In a review of a new book about the ‘Professional Managerial Class’, James Foley says middle-class activists dress up conformity as a war on cultural backwardness.
“I have long been of opinion that the Socialist movement…was to a great extent hampered by the presence in its ranks of faddists and cranks, who were in the movement, not for the cause of Socialism, but because they thought they saw in it a means of ventilating their theories on such questions as sex, religion, vaccination, vegetarianism, etc”.
Those anxieties belong to Edinburgh’s own James Connolly and date to the turn of the twentieth century, with socialist movements still in their infancy. Three decades later, George Orwell was similarly exasperated. The typical socialist, he found, was “a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller and often with vegetarian leanings…One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England…”
This testifies to a long history of fears that leftist movements will be overrun by the hang-ups of middle-class eccentrics. Remembering this can help contextualise our own doubts: despite all that pessimism about quacks, faddists and cranks, subsequent years did witness mass, proletarian socialist projects. Perhaps the same will apply in our age. Yet times have changed since Connolly or Orwell, qualitatively and decisively. Intellectuals of their day could still appeal to the autonomous wisdom of self-organised artisans, working-class women, soldiers, peasants and factory workers. Working-class associational life has since reached a peak and collapsed, not just in party organisation and trade unionism, but also in religion, sport and culture. A working class (though changed) remains the social majority, but a “void”, as Peter Mair said, separates it from political and cultural representation.
Conversely, the traditional middle classes were transformed by the expansion of universities and white-collar occupations. This also reached a peak, somewhat later, when the over-production of cultural elites collided with the post-2008 breakdown of the capitalist system. Graduate wages fell to levels often indistinguishable from working class occupations. But economic convergence was matched by cultural and political divergence. While graduates entered the left and the unions in droves, their hunger for distinction entered with them. For this reason, universalist appeals to ‘the 99%’ fell flat: today’s leftism presents itself as an immense accumulation of subcultures, all seeking moral differentiation from a fallen cultural majority.
Here, I believe, lies the root controversy over the “professional managerial class” (PMC). The term emerged in the 1970s during the retreat of the first wave of New Left social movements. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, who popularised the term, were not the first to notice the accumulation of managerial and professional bureaucracies that were both causes and consequences of university expansion. Earlier notions of a “new class”, distinct from an earlier petty bourgeoisie or traditional professionals, can be traced to the post-war theories of James Burnham, John Kenneth Galbraith and Milovan Djilas.
The Ehrenreichs’ innovation lay in linking the rise of this class to post-68 social movement leftism. Thus, from the start, it mixed sociological description with political diagnosis. “The PMC’s objective class interests,” they observed, “lie in the overthrow of the capitalist class, but not in the triumph of the working class; and their actual attitudes often mix hostility towards the capitalist class with elitism towards the working class”. The PMC origins of the New Left, the Ehrenreichs contended, “shaped its growth and ideology”. That said, their assessment, as of the seventies, was ambivalent rather than hostile: the PMC was by nature haughty towards the working-class majority, but also structurally antagonistic to capitalism. It was a potential ally, though not one to trust further than you could throw.
Post-68 radicalism ebbed away, leaving a cultural imprint on academic faculty, who, in a ponytailed, blue-jeaned, turtle-necked spirit of rebellion, passed hand-me-down ideas to their students. The resulting mixture of cultural radicalism, political quiescence and economic yuppiehood still dominates campuses today, and radiates out into graduate professions like fashion, journalism and the arts. David Graeber was an acute observer of this trend in academia:
On the one hand, campuses that in the 1960s had been the focus of actual social movements, even revolutionary movements, were largely depoliticized…On the other hand, much of the language and sensibilities of such movements were maintained even as this period saw the consolidation of the university as the place for the reproduction of a class that in its upper echelons at least had become no longer a mere auxiliary to power, but something at least very close to a branch of the ruling class in its own right.
Thus, when leftist protest re-emerged from the nineties deep freeze, it was increasingly inseparable from a great gloop of PMC mores. This formed a natural upper limit to the left’s hegemonic ambitions. Confronted with austerity, left populist parties initially tried to recapture a majoritarian spirit – “we are the 99%!” – but frequently found themselves prisoners of the predilections of their core supporters, those subcultures of downwardly mobile graduates.
The great historical irony is that post-2008 left experiments, styling themselves against the establishment, would eventually reinforce the sociology of the Third Way. Perhaps the quintessential case, despite its early promise, was Labour’s recent lurch to the left. “Ideologically, Corbynism was a break from New Labour centrism,” notes Chris Bickerton, “but sociologically, it was more Blairite than Tony Blair.” Cynical though this assessment might sound, it is reasonably founded in fact. Blair’s clique had emphasised the “Southern question”, the need to break Labour from its “northern heartlands” (as Peter Mandelson is said to have sneered, who else would they vote for?) and speak to a younger, aspirational middle-class who had embraced market globalisation. By the time the Corbyn experiment had concluded – or, by the time the People’s Vote had colonised Momentum – this base of broadly liberal voters was effectively the party’s new heartland.
The result, not just in Britain, is a leftism where class dare not speak its name. Stimulated by a postmodern curriculum, graduates encourage – indeed, mandate – wrenching self-examination of whiteness, heteronormativity and patriarchy. Privilege, as they call it. But, on class, they have built paranoid, insulated walls against critique. When the question is even asked, some retort (correctly) that the “working class has changed”, implying (incorrectly) that they are the vanguard of a new social majority that passes through top tier universities. Others bristle at the tag PMC, the mere mention of which invites charges of “class reductionism”, now regarded as the greatest academic sin one can commit.
Within living memory, there were socialist cultures that defined themselves as working class, sometimes at the cost of silliness. At any activist get-together, there were Mockney accents, tracksuits and flat caps aplenty. Perhaps it was necessary to break from this live action role playing. But today, all of that has been replaced by an excruciating silence, punctuated by occasional explosions like 2016, which only reinforce a paranoid distrust of class analysis. Discussing the left’s class profile has thus become the proverbial minefield.
In that sense, Catherine Liu deliberately treads on just about every landmine. Virtue Hoarders, a book she styles as a “short introduction to the false consciousness of a class”, charts the decline of American intellectual life, the advance of PMC cultures, and an attendant hostility towards the working-class majority – all of it legitimised by radical rhetoric.
Back in America’s Progressive era, Liu observes, the PMC rose as the enemies of robber barons like Rockefeller and Carnegie. They were the muckrakers, the social workers, the reforming allies of trade unions seeking to replace the rule of the corporations with the authority of the planners. But since the seventies, they have become allies of capitalist philanthropy – their highest aspiration being, ironically, a Rockefeller or Carnegie endowment. They serve the (post)-neoliberal epoch by providing its moral vocabulary, built on the holy trinity of meritocracy, managed transgression and the centring of excluded voices.
The book’s central concept, “virtue hoarding”, offers a useful window into contemporary leftist dispositions. “The post-68 PMC elite,” Liu observes, believes itself to comprise not just our era’s best and brightest, but also “the most advanced people the earth has ever seen”. Yet while their elitism may be pronounced, it is also historically peculiar. Today’s leftists are not the first to style themselves as a vanguard of virtue. Traditional Leninism, to its critics, was guilty of adopting the lofty vantage point of the “true” proletarian, in contrast to the masses deluded by false consciousness. Much ink was spilled – often, ironically, by postmodern academics – condemning this outlook’s pretentiousness. Nonetheless, even at its worst, the Leninist stance implied a dynamic relationship to the majority: the goal was to “win” or “guide” the masses to the truth.
By contrast, today’s ideal-typical activists are radically different. Our vanguardists of virtue have no time for proselytising among workers – not even notionally. Instead, their goal is distinction, culturally, against a fallen majority, what Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables”. Virtue isn’t spread but hoarded. This explains the curiosity that, even where this group’s libertarian value system enjoys majority support, they continue to act as excluded moral minorities. Rather than stress common ground, which, ironically, has grown abundantly over the neoliberal epoch, they stress whatever makes them better than the masses. Increasingly, this is framed through Star Wars, Harry Potter or Tolkien tropes of plucky, geeky resistance movements, the teacher’s pet who saves the day (again, note the difference with the ideal-typical Trotskyist, who proclaims that the masses are on side even when their parties command miniscule support).
Meanwhile, among peers, competitive virtue becomes a zero-sum game: I can have it only insofar as you are denied it. And, at the risk of reductionism, this directly mirrors the rationality of their class position: graduates specialising in symbolic manipulation – the hallmark of the PMC – compete for a shrinking number of jobs. Since their contributions are not measured in abstract numerical units, such as profit and loss for capitalists, or productivity for workers, their employability is defined by intangible status competition. Virtue here becomes a marketable commodity – and all the more when perceived as scarce.
People trained in this regime of symbolic manipulation love to weaponize outrage to fuel moral panics, but they are unable and unwilling to face their identity as a class. In the liberal professions, they police each other to enforce the sort of social and intellectual conformity required by their class, one that is fundamentally fragmented by competition and individualism. All PMC-approved policies about inequality, racism, and bias circle back to strengthening their sense of political agency and cultural and moral superiority. In a viciously competitive market environment, they have abandoned once cherished professional standards of research while fetishizing transgression, or better yet, the performance of transgression.
Liu’s book is best enjoyed as a class-based critique of American left-liberal foibles. It offers a sterling critique of Occupy Wall Street which, theoretically, should have been the point where the downwardly mobile PMC joined hands with a multi-ethnic working class to form the “99%”. That this happy marriage never happened is the central disappointment of our era. The problem resided, at least partly, in those dense cultural thickets of lower PMC, who, panicked at their shrinking prospects, doubled down on their distinguishing virtues, under what Liu calls “the legalistic and deadly term intersectional”.
Equally, academia made activists poorly equipped for the realities of political organisation. Liu thus shows how Occupy was doomed from birth by another direct product of the PMC class position, namely a fetish for (anarchist) procedures:
The highly educated members of Occupy fetishized the procedural regulation and management of discussion to reach consensus about all collective decisions. Daily meetings or General Assemblies were managed according to a technique called the progressive stack. Its fanatical commitment to proceduralism and administrative strategy suppressed real discussion of priorities or politics and ended up promoting only the integrity of the progressive stack itself. Protecting the stack became more important than formulating political demands that might have resonated with hundreds of millions of Americans whose lives were being directly destroyed by finance capital.
Rather often, measures formally aimed at inclusion or centring voices eventually become ends in themselves. Evidence that they promote elitism, the opposite of their formal aim, never leads to self-reflection: as the joke used to say of Communism, the Theory is sound! Again, it echoes the social foundations of contemporary anarchism in the academy with its curriculum (explicit or implicit) in human resource management. This explains the apparent irony, familiar to anyone who has been an activist: the incessant bureaucratism of the libertarian left.
Virtue Hoarders excels as a series of short vignettes of cultural critique. Liu is a film and literature scholar, with a training in old fashioned critical theory. This may lead to a certain impressionism. Considered as sociology, the book leaves unanswered questions. Critics may, for instance, charge that it says too little about the distinction between right-leaning and left-leaning PMC. Indeed, sometimes Liu’s rhetoric gives the impression that all PMC have a left-activist (but also neoliberal) outlook. Naturally, just because most left activists are PMC does not mean that most PMC are activists (though it may appear that way). There are obvious tensions between, say, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi over climate, immigration or prisons. The social base of Pelosi-ism may require deeper examination.
But let’s also be clear: such niceties do often evaporate in practice. Consider, in Britain, the convergence of whole sections of the Labour left with the old Blairite leadership during the “People’s Vote” campaign. Or layers of the Scottish independence left-wing, which have fallen behind Nicola Sturgeon and her corporate-neoliberal allies in Charlotte Street Partners, who effectively write all key economic policy. Theatrical left-right spats not only obscure common class interests, but actually help reproduce the professional class in power. Nonetheless, while Virtue Hoarders benefits from a no bullshit account of leftism’s class biases, some may prefer a more nuanced theorisation (although I take Liu’s point that “nuanced” accounts often mean embracing the worst of bad faith grifting, as with N+1’s apologia for Elizabeth Warren).
Virtue Hoarders is equally ‘guilty’ of national biases: it focused almost exclusively on American cultural habits. For me, this did not lessen its impact, for two reasons: firstly, because culture is central to class reproduction, and the PMC, more than any other class, distinguishes itself by consumer preferences; secondly, because the European PMC are infatuated with American liberalism – especially on all matters of taste. Thus, despite living in Glasgow, nothing in these essays was alien to me. Class prejudices cut across all national contexts, particularly in an age of social media. My frustration, then, is that the European PMC remains a relatively unexplored and interesting topic. Even the term “PMC” has only recently entered our toolkit of political analysis, and it still lacks the rhetorical sting that it possesses in American leftism.
Liu’s book has polemical aims. It wants to jolt the left into recognition. And it wants to embrace the promise of the Sanders campaign in 2016 – a revival of serious socialist class politics. What was inspiring in that campaign, at its best, was precisely that it was forced to distinguish a class-based message from the gloop of PMC liberalism that spread from Clinton to Warren. Given that European leftists failed comprehensively on this front, the themes should have wide resonance.
And even readers outside of America will recognise the bravery in Virtue Hoarders. It takes guts to address the peccadilloes of your own kind. The PMC may specialise in self-examination and “call outs”, but simply naming it as a class, with distinct interests, alliances and agency, risks excommunication. And ethically it falls to academics, arguably the guiltiest party, to endanger their standing in a peer-reviewed field by speaking up.
Crucially, while defending the need for a distinct working-class politics, Virtue Hoarders is anything but anti-intellectual. Indeed, perhaps the worst calumny is to believe that critics of professional elites despise learning and cultural innovation. The truth is quite the opposite. PMC domination dresses up conformity as a war on cultural backwardness. It is defiantly middle brow (witness the liberal obsession with “woke” superhero movies). And if a meaningful intellectual current does emerge from the wreckage of contemporary capitalism, it may well begin from the demystification of PMC liberal mores.
Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class can be purchased from University of Minnesota Press.