What do these things have in common?
1. Scientists discover that a gigantic corporation has consistently violated environmental regulations, and is introducing certain chemicals into the water supply at dangerous levels. The corporation commissions an in-house study saying that we must lower our environmental standards. A regulatory agency staffed by experts but placed under the command of a political appointee accepts this study, ignores the evidence against the corporation, and the chemicals continue to enter the water supply.
2. The girlfriend of a Russian oligarch decides to renovate an old building in Moscow, making it into the kind of fashionable art space one finds in London or New York. She commissions a leading architect, to whom she gives guidelines about how the space should function and what its social role should be.
3. A well-respected, longtime university administrator is appointed president of a major university and guides the restructuring of that institution. Two years later, a billionaire hedge fund manager who sits on the board of the university’s business school decides he wants the president removed. He works with other wealthy members of the university’s board to have the president dismissed, and is successful. The reason given for the removal of the president is the existence of “philosophical differences” with the board, though the nature of these differences is not specified.
What is the common thread? Well, firstly, they’re all things that you’re likely to have stumbled across in the media recently. The first item is a partial summary of the J.R. Simplot Company’s history of releasing selenium into the rivers of Idaho at dangerous levels, and influencing politicians in efforts to reduce regulation of their emissions, a history recently covered with wit and brilliance by The Daily Show. The second item refers to a Newsweek article on Dasha Zhukova, girlfriend of Roman Abramovich (a multi-billionaire former smuggler and convict whose fortune comes from having bribed politicians to acquire Russian public oil interests far below their value), who has hired architect Rem Koolhaus to implement her plans for a new cultural space in Moscow. The third item is a brief précis of a Slate article on the ousting of Teresa Sullivan as president of the University of Virginia, at the urging of former Goldman Sachs partner and hedge fund billionaire Peter Kiernan. But these aren’t just stories in the news: they illustrate the increasing subordination of experts (in environmental safety, in the arts, in education) to property holders. There are all kinds of elites in the world, including elites of knowledge and elites of property. In our time, more than in any period in recent history, the elites of property have come to a position of overwhelming dominance.
But what, exactly, is this elite of knowledge? What does it do, and does it matter that it has come under the thumb of property? The most important thing to note is that it doesn’t contain all people who have knowledge (everyone knows something). Rather, it consists of those people who serve knowledge first, rather than putting knowledge at the service of something else. The distinction is as old as the ancient Greek distinction between the philosopher, who sought knowledge for its own sake, and the sophist, who deployed his specialized rhetorical knowledge as a kind of mercenary. And the distinction is as new as the distinction between a research scientist who uses her knowledge to determine the safe level a chemical byproduct of industry in the water supply and a public relations professional who offers to use his special knowledge to convince the public that the research scientist is wrong.
Hegel was one of the earliest theorists of the elite of knowledge, who wrote of it as the “universal class” in his Jena lectures of 1805 and 1806. There, Hegel describes a class consisting of “completely indifferent universal people” — indifferent, that is, to any claims beyond those of what they knew. They were to be objective, disinterested people—and for Hegel, their natural habitat was the state sector. It was right and proper, Hegel thought, for people in business to pursue their private interests, but someone had to mediate conflict, someone had to have “no vested interest in business” and these people would staff state regulatory agencies and the justice system, as well as the police and the military. They would work not on behalf of their personal well-being or for the profit of their employers, but “for the existing whole” of society.
The notion of a “universal class” was one of the grand ideas of the nineteenth century, and we see variations on it everywhere. If Hegel saw it in typically German statist terms (he lived in the shade of the first great bureaucracy, invented by Frederick the Great), others saw it in terms drawn from their own national traditions. In France, the Comte de Saint-Simon took things to a revolutionary extreme and argued that “savants” in science and the arts should displace property owners as the rulers of society (for this he invented the word “technocracy”). Later in the century Matthew Arnold would follow the British tradition of moderation and argue, in Culture and Anarchy, that a cultivated class of people with no vested interest in any particular social class should serve as the umpires of society, mediating between existing interests. These people could come from any class, but their education would make them “aliens” to their backgrounds, allowing them an impartiality they would not otherwise have.
Americans get hold of the idea in the twentieth century, and take a wide variety of positions. Lionel Trilling was generally sympathetic to Arnold, but noted that there was something fishy about the idea of an umpire class, since a class was defined by its interests: no umpire, Trilling thought, could ever be truly disinterested and guided by pure knowledge. This notion was elaborated and exaggerated by a host of neoconservative thinkers in the late 1970s, many of whom looked askance at the increasing role of the public sector in American life after 1945. Unlike those who saw those decades as a period of unprecedented prosperity, increased social, class, racial, and gender equality, they looked at their times and saw mostly darkness. B. Bruce Briggs of the conservative Hudson Institute, for example, argued that the rise of what he called “the new class” threatened to convert “a system of privilege via family property to one of privilege via formal education” — a very bad thing, from his perspective. As far as he was concerned, the knowledge-based elite was no less self-interested than the property based elite. This view has become tremendously powerful in certain American circles: indeed, it has been absorbed into the worldview of Fox News, where climate scientists are dismissed as figures who only purport to believe in global warming in order to get their hands on more research funding.
Other American thinkers see things differently. Alvin Gouldner, for example, argued that intellectuals have a high degree of insulation from market forces, and, not having to sell their knowledge for their personal material self-interest, are able to offer a relatively disinterested and objective assessment of phenomena. Thinking in particular about those involved in education, Gouldner says that such people “come to be defined, and to define themselves, as responsible for and ‘representative’ of society as a whole.” That is: they look at things not with an eye to how they can use them for their own gain, but with an eye to whether these things are good for society in general. Gouldner is aware that absolute objectivity or disinterest is impossible, but he doesn’t move from this awareness to a collapsing of all difference between the relatively disinterested person and the completely self-interested person. For Briggs (and Fox) there’s no difference in objectivity between a climate scientist and, say, the CEO of a company that produces huge quantities of greenhouse gases; for Gouldner, one of these people is in a position to be relatively more objective. The knowledge elite (which, like Briggs, he calls “the new class”) has an important social role for Gouldner, as it did for Hegel. The difference, though, is that Gouldner doesn’t see the state sector as the exclusive home of the knowledge elite. It can find its home in many locales, including nonprofit foundations (which, one might add, were the initial source of environmental reports on the dangerous activities of the J.R. Simplot company).
People like Briggs felt, in the late 70s, that the knowledge elite had become too strong in America. Indeed, it became an article of faith among right-wingers: Robert L. Bartley, who for 30 years edited the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal, followed the economist Joseph Schumpeter in believing “the inability to control the critical impulses of intellectuals would prove the ultimate undoing of the capitalist system.” Few, I think, would share this fear of the knowledge class in 2012. Although the financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by the private sector, it is the public and nonprofit sectors that starve and weaken across the whole of the West. And 2008 was only an intensification of trends that go back to the neoconservative resentment of the knowledge elites in the 1970s. Indeed, there is much evidence that we are moving from a society with inherent checks and balances to a kind of social monoculture based on the rule of property elites. Once, we had a rich combination of market values and other values. But according to Harvard’s Michael Sandel, we’ve stopped being a market economy, and become a market society. A market economy, according to Sandel, is a great thing—“a valuable and effective tool for organizing economic activity.” But a market society is “a way of life where market values seep into almost every sphere of life, and sometimes crowd out or corrode important… non-market values.” In this brave new world, scientists who warn about pollution are overturned by agencies whose politically appointed leaders bow to the influence of moneyed corporations; great architects work not for their own visions, but at the whim of those who orbit kleptocratic billionaires; and professional administrators with strong academic backgrounds can be cast out of the universities at the whim of hedge fund managers, whose donations to universities have become vital due to the gutting of public funding.
It is not that the knowledge elite has no privileges and no influence. The world we live in is complex and integrated and requires such people to function. But the knowledge elite has become what Pierre Bourdieu called “the dominated part of the dominant class.” They (or should I say “we,” since anyone likely to be reading this is either part of a knowledge elite, or aspires to be) work in foundations and universities and research centers and state agencies, and offer what, to the best of our (fallible, human) knowledge, is the disinterested truth. And then the elite of property either takes these attempts at disinterested truth into account or doesn’t, depending on whether they feel such truths represent a threat to their material wellbeing or not.
Of course what this means is that a small, hyper-privileged class increasingly does as it wishes, without constraint or remorse. Sometimes what it wants to do is to offer a sop to the knowledge elite (the museum in Moscow is such a gesture) to keep them happy and docile. Sometimes it is mysterious why it wants what it wants (the expulsion of the university president is an incident of this kind). And sometimes—too often— what it wants is to enrich the few at the expense of the rest of us. They don’t call this class war. Except when we fight back.