Snow’s world

by Terence MacNamee

For somewhat less than a century now, Western societies have been run from what I like to call “Snow’s world”. This is the world described by C.P. Snow in his novels and essays. It is a world of élites. It spans government, industry, academia and the professions.

It is the world of the “new men”, the managers, although it is apparent that it has grown out of tradition, and that the ghosts of former élites haunt it.  It is thoroughly modern, and of the modern world, although it continues the idea of an élite from earlier forms of society: the aristocratic and the bourgeois. The educational system, especially the élite secondary schools and the universities, have the job of keeping it fed with new recruits.

Snow experienced the system in England. There the old snobbery about the gentlemanly amateur was alive and well, even in the industrial age with its need for science and technology. He talked about this as the problem of the “two cultures”. He did note that there was a rising class of white-collar workers and technicians, but they did not have the polish or social self-confidence of the old élites. You had to go to university for that, a technical college wouldn’t do.

Snow, who came to this élite from the outside, was acutely aware of issues of class. His views were moderately left, and he served in a Labour government. A fellow like Snow, though he may be on the Left, does not really want to abolish the Establishment. He wants people like himself to run it. So he just ends up joining it. As the American historian Christopher Lasch has observed, when people from the working class get promoted into the élite, it just feeds the élite, it does nothing to better the lot of the working class; in fact it worsens it, because it deprives the working class of leadership.

Formerly, élites were thought to be leisured. Hard work was for the socially mobile on the way up from below. Today’s élites are no longer a leisured class – they are, as the British say, “running around like blue-arsed flies”. This is because Snow’s world is a technocratic world. The technical, the industrial has seized the initiative, and people have to be organized around it. The system is surprisingly neutral politically. It was able to function in the Soviet East as well as the capitalistic West. Snow’s world is a nomenklatura, to use a good Soviet word: a list of names from which élite vacancies can be filled. It has more in common with élites in other countries and systems than it does with the man in the street where it lives.

More recently, Christopher Lasch has talked about the “revolt of the élites”. That is to say, international élites are remodelling nations and societies to suit themselves, not the masses. Ordinary people are resentful, which expresses itself in right-wing populism; they know they are further from controlling the agenda of society than ever they were.