As Elizabeth Warren has moved into the lead in recent Democratic presidential primary polls, leaving Bernie Sanders behind, tensions between their respective supporters—once suppressed in the name of progressive solidarity—have flared. From some of the zealous, online sections of the Sanders rank-and-file, one now hears an increasingly vocal class analysis of the difference between the campaigns. “Warren’s base primarily belongs to the professional-managerial class—she takes the highest share of college graduates of the top four candidates,” writes Meagan Day in Jacobin. “To take Brooklyn as a microcosm, Elizabeth Warren dominates Park Slope, while Sanders dominates everything less upscale.” Sanders, then, is the candidate of the working class, as evidenced by the humble social makeup of his enormous donor base, his polling strength in the lower strata of the income distribution, and so on. The tribune of the disenfranchised masses, he is running not to fix the gummed-up system, but to break it.
Warren, while a basically admirable figure, is characterized as a progressive technocrat, a plan-maker rather than an earth-shaker. Without a thoroughgoing vision of social struggle, per this critique, she will both obstruct Sanders and wind up falling into the same political traps as Barack Obama did, regardless of her intellect and intention. Between us and “big, structural change” stand Joe Manchin and Susan Collins, Mitch McConnell and the Supreme Court, and they cannot be reasoned with, only overwhelmed through large-scale political realignment. There exists no viable response to climate change or the health care crisis that looks like an improved version of the process that led to the Affordable Care Act—it’s New Deal–style mass mobilization, or it’s nothing. According to this story, Warren’s vision emphasizes the plan, rather than the people, because of the affluence, high social status, and thereby the ultimate political caution of her social base. This base is the “professional-managerial class,” or “PMC.” Spend time in the forums of socialists who’ve long been loyal to Sanders and critical of “identity politics”—Jacobin readers, say, or in the listeners of Chapo Trap House—and you’ll see “PMC” everywhere, a sociological designation turned into an epithet and hurled like a missile.
The trouble, of course, would appear to be of the glass-house variety. While the anonymous millions of Sanders supporters do appear to come from lower on the social scale, the ideological cadre driving the Sanders movement features a huge proportion of activists who are credentialed meritocrats in their own right, or descended from them. The famous self-applied moniker of Chapo Trap House’s hosts and listeners, after all, is “failson”—the downwardly mobile, disappointing male offspring of complacent baby boomers. Go to a DSA meeting and see if you can count the grad students on two hands; throw in the coders or the teachers, and hands and feet together won’t be enough. PMC? De te fabula narratur.
First formulated by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich in a pair of essays in the journal Radical America in the late 1970s, the idea of the “professional-managerial class” was originally part of an attempted materialist explanation of the political stability of American capitalism in the 20th century, and in particular the failure of the New Left to overthrow it. While industrial capitalism had liquidated the 19th-century middle class, much as Marx had predicted, society had not subsequently polarized into two hostile camps. Instead, the “monopoly capitalism” that evolved in the 20th century—the bureaucratic, administered, managerial system that replaced the entrepreneurial chaos of Victorian laissez-faire—had thrown up a new middle class, whose purpose was to supervise the accumulation process and keep the unruly proletariat in line: researchers and engineers to transform the production process; teachers, doctors, nurses, and managers to sculpt, maintain, and control the workforce; cultural workers to produce commercialized mass entertainment and ideology, displacing the pathologized pleasures of the ghetto; social workers and lawyers to deal with the ensuing social problems when people deviated from this disciplinary grid.
In the early years of the 20th century, the professions emerged in their modern forms, establishing uniform standards of practice and conduct in all these fields. The new professionals were in general politically progressive, seeing their purpose as the renovation of American democracy and the modernization of conditions of work and life, in keeping with the momentous social and technological changes that had remade the world. Early on, they tended to imagine themselves as the antagonists of capitalists, not workers—or at least as brokers between the two. Social control, the production of rationalized plebeian behavior, was necessary for democracy to function, and might even gradually transform into socialism—the apotheosis of the principle of social rationality.
Yet the raison d’etre of the PMC, seen at a formal level, was the reproduction of capitalist society writ large. “Their emergence in force near the turn of the century is parallel and complementary to the transformation of the working class,” wrote the Ehrenreichs. “The relationship between the PMC and the working class is objectively antagonistic. The functions and interests of the two classes are not merely different; they are mutually contradictory.”
This structural, “objective” antagonism mattered enormously in the immediate context of the 1970s. An increasingly vitriolic debate had roiled the New Left about its own social origins and material position, and what that meant in terms of political strategy. For some, the student movement was petty bourgeois, and its only hope of success would come from—quite literally—joining the working class: under this theory, erstwhile student radicals should get factory jobs and set about trying to spread radicalism. Others argued that professionals (and young radical professionals-to-be) were already part of the proletariat: after all, they lived off the sale of their labor-power, rather than the ownership of property. Especially for those influenced by French thinkers Serge Mallet and Andre Gorz, the youth movement was explicable specifically as the radicalism of an emergent new working class, formed in the state colleges just as earlier ones had been in the factories. But in this case, why were young proto-professionals so alien politically and culturally to the more recognizable elements of the proletariat—and so unable to shake the foundations of society as a radicalized working class should be able to do?
The Ehrenreichs proposed to resolve this debate by positing the PMC as a distinct, bounded social layer. Located between labor and capital rather than ultimately part of one or the other, with its own distinctive consciousness—roughly, meritocratic rationality—and its own organizational and political infrastructure, the PMC bears contradictory loyalties and antagonisms in both directions. “PMC radicalism emerges out of PMC class interests, which include the PMC’s interest in extending its cultural and technological hegemony over the working class,” they explained. “Thus the possibility exists in the PMC for the emergence of what may at first sight seem to be a contradiction in terms: anti-working-class radicalism. This possibility finds its fullest expression in the PMC radicals’ recurring vision of technocratic socialism, a society in which the bourgeoisie has been replaced by bureaucrats, planners, and experts.” The utopian radicalism of the 1960s student left embodied this impulse, and its collapse at the end of the decade occurred when the impulse found its political limit, in its failure to coalesce with the working class.
The long life of these essays is due in part to the courage of the Ehrenreichs, who were willing to look at themselves and see contradictory, ambivalent figures, trapped in history yet seeking a path forward. Reflecting on the defeat of the New Left, they argued that it nonetheless represented a “historic breakthrough: a first conscious effort to recognize and confront the conflict between the PMC and the working class,” drawing inspiration from the movements of 1968 and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. “Radicals of the sixties began to develop a critique of their own class,” they wrote. The feminism to which the New Left gave rise, too, “extended that critique, exposing the ideological content of even the most apparently ‘neutral’ science and the ideological functions of even the most superficially ‘rational’ experts.” The Ehrenreichs praised the movements of radical professionals in the 1970s—social workers fighting for welfare rights, medical and nursing students establishing community health programs—in contrast to the Trotskyists and New Communists who called for the PMC to “industrialize” into mines and factories. The “radicals-in-the-professions” approach, which reached its clearest articulation in a socialist-feminist organization called the New American Movement, began from an acknowledgment of the actual social function of the PMC. Rather than deny the significance of professionalism, radicals in the professions sought to attack it, and to demystify medicine, law, education, welfare, and science. “The rule of the experts would be abolished—by the young experts.”
While hugely influential, the idea of the PMC was always controversial on the left. Did it make sense to see it as an actual freestanding social class, as the Ehrenreichs did? In one influential critique, sociologist Erik Olin Wright argued that no such thing as a coherent class existed in the space labeled “PMC”—only a collection of structural contradictions that could not resolve stably into a fully-fledged social class. The “semi-autonomous intellectual laborer”—his clearest example being, naturally, an assistant professor—is “objectively torn between the two classes. For such class positions, socialism simultaneously promises genuine liberation from the distortions and domination of capital and a reduction of the individual autonomy which they experience under capitalist conditions.” Economically and ideologically, professionals were scattered, moving in multiple directions at once, lost in a forest of contradictions. Their collective class identity and politics could not be up for grabs if it did not exist.
But social classes are historical phenomena. They cannot be properly understood as clusters in the income distribution or even as groups of people: they are only comprehensible as social relations first—there is no labor without capital or capital without labor; and second as the constantly changing pattern among those relations. Classes are, in other words, not categories, but processes. As E.P. Thompson put it in the 1968 postscript of his classic history The Making of the English Working Class (an enormously influential book for the Ehrenreichs and the New Left in general),
Sociologists who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class. They can only find a multitude of people with different occupations, incomes, status-hierarchies, and the rest. Of course they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion—not this and that interest, but the friction of interests—the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise. Class is a social and cultural formation (often finding institutional expression) which cannot be defined abstractly, or in isolation, but only in terms of relationship with other classes; and, ultimately, the definition can only be made in the medium of time—that is, action and reaction, change and conflict. When we speak of a class we are thinking of a very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value-system, who have a disposition to behave as a class, to define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness in relation to other groups of people in class ways. But class itself is not a thing, it is a happening.
The midcentury period, the great white-collar age of expanding universities and corporate bureaucracies, of the military-industrial complex and the organization man, had enlarged the new middle layer dramatically, exacerbating the contradictions in which its members were enmeshed, and producing their rebellion. So long as the institutions that bred and housed professionals and professional ideology continued to play their mediating social role, then the contradictions ensnaring professionals would persist, or even intensify. There was no possible resolution to the problem except at the political level.
On this view, even if the PMC had not been a class before, it emerged coherently as one with the transition to neoliberalism, which appears in this analysis as the project of a two-class coalition: the bourgeoisie—that is, the owners of capital, increasingly financial assets in particular—in charge and the PMC the junior partner, together bringing about a political resolution to the economic and social crisis of the 1970s—the worst possible scenario, from the Ehrenreichs’ perspective. The gap between the radical professionals and the demobilized working class failed to close, and the New Right stepped into the breach. When Irving Kristol assailed the “New Class”—drawing on critiques of the Soviet bureaucracy, to which he compared the PMC—for embracing and enabling social corrosion, he was observing the same phenomenon as the Ehrenreichs. “It is an indispensable class for our kind of society,” wrote Kristol. “It is a disproportionately powerful class; it is also an ambitious and frustrated class.” The triumph of conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s represented a direct rebuke to radical PMC ambitions. In the early 1980s, NAM—the organization that had most directly embodied the Ehrenreichs’ analysis—conceded its defeat and assented to a merger with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, forming a new group called Democratic Socialists of America.
Defeated in political struggle, young professionals retreated into consumerism and personal advancement, a transformation tagged with the new pejorative “yuppie.” Soon this tendency gained political expression in the Democratic Party with the so-called “Atari Democrats,” who called for progressives to abandon their visions of class conflict and embrace markets and postindustrial technocracy. Gary Hart nearly captured the Democratic nomination in 1984 on this program, against the fading New Deal ideology of Walter Mondale and the multiracial social democracy of Jesse Jackson; Michael Dukakis actually won the nomination four years later, again facing down Jackson; and Bill Clinton finally carried it all the way to the presidency in 1992.
With the right wing of the PMC ascendant, the original analysis stayed alive in part thanks to Barbara Ehrenreich’s increasing prominence as a commercial author. (Fear of Falling, published in 1989, and the huge bestseller Nickel and Dimed, in 2001, are best read as reiterations of the original point, updated for new developments.) But as neoliberalism—meritocratic, high-tech, and increasingly unequal—took hold, the idea of the PMC also gained some purchase in debates within black politics and feminist theory. It centered on two academics who count among the household names of today’s young left: Adolph Reed and Nancy Fraser.
Reed, a Marxist political scientist, observed that after the Civil Rights era the PMC had begun enrolling black members who positioned themselves as spokespeople and leaders of a fictitious “black community,” within which class divides became invisible. In Reed’s view, “identity politics” is the ideology of the black PMC, which—like professional ideology for the PMC in general—works to obscure and suppress class conflict. “The black professional-managerial class (PMC) converges,” wrote Reed, around “reduction of politics to a narrative of racial triumph that projects ‘positive images’ of black accomplishment, extols exemplar black individuals, stresses overcoming great adversity to attain success and recognition, and inscribes a monolithic transhistorical racism as the fundamental obstacle confronting, and thus uniting, all black Americans.” Famously, Reed met Barack Obama in 1996 and got his number right away. He wrote in the Village Voice,
In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.
Where Reed’s antagonist was Obama-ism, Fraser’s was, essentially, Hillary-ism. She accused second-wave feminism of colluding, at first inadvertently, with neoliberalism—just as Reed argued that forms of apparent black radicalism in the 1970s had actually helped to re-stabilize capitalism. For Fraser this tendency became increasingly explicit in the form of corporate feminism, embodied by Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, and so on. As she put it in a 2015 interview with the New York Times, “The mainstream feminism of our time has adopted an approach that cannot achieve justice even for women, let alone for anyone else. The trouble is, this feminism is focused on encouraging educated middle-class women to ‘lean in’ and ‘crack the glass ceiling’—in other words, to climb the corporate ladder. By definition, then, its beneficiaries can only be women of the professional-managerial class.”
When Clinton turned back Sanders’s challenge, appearing to weaponize corporate feminism and black identity politics against the socialist, Reed and Fraser became, for many on the left, the intellectuals who could explain what had happened, and the “PMC” became the key conceptual tool. The hegemonic function of the class had done its work, despite—or perversely, even because of—the subjective identity of many professionals as feminists or black radicals.
In many ways, it is difficult to deny the power of this analysis. Yet it oddly holds the PMC constant, imagining that it continues to smoothly carry out the function for which it developed a century ago, and identified in the late 1970s by the Ehrenreichs. This is particularly perverse since the Ehrenreichs’ analysis had always identified a dynamic factor: The PMC is not the ruling class, it merely serves it, deliberately or inadvertently. In this way, professionals do share something with the working class, which is why it is possible to imagine their realignment with working class interests: they share the lack of ultimate control over their conditions of labor. Barbara Ehrenreich always understood that all forms of capitalist labor must eventually undergo processes of deskilling and degradation, and professional labor would be no different. While she’d initially believed some version of such a process, begotten by the mass conformity of midcentury, made a proletarian-professional alignment along such lines possible in the 1970s, its failure did not invalidate the concept. It only needed more time. In Fear of Falling, a decade after the initial analysis, she observed the polarization of many professions into patterns of small elites of stars and increasingly large, proletarianized bottom strata. “The continued existence of the professional middle class, as a class, may eventually be in question.” At the apparent end of history, as the PMC was assuming control of a major political party, this must have seemed a counterintuitive prediction.
Yet today it is difficult to think of a piece of political analysis that has been so spectacularly validated. In 2013, Barbara and John Ehrenreich—long since divorced—reunited to write “Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class.” In it, they observed,
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 honed their skills on assembly lines or in warehouses or foundries. The debt-ridden unemployed and underemployed college graduates, the revenue-starved teachers, the overworked and underpaid service professionals, even the occasional whistle-blowing scientist or engineer—all face the same kind of situation that confronted skilled craft-workers in the early 20th century and all American industrial workers in the late 20th century.
The Occupy movement, in their view, had represented the most significant step toward an alliance between the downwardly mobile strata of the PMC and the “remnants of the traditional working class.” Six years later, movements of radicalized journalists, academics, tech workers, nurses, and especially teachers have made good on this concept. If the alliance with the PMC is how neoliberalism consolidated power, the downwardly mobile fragments of the PMC also have unmistakably provided the social basis for its most significant and energetic political challengers. Across these sectors, professional-class activists have found something in their own indignities on the job to connect them to the broader working class: teachers and nurses have articulated their own demands in terms of solidarity with the students and patients they serve; tech workers first practiced protest in solidarity with security guards and bus drivers on their campuses, before finding they needed it themselves.
The epithet “PMC” today, then, is a battle cry in a civil war—the sound of a class that is decomposing. In the lower strata of the professions—where career advancement often appears a cruel joke, skill goes unrewarded, and debt permeates everything—millions are in the process of falling out of the class: its distinctive mores and aspirations are losing their meaning, the aura of its institutions its fading. Those who wield the epithet “PMC,” then, do so not against strangers, but against the most familiar enemies: the ones who made it, for whom good luck or preexisting advantages paid off, and who maintained their ultimate loyalty to the existing order. Fair enough as criticisms go: in the alliance between the ruling class and the PMC, the ideological substance consists of professionalism and meritocratic practice. For the increasingly declassed fragments that are now in rebellion, denunciation of professionalism writ large makes some sense.
As the Ehrenreichs insisted decades ago, however, the point is not to abandon the PMC, but to turn it against its masters. Inevitably, that requires something more than scorn: it means articulating why the ideals embodied in professional ideology are betrayed by the social world in which professionals find themselves. As the PMC’s disintegration continues, with layer after layer flaking off its underbelly, it presents a historical task: to articulate to those getting their first taste of precarity why their alignment with the existing order betrays their own ideals—and to articulate it on their own terms, rather than berate them for failing to have seen it already. This articulation, largely unthinkable and unutterable a decade or two ago, is well on its way toward being common sense today: it’s for us to carry it the rest of the way. Our organizing of unions and strikes in the last years, our refusals to build technology for the military-industrial complex and carceral state, our assertions of solidarity in the common struggle against sexual harassment and assault in school and at work, and yes, our electoral campaigns, including the Sanders campaigns—all these mark the advancement of this project.
As the class from which both Sanders and Warren draw their activist support has gradually caved in, it has set in motion not one but two efforts to find a path out of the wreckage. The Sanders effort seems willing to go farther, understanding that he cannot actually make good on his goals through the ordinary legislative process. Warren is poised on the margin. She clearly recognizes the rising discontent of the PMC and its increasing resonance with working-class grievances, and seeks to respond in meaningful ways. But her campaign remains more thoroughly in the rehabilitative mode: putting democracy back on its feet, cleaning up the system, and putatively giving her decomposing social base the chance to recompose itself. A Warren victory would be cleansing, marking a return; a Sanders victory would open a new chapter—though a vaguely defined one.
For the precarious academic, the overworked nurse, or the underpaid teacher, the contradictions between official ideologies of professionalism and the material reality of existence have become so vivid as to create a chasm. Through this gap, it is possible for a member of the PMC to glimpse broader solidarity with the working class, even to imagine self-redefinition as one with it. Just today, October 10, the New York Times published a story on how tech workers have been drawing on century-old Wobbly traditions to organize walkouts.1
Pursued to its conclusion, this reorientation implies a more thorough break with the social institutions that have sustained the PMC and neoliberalism at large. It prompts us to imagine not the greening and rationalization of the military-industrial and imperialist apparatuses, but their dismantling; not just free college, but the end of the age of human capital. These are not visions that can be achieved within and through electoral politics, but to the extent that electoral politics may sustain them at all, it will do so only as a device for widening social conflict—not containing it. If this points toward support for Sanders (and beyond that, toward support for social struggles across the board), it simultaneously also shrinks the visible gap between Sanders and Warren, and dictates a different approach toward her PMC backers: not rage and rebuke, but critical solidarity. An unpersuaded, still-secure rump of the PMC, after all, still retains the ability to control the Democratic Party—what was 2016 if not a lesson in this?
In any process of political transformation, there are always those who have remained attached to a social order that will not serve them well much longer, the people who only partially share the experience of the more angry militants. But it is their similarity to the Sanders base, not their difference, that is evident from any critical distance. Both for Sanders to win and for the broader class-formation process he represents to advance, the worst error his advocates can make is to deny their own social origins or to cast Warren supporters and the PMC as the inevitable opponents of the working class. This is to give up in advance, not to mention to strike a laughable posture in the eyes of our working-class allies. No one trusts a would-be ally who pretends to be already identical to their desired collaborators, disappearing their own self and their own particular ambitions. Ehrenreich recognized such impersonality as a problem for middle-class politics in Fear of Falling. “Is there a way to ‘re-embody’ the middle class’s impersonal mode of discourse, so that it no longer serves to conceal the individual and variable speaker?” she asked. “For we may need to find ourselves in the language of abstraction, if we are ever to find the ‘others’ in the language of daily life. And finding the ‘others’—not as aliens, not as projections of inner fear—is essential to the revival of middle-class conscience.”
We professionals are in an increasingly contradictory situation, as the neoliberal order we helped build has turned against us, cannibalizing the security we thought we won by championing markets, meritocracy, and technology. This contradiction—no doubt uncomfortable—is nonetheless what gives us room to operate and exercise political agency. Organizing professionals does not mean ignoring the contradictions that define all of our lives, but pressing on those contradictions, stressing them, and offering a political resolution to that stress: an alliance with the social class that will actually back us up—the working class.
For all the cynicism and compromises that professional pretensions engender, professional labor does carry a utopian seed—in the impulse to create and disseminate knowledge, to care for the sick, or to defend the rights and dignity of the democratic subject. That kernel, encased in the class alliance with the actual ruling elite, can only take root and grow in the most warped ways, casting the working class into its stunted shade. We need not smash the seed to plant it in better soil.