Listen,Liberal

THE HIGH-BORN AND THE WELL-GRADUATED

Two books recently have placed the ultimate blame for our current crisis squarely in the laps of the liberal class: Chris Hedges’ Death of the Liberal Class and Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal. We will skip over the first because, if Hedges is right, it’s the end of our world as we know it and some of us still have hope that our situation can be saved within our own terms (that is, without resort to violent revolution).

 But the second book by Thomas Frank should give us pause, because most of us are caught in it. His thesis is this, that the professional class, the teachers, lawyers, doctors, architects, etc., on whom our country has counted for so long to remain objective, above the political fray, and steer our democracy over the shoals of greed and corruption and self-interest, has lost its objectivity, no longer associates itself with the working class, the labor unions, the unlucky, and has joined the rarified ranks of the well-educated and the privileged. We are on the wrong side of the class war! Listen to him:

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In his syndicated New York Times column for November 21, 2008, David Brooks saluted president-elect Obama for the savvy personnel choices he was then announcing. . .

It was the educational pedigree of the then-forming Team Obama that won the columnist’s esteem. Nearly every person Brooks mentioned—the new president’s economic advisers, even the first lady—had collected a degree from an Ivy League institution, more than one in most cases. . .

Brooks has been obsessed with the tastes and habits of the East Coast meritocracy for as long as I have been reading him, and though he sometimes mocks, he always comes back to his essential conviction, the article of faith that makes a writer like him fit so comfortably at the Times: the well-graduated are truly great people. . .

Brooks did not point out that choosing so many people from the same class background—every single one of them, as he said was a professional-might by itself guarantee closed minds and ideological conformity. Nobody else pointed this out, either. We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a “class” in the first place: like David Brooks, we think of them as merely as “the best.” They are where they are because they are so smart, not because they are born to an earldom or something.

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Truth to be told, lots of Americans were relieved to see people of talent replace George W. Bush’s administration of hacks and cronies back in 2008. Those were frightening times. Still, if we want to understand what’s wrong with liberalism, what keeps this movement from doing something about inequality or about our reversion to a nineteenth-century social pattern, this is where we are going to have to look: at the assumptions and collective interests of professionals, the Democratic Party’s favorite constituency. . .

“Professionals,” on the other hand, are an enormous and prosperous group, the people with the jobs that every parent wants their child to grow up and get. In addition to doctors, lawyers, the clergy, architects and engineers—the core professional groups—the category includes economists, experts in international development, political scientists, managers, financial planners, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and even peoplewho write books like this one.

Professionals are a high-status group, but what gives them their lofty position is learning, not income. They rule because they are talented, because they are smart. A good sociological definition of professionalism is “a second hierarchy”—second to the main hierarchy of money, that is—“based on credential expertise.” Which is to say, a social order supported by test scores and advanced degrees and defended by the many professional associations that have been set up over the years to correct practice, enforce professional ethics, and wage war on the unlicensed. . .

Professionals predict the weather. They organize our financial deals and determine the rules of engagement. They design our cities and draw the traffic patterns through which the rest of us travel. Professionals know when someone is guilty of a moral or criminal misdeed and they also know precisely what form of retribution that culpability should take.

ch25_01Teachers know what we must learn; architects know what our buildings must look like; economists know what the Federal Reserve’s discount rate should be; art critics know what is in good taste ad what is in bad. Although we are the subjects of all these diagnoses and prescriptions, the group to which the professionals ultimately answer is not the public but their peers (and, of course, their clients). They listen mainly to one another. The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise.

In this way professions build and maintain monopolies over their designated field. Now, “monopoly” is admittedly a tough word, but it isnot really a controversial one among sociologists who write about the professions. “Monopolizing knowledge,” according to one group of sociologists, is a baseline description of what professionals do; this is why they restrict entry to their filds Professions certify the expertise of insiders while negating and dismissing the knowledge-claims of outsiders.

Specialized knowledge is, of course, a necessity in this complicated world of ours. From ship captains to neurosurgeons, modern society depends heavily on people with technical expertise. And so nations grant professionals their elevated status, the sociological theory continues, in exchange for a promise of public service. The professions are supposed to be disinterested occupations or even “social trustees”; unlike other elements of society they are not supposed to be motivated by profit or greed. . .

With the rise of the post-industrial economy in the last few decades, the range of professionals has exploded. To use the voguish term, these are “knowledge workers,” and many of them don’t fit easily into the old frame work. They are often employees rather than independent practitioners, taking orders from some corporate manager instead of spending their lives in private practice. These modern professionals aren’t workers per se, and they aren’t capitalists either, strictly speaking. Some professionals share certain features with these other groups, however. The accountant at your neighborhood tax preparation chain, for example, are sometimes just scraping by. And teachers are often union members, just like blue-collar workers. At the other end of the scale, certain lucky professionals in Silicon Valley happen to be our leading capitalists. And the gulf between the professional hedge fund managers and the rich folks whose money they invest is small indeed.

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As these last two examples suggest, the top ranks of the professions are made up of highly affluent people. They are not the billionaire Wal-Mart clan, but they have a claim to leadership nevertheless. These two power structures, one of ownership and the other of knowledge, live side by side, sometimes in conflict with one another but usually in comity.

The concern of this book is not investigating the particular expertise of any given profession, but rather the politics of professionalism in a larger sense. As the political scientist Frank Fischer writes in Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise, professionalism is more than an occupational category; it is “a postindustrial ideology.” For many, it provides an entire framework for understanding our modern world.

As a political ideology, professionalism carries enormous potential for mischief. For starters, it is obviously and inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public. That is tolerable to a certain degree—no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as “social trustees”? What happens when they abuse their monopoly power? What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?

This series presenting the thesis of Thomas Frank’s book Listen, Liberal will be continued in future blogs.

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