In 1968 the literary critic Diana Trilling, reported from the frontline of America’s culture war. Her husband, Lionel Trilling lectured at Columbia University which had become the epicentre of student protest. He was, she wrote, working without rest to protect ‘the living university’ which ‘must be sustained against a saner day’. No-one could sleep for fear of the ‘the tramp or rush or scuffle of invasion.’ She spoke for an academic community fearful of the aggressive militancy of the students and a Black uprising in neighbouring Harlem. 1
In April, Columbia students, largely the sons and daughters of the ruling elite, had occupied Low Library and two teaching buildings in protest against the building of a large gym on Morningside Heights in Harlem. To the protesters it epitomised the high handed and insensitive way the university dealt with its Black neighbour. As the protest escalated, an acting Dean and two college administrators were held hostage. Finally, in the early hours of 30 April, New York police fired tear gas and stormed the buildings occupied by the students, savagely beating them and arresting 700.
Four months later Chicago’s police force attacked tens of thousands of student radicals outside the Democratic National Convention. Liberal opinion was outraged. Editors of all the major newspapers telegrammed a strong protest to Mayor Richard Daley. But they had misread the country. Polling taken after the Convention showed 56 per cent of the public supported the police. Media leaders shifted their attention from militant minorities to the new unknown factor in US politics – the silent majority. 2
The following year Republican, Richard Nixon was elected President, supported by the silent majority, heavily populated by blue collar voters. Across Western democracies similar youth-led cultural revolutions were met by working class reaction and the return of right wing governments.
In 1970, The President’s Commission on Campus Unrest published its findings.3 It recognised that the ‘first great issue’ of the student protests was the position of Black people, which it recognised as the central social and political problem of American society (p57-58). But it did not believe that the causes of campus unrest were solely reducible to American racism or the Vietnam War. The Commission sought to understand the student protests in a wider sociological context. There were causes of the unrest that lay deep ‘in the social and economic patterns that have been building in Western industrial society for a hundred years or more’ (p87).
The Commission identified a new kind of culture whose principle was the liberation of the individual to express whatever ‘his unique humanity prompted’ (p62). It was a culture that valued authenticity and rejected externally imposed discipline in favour of revelation, sensation and individual autonomy. Searching for antecedents, the Commission likened the student activists to the Bacchic culture of Ancient Greece and the Wandervoegel of turn of the century Germany. It saw in their intolerance, sanctimony and contempt of those who did not share their views, a similarity to historical movements of religious awakening.
A number of sociologists were also identifying the rise of the professional managerial class (PMC) and its culture. Daniel Bell described how the change from a goods producing to a service economy involved the growing pre-eminence of what he called a professional and technical class, whose resources were theoretical knowledge and ‘intellectual technology’ (p14).4 Ralf Dahrendorf called the white collar workers of the PMC, ‘the service class’ of a ‘post-capitalist society’.5 Alvin Gouldner called it the New Class, a new cultural bourgeoisie whose members shared the same knowledge-based relationship to the means of production.6 According to Gouldner, the PMC was part of the ruling class formation, dominant over the working class, but subordinate to the economic elite. Its capital was not its money but its control over valuable cultures. Students were its trainee members and, he pointed out, their activists tended to be the children of PMC parents or of the old moneyed class.
Daniel Bell believed that the rise of the PMC along with other historical trends were pointing toward a post-industrial society. There is, he wrote a powerful sense of living in interstitial time. Western society is in the midst of ‘vast historical change’. The old property bound social relations are eroding. The power structures centred on narrow elites have been weakened. The old bourgeois culture of delayed gratification and emotional restraint is being rejected. (p37) 7
Like Gouldner, Bell also recognised the emergence of a new kind of bourgeois culture whose principle is the remaking of the self in pursuit of self-realisation. ‘In its search’ he writes, ‘there is a denial of any limits or boundaries to experience. Nothing is forbidden, all is to be explored.’ (p13-14) This new bourgeois culture frees the individual from the traditional restraints and ties of family and birth that were once central to capitalism and the production of commodities. What counts in terms of moral and cultural judgment are no longer objective standards of quality and value, but the individual’s subjective judgment, feelings and sentiments. Bell believed this growing new culture marked a watershed in Western society (p145). It is the end of the old bourgeois idea which has ‘molded the modern era for the last 200 years’ (p7).
In the Spring of 1988 a small group of us went to hear the sociologist Jeffrey Weeks speak on the politics of identity at the local Labour club. We were all involved in the social movements and he had captured something that we had not been able to put into words. The politics of identity broke free of the stifling constraint of the old industrial class categories. Society was changing and the left had been profoundly disrupted by the decline of the organised working class and the rise of feminism, gay liberation and black politics.
The politics of identity captured something existential that was shared by all three of these movements. It recognised the role of culture in giving meaning to individuals. It was about overcoming prejudice and the constraints on self-realisation imposed by the social order. And it wasn’t just individualistic. We believed that identity politics promised new kinds of communities and solidarities.
The resonance of identity and cultural difference for a new generation of the PMC led to a ‘cultural turn’ in Left thinking, away from class exploitation toward forms of social oppression. Theories of post-structuralism and postmodernism, the theoretical tools of the cultural revolution, swept through the humanities departments of Western universities, delegitimising the authority of the conventional bourgeois male, and deconstructing the narratives of patriarchy, white society, and heterosexuality.
But even while we celebrated this new kind of politics, the gradual absorption of postmodern ideas in the wider culture only amplified their troubling logic. They flattened out time, space and the hierarchy of values. Truth was democratised. Morality was relative. A sense of depth and history were rejected in favour of image and a perpetual present. What mattered in this postmodern culture was surface, novelty, desire, and the dissolution of boundaries.
Postmodern theories tore apart normative meaning. But the cultural revolution that had begun in the Sixties had no moral resources to replace what it repudiated. It functioned like an ideological ground-clearing exercise, deconstructing the traditions, customs and relationships that once held society together but which were constraining a freely choosing, self-realising, autonomous individual. In the name of progress, individuals were disentangled from the institutions and social ties that anchored them in life. The price of liberation was the commodification of labour and the expansion of market transactions into society. The lives of the poorest and those who had the fewest resources to anchor themselves in the flux, unspooled into chaos.
In 2019, the Labour Party suffered its fourth consecutive election defeat. Its relationship with its working class core vote in the ex-industrial regions of the North and Midlands was finally severed. The contests for the leadership and deputy leadership which followed failed to ignite much interest. What exactly was the purpose of the Labour Party? An answer came when the five women candidates signed up to the pledges drawn up by the small Labour Campaign for Trans Rights. For a brief moment there was a sense of moral purpose about Labour’s mission. Diversity was its defining value, inspired by the belief that every individual has the right to be their own true and authentic self.
To this end a candidate argued on national TV that babies are born without a sex. Another put forward the view that a man who rapes a woman and then self-identifies as a woman should have his chosen gender respected and be sent to a woman’s prison. Each candidate repeated the slogan ‘transwomen are women’ as if sex difference originates in individual subjective feeling and not the biological reality of the human body. Those who questioned gender ideology and its pseudo-science were denounced as bigots who should repent or be expelled from the party.
The transgender culture war is a preliminary skirmish in wider controversies about the impact of Artificial Intelligence and biotechnology on the female human body. Declining fertility, the commodification of women’s bodies in prostitution, pornography and surrogacy, and the ongoing reality of male violence against women, are the context in which attempts are being made to erase the social and political category of the biological female body.
The PMC has superseded the industrial working class and transformed the culture of the Labour Party, which now struggles to build coalitions beyond its new class base. Just as it has lost its relationship with the working class, it is now unable to offer a reliable defence of women’s interests, or be clear about what these are.
The PMC — also known as the liberal middle class, the liberal elite, the cognitive class, and, since the lockdowns, the lap top class — has been both crucible and catalyst in the culture wars, which it strives to dominate through its command of language and culture. The rise of this class, which does not consider itself a class, has been accompanied by the unravelling of old ways of life: post-industrial, post-capitalist, post-modern, post-liberal, post-Christian.
Faith in progress has been the fundamental tenet of the PMC, re-affirming the view of Marx and Engels who saw in the old bourgeois class the constant sweeping away of all ‘ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions’.8 But what is the goal beyond self-realisation and progress that gives human life meaning and purpose? And what happens when faith in progress is lost and with it anticipation of a better future? The PMC has no answers, nor does its progressive politics have an ethical conduct of life.
Without the moral resources to create new forms of authority, meaning and tradition, the PMC presides over a disorientated culture whose nihilism generates revolutionary impulses amongst its young. In today’s culture wars, activists of the PMC take up struggles on behalf of the oppressed. These become proxy class wars to secure the interests of the PMC, intra-elite struggles against those aligned with the economic elite, and sometimes inter-generational struggles within the PMC itself. They are conflicts over which status group will define the society of the future, and whose identities and way of life will dominate.
The PMC imagines itself the keeper of truth and the social theorist that narrates the problems of society. Its language games are structured around judge and judged, between those who truly know and those who do not. It’s aim is to be on the right side of history, a vantage point from which it believes it can view the world with majestic objectivity. But we cannot speak from anywhere accept from inside our own histories. We are always already within and inside and struggling to make sense of an opaque world. ‘That is why’ wrote the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘the prejudices of the individual far more than his judgements, constitute the historical reality of his being.’9
Alvin Gouldner was prescient of the prejudices and the paradoxes of the PMC. He called it a universal but flawed class. It was both the centre of human emancipation and at the same time self-seeking and elitist. It subverts all social limits, privileges and traditions of the old order, while containing the seeds of a new domination. It starts out as critic of traditional normative structures of society and ends up as their judge and regulator (p15). Even as it attacks the inequalities of the old bourgeois society, it inaugurates a new hierarchy of the knowing, the knowledgeable and the insightful (p85).
The PMC has suffered a series of political defeats, notably Brexit. Its unassailable rise has been brought to a halt by a coalition of the provincial middle class and an ex-industrial working class which was once its vehicle to political power. The future will not be progressive. The central problem of modernity is the loss of belief, which human beings cannot live without, and to which the PMC with its rationalist outlook and its progressive politics offers no means of resolving. In making sense of culture wars, in understanding a decade of Labour election defeats and the dilemmas of our interregnum, a good place to start is with the prejudices of the professional managerial class. Once understood it might fulfil its better nature.
Jonathan Rutherford is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Studies, Middlesex University. He is a writer, and co-founder of Blue Labour.
- Diana Trilling, ‘On the Steps of Low Library: Liberalism and the Revolution of the Young’, Commentary, November 1968
- Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling The inner life of the middle class, Twelve, 2020, p111
- The Report of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest, September, 1970
- Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Heinemann, 1974
- Ralf Dahrendorf ,,Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959
- Alvin W. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, Macmillan, 1979
- Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Heinemann, 1978
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels The Communist Manifesto, Penguin, 2004, p7
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Continuum, 2004, p 277-278