Power in America: The Politics of the New Class
David T. Bazelon’s first book, The Paper Economy, was an analysis of the corporation, in which he showed that corporations, although ostensibly private institutions, are in effect governments themselves; they tax and plan, although these functions are given other names. The failure to recognize power when it takes the form of “private” property seemed to Bazelon a characteristically American evasion of reality, alternately amusing and appalling. Not content with criticizing this absurdity and the other absurdities that follow from it, he tried to show how so radical a misconception had come about—how the sense of the corporation as a public body chartered to carry out some specific communal purpose gradually gave way to the fiction, finally enshrined by the Supreme Court as a hallowed principle of constitutional interpretation, that corporations are “persons” with all the rights of other persons under the law. In elucidating this and kindred mysteries enveloping the economic order, Bazelon showed great shrewdness, imagination, and wit, as well as an enviable ability to set out difficult subjects clearly, without oversimplification.
Power in America contains none of the virtues of the earlier book, while the characteristic vices of Bazelon’s style and thought have been allowed to run unchecked. Bazelon here pontificates, engages in elaborate and tasteless witticisms, and indulges himself in long-winded pseudo-sociological speculations, some of which are not even remotely relevant to his argument. Nevertheless the main thesis of his new book, stripped of interjections, digressions, excursions and alarms, can be simply stated: Marx was wrong. The working class has not proved to be the agency of revolutionary change, as Marx expected. Instead, “the amoeba that was Marx’s proletariat has divided into the Under Class [the minority of unorganized workers who still live in poverty], the Unionized Worker, and the New Class.”
The “new class,” which is Bazelon’s special concern, consists of managers and intellectuals. (He does not explain where the rest of the white-collar class—clerks, salesmen, foreman, low-grade technicians, public-school teachers—fit into this picture; indeed he ignores this large group of people.) Having no property, the managers and intellectuals clearly do not belong to the bourgeoisie; but neither are they proletarians. They make up an administrative elite, both governmental and “private,” in whose hands the machinery of the technological society, according to Bazelon, is increasingly concentrated. Whereas the feudal nobility ruled through “aristocratic status and tenure” and the bourgeoisie through “entrepreneurial use of property,” the new class relies on its all-important educational advantage, which in turn secures the organizational leverage—the tenured positions at critical points in bureaucracies—without which the new class would be merely another propertyless proletariat. Education is to the new class what capital was to the capitalist; and because the technological society needs experts more than it needs capitalists—the modern corporation having effectively divorced ownership from control—the new class, with the help of its allies (the “under class” on the one hand, mugwumpish rentiers on the other) will displace the capitalists as the new ruling class. Bazelon speaks of its “inevitable ascendancy.”
Since the new class is the wave of the future, the remodeling of American society—the achievement of what used to be known as the cooperative commonwealth—will be largely the work of the administrative elite. Indeed “durable reform” and “New Class advance” are “the same thing.” By durable reform Bazelon means a further expansion of the welfare state, which he sees as beneficent and “inescapable.” As the new class becomes conscious of itself, it will make over the country in its own image—friendly, tolerant, noncompetitive. The important political problem, therefore, is to make the new class self-aware. On the other hand, all radicalism based on or addressed to the dispossessed is futile and irrelevant. Those who expect American Negroes, for instance, to become a radical force misunderstand the nature of American society. The Negro will be absorbed into American life through the efforts of liberals—the “forward-looking intellectual types” who represent the flower of the new class and the vanguard of social change. “The Negro must be raised,” says Bazelon—a remark that shows an inability to take seriously the protest of people who insist that they do not wish to be “raised,” and who reject the rewards that are held out to them (such as they are) if only they will consent to become members of the liberal consensus.
Bazelon understands and sympathizes with some of the cultural aspects of the student and Negro revolts, but he does not understand the disaffection from which they spring. Believing that the profit motive is obsolete in any case, he can see the point of attacking it. He thinks that “a majority of us must decide to be friends instead of pigs” and that “the kids” may help us to accomplish this feat. But “the kids,” the more political among them, have a better understanding of power than he does. They have no illusions that people will suddenly decide (even with their help) “to stop grabbing so many trinkets, each for himself,” because they know—what Bazelon himself, in his infatuation with managerialism, has forgotten—that American institutions are still predicated on precisely this grabbing of trinkets and that aggressive individualism is, therefore, not simply a moral lapse or a pattern of behavior founded on the “profit motive,” but an institutional necessity.
Discussions of the obsolescence of the profit motive and the divorce between ownership and control are really no more relevant to an understanding of American society than demonstrations (in which Bazelon’s book abounds) that the United States is rich enough to guarantee everybody an income of over $3,500 a year (and then some, one would imagine). All of this may be true, but the essential fact remains that American institutions, as constituted at present, require that the money be spent in other ways. One could have learned that much from leading. The Paper Economy, where it was shown that corporations, regardless of the motives of the people who work in them, exist to produce “paper” (profits or, in old-fashioned language, surplus value) instead of “things” (goods people need), and that although they may incidentally produce things as by-products, nothing must be allowed to interfere with their central purpose of accumulation for the sake of accumulation.
AS FOR THE “NEW CLASS,” its advent has been predicted at regular intervals since the turn of the century—by Walter Lippmann, who celebrated the demise of the profit motive in A Preface to Politics and Drift and Mastery, both written before the First World War; by Veblen; somewhat more tentatively by Berle and Means; and by James Burnham in his notoriously misguided study, The Managerial Revolution. While it is obvious that white-collar workers have greatly increased in numbers and that salaried professionals have attained an importance in corporate and governmental bureaucracies which they did not have in the nineteenth century, it is not at all obvious that they constitute a social class, if classes are understood as active agents of long-run historical change. It is even less obvious that this “class” is destined to be the next ruling elite. The latter assumption is a notable example of what might be called the fallacy of technological indispensability, whereby the ascendancy of a class is inferred from the fact that it performs socially necessary work. By this kind of reasoning, as C. Wright Mills observed in White Collar, the proletariat ought long ago to have succeeded to the power of the capitalists, and the slaves of the Old South should have dominated their masters. In every society, the under class, being indispensable, should logically rule.
In view of the persistent failure of the managers to develop an ideology of their own, there is no reason to share Bazelon’s confidence (even if one could agree that it was desirable) that the “new class” will “inevitably become conscious of its identity and size.” Bazelon himself cannot help noticing that the new class suffers, as he backhandedly puts it, from the “extreme tension of not knowing it is a New Class.” He tries to explain away the “stunted character of managerial ideology” by arguing that it is “historically ordinary” for a new class to borrow the ideology of “the previously dominant class”: for example, the managers “tend to dress Ivy League” (!). The premise that there are historical regularities governing such matters is unacceptable in itself, since the bourgeois revolution—the model Bazelon has in mind—is better understood as a unique historical event than as part of a regularly recurring process. But even if one allows the analogy, it is certainly not true that the bourgeoisie borrowed the ideology of the feudal nobility.
Bazelon confuses ideology with manners. The fact that rich capitalists have always aspired to live on country estates and to marry their daughters to a title should not obscure the fact that capitalism in its infancy helped to generate a revolutionary ideology which, by insisting on equality before the law, the rights of property, the virtue of industry and thrift, and the sanctity of the domestic circle, challenged aristocratic ideology at every point. In the case of the managers, it is impossible to detect any such far-reaching ideological changes that might be said to reflect their interests as a class.
An important clue to what is wrong with this book is Bazelon’s inability to see the importance of events outside the United States. The Vietnam protest bores him because it is “moralistic,” because the critics “never had an alternative policy,” and because what happens to American society is “an infinitely more significant issue than whether we stay in or get out of Viet Nam or even more generally limit our military containment, if such were in fact a live option.” It is astonishing that Bazelon should see no connection between the war in Vietnam and the course of events at home. It does not seem to have occurred to him, for instance, that the race issue has an international side, or that the exploitation of black people in America (first as slaves, then as freemen) and the destruction of yellow people in Asia are both aspects of Western colonialism, which is at once a struggle for power among the great nations and a mission to bring “civilization” to “backward” nations. First as forced labor and now as expendable victims (on both sides) of the permanent war against communism that sustains the American economy in its present form, the colored people of the world have played an indispensable though unwilling part in the material successes which Bazelon now invokes to show that America is different, a uniquely favored nation to which “moralistic” categories of analysis, derived from the class struggles of decadent Europe, cannot possibly apply. People in the “underdeveloped” parts of the world, however, having experienced the class struggle as a daily reality, do not share this comforting belief that the United States is somehow exempt from history. Are they merely the victims of Stalinist propaganda? Or is it our own view of ourselves, our bland assumption that all the important issues have been resolved and that the revolutionary antagonisms of the past are a matter of antiquarian interest only—is it this view that is deluded and blind?
Not only has the class struggle not subsided, it has been renewed with terrible intensity on an international scale, where the outcome, moreover, becomes increasingly clear. The Western empires have already suffered major defeats, and the war in Vietnam shows once again, even more powerfully than before, how helpless they are in the face of revolutionary resistance. Any serious analysis of contemporary politics has to begin from these facts, not from fantasies about new classes, managerial or proletarian. (Another version of the “new class” mythology, currently circulating on the Left, is that technological society has created a white-collar proletariat which, in company with the poor, will revolutionize America.)
The era of Western colonialism, at least in its liberal-democratic form, is drawing to a close, and the problem for political analysis is to understand what the consequences of this development, particularly for the United States, are likely to be. One possibility is a fascist regime in the United States, born of a continuous military emergency, nourished by war propaganda, and led by the colonial army in rebellion against civilian softness and the rule of the politicians. The real value of the Vietnam protest (here as in France during the Algerian war) is not that it will bring about an immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam, still less that it represents the vanguard of a cultural revolution in the United States, but that it helps to discredit fascist solutions by appealing to the underlying decency of liberal societies, which fascism will have to overcome in order to prevail.
The alternatives to fascism are not so clear. The consequences of America’s impending defeat in the international class war are difficult to assess, because it is still not clear whether the economy is capable of adapting to peace or to the loss of its colonies. It is important to identify these questions, however, even if it is impossible at the moment to answer them. It is also important to understand that although people speak with an air of certainty about these questions, from both Marxist and non-Marxist points of view, there are in fact no ready-made answers to them. In resurrecting the old, worn, discredited theory of the managerial revolution, Bazelon has contributed to the current confusion, which it once appeared his writings would help to dispel. His conception of the role he has assumed, that of semi-official adviser to the “new class,” seems to absolve him of any of the usual requirements of analytical writing—precision and conceptual rigor. The value of this garrulous, avuncular monologue mainly lies in its reminding us that it is precisely the failure of the “new class” to materialize, in spite of historical changes that might have been expected to bring it into being, which poses a major challenge for political theory.
Same Old New Class December 7, 1967