I turn today to a wonderful little book, Alvin Gouldner's The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. Writing in the 1970s, before the term "knowledge class" came into regular sociological use, Gouldner talked about the "new class" which was contending with the old corporate bourgeoisie (Gouldner remained a kind of Marxist) for world domination.
Gouldner argued that the new class was made up of both intellectuals and the technical intelligentsia. He uses "intellectuals" in a familiar way – academics, writers, thinkers not in directly applied or corporate settings, especially in the humanities. For the other half of his new class, though, he needed to stretch ordinary language a bit; hence, technical intelligentsia. In this category Gouldner encompasses scientists, engineers, and the kind of corporate managers who control complex systems through their technical knowledge. Gouldner is joining together what C.P. Snow famously separated in his image of the "two cultures" – humanities and science – that divide (British) universities.
Most of the time, the concerns of humanistic intellectuals and scientific engineers are poles apart. If anything, when Gouldner was writing, in the immediate aftermath of the 1960s, the two groups and cultures seemed more in opposition to one another than they do now. But Gouldner saw a deeper structural commonality and an underlying common interest. When knowledge itself is under attack, the intellectuals and the intelligentsia make common cause. When rationality is criticized, academics and engineers are on the same side. When the book burnings begin, the brave philosophers and brave scientists will man the barricades together.
Deep down, Gouldner argued, a common culture and a parallel structure unite the new class, what I am calling the knowledge class. The common culture is what Gouldner terms the Culture of Critical Discourse, or CCD (which is think is a sly Catholic joke). The highest value, and most honored practice, of the culture of critical discourse is to examine the principles underlying any practice, to dissect the reasons and causes that lead people to act a certain way. The aim is to see if those practices still seem justified after such scrutiny. And this criticism is also self-criticism; CCD requires that its practitioners constantly examine their own practice, including, paradoxically, the practice of critical discourse itself, to see if it can be justified. A measure of the success of the knowledge class is that almost any college catalogue today will list "critical thinking" as one of the most important aims of education.
The structural position that unites intellectuals and intelligentsia is their control of the knowledge necessary to make the social system run. In Marx's day, a "factory" was simple enough that the owner/entrepreneur could master the whole production process. Today, just about any kind of manufacturing is too complex to for the nominal owners to follow. The social system as a whole is of gargantuan complexity. No one could master it, and it is the life's work of millions of smart people to understand parts of it. Moreover, the whole social system now depends on countless feedback loops, reflexive channels that bring ongoing information back to the system, allowing continuous adjustment. The people bringing and interpreting that feedback are essential to the working of the system. They are integral members of the knowledge class.
The knowledge class does not rule the modern world, but the modern world could not function without the knowledge class.