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On Barbara Ehrenreich and Elites

There are a lot of good things to be said about Barbara Ehrenreich: She's one of the few widely read commentators concerned with what I'm mostly worried about, which is the conditions of life and future prospects for the poorer 40% of the population. She's a vivid prose stylist, and her political passion invigorates her writing rather than bogging it down. She's good at narrative and connecting ordinary stories to policy questions or political circumstances. But I've never found I got much insight or original thought from Ehrenreich. So while I noticed her byline on the Times op-ed page, I did not realize she was a columnist -- albeit a fill-in for Nicholas Kristof -- until Timothy Noah crowned her "the best Times columnist" in Slate, on the basis of two columns.

Normally I would assume that Slate's snarky style and Ehrenreich's earnestness would not mix, so this was a provocative endorsement. Enough to make me go back and read the first two columns and notice the third. The first is particularly deserving of comment.

In "Dude, Where's That Elite?," Ehrenreich defends Michael Moore against the charge that he represents a "liberal elite," and, going further, argues "to retire the 'liberal elite' label" altogether. Her case is basically twofold: The left can't be considered an elite because except for "Barbra Streisand, Arianna Huffington and George Soros," they are not rich. And second, that the very idea of a liberal elite is a whacky con-game from the same ex-leftists who brought you the war in Iraq. Here's the key paragraph:

Like the notion of social class itself, the idea of a liberal elite originated on the left, among early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites who noted, correctly, that the Soviet Union was spawning a "new class" of power-mad bureaucrats. The Trotskyites brought this theory along with them when they mutated into neocons in the 60's, and it was perhaps their most precious contribution to the emerging American right. Backed up by the concept of a "liberal elite," right-wingers could crony around with their corporate patrons in luxuriously appointed think tanks and boardrooms ? all the while purporting to represent the average overworked Joe.

That's an useful thought, if true. It allows one to dismiss the entire notion that highly educated, metro-area, nonreligious professionals might constitute a somewhat privileged group, out of touch with the realities of life and values of much of America, as merely a Trotskyite scam, borrowed and adapted by the corporate right as a trick to justify their power.

But in the process, Ehrenreich surrenders much of what she herself either believes or knows to be true. Start with "The notion of social class itself...originated among early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites." Really? I would expect that Ehrenreich finds the idea of social class useful -- why would she want to relegate it to the margins of discarded Bolshevisms? Were Marx, Durkheim and Weber "early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites"? And as for the idea of a liberal elite, yes, it has some historical affinity to the idea of a "new class" of professionals and managers predicted by Bakunin, then Trotsky, and most clearly developed by the Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas. Their concept was, as Ehrenreich admits, a completely correct empirical prediction: The communist society does not bring either the dissolution of all social classes or "the withering away of the state," but rather, the managers and professionals of the state constitute a new class of political and economic power-holders who will not give way easily.

As it applies to the United States, of course, it was a much different concept with very different roots. Here, it was developed by thinkers like Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who can be called "neoconservatives," but only in that they were both implicated in Peter Steinfels' 1979 book of that name. They were really just liberal anti-communists with a skeptical streak, when compared to the Perles and Wolfowitzes who wear the tag today. And neither had been serious Trotskyites as adults, although they did move in some of the same circles. And really, their idea was just another way of stating the consequences of the "liberal consenus" as JFK described it in his 1962 Yale commencement address (one of the greatest of modern presidential speeches, although so very wrong in many ways): "What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need is not labels and cliches but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead." Bell and others understood that, to the extent that this was true, those capable of "practical management" and "sophisticated and technical questions" would become a group with influence to rival the purely economic elite. And I think that has turned out to be true.

The right certainly adopted this idea as a way of diverting attention from its own dedication to the well-being of the economic elite. But it did not need the Trotskyites or neo-cons to show them how to do so. Recall William F. Buckley insisting, probably dishonestly, that he would rather "live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the first two thousand faculty members of Harvard University." Soon after he wrote that, however, Buckley was running a reactionary petition campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation (its board), in defense of the institution's elitism and in opposition to the "democratic leveling guns" of the university's changing admissions policies, which Buckley said discriminated against "the older families -- the members of what the English call... 'the governing class.'" Buckley, no neo-con, was the original master at specifically defending economic elitism by redefining the elite as the educated professional class, rather than the wealthy. (And it is worth noting that this conflict within one university, detailed in the superb recent book The Guardians, by Geoffrey Kabaservice -- which I hope to have more to say about -- was also the breeding ground of George W. Bush, and probably explains much of his hostility to what he considers the "Establishment" and to Yale. Buckley's act of defining the faculty as the elite, against the shared interests of "the older families" and the random 2000 was one of the most daring intellectual maneuvers of all time, and surely would have influenced the worldview of an academically floundering, old-family reactionary undergraduate.

Nixon and Agnew were the other great masters of the redefinition of "elite" to mean educated liberals rather than the wealthy.

The problem with Ehrenreich's distortion of the history is that it treats the idea of a disconnected professional class as if it is merely a joke, a scam, the big lie. But the reason that this trope has been so effective for conservatives like Buckley and opportunists like Nixon is that there was some element of truth to it. Kennedy's vision of consensus, in which the big political conflicts are gone and we defer to experts on technical problems, turned out to be wrong, in part because the technical experts of the 1960s didn't understand that people didn't want to feel they were pawns in their sociological and economic experiments. (Plus racism and a bunch of other factors that the experts didn't appreciate either.) As time has gone on, changing income patterns mean that wealth -- if not extreme wealth -- is now more closely aligned to professional status, giving more credence to the idea that the educated professionals who are more likely to be socially liberal, also represent the economic elite. In other words, as there are fewer $80,000/year manufacturing workers, and the only ticket to the upper-middle class is through education, education itself becomes a suspect classification, easily manipulated for political and polemical purposes. As the cultural differences that David Brooks makes too much of, such as between church-going and non-church-going Americans, begin to correspond to economic security, this resentment is easier to stoke. On the other hand, as Ruy Teixera and John Judis conclude, it doesn't really matter because pretty soon there will be more of us (that is, educated professionals) than of them. But that's not necessarily a comforting thought.

My main point is just that the only way to respond to and beat the Buckley-Bush politics of elite anti-elitism is to understand why it works and what in it is true, which I think Bill Clinton understood and so does John Edwards.

Ehrenreich's second and third column didn't provoke such a strong reaction, although I thought both (one comparing George Bush to George III, and the other attacking Bill Cosby for his charge that black students squander educational opportunities) were overstated. This is not the Times' best columnist, at least not yet.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 9, 2004 | Permalink


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I didn't get through the whole thing yet...but she's filling in for Friedman not Kristof...

Posted by: lerxst | Jul 9, 2004 4:02:02 PM

"The notion of social class itself...originated among early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites." Really? I would expect that Ehrenreich finds the idea of social class useful -- why would she want to relegate it to the margins of discarded Bolshevisms?

I think you're misreading her sentence (aided by her sloppy syntax). The original reads,

Like the notion of social class itself, the idea of a liberal elite originated on the left, among early 20th-century anarchists and Trotskyites who noted, correctly, that the Soviet Union was spawning a "new class" of power-mad bureaucrats.

She's saying: a) both notion of class and of the liberal elite emerged from the left; then b) in the case of the liberal elite, that left comprised early 20th c. anarchists and Trotskyites. It's a confusing sentence mind you, but your leaving off the "like" changes the meaning, turning the simile into an expository statement.

I agree with your broader point, though, that Ehrenreich seems flatly unconcerned with any changes in class structure since the industrial age, or even in class elites based in prestige rather than money.

Posted by: Chris in Boston | Jul 9, 2004 4:21:47 PM

Nicely laid out. Any thoughts on Thomas Franks' "backlash" theory?

Posted by: Sven | Jul 9, 2004 5:45:17 PM

I'm with Chris from Boston on the misreading. Also, Ehrenreich has written fairly extensively on the question of a 'new class'. (For one thing, she and her ex(?)-husband John edited a book called "Between Labor and Capital" for South End Press about 25 years ago. Their thesis was that there was indeed a professional-managerial class in advanced capitalist society, with interests distinct from both the capitalists and the workers. What part of that thinking has stayed with her, I couldn't say.)

I guess I don't blame her for keeping things simple in an op-ed. But I agree that the 'liberal elite' accusation needs a better answer than, "We are not rich!" Educated people can be condescending, and there are moral/cultural differences that do track education to some extent. I'd wager opposition to gay marriage and tolerance for creationism decline with increasing education. (Not to mention taste in coffee drinks, cars, and entertainment.) The accusation hurts because there are many on the left who look down their noses at religious and cultural conservatives, who might be class allies if they weren't cultural enemies (to embrace another too-simple dichotomy). But they really are cultural enemies, aren't they? So what do we do about that? I might be prepared to hide my disdain for Folgers coffee, but I'm not going to warm up to homophobia or to teaching creationism in my kids' school in the interest of a united front. Thomas Franks' idea seems to be: tell people their cultural values aren't going to be served no matter who they vote for, and then maybe they'll vote their class interests. I'm not sure that's going to work.

Posted by: Tom | Jul 10, 2004 8:24:09 PM

Decembrist: I also think you may have read too much into the link Ehrenrich seems to have made between social class (per se), the dabblers in Trotsky, and the notion of a liberal elite. Perhaps her point, albeit too subtly made, was to link Bell and "End of Ideology" talk of the post war period to more recent turnarounds--the so-called liberal hawks, in other words? Anyway, the classic theories of class, especially Marx's, I am sure she takes quite seriously. Much of her work, including that on the PMC noted by commentor "Tom," can be read as ethnographic elaborations on what class--since Marx's time--has come to mean when actually lived. Nickel and Dimed, I'd say, is a marvelous piece of Marxist sociology, although it certainly doesn't need the label to justify itself. The stories are powerful enough on their own. This brings me to another point. You seem to be demanding more historical and theoretical rigor from Ehrenrich. I for one would love it if she had a few thousand words to explain to Times readers the ongoing relevance of class, of Marx, or perhaps better, Gramsci or Bourdieu, and then deal with the different historical realities with which such thinkers dealt with directly, and then how the whole array might apply to the here and now. But the limits--practical, and dare I say, ideological--of the form itself are severe. Friedman's pieces are marvelously adapted to those limits: not just simply written--that is always appreciated--but simplistic in conception and argumentation. That said, I am glad that Ehrenrich has the chance to make the best of it. A more interesting question, perhaps: why did the Times invite (I presume that's what happened) such a notorious lefty to spell for Friedman??? Still trying to make up for all that bogus Iraq coverage???

On a broader side, I don't quite get where you're qoing with your critique of the critique of the right wing critique of the liberal elite. You seem to be calling for an end to ideology, a la Bell (an a la JFK in 1962) ??? As long as deep structural inequalities exist--which are always expressed in actual life in several dimensions, the ideological being one of them--talk of the end of ideology, or demands that it end, are premature. Perhaps we need to make a set of distinctions, for one between ideologies big and small, between the campaign pronouncements that often pass for the whole of politics in this country and actual visions of what society is, what it should be, and how change can be made to happen. But also in terms of ideological production in the context of regional political economies, historically understood--this is where much of the heralded resonance of "culture" in US politics is constituted. Other commentors mentioned Thomas Frank's work on this. We may quibble with Frank's polemic re his home state of Kansas, with his perhaps too loose talk of class "interests" beneath a superstructure of religion, race, and individualism, but I think he is on the right track in looking at how difficult it is in this country for men and women to find common ground on their relative economic and political powerlessness. That reality is a ideological success story, as much as changing it would be.

Posted by: RWells | Jul 14, 2004 12:09:26 AM

The modern left-right axis in Western democracies, which cuts across class divisions one way in the economic sphere and the opposite way in the cultural sphere, is often described by partisans at both ends as evidence of the other guys' scheme to trick poor people.

I think it is, rather, a more or less inevitable consequence of (1) the modern correlation between wealth and higher education, and (2) the increasing importance of democratic processes in government since the beginning of the 20th century. Combine these things and you're going to end up with a situation in which the party representing the economic interests of the rich has to champion the cultural values of the less-educated and vice versa, not necessarily out of a conscious decision to deceive anybody, but simply because neither party can survive otherwise, since they both need votes and they both need money. It would be more logically consistent to have a more or less populist party and a more or less libertarian party, divided along class lines; but the situation would not be stable.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Jul 15, 2004 8:52:33 AM

I think Michael Lind puts in more aptly in "Made In Texas" where he points out that it's bourgeois-ness that determines elite-ness--even if the masses, who buy into GOP anti-elitism, enjoy many bourgeois tastes themselves. Buying a $16 candle and faux antiques at the Cracker Barrel or $3 cups of coffee anywhere are bourgeois indulgences--even if it's of the country kitch or non-Starbuck's variety. Very few people are considering whether the old money families or the educated technocratic class is more truly "elite." Neither Michael Moore nor George Bush is considered "elite" by the masses. That's why the Republicans have not really been able to effectively defame Moore outside of their base. It's why Budweiser-endorsed Dale Jr. took his NASCAR crew to see Fahrenheit 9/11. Ehrenreich is debating the philosophy of elitism, not (as she thinks) the practical political implications of the label and how to refute it. Lind has her far outclassed in understanding of the Great Flyover where I live.

Posted by: Chris | Sep 3, 2004 3:03:17 PM

Ehrenreich never stops amazing me with her wit, brilliance, and her humility.

Those who simply read her writing, which is so astute and funny, don't know the person she really is -- a seriously concerned citizen of the world who is so unassuming and yet so brilliant and entitled to immense respect.

I am a high school teacher in a small town who has been very fortunate to have had Barbara come to my school on various occasions for free to speak on her writings. She is very understated and low-key, yet she moves and inspires with her passion and intellect.

She is truly an American treasure.

Posted by: Kay Stone | Sep 22, 2004 9:17:10 PM