C. Wright Mills: The “New Class” and The “Cultural Apparatus”

C. Wright Mills occupies a curious location within the academic Left these days. Once a major source of inspiration for the New Left, Mills’s star has steadily faded [1]. That’s not particularly surprising: Mills is remembered as the author of studies of white-collar anomie and labor bureaucracy,  topics seemingly well past their sell-by date. Nowadays, the Left dreams of the full employment economy of the era of the grey flannel suit, and fantasizes about a labor movement vibrant enough that the problem of bureaucracy would be anywhere near the top of the agenda.

Years ago (spurred on by Michael Denning’s discussion of Mills in The Cultural Front) I became interested in a different aspect of Mills’s work: his study of  cultural workers (or, as Mills usually called, them, “cultural workmen”) and the culture industry (what Mills called the “cultural apparatus”).  Mills was probably the first academic in the US to take seriously the phenomenon of the cultural worker (although an argument could be made that the real pioneers were University of Chicago sociologists who trained under Robert Park, and wrote a host of famous studies of urban life that sometimes looked at the lives of  cultural workers).

Using Mills’s research on the subject–from his collaborations with Paul Lazarsfeld in the 1940s to his writings on the “cultural apparatus” in the late 1950s and early 1960s–as a guide, we can begin to work up a genealogy of the emergence of the idea of the cultural worker [2]. The arrival of the cultural worker as an object of sociological research after World War II was an important event for reasons beyond its intrinsic interest for historians. A Millsian argument for the new centrality of cultural  labor was to become an important theme in economic and management discourse, finding a home in the writings of Peter Drucker, Charles Sabel and Michael Piori, and Robert Reich (which, in turn, laid important groundwork for all-too-familiar fantasies of armies of coders and designers, “creatives” and analysts,  the last workers standing after the “end of history”).

As the first theorist to focus on the symbol-manipulating white-collar salariat (nowadays, salariat-cum-precariate), Mills’s work on the “cultural apparatus” resonates both with postwar moral panics regarding the growing power of the culture industry’s “hidden persuaders,” and with more optimistic predictions of the political potential of a radicalized cultural workforce offered by fellow dissident Marxists like C.L.R. James.

Mills’s articulation of the “cultural apparatus” has the odd quality of existing nowhere in a fully developed form. There is the essay “The Cultural Apparatus,”  (published in the BBC journal The Listener in 1959) which, while fascinating, is also elliptical and compressed; there is the unfinished book, The Cultural Apparatus, about which we might speculate; and there are the references to the “cultural apparatus” in the famous “Letter to a New Left” of 1960.

The 1959 essay maps out the problem of the “cultural apparatus”:  “Between consciousness and existence stand meanings and designs and communications which other men have passed on—first, in human speech itself, and later, by the management of symbols” (405).   The problem remains unaltered from the epistemological crisis faced by pragmatists like William James (in James Livingston’s reading, a problem both created and solved by the rise of the new, credit-based, corporate capitalism):  “Every man interprets what he observes—as well as much that he has not observed: but his terms of interpretation are not his own; he has not personally formulated or even tested them.” We live on credit; “truth” comes down to “cash value”; we move past (unless we are Ron Paul) the need to check the gold reserves every five seconds to make sure that our paper money represents what it is supposed to represent.

What vexes Mills is that for “solid fact, sound interpretation, suitable presentations,” his fellow Americans rely upon  “the observation posts, the interpretation centers, the presentation depots, which in contemporary society are established by means of what I am going to call the cultural apparatus” (406). “This apparatus,” Mills writes, “is composed of all the organizations and milieux in which artistic, intellectual, and scientific work goes on, and of the means by which such work is made available to circles, publics, and masses. In the cultural apparatus art, science, and learning, entertainment, malarkey, and information are produced and distributed.”  “Taken as a whole,” Mills notes, “the cultural apparatus is the lens of mankind through which men see; the medium by which they interpret and report what they see.” The problem was one of distance and mediation: “our standards of credibility, our definitions of reality, our modes of sensibility—as well as our immediate opinions and images—are determined much less by any pristine experience than by our exposure to the output of the cultural apparatus” (406-07).

As Mills develops his notion of the “cultural apparatus,” two emphases emerge: what we might call, respectively, Hartzian and Shachtmanite inflections.

The Hartzian dimension of Mills’s analysis of the “cultural apparatus” (here we are invoking Louis Hartz’s massively influential 1955 w0rk The Liberal Tradition in America)  can be found in Mills’s emphasis on the exceptionalism of US culture. In stark contrast to the production of art and knowledge in Europe, culture in the US was not an outgrowth of feudal social relations. Europe’s cultural priesthood­­–what Matthew Arnold called a “clerisy”–was absent in the US. The class character of US culture was therefore destined to be far more indeterminate and porous than its continental counterpart. Consequently, the workification of creative activity in the US could proceed apace without the friction between old aristocratic culture and new capitalist aesthetic practices that we might recall from New Grub Street or Walter Benjamin’s writings about Paris in the nineteenth century.

The Shachtmanite inflection (the reference here is to the US Trotskyist Max Shachtman, theorist of of the “degenerated workers’ state,” leader of the Socialists Workers Party, and radical mentor to many of the New York intellectuals) of Mills’s articulation of the  “cultural apparatus” overlapped substantially with the notion of a “new class.”  As a mediating force between proletariat and bourgeoisie, and with unique ties to the bourgeois state (especially significant after World War II with the expansion of science, research, area studies, and various forms of cultural brokering as arms, more or less formal, of the defense industry), the “cultural apparatus”/”new class” might serve as a vanguard intellectual elite, joining forces with the working class, or, alternately, as a reactionary force.  Either way–or so went the briefly influential consensus–Cold War-era political analysts ignored the “cultural apparatus”/”new class” at their own peril.

A year later, in “Letter to a New Left,” Mills further clarified  the notion of the “cultural apparatus,” and began to build a case for identifying a certain swath of cultural workers as the new vanguard.

In “Letter to a New Left,” Mills situates the “cultural apparatus” (which he suggests is interchangeable with the term “the intellectuals”) as a “possible, immediate, radical agency of change.” For a long time, Mills reports, he had been “not much happier with this idea” than he expected his readers to be. Recent events, across the globe, had led him to reconsider. A “realistic utopianism” more or less had to begin with dissident members of the “cultural apparatus” as agents of revolutionary change.

The Marxian “labor metaphysic,” which celebrated the unique capacity of workers to wage revolution, is, for Mills, an outmoded Victorian holdover. Mills writes: “what I do not quite understand about some New-Left writers is why they cling so mightily to “the working class” of the advanced capitalist societies as the historic agency, or even as the most important agency, in the face of the really historical evidence that now stands against this expectation.” What was, for Marx, a historically specific idea (embedded within the context of early industrialism and restrictions on the franchise) had been turned into “an a-historical and unspecific hope.” Of course, Mills cautions, he is not suggesting that a New Left “write off the working class.” But labor could no longer be treated as “The Necessary Lever” of historical change.

Why might cultural workers replace labor as a revolutionary force? Within the deadlock of Cold War conformism, and consensus (“since the end of World War II in Britain and the United States smug conservatives, tired liberals and disillusioned radicals have carried on a very wearied discourse in which issues are blurred and potential debate muted; the sickness of complacency has prevailed, the bi-partisan banality flourished”) only the “young intellectuals” were capable of “getting fed up,” and “thinking and acting in radical ways.”

But not all intellectuals. In fact, the vast majority of the public intellectuals–“NATO intellectuals”– within the ambit of the  “cultural apparatus” are “end-of-ideology” hacks, “prematurely middle-aged,”  provincials. For Mills, the putatively free thinkers of the US exaggerate their distance from their Soviet counterparts, slavishly devoted to “socialist realism” and the party line. In the Soviet Union, too, minor criticism is permitted, but “criticism of the structure itself” is not: “one may not question ‘the system.’ ” Anything found to be fundamentally wrong within the governing system has to be presented as a  “shocking exception.” All criticism is engulfed “by the long-run historical optimism about the system as a whole and the goals proclaimed by its leaders.”  Despite the differences between consensus intellectuals in the US and Soviet nomenklatura, both postures “stand opposed to radical criticisms of their respective societies.”

Thus, Mills calls for an analytical project that looks remarkably like the humanities after the 1960s: cultural studies, ideology analysis, critical or Marxist structuralism, close reading of the products of mass culture, and an emphasis on the personal as political.  The “long march through the institutions” and the convergence of cultural workers of various stripes (filmmakers, pop and jazz musicians, underground journalists) with the counterculture and New Left of the 1960s seemed to confirm Mills’s prophecies. Even today, following decades of depoliticization, we still think of critical intellectuals and cultural workers as uniquely important to social movements.

For all of the prophetic power of Mills’s writing, he remains, to my mind more useful for having put cultural work on the agenda than for having properly analyzed its meaning and potential. In addition to the raging sexism of his construction of the “cultural workman,” Mills makes a number of analytical moves that are, upon closer analysis, questionable.

First, the Hartzian reading of the distinctness of US culture due to the absence of a traditional cultural elite is both extraordinarily important and highly misleading. As a generation of scholars working under the influence of Bourdieu and Habermas have revealed, from Paul DiMaggio to Sven Beckert, there has never been a shortage of self-appointed cultural elites—acting in ways more or less parallel to their counterparts on the continent–in the urban hubs of the US. As Daniel Rodgers and James Kloppenberg demonstrate,  there was never as great a distance between Europe and the US as previous generations of historians assumed. The “cultural apparatus” in the US was far more self-selected, elective, and porous, than the intelligentsias of Britain or France, but the Mayflower-descended, wealthy sons and daughters of the Ivy League dominated—or tried to dominate–many areas of cultural production for much of the twentieth century.

Correcting for this emphasis is important for our purposes because the study of the interaction of creative workers and the law reveals a give-and-take between elitist and democratic visions of culture that cannot be properly interpreted if we assume, out of the gate, that the “cultural apparatus” assumed the fixed form of the negation of Europe. In some ways it did, and in some ways it didn’t, and what was true in one moment was not necessarily true in the next.

As regards the Shachtmanite/”new class” dimension of the “cultural apparatus” argument, the key point is that such a point of view must be premised either on mechanical equations or impressionistic zeitgeist-reading. If class is, as E.P. Thompson insisted, a process and a relationship, it is unclear to me how the “new class” is actually a class and not simply a fraction of the bourgeoisie: its formative experiences, collective memory, and understanding of its relation to the means of production do not seem to me to be separate, in any meaningful way, from that of the ruling class.  I do not mean here to insult the Shachtmanite project. In fact, it seems to me that the proper way to respect a political tradition towards one which feels affinity if not allegiance is to acknowledge one’s differences, rather than to pretend an imaginary agreement. My own preference is to treat the class status of cultural workers as indeterminate, contradictory, and mutable, and to see the simple fact of membership in a “cultural apparatus” as a piece of data that, in isolation, tells us relatively little about how to predict political commitments or preferences. In general, I am wary of intellectuals discovering that the true revolutionaries are–surprise, surprise–other intellectuals. The renunciation of the “labor metaphysic,” while valuable in its critique of productivism, was also based on an absurdly narrow reading of the state of the working class–and even of organized labor– in the late 1950s (and let’s recall that 1959 was a pretty good year for labor militancy).

Additionally, the ideological inflection of “cultural apparatus” is less revelatory than it initially appears. The simple fact there are material limits on what is sayable or printable in a given historical moment is, in and of itself, obvious and banal. The emergence of a “cultural apparatus” that is required, for its own reproduction, to constrain and shape the truth in order to ensure its own survival certainly registers as an important historical fact. But attempts to historicize this development often collapse into conspiratorialism. For the fact remains that this is always a contested process, in which top-down efforts to control communication are consistently challenged by popular desires. The constant contest for what registers as “truth” should be seen a form–perhaps the most important form–of class struggle.

This brings us to the question of Mills’s conception of culture, work, and value. Against the background of the last half-century of cultural studies, Mills strikes the contemporary reader as especially complicated and contradictory: he wanted to title his chapter on the culture industry “Cheerful Robots,” yet questioned Dwight Macdonald’s elitism; he urged that leftists take culture seriously, yet treated the domain of cultural production as a world of “hacks and stars”…

On this point, Kim Sawchuck’s discussion of the interaction, and disagreements, between proponents of British cultural studies and Mills is illuminating. Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, coming from the traditions of adult education and the study of literature, pioneered methods of reading popular culture. In contrast, as Sawchuck writes, “Mills’ sociological training led him to questions of institutions and social formations rather than to textual formats or even to the practices of consumption.” Mills’s turn to culture  “was dependent on epistemological and ontological presuppositions taken from pragmatism and stressed the constitutive role of language in shaping knowledge and subjectivity.” In a way, this set of differences might have worked to make Mills especially sensitive to the role of the “cultural workman,” upon whom he focused instead of the popular culture consumer attended to by Hoggart and Williams.

For Mills, the study of culture “was about science, education, religion, national prestige.” (These topics remain central to American Studies and US cultural and intellectual history).  Mills insisted that “all cultural work is used to legitimate power and to debunk or distract from the powerful,  that across the globe, “art, learning and science carry some autonomous status,” that in the “fourth epoch”–what we would probably call the “postmodern era”– “science tends to be ascendant,” and that “cultural work is political work, particularly where culture has assumed a commercial character.”  For Mills, culture was to be examined as an apparatus “within the social structure as a whole”: “its connections and lack of connections with established authorities, the uses it makes of its products and services, the functions it performs for economic and military, for political institutions, and for a variety of circles, publics, and masses.” Within the structure of this cultural apparatus, attention should be paid to  the variety of cultural workmen, “their activities and their habitats… the images they have of themselves and the evaluations others make of them.”  By the time The Cultural Apparatus was under preparation, cultural workers were to be understood, as suggested by Karl Mannheim, as “within and between all class and parties.”

Sawchuck reveals that Stuart Hall and E.P Thompson, who heard Mills’s lectures on the cultural apparatus in 1959, “disagreed with Mills’ prognosis of the inefficacy of the working class and the radical potential of the cultural worker.” In correspondence, both writers “stressed the specificity of the American situation and advocated an analysis that emphasized the historical role of the working class, arguing that in Britain the cultural apparatus was less compelling than a traditional class analysis” (32).  Luckily for us, and to a large extent due to the work of Hall, Thompson, and their colleagues and heirs, we do not have to choose between study of the “cultural apparatus” and class analysis. To recognize this resolution, however, is not to diminish the importance of Mills’s recognition that cultural work, broadly conceived, was to increasingly become a vitally important site of political contestation.

[1] All consideration of Mills should begin with Daniel Geary’s excellent study, Radical Ambition: C. Wright Mills, the Left, and American Social Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

[2] Kim Sawchuck notes that Mills taught a course in Print, Film and Radio at the University of Maryland between 1942 and 1944, and in 1945, at Columbia University,  “was a researcher on several studies of the media and culture initiated by Paul Lazarsfeld, including the lesser known “Everyday Life in America” project and a study of fashion”; Mills was also “affiliated with several famous projects on public opinion formation, including the landmark “Decatur study” on political influence and opinion leaders.”  Kim Sawchuck, “The Cultural Apparatus: C. Wright Mills’ Unfinished Work,” The American Sociologist, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), 31.

3 Comments on “C. Wright Mills: The “New Class” and The “Cultural Apparatus”

  1. This is fascinating. I think another critical element of Mills’ place in the genealogy of the cultural worker is his writing at the moment of the nationalization of popular cultural (a la Lizabeth Cohen). Mass cultural work remained largely decentralized and under-capitalized until the early 20th c., thus Mills’ work in the 1950s also reflects the consolidation of a corporate mode of cultural production.

  2. Absolutely. Great point, K! “Mass cultural work remained largely decentralized and under-capitalized until the early 20th c., thus Mills’ work in the 1950s also reflects the consolidation of a corporate mode of cultural production.” I think I will steal this!

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