Not long ago the great English critic and historian of photography Steve Edwards complained that art historians have “paid remarkably little attention to the petite bourgeoisie,” and particularly so its role as “the invisible social glue.” We might add that it is worse still with critics. Indeed, even as the rapidly evolving geopolitical dynamics of class relations reclaim their sway more and more with each passing day, writing about class remains clunky, naive, boorish, and polarized—“undialectical,” as we used to say—where it exists at all.
Sure, we hear about the ever wealthier 0.1% and, of course, the evermore precarious raft of the uneducated, but who writes about us as a class? Who writes about the social glue that not only keeps the whole system of exploitation and denial in place but extends it? Who writes about our role as cultural intercessors in “the space between globetrotting plutocrats on the high end and struggling flextimers below?” Who writes about our charge not to conquer the old edifice of enlightenment, but instead to dismantle it one brick at a time, opening wider and wider the rent through which the redistribution of wealth and political power that first found its current in 1980 continues to flow?
Well, there are a few who take up these questions generally—Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, for example, or Thomas Frank, or Lane Relyea—but they are far between. Such self-reflexivity is hard, and taking on personal responsibility is harder still. It is not something that even the most self-punishing among us relish. It is much easier to write about that which feels other to oneself or, even easier, to be other to oneself—an out we have been taking for a long time.
If there was a moment when the cultural wing of the educated class worked overtime to imagine itself as something other than a lumpen drag on the system by donning coveralls or hewing to slogans like “form follows function” or “art into life,” this was mostly because it aimed at finding a place in the still-rising industrial economy and its attendant political forms. Artists could be workers too and so they could be organized.
Since 1945, however, the ruling wannabe fantasies consecrated in our highest cultural forms have shifted from the old workerism to identifications that fall outside of the modern economy—to folk culture, say, or itinerant life, or PTSD and “resistance,” or the ever popular perennially innocent brute materiality of things. Think Pete Seeger, for example, or Karen Finley, or Bruno Latour.
The role we occupy in our capacity as cultural disaggregators and creative destroyers, in other words, is no longer R&D for Henry Ford’s empire, or Vladimir Lenin’s, or Franklin Roosevelt’s but instead serves the post-statist, neo-feudalizing, climate-changing agenda of the great wealth and power consolidation that dominates the headlines of our day. “Is Democracy Dying?” is the cover pitch for The Atlantic this month, for example, just as it was for Foreign Affairs in June. Indeed, these days different versions of the same twinge pop up on the New York Times’ website every few hours.
There have always been two defining roles for cultural types like us: either we use our creative talents to assemble “the space between” into workable social form and in so doing make our role as the “invisible social glue” visible and testable, or we disassemble that form; either we make it about our desires and interests or we hide them by ventriloquizing the desires and interests of the other and the Other, the struggling flextimer and the globetrotting plutocrat.
Self-reflexivity is hard. Without it, however, we simply repeat the crime against humanity that Marx said was characteristic of the petty bourgeoisie: “not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labor, but of weakening their antagonism.” In Marx’s day, that weakening took the form of an airy proclivity to imagine oneself “elevated above class antagonism;” in ours it is an earthy itch to sink below. Either way, above or below, deluded or depressed, as a wannabe god or a wannabe thing, our way of tempering class conflict can be summed up with the same rule of thumb: a liberal is someone who thinks they are innocent.