Conformity is draped in the dead symbols of a prior generation’s counterculture

Friday, April 29th, 2022

Marc Andreessen recently shared a “very interesting piece on the current thing” by James McElroy, and I found it chock-full of interesting bits:

“Any educational system aiming at a complete adjustment between education and society will tend to restrict education to what will lead to success in the world, and to restrict success in the world to those persons who have been good pupils of the system.”

This professional managerial class has a distinct culture that often sets the tone for all of American culture. It may be possible to separate the professional managerial class from the ruling elite, or plutocracy, but there is no cultural distinction. Any commentary on an entire class will stumble in the way all generalizations stumble, yet this culture is most distinct at the highest tiers, and the fuzzy edges often emulate those on the top. At its broadest, these are college-educated, white-collar workers whose income comes from labor, who are huddled in America’s cities, and who rise to power through existing bureaucracies. Bureaucracies, whether corporate or government, are systems that reward specific traits, and so the culture of this class coalesces towards an archetype: the striving bureaucrat, whose values are defined by the skills needed to maneuver through a bureau­cracy. And from the very beginning, the striving bureaucrat succeeds precisely by disregarding good storytelling.

In America, the first cultural product of modern bureaucratic (and specifically “meritocratic”) sorting mechanisms was the managerial class of the postwar period. Although a subject of derision now, the rise of the “organization man” in the 1950s was accompanied by a huge demand for high culture. In 1955, more Americans paid to attend classical music concerts than baseball games. In 1956, fifty million tuned in to Richard III on NBC. And at the height of the ’50s great books boom, fifty thousand Americans a year bought collections that included Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel. High culture was always the domain of the upper class, but suddenly the GI Bill and mass media opened it to large swaths of the population.

Not coincidentally, high culture lost value as a signifier of status, and the upper class began to complain about the stifling conformity of the organization man. This was a form of status anxiety; someone ridiculed as a soulless cog is not a status competitor. Not too long after, Susan Sontag helped create a new cultural status hierarchy. The new “aristocrats of taste” were those who embraced camp, the love of artifice, in order to dethrone the serious. The upper class no longer had to try to elevate their taste. They simply had to have the right attitude. These trends have been institutionalized. Today’s upper class is raised on a steady diet of pop culture that valorizes nonconformism; elites learn to signal their status through attitude.

Professionals today would never self-identify as bureaucrats. Product managers at Google might have sleeve tattoos or purple hair. They might describe themselves as “creators” or “creatives.” They might characterize their hobbies as entrepreneurial “side hustles.” But their actual day-in, day-out work involves the coordination of various teams and resources across a large organization based on established administrative procedures. That’s a bureaucrat. The entire professional culture is almost an attempt to invert the connotations and expecta­tions of the word—which is what underlies this class’s tension with storytelling. Conformity is draped in the dead symbols of a prior generation’s counterculture.

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