The Circulation of the Elites
The counterrevolutionary ethic of the PMC
I’m currently reading Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites, a book that feels, if anything, even more incisive today than when it was written in the mid-1990s. In one chapter of the book, Lasch employs a phrase that has so much explanatory power in this current historical moment: “the circulation of the elites.”
Lasch uses the phrase in a discussion of the historical emergence of the concept of “social mobility,” which he believed was an artifact of the degradation of our national conception of American democracy. Prior to the early twentieth century, he explains, Americans aspired to a classless society — one in which there was no structural boundary between those who labored with their bodies and those who worked with their minds, and one that lacked a permanent underclass of full-time wage laborers: think Jefferson’s yeoman farmer. When industrialization forged a social order rooted in precisely those conditions, our understanding of democracy was downgraded accordingly. We accepted the reality of a fixed social hierarchy with a permanent working class, and measured “democracy” by the degree to which someone born at the bottom could, through talent and hard work, climb to the top, rather than by the degree to which they didn’t have to in the first place. Democracy became meritocracy, no more and no less.
As social mobility came to define our moral value as a nation (this is me talking now, not Lasch), the university — as the great driver of generational ascendance up the class ladder — assumed a role in our political imagination as the fulcrum and the engine of American democracy. It’s a myth that persists to this day, more strongly than ever.
But mythology is exactly what it is. As Pierre Bourdieu has demonstrated, while the university does indeed turn some meaningful number of kids from poor or working class families into middle class or upper middle class professionals, its primary function is not to dismantle the social hierarchy, but to reproduce it. It does so by glorifying the cultural tastes and moral virtues of the upper middle class and celebrating them as the universal, transcendent values of civilization rather than as the arbitrary, parochial preferences they objectively are. In our collective imagination, a degree from a prestigious university is purported to be evidence of one’s elevation into some kind of higher order of citizen, or something. In reality, what it signifies more than anything is a successful cultural assimilation into the professional managerial class, which can then be parlayed into higher lifelong earning potential. In this way, the university generates and re-generates the economic value of specifically upper middle class cultural capital, while degrading that of the working class. The cultural status and economic power conferred upon members of the professional managerial class simply for acting like members of their class is continually renewed by both the teaching and the academic production of the university.
Prior to around the 1980s, the professional class cultural capital that students accumulated in the university was principally a working knowledge of the Western canon. Familiarity with the renowned works of American, English and French literature, appreciation of Classical music and Western fine arts, knowledge of the great discoveries of European and American scientists, proper upper middle class English grammar and speech, a bourgeois attitude toward wealth and a Protestant work ethic — all of these were inculcated in the institutions of higher learning, and all of it was vital to a successful future as a member of the educated, professional class. Like finishing school, this habituation into the culture of the top tier of society was the principal value of a college education.
But as Adolf Reed, Jr. once explained to me in an interview, as increased global economic competition and the job outsourcing that followed from it destroyed the organized political power of American workers, campus politics were utterly transformed and intensified — and the culture of the university was fundamentally reshaped along with them. The academic left, which had been renewed and invigorated by the student movements of the 1960s, began losing its material connections with actual workers as the labor movement atrophied. It responded by turning inward. Student (and faculty) activists retreated from their aspirations to transform the world at large, and focused instead on transforming the smaller world they knew best: their own college campuses. Where their Boomer predecessors caravanned to the segregated South to register black voters, the Gen X students of the 80s and 90s occupied administration buildings to demand divestment of their colleges’ endowments from apartheid South Africa and the expulsion of the ROTC and military recruiters from university grounds. Mimicking the Maoist racial identity politics of the radical New Left, they agitated for the funding of new interdisciplinary departments in various “Studies”: Women, African-American, Chicano, Asian, etc. This was the period of the first wave of “political correctness” on college campuses. It was the beginning of a quasi-religious campaign of moral purification of American higher education — which continues to this day — and with it, of the professional managerial class that the university produces. The Eurocentric, “pale, male and stale” canon was demonized, relegated to the margins of the academic curriculum, and in some cases expunged from it altogether. Suddenly, the old forms of cultural capital — the ancient philosophies, the Italian frescoes, the Founding Fathers, the Shakespeares and the Brontës — were replaced with new, more cosmopolitan, more ethically loaded and politically charged ones. The new cultural currency was no longer valued for its intellectual and cultural refinement but for its moral erudition. But its function remained exactly the same as it had always been: to distinguish its owners — college-educated Americans — from the rest of the population as bona fide members of the cultivated class.
In a society purporting to be democratic, this was a more useful mode of social distinction than the one it replaced. It allowed both those born into and those who ascended into the elite to regard themselves not as a new, self-serving aristocracy of letters, but as selfless heroes of egalitarianism. Their mission was not to defend the oppressive status quo, but to subvert it. Their academic credentials were markers not of their social privilege but of their social enlightenment. It was a new, updated form of snobbery — one that transformed the PMC’s reflexive contempt for the uneducated masses into a noble disdain for the racism, sexism and assorted phobias assumed to be inherently ubiquitous among the un-credentialed.
And it was just as useful to the social hierarchy itself as it was to its individual beneficiaries. Returning to Lasch, if the pre-industrial vision of American democracy never presumed the existence of a fixed, class-based social order, then the stratified society that twentieth century industrialization ushered in should have come at the cost of the system’s moral and political legitimacy. The flimsy excuse of “social mobility” was a fallback position to shore up our faith in the American experiment in the face of an emergent class hierarchy that was never supposed to exist in the new republic. The innovation of moral capital as a substitute for the old, genteel forms of cultural capital, however, was a much more robust solution.
During the mid-twentieth century, as industrialization — along with the obliteration of Europe and Japan in World War 2 — transformed America’s economy into a global juggernaut, so great and widely distributed was our material prosperity that “social mobility” sufficed for the moment to hand wave away the stark contradiction between the aspiration of democratic equality and the reality of class-based social stratification. But as globalization caught up to the United States and the neoliberal era began, the hallmarks of American economic hegemony — an ever-improving material quality of life, near-full employment, labor peace, lifetime job security and the affluent blue collar single-income family — collapsed in a historical blink of an eye. In its place emerged government austerity, job outsourcing, the squeezing of the middle class and the free fall of the working class. Under these less rosy conditions, the contradiction between political equality and economic stratification grew even starker. Politics polarized. A stronger source of legitimation of the social hierarchy was in order.
Moral capital stepped into this breach. As the identity politics fever on college campuses transformed the self-conception of members of the credentialed elite from privileged but responsible stewards of social stability to vanguardists of revolutionary social justice, it re-branded the professional managerial class itself as a politically enlightened, subversive force against oppression and social inequality. This is roughly the projected image of the Democratic Party, which has become, increasingly, the political expression of the PMC.
Critically, however, this new bourgeois revolutionary ideology gingerly sidesteps that which would actually force it into a real confrontation with the existing social order: the entire notion of social class. The goal of the doctrine of intersectionality is not the classless society — not even in the Laschian sense of the phrase, let alone the Marxist one. Its ambitions are, as its corporate spokespersons make clear, “diversity, equity and inclusion.” And by that they mean diversity, equity and inclusion in the ranks of the elite.
In other words, its aim is not to dismantle the class-based hierarchy, nor even to unseat the elite class that reigns over it. It is to disconnect that hierarchy from the other status hierarchies it was historically bound up with — those of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. — and thereby make the elite a more universally accessible status group to aspire to. This objective is in no way antithetical to the persistence and reproduction of the class order, which is why it faces so little resistance from, and is indeed enthusiastically embraced by, corporate America. In fact, it has provided a new source of legitimation when it was most in need. As with “social mobility” before it, the social justice ideology of the professional class serves to advertise to the public that the class order is not a closed system. “Indeed,” writes Lasch, “the circulation of elites strengthens the principle of hierarchy, furnishing elites with fresh talent and legitimating their ascendancy as a function of merit rather than birth.” The social justice ideology merely replaces the word “merit” with the word “equity,” otherwise serving the same purpose quite admirably.
What the Great Awokening leaves us with, then, is an ostentatious pantomime of commitment to the lowly and downtrodden by members of the Professional Managerial Class, which amounts in actual material reality to a mere circulation of elites. It serves nobody’s interests but those of the PMC — both as individuals, whom it permits to look upon themselves as heroes, and as a class, which basks in unearned democratic legitimacy. It dresses itself up in the language and aesthetics of subversion and transgression, but it is in fact a deeply conservative cultural force. It’s the new orthodoxy that labors to conceal from the public how hollow our democracy has actually become, and how undeserving its upper tier is of its abundant privileges.