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The Long March
Why does the new ruling class stand for nihilism?
Last week I visited Portland to report for Bari Weiss on why Oregonians may elect their first Republican governor in four decades. Like San Francisco, Portland is a gorgeous city that’s been trashed by its decadent social policies. I haven’t followed Portland’s city politics closely (I plan to do so going forward), but I’m guessing it’s followed roughly the same trajectory as we have here in the Bay Area: Combine a dogmatically ideological elected leadership, a standing army of semi-professionalized activists, and an overinflated social services industry of non-profit organizations dependent on city contracts, and you have all the ingredients for a city that’s accountable to an ideological vanguard and no longer to ordinary people.
But that doesn’t explain how those conditions arose in the first place. Why is it that, in the most prosperous civilization in human history, we have an elite class that seems almost to have contempt for social order, and sees nobility in dystopia?
I’ve written quite a bit on this Substack about the Professional Managerial Class’ recent embrace of nihilism, but I still can’t make sense of it. Why does this ruling class, unlike every ruling class before it, cosplay as a bunch of Molotov cocktail-lobbing revolutionaries? Why do they want to dismantle capitalism? Why do they flock to an industry that sees “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word” as evil? Why, in 2020, were Americans with a post-graduate degree nearly twice as likely as those with only a high school diploma to favor defunding the police? What possible interest could the cultural and economic elite have in social decay and lawlessness? In this sense, as far as historical ruling classes go, the PMC is bizarre.
There are some ready explanations to this conundrum, but they’re all conspiratorial. Maybe the global elite want us all living in mayhem so that they can more easily dominate us. Maybe they’re deliberately creating a civilizational crisis so that they can impose the Great Reset by fiat, Shock Doctrine-style.
I find these kinds of explanations ridiculous mostly because I don’t think of “the elite” as a cabal of oligarchs so small and exclusive that they could fit into a 50th story conference room and secretly orchestrate some nefarious plan to consolidate their control over the world. As should be clear by what I’ve written before on the subject, I regard the ruling class as a broad social class of well-educated professionals, ranging from the executives of international banks to your kid’s pediatric psychiatrist. (If you want to get a sense of who belongs to this class and who doesn’t, just conjure up any hypothetical unmarried college-educated professional and then try to imagine the whole spectrum of people they’re most likely going to end up marrying: which professions, what education levels, what tastes and recreational preferences will appear in that pool of generic future spouses? Then imagine, based on those same criteria, the range of people there’s almost no chance they’d end up with. The former are all almost certainly members of the PMC. The latter are not.) Unless you think your orthopedic surgeon is in a group chat with Jamie Dimon plotting out how to liquidate private property and force us all to eat bugs, there’s probably a more subtle explanation.
I’m a knee-jerk Marxist in that I tend to think of society as stratified by social class, and I tend to assume that the people within each of those classes act, collectively, in something called their “class interest.” That may seem intuitively obvious but it’s an assumption that’s worth interrogating; there’s no axiomatic reason to be certain this is the way people actually behave in day-to-day life. If you were to look at the world as Max Weber did instead of the way Marx did, what you would see instead is a whole lot of individuals in various positions of authority over and dependence upon one another, acting in ways that protect or advance their status and power. Even if you can group them broadly into objective social classes, that doesn’t mean they act in any sort of collective manner such that you can say, “the ruling class does X for Y reason,” or “workers vote for Y because it’s in their class interest to achieve Z.”
But if you do have that Marxist reflex, then you have to ask how tearing down institutions, vilifying basic moral values and ushering in social chaos such as we see on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver serves the PMC’s class aspirations. It’s not an easy question to answer.
In the late Middle Ages — the last time an ancien regime was replaced by a new ruling class —the radical demands of the heirs to feudal political power made sense, at least in retrospect. The bourgeoisie embraced the trendy, subversive political ideals of the Enlightenment, as did some clueless members of the aristocracy who would end up paying the price for the spread of republicanism. Those ideals — constitutional government; sovereignty vested in parliaments; equality before the law; the sanctity of private property — were the necessary pre-conditions of capitalist relations of production. By checking the arbitrary power of the crown, the reforms that resulted from the ideals of the Enlightenment created a more predictable environment for long-term investment and de-coupled the market from feudal political authority. The bourgeoisie acted upon its class interests and transformed the world in the process. All of this can be explained within a Marxist, teleological, materialist framework.
Today, it’s precisely those bourgeois republican values that the radical intellectual vanguard of the PMC are contesting: Equality before the law, private property, even the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, which is the very definition of nation-statehood.
It’s easy to dismiss PMC radicalism as cosplaying, and maybe it is. Maybe it won’t survive this week’s expected Red Wave in the mid-term elections. If it’s all just a prolonged, elaborate LARP, then intra-elite status competition may explain the whole ridiculous posture. But if we take it seriously, then Michel Foucault might be more useful than Marx in explaining what’s going on.
I won’t go into it too deeply here since I’ve already written about it, but Foucault is about as far as you can get from Marx’s materialistic theory of social power. Where Marx conceives of power as emanating strictly from physical control of the means of production, for Foucault, it comes from control of the discourse. The experts who control the scientific discourse within a given field — psychologists, say, or public health officials, or criminologists, or economists —contrive novel intellectual concepts about various typologies of people, which, through the institutions they control, they inculcate in the public imagination. Foucault writes about the invention of the homosexual, for example, but it could also be the career criminal, the drug addict, the psychopath, the transsexual, or the oppressed minority. These categories of persons were non-entities before experts conjured them up, gave them a label, studied them and attributed to them a set of scientifically established characteristics. The recalcitrant outlaw may have been regarded as a moral deviant, a menace and an outcast since time immemorial. But only after the criminologists came along and constructed a psychological profile of him, devised a set of diagnostic metrics and established the category of “habitual offender” did he become his own scientific classification of human being. Once the archetype was constructed, the government could then use it to segregate out a part of the population and tailor criminal statutes specifically for its members, build specialized institutions to manage them, and contrive novel public surveillance regimes to identify them. In this way, control of the discourse generates the power of the administrative state, not just over the deviant population, but over all of us as its subjects.
If the power of the capitalist class in the nineteenth century was its physical ownership and control of the means of material production, the power of the Professional Managerial Class in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been its control of the means of discursive production. Foucault calls it “power/knowledge,” but I prefer Pierre Bourdieu’s “symbolic capital.”
As Max Weber has observed, perhaps the most profound break between the modern social order erected by the bourgeoisie and the feudal order that preceded it was transparency and predictability in the rule of law. Under absolutist monarchies, the law was synonymous with the will of the king. Today, laws are codified and fixed in statute, and subject to change only through a legal process that is, itself, transparent and predictable. Weber called it “legal-rational authority.” For the reasons described earlier, legal-rational authority was a necessary pre-condition for the establishment of capitalist relations of production, and thus reflected the interests of the new ruling class.
But while legal-rational authority was ideal for capitalists, it is not ideal for the particular form of power enjoyed by the PMC. Discursive power, or symbolic capital, or whatever you’d like to call it, is a discretionary form of power. That’s the whole point: the experts contrive a discourse, generate a new scientific picture of the world, imprint it on the public consciousness, and in the process bestow upon other experts new powers of administrative control.
Legal-rational authority is an impediment to that process, as is common sense. To the extent you have clear rules that are impartially enforced against criminal activities, you do not have psychologists and social workers and activists and non-profit service providers — the first responders of the PMC — rendering their professional judgments on everyone who comes through the system and determining each of their fates. Ergo, the criminal justice system must be inherently racist and the police — one of the few arms of government not controlled by the PMC — must be defunded and replaced with people with BAs, MSWs, LCSWs, PsyDs, and other credentials. To the extent you have the response to emergencies like Covid-19 and global warming subject to the slow and laborious processes of representative democracy, you don’t have doctors, scientists and public health officials accruing new emergency powers and imposing new rules by decree. To the extent you have an everyday understanding of the difference between the biological sexes, you do not have MDs, LMFTs and PhDs making that determination for you and your children. So that old-fashioned convention has to be torn down, too.
So to call it “nihilism,” as I often have, is to tell only part of the story. The radical fringe of the PMC has been fixated on tearing down the world around us, and not particularly concerned about what to replace it with. But there is, in fact, a creative process in the shadows of the destruction. The intellectual project of constructing a new ethical framework for society, with its official victims and its designated oppressors, its endorsed and prohibited speech, its racial hierarchies and social credit systems, could be the outlines of the new world that the PMC is constructing and upon which it will wield administrative power through its weird discourses and avant-garde morality, just as the bourgeoisie laid the foundations for the modern world within the decaying social order of feudalism.
Or, it could just be a fad. I can’t claim to know for sure. If the Democrats are wiped out on Tuesday, we’ll either see the political influence of the professional managerial radicals crumble, or, galvanized by the backlash, it will explode. If it’s the latter, then we can be reasonably sure that the long march through the institutions is, in fact, afoot.