Sunday, May 04, 2008

'New Class' theory and a new intellectual project for the American center-right?

I come to center-right conservatism via the left. That makes me a neocon on one definition: the intellectual who starts out left and moves right. It is a movement somewhat akin to Christopher Hitchens’ drift, I suppose, although I never embraced Trotsky or anything that far left. But it also means that I haven’t spent the last twenty years raised on Russell Kirk or Michael Oakshott or Leo Strauss or anyone, really, other than Edmund Burke and Milton Friedman. I was busy reading Rawls and Dworkin and Marx and &tc., &tc.

But when I think about my own rightward movement, it is essentially the same, general rightward drift of a certain set of my fellow Telos editors from the 80s-90s – the late, great Paul Piccone, Russell Berman, the new editor, Fred Siegel, Jean Bethke Elshtain, among others, in which a big motivation was analysis of what was understood as the ‘New Class’ and the ‘wholly administered society’. (There was another argument that revolved around left and right interpretations of Schmitt, but I was not so interested in that.)

What I suggest below is, in one sense, and one may as well start by saying it, quintessentially neocon – arrogant leftwing intellectual hijacking of the right’s project and turf. But, possibly, it is also part of a plausible new project for the center-right, one that goes beyond the admittedly crucial concerns of national security and war, and which connects the security concerns of 9-11 to a larger and, in my perception, widely shared view on the American center-right, that the more fundamental category, even for national security and current wars, is about the meaning of a large democratic sovereign state and the identification of its people as citizens and members of a particular society. It is not everything, not a comprehensive project, agreed. And it perhaps inevitably trends toward a (undogmatic) libertarian conservatism, an optimistic conservatism, and a very American conservatism, as distinguished from social conservatism, pessimism and declinism, and European-style reaction. It is an economic program mostly by implication, and it is not inherently socially conservative. Anyway, it seems to me largely beyond dispute that the center right is in need of a new and positive (rather than simply anti-) self-conception and way of defining its agenda.

Roughly I propose the question of elites and their relation to the rest of America in an economically globalized age. Taken a certain way, this seems like a very lite-weight, insubstantial, gossamer-thin question about ‘leadership’ – one that looks a little too much like business self help books, ‘7 qualities of effective leaders’ and all that pablum.

But one might undertake this, however, as a genuinely robust analysis of the problems of the increasingly fraught relationship in America between governing elites and the governed in a globalized world, in which elites are increasingly disconnected from those they purport to govern, but who, in order to obtain political power in a democracy, affect forms of populism and authenticity. The practical problem is how to have elites that are sufficiently connected to those they govern while not losing their qualities as elites. It is a particular discussion for the right because the right has not formally given up the open commitment to elites in the way that the left has (dishonestly, however, because in actual fact the left has a very particular commitment to globalized elites to manage American masses for their own good, but one which it increasingly understands is unpalatable among the unwashed mass of Americans and a political commitment which it has difficulty directly admitting). The left thinks it has solved the connection problem by identity group politics and the management of the masses through the ideology of multiculturalism: the trinity, and strictly defined hierarchy of race, gender, class. The right, however, still believes that a society needs elites as such - rather than the left’s vanguard class or vanguard managers - and that those American elites need to be formed and committed to democratic society as such and a democratic society - American society - in particular.

This gap between left and right over the formation and role of elites has large implications for the notion of nation-state, cosmopolitanism, and the things Philip Bobbitt talks about re ‘market states’ in his brilliant new book, Terror and Consent. How do you have the cosmopolitan virtues of the market state while still maintaining the social capital that enables such a market state? These are questions that carry me, at least, back to Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, New Class theory, the therapeutic state, and the ‘administered society’. The dangling issues are the globalized economy, on the one hand, inviting elites away from their own societies, and multiculturalism, on the other, offering elites an ideology for the management of the social conflicts of identity politics.

These questions are large enough to define a certain ethic for a center right that seeks the benefits of a globalized world but which nonetheless sees the democratic nation state as the repository of the social capital – the social trust relationships, the social institutions of the rule of law, and so on – that makes that global economy socially sustainable. What kinds of elites does it take to run, maintain and extend that kind of world? How cosmopolitan can they be? How much can they find their training and values purely through pure cosmopolitanism and what appears increasingly to be the only truly universal language of our world - finance? What does citizenship mean? As political actors, what connection should they have with those whose lives they effectively run? Does it make any difference that the loose citizenship affiliations of the elites of the market state seem to apply mostly to the post-industrial Western world, and that nationalism is a driving force in, for example, China – no cosmopolitanism there – and that quite different models obtain in China, Russia, India, etc.?

This was a bigger discussion in the mid 1990s than it is today, as a matter of domestic American society - but it seems to me of growing importance, the transformation, in an economically globalized world, of elites into today’s mobile, market driven experts. In 1996, I wrote a long review essay for Columbia Law Review on New Class theory in connection with reviewing Anthony Kronman’s 1990s book on unhappy lawyers, together with Lasch’s final book, Revolt of the Elites and a wonderful book of sociology of the New Class, Steve Brint’s In an Age of Experts. The last half of my essay lays out an argument about New Class elites and lawyers, and how professionals such as doctors and lawyers who used to form the leadership elites that British socialist reformers such as RH Tawney saw as a crucial leadership class, if rooted in particular communities, instead have opted for market returns that have, however, caused them to uproot from particular communities, giving up social and authority for fluid, market-based expert pay. I haven’t been thinking about that for a while, but I think it might be time to return to it and update it.*

Is this really about the renewal of American conservatism? Is it large enough for that? Or something quite different? Is it really a form of small-l libertarianism, not conservatism? Heck if I know, but although once upon a time I might have looked for this kind of thing from the left, those days are long since gone.

“The new elites are in revolt against the burdens of leadership because those would require becoming part of these communities and would put some restriction on their mobility. It would require that they talk with the masses and not simply to each other as experts. The old elites wanted to be the top of the communities in which they had grown up; whether to lead or dominate, to serve communities or exploit them, at least they understood themselves as having a place in them. The new elites, by contrast, want no connection; they understand that power is elsewhere, money is elsewhere, and mobility is everything; if indeed they have to live somewhere, it will be if at all possible in a wholly private, gated community. Yet simultaneously they want politically to dominate.

The New Class pushes its mobility to absolute limits, launching itself into what it imagines is a global society conducted in the jet stream made weightless by the complete mobility of capital, but with devastating consequences for those left behind on the ground. For those who cannot fly, there is first, the administration of life by these same elites and their hirelings, the authoritarian, bureaucratic formations which, to be sure, express themselves alternately in soothingly therapeutic psycho-babble or communitarian slogans of the common good or assertions of new and endless rights and, second, economic insecurity in the midst of being urged to greater self-esteem.”

(From my 1996 Columbia Law Review essay. Notice that I have not mentioned here Obama, Clinton, or McCain. But the above concerns do not seem to me irrelevant to current arguments in the midst of the presidential election campaign. These are notes, by the way, for a forthcoming essay for Nomos on conservatism.)

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