The Abdication of the Cultural Elite


From cover of The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974 edition. Art by Anthony Roberts.

by Andrew Reynolds

Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction
by Stephen Schryer
New York: Columbia UP, 288 pp.

Despite not employing much of the jargon, Stephen Schryer is resolutely Marxist – and not New Left or post – Marxist either, but the old-style, “primacy of class,” bourgeoisie vs. proletariat kind. His excellent first book, Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction, offers a critique of the so-called “new class” of professionals and intellectuals that grew rapidly after World War II (WWII), a group he considers to be mystified about its role and position in capitalist society. His thesis is that members of this group believed they could use their specialized knowledge for the public good while maintaining the autonomy of their labor, circumventing the bureaucratic technocracy that characterized the New Deal-era welfare state. They came to imagine themselves as a “new class” of individuals rather than as capitalist workers – a self-defeating strategy, especially in a time when this group was actually fast becoming proletarianized, according to Schryer. In particular, he scrutinizes the widespread new-class “fantasy” that intellectuals could influence American society by disseminating their own culture, leading “through example rather than through specific social reforms” (6). Schryer discovers this ideology of professionalism at work across a range of late-twentieth-century novels by the likes of Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Don DeLillo. In telling the story of how post-WWII intellectuals, especially those associated with the corporate university, lost touch with their class identity, Schryer offers yet another censure of the new group we apparently love to hate: not straight white men but academics in their precariously leaning ivory tower.

I view Fantasies of the New Class as a companion piece to Andrew Hoberek’s equally outstanding The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work. The two studies make identical claims about the structural proletarianization of the professional middle class (PMC), and they cover some common ground – The Adventures of Augie March, Invisible Man, White Noise – in the course of demonstrating how this transformation was resisted or denied within the pages of American novels. Schryer essentially repeats Hoberek’s thesis, yet he also valuably extends it by examining academic sociology alongside literary culture in each chapter. Pairing John Crowe Ransom and Talcott Parsons, Ellison and Gunnar Myrdal, Bellow and Irving Kristol, DeLillo and Christopher Lasch, Fantasies of the New Class provides a broader perspective on the ideology of professionalism expressed by post-WWII American fiction. Schryer’s writing is also like Hoberek’s in its admirable clarity. I particularly appreciated how Schryer stays on his message and avoids bogging down in minutiae or convoluted argument. This sense of purpose is perhaps to be expected, given that Fantasies of the New Class takes to task the conception of intellectual labor as a non-instrumental type of technical expertise, a conception engendering the sort of literary scholarship (e.g., deconstruction) that prides itself on being rigorous, opaque, and impractical. Perhaps the best feature of Schryer’s work is its continuity; Fantasies of the New Class is one of the most cohesive literary studies I have encountered.

Schryer’s “Introduction” offers a fine, stand-alone version of his argument. He does the reader a favor by not summarizing his later chapters, instead using Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March to briefly demonstrate his thesis. Schryer begins with Lionel Trilling, one of the first intellectuals to articulate the post-WWII ideology of professionalism. Trilling upheld the belief of the Progressives and New Dealers that “qualified professionals would tame free-market capitalism, forcing it to submit to expert guidance” (2). Unlike his predecessors, though, Trilling doubted the ability of professionals to achieve these goals when working within the confines of the welfare state’s bureaucracies. He instead put faith in the autonomous intellectual, who would lead not through political reform and policy-making but through cultural education. In other words, “intellectuals should retreat from the exigencies of public service in order to cultivate a purely private aesthetic sensibility” (5). To exemplify this last idea, Schryer performs a clever reading of Trilling’s novel The Middle of the Journey, in which a New Deal liberal comes to question his reformism after an aesthetically charged vision of a rose (4). Schryer points out the coincidence that, for Kant, flowers are the exemplary objects that elicit pure judgments of taste (4). I would add that if Trilling is a neo-Kantian, considering aesthetic sensibility to be a matter of individual taste, then Schryer might follow Pierre Bourdieu, who argues in Distinction that tastes are actually markers of class. Where Trilling puts faith in cultural education as a way to improve society while circumventing the bureaucratic welfare state, Schryer would seem to suggest that Trilling’s bourgeois aesthetic sensibility remains hopelessly bound to the capitalist class structure and thus can offer no solution to its problems.

After Trilling, Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills come in for similar treatment, with Schryer arguing that they all “served a transdisciplinary project of creating a public-minded but antimanagerial cultural elite dedicated to national education but indifferent or hostile to pragmatic reform” (11). In the discussion of Mills, Schryer employs one of his key terms, “instrumental rationality” (13), something that proponents of the new class abhorred. In the “Afterword” to Fantasies of the New Class, Schryer makes his major counter-argument to their position, proposing that we should “distinguish between instrumentalism in the service of private-sector profit and instrumentalism in the service of broader social goals” (201). I’m not sure why he mentions private-sector profit, when it seemed all along that the new class was principally opposed to government bureaucracy, but in any case, he seems to be saying that post-WWII intellectuals threw out the baby of political activism with the bathwater of the welfare state’s bureaucratic apparatus. Schryer wants to redeem the notion of intellectual labor as instrumental, as reformist, as activist – and as collective rather than individual.

To invoke Bourdieu again, though this time in opposition to Schryer’s position, I would propose that professional and intellectual work focusing upon cultural education and the individual’s aesthetic capability (Trilling’s new-class ideal) is in fact no less instrumental than the work of those involved, say, in the New Deal Federal Writers’ Project. Bourdieu’s theory suggests that there is no such thing as “pure,” disinterested, apolitical activity – professional or otherwise. For Schryer to point out that new-class intellectuals imagined their work to be non-instrumental is one thing, but to accept their self-assessment is another. Rather than continually portray the new class as pathetically ineffectual dupes of the actual ruling class, Schryer could have said more about what practical effects – however short-sighted and self-serving – their non-instrumental stance had, as when he accuses both the New Critics and sociologist Talcott Parsons of foregoing their ambitions to improve society for the sake of “the self-perpetuation of the discipline itself” (51). This accusation, though unsupported by any hard evidence beyond the obvious institutional successes of New Criticism and Parsons’ structural functionalism, nevertheless seems more plausible to me.

Schryer’s first chapter makes an intriguing connection between John Crowe Ransom’s New Criticism and Parsons’ sociology. On the surface, these two disciplinary movements seem divergent: the beginnings of structural functionalism “roughly coincided with the rise of industrial sociology and the increased use of social scientists in the New Deal,” while, as Schryer observes, “New Criticism was indeed rooted in an overt hostility toward the technocratic tendencies of the sciences and social sciences” (31). Nevertheless, Schryer detects a few points of resemblance, including their similar development of specialized professional dialects and techniques (e.g., New Critical close reading). Most importantly, the two mark the original lapse of both literary studies and sociology into new class fantasy: “Both appropriate the social trustee emphasis on technical expertise and its argument that the professional is the caretaker of public morality. But both undercut the essential assumption of the social trustee – the idea that disciplinary knowledge can or should be used to reform society actively in accordance with that morality. Instead, professionalism becomes reflexively oriented toward the self-perpetuation of the discipline itself” (50-1). This theme of professionals and intellectuals unintentionally alienating themselves from the society they hoped to serve runs throughout Fantasies of the New Class.

The second chapter examines the major works of Ralph Ellison and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, which Schryer reads as “eschewing simplistic forms of social determinism in order to focus on questions of psychology and culture” (56-7). Although Myrdal’s An American Dilemma adheres to conventionally deterministic (by which Schryer seems to mean economically based) explanations of black social pathology, Myrdal innovated by viewing white racism as largely a cultural phenomenon. As a result, he privileged education over policy solutions. Schryer describes Myrdal as a sort of Habermasian humanist, a new class sociologist who envisions “the culture of critical discourse as giving rise to a perfected welfare state” (63). This elitist approach to the race question was a major influence on Ellison, whose review of An American Dilemma marked his turn away from the deterministic naturalism of his mentor Richard Wright. Emulating Myrdal’s ambitions for sociologists, “Ellison envisaged black novelists as cultural educators and national therapists who would penetrate the black stereotypes that undermine U.S. democratic ideals” (65). Schryer finds Ellison somewhat less naïve than Myrdal, though, because the novelist acknowledges the double bind facing black intellectuals, an African-American dilemma that Invisible Man articulates through the cynicism and opportunism of characters such as Dr. Bledsoe.

Schryer’s third chapter focuses on Mary McCarthy, relating her Vietnam nonfiction and novel Birds of America to the “modernization” theory propagated by U.S. government officials including Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy. These bureaucrats, who guided U.S. foreign policy and counterinsurgency programs during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, “viewed modernization as a linear progression from traditional to modern societies” (90), the latter being exemplified – unsurprisingly – by the U.S. In order to help progress along and halt the spread of international Communism, these government officials advocated a strongly interventionist set of policies for Vietnam, such as the Strategic Hamlet Program. While the way in which these professionals put their expertise to work might seem diametrically opposed to the anti-activist intellectualism of the new class, Schryer forces Rostow and company to fit his thesis by claiming – somewhat unconvincingly – that these “postwar social scientists were involved in their own revolt against positivism, one that led them to place greater emphasis on cultural as opposed to economic factors in the development of first and third world countries” (90). I would like to know how the Strategic Hamlet Program qualifies as a cultural institution more than an economic one. According to the same study that Schryer cites, Latham’s Modernization as Ideology, the program was budgeted $87.6 million for the fiscal year 1963 (182). “During the fiscal year ending in June 1964,” Latham writes, “AID [Agency for International Development] provided $82 million in building materials, medical kits, school equipment, livestock, pesticides, and food in conjunction with the Strategic Hamlet Program in addition to $215 million for military equipment, services, and supplies” (183). Was that livestock sent to the Vietnamese to promote cultural education and aesthetic sensibility?

Just as U.S. government bureaucrats curiously find themselves members of the new class intelligentsia, so does Mary McCarthy, despite her being a vocal critic of their policies. Since I have difficulty accepting this part of Schryer’s argument, I will simply quote him at length:

The differences between McCarthy and the modernization theorists she abhorred are therefore as follows: although both establish a fairly rigid dichotomy between modern and traditional societies, and, for both, the former transcend the cultural particularism of the latter, they do so in different ways. For the modernization theorists, this transcendence moves in the direction of establishing a universalist ethic rooted in liberal democracy; for McCarthy, it moves in the direction of a universal instrumentalism that destroys ethics altogether. As we have seen, this apparent conflict disguised the fact that both writers and modernization theorists were similarly invested in the idea that intellectuals would use the expanded cultural institutions of the welfare state to create a morally astute, critical citizenry. (94-5)

I can’t speak to the validity of Schryer’s interpretation of Birds of America, not having read the novel myself, but I remain suspicious of his portrayal of McCarthy as a “traditional humanist,” critical of “instrumental rationality” and out of touch with Vietnam-era politics (84). He claims that both her novel and war reportage marked “the decline of her critical reputation. For most of McCarthy’s contemporary readers, both works seemed naïve attempts to apply the culture criticism of the cold war era to the political problems of the 1960s” (85). Schryer references these new politics through the shorthand of the Vietnam War, the New Left, and Black Power. How does McCarthy’s writing three nonfiction books critical of the Vietnam War demonstrate that she’s out of step with the politics of the 1960s? How does her affiliation with the New York intellectuals, who turned away from the “dogmatic Marxist criticism championed by the Stalinist Left,” put her at odds with the New Left (87)? What’s more, I simply can’t fathom how McCarthy’s books on the war fail to count as intellectual activism, as “instrumentalism in the service of broader social goals,” whatever Schryer thinks of her opinions. Does he expect her to have stopped the war, much as Harriet Beecher Stowe was supposedly credited with starting the American Civil War?

The fourth chapter traces the shift of a number of the New York intellectuals from being Trotskyists to neoconservatives, reading Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet in relation to the thought of Irving Kristol. According to this faction, the liberal elements among the new class were responsible for the 1960s counterculture: “Technocratic liberals created a permissive society that encouraged the sexual and political excesses of the counterculture and the New Left” (120). The professional middle class, having displaced the old business class as the dominant elite, now seem poised to preside over the demise of capitalist society. “Recognizing that they too were humanistic intellectuals, the neoconservatives recast themselves as new-class dissidents who would disseminate ideas and values more conducive to social order” and capitalism (113). Bellow’s character Artur Sammler represents these changes, having been a believer in utopian rationalism and the bureaucratic welfare state until the Holocaust, after which he becomes a conservative intellectual and proponent of orthodox religion. Bellow, like Kristol, attempts to redirect the new class back toward the capitalist culture from which it emerged. In Schryer’s words, “the neoconservatives hoped to cultivate an alliance with America’s business elite, who supposedly embodied values of hard work and sexual continence threatened by the liberal elite” (114).

The fifth chapter of Fantasies of the New Class addresses the New Left’s ideology of professionalism as expressed in science fiction novels by Marge Piercy and Ursula K. Le Guin. Schryer’s strategy is to locate a contradiction within the New Left. On the one hand, he characterizes it as an individualistic movement, opposed to bureaucracy and capitalist organizations. On the other, the New Left distrusted traditional elites including government bureaucrats, university administrators, and other experts, despite being a movement largely composed of students and young professionals. Piercy and Le Guin struggle to resolve this political contradiction in their utopian fictions, the former veering toward communitarianism and the latter toward libertarian anarchism. Schryer’s pairing of these authors is inspired, and his reading of Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is particularly insightful. He argues that “it literalizes idealistic notions of professionalism that run through the liberal social science of the 1950s and 1960s,” inventing a utopian community that “realizes the unfulfilled promises of the War on Poverty, which had been stymied by the bureaucracy and power politics of the welfare state” (151). This imaginary community manages to overcome professional elitism by virtue of everyone being an expert as well as a student, but at the cost of individuals losing their professional autonomy due to the oversight and control of the democratic collective.

Schryer’s reading of Woman on the Edge of Time feels inconclusive, though, because he doesn’t make clear his opinion on Piercy’s blend of communitarianism and professionalism as a solution to new class individualism. In addition, he avoids raising his other major concern about the new class: the instrumentality of intellectual work. Indeed, Schryer quotes but does not address the passage in which one of Piercy’s utopians comments, “We think art is production…It’s useful and good on a different level, but it’s production” (qtd. in Schryer 153-4). This attitude, which clearly distinguishes the New Left from the old guard, breaks down the division of non-instrumental aesthetic and intellectual work from instrumental political reformism and activism, a division that Schryer attributes to his collection of new class writers, only to then rely upon it as a weapon against them. It seems telling that he chooses not to comment on this passage in relation to instrumentalism, while he foregrounds this issue in his discussion of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which he reads in a similarly partial manner.

According to Schryer, Le Guin straightforwardly endorses the autonomy of professional work over instrumental concerns. The Dispossessed is set in an anarchist society threatened by material scarcity. As a result, the anarchists “have embraced a narrowly instrumental view of their founding philosophy that evaluates everything based on whether it contributes to their world’s survival” (158). One of the anarchists, a physicist named Shevek, comes into conflict with his society over his desire to perform scientific research deemed nonessential. “The Dispossessed, ostensibly a utopian exposition of communitarian anarchism, thus becomes a vehicle for Le Guin to develop a model of absolute professional integrity opposed to the bureaucratism of the postwar welfare state” (164). Schryer’s disdain for Le Guin’s protagonist is palpable: “What Shevek offers the unemployed and hungry crowd, who are soon massacred by government troops, is not a concrete plan for building a better society but rather his own vision of absolute intellectual freedom” (164). As I said, however, Schryer’s interpretation rests on a partial reading of the text. He would likely have trouble accounting for Shevek’s experiences as a student, when the character enjoyed extreme independence to pursue his education in theoretical physics. In an article on The Dispossessed, I have written, “Despite these seemingly ideal conditions, he [Shevek] nevertheless becomes physically ill and depressed…whereas later Shevek manages to be a brilliant and healthy scientist while also being a partner, a parent, an emergency laborer, a revolutionary, and many other things” (Reynolds 89). These conditions and outcomes are not accidental, and what’s more, Schryer fails to consider the related concepts of partnering and promising that are essential to Le Guin’s philosophizing in her novel. In addition, I contend that Shevek, like Piercy’s utopian citizen, actually problematizes the separation of instrumental from non-instrumental labor that grounds Schryer’s analysis throughout Fantasies of the New Class.

The sixth and final chapter offers a refreshingly original reading of Don DeLillo’s contemporary classic White Noise as a commentary on “the simultaneous triumph and failure of new-class fantasy” (Schryer 168). On the one hand, this novel, perhaps even more radically than the science fictional utopias of Piercy and Le Guin, “actualizes the post-World War II fantasy that American society would be reshaped in the image of its universities” (168). Embodying this triumph, most of the novel’s characters are teachers of some kind, including the narrator-protagonist, a professor of Hitler Studies, and his wife, who offers adult-education courses in posture. On the other hand, White Noise differs from the other novels that Schryer examines, being a parodic representation of this new-class dominated society, which DeLillo perceives as largely a failure. Demonstrating this deficiency, his characters maintain a “quasi-religious belief in the value of professional expertise” (169), despite the questionable content being taught. The professor of Hitler Studies, for instance, encourages his students to experience the popular appeal of fascism by screening Nazi films edited in a way that removes most of their political substance. Schryer is particularly astute in his explanation of how popular-culture studies becomes in DeLillo’s hands “a reductio ad absurdum of New Left demands for a more relevant curriculum, one directly attuned to major social events and current cultural trends” (179). The chapter ends with an intriguing though brief comparison of DeLillo to Christopher Lasch. An idiosyncratic thinker with both conservative and radical inclinations, Lasch was an early proponent of traditional family values. He viewed the nuclear family’s balance of maternal love and paternal discipline as an essential bulwark against the “permissive society” and “culture of narcissism,” his names for the postmodern condition of information saturation and moral relativism that DeLillo too arguably condemns.

Fantasies of the New Class ends with Schryer’s “Afterword,” in which he targets deconstruction as perpetuating new-class fantasy within the literary academy. He takes to task Jacques Derrida’s and Bill Readings’ arguments that the activity of thinking must resist being appropriated by capitalism. Schryer summarizes their position: “The thinking intellectual’s ultimate goal is to cultivate an alternative economy of intellectual work at odds with the economic imperatives of the corporate university,” an “economy of waste” according to Readings (195). In Schryer’s terms, here we have another fantasy of non-instrumental intellectual work. While Readings’ defense of collegiate navel gazing may be easy to dismiss, especially with White Noise in mind, I’m uneasy about Schryer’s alternative. His eagerness to submit intellectual work to the acid test of instrumentalism seems dangerously close to the agenda of right-wing government officials and university trustees in our era of No Child Left Behind and the “Academic Bill of Rights.” Even if we believe that there is no such thing as “pure,” disinterested, apolitical activity, it does not necessarily follow that intellectual work must conform to demands of quantification, implementation, productivity, and commodification. After all, how does Fantasies of the New Class itself represent instrumental work? Are we to expect a new political policy to develop from Schryer’s close readings of novelists and social science writers, a few of whom were active as long ago as the 1930s, particularly when most of his analysis consists of him pointing out their failings? Schryer might be engaged in a performative contradiction, but only if we judge him according to his own standard. I believe that cultural education has an instrumental potential, however difficult to measure; thus, I sincerely value Schryer’s intellectual labor. Fantasies of the New Class is a provocative contribution to a debate that affects nearly everyone: students and teachers, novelists and bureaucrats, liberals and conservatives.

Piece originally published at Electronic Book Review |

Works Cited:

Bellow, Saul. Mr. Sammler’s Planet. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1977. Print.

—. The Adventures of Augie March. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1984. Print.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Harvard University Press, 1984. Print.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1986. Print.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York, NY: Random House, Inc., 1952. Print.

Hoberek, Andrew. The Twilight of the Middle Class: Post-World War II American Fiction and White-Collar Work. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. Harper & Row, 1974. Print.

Latham, Michael E. Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000. Print.

McCarthy, Mary. Birds of America. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971. Print.

Myrdal, Gunnar. An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Transaction Publishers, 1995. Print.

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 1985.

Reynolds, Andrew. “Ursula K. Le Guin, Herbert Marcuse, and the Fate of Utopia in the Postmodern.” The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Eds. Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2005. 75-94. Print.

Schryer, Stephen. Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 2011. Print.

Trilling, Lionel. The Middle of the Journey. New York, NY: The New York Review of Books, 2002. Print.