“America as a Broken Society” is the third in a series of Salmagundi symposia, each built around a recent essay provocative enough to prompt a conversation. In this instance the essay is “How The Bobos Broke America,” its author David Brooks. It appeared in The Atlantic online edition on August 2, 2021. To puchase Salamgundi #214-215 which contains the full symposium or to subscribe to Salmagundi, please visit the shop on our homepage.
David Brooks’ “How the Bobos Broke America” is a nuanced portrayal of our culture war as a class war. Brooks argues that a new ruling class — an “insular, intermarrying brahmin elite that that dominates culture, media, education, and tech”— has consolidated its power and upended American society. By beginning his story with the bobos’ disruption of the liberal order and arguing that the self-appointed supremacy of the bobos has provoked a resentment-laced backlash leading to a full-on battle for the soul of America, Brooks risks antagonizing progressives who blame the current culture war on conservatives. He takes no position on the rightness of the bobos’ cultural transformation, but Brooks is correct in his chronology. Where he goes wrong, in ways that conceal a more dangerous reality, is in calling this new agglomeration of professionals, creatives, managers, experts, problem solvers, and elites a “class.”
The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson took issue with class as a meaningful idea. Sociologists who seek to describe social classes, he wrote, find only "a multitude of people with different occupations, incomes, status-hierarchies, and the rest.” There is no definite identity to any social class, but rather, “when we speak of class we are thinking of a very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value system, who have a disposition to behave as a class.” A class, Thompson concluded, “is not a thing, it is a happening.”
When Brooks writes of class, he uses class as Thompson does, to suggest a happening—aguing that a culture war is morphing into a class war. The bobos, as he calls them, “hoard spots in the competitive meritocracy”; they congregate in “wealth-generating metropolises”; they have “created gaping inequalities within cities”; they have “converted cultural attainment into economic privilege”; and they have come to “dominate left-wing parties around the world that were formerly vehicles for the working class.” The rise of this technocratic and creative elite has spawned a reaction, a new cultural force that has arisen largely in opposition to the bobos. “Trump voters listed the media—the epitome of creative-class production—as the biggest threat to America.” Working class plumbers and tradesmen have united with those who “are doing well financially but who feel culturally humiliated” to form an opposing class united by the feeling that “they cannot share their true opinions without being scorned.”
Brooks recognizes that the new class war he identifies depends on a novel understanding of class, with the old three-part structure of upper, middle, and lower classes “breaking apart into a confusing welter of micro-groups competing for status and standing in any way they can.” The Bobos include Wall Street CEOs, starving artists, lawyers, doctors, tenured and untenured professors, struggling journalists, non-profit workers, and government experts. What unites these creative elites is neither economic nor political interest but, rather, an elitist claim to identity and privilege based on education, intelligence, and a shared social-political worldview. In short, what holds the new ruling class together is an ideology, a shared belief in their supremacy over those others who are less intelligent, less open, less good, and, even, less human.
Calling the bobos a class is provocative, as Brooks himself admits. When he first identified the bobos two decades ago in his book Bobos in Paradise, he did not think they were a class. He saw them as a spoiled and entitled cultural grouping, but rather benign: “The educated class is in no danger of becoming a self-contained caste.” But now Brooks believes that is precisely what has happened: the bobos have become an exclusive ruling class in what Michael Lind has called the new class war. Brooks writes that his optimism that the bobos would resist hardening into a class “turned out to be one of the most naive sentences I have ever written.”
To think of our cultural war as a war between rival classes risks hiding the ways the bobos and their antagonists are more like mass movements. In her chapter “A Classless Society” in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argues that the breakdown of the class system shifted party politics from a focus on common interests to a concern with psychological and ideological propaganda. Traditional classes are interest-bound formations. They provide individuals with a sense of social membership and solidarity determined by their place in the productive process. The limits that interests impose on classes means that they actually aim to achieve political goals that materially benefit their members.
Arendt argued that the breakdown of the class system also meant “the breakdown of the party system, chiefly because parties, being interest parties, could no longer represent class interests.” As both classes and interest-based parties were replaced by cultural divisions based on identiy and ideologies, politics came to be less about organizing for material interests and “became more and more psychological and ideological in their propaganda.” In 19th century mob-like dictatorships there is still the fundamental bourgeois drive for power and self-interest. In 20th century Europe, Arendt argues, mass movements emerged that aimed not at self-interest economic and political policies but at satisfying the need for identity and meaning through the realization of an ideology.
Arendt found it even “more disturbing” that the emergent mass movements exerted an “unquestionable attraction” for cultural and educational elites. In the early 20th century, as also today, there is a “justified disgust” for a society “permeated with the ideological outlook and moral standards of the bourgeoisie.” The fakeness of culture, the corruption of institutions, and the purposelessness of life gave birth in the elite to a desire to bring the whole edifice of society crashing to the ground. What Arendt calls the “disturbing alliance between the mob and the elite” is, in part, a result of the fact that both of these groups “had been the first to be eliminated…from the framework of class society.”
Arendt returned to the political problem posed by a specifically new class of intellectuals in her essay “On Violence.” With the rise of technology and the turn to brain power as a path to social and economic power, the intellectuals, Arendt saw, “ceased to be a marginal social group and emerged as a new elite, whose work, having changed the conditions of human life almost beyond recognition in a few decades, has remained essential for the functioning of society.” What struck Arendt about this new group—she denies that it is a class— is that it had, by 1970, not yet “developed into a power elite” or a ruling class. The intellectuals, Arendt saw, “are more dispersed and less bound by clear interests than groups in the old class system; hence, they have no drive to organize themselves and lack experience in all matters pertaining to power.” What is more, intellectuals are possessed of a romantic nostalgia for past glories—be it liberal democracy or social democracy—that “prevent them from understanding the present and their own role in it.” These intellectuals, Arendt saw, had not yet recognized themselves as a class with shared economic and political interests. And yet, they might.
Arendt articulates a profound worry that the formation of a class of intellectuals or creatives (to use Brooks’ term) might well emerge as “the really new and potentially revolutionary class in society.” If and when intellectuals were to consciously claim their power in pursuit of their interests, Arendt argues, there is “every reason to be fearful as well as hopeful.” The power of intellectuals as a class, she worries, would be “very great, perhaps too great for the good of mankind.” Arendt’s worry about the rise of a super-class of intellectual mandarins is, in part, that these new elites would subject society to pseudo-scientific social theories and thus elevate a technocratic rule that threatens human freedom. The technocratic elite might be well-meaning advocates for social justice and the common good. But there is no reason to assume, she writes, that “those whose claim to power is based on knowledge and technique will be more benign in their exercise of power than those whose claim is based on wealth or aristocratic origin.”
A second fear Arendt names is that resentment towards these new intellectual elites whose claim to power is predicated on “brain power” will be intense and that “this resentment will harbor all the murderous traits of a racial antagonism, as distinguished from mere class conflicts, inasmuch as it too will concern natural data which cannot be changed.” It is likely, she speculates, that since “the numerical power of the disadvantaged will be overwhelming and the social mobility almost nil,… that the danger of demagogues, of popular leaders, will be so great that the meritocracy will be forced into tyrannies and despotism.”
In other words, as the technocratic rule of the intellectual elite solidifies, they will breed a quasi-racial resentment by the masses that will be susceptible to mass movements led by demagogues; and the intellectual response to such movements will be to exert ever more fine-tuned surveillance and social control of society. This is the kind of quasi class-war with racialized undertones that Arendt feared would be our fate when she wrote 50 years ago.
It is uncanny the way that the new ruling class Brooks describes tracks Arendt’s worries. And Brooks is hardly alone in worrying about the emergence of a new class of intellectual elites. In the 1970s Barbara and John Ehrenreich named this group the “Professional Managerial Class.” Michael Lind argues that we are witnessing a “new class war” in which “a new ruling elite has displaced the old bourgeois and aristocratic estates.” Lind calls this new ruling class the technocratic neoliberals or the “Overclass.” And David Graeber named the society ruled by this new class of experts “total bureaucratization.” The Ehrenreichs, writing in the 1970s, were careful to note that the Professional Managerial Class was not a ruling class, that it merely served a ruling class. The professionals and managers are not a class in the more usual sense of a group of diverse people politically united in the pursuit of economic and material interests.
So have the bobos, the professional managerial class, and the expert problem solvers hardened into a new ruling class, as Brooks asserts? Another way of asking this question is to ask what concrete interests unite the motley assortment of intellectuals, experts, managers, and professionals that Brooks groups into the ruling elites? Here there are no easy answers.
The economic interests of the intellectual managers and professional problem solvers are clearly diverse. Where this class unites is largely on questions of who should govern and questions of social justice—how to promote equality and equity even at the expense of individual interests. Should all debt be forgiven, both for the deserving and the undeserving? Are all white people equally privileged and equally guilty? Should credentialed experts govern us rather than corrupt and partisan democratically elected politicians? What holds this so-called class together is less self-interest than a common identity, a feeling of kindred superiority and condescension toward those who are not so enlightened. Arendt saw that the bonds uniting these problem solvers entail quasi-racial feelings of identity and superiority more than class-based economic interests.
As Brooks himself admits, “economic redistribution only gets you so far” and does not get to the core of our social and political divide. “The real problem,” he sees, “is the sorting mechanism itself"—the way our society divides people between the intellectual experts and professional managers on the one hand, and the commonsensical commoners and workers on the other. What unites and divides the managers, experts, and professional creative class from their opponents are the words they will or will not use, the websites they trust, and their respect for institutions and experts. These disagreements based in identity have blossomed into full-on cultural animosities. For Brooks, the new class of creative elites has isolated itself in liberal enclaves and insulated itself against any persons who deviate from its moralized politics.
Much as Arendt predicted, the one area of life where the intellectuals and experts must confront their weakness is in politics, where they are outnumbered by the many who are less educated or less professional. The result, Arendt saw, is that the numerical power of the non-elite will be overwhelming and the attraction of demagogues so intense, that the intellectual elite will be compelled to embrace ever more tyrannical and despotic approaches to maintain their rule. Brooks says much the same: "Our politics, meanwhile, has become sharper-edged, more identity-based, and more reactionary, in part because politics is the one arena in which the bobos cannot dominate—there aren’t enough of us.” While the creative elites dominate in culture and the arts, we are left with a new cultural war in culture and politics.
So are we in a new class war, as Brooks argues, or are we involved in something more akin to a racialized struggle around the prerogatives of brain power that Arendt suggested would be the natural result of the cultural and educational divide? It is surprisingly comforting to hold, with Brooks, Lind, and Ehrenreich, that we are witnessing a new class war. I fear, however, that the focus on class diverts our attention from the darker reality.
Roger Berkowitz is author of The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition. His essays have appeared in Yale Journal of Law and Humanities, Journal of Politics, Cardozo Law Review, New Nietzsche Studies, Rechtshistorisches Journal and elsewhere. He teaches at Bard College and is Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities.