The New Elite
The Crisis of Industrial Society.
by Norman Birnbaum.
Oxford University Press. 185 pp. $4.75.
It is not immediately obvious that Daniel Bell and Herbert Marcuse share the same analysis of Western society. Yet they, along with almost an entire generation of social thinkers, agree on basic structural tendencies. (Where they differ—and, of course, here their positions are polar—is on interpretation.) A major point of consensus is the so-called theory of “industrial society,” which—I simplify—propounds the notion that corporate managers have been taking over from property owners and have been rationalizing production in huge, often self-financing units. As a result of this development, organizational skill and scientific knowledge have become far more important than capital or land. In further consequence, new social classes have arisen to fill the new functions, and the rebel classes of old (that is, the workers), because they share in the enormous increases in output, have at least been partly integrated into the system.
In the liberal, technocratic, and anti-radical version of this analyysis—Daniel Bell’s or Raymond Aron’s, say—consensus and the end of ideology are a good thing since they make rational, thoughtful progress possible. Reform, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan (another member of the liberal company) has put it, is now professionalized; gone are the days when mass rallies and public petitions had efficacy (it is this sincerely-held, if, in my opinion, erroneous conviction which permits a liberal Democrat like Moynihan to work for a conservative Republican President). Corollary to the Bell-Aron-Moynihan view is the proposition which Sakharov and Kapitsa have developed in Russia and Clark Kerr, among others, in this country—namely, that any technological economy, whether it calls itself Communist or capitalist, tends to become an industrial society.
At the other end of the ideological spectrum is Herbert Marcuse, who acknowledges the same facts as Bell, but who is provoked by them to despair rather than hope. In Marcuse’s view, the technocrats who help integrate the workers into a society of mass (he would say, degraded) consumption are creating the most repressive system in history, one in which the slaves love their chains. But even though he takes violent issue with an optimistic reading of the data, Marcuse’s anti-utopia shares a crucial premise with Moynihan’s professional reform: that the politics of mass participation and struggle are finished.
It is for this reason that I disagree both with Marcuse’s tragic Marxism and Moynihan’s administrative activism; each, in its own way, underestimates the persistence of old-fashioned power relationships and conflicts. And that, too, is why I am so impressed by Norman Birnbaum’s The Crisis of Industrial Society, which maintains a live sense of how the old inequalities have been made new and sophisticated in the emergent order, and which holds out the hope, albeit a tentative one, that real change is still possible.
Norman Birnbaum, like his fellow industrial-society theorists, recognizes that there has been a massive shift in class structure in the advanced economies. In place of the old, bourgeois elites, there is a new elite, composed of the managers of industry and the state sector, entrepreneurial technicians, and, occasionally, politicians. Their chief characteristic is that they manipulate, rather than own, property and power. Beneath them is a heterogeneous grouping of administrators, technicians, and service personnel who are skilled in administrative techniques. Finally, there is a working class, whose jobs are as burdensome and as tedious as ever.
Birnbaum’s crucial point about this social configuration is that the new elite, even though it is well-educated and civil, is not necessarily benign. “It is quite true,” he writes, “that the composition of the elite is changing: it does not follow that the new elite will show greater reluctance to exercise social command than its predecessors.” This is precisely the point which is missed by the theorists of the optimistic school; even John Kenneth Galbraith, in his The New Industrial State, assumes that the “technostructure” (his term for the new elite) will tend to behave decently. As Birnbaum argues, that just isn’t so.
In this context, it is revealing that Birnbaum groups the managers of public and private property in the same category. For even in the case of nationalized industry, where there is, in theory, a democratic responsibility imposed upon the administrators, as much anti-social behavior exists as in the big corporations. Robert Moses’s autocratic planning transformed New York City radically and with great disregard for social and aesthetic consequences. Yet his projects were carried out in the name of the people. The point is that, unless there is real debate and control from below, the new elite, even when it is supposed to be in the service of the public, acts as imperiously and egotistically as the old.
Birnbaum’s proficiency in describing the new elite takes on added dimension from his rich historical speculation. In the 19th century no less than in the 20th, he points out, elites were mixed in composition and subject to change; it is therefore misleading to contrast the present managers and technicians with the “pure” bourgeois class of the past. In France, “political democracy triumphed without liberalism: the radicalism of the victorious element was compounded of ideological rationalism, étatisme, and conservatism with regard to the possession of property.” And the pre-industrial Prussians who presided over the development of German capitalism introduced the first national system of elementary education in Europe, in part to build up a better army. These adductions from history—and there are many others—lend texture and perspective to Birnbaum’s observations on the contemporary situation.
From the past, Birnbaum turns to the future, more specifically to the current phenomenon of student discontent which, he feels, again in a spirit of hope, may herald the “politics of the future technical intelligentsia.” I share this hope, but I find Birnbaum’s theorizing here somewhat off his usual standard. For instance, he misjudges the extent of the gap between the “technical intelligentsia” and the campus militants, who often reserve their choicest epithets for the technocrats. Also, he overstates the degree to which the working class has actually been integrated into the industrial society.
On the first point, it is well to remember that college radicalism has been concentrated in the liberal arts and “soft” social sciences. The engineers, the business majors, the other assorted career-oriented students (who will swell the cadres of the industrial society) have been notably less restless. I do not suggest that this fact contradicts Birnbaum’s analysis, but only that it complicates it. Essentially, I think his prognosis a correct one; it was at any rate borne out—as Alain Touraine has argued—by the events in France in May 1968, where the greatest militancy was to be found not in the coal mines but among the technical intelligentsia in the up-to-date industries—electronics, chemicals, autoassembly lines, communications—who sought to gain democratic control, or at least influence, over the workplace. Closer to home, we may recall that the 1968 primary campaigns of Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy both involved the dramatic participation of the technical intelligentsia.
Yet—and this is the second point—the very complexity of industrial society, which Birnbaum describes so well, means that the technical intelligentsia by itself cannot transform the status quo. Birnbaum recognizes that blue-collar workers are still very numerous and that their lives are far from affluent. It therefore follows in my opinion that basic change can come about only if the new protest will make common cause with the old. And that, as I noted in Toward a Democratic Left, will not happen so long as international issues continue to dominate the nation’s concern; for on questions of foreign policy the different social experiences of the new intelligentsia and the traditional working class act to create antagonism, rather than alliance. But once the war in Vietnam is brought to an end, once domestic issues are again at the center of American politics, it will be possible at least to hope for a new majority coalition uniting the old and the new radicalisms.