The new cultural politics and the rise of the knowledge class
In the past six to eight years in the West, and to varying extents throughout the whole world, a massive social and cultural movement has come to the fore. Its participants have adopted no single name for it, though the term ‘social justice’ is common. Its opponents have called it variously ‘identity politics’, ‘wokeness’, ‘cancel culture’ or the movement of ‘social justice warriors’. As for the moments one would choose to mark this recent history, they would be determined by whether one regarded it as a triumph of liberation or a cultural disaster.
We have seen the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2014 at the same time as campaigns against ‘cultural appropriation’ have banned students from wearing sombreros; campaigns against the lack of casting diversity in mainstream TV and cinema at the same time as arguments that only LGBTQ actors can play LGBTQ characters; the full public emergence of trans as a social category of identity, along with attempts to ban any expression of the viewpoint that embodied sex is a valid and important political and institutional category; a full exploration of unspoken colonialist mindsets that underlie much received ‘great’ literature while some people have attempted to prevent their teaching; the prosecution of powerful serial abusers such as film producer Harvey Weinstein at the same time the comedian Dave Chappelle received a barrage of criticism and an attempt at social ‘cancellation’ because his comedy special The Closer made jokes about the absurdity generated by admission of trans women into women’s sport, and declared himself to be on ‘Team TERF’; above all we have seen a willingness to accept the idea that the state or other powerful institutions should actively censor speech and control behaviour in the interests of a widely defined notion of justice. One could choose any number of alternative examples.
Here I have little interest in exploring right-wing political attacks on this vast and diverse movement, nor simply to repeat simplistic or vulgar Marxist libertarian left-wing approaches that reject any consideration of the complexities of culture and subjectivity in the creation of a radical, liberating and progressive policy. My purpose is to examine some of the contradictions, which could be argued to be counter-productive to, and reversing of, a genuinely progressive politics. I will argue that this movement should be seen not primarily as a product of voluntary and self-selecting political affiliation by those enlivened to the facts of oppression, and with no specific group derivation, but that the movement is an organic expression of the values of a specific socioeconomic group that has arisen from the creation of post-industrial economies in the West, and is bound up with the creation of new knowledge, cultural texts and works, and policy enactments. This group is sufficiently distinct to be called a ‘knowledge class’ in its own right. The theoretical complexities that designation brings with it are nevertheless worth bearing in order to examine this group—which includes virtually all the readers of this essay—from a class perspective, as having collective interests, ideology, world formation, habitus and so on. That leads also to certain strategic considerations of political action. But first, one needs an analysis of what ‘the movement’ comprises.
One could summarise the social justice movement as having X features. It seeks to make visible hidden layers of oppression, largely along the lines of race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, disability, and more recent additions such as neurodivergence—and, to a lesser degree, class. It sees multiplicities of oppressive overlap, creating distinct ‘intersectional’ groups in this mesh. It sees texts, images and ‘recognitions’ of such groups as material, as real as ‘base’ economic and social relations, and thus as urgent targets for political action. Consequently, elements of it tend to be anti-liberal in their view of the public sphere: the state and other bodies should control what speech is allowed, to avoid material hurt and social damage to one’s subjectivity. This rejection of a fully open public sphere involves a critical attitude to notions of ‘pluralism’, or multiple coexisting viewpoints. Consequently there is a rejection of the legitimacy of tradition as a value. That in turn suggests that such traditions, present and past, must be renounced and apologised for, and that such mass and continuing apology is a crucial part of the political cycle.
This ‘social justice’ movement has risen to extraordinary social, economic and cultural power. It has subjected every taken-for-granted cultural setting and social habit to scrutiny. It has also produced a significant opposition from the right, various elements of which have organised themselves around an ‘anti-woke’ culture to draw support from social groups—such as the remaining traditional industrial working class—who would hitherto have been on the left. The emergence of the movement is all the more remarkable because it has brought to the fore a range of cultural and social concerns, at a time when global capitalism has been driving on to ever-greater privatisation of collective resources, diversion of the social surplus to capital dividends, reduced purchasing power of wages and the expansion of casualised and precarious work. Although this has hit some groups harder than others, it has been universal to all, save those with capital.
The initial shock that created this era—the 2007–08 crash—brought about the ‘Occupy’ movement of 2010–12. This movement advanced universal and, by twentieth-century radical standards, fairly moderate demands for a social democracy that tilted society towards greater fairness, equalisation of opportunity and the provision of the means of life—affordable housing, universal health care—as a simple human right. The ‘social justice’ movement appears to have emerged as the energy of Occupy’s universalism began to fade.
This was not the first time this switch in dominant progressive discourses had occurred. The late 1970s saw the fading of the ‘new left’ movement that had begun in the 1950s and exploded in the 1960s, and which was twinned with a still viable working-class (or section of such) movement towards socialism, or challenging capitalism. This came apart very quickly in the mid to late 1970s, as major uprisings—Paris 1968, the British miners’ strikes of 1973–74—failed to consolidate, and further failures on the left, such as European ‘red terror’ and Pol Pot’s Kampuchean regime, discredited radical change. Into this rushed the political right with a new ideology: the combination of free-market economics and social conservatism of Thatcherism and Reaganism, which dominated the next decade and a half.
It was in this context that the left first turned to questions of representation and image as the key issues of any struggle, rather than as the secondary matter, as had been the case previously. The black power, second-wave feminist and gay liberation movements arising in the 1960s had seen their struggles as being set in a wider shift in socioeconomic power, and in the control of resources. What would be the point, or even the possibility, of a gay/black/female capitalism? In the 1980s this fell away, and new forms of social-movement politics were established. Second-wave feminism and black power both turned towards the ‘long march through the institutions’, with the establishment of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws, and greater representation in the creation of autonomous organisations on the agenda. These gradually yielded to questions of representation, of gender, of race, in advertising, film, TV and the like.
By the late 1980s, the cohort of Generation X, raised by 1960s-influenced baby boomers, were entering a university system that had vastly expanded its intake across the West. Their demands were of one order higher than previous demands for social-relational change, and they were no longer mediated by other forces. By the late 1980s, the ‘sexual revolution’ had been fought and won. So the ground was cleared for a feminist argument from Robin Morgan and others, that pornography was not liberating, but the ‘theory, of which rape was the practice’. There was increased attention to the language used around race. The sexism of fashion and its advertising became a dominant concern. The term ‘political correctness’, an old and positive term for correct-line thinking derived from the Marxist tradition, was used by cultural conservatives to describe the new revolution shaking campuses. As the Berlin Wall fell, the Eastern Bloc crumbled and the USSR disintegrated, little attention was paid to the political-economic framework as a new generation was increasingly concerned about representations in media and image in everyday life.
The gradual consolidation of a ‘new world order’ dominated by the US-controlled institutions of global neoliberalism attracted relatively little attention from a new mass of progressives—even as the ‘zapatista’ uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, returned radical activist politics to the fore. Between the mid 1990s and 2010 there was a return to material politics, but with sharply reduced demands in comparison to the grand socialist/new-left era. The global anti-capitalist movement kept its hundreds of groups together with a minimal program—‘another world is possible’—and a demand for a sort of global left social democracy, protecting multiple life modes. Just as this was flagging, the 9/11 attacks and subsequent US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq tipped the left and young millennials into a basic anti-war and anti-imperialism politics (even if, as we shall see, much else was bubbling below the surface). This too subsided, into the minimal program of supporting Barack Obama or Kevin Rudd for official power.
The 2007–08 crash rebooted left politics somewhat, providing the conditions for global ‘Occupy’ to emerge. It was as Occupy began to flag and eventually dissolve around 2012–13 that the current politics of everyday life and representation began to emerge into, and dominate, the public sphere.
For those adopting and advocating such language and approaches, the settings of this culture constitute the moral reordering of a highly imperfect world. For many of those born in the mid to late 1990s onwards, it is simply part of the conduct of everyday life, in which all notions of essential difference and distinction—above all of gender and gender-identity, but also culture, class, age, recent history—are subject to a radical equivalence, in which everything is seen to be capable of being transformed, exchanged, changed, in line with personal preferences and autonomy, and in which all eras and persons are morally judged in light of that radical equivalence.
More than one news site has got a story out of showing post-millennials episodes of something like Friends—seen as the epitome of harmlessness before the great cultural shift—to marvel at its dazzling whiteness, its amusement at toxic masculinity, its ‘transphobic’ set-piece humour and so on. For older enthusiasts of this new world, the cultural revolution marks the continuation of the 1960s revolution, where residual inequalities that had been waved through in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were being rooted out, one encounter at a time. A website such as Everyday Feminism appears to have taken as its brief the task of creating a vast workbook of appropriate and inappropriate interactions along every intersectional line of race, gender and identity.
By contrast, for the cultural-warrior right, this transformation is to no degree an uprising from the grassroots, no expression of any deep and broad political urge. Instead, they hold it to be a projection by a new elite—those coming out of the humanities faculties of the campuses—on to the mass of the young. How such a specific notion of human interaction is projected onto a whole population and manages to ‘hook them in’ is never sufficiently explained. It’s a seduction model, rolled over from a similar theory in the 1960s—the notion of ‘tenured radicals’, the idea that the student protests engulfing the country could be nothing other than the indoctrination of the new mass of students coming from good suburban and rural homes, to be instructed in Marxism and free love by professors coming out of the ‘old left’ of the 1940s and 1950s, who had allegedly smuggled themselves into academe.
But the new progressives also fail to reflect on their own beliefs. They simply see them as the rolling out of obvious and ethical truths that had yet to be enacted on a lacking world. One can see this latter phenomenon in, for example, the same-sex marriage plebiscite in Australia in 2017, and the attitude among many progressives that the plebiscite should not even be held—that there was nothing to debate, and that the case for traditional marriage could not even be made, that it was simply a vacuum of the good.
These asymmetrical assessments of the new progressivism have resulted in the current culture wars. Neither response really answers the question as to where this new era came from. Much of the energy clearly comes from the young, and the very young, including high and upper primary school kids. And it is clear that the ‘second internet’ of the mid 2000s—the simultaneous creation of social media and the smart phone—has played a major role in the generational divide.
The new progressivism
By transforming the ‘directional’ nature of broadcasting in the ‘high’ era of mass culture, to one of fragmented cross-communication, the process of value-system establishment and reproduction became a networked and reciprocal process. Where moral/ideological values were once disseminated from central authorities (and resistance and transformation were mounted by the creation of well-defined subcultures), they began to be developed from the rapid circulation of judgement and opinion between groups and individuals—a process that becomes, beyond a certain point, unmappable, and a categorically different manner of cultural interface to the previous era. But sections of youth are frequently filled with ethical passions. That alone cannot explain why the revolution spread to the whole culture and why it was granted such legitimacy.
That question can be answered, and a more comprehensive picture of the present made, if this new movement is thought of as the product not of an ethical upsurge based purely in the ‘rightness’ of a set of new ideas, but as the result of a set of new material circumstances, and more particularly of a new social class that these new circumstances have created. Such an expanded conception takes in the impact of the new technologies, but goes deeper and broader to contextualise them.
The spread of a new value system, which I’m calling the ‘new progressivism’, is largely due to the steady rise and sudden mass power of a relatively separate new social class: the knowledge class (or knowledge-culture-policy class).1 Although it is a segment of traditional capitalist classes, it also has separate modes of accumulation and world construction. The new progressivism has arisen from the growth of a knowledge/information economy in the West, at the same time as the industrial economy has declined— which accounts for its rapid increase in social power. The credo of the new progressivism is one of universalism, radical equality, transgression of given boundaries (of a certain type) and rejection of the contingent authority of tradition. Accepting the idea of a knowledge class makes the ‘craziness’ of the past decade fit into place. This is neither some autonomous ethical upsurge, nor sinister brainwashing conspiracy. It is a class simply expressing the values its members find to be ‘natural’ and ‘unquestionable’—values that were once marginal and avant-garde.
Numerous theories have sought to place the ‘intellectuals’ as a force in history above and beyond their role as intellectuals. Indeed, the notion that it is ‘intellectuals’ who have been the driving force of modern history goes all the way back to Edmund Burke and the formation of modern conservatism. In this view, the general population is always contented and adapted to its lot, and the product of intellectuals—ideas—is an abstract, alien presence, which offers perfect or rational worlds in place of the old one of privilege and suffering.2 In Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, ideas were formulated by the ‘elite’ theorists into a counter-liberal, counter-Marxist theory that society ran on the contention and replacement of small power groups—‘the circulation of the elites’—which the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci drew into his more comprehensive (but still Marxist) theory of how the ruling class rules.3 In the postwar era, excessively broad theories of ‘the managerial class’ and ‘the new class’ were advanced to cover professional-managerial workers, drawing in scientists (and often leaving out artists, and creative workers).4
The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on ‘cultural capital’ leads to a different class theory, albeit one based on consumption. And more recently there have been theories oriented to social and political strategies, such as Richard Florida’s The Creative Class, which also strike me as insufficient to explain the radical transformations of the era. In what follows I draw substantially on the theory of ‘constitutive abstraction’ and the ‘intellectually trained’ developed by the writers around the Melbourne journal Arena, while adding some speculations not central to that theory.
Rise of the knowledge class
A lightning tour of the prehistory of the rise of the knowledge class would be this. The emergence and consolidation of capitalism in the mid nineteenth century created two great classes—the bourgeoisie owning capital, and the workers selling their labour, as wages, to live. Workers can be engaged in either manual or intellectual labour—physicality of work is not the division. There are other classes, but they are either declining (the peasantry), or marginal and boundary crossing (the ‘petit bourgeois’). In this framework—basically Marxist, for the moment—there is one major division among the working class. Some produce objects, services and texts in highly routine ways—from factory workers to school teachers—and a smaller group produce cultural texts and new knowledge.
This latter group is everyone from jobbing newspaper writers and advertising drafters to employed inventors and scientists, to fully bohemian poets and artists. Some live off capital, in the form of family money. Others sell their material and are small traders, while a few become prosperous. But the vast majority work for a wage of some sort. In the high period of Western capitalism, from the 1850s to the 1960s, the distinctive nature of their practice is a mere subset of the vast process of capital accumulation by routinised object/service production, and the two major classes it creates.
But in the 1960s, the shape of Western societies begins to change. From World War II onwards, science, education and industry are yoked together by the state, in first hot then cold war. The notion of rapid and permanent revolution, by means of research in production techniques, takes over. Secondary and tertiary education are expanded. Wages and disposable income rise as governments implement a three-decade Keynesian growth strategy. Automation and information technology are introduced. In the two major classes, the ‘intellectually trained’ become a numerically major, distinct group. Factories that once had one engineer now have dozens. Engineers and scientists now work in teams on innovation that was once done ad hoc.
Vast amounts of entertainment and advertising of an increasing quality must now be produced. In both scientific knowledge and cultural production, the levels of skill demanded rise steadily above the routine. Science must constantly question the models it is using, in order to create newer, better ones. Audiences demand innovation, novelty, more sophisticated material. Increasingly, the thought practices that were once limited wholly to the university—the relentless questioning of one’s own assumptions and ‘given’ world—become the work practices of a whole set of creators.5
It is inevitable that this change in group character in the standard class frame creates two distinct social groups. From the 1950s onwards, first for the humanities trained, and spreading to the scientific groups, a globalising, universalist world sense and morality begin to become a dominant value system of this new ‘intellectually trained’ group. These thought habits and values do not per se arise from being indoctrinated into globalism—as the right has it—but simply as the necessary consequence of the practices that such people need to be trained in, for what by the 1960s became an enmeshed industrial-knowledge/ information economy.
If you are being trained in a world whose very process—intellectual exchange—is global, disembodied, universal and above all abstracting from the particular to the general, then the inherited, particular and parochial ideas of your community—say, of racial superiority—will simply start to look non-functional, if not absurd. This will acquire a moral sense—that racism is bad—but what serves to make it a general value of a whole class of people (the intellectually trained, including students) is that the whole framework of existence has changed for them. Thus, this group, the intellectually trained, through the 1960s, emerges from the dominating framework of simple economic class to be an autonomous group in its own right.6 This is the historical motive force for the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s—why such struggles, which had been small bohemian or radical worker political causes before World War II—could go from marginal absurdity to common sense in the course of a decade or so. Common sense first for a specific group in society, and then for the vast majority of society.
To identify social groups extending beyond the standard class framework is nothing new. Max Weber’s sociology of the early twentieth century was devoted to identifying sources of social power and group identity other than economic class. This was taken up by various theorists of the ‘managerial’ or ‘new’ class—administrators and the like—from the 1940s to the 1970s.7 The left, by and large, rejected these. Initially it stuck to Marx’s schema—because it identified class as related to the reproduction of self in the world, and the injustice of exploitation—and then it added the categories of gender, race and sexuality, as something more than features of the cultural ‘superstructure’.
The ‘new left’ of the 1960s and 1970s was thus taken up with fierce debates about the various positions of class, gender, race and other divisions, and which could claim priority, but the major material division opening up—of radically different types of work and world-forming practice—was left relatively untheorised. This arose from a political imperative—that a great alliance between manual/routine workers and the intellectually trained be created—and the Marxian attitude that underlay it, that capitalist commodity relationships made manual and mental labour of all types, into the one class.8
To argue that, in the decades since, knowledge and culture workers have become so greater numerically and garnered such power that they must be seen as a distinct class is potentially to enter into the theoretical/philosophical question of what a ‘class’ is. There is no space here for that in any detail, and no pressing necessity. The notion of a ‘knowledge (and culture) class’ as something more and wider than ‘intellectuals’, the ‘intellectually trained’ and certainly of more descriptive accuracy than ‘the elites’, can be taken as a recognition of their distinctiveness in the standard class array, the particular powers they have gained, and a class consciousness that comes with it.
The accumulating technologies to the 1980s made comprehensive globalisation and automation possible, and the result, in the 1990s and beyond, was the rapid deindustrialisation of the West, the fast conversion to a knowledge/information dominated society, and a consequent change in its social character. As the World Wide Web took off, as university education expanded to more than 30 per cent of the population, as the market for culture expanded and the pace of change accelerated, a core section of the intellectually trained found themselves at the centre of social shaping, and of capital accumulation and power. Now they had a sufficient numerical mass to have reshaped whole areas of inner cities, to see mainly people like themselves everywhere, to have a mass popular culture that more closely reflected their particular outlook (irony, pastiche, complexity) than the clunky mass culture of a generation earlier.
A change in number was becoming a change in quality. The sense that their mode of acting and reflecting in the world—that of a ‘natural’ assumption of universality, borderlessness, reflection to a degree, cosmopolitanism, successive reinvention—was mirrored everywhere and in all they encountered produced a categorical shift in their relations, with what was still a majority of the population. Unlike their precursor groups they no longer saw themselves as insurgent reformers of a massive tradition-fuelled mainstream. They were now at the centre of the new economy and the new culture. Having questioned the inherited culture as a parochial and exclusionary one, their practice did not really incorporate further questioning (that was for the academic philosophers, and not even for them).
From their universalistic modes of action and thought arose a new ideology. The cause of LGBTQ equality became the leading edge of this, a heroic, secular-religious cause suffusing mass culture and commentary, and all with the same rhetoric of cultural action—that its claims could not seriously or morally be denied in any area of life. There was not to be a contestation, or debate, or dialogue between a radical gender-sexuality identity cause and traditional value systems and institutions for those who wanted them; the rightness of the new infinitely borderless value system was ‘not even up for debate’. The ultimate political expression of this was the campaign by the LGBTQ community to not have the same-sex marriage plebiscite, on the grounds that it should simply be ratified by parliament.9
The new sociocultural power of this grouping was complemented by its new role in capital accumulation. The mass value of scientific research and innovation was now so great that the dual character of such intellectual labour—as both labour and capital—could now be recognised en masse. It always had been, with the patent and the royalty. Now such a mixed form was no longer incidental to mass accumulation. The IT industry recognised this by making share issues standard for start-up workers. The universities recognised that if they didn’t share patents with their researchers, the researchers would leave. Entertainment industries paid higher wages for those—good TV writers and others—whose skills were scarce. This was a core of the people in the sector, to be sure, and many on its periphery still had work that was fairly routine and waged. But even in the ‘middle ring’, intellectual labour attracted a capital premium: the ‘consultant’, for example, who steps out of salaried work to sell their labour, gains a mark-up that, for example, the tradesperson going independent does not. The system sees what is being resold as capital. It is a fetishised form, to be sure, but what form of capital isn’t?
These dual powers of this new group, their complementary and mutually reinforcing nature, the fusion of power with a passionate, ‘naturalised’ world view, are sufficient for us to name them as a class. Indeed, they are a ruling class in waiting, the leaders of a looming post-capitalist order, in which commodity relations are thoroughly situated in a higher level system of social steering by intellectual exchange, faster and more reflexive than the clunky old market can manage. Capitalism’s rise to dominance from the eighteenth century onwards came because market allocation of capital and goods proved more efficient as a communication/exchange form than the directed production of landed estates and monarchies.
This ensured its superiority—as a self-reproducing system—to the planned economies of twentieth-century socialism. Hayek and Robinson made this clear in the ‘problem of the millions’, the argument that non-monetary coordination was impossible in a planned fashion because drawing information from a socioeconomic whole at state t would create a plan that applied to the whole at t+1, when everything had changed. Relations would always already have changed, and bad allocations would thus build up until the social whole stopped working.
However, with the advent of super-computers, mass computer distribution and universal networking, non-monetary modes of communication became faster and more productive than the workings of human-negotiated markets. Hence the ‘internal socialism’ of large corporations, which use barcoding and inventory feedback to integrate vertically whole sectors—farms, food processing, distribution and retail sale in the case of supermarkets—where once only a cash nexus between separate producers offered efficiency. An eventual post-capitalist order will see social production dominated and steered by such massive, reflexive cyber-coordination, with capital and money occupying a situated and limited part of the social whole. The knowledge class are the rising class who will run, and rule, this post-capitalist framework.10They thus bear the same relationship to the capitalist class system as the sixteenth- and seventeenth- century bourgeoisie did to the late feudal order, technically part of it but with new powers that such an order cannot explain. They’re the 30 per cent in our 70–30 society.
Why is it so necessary to define what they are? One reason is simply good social explanation that may, in some way, be a ‘better picture’ than others of a real process. What are those other pictures? As we noted, much of the external reaction to these new value systems is either the ‘world’s gone mad’ version, whenever anyone hears about 29 genders, or sushi as cultural appropriation. Some see this as ‘a conspiracy’ perpetrated by a narrow group of activists to corrupt the world (an approach popular, to the point of being dominant, across Eastern Europe). At the other extreme, in the new progressivism, is the belief that it is simply an eternal truth of morality, arising from the muck of history at last (how lucky they were to be born at the exact moment, when the falsity of history fell away, and all other forms of life can be judged by the present moment).
This adoption and enforcement of class ‘common sense’ has its own rewards and penalties. The enforcement of such values is not simply the response to a moral obligation; it has a dividend of pleasure in the exercise of the will-to-power. The aim in some of these struggles has been anti-pluralist to the degree of wanting to annihilate the opposition. But equally, there is also a repression-cost associated with a class defined by its power-relation to discourse. To have, as a source of power and self-definition, a universalising capacity that produces a morality is to have a burden to live up to. In this respect, the knowledge class—and especially its elite sections—is taxed with the requirement to hold to an impossible standard of morality in their own conduct, in order to impose it on other classes. This appears to be at the core of ‘cancel culture’; the semi-autonomous process whereby class boundaries and power are maintained by the punishment or exclusion of those who fall short.11
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A class-based explanation is an example of Occam’s razor: it gives you the simplest possible explanation for complex phenomena, positing the least entities necessary to an explanation of any power. If, in the space of a decade, the notion of multiple genders, non-genders, fluid genders goes from being marginal and science-fictive to being a mass-held belief that many see as an ethical imperative, then the notion that it—and many similar beliefs—is the manifestation of a world view of a ‘class’ that has relentlessly expanded, produced its second generation, and crossed a power threshold of sorts, shows why these radical new beliefs have become, for that class, evident truths demanding to be universalised. The sudden cleavage of ‘common sense’ in Western social life—with one side by and large believing that sex is gender, and the other that there is no such thing as embodied sex—with both sides matching their exclusive view of materiality and identity, can surely only be explained by a collective socio-material rift of this character.
It is the knowledge class’s capacity for universalising, abstract thought that produces an implicit ethic of humanity, which lies at the root of a transformative politics around climate change, biosphere destruction and much more. Although other people feel this too, the knowledge class holds it as a common-sense value, manifested in the specific political character of the Greens, who are their class representatives. The assertion of the knowledge class thus represents one major hope for the transformative politics that would solve these challenges to human life. However, this essay is directed at a more proximate problem, which is the assertion of their ‘particular-universal’ morality about issues that should be handled in a pluralist fashion. Since it is the unreflective advancement of this morality—which often leads groups such as Green parties to spend more time and energy on such questions, out of the deep convictions of their membership base, than on the ‘crisis’ politics of the biosphere—that makes difficult the multiple-class alliance that would be necessary to gain the political and social power to make these transformations.12
Establishing that this cleavage in what constitutes ‘common sense’ has occurred is essential to political and moral arguments of a general character, and of a specific and strategic reference to some sort of ‘liberatory’, ‘humanist’ (for want of better terms) world view that might be associated with the left. To situate the new progressive value system as the expression of a class attitude is to question its claim to be an undeniable truth, and to make visible the contingent character of any value system. There is no undeniable truthfulness to the claim that legal same-sex marriage is right, and a right, by the very nature of rights. A claim that the universal application of equality, weighed against the ‘particularist’ values of traditional marriage—that marriage can only have meaning if it is restricted to men and women—must be correct, and that the particularist arguments cannot even be considered, is simply a circular reasoning.
That this general question informs the particular political one, for perceiving this split as a mere ‘superstructural’ one, is an error indeed. For a left still applying a Marxist approach (very much revived in the past decade, with the success of Jacobin and the like), the common condition of (political-economic) class will, due to its deeper material grounding, eventually serve as a base for class reunification beyond the false divisions of culture and social values. But if, in a knowledge/information society, the fact that ideology, by way of texts, is now produced as a central part of capital accumulation, making the base/superstructure/ ideology division utterly misleading, then no simple plea to ‘deep’ common interests will work, because the cultural/way-of-life differences are the deep ones.
To adopt this more complex class formula would be to decide on a strategy that eschews the most counter-productive (and annoying) aspect of a Marxism that remains largely located in the knowledge class: the idea that this great class unity involves large sections of the working class giving up their localism, their patriotism, their mixed-traditional view of gender roles, their view of what a family is, and the like, in order to conform to the fantasy idea of a working class that the intellectuals who created Marxism in the 1840s projected onto the working class.13 That is particularly so now, because sections of the working and middle classes, feeling sidelined materially and culturally by a new hi-tech, high-culture world, are increasingly defining themselves against that world’s new rising class, as a source of meaning and identity. The widening gap—of life, of world view, of expectations of the two groups—rules out unification and suggests an alliance between them that allows for a mutual tolerance of cultural differences.
That dictates a new strategy imperative for left activists in the knowledge class—to spread the idea of this pluralist approach among their less reflexively political class members. Prior to that, of course, they have to adopt it, which demands a real and unsparing reflection on the world views they hold—especially the contradiction-resolving promises of universalist Marxism, an approach no longer fit for purpose. One question that has to be considered is how distinct the ‘knowledge class’ is from the ‘routine labour’ class. Here one must be careful to not be dominated by the images one uses to map a complex reality. There seems to me no question that the ‘core’ knowledge class—scientific-technical knowledge creators and high-value cultural creators— constitutes a materially different class to waged, routine-labour workers, in having non-physical capital in the form of intellect.
But what of the periphery? Their bond with the knowledge class is less strong; Marxists would say that it is false consciousness, the harried tech developer identifying with Steve Jobs, for example, and that the task of activists is to make such people see that, as waged workers, they are working class. True enough, but their identification as knowledge class people may run deeper than mere ideology, if we do not limit ourselves to Marx’s one-dimensional notion of what constitutes class definition and power. If value affirmation and social extension—of universality, justice, rights, anti-parochialism, anti-traditionalism—constitute class rewards and imperatives, then the knowledge class periphery may have a greater life-interest in remaining attached to that dimension of their social being than to economic class.
One example would be the wildcat strike by the workers at US publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux when it was announced that the company would publish Woody Allen’s memoir—and had not consulted FSG author Ronan Farrow, Allen’s estranged legal son, who has mounted a long campaign against Allen, accusing him of child sexual abuse of Farrow’s half-sister, Dylan. These workers—poorly paid, some unpaid interns, in precarious situations—have never struck for their economic interests against a large and powerful corporation. Risking dismissal, they came out for Farrow, a very well-connected and privileged knowledge-class hero.
The militancy and solidarity of such action (and the relative absence of economic strikes) can be understood in a knowledge-class context, where the publishing workers’ social being can be understood as more deeply grounded in the universal justice–based moral demands (‘believe women’) than in any appeal to their status as workers. Their collective response to a moral calling-out coming ‘from within’ is inexplicable in the single economic class framework. Persuading periphery knowledge workers to unionise is one thing, quite possible and very important to do. Presuming that the cultural differences will then take a back-seat is a fundamental misreading of the contemporary era.14
That is a sketch of the relations between different types of classes. But how does a concept of the ‘knowledge class’ fit in with the other major categories that have come to the fore—gender, race, sexuality, identity— since socialism and the working-class movement ceased to be the prism through which radicalism was viewed? For our purposes, the great discussions over the past two decades of what race, gender and other categories are boil down to this. One’s membership or not of the knowledge class will tend to structure one’s view of those categories. So the question, among women, of whether or not transwomen count fully as ‘women’, will by and large come down to knowledge-/non-knowledge-class membership. For the former (aside from a political subgroup, self-described as radical feminists, called TERFs by their enemies), the question should not even be asked, and to do so is an offensive, indeed violent, act.
For those outside the knowledge class, a spectrum of beliefs and comportments—neutrality, welcoming, hostility, opposition—is likely to hold. For example, they are likely to subscribe to the primacy of embodied sex as a form of ‘real’ gender. That may change, of course, just as mainstream attitudes to homosexuality changed over recent decades. But equally, it may be that the radical version of the sex/gender question—that there is really no such category as embodied sex—will never cross the knowledge-class divide, that it can only be held—in any form sustained over time—by a class whose mode of being in the world is ceaseless transformation and boundary crossing, on a certain ‘plane’ of questioning. That does not mean that cross-class movements are not possible and do not occur.
The recent revival of Black Lives Matter, and its rapid global manifestation, indicates that this is so. But even here, one can see major divisions between a knowledge-class leadership of such groups—which are keen to emphasise the fused nature of various oppressions, the notion that ‘whiteness’ and ‘transphobia’ are two sides of the same coin, for example—and that of many participants, who come from more culturally conservative and mainstream backgrounds, who will see police violence towards black people as part of a larger issue, but who would not accept its relationship to the range of common oppressions.
The question of how far the Black Lives Matter movement reached into US black communities is a complex one. One could say, however, that concepts such as ‘whiteness’, as a notion of cross-class unity of power, and a minimisation of working-class oppression, come from the ‘person of colour’ section of the knowledge class. Such conceptions will seem ‘natural’ in a knowledge-class framework, which is universalising and generalising but may appear non-obvious and imposed to the non-knowledge-class people they are trying to organise.
These matters indicate a stark division between this class and all others, why it has come to such prominence in the past decades, and the difficulties conventional leftists will face in persuading others that economic class is the primary form of social unity. What would accepting it mean, in terms of ‘left’ and progressive political strategy?
It might mean an easing off in the internal endless roundabout of judgement and accusation over every failure of attitude with regard to alleged offence by race, gender, identity, especially when these ‘offences’ are honestly and calmly expressed opinions. Everyone appears to be wearied by such a whirligig, but no-one knows how to stop it.
Towards social pluralism
Assessing it as potentially autonomous class behaviour could foster support for values pluralism in society; a restraint, and condemnation, of violent, vicious and persecutory behaviour coming from conservative sources. It may lead to the understanding that any modern society must tolerate mutually incompatible ideas systems—so long as they are not explicitly exterminatory—including those that would preserve traditional lifestyles in specific groups. That raises a host of social questions—about how children are to be raised and educated, for example—and there is no one answer to the limits of tolerance and the expanses of pluralism. But pluralism, rather than the universal victory of a certain type of one-dimensional liberalism, is the only practical moral position for societies of widely different value systems, its strengthening serves as a protection for a social class that may remain around 30–35 per cent of the population for many decades to come.
That underpins a political strategy to replace the working class–intellectually trained grand alliance of the postwar period, in which many cultural and values differences were left unmentioned. Such a silence was possible only by the acquiescence of the intellectually trained who knew that—at only 10–15 per cent of the population—they did not have the heft to demand much. The radical cultural-political shift of Western workers in the 1960s and 1970s—a real and consequential event—did not last. Now people outside the knowledge class have become more comfortable with a non-cosmopolitan value system, one that is tolerant, open to multiple cultural influences and a liberality in personal behaviours, but one also grounded in an idea of home, borders, nation, patriotism, a moral preference for those close, a semi-traditional view of family, a mixed and partial change in ideas of gender roles, and an implicit belief in the reality of a fixed nature, of the world and of humanity.
A new alliance can be formed by respecting those differences, and seeing political cooperation between two different groups— not seeing working-and middle-class people as simply progressives in waiting (even though some progressive values do steadily become universal). That can only succeed if political leaders from the knowledge class can persuade wide circles of activists and semi-activists to abandon their absolutist moral insistence on values that arise not from any fundamental idea of right, but merely from their class habits. (And, yes, it’s more complicated than that. Knowledge-class habits are the values of the Enlightenment, and of one aspect of modernity.)
The need for a greater degree of class self-awareness can be seen not only in the prospect of victory, but also in the possibility of defeat.15 The rise of a new right across the West in the past decade has been partly fuelled by the economic crash of 2007–08, but it has also been given energy and a useful enemy, by the assertive non-pluralism of much of the new progressivism arising from the knowledge class. The decline of the industrial world, which, however exploitative, put the working class at centre-stage—has been accompanied by a repudiation of the culture that came with it as sexist, racist and more—and an attempt to ‘cancel’ it and remove it from history. In response to that, movements such as Trump, Brexit, the Eastern European right revival and the right social democracy of Scandinavia have prospered where they otherwise might not have done.
Only a social pluralism can serve as a circuit breaker, in which political groups—the ones that have the majority base—can be held below a threshold of political activity. The next six to eight years will be a test of whether a new social settlement can be reached and allow progressivism to progress (though this author would see the implementation of all current progressive ideas as a disaster for humanity; that too is for another time), or whether the cycle will continue, as the economy and society continue to change, in ways we cannot yet clearly see.
Guy Rundle’s most recent book is Between the Last Oasis and the Next Mirage: Writing on Australia (MUP).
- The theoretical framework and historical account that follows are substantially drawn from the ‘constitutive abstraction’ framework developed by Geoff Sharp and a group of writers associated with the journal and publishing collective Arena, of which I’ve been a part for several decades. In that framework the question of knowledge workers as a class has not been pursued, and the key social grouping under discussion is the ‘intellectually trained’. Some discussion of how the Arena framework relates to a class theory follows. My argument here does not claim to be a comprehensive theorisation of it. This account of a knowledge class is, rather, an approximation, to give a theory of the present. For a discussion of the Arena framework, see the ‘foundation articles’ section at <www.arena.org.au>.
- See, for example, the conservative historian Lewis Namier’s book 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals: this, as the title makes clear, takes a series of uprisings usually attributed to a mix of urbanisation, capitalism and grassroots republican ideas, and gives them a different spin.
- The lead figures are Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels. All were of the political right; Gramsic’s adaptation turned their approach into a critical rather than an affirmative one.
- James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution is from 1941, and became influential in the 1940s and 1950s. Notions of the ‘new class’ were popular from the 1960s into the 1980s. The social critic Christopher Lasch talked of the ‘new elites’ from the 1970s onwards; although Lasch was of the left, his theories were used by the right. From the left, Barbara Ehrenreich developed the ‘professional-managerial’ class as a concept to theorise the increasing divisions in the broad left alliance of Western societies.
- See Geoff Sharp, ‘Constitutive Abstraction and Social Practice’, 1983, in Arena: foundation articles, <www.arena.org.au>.
- This is essentially the motive force of the sequence, in reverse order, of the Enlightenment-Newtonian scientific revolution-Reformation-Copernican scientific revolution. But the sequence begins not with thought, but with material shift—the rapid rise and spread of book printing from Gutenburg on; by separating the embodied consciousness of the scribe from writing reproduction, and then massively circulating machine-based printed books. Quantitative change becomes qualitative change; it is the decentring of the medieval ordained world—of the Word—that makes possible the mass circulation of the Copernican understanding of heliocentrism. It is the fact of generally circulated books, prior to anything in them, that produces a more contestatory and distributed idea, and practice, of ‘truth-finding’. This in turn produces, as a material fact, the modern individual, first in a proto-form as religious and then secular intellectual, and eventually as the generalised modern subject.
- More exactly, the left was divided on the use of ‘new class’ theories, with Barbara Ehrenreich offering the notion of a ‘professional-managerial class’ (PMC) in 1978, as a left version of new class theory to slot into an era of monopoly capitalism. But PMC theory was offered as something for a radical working-class movement, in league with its intellectual lies, to navigate the new terrain. Since that movement was dissolving at the time, the PMC was a class antagonist, without a class protagonist to identify it as such.
- The Marxist insistence on material production as determinative of social category (class) prior to superficial social divisions is superseded, really, from the time of the Durkheimian sociological revolution, from the 1880s, which puts cultural transmission through symbolic exchange at the centre of social reproduction. This is confirmed and extended by George Herbert Mead’s ‘symbolic interactionism’ drawing on American philosophical pragmatism. Jürgen Habermas’s ‘communicative action’ theory then performs, via Talcott Parsons, a grand synthesis of Marx, classical sociology, Freudian subjectivity theory, and symbolic interaction theories. However, any consideration of the nexus between symbolic exchange and production becomes complicated in a period when symbolic exchange becomes fully material, that is, world constitutive in a dominant fashion. The minority ‘abstractionist’ tradition—which can be found in the work of Simmel, Sohn-Rethel, the Arena school and others—is useful here, because it can encompass the fact of the ontologically different nature of symbolic exchange in different historical periods.
- Attempts to develop a theory of the ‘creative class’ or the ‘cognitariat’ as a separate social group have usually been ad hoc, and conducted for limited strategic/tactical purposes—usually because of an awareness that fully theorising these social divisions would challenge the Marxist framework. In recent years left groups have taken an interest in a class system arising from Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of different forms of capital, including cultural capital, with which the above argument has obvious overlaps. But Bourdieu’s classification remains one of consumption and taste circulation, and can thus be rejected as ‘sociologistic’. Of course, in a knowledge-culture economy, the production–consumption distinction breaks down, since cultural consumption is a form of production, the raw materials for the reproduction of the intellectually trained self.
- There is also an important division to make within the knowledge class, between the vast majority whose work has some degree of instrumentalisation and inmixing of routinisation—the software developers, even those given a free hand, are oriented to a purpose, the screenwriter exists within a frame, and that goes perforce for all those ‘below’ them—and the very small number of those freed to pursue reflexive materialist thought without constraint, whether as university employed, or as independent scholars. It is from this very small group that truly reflexive and independent thought emerges, which makes possible a ‘standing apart’ from given practice—crucial in our era, since ‘given practice’ is killing the planet. It is only from a materialist and critical/reflexive practice that truly transformative thinking emerges. Much of what occurs in philosophy departments, for example, is simply the continuation of a genre that refuses to reflect on its own conditions of production—what levels of abstraction, power and practice make the particular form of ‘standing apart’ from everyday life possible. That said, it must be admitted that many departments where a critical social theory was practised have been, in the worldwide attack on the genuine university, reduced to schools of instrumentalised social management theory. I do not see this other ‘core–periphery’ division within the knowledge class as an internal elite/mass division, since many of those doing such critical thinking are relatively powerless. However, it is important to note the radical distinction between most knowledge class practice, and such theoretical practice, or, even, meta-theoretical practice.
- It should be obvious that this has parallels with seventeenth-century puritan cultures, whose particular mode of belief and community building was shaped by the rise of the printed book, and the call to profess the truth at all costs—including the psychic cost of brutal community intra-enforcement. The Puritans thus created from their culture—truth-passion, abnegation, sacrifice to group/class—the core psychological capacities necessary for the development of the bourgeoisie proper. This explains the rather sharp shift from the licentiousness of the 1960s—when some groups were insurgents, challenging order—to their reversed role as a social class on the road to class power, which is now passionately interested in how rule and order are maintained and reproduced. This also explains why they have been willing to go from being the most joyous and liberated social grouping (not without its dangers, to say the least) to the most personally miserable one, psychologically (self) policed to the point of clinical depression and anxiety.
- Two questions arise here. What about the new alt-right intellectuals who have emerged, who explicitly reject universalism? And what of those whose power came from the centre of the ‘knowledge class’, and their great wealth, such as the Google founders, Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Steve Jobs? The character of both attests to the near impossibility for intellectual-knowledge-class people to reject a universalist approach at some level. The new alt-right intellectuals can be seen as a dissident form of the old right-wing ‘intellectual’, very small in number. But what is notable about the alt-right intellectuals is their frequent appeal to a universalism of particularity, that is, the right of all nations to preserve their ethnonational homogeneity (hence the frequent combination of anti-Semitism and admiration of Israel). This is really a continuity with the counter-enlightenment ideas of Herder and others. Many of the alt-right’s rank and file may, by contrast, be more simply racialist, jingoistic and ethno-triumphalist than their leaders. That does not make their leaders less noxious, but it shows how the knowledge–routine labour class division exists in any given movement. This is also manifested by the behaviour of the knowledge-class billionaires. They are happy to extend their power, to oppress labour in the first world and the Global South, but they would be horrified at personal accusations of sexism, homophobia, racism. Billionaires from the non-knowledge milieu—the leaders of US franchises such as Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby—conform to the particularist values of their milieu: Christian fundamentalist, anti-same-sex marriage, for example.
- This is oversimplified, of course. Marxism took its lead, in seeing the working class as an internationalist grouping, from the revolutionary movements sweeping Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. But the notion of an internationalist working class became fixed in Marxism—and the European left, as Marxism became the dominant mode of understanding. As the century progressed, and the nation-state movement rose to prominence, nationalism, in both benign and malign forms, developed as a larger form of earlier meaning-giving communalisms.
- Some on the materialist left, in their frustration at both the non-class politics of progressives, and of the unwillingness of other materialists and Marxists to acknowledge that a breach has occurred, have looked to eclectic writers such as Michael Lind (The New Class War: Saving America From the Urban Elite) for an explanation of these great political shifts. However, these writers continue to work in the tradition of ‘elites’ theory, stretching back to Christopher Lasch, and through him to the work of Pareto, Mosca and others. But any counter-posing of an elite to a mass will tend towards a ‘naturalised’ model of ‘betrayal’ and decadence. This is simply the mirror of knowledge-class self-assurance. It poses a social mass with true values, assailed by an elite who use their discursive power to push ‘distorted values’. Left enthusiasm for eclectic/right elite theory is in part a last attempt to preserve the notion of a unity, and progressiveness, of the working class, which can then be represented in an unmediated fashion. The complement of this is the residual enthusiasm for the work of Gramsci, which is less suited to renewing political praxis than to explaining why your existing one is right, even though you keep losing. Gramsci’s theories of hegemony and organic intellectuals are the ultimate way for the intellectually trained to disguise the profound gap between themselves and the class they purport to represent—even when by birth and life-history they came from that class. The best account of the particular habits of current progressives in the United States remains Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies. However, it should also be noted that there is a new rising militancy among sections of knowledge workers—particularly content producers—as part of a wider militancy around wages and conditions, as economic stagnation continues. How far that will go is an open question, at time of writing.
- The blind spot whereby the knowledge class cannot see the class nature of its own values is the one that all classes have to their own values, but more abstract. The peasant cannot think much outside the idea of a world governed by a natural order, of the seasons and of constancy over change; the knowledge-class person rarely thinks that their abstract values are not simply ideas in the ether—for the ether is where most such people work and live, via screens, images, communications—but arise from an intellectual/material practice, a way of doing things that proposes abstraction to be the ‘real’ way of life. This is not so much an ideology, in the Marxist sense, as a meta-ideology relating to ideas about the nature of ideas.