The Business Elite, The New Masses; and The Urban Crisis By Robert H. Bohlke

The following is from a handout provided by Robert H. Bohlke, one of my Sociology professors at American International College – A man of passion and reason who contributed both to student sensibilities.

The Business Elite, “The New Masses” and The Urban Crisis
By Robert H. Bohlke (undated – received in 1969)

As one who was weaned intellectually on Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons and who cut his political teeth in the days of the New Deal when F.D.R. referred to businessmen as “economic royalists” I wish to suggest that the liberal’s stereotype of the elite businessman needs changing. (The reader will note that I assume we cannot change stereotypes – pictures in our heads regarding social classes, occupational “group”, ethnic communities, age groupings, etc. The best we can do is to treat stereotypes as photographs that need to be retouched from time-to-time or retaken as evidence becomes available suggesting distortions of the “real” world.

By the term “business elite” I have reference to those who hold the top positions in our giant economic corporations (or did so initially before entering politics or government services, or those who fathers held such positions), who represent established families – that is, their wealth has not been of their own making, and who attended out best colleges and universities where they received a broad liberal arts education that gave them a sense of vision, and a respect for the dignity of man. (And I would hypothesize that their period of collegiate education took place in the 1939’s when the intellectual climate of these institutions was colored with the spirit of social criticism and social reform.) A number of today’s business elite were the sons and grandsons of the “Robber Barons” of the 19th and early 20th centuries – men who built the family fortunes, often by corruption, outright pilferage, and the use of violence. The business elite are obviously very wealthy but if the foregoing remarks have not made it clear I would emphasize that merely to be wealthy is not to be ipso facto a member of the business elite. And, of course, I would recognize the fact that not all of the sons and grandsons of the “Robber Barons” are included as members. The “classic” illustration of this observation would be Tommy Manville. In many respects Franklin Delano Roosevelt represented an early model of the type I refer to as an elite businessman. I see him as a towering historical figure who fought (and, to some degree, maligned) the older members of the then-existing business elite who still tended to operate in terms of the patterns made famous (or infamous) by their 19th century progenitors. And in challenging them Franklin Roosevelt set in motion the forces that would change their sons.

I would further suggest that it is not the business elite that now presents the obstacles to meeting the crisis of our cities. Rather I would propose that the fundamental opposition springs from the “new masses” in our society who represent the extreme conservative and reactionary forces obstructing changes necessary to meet the challenge of urban America.

I use the term “new masses” to refer to both nouveau riches (the “new upper class”) and the nouvelle bourgeoisie (the “new middle class”) who today comprise close to a majority of the number of family units making up our society. The pyramidal structure of stratification – an accurate model for the United States in the 1930s has today been replaced by a structure of diamond-like shape. A recent analysis of family incomes in Fortune (December, 1967) estimates that in 1967 approximately one-third of all family units earned $10,000 or more after taxes. And if we take $7,500 as the dividing line between lower class and the bottom of the middle class we find that in 1967 the $7,500-and-over category represented approximately 50 per cent of all family units. By contrast, in 1959, holding the value of the dollar constant, family units with incomes of $7,500 or more represented only 33 per cent of the total number of families.

The nouveau riches would be represented by those who have made their millions in the past generation – the oil “drillers,” the highway builders, the urban redevelopers, the suburban developers, the syndicate corrupters, etc. The nouvelle bourgeoisie, who might also be termed the “new proletariat,” would be made of blue collar workers (a few semi-skilled, and many who are skilled or craftsmen), white collar workers (some clerical workers, many salesmen), and that new “bastard” group referred to as “white coverall workers” (some service workers, technicians and sub-professionals, some engineers). In this connection it is of interest to note that the Fortune analysis already referred to points up the fact that of the 21 million family units making $10,000-and-over only two-fifths are headed by people who would be classified in the two broad occupational groups with the highest prestige – that is, the professional or technical workers, and the manager, officials and proprietors. In effect, this means that three-fifths of this income group are headed by people who are clerical or sales workers, service workers, or blue collar workers.

The “new masses” have for the most part been the product of subsidization by the federal and state governments, particularly the former. The Texas oil millionaires have been favored by the federal tax laws; the highway builders, the urban redevelopers and the suburban developers have been the beneficiaries respectively of the gigantic interstate highway system, the urban renewal program, and the FHA and GI insured-mortgage program. The nouvelle bourgeoisie have, on the other hand, been subsidized by the federal government’s legalization and protection of trade unions, the FHA and GI home building and loan programs, the GI educational benefits program (followed by the growth of massive federal aid to colleges and universities directly) and the community tax provision of the federal income tax which “gives a break” to families where both the husband and the wife earn income. In addition, the state governments have been subsidizing the education of the children of the “new middle class.” The recently issued report of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, which focused on the plight of the cities, had this to say: “The commission’s studies show that the schools serving low-income central city children are receiving less per pupil as well as per capita than those serving the more affluent suburbs. It is the paradox of education in metropolitan America that where the needs are greatest, the resources are scarcest; the children needing education the most are needing the least.” Shades of Karl Marx!

Ironically, it is the spokesman of the nouveau riches (echoed by the nouvelle bourgeoisie subscribers to Reader’s Digest) who wail about “creeping socialism,” mounting welfare costs, subsidies to the poor, etc. It is these same “new masses” who now provide the support for what is left of the political boss in the United States. I would suggest, for instance, that Mayor Daley’s power is based on this group. Likewise the more strident members of the new middle and upper classes are the arch supporters of the Marie Hickes and the George Wallaces. Instead of “creeping socialism,” our problem as a society might be more fittingly described as being symptomatic of a political virus termed, “racing reactionaryism.”

In effect the “new masses” are made up of people with small minds and little vision. Their “education” has been “narrow” – either ending with a high school diploma, or, if they have gone on to “higher” levels their academic careers have been characterized by fundamentally more of the same, only within the confines of a community college, or an underdeveloped private college, or a factory-like multiversity. They have been trained rather than educated; their schooling rather than liberating them from any of their prejudices has, if anything, fed and bolstered their myopic outlook on the world and the United States. Despite their affluence they are “culturally” deprived and illiterate. (For example, a study of the performing arts by the Twentieth Century Fund revealed that between 1929 and 1963, despite a great growth in our gross national product, there was a decline in the proportion of disposable income spent on the arts- “from 16 cents to 11 cents of each $100 of disposable personal income,” to quote a summary of the study appearing in the New York Times, Nov. 21, 1966, p.60) Unlike many ghetto dwellers they are not functional illiterates but here the dissimilarity ends. That “ideal community” that symbolizes the way of life of many of the “new masses” is a vulgar, neon-flashing strip composed of the worst characteristics of Las Vegas and Miami Beach, both of which are controlled and/or exploited by gamblers and their “respectable” allies. In truth, the rich “barbarians” have inherited the earth. And what do they offer the urban poor who ask for jobs? A new version of the Roman circus – professional sports contests telecast to the millions – and an “opportunity to become king via the cereal boxtop or the daily number.

The “new masses” have been so indoctrinated by their “teachers” that they truly believe “We have made it on our own so why can’t the Negro (or the Puerto Rican, or the Appalachian white, or the Mexican-American) do it.” This is the lie of the 1960’s which has been told so often that it is now accepted as the truth. The reader will recall Hitler’s advice: ‘If you are going to lie make it a big one.’ The spokesmen for the “new masses” have thus developed the great American lie which provides the basic ideological support to the neglect, if not the outright oppression, of the urban poor.

This is not the ideology of the business elite in our society – the Henry Fords, the Nelson Rockefellers, the Averill Harrimans, the Paul Mellon, etc. The sons of the old “Robber Barons” have matured politically as well as intellectually. It is this group, I maintain, whose voices are heard in the New Detroit Committee which has attempted to sit down at the same table with the Negro militant and which appears to be making a conscientious effort to deal with the unemployment of the hard-core urban poor. Likewise I believe it is this group and their liberated ideology which may be heard in the recent declaration of the Urban Coalition (a privately formed organization made up of leaders from business and other areas of our society whose objective it to focus attention on the urban crisis) urging that “Congress must pass legislation in this session to provide employment to every citizen able and willing to work but unable to find private employment.”

Thus I would hold that the business elite have arrived at the intellectual position that recognizes our society to be faced with a challenge – the condition of our cities and their minority groups – that will make or break the United States. And, further, they are beginning to take the stance that the nature of the urban challenge calls for a “revolutionary” or “radical” response. As an illustration, Henry Ford II, in discussing the state of education, had this to say: “Providing a little more money to do a little better what the schools are now doing will not be enough. It seems clear that we need radical departures, new educational approaches to reach children who are hardly touched by present methods.”

The tragedy of our time may well be that the challenge – like those faced by many societies that have disappeared – is too great. Challenges can stimulate; they can serve as catalytic agents driving a group to reexamine traditional values, “eternal” beliefs, and ossified institutions. But they can also be of such a magnitude – in part because in the past the “wise men” failed to define the symptoms properly – that they paralyze and eventually destroy society.

For anyone – at this point in time to say how we will meet the urban challenge is premature. However, if we listen to the voices of the “new masses” then the urban apocalypse is at hand. And the horses of Death and Hell will ride through the streets of our cities, for the new “Robber Barons” and their followers are ready, in the words of St. John, “to kill with sword and hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”

NOTE: Having suffered harsh storage and time, the original photocopy handout of the above is rapidly deteriorating. I’ve reproduced it here along with Bolke’s summary of Social Stratification and an accompanying New York Times article. Good teaching sticks.


About mielniczuk

Community, systems, design, collaboration, change, evidence, Intelligent Accountability(c)
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