ldquo;style”rdquo; representatives. Charles Percy in Illinois, for example, understands the necessity—and appears to have the capacity—to appeal to the Chicago suburbs. The old-guard Republicans do not and cannot accept the new order of doing business, and they seem to be splitting the party in an effort to hold onto the past. In Maryland, the Democratic bosses of Baltimore have allied themselves with the Southern-type ruralists of the Eastern shore against the Washington suburban counties—and moderate Republicans in the area survived the Johnson sweep in 1964. And John Lindsay—despite the disaster of having been elected mayor of New York—is still the perfect suburban candidate (as well as the most adventurous scavenger among the ruins of the Republican party).

I find it of long-term significance that the Reform Democrats, even where they were weakest (in Chicago), did well in the once heavily Republican suburbs. In the suburbs, the Reformers are dealing with their own class even if not with their own liberal ideological grouping. And the class factor, the style factor, is the more important one.

_____________

Potentially the most significant contradiction or division in the New Class involves neither the job nor the dormitory, but specifically the “ldquo;education”rdquo; which is its historical entrée. To go at an understanding of this in a proper way, however, requires some subtlety. The advent of the New Class concerns not only a change in the property and power structure, but also brings about a considerable diffusion of what we may begin by calling “ldquo;culture.”rdquo; Educational status does not function simply as a substitute for property, but also unavoidably provides a basis for awareness. In one sense or another, these new people are educated. With an excess neither of hope nor of despair, it would seem reasonable to explore the possibility that this increase in “ldquo;culture”rdquo; will itself amount to a political factor of independent significance.

In the basic sociological sense, of course, all classes develop their own culture—indeed, a class is finally defined by its culture (as in speaking of the “ldquo;subculture”rdquo; of the adolescent delinquent or the drug addict, and so on). The New Class naturally has and develops a culture of this kind. But it also becomes involved in realizing itself by means of culture in the non-sociological sense—which is to say, through serious reading of serious books. People whose passports to organizational position and class tenure were derived from education can be influenced by more than a few ideas on a narrow range, and they may more readily intellectualize their frustrations—and their ideals. If this is so, some great political battles of the future may well be fought over curricula in the schools—not simply repetitions of the current battles as to who gets into what schools, and how many places there are in all of them.

Education, moreover, induces ideals. It does so by making people read more than otherwise, and by delaying the process of gaining experience in the world. For these reasons and others, education produces frustration—a factor which has already led to a number of significant status-revolts and will undoubtedly lead to many more, both within and outside the ambit of the new student disruption (on the right-wing, Goldwater's appeal to New-Class tension was patent). So far as the educated member of the New Class is concerned, his normal quotient of frustration is heightened by the manner in which he has been accepted into American society: he has been given a job. This is, of course, better than not being given a job, but when a person is trained to do something and then is either not allowed to do it or is encouraged to do it meaninglessly, additional frustration must inevitably result. This is the condition today of many educated individuals. Because more and more people have had to be educated—what else could be done with them?—there are more and more educated people around for whom jobs must be provided, and jobs are in fact provided. But “ldquo;just jobs.”rdquo; In this sense, the ancient, trained irrelevance of the academic has become a model applied with great extension throughout society in dealing with a New Class for whom jobs must be provided, but whose irrelevance must meanwhile be maintained. This could not be clearer than it was in Washington, certainly before the 89th Congress, where thousands upon thousands of educated people occupied jobs in the federal bureaucracy in which they were supposed to analyze a wide range of social problems and provide programs to deal with these—which programs were almost never enacted by Congress. This is called staff policy research, and it is an infinitely frustrating way of life.1

Members of the New Class can be distinguished from one another by noting not only the extent of their frustration, but their manner of dealing with it. Some become Utopians; others are compulsively realistic; almost all go through a more or less extended period of undertaking personal consumption as a form of idolatry; many create and live within a rigid aura of professionalism; most, at one time or another, retreat from their actual condition and overidentify with some more traditional grouping, as the right-wing intellectuals identify with small-property ownership, or the urban Jews with problems of social justice, and many serious Protestants with the Negroes.

_____________

As the former style of politics was based on patronage involving low-level jobs in big cities, there is now a new style of patronage based on the distribution of New-Class jobs, in both the private and the public spheres. In the 50's, professional and technical jobs grew by 2.4 million, from about 8 to about 11 per cent of the total labor force. Much of this growth was in defense; but there were also 796,000 new jobs in education, and 111,000 in welfare, religious, and other nonprofit activities. The provision of such jobs constitutes a good deal of the story of the New Deal and the New Frontier—and apparently Modern Republicanism was not able or did not try too hard to slow down the process appreciably.

The growth of the New Class in England (to take only one foreign example) is both clearer and more disruptive than here. Because the old classes so thoroughly dominated education and the upper ranks of almost all major institutions, and because the education was not scientific or technical in emphasis, the New Class there has been made up of recognizably new people—with the wrong accents, for instance. Also, being a misdeveloped country for the modern world, England must change radically to survive—and the obvious direction is that taken some time ago by Sweden, toward high-quality technical performance. In this very special political conjunction, the Labour party has undertaken to represent the clamor for New-Class jobs based, of course, on technical education both of a higher standard and to be made more generally available to the whole population. Harold Wilson's keynote speech to the party's annual conference in the fall of 1963 concentrated on this undertaking; and Richard Crossman, at that time, called for a “ldquo;revolution against educational privilege.”rdquo; The revolution will be politely English, however; what is happening is that new schools are being built—Oxford and Cambridge are not being nationalized.

In America, by contrast, we are creating a culture, not overcoming one. But still, in favor of the New Class.

_____________

My overriding point is that the “ldquo;new men”rdquo; are newer than they know. Meanwhile, we cannot answer the main question—what the effects will be when they achieve an awareness of themselves as a class. We cannot know just what the effects will be, but we know there will be some—and we cannot guess otherwise than that they will be important.

Yet in looking for understanding of the New-Class phenomenon, one must not expect pure typologies; even if one found them, they might well be misleading as to the overall course of events. No matter how serious and determinative one's propertied or propertyless relation to the means of production may be, man does not live by property alone—especially in periods of great change, and especially in America, with its raw national style, its inherent regionalism unto anarchy, its constituency-brokerage politics, and its conflicts between a national popular culture and the mature elite varieties.

All classes, moreover, have antecedents in history. The first of the bourgeoisie were not the first traders or property-accumulators, but rather the first to make trading and property-accumulation the dominant tone, and then the dominant activity, in their particular social orders. In doing so, they undoubtedly took in and assimilated previous existing social elements, items, and forms. Something like this is happening in the development of the New Class. Thus, doctors and lawyers and teachers, as well as technologists and other bureaucratic specialists, are incorporated into the ongoing (and eventually overwhelming) development. Indeed, lawyers, as has often been the case in the past, are probably the leading creative individuals in carrying the development forward.

The education of the New-Class member—an electronics engineer or a systems-research analyst with a Ph.D in sociology or a physicist working for the RAND Corporation or an economist dealing with manpower problems in the Department of Labor—consists of training to think ahead. These people administer and they plan—indeed, it is impossible to administer without becoming engaged in some form of gross plan, at least a “ldquo;plan”rdquo; for resolving the conflicts among the interests one is administering. Hence it is distinctly possible that all the education of all the members of the New Class has a common denominator—namely, to plan something.

The whole theory of rule by property was that the accompanying competition dispensed with the need to plan, and thus dispensed as well with “ldquo;planners”rdquo; (intellectuals) and the state (the primary planning agency). This was never an accurate representation of the old trading order, since no matter how hard a businessman might try not to think ahead, and cooperate with others in not doing so, he and they did in fact indulge. There was always communication beyond the market, beyond that provided for by an Adam Smith market-model where communication was not so much refrained from on principle as it was considered to be impossible in fact. Where planning is possible, it occurs. The more important planning begins with the business unit, in the application of technology. But it is not limited to that; the business unit is a political as well as a technological organization. Moreover, the relations among business units are exquisitely political, when they are not merely those of the impersonal market.

_____________

At the end of this brief analysis, then, we note that the New Class consists of the planners—the thinkers-ahead. This explains why they are so frustrated when they are members of the non-military public division and not nearly so much so when members of the private division: planning is encouraged in the latter, nearly forbidden in the former. But planning is inherent in the educated person's activity. Conceptualizing and thinking ahead: this is planning and this is what education comes to. Indeed, what is this terribly feared political planning, really, but a kind of mutual consciousness, an awareness of what one is doing in relation to what others are up to at the same time? In any event, the fact that educated people have been placed in and around the centers of power (as this is or may become a fact of usefulness and not of mere adornment) indicates power's need for planning. It is a serious maladjustment of power in America which keeps this planning from going forward, and consequently frustrates the members of the New Class.

Their deeper sense of community must begin—however it may hopefully end—with the triumph of planning and its positive politics, as the dominant American style and purpose. It had better come peacefully: and any more exaggeration of adornment and redundancy—“ldquo;just jobs”rdquo;—may well lead at a not-so-later date to a convulsive reaction. So they must have their due. We have invited it: now we must satisfy it.


Footnotes

1 At the spring meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association in 1964, the incoming president disclosed the results of a survey of analysands. According to the report in the New York Times (May 2, 1964), 1,100 analysts with M.D.'s treat 11,000 patients a year: “ldquo;Almost all are college-educated. Many have graduate degrees.”rdquo; This high education level was the main factor identifying these private patients. That, of course, and their frustrations.

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