My first reaction to the work of Barbara Ehrenreich was one of complete indignation and contempt. A professor had assigned Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed (2001) for an English prerequisite at my commuter college—the urban satellite campus for two major universities intended to cater to low-income and nontraditional students. (Go Jaguars!) The book was a committed work of first-person journalism premised on a compelling challenge: to “see whether or not I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day.” What Ehrenreich “revealed” was the constant struggle to make ends meet, a total lack of security in employment, housing, and resources, declining health from backbreaking work, and the endless humiliations of the American blue-collar worker.
About half of the people in my class were actually “college age,” while the rest were older students with jobs and often children, but not necessarily any higher education under their belt. It was a night class, and when the professor looked around the sparsely populated room, it was usually missing one or two mothers who couldn’t find childcare that evening. Once someone stumbled over a desk, knocking a pile of books to the floor. One of my classmates—an active service member on leave—responded to the din by instinctively dropping to the ground in compliance with his training and/or PTSD. Sometimes children colored outside the classroom or students left early to go to their night shifts. Needless to say, most of us found the book boring and its “revelations” laughable. This is not to say it was an unpleasant experience, as it gave us the rare and delicious opportunity to scorn and scoff at the ignorance of the educated. But we were not impressed, to say the least.
It was years later that a friend explained to me that Nickel and Dimed was in fact a revelation, just not for socialists. “Well yeah,” she said matter-of-factly, “that book wasn’t for us, it was for professional‑managerial-class liberals.” This wasn’t my first exposure to the phrase “professional managerial class” (PMC), but it was the first time the distinction seemed so sociologically significant as to force me to revise my opinion of Ehrenreich’s work. Is she a progressive liberal whisperer, spreading the gospel of class politics to the PMC? Is such a task even a worthwhile endeavor?
To begin to address these questions, we must return to a lesser-known Ehrenreich book, Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989). The book is impressive in both scope and depth, following the historical relationship between the so-called middle class and “liberalism” (which, in the parlance of the time, meant “progressivism” rather than economic liberalism). In particular, Fear of Falling articulated and dissected a peculiar and somewhat recent feature of this then booming middle class—its massively expanded managerial role—and traced its social, political, and economic history in America.
Today, the PMC appears to be approaching another turning point in its convoluted history, giving Ehrenreich’s work renewed relevance, and these questions a new immediacy.
The Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name
The PMC is a somewhat mushy category. Its defenders and denialists, particularly in academia and the legacy media, often like to include such beloved professions as public school teachers and nurses among its ranks, a wishful idea of inherent fellowship among the college-educated. But such a loose classification conveniently ignores the “managerial” part of PMC. True PMC personnel exercise influence in the management of institutions. College professors, for example, have a role in managing the university—although this is certainly less so as higher education neoliberalizes (as adjuncts fill the jobs once held by tenured professors, and administrators and donors control more university operations than ever before). Still, tenured professors and administrators have a hand in the management of the middle-class labor force, including who gets to enter it. Nurses, meanwhile, don’t actually manage patients (who under privatized medicine are reduced to customers), and rarely manage much of the hospital. Likewise, public school teachers don’t actually manage their students so much as provide a service for them, and are managed almost completely by non-teacher administrations.
Squishy and permeable as it may be, PMC is still a useful term for the class of professional managers, regardless of all the disingenuous and pedantic protest. Ehrenreich, of course, was not the first to recognize or define the managers among the middle class. There was David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, C. Wright Mills’s White Collar: The American Middle Class, and the debates between Erik Olin Wright and Nicos Poulantzas, to name a few. But Ehrenreich set out not simply to define and locate the professional managerial class, but specifically to interrogate its own self-awareness. As she writes in the introduction to Fear of Falling, “This book is about what could be called the class consciousness of the professional middle class, and how this consciousness has developed over the past three decades.”
This class consciousness, however, has been notoriously avoided by the professional middle classes themselves. In his 1976 “Notes and Commentary on the Irresistibility of the Petty Bourgeoisie,” German author (and who is better equipped to articulate the formal barriers of professionalization than a real-life veteran of the Hitler Youth?) Hans Magnus Enzensberger argued that the managerial class could be defined precisely by its inability to attain consciousness of itself as a class.
Enzensberger included “managers, ‘specialists,’ technocrats, technical intelligentsia” in the ranks of those who were neither capitalists nor workers. Like Ehrenreich, Enzensberger considered himself a member of this class and attempted to hold a mirror up to it: “So we belong to a class that neither controls nor owns what matters, the famous means of production, and it does not produce what also matters, the famous surplus value (or perhaps produces it only indirectly and incidentally . . . ).” But ultimately he concluded that:
For just as [this] class can be defined only in negative terms, so its self-understanding is also negative. The petty bourgeois wants to be anything other than a petty bourgeois. He tries to gain his identity not by allegiance to his class, but by separating himself off from it and denying it. But what links him with his own kind is just what he contests: the petty bourgeois is always someone else. This strange self-hatred acts as a cloak of invisibility. With its help the class as a whole has made itself almost invisible. Solidarity and collective are out of the question for it; it will never attain the self-consciousness of a distinct class.
Proving Enzensberger’s point, the very existence of a professional managerial class is often most controversial among the sort of left-wing intellectuals who might fit the description. Take for example David Sessions’s recent Jacobin article, “The Right’s Phony Class War,” in which he rejects the “mythical managerial class” as a right-wing boogeyman conspiracy theory, referring to it as “a pseudo-sociology that pits an ambiguous ‘managerial’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ ruling class against the rest of the country—and lets the people who actually hold political and economic power off the hook.” (It’s worth noting here that theorists of the PMC do not consider it a “ruling class” by definition, but rather a category with a relationship to capital that is distinguishable from both capitalist and worker.)
By contrast, Ehrenreich made no bones about exposing the ideology of her own frenetic class. And like Enzensberger, Ehrenreich understood the importance of such a class’s apparent instability in the midst of the ongoing class war. Enzensberger believed that the center could not hold, that some of the middle class would join the “goats” of capitalism, while most would eventually be proletarianized with the “sheep,” and “reap the fruits of socialism.” Such an outcome had not come to pass when Enzensberger was writing, leaving him to contemplate the inscrutable resilience of the professional middle class.
His conclusion was that the middle classes—by virtue (or sin, if you prefer) of their position as a “multiply articulated assemblage”—retained an “adaptability” or “characterless opportunism.” His description of this ethos was damning: “Never to take a final stand and to seize every possibility: those are the only lessons that the class has learned from its variegated history.” This “adaptability” had occasionally led the PMC to progressive politics, as has occurred recently, but, he observed, this is not a fixed feature so much as a strategy that lends credibility to its secure role as the architects of cultural hegemony.
Or, rather, seemingly secure role. It turns out that all Enzensberger had to do was wait a bit longer.
Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
Fear of Falling, which came out only thirteen years after Enzensberger’s treatise, sought to analyze the unease inherent in professional‑middle-class consciousness. Highlighting the instability and insecurities of this class—from its explosion in the early postwar period, to the 1960s student movement and counterculture, right up to the yuppies—Ehrenreich described an intense ambient anxiety, and defined distinct historical periods of social panic endemic to the PMC, who were neurotically self-reflective, but completely lacking in self-awareness.
The root of this neurosis was the historic ambivalence and dread with which the class understood itself as a tenuous “elite” that may or may not succeed in reproducing itself as a class. (Unlike other classes, each generation of the PMC had to earn its status through educational credentialing, qualifying employment, and professional achievement.) As the shock troops of Taylorism, it was as if the PMC always knew on some level that Taylorism would come for it one day as well. Later we learned that these insecurities were justified and that the “fear of falling” was a valid concern: the PMC Ehrenreich described in 1989 was a bubble, a temporary postwar glitch.
Ehrenreich revisited Fear of Falling in a 2013 essay for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, “Death of a Yuppie Dream,” in which she performed a thorough postmortem of her own declining class. In an addendum, she and her ex-husband John Ehrenreich analyzed “The Absorption of the Liberal Professions into Corporation-Like Enterprises,” looking at health care, legal work, journalism, and publishing. All fields had been undergoing corporatization for the last fifty years, “rapidly accelerating” since the 1990s, and it was clear that while the “liberal professions” persisted, their former power was being thoroughly eroded by neoliberalism.
In the essay proper, however, she reflects with some ambivalence on the PMC nosedive:
Should we mourn the fate of the PMC or rejoice that there is one less smug, self-styled, elite to stand in the way of a more egalitarian future? A case has been made here for both responses. On the one hand, the PMC has played a major role in the oppression and disempowering of the old working class. It has offered little resistance to (and, in fact, supplied the manpower for) the right’s campaign against any measure that might ease the lives of the poor and the working class. On the other hand, the PMC has at times been a “liberal” force, defending the values of scholarship and human service in the face of the relentless pursuit of profit.
It seems to me that Ehrenreich has answered her own question here. The PMC have been—at best—fair-weather friends to the working class, and at worst have been even more devious exploiters by dint of their “liberal” credibility. As the class which ushered in neoliberalism, I would denounce the crimes of the PMC far more forcefully than Ehrenreich.
When the PMC are flying high, their middle-class liberal initiatives to combat poverty have been inhumanely punitive and ineffectual: policies like prohibition, eugenics, and broken-windows policing come to mind. On the institutional level, liberal think tanks like the Center for American Progress and wealthy NGOs like the Gates and Ford Foundations have reliably pushed for neoliberal policies and private sector solutions to poverty, conveniently avoiding expropriation, redistribution, and universal public programs and services.
Yes, it’s true that civil rights, women’s liberation, and gay rights have seen some incredibly successful campaigns fought by coalitions of leftists and liberals. But such battles are easier to fight than class war (in no small part because they inevitably promise a few choice spots for the PMC compradors). Even many New Deal liberals only assented to economic reforms under coercion, their support secured by the implied threat that something more extreme might be around the corner if they didn’t appease an ambitious American workers’ movement.
So I do not weep for this sinking ship, and would instead save my tears for the members of the working class, who have been left with the check, though they may now include a number of recent PMC exiles. Which leads me to the more practical question: Will a sizable number of these erstwhile PMC join the sheep? Or will most of them instead identify with the goats, following Steinbeck’s pathetic “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”? Or will they find no class consciousness at all, drifting into lumpen listlessness, atomized from both flock and herd?
Is There Aught We Hold in Common with the Greedy Parasite?
What does the professional middle class have to gain, or perhaps to lose, in a more egalitarian future? The problem with middle-class liberalism—perhaps the worst problem—was that it never asked the question. It assumed that American affluence was sufficient to embrace all those in poverty without any loss to those who were not. And it assumed that any gains to the middle class itself would be purely spiritual, leaving the way open for right-wing theories of the liberal elite’s “real” motives and agenda.
—Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling
I am a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), a curiously wholesome anti-capitalist organization founded in 1982 by Cold War–era social democrat Michael Harrington, just before liberals like Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the “end of history.” The DSA has been for some time the largest socialist organization in the United States, and it has been a strange, sometimes joyous, and often distressing experience watching the membership explode and the organization change after Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign. (Funnily enough, Barbara Ehrenreich was once an honorary chair of the DSA, though that position was abolished at the 2017 National Conference in a fit of Oedipal exuberance.)
I am still at times asked to speak at DSA events, including a recent one for the DSA Tech Action Working Group—a decidedly PMC collection of DSA members working in tech. Inspired by Google software engineer James Damore’s infamous “anti-diversity memo,” the subject I was to speak on was “diversity in tech.” The friend who asked me to speak rightly recognized that the tech industry is no longer a small cabal of entrepreneurial specialists but is increasingly expanding into a global labor force of workers—from petit bourgeois to prole, if you will.
I cannot, however, say I found many examples of such workers at this event. Multiple representatives from HR departments spoke up, one to say that “it’s all about hiring practices,” and to urge the attendees to come to HR whenever they had a problem. One woman wanted to read a long academic article about a typesetters’ union fighting automation and other changes that would open the floodgates for underpaid, largely female scab labor. She was under the impression that this exposed the sexist nature of trade unions.
The crowd was very “diverse” in all the Ikea commercial ways that warm our Coca-Cola liberal hearts, but some of the most insightful observations came from the bearded and (presumably) cishet white males. One timidly put forth that “HR actually works for management,” while another recognized that the biggest source of “diversity” in the tech industry is highly exploited third-world call-center workers.
At first glance, the superior class consciousness of the beardy white male tech bro may appear counterintuitive, but it is a function of tech industry managerialism that he has a better view of class conflict. As an industry, tech has thoroughly absorbed “diversity” into its corporate culture and HR programming, for both legal liability and liberal credibility reasons. If you’re a woman and/or minority working for Google and your job is miserable, you are told by the whole world—and by your employer itself—that this is because you are a woman and/or minority. But, you are also told, your employer is here with sensitivity trainings, diversity initiatives, and at-will firing practices (you know, for the bad employees) to remedy all of that and to build a better work environment and, thereby, a more egalitarian world. If, however, you are a straight white man working for Google and your job is miserable, you know it’s because your job is miserable, and the company isn’t there to help you. Liberal identitarian HR obfuscations don’t work as well on exploited and precarious dude-bros.
The evening culminated during the Q and A, wherein a woman earnestly asked, “What do I do if some alt-right guy wants to be in the union?”
Visibly vexed, I replied that if an alt-right guy wants to be in your union, you won.
This statement was met with noticeable consternation, so I went on to explain that you want everyone in the union because the end goal is a closed shop. I explained that this is the very premise of a union: it is not a social club for people of shared progressive values; it’s a shared struggle, and collective politics are the only thing that can actually break down all that office bigotry you’re so concerned about. She did not appear convinced.
I use this particular anecdote to illustrate the obstacles to building a socialist PMC, but I have many others (particularly in the recent spate of white collar unionism), and herein lies the tragic irony of the great middle class exodus: even when they fall, and even when they find themselves in “Left spaces,” they are still too proximal to management—or at least believe themselves to be—to imagine much beyond human resources liberalism. Very frequently, they view blue-collar workers as inherently illiberal antagonists. (Just look at the response to the failed Clinton campaign by prominent members of the liberal media and academia, who have finally answered their favorite old canard of “Why do the working class vote against their own interests?” with accusations of innate bigotry and misogyny.)
Many dedicated socialists of the professional managerial class, from Ehrenreich to my friend who organized this event, have historically overestimated the degree to which “liberals” can—or ever really did—benefit working-class Americans. Instead, most PMC liberals tend to project their own interests onto the working class, in order to legitimize their decidedly middle-class ambitions (say, a corner office and stock options at a tech firm) through progressive politics. Thus, when middle-class fellow travelers hear the phrase “liberal elite” to refer to the progressive PMC, they assume it can be nothing more than a dog whistle, meant to incite working-class resentment against themselves. Sessions’s Jacobin article offers an explicit example of this mindset, though Fear of Falling, too, at times protests too much against the right-wing populism that makes hay by criticizing a supposedly mythical “liberal elite.”
This also points to the weaknesses of non-worker-led left-wing organizations themselves. Membership in the DSA, for example, is no longer a black mark on a Google search; it is a respectable middle-class organization where young, educated go-getters can demonstrate their leadership skills, work ethic, and commitment. As such, it attracts downwardly mobile yet aspirational members of the PMC, who can very easily trade on their participation in an ostensibly socialist organization for the sort of progressive bona fides that get you that corner office. Unlike a functioning union, DSA, for all its alleged antagonism to capitalism, isn’t particularly antagonistic to capitalists. It does however produce innumerable segregated “working groups,” hyphenated interest clusters, extensive grievance policies, and long lists of priority-less political demands, all of which appeal to the anxieties of the PMC, many of whom have fallen—and can’t get up. Conveniently enough, this tendency within the organization reflects the ethos of the good “company man” in its commitment to a low-stress human resources department and a talent for Enzensberger’s aforementioned “adaptability.”
It’s fair to say that the PMC’s paternalistic contempt for the working classes has been well documented, including by Ehrenreich herself, but what PMC intellectuals often fail to grasp is how much members of this class also hate one another. The PMC has historically had very little class solidarity (McCarthyism comes to mind), and their recent proletarianization—exacerbated by a hypercompetitive job market, atomization, remote work, precarity, internet social dynamics, professionalization, Taylorism, etc.—has done nothing to suppress their desire to eat their own. Ehrenreich herself recently experienced this cannibalism firsthand.
Earlier this year, Ehrenreich, a longtime critic of American empire, made an offhand joke on Twitter: “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English.” The response from the liberal PMC Twitterati was not merely ungenerous; it was ruthless. Accusations of racism and xenophobia were hurled at one of America’s most brilliant and committed leftists, a woman who kept the fires burning for socialism well after it was fashionable. It begged the question, who was actually hysterical and who was merely cynical? Who was genuinely deluded enough to believe that Barbara Ehrenreich had been racist, and who was just parroting the accusations and condemnations for clout, retweets, and content (and maybe a freelance byline)?
It wasn’t just a Twitter controversy, either. The “story” was picked up by major news outlets, where Ehrenreich’s “racism” was treated as a foregone conclusion. At the New York Daily News, the headline was “Author Barbara Ehrenreich Slammed for Racist Marie Kondo Tweet.” At USA Today, it was “In Since-Deleted Racist Tweet, Author Barbara Ehrenreich Attacks Marie Kondo” (though they later swapped out “racist” for “xenophobic”).
Over at Fast Company—the bloodless liberal magazine that bills itself as “the world’s leading progressive business media brand, with a unique editorial focus on innovation in technology, leadership, and design”—millennial Brooklynite writer Cale Guthrie Weissman (yes, “Cale”), took a moment to shamelessly and simultaneously self-pity and self-promote, with perfect PMC media aplomb:
Overall, we’re faced with yet another milkshake duck situation—where the people we thought to be good and pure end up showing an ugly side. This is especially sad for me because Ehrenreich is an alum of my alma mater, Reed College, and I always proudly proclaimed that fact. Now I’ll have to find a new graduate’s coattails to ride.
I’ve said before that expropriating Yale and Harvard and converting them into public institutions would be a victory in the class war. But the small liberal arts colleges of the PMC—the Reeds, Wesleyans, and Oberlins—they may actually need to be burned down.
Luckily, as Ehrenreich herself observed, generational warfare tends to be a middle-class pathology, and the ironic comeuppance of such cruel, disloyal, and unbelievably sanctimonious liberal cancellers is all but assured. May they have a bounty of strong, healthy children to whom they transmit their own parricidal tendencies.
Which Side Are You On, Girls?
They may be politically irritable, but they have no political passion. They are a chorus, too afraid to grumble, too hysterical in their applause. They are rearguarders. In the shorter run, they will follow the panicky ways of prestige; in the long run, they will follow the ways of power. In the end, prestige is determined by power. In the meantime, on the political market-place of American society, the new middle classes are up for sale; whoever seems respectable enough, strong enough, can probably have them. So far, nobody has made a serious bid.
—C. Wright Mills, White Collar
If this argument seems overloaded with anecdotes, it is only in defiance of the middle-class penchant for minimalism, which the PMC so often conflates with “good taste.” In that spirit, I will add one more—the apocryphal story of the meeting between Nikita Khrushchev and Zhou Enlai. Khrushchev said to Enlai that they had nothing in common, because he was the son of coal miners, and Enlai was the son of feudal mandarins. Enlai (if you would like to romanticize the story even further, look up photos of him as a young man) supposedly replied, “Yes, and we are both traitors to our class.”
Stalin, revisionism, and the Sino-Soviet split aside, I have always suspected that if Barbara Ehrenreich is too optimistic about the socialist potential of the PMC, it is precisely because she is an exceptionally committed and serious-minded traitor to her class. In a better, arguably tackier world, there would be an Ehrenreich Square in every city, bronze statues, their plaques reading “Barbara Ehrenreich, Stalwart Comrade, Friend of the Worker, Great Traitor and Savior of the Professional Managerial Class.”
There are a rare few like her—leftists, socialists, and materialist intellectuals who survived the so-called postmodern cultural turn with their vigilance and wits intact. I am not sure what is the source of these treasured aberrations, but I have spent endless hours trying to figure it out alongside like-minded PMC and middle-class comrades. I dislike such extremely un-Marxist explanations as “she is of a preternaturally strong character,” so I wrack my brain and come up with nothing. It is entirely possible that an immunity to neoliberal influence cannot consistently be cultivated among the PMC. Perhaps it is an anomaly, a random idiopathic mutation, or perhaps, as with sexuality or handedness, there are simply too many factors at play to really nail down—much less replicate—what makes a good middle-class comrade.
I do not say this only out of intellectual admiration or filial piety for Ehrenreich; I say it as a warning. Both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns face legitimate threats in overestimating the loyalties of the liberal middle class. It’s true that both campaigns enjoyed a surge of support from the free-falling PMC, but what happens when they climb back up the ladder, or when they have to choose between “liberal values” and socialism? Already they’re defecting from their recent affair with the Left.
Middle-class liberal Remoaners have somehow branded bourgeois cosmopolitanism as Left internationalism, throwing the Corbyn campaign under the bus for the sake of an unaccountable capitalist cabal. They’re currently attacking the Labour Party “from the Left,” some because they have mistaken the European Union for the Comintern, and some merely to keep their holidays in Mykonos convenient (not to mention mysteriously affordable these days). Many former Sanders supporters—most notably in “Left media”—have jumped ship, or attempt to play both sides, claiming to favor more “electable” candidates as they pander to liberal and identitarian hacks in the media and the Democratic Party. Socialists mistake the middle-class progressive for the comrade at our own risk; a foundation that relies too heavily on the ranks of this nervous, fickle class is doomed to crack and crumble, along with anything we try to build on top of it.
The PMC “rearguarders,” as C. Wright Mills called them, are only reliable in the sense that they will generally side with power, and right now that still means siding with the neoliberals. This fealty to hegemony is not some inherent weakness of character; it’s the very reason for their existence. This is what capitalism created them to do. It’s not even conscious, as their ideological commitments operate under the premise that the prevailing order is necessarily the result of “progress.” As such, they will only veer toward (and stay on) the Left as long as they believe such a political project is already imminent, or if a more radical one threatens to further destabilize their position. If the New Deal liberals are any indicator, it may be that nothing short of a credible threat of Communism itself can realign the middle-class progressive from neoliberalism to even a modest social democracy.
Socialists have always welcomed and valued class traitors, and not merely as the sickly intellectual clique that identifies as “the Left”; class traitors have been invaluable partisans throughout socialist history. But these exceptional dissidents should never be taken as evidence that their class as a whole is somehow ripe for the picking, nor does the recent death of tenure, print media, or any version of the yuppie dream deliver the PMC to socialism.
If the working class someday succeeds in making comrades of the middle class, it won’t be because the experience of decline has somehow radicalized them. It will be because a strong, organized movement of the working class has established itself and herded them into its flock. Such herding must be both ideological and institutional, meaning that not only must the PMC be recruited to the cause, it must be absorbed into the ranks of the working class.
In addition to integrative measures like mixed-income public housing, this means eliminating both the “managerial” and the “professional” aspects of the careers traditionally considered PMC. For the latter, free higher education and the abolition of irrelevant education obstacles is a good start. Practicing medicine is skilled labor that requires advanced training, but you don’t need to study Plato to become a gynecologist. As for the former, taking the institutions of the PMC—like universities and hospitals—into the public good is not only essential for any socialist project; it’s a good litmus test for who among the PMC are amenable. Ask broke adjuncts if they would like to see their university made free, and they’ll usually say yes. Ask them, however, if they would like their profession reoriented as a public service—say making them civil servants, as they are in Germany—and you might get a more convoluted answer. Should they, however, welcome the stripping of their managerial privileges, then they may well be true comrades among the PMC—at least until they prove themselves otherwise.
The PMC can—and should—be brought to commit to its own abolition, but attempting to evangelize a class that has so much difficulty even acknowledging its own existence is a futile endeavor. At this rare and fragile moment of opportunity for socialism in America, the best bet for Berniecrats is to build a strong base of workers committed to social democratic reforms. The PMC will follow, as they always do; they’re the cart, not the horse.