Class Power, Again: Addressing Samuel Francis

Samuel Francis’s latest book, Beautiful Losers: Essays in the Failure of American Conservatism, criticizes the Old Right, New Right, and neoconservatism by focusing on the locus of social power in a manner that should warm the heart of the few Marxists who bother to read it. Marx believed that the proletariat had the historic opportunity and duty to replace the bourgeoisie as a ruling class, although, contrary to prevalent misconception, he knew it might fail. He also insisted that, with rare exceptions, the state had to serve the interests of a specific ruling class. Marx did not prove a good prophet, and it is amusing to note how far the anti-Marxist Samuel Francis remains imprisoned by the idea that one class must replace another in power and conquer the state in its own interest.

Traditionalists, neoconservatives, left-wingers, and others are busily fighting the last war against each other. Meanwhile, each camp is wracked with internal struggles between those who deserve Francis’s strictures and those who, whatever their weaknesses, are honestly determined to arrest the moral corruption that disgraces our society and to resist dogmatic adherence to one or another ideology and economic policy. That we need a new coalition to combat the reigning moral degeneracy and irresponsible individualism that are paraded as “alternate life-styles” is clear enough. That we can get anywhere by projecting imaginary new political classes to undergird such a coalition is doubtful.

Class Theory

Francis admires Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, Richard Weaver, Ludwig von Mises, Frank Meyer, and other conservative theorists, but he ruefully concludes that they rendered themselves largely beside the point in political struggles. In his view, they relied much too heavily on the power of ideas divorced from political bases and thereby failed to perceive the shift of class power and cultural hegemony from one elite to another. Simultaneously, “Post-World War II conservatism in its political efforts generally ignored the philosophical contributions of its high-brow exponents and fell back on the more mundane considerations of low taxes and small budgets, anti-communism and law and order.” The conservative movement also failed to achieve serious political victories, he says, because its political and intellectual leaders too readily divorced themselves from the “genuinely popular discontents voiced by groups that did represent significant social interests” — i.e., “Middle American Radicals” whose interests and sensibilities embrace “economic nationalism” and a determination “to preserve national sovereignty and cultural identity.”

As a corrective, Francis builds on the work of James Burnham and Vilfredo Pareto’s theory of the “circulation of elites.” He argues that the old bourgeois and entrepreneurial elite entered the twentieth century at bay. It suffered hard blows during the Progressive era and finally lost out to the New Deal. Part of it remained as an Old Right opposition with a shrinking political base. Much of the rest, tied to corporate capitalism, was absorbed into the new elite, which in effect constituted a new class. The mass support to which it appealed had come from small businessmen, farmers, and, generally, the populace of small-town Middle America, all of whom were in decline.

Francis criticizes our current managerial elite, which consists primarily of the governmental, corporate, and institutional bureaucracies but includes the intellectuals in the media and universities. Its ideology rests on “manipulative, administrative social engineering,” which, notwithstanding all good intentions, breathes a spirit of totalitarianism. Francis treats this extended bureaucracy as a class rather than as an unusually powerful stratum that bends to the will of other classes in essential matters. He assumes that modern bureaucracies, governmental and corporate, generate a discrete class interest. But the kernel of truth in this insight identifies a tendency, not an inevitable outcome. The issue is control of the managerial elite itself. An appropriate political movement could realistically set itself the task of disciplining the bureaucracy by forcing it to function as a stratum and thereby preventing it from controlling property and mobilizing itself as a political class.

The Marxist origins of the bureaucracy-as-a-class thesis are worth recounting. Burnham began his political career as a prominent theorist in Max Schachtman’s dissident Leninist movement, which rejected Trotsky’s characterization of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union as a degenerate workers’ state and instead characterized it as an original creation of a new bureaucratic class. In fact, the Burnham-Schachtman thesis, as it was widely called, emerged from the European Left with Bruno Ricci’s Bureaucratisation du monde; it forcibly challenged the American Left through Schachtman’s influential Struggle for the New Course. If nothing else, attention to origins might have led Francis to pay more respectful attention to the Marxist theory of class power, which seems to have influenced his own thought, at least as filtered through Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Roberto Michels. The debate — or screaming match — on the Marxist Left highlighted the question of whether in fact the bureaucracy constituted a class-in-itself or a powerful stratum that constantly struggled to function as a class-for-itself while it nonetheless remained dependent upon an exterior political class.

Against the Cosmopolitan Ethic

American conservatism, Francis insists, has failed to understand that a new ruling class of managers and bureaucrats has taken power and has been imposing an agenda based on its own class interests. Yet his own doubts about the managerial elite as a class-in-itself peep through his insights into the prospects for a new politics. He defends Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” of family, neighborhood, and small town. He extols “traditional class identities and their relationships — as well as . . . authoritative and disciplinary institutions — the army, the police, parental authority, and the disciplines of school and church.” Hence he opposes “the cosmopolitan ethic,” with its promulgation of atomized human relations and its destructive if ultimately hopeless attempts to liberate us from the natural bonds of sex and from social stratification.

To the cosmopolitanism and universalism of managerial liberalism Francis counterpoises the ethos of Middle American Radicals: “the family, the neighborhood and the local community, the church, and the nation as the basic framework of values.” Those values include “the duty of work rather than the right of welfare; the value of loyalty to concrete persons, symbols, and institutions rather than the cosmopolitan dispersion of loyalties; and the social and human necessity of sacrifice and deferral of gratification.” To make the crooked straight he unabashedly — and refreshingly — endorses legislation to curb the moral degeneracy of our times.

I approve — emphatically. But when I remind myself of my youthful enthusiasm for Stalinism, I get nervous. Let me file a few caveats. (1) “Work,” ran the great Soviet slogan, “is a matter of honor.” Idleness was not popular in the socialist countries, which filled the jails and labor camps with “parasites.” It was, as I recall, the countries guided by the ethos of the Roman Catholic Church in its heyday that insisted upon charity and graciousness toward beggars. (2) As Francis is fond of noting, the communists piled up millions of corpses. Let us also note that they did so in the belief that they were delaying gratification in order to provide a better life for their children. (3) I wonder if Francis has read Comrade Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural commissar, who excoriated cosmopolitanism as a vicious imperialist stratagem and made a strong case for patriotic roots in one’s Motherland. I would hope that those who legislate on morality for us first reflect on the nature and consequences of Comrade Zhdanov’s glorious achievements. (4) Francis condemns universalism and defends the claims of Christianity against those who would promote a wholly secular society. Have I missed something? I thought that Christianity introduced universalism into Western civilization and would be unthinkable without it.

I do agree with Francis on the critical importance of the cultural front in today’s political wars and on the need for measured repression. But we had better keep in mind that everything turns on “measured.” To combine respect for basic freedoms with the reimposition of social discipline would require a tightrope act that no part of the political spectrum as yet seems capable of walking.

In protesting against the moral decadence of our times, Francis insists that the “life-style, values, and ideals” of the managerial elite and its mass media are opposed to those of Middle America. He stresses the interest of the managerial elite in destroying all traditional impediments to its own power, but he barely hints at the extent to which its course corresponds precisely to that of big capital and the extent to which the dissolution of time-honored moral values represents the logical outcome of capitalist development.

Francis slights the extraordinary power of the market to promote consumer choice as the arbiter of morals and even spiritual values. Here he might recall his own invocation of original sin and human depravity. For without a collective decision to restrict personal choice, the lure of moral degeneracy becomes well nigh irresistible. The morality of Francis’s Middle American Radicals can hardly be expected to withstand the onslaught of a managerial elite that is, in effect, driving forward the logic of the marketplace and thereby serving the interests of big capital as well as of itself.

The effectiveness of resistance to this creeping horror depends upon a willingness and ability to use force — to indulge in measured repression. But under present or foreseeable circumstances, who or what could impose such repression except a strong state drawn from the managerial elite itself? Francis constantly assaults the neoconservatives for supporting precisely such a state, accusing them of serving as right-wing spokesmen for the managerial elite. I would suggest that, however numerous their sins, the neoconservatives understand that the elite itself constitutes the essential terrain of social struggle and that we cannot do an end run around it.

The strongest parts of Beautiful Losers display little patience with the shibboleths of laissez faire and implicitly call into question Francis’s insistence upon the autonomous character of the managerial elite. Francis sternly rebukes both the Old and New Right for their uncritical defense of the free market. Acknowledging the sociopolitical as well as economic necessity for a wide range of market freedoms, he distinguishes between the exigencies of a sound economic policy and the exigencies of a sound sociopolitical policy. He supports as much of free-market economics as may prove not merely workable but socially constructive, and he repudiates the notion that social and cultural policies should reflect consumer choice.

Against Radical Democracy

In pursuing this theme, Francis makes fresh contributions to the development of the critique of equality and radical democracy. Consider, for example, his trenchant remarks on the effective use made of the egalitarian swindle by big capital:

Equality is no less useful for large corporations, which require a nationally homogenized market of consumers that can be manipulated into buying their products and which find abhorrent and dysfunctional the persistence of local variations in their markets caused by smaller, localized competitors or class, ethnic, and regional diversities of taste and demand. . . . It is thus basic to the interests of the large corporations to erode social and cultural diversity and promote egalitarian uniformity, as well as to cooperate with and support political egalitarianism, the costs of which in increased unionization, protection of the labor force, regulation, civil rights legislation, and ecological environmentalism, are ruinous to the smaller competitors of the corporations but much less harmful to those larger economies that can absorb such costs and pass them on to consumers.

Francis insists that Middle American Radicals are justified in calling for a strong government to protect their interests: “The classical liberal idea of a night-watchman state is an illusion. . . . A [Middle American Radical] elite would make use of the state for its own interests as willingly as the present managerial elite does.” Reflecting on the 196os, Francis recalls with approbation that the New Left attacked and exposed the new class and pilloried free-market economics, and that the supporters of George Wallace were concerned with social issues and cared little for market economics.

Under the circumstances, Francis’s sustained attack on environmentalism raise hackles. Let us grant that a good deal of environmentalist propaganda disguises a design to foist every possible kind of government regulation on our private and corporate lives. Yet are we to pretend that we do not face serious environmental dangers to our health and safety? Were not conservatives among the first to sound the alarm a long time ago and make environmental conservation their very own cause? The Southern Agrarians relentlessly fought against the environmental effects of unbridled capitalism and socialism, denouncing big corporations and big government as the prime exponents of the devil-take-the-hindmost cult of economic growth.

Francis himself assails the cult of economic growth as destructive of human flourishing, but he simultaneously pins his hopes precisely on economic growth as the sine qua non of social stability. There is no necessary contradiction here or in the comparable stance of Marxists who take similar ground, for policies to promote economic growth are one thing, and a fetishistic sacrifice of culture and society to the promotion of economic growth quite another. But Francis’s one-sidedness plunges him toward a genuine contradiction. He wants to scotch most legal and administrative measures designed to protect the environment and, more broadly, scotch restraints on enterprise. Thus, in calling for the overthrow of the new managerial ruling class, he looks to the small and middling entrepreneurs of the heartland to mount an effective challenge to the corporate giants of Wall Street.

Francis’s love affair with new entrepreneurs nevertheless threatens to end in disillusionment and a political debacle. For he falls silent on capitalism’s inherent tendency toward the concentration of capital in a ceaseless competitive struggle in which the most dynamic entrepreneurs are generally the most socially destructive. Raping the environment and brutally exploiting cheap labor are their stock in trade. If Francis does not wish to truck with Karl Marx, let him recall Joseph Schumpeter’s alternate analysis. The Catholic social teaching of Rerum novarum, which Schumpeter endorsed, was designed to discipline this very process and render it responsible to political control.

Francis accepts Schumpeter’s thesis that the bourgeoisie has ruined itself by sloughing off the pre-bourgeois institutions that guaranteed the social stability required for its own hegemony. In view of Irving Kristol’s regrettable declaration that the cultural war has already been won by the Left, Francis has some justification for accusing the neoconservatives of bourgeois complacency. Still, Kristol hardly speaks for all neoconservatives on this issue — certainly not for William Bennett or Michael Novak, at whom Francis takes a passing swipe. Francis responds by counterpoising the “heroic” virtues of a bygone era.

Yet the new entrepreneurs whom Francis courts are among the most vigorous promoters of the kind of cut-throat capitalism that, on his own showing, promotes the “consumerism, hedonism, and social dislocation” he condemns. And given their objective position in a highly competitive economy, what else should we expect of them, no matter how sincere they may be, as individuals, in endorsing family, church, and “traditional values”?

In pursuing his demand for a decisive split between the Buchananite Right and the Republican Center — and he seems to be demanding just that — he calls upon true conservatives to break decisively with the neoconservatives and other supporters of the managerial elite and its state. The neoconservatives, he charges, array themselves with the main enemies of community and civilized social structures. Francis ignores the tension in neoconservative politics — and in the politics of the healthier sections of the Left — and conflates the objective effects of some neoconservative and left-wing policies with their subjective intent. But that is not the main problem.

It is difficult to see how a political movement dedicated to the restoration of civilized life could hope to arrest the destructive cultural tendencies of our age without an economic policy that balances developmental and environmental concerns, balances job creation with a decent standard of living for the poorest of the working class, balances the imperatives of law and order with social support for the poor and dispossessed. No one has yet advanced a program that promises to square these circles, but nothing in Francis’s generally acute analyses suggests that anything other than a strong governmental hand in society and the economy would have a prayer of success. And under the conditions Burnham so well delineated and Francis acknowledges, a strong government hand requires the hegemony of that detested managerial elite or, rather, of a particular section of it.

Against American Imperialism

These problems recur in Francis’s illuminating discussion of American foreign policy. For all his anti-communism, he excoriates ideological crusades and quixotic schemes to police the world. Reflecting on the Reagan years, he writes in his Introduction, “It was the Right of the 198os that first seriously proposed official policy projects for exporting democracy and intoned the imperative of spreading the democratic gospel to the heathen.” Nor does he spare Ronald Reagan stiff criticism for his contribution to that heresy. Not surprisingly, then, he and his leading colleagues at Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture outdid the Left in denouncing as an imperialist outrage President Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq.

Francis does not reject moral considerations in foreign policy. To the contrary, he insists that foreign policy, like domestic, must include “protection of the historic character and identity of the community . . . [and] the whole range of intellectual, moral, and social institutions that provide a common identity for, and identification of, a people.” The contradiction in Francis’s argument may be only apparent, for the difference between its two sides could be held in creative tension. But, as Francis readily acknowledges, the working out of the specifics is a tall order. His suggestion that economic nationalism is replacing anti-communism as the focus of Middle American Radical foreign-policy concerns is plausible but in itself offers little toward a solution. In fact, he and the Buchananites have as yet not done nearly as well in balancing moral and national-state considerations as, say, the Republican “centrist” Richard Cheney.

Francis sees American foreign policy as largely an ideological projection of the managerial class’s capitulation to a combination of imperialist aggression and supine abandonment of genuine national interests. But his critique betrays uncertainties. In berating the neoconservatives for seeking merely to temper and civilize the welfare state, he protests that they accept absorption of the American economy into a world economy and, pari passu, a world political system. He can hardly deny that the world economy is coming under the domination of corporate conglomerates, but he seems to believe that separate countries could somehow maneuver to protect their discreet national sectors. How this could be accomplished, if it could be accomplished at all, short of perpetual aggression and war remains unclear.

I do not suggest that we should yield to the siren calls of global theorists who would surrender American sovereignty to a world government dominated by a coalition of have-not powers. Buchanan’s economic critique of NAFTA remains open to serious doubts, but his political critique, which Francis reinforces, retains disquieting force. A measure of neonationalism might well provide a strong corrective to the drift into a cosmopolitanism that gives every impression of being the grave-digger of what is left of Western civilization. But surely, Wilsonian One-Worldism and Fortress- America nationalism do not exhaust the possibilities. The neoconservatives, of all people, can hardly be accused of being soft on One-Worldism. That charge could more reasonably be laid on the Left, which has no foreign policy worthy of the name. And even the Left, if I understand its temperament aright, would be delighted to support anything from isolationism to military adventures against, say, a resurgent white-racist regime in South Africa, if foreign policy could be placed in the service of its domestic ideological agenda.

A Despairing Vanguard

Beyond the specifics of domestic and foreign policy, Francis despairs over the fate of republicanism and small government, for lie no longer sees the kind of citizenry that could practice, defend, or even want them. He grimly but plausibly asserts that almost no one any longer knows what a republic is or wants to accept its burdens: “While every society is composed of groups that compete for special consideration, no reasonable determination of who should get what is possible unless all competing groups adhere to a consensus that affirms the values of some claims over others and establishes regular procedures for realizing these claims. It is precisely a consensus of this nature that America lacks at the present time.”

These words again call into question his evaluation of class structure and attendant government power. To begin with, if he is right, as he may well be, how much faith can we place in the moral soundness of those Middle American Radicals? Francis tells us that, unlike left-wingers, Middle American Radicals do not see the government as favoring the rich, and that, unlike right-wingers, they do not see it as favoring the poor. Rather, they see it as favoring both against the middle and working classes, which have to pay the bills. That is, they see government as working for the rich and as co- opting the poor with a dole. Striking a hopeful note, he asserts that Middle American Radicals “form a sociopolitical force now coalescing into a class and perhaps into a new elite that will replace the managerial elite.” They seek “the overthrow of the present elite and its replacement by themselves.” He concludes an astute review of the shifting attitude of conservatives toward the relation of congressional to presidential power by calling for a “Caesarist tactic” to strengthen presidential power as an instrument to defeat the federal bureaucracy.

What remains unclear is how much the return of substantial power to state and local governments would matter, especially on his assumption of a loss of republican virtue. The transference of power from one bureaucratic level to another might indeed prove salutary but would hardly amount to a destruction of the bureaucracy, much less of the managerial elite as a whole. And the real shift in class power that Francis envisions implies a bureaucracy disciplined by a rebellious class that turns out to be his sainted heartland entrepreneurs, for no other class is on the horizon.

Right-wing Utopia

The burden of Beautiful Losers belies the gloom and apparent hopelessness of its title: It calls for a coalition to assert the interests of a healthy Middle America and repeal the welfare state. By no means is Francis ready to throw in the sponge:

The strategic objective of the New Right must be the localization, privatization, and decentralization of the managerial apparatus of power. Concretely, this means a dismantling of the corporate, educational, labor, and media bureaucracies; a devolution to more modest-scale organizational units; and a reorientation of federal rewards from mass-scale units and hierarchies to smaller and more local ones.

There is much to applaud in these words, but their unmistakably utopian cast does not inspire confidence. Francis’s easy acceptance of the managerial elite as a class-in-itself threatens to undermine his best insights and defeat his hopes for a radical solution to the crisis through which we are living. An acute student of Machiavelli as well as Pareto and Burnham, he is chary of appeals to moral suasion. He insists that only power can check power and that power is the instrument of interests. If so, and if, as Burnham argued, the interests of a managerial elite that has crystallized in a political class correspond to the exigencies of modern life, then we are done. If, however, the managerial class is understood as a stratum that must reconcile its own interests and voracious appetite for power with the interests of those who, despite all checks by state bureaucracies, can exercise power from independent political bases, we have a way out.

Only power can check power. Very well. But no Middle American Radical class exists to wield such power. What do exist and can be strengthened are specific institutions — unions as well as corporations, churches as well as community associations — the leading elements of which inescapably constitute part of the managerial elite itself. It remains true that the managerial elite, despite all internal tensions or, as it were, contradictions, should be expected to close ranks on certain issues and under certain conditions. Although always dangerous, that common front would not always be a bad thing. More to the point, institutions and communities that retain considerable autonomy have the freedom of action to coalesce politically and impose their will. Francis, in his upbeat moments, says as much. Unfortunately, his obsession with the managerial elite as a class-in-itself keeps him from having many upbeat moments.

A hegemonic elite we have always had with us, and no utopian dreams will change matters. For the foreseeable future that elite will be managerial and will doubtless pursue its discrete interests as a stratum. But the experience of fascism, national-socialism, communism, social democracy, and liberal bureaucratism casts doubts on the ability of the managerial elite to consolidate its rule. It cannot even consolidate itself. It splits, as all political classes now split, over visions of a civilized society as readily as it splits over the interests of its several components. And at such a historical moment, that moral suasion we realists are so quick to dismiss returns to mock us. Practical considerations, not idealistic projections, are teaching us that interests and moral vision are inextricably bound up within, rather than between, political classes. A political coalition that can arrest our national decline will have to cross class lines and bring a decisive section of the managerial elite to its service.

Francis’s achievement lies in his forceful reopening of the question of class power and critique of reigning illusions. Specifically, he challenges us to focus on the great underlying question of property relations: the consequences of the separation of ownership from control and the extent to which, and manner in which, private property can be defended and yet rendered socially responsible. It is no point against him that, along with everyone else, he has not yet found a blueprint to lead us out of the wilderness. The Left as well as the Right would profit greatly from a vigorous debate over his principal theses. It would be a shame if that debate were to be rendered politically impossible by a polemical stance that threatens a fratricidal war among those whose possible programmatic unity holds out the main hope for a radical change in our national fortunes.


  • Eugene D. Genovese

    Eugene Dominic Genovese (1930 – 2012) was an American historian of the American South and American slavery. He has been noted for bringing a Marxist perspective to the study of power, class and relations between planters and slaves in the South. His work Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made won the Bancroft Prize. He later abandoned the Left and Marxism, and embraced traditionalist conservatism.

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