Power in America: the Politics of the New Class.
by David T. Bazelon.
New American Library. 407 pp. $7.50.
It seems reasonably certain that Mr. Bazelon is trying to tell us something. He is obviously moved by strong impulses to communicate, to inform, to set us right, even to save us. And given the arresting title and subtitle of his book and the whopping chapter headings of the contents, it seems altogether likely that he has something to say. Just what it is, however, is more difficult to determine.
Whatever it is, it is of urgent importance, portentous significance, and above all it is new—so new that it has overcome us like a summer’s cloud and caught us unaware. Its meaning appears to lie just over the horizon and we are forced to strain for it. We learn, for example, that since the death of Marx’s working class his amoeba-like proletariat has subdivided itself into the Under Class, the Unionized Worker, and the New Class. Caught in the web of an automating, computerized, inflationary, and affluent economy, imprisoned by outmoded concepts of paper money, the inhibitions of a scarcity ethic, and the frustrations of a power-abjuring tradition of government, these classes require a new education, new purposes, new policies, and new coalitions. To accommodate themselves to this strange new world, in fact, they need a whole new philosophy of life and politics.
And to accommodate himself to the task of depicting, mapping, and analyzing the world over the horizon that he is discovering, Mr. Bazelon adopts somewhat the attitude of a modern painter kicking over the conventional forms and media in order to experiment with existential realities. Denying identification with any of the academic disciplines, he scorns their conventions and avoids their jargon. It is pleasing to report that he retains some respect for history, but then history has no special language and little formal discipline. If as a lawyer he is “unforgivably cavalier in the treatment of legal issues,” his defense is that he is “no longer in that business. Lawyers have to talk the way they do; I don’t.” He presents himself as “a suggestive rather than an authoritative commentator.” Divesting himself of the formalities of polite discourse, he is tough, combative, colloquial, personal, iconoclastic. Even the rules about metaphors are flouted: “Guilt is the quicksand of the web.” He speaks alternatively from the cracker-barrel, as the inside-dopester, and in an epilogue as from the grave, prophetically. The effect is occasionally somewhat slapdash: “I realize that the foregoing only states the problem without solving it. But, on the other hand, so what? These are obviously very complicated matters we are presuming to discuss.”
The key to Mr. Bazelon’s wave of the future (metaphor mixing is catching) is his New Class. It is important, but by no means easy, to understand what he means by his New Class. It has not achieved self-consciousness, is “incompletely arrived and therefore vulnerable,” and is “subject to great tension—especially including the extreme tension of not knowing it is a New Class.” We are told that “Neither the workers nor the intellectuals, but the new mass of working intellectuals, now constitute the decisive class of the future.” Technologists and administrative intellectuals are “primary elements of the New Class.” The whole class “maneuvered within a free range, say, of $15,000 to $45,000” of annual income. That would seem to limit the massiness of the class, but it is the political destiny and mission of the New Class to form a coalition with the Under Class, the lower quarter of the population.
The liberal is an important component and leaven of the New Class. The true liberal is “not an ideologue at all,” not just “a pale radical.” He is, “basically, just a nice American with an education. Poor people and uneducated people are not ‘liberals’; they are the natural allies of the liberals.” Again, the liberal is “a person within the trained and affluent section of society who can, and is still willing to, look outside of it. . . . He is our best hope for a reasonably innovative politics.” It would seem that WASPs need not apply:
The liberal is “purer” New Class for being less WASP, less rentier, educated for more (even if not much more) than the purpose of gaining and holding a job, less of a technician and more of an operator, also more resentful of the upper hierarchy than frightened of slipping back to one’s origins, and so on: e.g., it is harder for Catholics than for Jews, for small-town than for big-city types, to move quickly into “uncontaminated” New Class identification. Those less alienated or modern hang on longer and tighter to previous neighboring old-class identifications (often with absurd effect). Also, and finally, the liberal is less buck-hungry, pound for pound, and more confident of maintaining and being satisfied with his New Class standard of living. . . . He is combative rather than accumulative in the deployment of his tension. Do not misunderstand me—he is not a Saint Francis. He looks after himself first, but not infinitely. He acts not solely in his own self interest: he acts as well for his idea—often half-baked—of some larger, new community.
Mr. Bazelon is pretty hard on Southern whites. The Negro in that region “is now basically superior to the white.” What’s more, as for the Negro in the North, “his violence and sullen childishness, when it surfaces in the Northern ghettos, derives from the fact that for a long time he had only the Southern white to imitate, that he is really a Southerner—under the skin, so to speak.”
For an iconoclast and heretic, Mr. Bazelon has an odd streak of the optimist in him. Things in general, and especially the Supreme Court of the United States, are looking his way, he thinks. The two stars in the crown of the Court are Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Baker v. Carr (1962). The courage displayed in the latter “will resound throughout the annals of American history” and the stand for the principle of majority rule “must rank with the grandest law-giving in history.” He believes that the sweeping decisions in favor of reapportionment of representation will break “the obstructionist power of small-town property owners” and bring on a confrontation between the central cities and the suburbs. He also thinks that the enfranchisement of the Southern Negro will break the obstructionism of the white South and liberate the Demoratic party. In spite of an occasional anti-WASPish lapse, Mr. Bazelon obviously includes in his complex makeup a strong component of neo-populism—a component all too rare in an increasingly elitist world.
Erik Erikson once observed that “The only healthy American way to write about America for Americans is to vent a gripe and to overstate it. This, however, calls for a delicate gift and for a particular intellectual ancestry, neither of which is easily acquired.” Whether Mr. Bazelon’s gift could properly be described as delicate or not, it qualifies him to make an authentic contribution to an old established genre of American social criticism.