Is there a ruling class in the United States, or are we, as David Brooks suggests in his December 2001 Atlantic Monthly article (discussed in my column las month), more like a high-school cafeteria in which separate-but-equal cliques of “jocks,” “nerds,” and others munch meatloaf together amicably, with no one clique telling the others what to do?  Mr. Brooks’ memories of his high school are, to say the least, rather different from mine, but be that as it may, his analogy really doesn’t apply to the United States on the eve of its absorption into the global stewpot.  His view is reminiscent of (and, I think, descended from) the so-called “pluralist” or “consensus” school of sociology that prevailed in academic circles in the 1950’s.  According to that view, espoused chiefly by a lady named Suzanne Keller, elites do indeed exist, but in modern and especially American society, they are what she called “strategic elites,” competing with and balancing each other, so that none unites with the others and none predominates.  Sometimes, one elite or a temporary coalition of elites is more powerful than the rest, but that doesn’t last long; as a result, political freedom is preserved from the overwhelming domination of a single, monolithic power.  Modern society, Miss Keller argues, is just too complex for a single, unified elite to monopolize power and constitute what is usually called a “ruling class.”

The strategic elite model is more or less a sociological version of what the Framers thought they were building into the Constitution, with “factions” rather than “elites” checking and balancing each other in the different chambers and branches of the federal government.  Happy as it might seem and real as such sociopolitical balances sometimes are, that’s not the way it is in America today, nor has it been for several decades.

The main rival to the “strategic elite” theory was the “power elite” model, associated mainly with C. Wright Mills and, more recently, with his disciple, G. William Domhoff.  The Mills theory is that a ruling class does exist in the United States and that it consists of the families who constitute a social “upper class” (and are listed in the Social Register, a major primary source for Domhoff) and actually own controlling blocs of stock in the major corporations.  Power-elite theorists make some allowance for the emergence of corporate managers (whom they see as subservient to, and assimilated within, the old ruling class) and for what Mills called the “warlords”—military leaders whom he believed were gaining more and more power during the age of global warfare.  Domhoff, who is somewhat more careful in his analyses than Mills, is of particular interest to conservatives because, in his 1967 book, The Higher Circles, he explores the sometimes subtle differences between his views and those of such stalwarts of the Old (and conspiratorial) Right as Dan Smoot and the young Phyllis Schlafly.  All three essentially identified the same people and groups as the dominating forces in American society, but Domhoff rejected the purely conspiratorial analysis offered by his counterparts on the right and saw the motivations of the elite more in terms of its structural interests than in ideological purpose.

The problem with the Domhoff-Mills theory, however, is that, first, no matter how long your family has been listed in the Social Register, that doesn’t really give you any power, except maybe to exclude uncouth guests from your yachting parties; and, second, it really ought to be obvious that the kinds of folks Professor Domhoff mainly talks about—the Morgans, Adamses, Lodges, etc.—don’t run much of anything important anymore apart from yachting parties.

Far from the old American upper class absorbing and assimilating the managers who run their banks and corporations, the truth is, as James Burnham saw in the 1940’s, that the managers have all but assimilated the owners and have promoted themselves into the upper class (by joining its clubs, sending their kids to its schools, emulating its manners, and sometimes even marrying its daughters).  The reason assimilation runs this way and not the other is that the managers are the ones who have the real power, and status, like most other things, follows power.

Managers have the real power because they have the technical and managerial skills to make the banks, corporations, unions, universities, big media companies, and government bureaucracies run.  Owners, no matter how much stock they own, don’t, unless they make a special effort to acquire those skills through education, and not many stockholders from the old upper class do so.  As business historian Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., writes, although “wealthy families . . . are the beneficiaries of managerial capitalism,” there is “little evidence that these families make basic decisions concerning the operations of modern capitalistic enterprises and of the economy in which they operate,” and “members of the entrepreneurial family rarely became active in top management unless they themselves were trained as professional managers.”

Technical and managerial skills yield power, both within the mass organizations that now dominate modern society and in the society itself.  You or I may own 90 percent of General Motors’ or Chase Manhattan’s stock, but any effort on our part to run either company would result in bankruptcy within a year.  We would have to rely on professional managers, and even if we fired them, we would have to hire others with the same skills.

It makes a considerable difference whether the ruling class consists of traditional upper class stockowners and entrepreneurs or of technically trained managers.  For one thing, the old upper class, the grande bourgeoisie of American society and the old ruling class from at least the Civil War to the Depression, was more or less rooted in traditional social institutions.  It passed on its property and wealth, the basis of its power, through inheritance, and therefore it had a strong vested interest in maintaining both property rights and what some call “family values.”  The family, as well as the local community, religious and ethnic identities, and the cultural and moral codes that respected and legitimized property, wealth, inheritance, social continuity, the personal virtues that helped people acquire wealth and property, and small governments unable to threaten these things—all these served as power bases for the bourgeois elite.  Such is not the case with managerial elites.

Managerial elites depend on the technical skills that enable them to gain and keep power inside mass organizations.  Their major structural interest lies in preserving and extending the organizations they control and in making sure those organizations are perpetuated.  The bourgeois virtues and bonds that served the old elite as instruments of power mean virtually nothing to managers, who can no more pass on their professional skills to their children than the stock owned by the old bourgeoisie can confer the skills needed to run organizations.  Hence, managers tend not to depend on families very much, to get divorces and have children who grow up to be loutish illiterates rather than the well-bred Yalies cranked out for generations by the old elites.  The managerial scion may inherit whatever wealth his managerial daddy agglomerated, but unless he has the personal brains and discipline to obtain similar skills, he can’t step into daddy’s shoes at the family firm the way a young Rockefeller or Morgan could.  But even aside from the family itself, managers simply don’t need bourgeois structures to maintain their power—not the local community, not religion and ethnicity, and not the same cultural and moral codes.  Indeed, such institutions merely get in the way of managerial power.  They represent barriers against which large corporations and other mass organizations are always colliding, and the sooner such barriers are smashed, the more reach and power the organizations, and the managerial elites that run them, will acquire.

Managerial elites, in other words, have a structural interest in delegitimizing traditional bourgeois institutions and moral codes and in constructing and legitimizing their own, and the history of the late 20th century and the early 21st witnesses the managerial “deconstruction” of the older institutions and codes and the imposition of their own.  The managerial codes incorporate the ideological premises of universalism (because managerial interests are global, detached and disengaged from any particular place or group, and extend across many different nations, races, religions, and cultures) and what William H. Whyte in The Organization Man called “scientism”: “the premise that with the same techniques that have worked in the physical sciences we can eventually create an exact science of man” (because the managerial skills on which the elite depends are based on the application of “science” to social, economic, and political relationships).  The managerial portrait of human beings bears more resemblance to the little cutout figures you see in sociological charts and tables than to any human being who ever really existed.  An elite that really thinks this is what human beings are like will not hesitate to “plan the economy,” design “communities,” bomb harmless peasants, manipulate public opinion, impose forced busing, set up concentration camps, or do anything else it imagines to be in the best interests of “humanity,” “humankind,” “the future,” or whatever other abstraction it has fixed upon.  It is precisely because the managerial elite has succeeded in liberating itself and the societies it dominates from the provincialism of traditional societies that it is so dangerous and so inclined to tyranny—and so susceptible to penetration and manipulation by well-organized ethnic minorities that retain strong identities.

But is it a “ruling class” or merely a gang of “strategic elites”?  A ruling class, as the term is conventionally used in sociology, is usually more hereditary than the managerial elite seems to be, but aside from that characteristic, a ruling class is mainly distinguished by its unity and its ability to make its interests prevail over those of rival elites.  The unity of an elite is usually established though its ideology—the ideas, beliefs, and values it shares that help identify its interests and justify the elite’s pursuit of them.  In the case of the managerial elite, what has been known in the United States since the New Deal era as “liberalism” has served as the main managerial ideology, while what used to be known as “conservatism” served as the main political ideology of the old, declining, and now largely defunct bourgeois elite.  As the bourgeois elite ceased to exist, its ideology became irrelevant, and neoconservatism, an updated version of conservatism that explicitly defends managerial interests and values, replaced it.  Managerial liberalism reflects the values of universalism and scientism and offers clear rationalizations for the “progressive,” “scientific,” “enlightened,” and “cosmopolitan” managerial class in its struggle for social and political power against the “backward,” “repressive,” and “provincial” bourgeoisie.

Between the New Deal and the Reagan administration, the dominance of the increasingly unified managerial class and its ideology was indeed challenged and balanced to some degree by bourgeois conservatism, which still flourished outside the nation’s metropolitan areas and still commanded both large material resources and considerable human loyalty.  By the 1980’s, however, the bourgeois elite was spent, its economic interests largely dependent on the managerial economy, and its cultural values and codes the objects of contempt and even sanctions by managerial liberals and (perhaps more important) the new managerial right called “neoconservatives.”  Not only does the managerial class constitute a unified and dominant ruling class, but, well beyond that, it is also approaching exactly what Gaetano Mosca, one of the main architects of the modern theory of elites, had warned against: “The absolute preponderance of a single political force” as an “essential element in any type of despotism.”  While the old bourgeois elite was too decentralized and limited in its power and reach to hold monolithic social and political hegemony, the managerial class does, and what we are now witnessing is the managerial obliteration of whatever remnants of bourgeois freedom and culture still exist and the managerial regimentation of social differences—rationalized by the new managerial codeword, “diversity.”

The idea that “strategic elites” check and balance each other and coexist—in the same kind of bucolic amity that Mr. Brooks’ “jocks” and “nerds” enjoy or in the harmony that obtains between the ebony and ivory on Stevie Wonder’s piano keyboard—is not only wrong but is a deliberately fostered managerial delusion.  As long as the ruling class can convince its subjects that it doesn’t really exist at all and that the elites that do exist are merely distinct and separate groups that compete against one another, it can preserve the illusion that something like freedom continues to thrive.  Like most ruling classes, however, it can fool its subjects only so long before the truth about who really rules them and what remains oftheir country smacks them in the face.