Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class – An Essay-Review in Memory of Barbara Ehrenreich, 1941-2022

Yves here. This essay does a fine job of describing and kneecapping the sense of privilege and entitlement of the professional managerial class, based on a recent book by Professor Catherine Liu. which in turn builds on the foundational work of Barbara and John Ehrenreich.

To add: Peter Drucker had celebrated the rise of managerialism, but he saw it as a necessary and virtuous adaptation to the way industrial enterprises had grown in size and scope. He did not tie the development of this cadre to education; indeed, most top managers and even CEOs had worked their way up through the ranks and their success was rarely a product of where they went to school and how well they had done. So there was a stage when managers in industry held a distinct position, but were no more “special” than the owner of the local car dealership.

Another issue is that the pretenses of the professional managerial class rest on the idea that they have earned their position, that they are the victors in a meritocratic system and therefore legitimately deserve to rule. See our discussion in the 2007 Conference Board Review article, Fit v. Fitness, “The Illusion of Meritocracy.”

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health

“For as long as most of us can remember, the professional-managerial class (PMC) has been fighting a class war, not against capitalists or capitalism, but against the working classes.”  So begins the short but essential book Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class, by Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies at University of California-Irvine.  It will be nothing new to anyone here that the PMC was defined in Radical America[1] (pdf) in 1977 in two essays by Barbara and John Ehrenreich:

A middle class category of workers (that) must be understood as comprising a distinct class in monopoly capitalist society…The PMC as we will define it exists in an objectively antagonist relationship to another class of wage earners (whom we shall simply call the ‘working class’).  Nor can it be considered to be a ‘residual’ class like the petty bourgeois; it is formation specific to the monopoly stage of capitalism.  It is only in the light of this analysis, we believe, that it is possible to understand the role of technical, professional, and managerial workers in advanced capitalist society and in radical movements…We define the PMC has as consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function is the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.

Aside from a few updates such as “late neoliberal capitalism” as a natural progression from “monopoly capitalism” described by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy and Harry Braverman, this definition holds up 45 years later.

The Ehrenreich’s second essay (pdf) placed the New Left and PMC in context and foreshadowed much of the subsequent history of the PMC.  There have been more than a few quibbles about the analytical rigor of the concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, but quibbles they are, generally coming out of an evergreen and irresistible sectarianism on the Left.  What is class?  Marx, Weber, Durkheim?  My priors are those of a layman but lie with G.A. Cohen and Erik Olin Wright, for example, along with Vivek Chibber’s recent The Class Matrix plus work from Adolph Reed Jr, Touré F. Reed, and Cedric Johnson.

But as a thoroughly working-class kid who became a de facto member of the PMC by virtue of stubbornness plus some lack of imagination, and not a little good fortune in climbing the greasy pole of academic biomedical science, I know it when I see it.  Above all, the PMC are those to whom we must listen.  Always, and with no exceptions.  And therein lies the problem, ours and theirs.

Following the Ehrenreich’s work, Professor Liu notes that the PMC has vestigial memories of a time when they were truly progressive, when they “once supported working-class militancy in its epic struggles against robber barons and capitalists like (Mr. and) Mrs. Leland Stanford, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon…”  Yes.  In this regard the PMC sees itself as the heirs of Jane Addams of Hull House, who did actually minister to the left out and left behind; John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, who did seek to establish the university as a disinterested seeker of truth.

But today the PMC goes to Stanford (Hi, Rachel! where an “A-minus” is the “C” of yesterday) and its members “view private foundations bearing those same names as models of philanthropy and sources of critical funding and recognition.”  Yes.

And they still view themselves as “heroes of history,” but to extend the original conception of the PMC, they find the “working class is not a group they find worth saving, because by PMC standards, they do not behave properly: they are either disengaged politically or too angry to be civil.”  Yes.

“Liberal members of the credentialed classes love to use the word empower when they talk about ‘people,’ but the use of that verb objectifies the recipients of their help while implying that the people have no access to power without them.”  Yes.

And essential to this essay at making a little sense of the world,

The PMC as a proxy for today’s ruling class is shameless about hording all forms of secularized virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic (and public health) crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of giving back or reified forms of self-transformation.  It finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people (including all of those in flyover country, whatever their occupation).

Yes.  And finally, one more “Yes”:

 If PMC “politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance…PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families, and deplorable (Thanks, Hillary!) child-rearing habits.


No one could appreciate a good polemic more than I do (from either the Left or Right; such a thing is impossible from the mushy middle, whatever Arthur Schlesinger Jr. thought about a Vital Center).  Virtue Hoarders is one of the best I have read, ever.  What follows is my short, discursive response to the book, 80 pages of one jewel[2] after another on professionalism, political economy, family, education, and, of course, sex in the current world.

A reasonable question: Why did this little but powerful book resonate with me?

Primarily for the simple reason that I am a dual citizen of the two worlds in conflict, first by virtue of origin during the middle of the Baby Boom in a working-class, union household and culture that was perhaps unusually cosmopolitan at that time in the South.  And second by current membership in the PMC as a first-generation college student who became an academic scientist after serving at every level in the university from lab dishwasher to Professor/Associate Dean. 

Throughout my working life it has become clear to me that one sees, first but thankfully not only, what one is conditioned to see.  Not that I believe for a minute my perspective is especially privileged, but it has been relatively rare among my colleagues since I was the dishwasher in that laboratory.

So, why the mutual antipathy between the PMC and the non-PMC?  The idea of Meritocracy[3] comes first on my list. 

Although no statement should ever be prefaced with “Quite simply,” it is still a simple truth that the PMC views itself as the “betters” of “the other”, because of education, training, professional status, and presumed entitlement.  And this is why only the obtuse will fail to heed the will of the PMC.  The PMC cannot fail, it can only be failed. 

A funny thing about the definition of “the other” in PMC World is that it has no apparent limits.  Virtue Hoarders covers several recent striking aspects of this attitude (Chapter 2: Transgressing the Boundaries of Professionalism), so I will consider COVID-19 as another example of the power (and ultimate futility) of the PMC. 

From the beginning the PMC has been alternately hysterical or sanguine about the current pandemic.  This is covered daily here at Naked Capitalism, but it remains true that the much of what we have been told by our betters at CDC, NIH, FDA, the biomedical establishment, and Big Pharma regarding the pandemic and the damage it has done has been handed down by authority and authority alone.  From a short review I wrote about mRNA vaccines in January 2021:

 They (Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) are also the first two mRNA vaccines against a virus to be approved for use in humans.  Since the Zika virus epidemic in the Americas in 2015-2016, Zika vaccines based on mRNA have been in development.  Results are promising and these vaccines have worked in experimental animals.  But there is still no Zika vaccine currently available to prevent Zika infection and disease in human populations. 

And while adoptive immunotherapy for cancer has shown remarkable (if narrow) success, cancer vaccines based on mRNA technology are not in widespread use, despite the first proof-of-principle in 1995.  Notwithstanding the success in developing them and getting both COVID-19 mRNA vaccines to the clinic in record time, these vaccines are experiments in every way that matters.  Early results indicate they may be effective.  Under pandemic circumstances they are the right thing to do, primarily because they can be done right now.  No disinterested scientist and physician is likely to go any further than that.  That is not necessarily a fundamental problem with these vaccines, either.  Sometimes we must act in the here and now.  This is one of those times.


Two years later it is still one of those times, and we seem to be at sea regarding vaccination for SARS-CoV-2.  This experiment has failed to produce a distinctly positive result. 

Yes, perhaps disease is milder in the vaccinated, which is a clinical endpoint not considered two years ago and could be due in part to better clinical management of disease. 

But no, COVID-19 is not a pandemic of the unvaccinated.  Long COVID is a mystery, but very real and even more troubling.  These vaccines prevent neither transmission or disease, which is the natural expectation of the people, including physicians in their clinics and the “great unwashed” who persist in asking for the truth just as disinterested scientists would. 

Yet any criticism of the vaccines or advocacy for complementary approaches, pharmaceutical and physical, even from other erstwhile members of the PMC, are still often met with outright derision, as we can see here, where the nation’s leading infectious disease expert conflates science with something altogether different, authority. And authority is the stock in trade of the PMC.  Along with it running mate, the Noble Lie, going back to Plato.  We can all, including those disrespectful PMC-adjacent middle-class Westerners, get with the program or remain beyond help.  And understanding.

Pivoting back to Virtue Hoarders, the PMC notion of the family is represented very well by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfield of Yale Law School[4].  The former is most well-known for Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  And together they later published The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise of Cultural Groups in America[5], a book that proved (the imaginary vulgar) Marx right by being “purely determined by the ‘material life conditions’ of its authors.” 

As Professor Liu puts it, in the default mode of the PMC in late neoliberal capitalism, in the United States “there is no polity, no class, no society, no collective endeavor, no social responsibility…only cultural groups vying for advantages…America will be a better place when there are only successful and unsuccessful individuals…competing on a level playing field,” to which they all drove in their Tesla, preferably a long-range Model S

That “good enough mother and father” who care for their children as best they can in their community, described by D.W. Winnicott almost 60 years ago?  They remain largely outside the imagination of the PMC and remain unrecognized and unappreciated, but not by those of us who teach and attempt to mentor their high-achieving adult students. When these students err, they admit they should have paid more attention to the schedule or the syllabus; such behavior is usually a one-off thing.  The students with helicopter (more and more like a predator drone these days) parents?  While not yet quite in the majority, they do require disproportionate attention.  And one does worry about them. 

The “good enough” mother and father are likely to produce a human being who will grow into a mature adult who is at one with the world.  The perfect helicopter parent often produces fear and misery, which with lucky outcomes will not lead to catastrophe.  But few of those bathed in the backwash of that rotor, however outwardly successful, are likely to ever be fully independent.

It has become clear that  “PMC elite workers (still) see themselves as the makers of history…laboring in a world of statistics, analytics, projections, predictions and identify performativity, virtue signaling , and affectual production.” While everyone else is just laboring in the world at something unimportant (more on that in a moment).  
But getting back to Barbara and John Ehrenreich, this is not sustainable: Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class (pdf).  Neoliberalism has finally and thoroughly caught up with the PMC, and the result is not pretty. 

From the beginning, the PMC was the intermediary and enforcer between the owners of the means of production, whether these were individual capitalists or large corporations, and the working class.  This engendered “a complex mixture of deference and hostility on the part of working-class people and paternalism and contempt on the part of the PMC.”  

The so-called “liberal professions” of medicine and law remained outside the corporate framework until fairly recently.  Now, not so much.  The true owners have reasserted themselves and animus against the liberal professions is “surpassed only (very slightly) by neoliberal hostility to what conservatives (and this includes all Liberals with a capital “L”) have described as the underclass.” 

The liberal professions have been crushed, generally with glee: journalism; education at every level where tenure, which should attach to all jobs after a suitable probationary period (5-12 years in colleges and universities), is despised especially among the professoriate; healthcare, where the MBA reigns supreme and doctors and nurses have little to say about the management of “non-profit” hospitals with billion-dollar reserves.  

The same holds true for universities with their multi-billion dollar “endowments” and a faculty full of adjuncts with no power, no future, and no real reason to care for their students other than an innate love of their students and the art of teaching.  Which does not pay the bills very well for very long.

So, basically what has happened, except at the highest reaches of a greasy pole that nevertheless gets thinner and shakier as it rises, is that the PMC now suffers the fate of the industrial working class, which began an uninterrupted losing streak at end of the Great Compression (pdf) in the mid-1970s. 

I remember this personally, because I worked for a year during 1973 and 1974 in a heavy chemical plant at a union wage of approximately $45,000 per year in current dollars. This, beginning as a 17-year-old high school graduate.  With the Recession of 1975, that job disappeared.  By the early 1990s the plant had been abandoned after it was sold by the large transnational corporation that opened it in the 1950s with a core of union workers from Syracuse (NY).  Production of essential chemicals was “offshored,” most likely to South Asia. 

But what galls the PMC the most, is “their original dream – of a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited professionals – has been discredited,” and their common lament that the people just won’t listen to reason remains unheard by their objects.  The vestigial sense that the PMC is doing “God’s work” has no current resonance with anyone outside their own echo chamber, which is loudest at the usual places: MSNBC, NPR, NYT, WSJ, The Nation, and the outer reaches of the Financial Times

Is there a way out of this?  Can the PMC return to the days of Jane Addams and John Dewey?  Yes.  But as an obligate appurtenance of Big Capital?  No. 

 [Any] renewal of oppositional spirit among the Professional-Managerial Class, or what remains of it, needs to start from an awareness that what has happened to the professional middle class has long since happened to the blue-collar working class.  Those of us who have college and higher degrees have proved to be no more indispensable, as a group, to the American capitalist  enterprise than those who have honed their skills on assembly lines or in warehouses of foundries.


This has always been true, but now that truth hurts.  And what remains of the working class does not really care, though there was a time when the working class did listen.  During the Great Compression, for example. 

My one observation, made soon after I began my first professional job as a scientific worker at the age of 19 remains valid: The primary problem with the PMC is that too few of them have ever needed to work for a living, said work meaning whatever was available at whatever wage that would keep one from starving on the street[6].  If the PMC had a better understanding of the human condition, we would not be in the place we are, as I give the final word to Catherine Liu’s final words in Virtue Hoarders:

 The PMC has refused to name the economic system that has ruined our planet, undermined our trust in public institutions, destroyed public health, diminished our childhoods, and litigated our pleasures.  Neither evil nor virtuous, the PMC is a secular and material antagonist.  In calling out the capitalism as the enemy of the people, we must also name our enemy’s most assiduous courtier and sycophant: the professional managerial class.


Ouch!  That left a mark!  But one that was needed, in the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich.


[1] Radical America was one of the “little magazines” I read back in the day, largely because there was a newsstand across the street from my university that carried a substantial selection of such publications: Dissent, Working Papers for a New Society (edited by the young Robert Kuttner IIRC), In These Times, Dollars & Sense, etc.  And from the other side Commentary and The Public Interest, to be joined later by explicit responses to the Powell Memo (1971) such First Things, City Journal, and The New Criterion.  The most recent serious attempt at High Liberalism is Liberties, edited by Leon Wieseltier, formerly of the New Republic, and naturally the lucid, go-to place for the Liberal View of All Things.  Alas, that newsstand (does anyone even remember newsstands?) is long gone, as are the long rows of books in history, sociology, philosophy, and political economy to be found in my University Bookstore, which was a revelation to me and where one could find Perry Anderson and Herman Kahn, Milton Friedman and Michael Harrington, Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin and A.J. Ayer, Charles Murray, John Rawls, Alistair MacIntyre.  Now the choices in the same floor space are various and sundry versions of ugly, university-approved and trademarked ($$), apparel and nick-nicks from all the usual suspects: Nike, Adidas, Champion, Under Armour.  What do college students read these days?  Do not answer that, please!

[2] For example, p. 14: “By the 1980s, PMC elite fantasies about ordinary…Americans were colored by both yuppie and hippie fantasies: ordinary people were trapped in stultifying stable jobs, deferred gratification, and social conformity.  They were like Flaubert’s village idiots, but infuriatingly, they enjoyed good pensions and good benefits.  If the hippies hated the stability achieved by the union-negotiated peace with postwar corporations, yuppies actually went ahead and destroyed the institutions of lifetime-guaranteed employment through leveraged buyouts that led to blue- and then white-collar downsizing.  Yuppies were not American psychos or charismatic sociopaths – they were boring, anxious, and conformist – but they did represent a new face of the PMC elite: they served new masters and enjoyed the rewards of that service.  When Jack Welch took over General Electric in 1981, he personified as a super yuppie the ethos of management for stockholder value…Yuppies helped to birth a new world for capitalism…public austerity and private luxury, globalized economies and shiny cities surrounded by devastated hinterlands, a world of offshored labor and lightning-quick capital flows.”  On Jack Welch, see The Man Who Broke Capitalism.  Not that Jack Welch and his acolytes were not the likely outcome all along.

[3] The ur-text of meritocracy is The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by the British sociologist Michael Young.  Meritocrats in the mold of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair seem at times to not realize the book was satirical/dystopian fiction, not a how-to manual.  Young was complemented in the early days by Richard Hoggart, whose The Uses of Literacy (1957) was subtitled “Aspects of Working-Class Life.”

[4] And an undoubtedly fraught but multilayered and fluid connection with their academic home.

[5] The three traits: Superiority complex, insecurity, impulse control.  Ugh.  This dovetails too well with Charles Murray to be taken seriously.  A recent well-reasoned perspective from the other side was published this year by the UC-Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant: The Invention of the “Underclass”: A Study in the Politics of Knowledge.

[6] We all have things that set us off.  Mine is the PMC description of the people and their jobs done by “the other” as “unskilled.”  An unskilled chemical worker would not last a week without hurting himself or another, or worse.  It requires great skill and awareness to work with and around heavy equipment and toxic chemicals.  The same is true for essentially all jobs – cook, barista, waiter, landscaper, welder, crane operator, carpenter, plumber, electrician, mechanic – even if these men and women have not been “trained” to parse Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler.  Or Anthony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky.

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  1. GG

    “Performative” is a key word throughout. The PMC isn’t so different from the aristocracy of feudal times, which anxiously validated their own position in society via performative means: “correct” dress, speech, comportment, etc.

    Today, you must perform at work and in life to justify your meritocratic privilege: from using the correct corporate buzzwords and methodologies du jour to having the correct progressive-yet-not-radical liberal beliefs on social issues.

    Your living itself is a performance. From how you raise your child to what leisure activities you do and how you present these performances to your audience via social media. We must authentically enjoy triathlons and pickleball and skiing (but where!?) as much as we ensure that our children attend Montessori schools and are bound for the Ivies and display the choicest upbringing (we might as well say “breeding,” but that seems less active and meritocratic).

    Oh, but the aristocrats didn’t “earn” their position! Didn’t they? They usually got a title originally for exploits in war and choosing the correct leadership faction to throw in with. And it was preserved over the years and generations through the careful performance of all the “correct” behaviors above, as well as the shrewd navigation of various daily intrigues. This was a full time job, at least! A performance and a struggle that never ended! Full of the anxieties of immanent failure and clear and present risk of ruin. Placing advantage over individual enjoyment or expression. Just as now.

    Aristocrats and the PMC may be privileged, but they aren’t free. A fact painfully obvious to both themselves and those who scorn them in their banal inauthenticity.

    1. eg

      While I agree with your description of PMC behaviours, I don’t think that they map onto the feudal aristocracy so much as the priest or Brahmin classes whose function is to justify the privileges of the aristocracy and discipline “the lower orders.”

      The PMC are themselves wage-slaves and therefore cannot by definition be aristocrats.

      1. JohnnyGL

        I think that’s accurate.

        Feudal aristocrats had their own power base and could threaten kings with a de-centralized erosion of their authority. The PMC can’t do that. They can only gain power and influence by carving out a role for themselves that’s useful to capitalist elites.

        “Don’t worry boss, we’ll explain to the workers that they need to improve their manners and language and be nice to immigrants and read to their kids at night and stop whining for better hours and wages because China.”

        Right now, the PMC is going to have to learn to fight for themselves to retain their new-found privilege…working remotely!!!

    2. GramSci

      I see the PMC more as the Church of feudal Europe. Just like today, they were permitted to think of themselves as the “First Estate”, and onstage they were seen by the Masses as the “First Estate”, but it was the Second Estate that ran the show.

      1. digi_owl

        Yeah, the modern aristocracy are the shareholders and such.

        The PMC is more like the retinue of an aristocrat than aristocrats themselves.

        1. lyman alpha blob

          Due to ubiquity of the 401K in the corporate world, there is some overlap. The PMCs get shares too, albeit probably not as much of a haul as the C-suite types who grant themselves stock options and the like.

          1. JohnnyGL

            We get to look at some numbers on a screen that represent the chance at retiring and avoiding poverty when we get old and become even more disposable than we are now.

            We’re told by other members of an adjacent priest class (financial advisors and financial media) that if we show patience (another important PMC virtue that we have over the underclass), those numbers on the screen will grow into bigger numbers which will provide a bit more security and also represent a high score at the game of life, personal validation of our life’s achievements and a testament to our merit.

            What we don’t get from ‘shares’ is real power and control over our lives.

        2. hunkerdown

          If one assumes society has its own distinct but complementary modes of production, then PMCs, having jealously appropriated to themselves the right and responsibility to perform and interpret social production, could be analyzed as a social capitalist class, with many of the Marxian critiques ported over easily. If society is subordinate to economy, as liberal capitalism sees things, a distinct economic-class relationship would evolve for practical reasons as well as to signify the distinct capital-labor relation to the means of social production.

          “Nobles did not hunt or fish. But they maintained the circulation of souls that made hunting and fishing possible.” -David Graeber. But the nobles could not write the chiefs out of the cosmos so easily.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Thank you for this, outstanding essay.

    I would add that my own personal theory of the rise of ‘wokism’ is that as the PMC now has more children trying to enter the PMC than there are jobs, there is now a frantic competition within that class to focus on insider class markers. Knowing the current set of required beliefs and languages is one important element of this.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      Yes, you are completely correct: Wokism is a way to separate and elevate yourself, culturally and in terms of age, and advertise your special grooming, outlook and style of moral vanity. After all, Woke/IdPol ideology originates in an academy that starts out as a refuge for defeated Leftists/idealists in the 1970’s, and then evolves into a get-ahead-by-stepping-on-your-competitors’-throats via the disappearance of tenure, full-time employment and the dismantling of Humanities departments. Likewise in media, with the demise of newspapers and local news, jobs become scarce, super high-status and “meritocratic” to the point where it becomes an Ivy League circle jerk of reinforced/received opinion (as seen most recently first with Russiagate, and now Ukraine, as milestones of collective delusion and magical thinking).

    2. Thuto

      Very right PK, and there’s a technological dimension to this. First AI came for the factory floor jobs and the PMC were put by the ownership class at the coalface of culling labour as the proverbial bearers of bad news. Now the technological shift is thinning the ranks of the PMC itself by automating some of the most cherished, high status jobs, with the result that the anxiety the members of this class feels about the future and the creeping precarity they thought would never encroach on their “secure” lives is indirectly driving the cultural pivot to wokism in the western/ized world that you describe. The monoculture that ensues from this pivot values group think more than individual authenticity, and is consensus seeking vs truth seeking, which necessitates strong filtering mechanisms to keep out those from the “wrong side of the tracks” (ideologically speaking). The whole soapboxing of woke opinions on twitter and other places can be seen, as you suggest, as a form of jostling for positions in the new wokerati.

      And you’re right that this ties in to the realization that economic options/opportunities are narrowing for this group, something they never thought would happen. We’ve already seen how recruitment agencies covertly stalk the social media accounts of job candidates (ostensibly to determine “if they’re a fit with the employer”), so virtue signalling to an audience online will confer advantages in a world where job prospects are dwindling.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Thanks, you express it so much better than I could.

        It does of course extend beyond just wokism. We’ve seen with covid and with the Ukraine war the processes whereby pressure is put on for nearly everyone to get in line with the official narrative. I’ve seen genuine military experts write analyses of Ukraine that are so fundamentally stupid they can’t possibly believe them (similarly of course with issues like aerosol transmission of covid, where it seems a badge of honour for some health experts to let everyone know they don’t understand basic physics). If you track back on some of their writings or twitter threads you can actually see the leashes being yanked, I sometimes think the stupidity is point – its the ultimate signal that you are the returning prodigal son.

        1. Thuto

          True, some of the analysis and commentary during the pandemic and now during the war goes beyond pandering, it’s just plain stupid and so obviously false one has to wonder the type of pressure people come under to put their names to such nonsense.

    3. Carla

      I am acquainted with someone who has recently started apologizing every time she “slips” and refers to her 9-year-old son as “he” instead of “they.” I assume she does the same when referring to her 6-year-old and 4-year-old daughters.

  3. ElViejito

    As someone who shares the dual background of “working class raised” and “PMC educated”, I wholeheartedly applaud this essay. Before WWII, certain segments of the small PMC allied with the working class since they were both out to cut the Ruling class down to size.

    In the 50’s the U.S. ruling class began trying to figure out how to run this global economy it had been gifted. And they needed managers to do that. In the 50’s there were four medical doctors for every college professor. By the 60’s those figures had reversed.

    And with careful “nudges” by the oligarchs (Red scares, funding of Business schools directly by Business, etc.), the PMC began to see its future tightly bound to the ruling class. And so it continued.

    Until now, when computers and outsourcing greatly diminish the need for managers. Now the wet dream of the ruling class is to eliminate management entirely and put labor (including whatever is left of the PMC) directly under the beneficent control of Artificial Intelligence.

    The remainder of the PMC, their children now working as baristas and Amazon warehouse hustlers, may turn their gaze once again to cutting the ruling class down to size. But a lot has happened during the 150 years since Marx wrote. New voices (women, the Global South) are insisting on being heard as well. See “Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up? Organizing the Twenty-First Century Resistance” – AK Press, a series of mongraphs addressing the title question.

  4. David

    It’s an excellent book, which all should read. Thank you for the essay.
    Two points, I increasingly wonder whether the PMC isn’t a “caste” rather than a “class.” It reminds me of the old Soviet Communist Party, in that you had to join it to get very far in any profession, and once you had joined you became vulnerable to ideological policing by the Party. It’s a bit like that now: you can be a journalist, university teacher, government official, independent expert etc. with the status and pay of the PMC, but it is possible to refuse to join the ideological PMC consensus – you won’t have that much of a career, but it’s still a possibility.

    The other thing is that I see the PMC as the ultimate banalisation of the Enlightenment, and the way of thinking that runs through the French Revolution, Bentham, Comte, up to the twentieth century with Stalin (who was very influenced by Taylor by the way) and the whole rational utopia school of thinking. Human beings should be guided by reason, and if necessary others will have to intervene to make sure they are. We began with Plato’s Guardians, and we went through the Church, the worship of science and the ideas of people like Wells for rule by a technocratic scientific priesthood, an we wind up with a bunch of MBA-wielding cretins who would be incapable of doing anything useful in chip-shop.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      “…I see the PMC as the ultimate banalisation of the Enlightenment…”

      that, right there.
      echoes of Neitszche’s Last Men…who “hop about” and blink.

      i admit that, in quiet moments when i forget what these folks have done to the world, i have sympathy for their recent and ongoing precaritisation.
      but then i remember what they’ve done…and all the while blaming everyone else(including their children) for the fallout(!!) of what they’ve done…and i “lean in” towards a nihilism that i find quite uncomfortable.
      at the risk of hasty generalisation and gross essentialism, from my perspective, all this mess remains a boomer thing.
      and i’ll go on shamelessly using my parents and their cohort as representative samples in my analysis…handed the world by their hardworking and long suffering folks, they screwed it all up….and/or allowed those they identified with to screw it all up…
      the trope of “well, i put myself through college*” with its implications that my generation(X) were layabouts, etc…for instance.
      Marx’ “ressentiment” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

      (*- low cost, all but free university, more or less fair wages for even burger flipping, and lots and lots of money from their parents that was actually worth something at the time…and then good paying jobs when they got out of college…etc.)

    2. Jen

      “It reminds me of the old Soviet Communist Party, in that you had to join it to get very far in any profession, and once you had joined you became vulnerable to ideological policing by the Party.”

      In my opinion this explains the behavior of “the Squad.”

    3. Ignacio

      I think that “caste” is more precise than class. I have seen very few but good examples of company managers, general managers, that didn’t adjust to the PMC description. People that were able to get the best from their employees without being contemptuous, without needing to say how things had to be done but making them involved or complicit with well defined objectives. People who was a pleasure to meet and work with. On the other side I have seen, for instance, ordinary teachers behaving as the worst of it. There are even cases of blue collar workers behaving as PMC (by imitation?).

      This term “caste” we use it in Spanish to describe those types.

    4. Cat Burglar

      Professionalism is not just a description of a practice, it’s a fighting ideology. I remember an older brilliant sociologist friend of mine who rigorously enforced it in any discussion of society or politics – no one could have any credible opinion on any subject not within their remunerated and certified specialty. Other specialists were granted reciprocal rights to discourse credibly on policy direction. Non-specialists were simply feeling objects only qualified to express emotion over their circumstances (exactly the way journalists treat popular opinion, e.g., “Fear Over Nuclear Power”, etc.).

      “More enlightenment does not necessarily wise up the individual,” as C. Wright Mills put it, and if individuals are administered as objects of management considered irrational by an elect, then you get a positively counter-Enlightenment outcome. The Enlightenment project of cultivation of growing individual and political autonomy is completely abandoned.

  5. russell1200

    I have Ms. Liu’s book. But to my shame, I haven’t read it yet.

    Double shame because it is a relatively brief tome (90 pages); Particularly compared to Helen Thompson’s (extremely good) Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century and the (very good) doorstop of Patrick Cohr’s The New Atlantic Order: The Transformation of International Politics, 1860-1933 The Transformation of International Politics, 1860-1933.

  6. LAS

    Social classes are ways of modeling social relations. Social models have uses and limitations; they are a form of data reduction. Social models are useful for poltical advocacy. The populist models are in the ascendance at this time because some politicians are finding them useful to mobilize working and middle class resentment over real or imagined de-investment or displacement; it uses resentment to achieve a personal political objective, not a group policy or solution. Look for instance at the billionaire empire created by Alex Jones’ Infowar; how does he actually perform any social service for all his take? He simply invalidates other people’s experience.

    Piketty and his team of economic researchers have compiled data to demonstrate real economic slices and shifts in income, wealth and politics. So models based on his work are most compelling, eye-opening IMO. Whereas models based on verbal definitions of professional managerial are less exact and seem hand having, talking over other people’s experience, talking for them; I do not see managers and professionals as a monolithic class.

    Unless you are a total Marxist or strict Fascist, you probably believe in individual circumstances and individual lived experience to some extent, even if it is a position or rung of the hierarchy. As a culture we have celebrations for various individual life achievements. There are good and bad individuals in all social classes. This is where I sometimes part company with Michael Hudson, who in other respects I greatly appreciate and look forward to reading. You just can’t “prosecute” people for their social class alone; i.e., define people as a parasite or a Kulak and then without due process take away their property for instance. But we could do more just taxation, more just legal work, better access to education, share historical perspectives and job training, give more people more voice in policy debates. We could better expose who benefits and who loses from various policies. Stop excluding people from access, voting, and story-telling on the basis of any old blanket class myth.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      This is a good comment. Class has its value as intellectual concept, but once you get past a 2-class model a la Marx, things get very slippery. The whole point of Erik Wright’s work was trying to map people’s actual existence on to a 2-class model. Hence, the idea of “contradictory class locations.” In the 3×3 model that I am familiar with (I think later iterations may have had more boxes), only 2 of the nine boxes are “pure” class locations (capitalist, working class); the other 7 are mixed or contradictory: class locations with some amounts of economic power and/or authority (over others) but also lack of power (vis-a-vis others).

      The Ehrenreichs describe a 3-class model with the PMC as a distinct class between working class and capitalist elites. But, other than nomenclature, it doesn’t seem to me that their view is much different than Wrights: what distinguishes the PMC as a class is its contradictory location: complicit in/necessary to the functioning of capitalist society yet in a fundamentally subordinate position vs capitalist elites. As far as I can see, both analyses come from the same place: understanding that the politics of PMC members depends on which aspects of their class location are prioritized and expressed, and that one of the major aims of democratic left politics needs to be trying to understand these contradictions so as to appeal to/win over PMC members to the left. For example, one of the clearest of Erik Wright’s survey findings was that the politics of people in these contradictory locations varied over time and by location. At the time of his big international survey projects, Swedish persons with middle/contradictory class locations were on the whole much more left in their politics than similarly situated Americans.

      (I use “left” in the old sense. Neoliberal wokism is not “the left” and the fact that it is commonly described as “left” or even “far left” is successful neoliberal misdirection aimed at weakening actual left politics. On the other hand, human rights including trans rights are absolutely left politics and a fair amount of anti-wokism really is fascistic. What believer in the dignity of all humans would want to (proudly) not interact with someone using their preferred pronouns?)

      I find most contemporary PMC commentary lacks both this understanding of contradiction and of politics. Nowadays, “the PMC” is defined as the (intractable) enemy of working people or the left, which then demands lots of gymnastics regarding definitions of who is and isn’t PMC. For the Ehrenreichs, teachers and nurses were two of the numerically largest PMC occupations, whereas I think most contemporary PMC commentary uses much narrower definitions.

      Both the Ehrenreichs and Wright came to their positions based on a real commitment to anti-capitalist politics. (I knew Erik Wright pretty well and he was as elitist as they came but I never doubted his commitment to left politics.) Not having read the book, I can’t speak to Liu’s analysis or politics, but I’m with Gabriel Winant on this: totalizing depictions of the PMC as the intractable enemy of working people are both historically inaccurate and not conducive to left politics.

      I find the sheer volume of contemporary commentary of the general form “PMC bad ==> anti-PMC politics good” – some of which is obvious (or non-obvious) trolling by the right (who are so, so much better at politics than we are) but also from non-rightwing commenters that I otherwise respect (on this site and others) – to be a really bad sign. Or a real political opportunity!

      1. Thuto

        I don’t think anybody here is suggesting that people who are part of the PMC are “bad people”, i’m sure most of them are good, salt of the earth individuals (and given the high quality of comments on this site, one can safely assume that many people here have credentials that would ordinarily lump them in with said PMC). The argument, at least from my perspective, is that it’s the collective implied by the last word in the PMC moniker ie. a class/group of people, that have collective class interests that are, at least under the current iteration of capitalism, not aligned with those of the working class, and as such they are often co-opted as enforcers against labour by the ownership class. They’re the load-bearing column supporting the upper layer of capitalism occupied by the ownership class and keeping down the working class below them.

        1. Left in Wisconsin

          Your comment, which I appreciate, leads me to two obvious questions: 1. What distinguishes the high-quality of commenters here from the run-of-the-mill PMCs, or indeed the Neera Tandens of the world? (I would argue that it is their politics, which must not be driven by their class location, and/or that their lives are complicated so it is impossible to simply match their (individual) interests with a simplistic class schema.) and 2. What are “the interests of the working class” (again, unless you are adopting an explicitly Marxian 2-class scheme)? Are they in accommodating to capitalism, which is surely in that individual’s short-term interest, or in working to overthrow it? Are the interests of the US working class the same as the interest(s) of working classes in other countries? Unless one is being unrealistically reductive, it isn’t obvious that the interests of individuals located (more-or-less) in the working class are any less complicated and contradictory and those of PMC individuals.

          The main argument I hear about/against the PMC – but maybe my hearing isn’t very good – is that, as a class, it is invested in maintaining the existing (unfair/indefensible) system (as is) and satisfied with that system as long as it works for them/their children. That certainly describes many PMC individuals but let’s face it it describes a large number of working class people too. Perhaps the argument is that PMC individuals, as individuals in a more powerful class location, have a greater responsibility to work toward a fairer or better system than working class individuals, but surely that logic also applies to the better-off segments of the working class, who are often the most rightwing.

          I’ve lived in USAmerican PMC circles my whole life, much of which has been spent in left politics, and the one descriptor that I take real issue with is the notion that the PMC represents some smug, self-satisfied class of know-it-alls. All the PMC’s I know, and to be fair I have to include myself, are absolutely panicked about the world they know falling apart. The main strategy I see to deal with this is to encourage their kids to work harder than ever to succeed in that system (and to provide them with every advantage they are able to provide in hopes that they do succeed). This requires a fair bit of cognitive dissonance in that it makes no sense to work hard to succeed in a system that is falling apart but, to paraphrase everyone I know, “what is the alternative?” (This is why I hate the lifeboat analogy, unless that lifeboat has a continuously shrinking number of seats.) Back when I was younger, there was still a sectarian left and leftist young adults would actually go to work in factories and in other ways forego a PMC life to try to bring about a left politics. (Maybe this is what some of the young Starbucks and Amazon organizers are up to.) Now I mostly just hear bitching, talk of “sheep-dogging” (which to repeat I mostly interpret as rightwing trolling), etc. all in the absence of any serious left politics, not just in the US but virtually everywhere as far as I can tell.

          My only real point is that all those people “in” the PMC – at least as the Ehrenreichs and I define it, including teachers and nurses – are there to be won over to left politics. Of course there will be lots of PMCs on the other side, just as their will be lots of working class people on the other side. The Neera Tandens of the world want power for their side, which is the side of capital and their PMC enforcers. (The notion that the Dems don’t want power is ludicrous. They want power to reinforce the status quo.) It’s not obvious to me that the “anti-PMC” crowd really wants power.

          1. Thuto

            This is catching me at a very late hour here in South Africa but I’ll have ago at an answer before I turn in.

            To your first question, i’d say, and this is an a priori assumption, that the distinguishing characteristic that sets the high quality commenters here apart from the other run-of-the-mill PMCs is being in possession of the capacity for self-awareness, specifically awareness of one’s “previlege” as bestowed by having the right credentials. This, in my estimation based on the length of time i’ve been reading this site, gives them a unique “insider” perspective that allows them to critique the PMC with objectivity as the guiding principle, because they’ve seen its inner workings from the inside. I don’t know if the NYT/WAPO reading PMC types have this level of self-awareness, they may have an inkling that their continued existence in that part of the capitalist pecking order is tenuous as you suggest, but I doubt they believe the system they’re part of is ailing and in need of reform, they just want to secure their place in it by all means necessary, up to and including being anti-labour in their posturing to impress their higher ups who view the working class with contempt.

            As regards the high quality commenters/PMC on this site, I don’t know whether having self-awareness necessarily affords them the opportunity to “walk the talk” and seek to change the system from within, or even whether their individual circumstances would allow for this in the current economic climate (given that precarity is stalking even the highly credentialled) when survival is the overarching theme in the lives of all but the wealthiest people on the planet. I do however believe that their unique perspective, borne of their vantage point inside the PMC, will hopefully drive conversations that inform political positions that people can coalesce around to build momentum to effect real change. If the bottom does fall out of the economic prospects of the PMC, and its looking likely that it will, they’ll need those below them to cushion their fall.

            Unfortunately, I can’t comment specifically on the interests of the working class in the US as I live in a country where labour still has considerable political leverage, which I’ve learned is not the case in America. I will say though that the sweeping changes to the labour market brought on by e.g. automation will affect both the working class and the PMC, so a way will have to be found to reconcile and align their interests of both if they hope to pack the political punch they’ll need to navigate the uncertain future they both face. Whether this is possible, well, I don’t know.

          2. pjay

            Your points are all valid for any detailed exegesis on the concept of ‘class.’ I remember many such discussions back in the day – including a few with Wright in different venues. And I remember similar critiques of the Ehrenreich’s concept going back to the late 70s and early 80s. Takes me back.

            But here I would keep my remarks simple (probably simplistic). I think most of us are using the phrase ‘PMC’ as a shorthand for those who are *dominant* in specific “professional” fields that play key roles in the production and reproduction of our capitalist society. We are not much interested in conceptual rigor here. If we were, while each of your points are well taken, each can be, and has been, answered by those who think the ‘PMC’ concept is analytically and politically useful. But I’m not going to get into that sort of academic debate here.

            However, you and LAS are right about the political dangers of lumping the great variety of stratified professions together under one term. While *we* may know to whom we are referring, others may not. If we not careful in throwing out such terms without specifying their referents, we can contribute to confusion or demagoguery (as LAS points out). We must also distinguish ‘class’ as an *objective* structure of relations and interests, from ‘class’ as a set of *subjective* identities and perceptions used to mobilize (or pacify) individuals and groups.

            I agree with you that “totalizing depictions of the PMC as the intractable enemy of working people are both historically inaccurate and not conducive to left politics.” Yet I see both analytic and political value in distinguishing an intermediary set of positions – a ‘class’? ‘Strata’? – that are crucial in the production and reproduction of society, and that are privileged in important structures of domination (command and obedience) which create their own conflicts of interest. We can carry on academic debates about terminology. But although the warnings by yourself and LAS are important, I would still argue for the value in defining this set of positions, and the conflicting interests involved, in terms similar to the Ehrenreich’s efforts.

            1. Left in Wisconsin

              I more or less agree with you. Shorthand is good and necessary and academic discourse is often (mostly?) unhelpful in politics. But obfuscation is not good. If the problem is simply what we used to call “capitalist toadies,” then why not just say that instead of dressing it up in the language of class? The Ehrenreichs were getting at something specific with the idea of PMC: that by the 1970s the employment of many people at least in the US was not part of the direct capitalist enterprise (production worker or capitalist) in the Marxian sense but was more or less engaged in “system maintenance” – educating people, keeping them healthy, serving as middle managers or administrative workers of all sorts – and that it seemed pretty clear even then that the outlooks and interests of people in these positions couldn’t be easily mapped into a 2-class worldview. This was and is an important insight. But that insight, and the politics that Barbara Ehrenreich’s whole life demonstrated it should drive – in which the left works to obtain the support of as many members of this class as possible, in part by understanding the particularities of PMC life but also in exposing them to the realities of working class life under capitalism – is being twisted by defining the PMC as something it’s not, and which leads to a much different, mostly defeatist politics.

          3. hunkerdown

            You’re defining “politics” in liberal-capitalist terms as if the theory of competitive self-assertion were a fit means of decision-making. Would it be too far to say that you want to maintain the problem?

            1. Left in Wisconsin

              Absolutely not. Politics is both short and long-term. I’ve been trying to build a real left in this country my whole life, which can’t happen without a left party (whether the Dems or otherwise). My main point is there can be no successful left without the support of a significant fraction of the PMC, but the politics need to be left politics, not Third Way.

      2. Revenant

        Isn’t this what the concepts of “class traitor” and “false consciousness” are for, to describe the deliberate or delusional alliance of a class of workers with the capitalists?

        PMC is a useful term for picking out who maintains the apparatus of oppression but are they really a class? Where does positing multiple classes get you, except in some nonsense People’s Front of Judea / Judean People’s Front identitarian slanging match? Either you have control of the means of production or you don’t!

    2. Cat Burglar

      When anyone speaks of their experience of the larger social reality, they employ general ideas and terms to characterize their world. If such general ideas are only inexact verbally defined mythologies, how can popular opinion be of any value to policy-making? What would be the value in letting people “tell their stories” if they have no relevance to any collective discourse with the power to make policy?

    1. Arizona Slim

      True confession: I haven’t read the article yet, but I did make a printout. It’s sitting in the living room, waiting to bop me over the head.

      But I resonate with eg’s comment about Lambert’s description of the Democrats.

      Matter of fact, it’s one of THE reasons why I left the Donkey Party and became an independent (read: feral) voter. That was back in 1992 and I still don’t have any regrets.

  7. K Lee

    George Orwell’s critique of James Burnham’s book, The Managerial Revolution, is also a must read. Burnham is actually describing Technocracy, rule by ” the experts”:

    Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is
    now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be
    neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic.
    The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control
    the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians,
    bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham, under the name of
    “managers”. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush
    the working class, and so organise society that all power and economic
    privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be
    abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new
    “managerial” societies will not consist of a patchwork of small,
    independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main
    industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will
    fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured
    portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another
    completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an
    aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.

    1. albrt

      Orwell’s discussion of his “lower-upper-middle class” upbringing in the second half of The Road to Wigan Pier gives a more visceral description of why these “shock-absorbers of the bourgeoisie” hate the working class.

      1. Roland

        I remember how that second half of The Road to Wigan Pier, where Orwell tears down the British Left, really kicked me in the head, when I first read it in the mid-1980’s, at age seventeen. It was not a pleasant reading experience. It bothered me. I didn’t like it. I disagreed with him.

        But that book stayed with me. It forced me to think about myself, my own class position, my own attitudes towards society, towards technology, etc. As years passed, I noticed more and more how Orwell’s criticism of the Left had remained fitting.

        In retrospect, The Road to Wigan Pier may have helped me to keep clear from the careerism and credentials arms race that absorbed many of my peers during the 1990’s, like a sort of vaccine.

  8. orlbucfan

    Most of the PMC is a fossilized, ignorant, greedy joke. Just like “Right To Work” is a lie and actually means “Right To Serf.” I’ve worked in the lowest paying jobs so have walked in those shoes. I have always respected Barbara Ehrenreich.

    1. Bart Hansen

      Ah, but what about the swarms of celebrities that are endlessly created? And the influencers like Gwyneth Paltrow and all the ones who followed her selling lifestyles. I suppose those two groups often overlap. Are these creatures members of the PMC?

  9. The Rev Kev

    A great essay this but which at this time of the night I will have to put off till tomorrow to study it properly.

  10. Ignacio

    Nice read!
    In Spain I have seen descriptions of the same with other terms applied but rarely depicted as a social class. For instance, some talk about the “Black Knights” (Caballeros negros) that fit on much what is said here about PMC. Always right and virtuous while contemptuous with the inferiors (the rest of the world). These should be avoided as much as getting Covid, some say. Problem is that it is impossible to avoid them all the time and at some point you have to manage the PMC. You meet them even in the most unexpected place. For instance, my wife is going so some free classes on writing (books/novels). Free, provided by the municipality in their civic centre. For a couple of days it looked promising until by the third class the PMC-Black Knight appeared monopolizing attention, showing contempt for everybody and “showing” the Real Way of thinking and writing. The teacher minimized. This person had been probably all his life doing the same in whatever company he worked and nothing was now going to change in his leisure.

  11. Watt4Bob

    America has always had a strong eliminationist bent.

    Got a problem?

    Let’s eliminate it.

    This goes hand in hand with management by MBAs and by extension, management by spreadsheet.

    “You see this cell right here? If that number was lower, we’d be making more money.”

    Want to improve profits? Cut costs, as in eliminate employees.

    Indigenous people, high-paid craftspeople, tool and die makers, unionized manufacturing labor?

    The solution is almost always the same.

    Of course, on the political side, this includes political assassinations, color revolutions, and ultimately, almost all warfare.

    People think ‘cancel culture‘ is new?

    The PMC are the folks who get to decide who/what has to go.

    If only they were better at it.

    A lot better.

  12. chuck roast

    The PMC do not take the bus. As an ex-PMC’er, I can tell the wanna-be elite from the true scufflers. I never see them on the 60 bus. Sure, wanna-be students are on the bus all the time, but I can read their narrow minds, and they can’t wait to abandoned us to our squalid doom. You wanna I.D. a PMC? Ask them if they would take the bus.

    Back in my PMC days I was responsible for the federal review of many local transit proposals. The local transit agency PMC always wanted new light rail systems even though ridership technical analysis usually didn’t support the capital costs or subsequent O&M costs. A bus would have been cheaper and more efficient, but many of these light rail proposals were born zombies…you couldn’t kill them.

    All of these capital intensive proposals were based upon professionals riding the rails to work every day. Heaven forbid these washed, rinsed and pressed masses ever get on a bus, but rail is a “ka-ching” demonstrating their self worth. Busses are considered “low-class” by the PMC. In the famous words of my friend Callahan, “Busses are for losers, roast.”

    1. digi_owl

      Likely because they see rail as having tables for them to rest a laptop on so they can get some early work in on their next powerpoint deck.

    2. Arizona Slim

      I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve always enjoyed public transportation.

      Yeah, I know. Arizona Slim who likes to ride a bike around Tucson.

      But, since I’m among friends here, I’ll say it. I like to ride the bus, the trolley, and heck, even a train now and then.

      Planes? Not now. I keep hearing about what a [family blog] show air travel has become, especially in the last couple of years.

    3. skk

      Excellent article, KLG. I enjoyed the nicely suppressed rage against the machine.

      Separately, re: busses, for a 1 yr period from my LA exurb, I had a car-train-bus commute. The bus could be 10 min direct rail station to offices downtown, OR you could walk 2 mins and take a mainline bus that passed by which was used by people who don’t own cars etc, travelling miles as. you can imagine. Depending on timing the mainline bus let you make the connection saving perhaps 40 mins, if you were going to miss the direct bus. None of the PMCees would take the mainline bus though ! Theyd rather wait for the direct one. I took it as needed of course. They told me “It isn’t safe:”. Always reminded me of some sci-fi story. And really enraged me.

    4. Roland

      I don’t know, chuck roast. I’m a proletarian who spent thousands of hours aboard city buses in Vancouver, Canada. Vancouver also has an LRT. They’re both overcrowded, underventilated, and miserable, but at least the LRT moves. Tell me the cost difference, and I’ll pay some more of my wage in order to get the LRT.

      Best transit, of course, is no transit. When you can walk. The two happiest years I spent in Vancouver were when I lived a half-hour’s walk from work. Those were also the years when I was sick the fewest days. But the rent you pay to live close to work, that’s a different kind of hell. Perfect market, perfect misery.

  13. LY

    Mentioning Amy Chua triggered some thoughts about the model minority trope, which neatly dovetails into PMC meritocracy. Both Liu and Chua both appear to fit that trope.

    I also fit that trope.

    And I’d like to tie in one more thread of thought. How many of those PMC jobs are what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”?

  14. pjay

    Thanks for this excellent essay. I was also a “dual citizen of the two worlds in conflict” you describe. The Ehrenreichs’ original essays were indispensable for understanding my contradictory world at a crucial point in my life. Lui’s book is an important extension of their original insights. And your observations on their application to our present condition are right on target in my opinion and experience.

    Regarding your last quote, I agree that it is crucial to remember that the most powerful members of the PMC are the “courtiers and sycophants” of Capital. But as the organizational and intellectual “managers” of this system, they do have considerable influence on its direction. At present, given the belief in their infallible judgment, reinforced by the deference to their authority shown by most of their PMC peers, I fear that some of them have the capacity to bring our world to an end. Of all the many traumatic events over the last several years, the one that shook me the most was watching Fiona Hill’s testimony during the first Trump impeachment. I realized that these people actually seemed to believe their bulls**t. And they are the ones who control our foreign policy.

  15. TomC

    Journalism now PMC? YouTube interview

    “Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy” author Batya Ungar Sargona on The Power Hungry Podcast. A deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, she compares historic working-class journalism to modern social media anger response ad strategy.

  16. amos untermench

    Thanks for mentioning the Catherine Liu book, I’ve sent away for it on the grounds that it is under a hundred pages. Most books could be significantly improved by chopping out the middle of them randomly to get them under a hundred pages. I realize most people don’t think so but they are wrong.

  17. Starry Gordon

    If a PMC exists in any real way, it exists because it performs a function. To deal with it (whether as a problem or an institution) one must understand what that function is. Hostility to the PMC by a largely PMC-classed discussion group may impede understanding of the function. For instance, a highly complex society driven by desire for conquest and exploitation requires effective mandarins and generals. If you want to get rid of these people, and the relations they represent, you may have to forgo the benefits they provide, the contemplation of which loss in turn may cause people to forego the steps necessary to get rid of them.

    1. LifelongLib

      “Class” means something more than occupation or way of life. It describes how certain occupations or ways of life interact with other occupations or ways of life. Yes a modern society will always need professionals and managers of some sort, but they can have a different relationship with the rest of society than the current ones (allegedly) do. (I say “allegedly” because I think “PMC” is a somewhat cobbed-together grouping that encompasses disparate people in a variety of circumstances. Not everybody who went to a four-year college is or pretends to be a master of the universe…).

  18. JEHR

    When I was in high school I used to walk by a large sign (huge sign!) that said “The Future is Technocracy.” Now I know what they meant. Apparently, Technocracy arose partly because of The Great Depression.

  19. David in Santa Cruz

    The imperative for a “kapo” caste is nothing new. For example the American “Republican” of 1922-72; the CPSU Nomenklatura of 1955-91. Caste is impossible for someone outside of its presumptions to comprehend. Sinclair Lewis wrote of this a hundred years ago.

    KLG’s complaint that caste unity trumps science is well-taken but it has ever been thus. What is to be done? History shows that only the die-off of a revolution, a holocaust, or a pandemic can truly, if only briefly, shake things up. As individuals we can call B.S. but it’s rarely a winning proposition to swim against the stream of the unconscious caste imperative.

    1. hunkerdown

      The question is not whether there should be status classes, but what degrees and kinds of social consequences such formations ought to be allowed to have, and to what degree their constitution should be at the pleasure of those who have to support them.

      1. David in Santa Cruz

        Who shall be the decider of the social consequences and constitution of our castes, if not those who benefit from them?

        Dumbledore’s Sorting Hat?

        1. hunkerdown

          Those who tolerate them, according to Frederick Douglass. Property isn’t sacred. We don’t need to let PMCs hypnotize themselves and others with bombast. We have no obligation even to let them be heard or to appear before an audience on their terms. We can disrupt and destroy them with disinterest.

  20. Tim

    It appears Engineers are lumped in with the PMC, despite not ascribing to much of the qualities mentioned here from my personal experience with them (which is quite extensive).

  21. AdamK

    Bravo! sums up my feelings towards the class I’m part of. Now, after cutting the branches of the working class, they’re diligently busy cutting their own using the same logic as if there’s no real life implications to it. The day when no branch cutting will be needed will be their last.

  22. semper loquitur

    Thanks for the excellent essay. Here is a video of Zizek discussing the public self-flagellations of the liberal progressive that I think is pertinent:

    It’s about ritual purification. You publicly denounce your sins and the sins of your race or sex. In extreme examples you wear garishly colored hair dyes, innumerable piercings, and mutilate your body to proclaim your allegiance. Having engaged in these rites of cleansing one’s sins through pain and humiliation, you are now empowered to preach to and condemn others. The eternally moralizing PMC.

    Zizek relays that when non-white, non-liberal voices provide that their own cultures, their races, have sins of their own, the liberals balk. This is because the liberal-progressive don’t see them as people so much as extensions of their own world-view. The eternal victim that must be saved time and again by the righteous and pure.

  23. Anthony G Stegman

    It used to be that the word “professional” applied to only 4 occupations – law, medicine, clergy, and accounting. Some may add engineering as well. These days it seems that everyone with a four year college degree considers themselves “professionals”, regardless of the (often bullshit in the words of David Graeber) job they are performing for the corporation. The PMC can be seen as status seekers. They wish to be seen as better than others. It is not dissimilar to the neighbor who buys an expensive car and parks in the driveway for all to see. Deep inside, many in the PMC are insecure and fear being exposed for the fakes they are. This goes all the way to the C-suites in major corporations.

    1. digi_owl

      Because in the end they are still salaried, and can be stripped of same.

      No matter how much the posture otherwise, they are no gentlemen in the classic sense. That title was reserved for those that had sources of passive income, but were not members of the nobility.

    2. ckimball

      You made me remember.
      I thought architecture was included in your listing. But I was told many years ago in the dark ages of the ’60s that “professionals do not advertise” among other performative qualities describing “professional”. Seems many poachers in that territory now.

  24. Gulag

    I fear we may be way beyond any potentially positive insights offered by the concept of PMC.

    We are unable to agree even about basic facts anymore and dissent (in any form but especially on the left) has largely disappeared.

    Most of us (including many in the PMC–if they are honest) have a strong sense things (like rationality, security, and the possibilities for peace and prosperity both internally and internationally) are fast slip-sliding away.

    My own personal conceptual apparatus for understanding things seems increasingly inadequate to the task and my faith in any traditional centers of decision-making power being able to pull us out this dive disappeared a long, long time ago.

    The powerful internet narratives now driving our country seem almost joyful in supporting a trajectory that looks like it is leading us towards global nuclear annihilation.

  25. Godfree Roberts

    Oddly, the world’s most successful government, China’s, is built around meritocracy–first of virtue, then of competence.
    It works as well today as ever. Better, in fact, as Martin Jacques observes,

    The reason the State enjoys a formidable legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese has nothing to do with democracy but can be found in the relationship between the State and Chinese civilization. The State is seen as the embodiment, guardian and defender of Chinese civilization. Maintaining the unity, cohesion and integrity of the Chinese civilization-state is perceived as the highest political priority, the sacrosanct task of the Chinese State. Unlike in the West, where the State is viewed with varying degrees of suspicion, even hostility and regarded, as a consequence, as an outsider, in China the state is seen as an intimate, as part of the family, indeed as the head of the family. When China Rules the World

    1. Jorge

      “College reproduces the PMC” is what’s going on here. The Chinese imperium invented a meritocracy under which the aspirants worked their butts off for years under paid tutors, and if they succeeded at the every-few-years national test, they had a decent job for the rest of their lives as imperial bureaucrats, or “Mandarins”.

      The test reproduced the class. The aspiring Mandarins had to memorize a culture’s worth of literature to pass the test. This meant that when two Mandarins from different regions met, even if they could not understand each other’s dialect very well, they still knew the same fairy stories, parlor games, songs, and political beliefs. They were intellectually homogenized.

      This “meritocracy” bound together the Chinese empire’s managerial class. It was one of the core tools of maintaining a huge, sprawling, long-lived empire. It was brilliant! The Brits recognized the value of the standardized test, ripped off the idea, and we Yankees stole it from them.

      A “meritocracy” with a standardized culture is a very powerful tool for managing a society. But it’s a tool which must be maintained and used well. We have stopped using it well.

      1. hunkerdown

        It is a powerful tool for managing a society against the will of its members, both individually and generally, and that’s a very good reason to destroy them wherever they arise for wasting my and everyone else’s time and attention with childish abstractions and whiny emotions.

  26. c_heale

    I think the PMC (the elite of a technocracy), can be described as those who live in a world of abundance. If they want something it’s possible for them to get it. And the poor are those who live in a world of scarcity. To the degree we live in this world of abundance, that is the degree to which we are the PMC.

    In medieval times (before a technocracy was possible) the world was one of scarcity for most people all the time, and for the rich, one of condtional abundance, conditional in that nature (a storm, a plague) could take everything away.

    This world of scarcity is the real world. And the world of abundance is illusory.

    What I think has happened is that the PMC, the technocracy, believe the world of abundance is still the same as it ever was, while increasingly the world is becoming one of scarcity.

    They are desperately trying to hold onto their power (the good life, the American dream), while the world collapses around them. But they have bought into their dream so much, that they cannot believe it can be taken away, and they are blaming others (the deplorables, Putin, etc.) for taking it away. When, in fact, their greed (for energy, resources) is cause of this loss.

    In the end we cannot have everything. The world of abundance never really existed. We have to be patient, considerate and polite to others, for example. And we have to be fortunate.

    1. hunkerdown

      PMC religious sermons based on discredited origin myths of the state aren’t an argument for anything but the abolition of the PMC.

  27. Altandmain

    I think KLG has a point – think about people like senior HR professionals or management in an office. They may not make as much as the executives (not nearly as much and they are very aware of that – part of the reason why they are scared is because they aspire to join the ranks of the truly rich), but they also police the lower ranking employees (often hourly).

    The PMC also has its own worries – they are worried about their kids too, and about them getting into “top tier’ universities because of fear of what could happen otherwise.

    The PMC is arguably a bigger challenge than the 1% in some ways because they have the numbers.

    Richard Reeves made this argument in his book, Dream Hoarders.

    The upper 20% have the numbers and they are socially liberal, but economically very conservative. In the US where the turnout is quite low in voting, 20% of voters is a big deal.

    This represents a big barrier for the working class to advance.

  28. Jorge

    Everyone has two social classes, external and internal. The external class is generally based on your social position. The internal class, how you personally identify? I believe it is based on what you realistically fear: homelessness, a bad retirement, jackals stealing your wealth, etc.

  29. Revenant

    There was really only one profession, the Law.

    The Church is a vocation. Called by God. Mostly the Church was full of the second sons of aristocracy and (certainly in earlier Mediaeval times) the occasional poor boy on the make. As a distinct power structure within the state (the Lords spiritual, canon law etc.), it is hard to see it as a self-regulating civil profession in the UK.

    The two earliest courses at Cambridge were law and divinity. As far as rank was concerned, matriculating to study at a University would confer gentility upon you: the students are “Mr XYZ” (or these days “Miss”) and the College staff, porters and the like, are merely Smith or Brown. Trinity still employs a sign-writer to carefully paint Mr XYZ above the door to your set. (There was a separate mediaeval status of “sizar”, students working their way through their degree – I don’t know if they were Mr or not!)

    Medicine was a less mainstream pursuit and, from a British perspective, it ran separately to the barber-surgeons. This separateness persists in the British tradition that physicians are addressed as doctor and surgeons as mister (i.e. as gentlemen). As you complete your medical training, you go from Mr (pre-clincal B.Ch.) to Dr (clinical training) to Mr (consultant in a surgical speciality).

    Accountants have invented themselves as a profession in modern times but they were distinctly “trade”. A union of clerks!

    If we take a more modern view, the a workable UK definition of a profession is that you have one of more societies with a royal charter and self-regulation as to the award of practising qualifications. This would include engineers, actuaries, nurses, midwives, various type of IT person etc.

    From my perspective, the old definitions are more revealing about the power relations in society. When everybody is a professional, nobody is.

    Of course, the interesting thing is that academics are a sort of meta-profession….

  30. podcastkid

    I like this!

    It’s the beliefs that’ll be hardest to change, meritocracy and “abundant living” (the latter theological).

    Like Patrick Lawrence, it looks to me also as though narcissism’s playing a role in what’s going down. It’s by far usually not an instance of Bandy Lee’s explanation where one guy’s the model. No, real workers imitate a whole class (PMC)…both groups know what the best phones are (thus both think they know everything (best tech that tells’em)). So, there is a competition to spout the “facts” (to bump the other as supreme “symbolic analysts”). It’s called “internal mediation” by Girard, though in this version I see rivals are quite different on the outside [and I’m talk’n rival groups]. But the PMC orgs have their shares going all day long attempting to explain they understand the downtrodden. And all the “common man” podcasts keep flaunting the latest uncommon tech they nevertheless managed to get their hands on. So, really both groups are imitating one another.

    There are about three things young workers in the west today need to realize. One, jobs have been provided that lack meaning (it was unavoidable given neoliberalism plus it serves TPTB well). Two, it would in a way be best if some manufacturing jobs returned. Three, even in the ideal Eisenhower years [with manufacturing] too many seeking decent jobs fell through the cracks, or (not as serious) had complexes cause they couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. It would seem (though I hope I’m wrong) that you can’t really see 1 or 2 unless at some time or another you’ve worked your tail off…on good jobs (by the old definition), and on ones under the returned Taylorism of the present. In the latter it’s all you can do to endure, and I’m sure many say just let me hook up wires on Chevy Traxes (something that’s logical) for 50 grand a year. But, as we know, that paradigm has a tendency to move into Taylorism. The really hard thing for young workers to deal with today will be #3. A lot of manufacturing is redundant, so environmentally it’s time for much of that to change anyway. Right now they could change into healthcare jobs.

    No harm in being a symbolic analyst or working in FIRE if that’s what you want to do, and/or if whatever business has a job for you of value to the whole society. People think CERN eg will discover a lot, and it has. But right now what’s more interesting is long covid…

    Long COVID is a mystery, but very real and even more troubling.

    [If I share this, “even more troubling” has an embedded link].

    We can see Pluto clearly. We know how fast S2 revolves around Saggitarius A. There’s some evidence big bang could be wrong. And yet we still stay stuck with the mRNA approach. Create logical tasks without paranoia, oneupsmanship, Taylorism…and thousands of lobbyists in DC…and then maybe individuals will have enough energy to ponder for themselves even bigger questions…like, if they could manage it, ones they might ask someone like Vandana Shiva. Give people a real chance to think, and they might not want to convert everyone to what they think?

    I’ve thought about it some, and to me it seems like this from Yves could give a rest to a lot of wasted woman/man hrs in academe…

    By contrast, net fiscal spending (as in budget deficits) beyond what is necessary to create full employment will cause inflation. It creates demand in excess of the ability to satisfy it.

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