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The New Masters

In response to:

The New Masters from the March 20, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Those who remember the fine book Michael Walzer once wrote will find it hard to believe that, when he does book reviews, he is a terrible simplificateur. In what follows, I shall document that this is indeed the case for his review of my The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class [NYR, March 20]. Only once, during an otherwise meandering review, does Walzer clear his throat and speak plainly, when he denounces my supposed “optimism” about the New Class as having an unseemly “buoyancy.” Indeed, he actually claims I come close to “bursting into song” in celebration of the New Class. Alas, Mr. Walzer has a tin ear.

What is one to say to a critic who, preening his own sensibility, is not disputing your logic or facts, but simply doesn’t like your temperament or “attitude”? Mr. Walzer seems to have missed the nature of my effort: writing as I did, on an intellectual landscape where discussion of the New Class was dominated by 1) neo-conservatives’ denunciation of the New Class, for their supposed effort to crush the “free market,” and 2) by the anarchist Lefts’ contempt for the New Class as “servants of power,” I made a careful effort to avoid both rash overstatements. (Apparently, efforts at balance are now archaic.) Each faction now condemns me for mentioning anything that does not fit their stereotype of the New Class: studiously ignoring all that I said with which they agree, they attend only to our differences. (Those seeking intellectual property, like any other, must of course meticulously draw excluding boundaries.)

To document that I was not “buoyantly” optimistic—let alone boisterously lyrical—about the New Class, I quote below (from my book) statements of reproach and criticism about the New Class which Mr. Walzer simply chose to ignore:

The New Class is elitist and self-seeking and uses its special knowledge to advance its own interests and power…. [7] …it seeks special guild advantages—political power and incomes—on the basis of its possession of cultural capital. [20] The interests of the cultural bourgeoisie, then, dispose it to control the supply and limit the production of its culture…. Underneath “professionalism” there is the political economy of culture. [20] …his [Noam Chomsky’s] recitation of the often shameless behavior of the New Class is convincing. Its toadying for favor, advancement, awards, and notice; its eagerness to provide (paid) services and arguments for both industry and state; its readiness to be “the servant of power.”… [40] …the New Class is also the nucleus of a new hierarchy and the elite of a new form of cultural capital…. Its culture of critical discourse fosters a purely “theoretical” attitude toward the world. [83] They thus exalt theory over practice, and are concerned less with the success of a practice than that the practice should have submitted itself to a reasonable rule…they value doctrinal conformity for its own sake—they (we) have a native tendency toward ritualism and sectarianism…. The culture of the New Class…[is] disposed toward an unhealthy self-consciousness, toward stilted convoluted speech, an inhibition of play, imagination and passion, and continual pressure for expressive discipline. The new rationality thus becomes the source of a new alienation… a certain insensitivity toward persons, to their feelings and reactions, and opens the way to the disruption of human solidarity. Political brutality, then, finds a grounding in the New Class’s culture of critical discourse…allows a new darkness at noon. [84] Its discourse is a lumbering machinery of argumentation that can wither imagination, discourage play, and curb expressivity.[85]

I have been genuinely bewildered how Mr. Walzer could imagine that anyone chastizing the New Class as severely as I did above, exhibited a shallow optimism about them—let alone was “bursting into song.” I must conclude that he simply does not regard such characterizations of the New Class as shameful disparagements. What, then, is to be done with a critic who thinks an author is celebrating his protagonist when he is plainly, in part, reviling him?

Mr. Walzer also has repeated difficulty in discerning the substantial convergence between his own positions and those stated in my book, which are essentially similar to Walzer’s, with the small difference that he somehow contrives to criticize me for saying these same things. A few examples of convergence between Walzer’s position and my own, which he paradoxically treats as if they were his criticisms of me:

  1. [Walzer] “What is actually happening is rather different…a parallel bourgeoisie, which we might call the bourgeoisie de robe, is in the process of establishing itself today.”

[cf. Gouldner] “Just as the New Class is not the proletariat of the past, neither is it the old bourgeoisie. It is, rather, a new cultural bourgeoisie, whose capital is not its money, but its control over valuable cultures.”[21]

  1. [Walzer] Yet it is not a New Class because it is not “exclusively associated with state power, it develops also within the corporate world and retains a deep commitment to private property. And, second…it tends to be individualist and as firmly based on consumer values as that of conventional business people.”

[Yet cf. Gouldner] “The fundamental objectives of the N.C. are: to increase its own share of the national product…. [19] …it seeks special guild advantages—political power and incomes…. [20] The New Class seeks both incomes and quality objects….”[20]

  1. [Walzer] “It would make sense to call them a ‘neo-bourgeoisie,’ whose members owe their middle and upper class status to their ability to earn educational certificates. [And now Gouldner] “The New Class’s reproduction derives from specialized systems of public education…. [19] The necessary institution for the mass production of the New Class and its special culture of critical discourse is the historically unique system of ‘public education’….” [43]

  2. [Walzer] “Gouldner does not view the New Class as a group of men and women defined by their social position, using state power as the bourgeoisie used capital, to control and distribute the economic surplus.”

(First, I can’t forgo remarking that this contrast of the New Class and the bourgeoisie is silly. Surely, the bourgeoisie—always and everywhere—did not just use capital but, wherever it could, also used the state.)

[Now cf. Gouldner with Walzer above] “It is precisely because control of the means of production by the state is a mechanism advantaging the New Class that this is supported by them….” [61-62]

  1. [Walzer] We cannot, like Gouldner, “define the intelligentsia as a class by reference to its critical culture….” But critical culture was only one-half of Gouldner’s characterization of the New Class, the other half being the New Class’s cultural capital.

[Do cf. Gouldner] “How, then, does the N.C. differ from others? In two ways: first, quantitatively—it possesses a relatively great stock of it, i.e., cultural capital, and a relatively larger part of its income derives from it. Second, qualitatively, the New Class is a speech community…characterized by an orientation…to the culture of careful and critical discourse (C.C.D.).” [27]

It was precisely because I also focused on the New Class’s cultural capital, that I necessarily had to attend to its “social position.” Although Walzer alleges I neglect this, nonetheless, I presented a detailed report on “the overproduction of educated manpower…,” pp. 66 et seq., concluding that “the market pressure, then, on the N.C. promises to grow sharply for the foreseeable future….” [69] Walzer says not a word about my extensive discussion of this or of cultural capital.

Despite his pooh-poohing the culture of critical discourse, Walzer is, in the end, constrained to rely on it, after platitudinizing it: “But we recognize intellectuals by other marks: They are committed to rigorous analysis, ‘imminent [misspelling?] critique,’ ‘truth-telling.’ ” Walzer notes that Konrád and Szelényi’s own book proves that intellectuals are not always “prisoners of a collective mythology….” Konrád and Szelényi prove that some East European intellectuals speak out precisely because, says Walzer, “they still participate in a culture of criticism….”

In short: Apart from belaboring my allegedly shallow optimism about the New Class (and, by the way, on which class does Walzer himself put his reliance?), Walzer strains to magnify any point of difference. Others, less needy, might have discerned that his own views converged with those he criticized. Except, of course, when he says mindboggling things like: “…the bourgeoisie was never an exclusive club, the joining was easy….” How can someone who still invokes Horatio Alger decry the “optimism” of others? That “buoyant song” Mr. Walzer hears echoes only in his own mind.

Alvin W. Gouldner

Washington University

St. Louis, Missouri

Michael Walzer replies:

I don’t know why Professor Gouldner is so upset. If I belonged to a class that was (probably) on the way to power and that (sometimes) embodied universal values, I would (occasionally) burst into song too. And that’s just what I wrote about him: that he was marching along, “occasionally beset by anxieties, occasionally bursting into song.” He chooses now to emphasize his anxieties, and his book is so loosely written as to leave him free to do so. But no reader can possibly miss the dominant thrust of the book, which is engaged and optimistic. “The New Class,” says Gouldner, “is the most progressive force in modern society….” What a joy, then, to be a member! And what greater joy to be a critical member!

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