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Hidden Technocrats:
The New Class and the New Capitalism

edited by Hansfried Kellner and Frank W. Heuberger
with a foreword by Peter L. Berger
Transaction Books, 246 pages, $29.95

Roughly twenty years ago social scientists and intellectuals discovered the existence of a “new” class. Unlike the Marxist division of the world into bourgeoisie and proletariat—a division defined by each class’s relationship to production—new class theory stressed control over the means of knowledge and information. Whether offered by conservatives or radicals, the fundamental idea was the same: professionals who knew how to use words and symbols were emerging as a crucial force in modern society.

There are good reasons why the theory of the new class never really caught on. For one thing, the new class was tied to the state, and everywhere around the world, states began to give way to markets. For another, new class theory was closely related to ideas about post-industrial society, but with a worldwide recession starting in the 1970s, industry came back into favor. Thirdly—although this may be saying the same thing—the notion of the new class implied ideological dominance by the left, when in fact the crucial political issues of the past twenty years have increasingly come to be defined by the right.

For some of us, it was sad to see the idea of the new class go, and not only because those of us who write and teach are a part of it. There have not, after all, been all that many good ideas in the social sciences since the days of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim; for a while, the theory of the new class seemed to qualify as one of them. That is one of the reasons to welcome this new collection edited by Hansfried Kellner and Frank Heuberger: Hidden Technocrats tries to adjust new class theory to the political and economic realities of the past two decades. And in the process, the book develops a number of fascinating and important propositions.

Certainly the most important of these propositions is that it makes little sense to identify the new class predominantly with left-leaning, public-sector, anti-industry bureaucrats. In their own chapter in the volume, Kellner and Heuberger demonstrate that business itself is increasingly given to new age consulting. The authors confess to being “astounded” by the amount of “emancipatory” and “inclusive” rhetoric they found in the world of business. (Such rhetoric also dominates the rhetoric of university administrators, but that is not so surprising.) It is a staple of contemporary social science—Marxist and conservative both—that business is, or ought to be, the locus of hard-nosed rationality and unsentimental decision-making. To find business executives preoccupied with “wholeness” and psychic health, usually to the dismay of unions, is indeed astounding.

A second important insight of this book is its redefinition of professionalism. New class theory in the 1970s emphasized the importance of professions, but made few distinctions among them. By contrast, Kellner and Peter Berger, in their chapter, emphasize the distinction between professionals who attempt to master specific, narrow areas of expertise and the rise of new professionals more concerned with cultural and lifestyle issues. The old professions were conservative and limiting, nowhere better described, and advocated, than in the Weberian notion of beruf. Psychologically oriented new professionals—Jürgen Habermas’ term for them is the theraputocracy—are imperialistic, seeking to penetrate, and control, the inner souls of individuals. New class theory, Kellner and Berger observe, was correct to stress the importance of culture, but wrong to borrow the Marxist metaphor of class war. “What is shaping up is not a sharpening class war but rather a mutual cultural exchange,” they conclude, and, “at the end of the day, it is not clear who is coopting whom in this somewhat surprising symbiosis.”

Other chapters revise the concept of the new class even further, and so enhance its value. Anton Bevers and Anton Zijderveld examine what took place in Holland when cultural activists called for an expanded role of the state in promoting works of artistic expression. Unlike traditional social welfare programs, which offer benefits to the majority, a public policy that supports symphony orchestras and art museums will have difficulty winning popular legitimation. Although governmental support for cultural institutions increased dramatically in Holland, “the majority of the population now feels that the art world must manage on its own.” The irony is that the expansion of the public sector brought about a situation not unlike the American reliance on the market. To protect their budgets, museums must organize blockbuster shows and turn to private donors for support.

Bernice Martin’s essay begins with a contrast between Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and David Lodge’s Nice Work. Both are “new class” novels, exploring the ambiguities of work and power in a world dominated by the manipulation of knowledge. Those ambiguities are analyzed through a gripping report of interviews Martin conducted with young, workaholic executives who conduct “soft” social science research for marketing and advertising firms. Although their work resembles science, it is in fact a new vocation, one that relies on intuition and feel rather than validity and reliability. Once idealistic, they now approach their craft cynically: “No better than rape really,” one of them comments about her work. Lifestyle radicals, they are protective of their own privacy, even while invading the privacy of consumers. Martin ends the story wondering what will happen to these “postmodern” individuals as they mature and are offered new positions in the corporate structure.

One arena in which the theory of the new class proved to be quite prophetic was in its prediction that cultural conflict would replace economic conflict as the dominant political fact of modern societies. James Davison Hunter and Tracy Fessenden explore the implications of this development by examining the rhetoric of “moral entrepreneurs,” those who become political activists for moral change. Animal rights activists, anti-smoking crusaders, and euthanasia advocates share certain similarities, they argue. They must market their positions, assuming risks in the process. Although often critical of American society and its priorities, they must necessarily imitate the entrepreneurial character of that society if they are to succeed. Such new class activists ought not to be understood in opposition to capitalism, but as “a sector of the economy that is part and parcel of the evolution of American capitalism.”

Because it is an edited volume, the product of a research project at the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University, Hidden Technocrats cannot be read as the finished statement of a new theoretical breakthrough in our understanding of modern capitalism. It is, nonetheless, a significant work. Kellner and Berger see their story as one more proof of “the extraordinary resilience of modern capitalism.” At a time when a new class is emerging in the former Communist societies—and in a way quite different from the pioneering analysis of Milovan Djilas—sociologists will have to pay more attention to the resilience of capitalism than they, in general, have. This book will give them plenty of food for thought.

Alan Wolfe is the Michael Gellert Professor of Sociology and Political Science and Dean of the Graduate Faculty, New School for Social Research.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash. Image cropped.