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The Change Merchants
Why rule by nerds leads to perpetual chaos
Over the years, various labels have emerged to describe the type or class of people who tend to run societies in the postmodern West: the “professional managerial class” or the “managerial elite,” the “creative class” or the “laptop class.” Or, as I’ve ventured to name them, the “Virtuals.” Common to all these identifiers is the recognition that the people now occupying the most prestigious and influential upper layer of society tend to differ in some distinct functional sense from the farmer, the truck driver, or the shop-owner of the “working class,” regardless of their actual relative wealth. Members of this well-educated, usually urban, class work not with their hands but with their minds; not with the material world but with information, ideas, narratives, or organizational or interpersonal relationships.
The differences and frictions between these two classes have helped fuel intense cultural and political divides, including the now-familiar “populist versus elite” turmoil that has swept much of the West. But it’s worth highlighting one other significant, if underemphasized, consequence of our elites’ anthropology—one that may go a long way in explaining how our current era has come to feel so relentlessly unstable.
Whether an academic, a journalist, a financial analyst, or a software developer, a member of this Virtual class makes his living—and, indeed, establishes his social and economic value—by manipulating, categorizing, and interpreting symbolic information and narrative. “Manipulate” is an important verb here, and not merely in the sense of deviousness. Such an individual’s job is to take existing information and change it into new forms, present it in new ways, or use it to tell new stories. This is what I am attempting to do as a writer in shaping this article, for example.
Members of this class therefore cannot produce anything without change. And they cannot sell what they’re producing unless it offers something at least somewhat new and different. Indeed, change is literally what they sell, in a sense, and they have a material incentive to push for it, since the faster the times are a-changin’ in their field, or in society, the more market opportunity exists for their products and services. They are, fundamentally, merchants of change.
This is not a new observation. As the writer Kevin Phillips noted in Mediacracy in 1975:
Change does not threaten the affluent intelligentsia of the Post-Industrial Society the way it threatened the landowners and industrialists of the New Deal. On the contrary, change is as essential to the knowledge sector as inventory turnover is to a merchant or manufacturer. Change keeps up demand for the product (research, news, theory, and technology). Post-Industrialism, a knowledge elite, and accelerated social change appear to go hand in hand.
What has shifted since 1975 is that the proportion of would-be intellectuals and other Change Merchants in society has grown vastly larger as our manufacturing sector has declined and we’ve steered a greater and greater share of young people into postsecondary education. We face an ever greater surplus of “knowledge elites,” who form a growing portion of our ever more postindustrial economy; therefore, ever more intra-class competition rages as these elites attempt to sell unique theoretical “products” in disruptive new ways. The result is a vastly elevated number of suppliers of social change. And that supply creates its own demand.
The most vibrant example of this dynamic today is academia. In recent years, many have lamented the infiltration of political activism into the ivory tower, allegedly once devoted purely to the pursuit of truth. But the whole structure of academia is almost perfectly designed to incentivize activism. To advance in or merely survive the competition of their crowded fields, academics must constantly strive to produce something—anything—new and seemingly innovative. It’s “publish or perish.” In other words, academia creates its own demand for continual disruptive change. And activism maximizes opportunities for such profitable disruption. After all, academia is a “marketplace of ideas,” and sellers in a marketplace will naturally advertise to stimulate demand. Some naive academics may have hitherto sought only to understand the world, but the whole point of academia is to sell the need for academics to change it. Activism is the inevitable strategic business innovation of the academic market.
Today, almost every sector of the postindustrial economy operates with a similar incentive structure. Fast culture is good business for the same reason as is fast fashion. Just as promoting hedonism and conspicuous consumption can stoke demand, so a strong incentive exists to promote a whole suite of values that encourage sustained and faster change. Values that scramble sensibilities, obliterate old borders, uproot ties that bind, eliminate the limits of old obligations, pry open and plunder distinct and exclusive communities and cultures; or that discover new rights, or temporarily establish fashionable new moral norms that suddenly compel conformity; or that launch grand moral crusades—all create new demand for services that otherwise wouldn’t exist. “Progress” is profitable.
By contrast, the prospect of deaccelerated change—or, worse, the notion offered by conservative traditionalists that there exist permanent truths, a fixed human nature, or inherited ways of life that have already provided best-fit solutions to intractable human challenges—is, in a real sense, an existential threat. Like the shark who must keep swimming constantly in order to breathe, the Change Merchant finds that stability means death.
Surely, it is no coincidence that the sense, felt by so many today, that we seem to be living in an era of constant revolution and shattering upheaval parallels the rise of a Change-Industrial Complex.
It hasn’t always been like this. In a way, the current state of permanent revolution also represents a recent civilizational imbalance produced by the triumph of one distinct type of human personality over another.
Some five centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli identified two psychological profiles of people who generally became leaders: the cunning but weak Fox, who was “defenseless against wolves”; and the strong and brave Lion, who could scare off wolves but was “defenseless against traps.” Machiavelli thought that a true statesman must embody both. In the twentieth century, one of Machiavelli’s distant students, the Italian political theorist Vilfredo Pareto, would expand on his metaphor to describe the characteristics of two larger classes of people. Foxes are defined by their “instinct for combination” and experiment, and are “in general . . . adventurous souls, hungry for novelty in the economic as well as in the social field, and not at all alarmed at change, expecting as they do to take advantage of it.” Foxes are unsuited to, and uncomfortable with, the employment of physical force; they prefer intellectual and rhetorical combat, seeking to overcome obstacles through clever persuasion or manipulation of people and narratives. By contrast, Lions possess an instinct for the preservation of existing forms and virtues, along with communal unity and “group persistence.” Valuing security and stability, they prefer caution and conservatism, “hoping little and fearing much from any change, for they know from bitter experience that they will be called upon to foot the bill for it.” Society’s natural warrior class, they prefer the honesty of open conflict to scheming and, while typically slow to anger, tend to favor the direct application of force to solve problems.
Our contemporary elite class is quite transparently dominated by Foxes—the same personality type that tends to become Virtuals. Pareto would have predicted this, having noted a historical cycle in which safe and stable civilizations (usually founded by the firm hand of Lions) come to avoid—and, indeed, abhor—virtues and methods other than the indirect and diplomatic. This soon favors the byzantine organizing, scheming, manipulating, and propagandizing of Foxes. With the inarticulate Lions eventually fully marginalized and excluded from governance by the Foxes, the instability of such societies then increases relentlessly, generating direct challenges that the Foxes, inept at using force, may lash out at but are unable to resolve.
If Americans today suffer under a sort of escalating “anarcho-tyranny”—in which uncontrolled immigration, crime, substance abuse, and other social pathologies proliferate alongside a state that seems to grow constantly larger and more determined to exert its dominance through control over, and manipulation of, information, ideas, and narratives—the undiluted rule of Foxes may be partly to blame.
It is also in this context that the ruling knowledge class’s enthusiasm for postmodern ideology should be understood. “Woke” and other variants of postmodernism identify language and narrative as the central domain of human struggle and control of it as the essence of power. Indeed, with his subjectivist rejection of any objective truth, the postmodernist sees narrative as reality. And if narrative—or abstract theory—is “truth,” then it is observable material reality that must be false, amenable to change by sheer will.
This, we might note, is the ideal ideological worldview to tempt Foxes and Change Merchants. It is fundamentally dematerializing, relocating power from the physical world to their preferred realm of pure abstraction and narrative—i.e., it promises complete power to manipulate reality with the mind. This infinite subjectivism provides the opportunity to induce unlimited, frictionless change, at any scale, at any time; even those material limits once considered absolute, such as biology, can be cast aside with a word. The world becomes completely fluid, with reality structured by interpretation, necessitating the management and control of a priestly expert class. How convenient! With postmodernism, every true nerd’s secret fantasy (transmutation from nerd into wizard) suddenly appears within reach.
Of course, narrative doesn’t actually determine reality, a fact that is always likely to prove a disagreeable buzzkill for thinking classes. Pareto noted that it was typical for the destabilization produced by the rule of Foxes to delegitimize regimes to the extent that they would collapse and be replaced, usually by Lion-like men on horseback. Philosopher kings, it turns out, often philosophize themselves out of existence.
The historical cycle that Pareto observed suggests that, one way or another, our era of hyper-rapid change won’t last forever. A limit exists to how much change and instability most people can tolerate in a short span of time. At some point, they might just collectively stop buying it, and we can all enjoy the respite of a long-overdue change recession. First, however, the frustrations of many more people will have to grow to the point where they learn to reject the Change Merchants’ advertised wares—remembering, perhaps, that good ideas (and principles) don’t need to be replaced as quickly as refrigerators. In fact, the longer such concepts have endured, the better they probably are.
Maybe there will at last come a day when that rude hawker’s cry, “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change!” is met mostly with a polite but firm, “No, thanks.” That’s the kind of hope and change that I, for one, could get behind.
Originally published as “Change Merchants” in City Journal magazine (Spring 2023).