Apart from short intervals of confusion, every society has networks of influential people who cooperate to maintain their authority and advance their goals. There is always a ruling class, and we have seen that the Sixties were a period in which a new one consolidated its position.
That class, which for the most part still rules us, is basically composed of managers, experts, and media people. Its most remarkable feature is its claim that its power isn’t power at all, it’s neutral administration and provision of expert information that helps people get what they want. That claim is crucial to its power, because it enables it to sidestep and even make use of the rebellious impulses that made the Sixties what they were and are still with us today. Anti-authoritarian attitudes help subordinate traditional authorities to neutral expertise, so the post-’60s ruling class intentionally promotes them: don’t listen to your parents or the Pope, they tell us, listen to educators, theologians, commercial pop entertainers, and The New York Times.
Experts and managers like overall systems that can be explained, supervised, and controlled, and they don’t like people to go off and do things without consulting them. Their rise to dominance has therefore meant pervasive bureaucracy and regulation in all departments of life. The bureaucracy is usually imposed in the name of fairness, safety, and efficiency. Often enough, though, it’s imposed in the name of liberation. “Deregulation” and similar tendencies are less about letting people do what they want than making possible a more rational and comprehensive system that can be supervised and controlled more efficiently.
Examples are everywhere. We have traded meatless Fridays for educational programs and liturgical workshops. “Getting government out of our bedrooms” has meant sexual harassment training, the compulsory redefinition of marriage, intrusive sex ed for school children, and a divorce and childcare industry to deal with growing disorder in families. The “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” in which Catholic educators declared their independence from the Church in the name of “true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority … external to the academic community itself,” has if anything facilitated pervasive government controls in the name of equality over the composition and structure of that community.
Neutral expert rationality has little tolerance for competitors, so our new rulers want to rearrange all social relations to suit themselves. Whatever can’t be made fully explicit and controllable has to be abolished as unjust and irrational. For that reason natural and transcendent connections, such as family, religion, and inherited community, have to go. Public policy, official ways of thinking, and the educational system work together to weaken or abolish them. That process is the essence of what is known as liberation, which means that liberal attitudes and goals trump everything in all settings. If you take religion or inherited standards and connections seriously, you’re an ignorant bigoted fundamentalist who should have no influence on public affairs. Even the desire of Catholic institutions to preserve their right to refrain from providing contraceptives and abortifacients has come to be viewed as an improper attempt to push religion into public life.
The continuing reform of education is another aspect of ‘60s-style liberation. It too has meant a more pervasive system of control. Education, especially at the upper levels, once emphasized classic texts and inherited culture. Now it has to do with technical skills and inculcation of the attitudes needed for the new systems to operate smoothly. To the extent classic texts and inherited culture are treated as relevant, education now mostly involves debunking and deconstructing them. Those who do the debunking and deconstructing likely think they’re furthering the cause of freedom. In fact, they’re acting as agents of the ruling class by destroying points of possible resistance. If traditions and classics mean only what experts say they mean, then people have nothing to point to that would justify refusal to do and believe what they are told.
For all their ambition, boldness, and power, our rulers have basic weaknesses. Their position depends on claims of professionalism and neutral expertise. Such claims are worthy of respect in their place, but when treated as the basis for rule they run into problems. We’ve seen that one problem they cause is that professionals and neutral experts don’t understand or care about the opinions of people outside their guild. They can deal with popular opinion only through propaganda, manipulation, and suppression, so they are incapable of leadership. That’s a problem for a ruling class.
Beyond that, their dislike of explicit claims of authority means that their basic way of managing opposition is supervising it into insignificance through petty controls over daily life: if you say something that is politically incorrect it will hurt your career, so it’s better not to have such thoughts. Where that approach doesn’t work, as in the case of foreigners, people without social position, and the very rich, all our rulers have to offer is threats and payoffs. The former soon stop being believed, and the latter eventually become prohibitively expensive. The result is that government loses the ability to deal effectively with difficult situations.
An even more basic weakness is that our rulers’ knowledge lacks a personal dimension. Academic knowledge is a lot like academic art. It’s clear and orderly, it has definite standards, and it’s hard to argue against in terms it will accept. However, it leaves out whatever can’t reliably be made clear, orderly, and objective. Such things include personal knowledge and insight, as well as the spontaneous responses of ordinary people. The result is that the kind of knowledge our rulers can claim by virtue of their position doesn’t deal effectively with basic features of life. It can be a useful aid to evaluation and decision, but not the ultimate basis for those things. The problem is visible in the Church. At one time theologians were mostly saints. After that they were at least priests or religious who had made vows that put themselves personally on the line. Now they tend to be academics with careers and concerns like other academics. Why should anybody listen to them?
In the long run, pure expertise can’t even maintain itself as expertise. It requires good sense to function and develop intelligently, but good sense has a personal element that can’t be made entirely clear and explicit. As a result, an overemphasis on neutral expertise eventually leads to a kind of mindlessness. As the expertise industry grows, becomes more competitive and specialized, and absorbs more and more of our intellectual life, the productive middle ground of educated good sense disappears, and is replaced by minute details and tendentious theories. For that reason post-‘60s intellectuals are notably inferior to their predecessors. That is true in the Church as well as secular life: the eminent theologians who were so successful at changing the course of the Church during and after Vatican II have left no successors. For all its immediate power, a regime of experts and managers cannot sustain itself, in secular life or in the Church.