The maintenance of a close connection between the embourgifying British aristocracy and the mid-19th century men of arts and letters in Britain
“was seen by the Russian Communist Dimitri Mirsky as implying that ‘the intellectuals made no attempt to think independently of their class, but rather were proud of belonging to it. In short, there were no intellectuals.’…It seems broadly true that, to a far greater extent than was true in France or Germany, not to mention Russia, in Britain mid-Victorian cultural figures tended to be literary or scientific, thus strictly speaking falling outside the sort of intellectual category necessary for a truly hegemonic politics. Moreover, even as they remained closely tied to the ruling class, which was for the great majority their class of origin, they did not, like traditional intellectuals, form a separate social category with an independent institutional structure of its own” Desai 1994: 44.
Here Desai is discussing how the aristocratic-based and aristocratic-values-proliferating British Romantic literary movement quickly eviscerated the middle class Utilitarian program for thoroughgoing social change. “The dominant cultural tendency became a sort of unsystematic, self-consciously untheoretical, romantic conservatism, opposed to rationalism, to grand theory, and above all to Benthamite ideas: ‘For the next hundred years, every poet, novelist and philosopher knew how to do at least one thing: to refute and deride Utilitarianism'” (Desai 1994: 42). Even today we knee-jerk dismiss Bentham’s program–indeed any progressive, ambitious social change vision and program–as ipso facto tyrannical (Foucauldians and anti-communists coalesce to keep this alive.), which was also the conservative Romantics’ dogma. Significance:
1) Britain’s bourgeois class did not produce an adequate effort at envisioning and advancing social change aimed at propagating freedoms. You could see this as the exceptional Anglo institutional capacity to repress revolt, or you could hypothesize: Bentham’s program was in fact not worthy of pursuing–Perhaps because, with the middle class Benthamite revolutionary aspirations, there was not sufficient coalition and interchange with the working class. The convergence, in exceptional Britain, was always already between the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie. The working class and peasantry were totally shut out–you know, as in a totalitarian way–except to the extent that they could be romanced by the aristocrat-dominated vision of land-based freedom.
2) As opposed to the English department consensus, Desai, following Anderson and Gramsci, is emphasizing that literary producers (and scientists as well–see Oppenheimer’s eye-opening, frustrated efforts at becoming a public intellectual) do not have the institutional and identity independence to form a properly-independent intellectual class capable of a) co-opting some elites to the cause of revolution, and b) significantly challenging hegemony.
The relationship between the Victorian literary establishment and political-economic elites was incestuous. English reform is what the US Civil Rights Movement would have been with Kathryn Stockett (“The Help”) at the helm, instead of MLK, the women bridge leaders, and Malcolm X.
Yet we have a tendency, in Anglo-american societies, to imagine, quite conservatively, that reformist literature–not intellectual schools that break with the dominant class’ interest, coalesce with the exploited class, and foster action — is all the social imagination we need or normatively should produce. We have seen pure middle class Bentham, and didn’t like it, and that’s all we need to know–It’s back to conservatism (freedom for a few, enthrallment for most) for us!
3) I’m sure quite shockingly it is never the case that elite opposition to rationalism or grand theory translates into beautiful anarchy. No, because you see there’s always the undead army of conservatism behind that opposition. Coleridge’s conservative, Durkheimian policy suggestion for governance: A “clerisy” institution, composed of nationalist “cultivated men,” “a morally and religiously sound clergy and aristocracy to serve as a cultural elite that would restore the community of England” (Coleridge).