[Photo: Annie Spratt via Unsplash]

What Happened To The Cultural Elites: Changes in the Conditions of Production

My series on Trumpian Motion concluded with the question “What happened to the cultural elites?”; meaning why did they not do a better job of resisting the conditions that produced Trump and the ugly Republican party. Of course there is no single answer, but there are several contributing explanations. It’s worth examining these partial explanations, if for no other reason than the hope that open discussion might lead to changes.

I use the term cultural elites in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu as explained in David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says Bourdieu believed that culture is largely created by cultural producers such as artists, writers, academics, intellectuals; movie and TV writers, actors and producers; and both social scientists and physical scientists. I assume today Bourdieu would include technologists, especially computer tech workers who design and produce web sites, games, and platforms and much else. The products of these workers shape our interactions with the world and society, and provide a structure through which we understand ourselves and our roles in society.

In the US we don’t have a separate category for intellectuals. We have experts, who have mastered a chunk of knowledge and are able to use it to advance that knowledge and to offer specific guidance where their knowledge is relevant. And we have pundits, who aren’t experts but who have great confidence in their ability to explain things to the rest of us. They too are cultural producers and maybe even cultural elites, people like Tom Friedman, and David Brooks and others I won’t mention; they aren’t all old, you know. There are plenty of these people scattered across the political and ideological spectrum.

In a section discussing the relationship between workers and intellectuals, based in large part on a book on French intellectuals Bourdieu wrote in the late 1980s,Swartz offers an idea that seems relevant to the issue of why cultural elites did not forcefully resist the rise of neoliberalism.

Finally, Bourdieu points to changes in the conditions of intellectual production as a source of ambiguity in political attitudes and behaviors among highly educated workers. He notes a significant decline in the numbers of French intellectuals working as self-employed artisans or entrepreneurs and their increasing integration as salaried employees within large bureaucratic organizations where they no longer claim full control over the means of their intellectual production. P. 239, cites omitted.

This change might encourage more aggressive efforts against the dominant culture, because cultural producers might rebel against their dominated status. But this seems more likely:

These new wage earners of research, [Bourdieu] charges, become more attentive to the norms of “bureaucratic reliability” than act as guardians of the “critical detachment from authority” afforded by the relative autonomy of the university. Moreover, their intellectual products bear the imprint of the “standardized norms of mass production” rather than those of the book or scientific article or the charismatic quality traditionally attached to the independent intellectual. P. 239-40, cites omitted.

This seems like a good partial explanation of the failure of cultural elites to respond to neoliberalism. It also partially explains a point Mike Konczal raised in his article Why Are There No Good Conservative Critiques of Trump’s Unified Government? And, it helps explain the rise of Trumpism as discussed here.

The trend Bourdieu describes is obvious in the US; in fact integration of research workers into the ranks of salaried workers seems even stronger than Swartz’ description. The trend is perhaps worse here because colleges and universities have become so infused with neoliberal business practices, primarily the use of adjuncts (the gig economy for teachers) who have little stability, little opportunity for sustained research, little protection from the gatekeepers of orthodoxy, and much less “critical distance from authority”. Nevertheless, I think (hope) there is still a large amount of independence in academia, especially among tenured faculty. That independence is centered around expertise in fields of study, where depth of knowledge in small areas is paramount. Many of those areas of study are far too specialized for the general public, and for policy-making.

Much of academic study is intermediated for the public and for policy-making by and through think tanks and similar groups. Of course, those organizations do some interesting research, but most of the worker’s time and energy is spent extracting useful ideas from the bowels of journals and academic books and rewriting it so that the rest of us can understand and maybe act on it.

These organizations are dependent on their rich donors, and don’t tolerate much from workers that conflicts with the interests of their donors. As an example, Barry Lynn was at New America Foundation, a prominent democratic think tank for years. He wrote often on the problems of monopoly and lack of competition in the US economy. Then he wrote an article critical of Google, one of the big sponsors of New America, and was driven out. He and a few of his associates started Open Markets Institute with funding from George Soros, another wealthy donor with his own agenda.

Charles and David Koch tried to take over the Cato Institute, which they funded, and which claims to be a libertarian think tank. This effort which was not completely successful, causing a lot of distress on the conservative side. Not much critical detachment from authority there.

Perhaps we should read this as an example of another phenomenon Bourdieu describes, the attempt to exchange cultural capital for economic capital. There is nothing inherently wrong with this of course. For example, in the university setting, getting tenure should involve both teaching and research. Competition for status and other resources in one’s field should be driven by these skills, and so should be a net gain. Good teachers and researchers should be rewarded with tenure and a steady income to support further study and teaching.

3It isn’t obvious that this will happen in the think tank world. Further it’s hard to imagine how the kind of competition we see in academic fields would work in the private sector, where there are powerful forces at work to limit the scope of intellectual activity and control access to influence.

There are similar patterns in other areas of cultural production: journalism, movies, TV, magazines, book publishing, and large parts of the music industry. Consolidation and business failures have increased the control of the few over cultural production. Where once there were many outlets for culture producers, today there are fewer, and most of them are more rigidly ideological.

It’s easy to see how people can lose their independence in these settings. They see themselves as brain workers, employees responding to the cues of their work environment, trying to do good work and advance themselves in a bureaucratic system. Institutional pressures dominate independent thinking critical of existing authority. It isn’t necessary to attribute bad motives to them to despair at the outcome.

20 replies
  1. matt says:

    Just a note on historical “access” to media.  Before the information age, an intellectual could publish a paper or book and gain wide circulation/influence, because editorial standards were extremely high and the media landscape was not littered with endless drivel.

    Great post, as usual. Thanks, Ed.

  2. Kevin Vrany says:

    One thing that might be good to mention is that there is an impetus for individually-backed think tanks. How much influence they could have is anyone’s guess. But it’s the idea of democracy in the institution. A good example of this is The People’s Policy Project. It’s not a group I follow or understand very well, but it seems like they are able to pay the bills.

    Enjoying this series Ed, thanks.

  3. Rayne says:

    Why weren’t the cultural elites more effective in resisting the rise of today’s Trumpist fascism?

    Artists, writers  — persistently devalued, underfunded, defunded; controlled by consolidated near-monopoly power in publication and distribution. Only newer venues for self-publication and self-distribution have prevented total control of this production, and these venues are constantly at risk for co-option.

    Academics, intellectuals — campuses are increasingly controlled by conservative alums who ensure placement of equally conservative administration and limits on endowments, so that secondary education cost justifies every expenditure and investment save for sports; restraints also placed on public funding for campuses and research by gerrymandered representative government.

    Movie and TV writers, actors and producers — publicly-held corporations have a cartel-like hold on the major studios for film+TV production, as well as the distribution process.

    Social scientists and physical scientists — see academics and intellectuals above.

    Two major factors encourage this ongoing stranglehold over cultural production:

    — the conditions which ensure r > g

    — racist, misogynist, ableist, ageist patriarchy, which itself is embedded in r > g.

  4. joejoejoe says:

    Elite Democrats are obsessed with concepts like design thinking that mistake consumerism with essential human needs. But design thinking is amoral and can’t distinguish between a luxury good and universal healthcare. The Apple iPhone has never had more than 23% market share. Making these type of commercial successes the talisman for your thought model inside a two-party democracy where you need 50%+1 is flawed.

  5. TheraP says:

    O/T (sort of)

    The EU Cheese Stability Index:


    It appears that those EU countries with the most varieties of cheese have the least political stability.   An idea whose time has come?   Not sure how to make use of this.  Or whether some Elites offering cheeseboards with many, many varieties are contributing to political instability in the US?

    Our household has settled on 3 varieties:  Aged Vermont Cheddar; Norwegian Jarlsberg; Spanish Manchego.  Perhaps that’s very Elite.  But it’s only 3.  Could be the source of harmony at home.

    (Tongue in cheek.  But it’s a fun “index” – with possibilities.   Especially paired with the right wine.)

  6. SpaceLifeForm says:

    OT sorta:

    64-bit versions of Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.

    If you use either, make sure you update again, because the intellectuals at MS screwed up with their Meltdown patch, and made it worse.



    The security update —KB4100480— addresses a security bug discovered by a Swedish security expert earlier this week.

  7. Anon says:

    The interesting thing with intellectuals in Think Tanks is the extent to which they can often be blinded (perhaps by design) to the very consequences of their views and the extent to which they can be bought off as privileged by virtue of them. As a case in point, part of the reason that the Koch’s takeover of the Cato institute failed was their decision to treat their employees there as employees to begin ranking them, grading them and treating them just they have always argued companies should. That provoked a rebellion from people who until that moment had been able to see themselves as privileged in the same way that Google and facebook work to make their employees feel. Special and therefore totally not an employee.

    As I believe Upon Sinclair said (paraphrase): it is pretty easy to make a man not understand something if his job depends upon it.

    • Ed Walker says:

      We have a number of examples of this. When Obamacare was in the legislature, Marcy wrote a number o  posts pointing out that the exchange policies did not protect people from medical bankruptcy, and that it wouldn’t be easy for many families to use the insurance because of deductibles and co-pays. As far as I know none of the liberal think-tankers took considered that issue in public.


  8. Sabrina Gallant says:

    As a bioinformatics scientist who teaches at a university in Canada, I’d like to comment with respect to academia:

    More people than ever before are becoming highly educated, which sounds like a good thing on the surface, but results in job scarcity at the Master’s and PhD levels- thus, the gig economy for academics. This has the effect of lowering their perceived value in society (there are studies on this but for the sake of brevity I won’t go into them here). Simultaneously, the accessible information on the internet which used to be the purview of academics is creating the belief that anyone can be an “expert” (and the related idea of subjective rather than objective truth that has been ushered in by disinformation campaigns).

    The sad result of this is an insidious rise of anti-intellectualism, amplified by internet voices that argue that academics are corrupted by government influence. The job scarcity in academia compounds this further by lowering their inherent societal value- after all, if their skills are not needed, it easily can lead to the erroneous belief that their skills are of low value and thus replaceable. Contrast this with the fact that the wealthiest 1% are not usually highly educated (think of the “self-made millionaire”), and since society equates wealth with influence, money is perceived as more valuable in terms of social capital compared to education.

    So, what happened to the cultural elites? Against the backdrop of increasing social unrest, worsening quality of life, a wage gap where a PhD no longer guarantees financial security- we see the devaluation of education and the decoupling of knowledge from influence. And so, whether there were experts speaking out about the political climate during the election may not have mattered, as the source would be seen as biased and therefore irrelevant.

    Last point: it seems that the Trump campaign and its donors tapped into that anti-intellectual subculture. They amplified it, worsened the divide,  cheapened the discourse, and stoked anger about people’s general sense of insecurity. This is troubling, because what does a society do when it cannot agree on sources of true information, and has devalued those who would normally be looked to for advice? I honestly don’t know if we can put the genie back in the bottle once we let it out.

    This is my first reply on here and I hope it wasn’t overly long since there is a lot of nuance in this topic. To close, I hope we can change the discourse, give inherent value back to higher education and stem the tide of what is increasingly seeming like an episode of the Twilight Zone. At this point, it matters less where the elites are and if they’ve spoken up rather than whether anyone will listen. That should worry anyone in a free and democratic society, where facts need to be objective for the electorate to make informed decisions.

    • TheraP says:

      Thanks for weighing in!

      As the longtime wife of an Academic, and a sometime mental health professional at 3 different universities, as well as a student of many, I’d like to weigh in here on the topic you’ve brought up.

      First of all, you’re lucky to be in Canada. Luckier than many in US Academia. You have healthcare, no matter what! But the overproduction of Ph.D.’s – particularly in the humanities, where there’s little chance of alternative employment that makes use of one’s expertise – means that all too many who get a US Ph.D. (I’m thinking of a young philosopher, I know, and his little family), can get only endless part-time employment. Working for a pittance, often without any “benefits” whatsoever. Unable to get a tenure track position. And left in employment limbo for years, maybe even decades, cobbling together jobs at different colleges and universities – simultaneously.

      Part of the problem, as I see it, is that Graduate Programs are all too ready to accept students. But all too unwilling to tell them, at the point of entry, that there will be no job expectations when they get that desired Ph.D. I recall so well a young philosopher – when this fact dawned on him! His frustration. His anger. (His adorable little toddler.) He kept on with his program. But he’s now on that merry-go-round, imagining he’ll make it off and find a long term position.

      As far as being an intellectual in the US, the GOP here has long dissed us. Teachers are not respected as they still are in Europe. Intellectual expertise is not seen as a necessity for good governance, for making good laws, for social well-being and so on.

      So I agree that more and more people are becoming highly educated. I also think that each of us, who have had the privilege, should view our education as both highly worthwhile on a personal level and also something we have a duty to put to social use – whatever that may be, whether or not we are earning much because of it. (I know a lawyer who uses her skills to help people in Massachusetts who are doing environnmental work. I doubt she seeks payment necessarily, as her spouse left her with sufficient assets.) We can write. We can become activists. And we can push back against anti-intellectualism.

      All too many people we’ve known have left Academia behind and gone into other lines of work. It’s all too common. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I do fault the Graduate Depts, even the law schools, taking on students, benefitting from them financially, but failing (!) to tell them the truth, as they keep graduating people – sending them out to an absence of jobs – except for the lucky few.

      I’ll all for education. For personal growth. But I am also for honesty, for sharing the wealth, for a living wage, for universal healthcare, for Justice, for social equality, prison reform, compassionate policing, cleaning up the environment, National Parks, parental leave, good public schools & childcare, if I left something out you can add it mentally or in a comment.

      I am ashamed of the society we live in…. And I intend to dedicate whatever time I have left to making it a society I can feel better about leaving behind.

      It’s a cold, grey, dreary day. But my heart is full nonetheless. Amen!

      • TheraP says:

        3rd last graph, 1st sentence: “I’m all for education.”

        Edit timed out before I could fix this. (Happy Easter, or Passover, all! Or eating of chocolate!)

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks for this comment; we don’t care much about length, we’re more interested in quality. Please feel free to add links to books and papers that support your views; I read many of them myself, and have learned a lot from commenters.

      I’ll be taking up some of these points in future posts in this series. I am particularly interested in the notion that the Rs encourage attacks on academics and actual experts, and by the idea that people think that they are experts because they can read stuff on the internet.

  9. orionATL says:

    it’s complicated and constantly changing – new technology, new “business models” (aka how the money is to be made), new ways to attract artists, new customers, new ways to attract those customers and hold them. this requires imagination, chutzpah, and some faith-based ( :) ) cash flow.


    nytimes. ben sisaro. march 31, 2018.

    “after driving streaming music’s rise, spotify aims to cash in.”



  10. lefty665 says:

    It may be easy to overthink the issue.  Professionals in many cases have embraced the elite neoliberals. Their income often makes up the second tier, from 90%-99%, and some harbor illusions of cracking the 1%.  Income elitism and a comfortable life pave the way for neoliberalism, except of course for engineers, some of whom wander off into Libertarian realms. Having joined that meritocratic club most are not willing to rock the boat, they might fall out. Long ago we referred to it as being co-opted. Having made it in the meritocracy one might be reluctant to cause ones ‘peers’ to wonder if you were not really one of the hoi polloi in disguise.

    Trumpers are easy to understand. Real median wages have not increased in the US since the late 1970s. That’s 3 generations with no prospects for a better future, grandparents, parents and now their children/grandchildren.  Trump was a big middle finger to elite neoliberals. We will get more like him, or worse, if there is not at least a glimmer of hope for 3/4 of the country.

    Gag me if I ever take off Tom Friedman. He’s dumb as a f**king stump, and Brooks is not appreciably better.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Good point. As I read Swartz, he seems to say Bourdieu thinks that it’s odd that intellectuals tend to identify with the working class instead of the bourgeoise. They do not share a common habitus,  and their cultural tastes are not at all alike. That wasn’t true of all of the cultural elites, many of whom, like Bourdieu, come from  a working class background, or, in the case of the US in the 1920 and 30s, from impoverished immigrant families and who worked themselves up through scholarship and skill. Bourdieu offers ideas like a shared feeling that they are in the dominated class, but those seem to operational for me.

      I’m inclined to think that a significant part of the cultural elites are motivated by something more than the desire to make money or as Bourdieu puts it to obtain control over resources. I don’t get any sense of that in Rawls’ book, A Theory of Justice, for example, or in reading Rorty or Arendt or any of the other books I’ve been writing about.

      But then, these writers and thinkers are financially  comfortable, and have the space they need to look  at society with critical detachment from authority, which will inevitably show the ugly parts of the existing systems, even Hoy Unbridled Capitalism. These scholars could have sought ease and tranquility, but they didn’t. What drove that? Maybe that’s the better question.

      • lefty665 says:

        Thank you Ed.  I am a huge fan of this series of posts you have done. Your elucidation of the intellectual background and framework of this very current set of issues has been both educational and interesting to me.

        It has seemed, to me anyway, that over the last perhaps thirty years or so many of us boomers who have prospered have drifted ever further from the mainstream of America.  As prosperity increased so did the distance until one day we looked around and viola we were transformed into neoliberal elites.  I’m not sure that it was a conscious choice in many cases.

        So I agree, the better question may be why or how did some attain elite status yet keep their edge? What has prevented us all from falling in thrall to NPR and other elite neoliberal cultural tropes and memes?

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        I agree that many in the academy and many professionals are motivated primarily by something other than greater access to money resources.  The latter is the be all and end all of neoliberalism and neoliberalists.

        One of its over-arching goals is to make its priorities – always more money and less government regulation of how and at whose cost it is made – the only priorities the culture accepts.  Competing priorities that one might learn at home, in religion, or at school – based on our common humanity and the golden rule – are fine in the abstract.  But they are to be kept at the periphery.  Acting on them with those who do not live in the same gated community is derided.  Theirs is a community of would be Randians, with all her neuroticism and hypocrisy.

        Another neoliberal goal is to elide from the culture communal goals and the organizing needed to recognize and work toward them.  A third is to make the academy subservient to corporatists rather than allow them the cultural space to advocate for alternative priorities and ways of thinking.

        Given the persistent, disguised, wide, deep and well-funded neoliberal attack on its cultural competitors, the wonder is that it has not succeeded more.  Part of that is thanks to inquiring minds like those here.

  11. yogarhythms says:

    Thank you Ed for this thread. “Long ago we referred to it as being co-opted”. by Leffty665
    Neoliberal overarching goals”-always more money and less government regulation of how and at whose cost it is made-“. by Earlofhuntingdon. Bureaucratic inertia operationalized co-optation of elites through societal aggrandizement of Rand-esque think-tanks publishing secret thesis-dissertations for highest bidder leading to Universities being forced to publish research with marketability/start-up potential for business market exploitation now. Combined with systemic de-funding public education curriculum infrastructure and teachers salaries. Imagine a student being asked by a teacher to attend twice weekly lectures plus hundreds of pages of reading for six weeks before a question is allowed during class because the subject of ethics and logic requires such a rigorous intellectual foundation before one can properly construct a question. Few if any Universities or faculties would teach in this manner in today’s micro-time-factoid driven society. Co-optation of intellect by branding paywalls to intellectual product is fundamentally different access than historical libraries of knowledge requiring only curiosity with physical presence or lending agreement.

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