N+1 and the PMC: A Debate about Moving On
One of the most remarkable by-products of the recent US presidential campaign has been a protracted and at times acrimonious debate on the so-called “professional-managerial classes” for the Left. Coined by sociologists John and Barbara Ehrenreich in 1979,1 the term PMC was originally deployed for the rise of a new managerial stratum in the early twentieth century. After the death of the family business, a new group of supervisors and professionals gained autonomy in its wake, commanding workers and populating the ranks of the Progressive state. These stood as sign of the triumph of corporate capitalism and its separation of ownership and control. Today it persists, in spite of historical changes, and exercises a strong attraction to those seeking to capture the increasing role of the middle classes on the left. It has also been an evident source of anxiety. If the millennial left is serious about rebuilding labor politics after the Third Way, downwardly mobile professionals appear to be shaky human material to build with. But the questions are not just strategic. The concept of PMC still forces a long list of clarifications on its users: about class, culture, politics, markets and states, the causal powers of ideas and how political sociology may inform strategy. The post-2008 era presents a particular paradox here. Although the fall-out of this crisis hit middle and working classes alike the politics of the left remain internal to professionals. The PMC’s cultural unity, in short, seems intact, and casts doubt on notions of class contradiction that look to explain this behavior out of interest calculation. A variety of responses are visible to this on the left. Some have advocated a PMC-working class front, while others think that professionals can carry the new left coalition on their own. History carries support for both. Second International mass democracy, for instance, was built on a compact between internationally minded professionals and industrial workers, while post-war social democracy relied heavily on middle class votes. Recent commentary tends to elide the question of internal hierarchy, however. Who will be on top in this coalition? Who will follow whom? Are the interests between both groups compatible and how might they be made more so? The following exchange tries to carve out a space for debate for these questions, initiated by a recent piece on the left and the “PMC-Frage.”
We have chosen to use initials in place of full names in order to safeguard the privacy of some participants, who preferred to remain unnamed.
AR: I finally read this piece [by Gabriel Winant, “Professional-Managerial Chasm,” n+1 (Oct. 10, 2019)]. Sure, it’s an okay condensation of the genesis of the notion of the PMC as an interpretive category, at least of the strain that runs through the Ehrenreichs to Jacobin, but it does seem at bottom more an expression of a beef with the Jacobin / Chapo left and its contentiousness within the Brooklyn social world than a serious political critique. As others have pointed out, it’s an odd, too clever by half kind of argument that, because there are contradictory tendencies within the class, we should ignore them and that therefore it’s naïve or small-minded to stress the differences between Sanders and Warren.
Also, he sets up a strawman to criticize. Who either explicitly or implicitly treats the PMC ahistorically or imagines that it “smoothly carries out the function for which it developed [sic] a century ago”? That’s a figment of his imagination.
AJ: Yes. Most people who use the PMC trope today do so precisely with an awareness of that class’s immiseration over the last twenty years. And how this immiseration produces “a” politics, but it’s unclear that that is a politics the left should necessarily put their weight behind.
AR: To sound an appealingly crude materialist note, there’s powerful cultural pressure to find that Warren is as good as, probably even a better version of, Bernie. This may be another illustration of my father’s observation that one aspect of ideology is that it’s the mechanism that harmonizes the principles one likes to believe one holds with what advances one’s material interests.
DG: Well put. What also strikes me about this piece is the obvious tension between his editorializing and his research. All of the analysis he lifts from the Ehrenreichs and E. O. Wright leads the reader to a certain conclusion and yet he awkwardly attempts to force the reader away from those conclusions. Bizarre. As AJ and AR mentioned, his whole setup suggests he is going to knock down the phantom menace of the angry Jacobin / Chapo demagogues who are beating on all these poor doctors and lawyers but as the essay winds on he just kind of paints a picture of precisely why the sons and daughters of the PMC are now railing against them. While the young downwardly mobile middle-class set that makes up the current left milieu shares some bad habits with the New Left, they also largely have similar interests as the working class. And that’s why they are in camp Bernie.
AR: This may sound odd coming from me in particular, but some of the interpretive pathologies we’ve described are adaptive for making careers as nominal academic Marxoids / critical historians of capitalism in fancy US universities. It’s what enables continuing to articulate one’s intellectual work toward persuading PMC left-neoliberals like one’s colleagues.
MN: The piece would have benefited from more successfully integrating the work Marxist sociologists, especially Erik Olin-Wright, have done on the problem of the middle classes in Marxist theory. Winant briefly cites one of the earliest versions of Wright’s theory and a category that he later did away with. The fact that E. P. Thompson is used as their foil is not persuasive, as his concept of class was hardly consistent across his work. G. A. Cohen, who points out the inconsistencies in Karl Marx’s Theory of History,2 has a good critique of the class as a process concept. To summarize class as a process confuses class formation—Marx’s explanation of a class in itself becoming a class for itself—with class structure—one’s objective location in capitalism.
Przeworski’s Capitalism and Social Democracy3 also provides an important foil (and one that critiqued Wright’s theory), namely because he points out that broad class coalitions of the kind Winant says should be our position ultimately neutered European social democratic movements as they enabled them to gain electoral power. Winant seems a bit dismissive of electoral work as important but a means not an end, and in doing so underestimates both the reason for inter-class collaboration and thus why these coalitions become so dangerous (which demands are easier to enact to maintain your power—the professional middle class demands for better opportunity and flexibility or the working class demands to restructure the wage-labor relation). It’s a crucial and difficult problem for the left to figure out, but Winant never really contributes any solutions and instead tries to just logic the problem away.
I don’t think the PMC concept is beyond reproach, and clearly there is stratification within the class that have led some segments to align more with workers or capitalists, but simply pointing that out doesn’t negate the contradictions that come with professional middle class and working class alignment. The solution to the problem is not to just explain to them their real interests, which is an idealist solution to a material problem.
AR: I think beneath the Winant or Winant/Karp issue [Matt Karp, “Is This the Future Liberals Want?,” Jacobin (Oct. 14, 2019)] is the question, what has led so many of us relatively independently of one another to start thinking about the PMC as a class formation in the first place? My sense is that it has to do with a combination of factors we’ve all been confronting and trying to reckon with concerning 1) tendencies and tensions within what seems to be taking shape, at least as a zygote, as a popular left in the US and UK, 2) the fragility of left-led governments that have been elected in places like Greece and various South American states, 3) how to make sense of and respond to the tide of authoritarian neoliberalism around the world, which I suspect most of us understand as no aberration but an organic outgrowth of several decades of neoliberal hegemony, which in both its “left”-technocratic and right poles rejects and has sought to seal off options for popular politics of any sort, and, of course 4) the utter bankruptcy under those conditions of social-democratic parties nearly everywhere.
In both the US and the UK at this moment we have possibilities for building a militant, working-class based left for the first time in more than a generation, and in both cases the effort is under threat not only from the right but maybe even more meaningfully from the neoliberal “left”—Warrenites and identitarians here; Blairites and identitarians there. Among the contradictions prominent (I trust no one will mind if I call them “principal”) at the moment is that, on the one hand, we have to organize around an old-school social-democratic program without trying to rehearse the technocratic, cross-class social management alliance that characterized Beveridgeism in the UK and Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights (not least because there’s no space for such an alliance); on the other hand, we all know how the strategy of building toward socialism from social democratic reform is a deadly race to outflank the bourgeoisie, and, because of their greater power from the outset, especially in this historical moment, they’re more than likely to respond to the possibility that our side could become strong enough to vote them out of class power by eliminating voting and crushing us. That’s the lesson from Brazil; it’s also no doubt linked preemptively to the rise of authoritarian neoliberalism dressed up as “populism.” (And that lesson should provoke critical reflection among all those lefties who complained about Chávez and the PSUV’s cozying up to his old military cronies and how bad that was for popular democracy.)
Mark Dudzic and I have been discussing that tension in particular quite a bit lately. We have to navigate that contradiction because we have to fight to reopen space for the idea of public goods in the US. That is, for the at all foreseeable future, we’re going to have to build around a concrete program that has a social-dem vision as its upward horizon. Agitating openly for something called “socialism” at this point is counterproductive, except as part of cadre development.
This perspective has a number of implications, but the one most pertinent for our current discussion is that how we analyze, much less taxonomize, the PMC is less important than, indeed has to follow from nearly as much as guide, how we operate within and in relation to it. Obviously, it’s a class that has divergent poles and is at its best hung up between going one way or the other. It’s also a class, as [Hans Magnus] Enzensberger noted, that’s obsessed, paradoxically, with analyzing itself and at the same time making itself invisible. As we take into account that this class has evolved in historically specific ways, as have the working class and bourgeoisie, I think what makes the most sense with respect to calculating how to deal with its members and strata, is to keep in mind what we know are the broad tendencies of perception and values within it, roll with the punches and keep in mind its limitations. I agree with MN that a project of raising their consciousness to win them over to the working class is feckless, as also is trying to capture a general description of them that works beneath a pretty general level of abstraction.
AJ: These are all fantastic points. Sorting “teachers” and “nursers” into the same bracket as “professors”, for instance—who are we kidding? These people were never in the same milieu, and it’s unlikely they ever will be.
I also agree that the PMC in its contemporary guise is way more difficult to salvage for a left politics (except as a submissive appendage to a militant working class, as Karp seems to imply, a handy henchman). The question is: how the hell do you organize that submission? How will they ever submit? They’re very difficult to use even for “pre-political” reasons, as AR points out, because their skepticism on public goods and high consumption standards often blocks welfare expansion. I think the main argument here is just about cultural power: the professional classes have become so unaccustomed to living under majority rule (just witness the ferocious middle class backlash to Brexit!) that they will find it utterly unimaginable to live under the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The main puzzle for me is still how the immiseration of parts of the PMC class has not completely soaked them off “politically” from a wider PMC bloc. This may be different for the Bernie-crowd in the US, as DG points out, but in Europe it’s striking how even incredibly poorly paid academics will have the same politics as the 100K salaried professors they speak to in seminars, although their access to assets (homeownership etc.) is so different. That cohesion baffles me. I guess one solution is to see PMC less as a “class” but as swathe of social locations with differing degrees of market dependence but an extraordinary sense of cultural cohesion. Then it’s about their access to the state, not per se the market. We can introduce wage differentials and factor inequality (ownership of assets etc.) afterwards. So even if the professionals are torn apart by culture wars they still find common ground in a shared meritocratic ethic and community representation, which assures them certain state benefits. I guess that’s what Enzensberger speaks to: even the poorest, underpaid academic here in the UK will be pro-EU because they know they’re more likely to receive funds from that institution. But this is all very tentative.
AR: AJ, the solution you propose, which seems correct to me, also makes me think of Konrad and Szelenyi’s Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power,4 which admittedly I haven’t read in a long time. It’s an examination of the role of the intelligentsia in Hungary in the 1970s, a social location they characterized as embeddedness in and control over the society’s processes of “teleological redistribution,” which were centered in the state. Recently having re-read Brinkley’s End of Reform5 just underscored the extent to which the New Deal’s “radical” planning left was as much a Progressive planning left, particularly at the elite levels, as close to F. W. Taylor as to Lenin—closer, if you consider the attitude toward capitalism. Those Bellamyite tendencies persist within the class.
Also, on the class cohesion issue, it’s maybe worth reflecting that workers in the lower provinces of the PMC are likely to become militant, even embrace radical programs, when beset with proletarianization. These are the moments when their perception of their class converges on universal societal interests through broad demands like quality of patient care and, at this moment, the CTU’s demand for programs supporting affordable housing. I’m not suggesting it’s cynical; it’s even a bit like the Knights of Labor’s distinction from Gompers and the AFL. But, as everyone here knows, it’s easy to mistake militancy for radicalism, and episodic radicalism can be really tough to galvanize and build on.
One takeaway from all this is that at some point, if we’re successful and maybe even if we are to succeed, the PMC as a formation will need to be contained, but one of the virtues of the low level of development of anything we can optimistically call a movement, that’s not a pressing question except in the most abstract ways. At the same time, I recall about 15 years ago or so, when talking with a Cuban friend about the 7-10,000 people in the country then working for foreign empresas, including one of my cousins, I asked whether the government and party were concerned about their possibly forming as a class. He emphatically replied in the negative. When I asked how he could be so certain, he said “because they will never be permitted to express themselves politically as a class.”
PC: AJ is right—what has split apart the prospect of any sustainable proto-PMC / working class alliance here in the UK is Brexit.
The PMC have poured an astonishing degree of scorn on the principle of majoritarianism, and they simply cannot countenance the notion that they might be overruled by those they see as their social inferiors in a democratic vote. Their cosmopolitanism / anti-nationalism is the disguise for their hatred of mass democracy. I think they cling to the EU not only for crappy pay-offs like research grants, Erasmus schemes and such like, but also for cultural reasons—cultural superiority over their uncultured inferiors at home, and a sense of cross-border depth, so that they are not politically marooned in the confines of the nation with their own working classes.
AJ: I concur with PC’s suggestion that it’s not just material—the cultural staying power of EU-membership for British PMC’s is incredibly impressive, for instance, even when the benefits of it are so negligible. I think there’s a Du Boisian “psychological wage” argument implicit in there somewhere. The idea is that just belonging to this cosmopolitan community relieves you of a certain psychic burden (the burden of having to co-habit a democratic space together with all those paupers). Hence all the talk about “European values” and “peace” etc.
I think this is different from the example you cited, AR, where a section of the managerial classes in the Soviet bloc did reap concrete benefits from state office—but were never able to organize on class lines. I think you could make an inverse case about the Russian 1989. There an overwhelming majority of the population supported further existence of the Union but a section of “red managers” saw that capitalism would ultimately hand them a better deal. In chaos unleashed by perestroika they were able to seize the initiative and organize “politically” as a class, turning into part of the oligarchs in the 1990s. So much for PMC-working class solidarity in Russia!
AR: AJ and PC, I definitely take the point that there’s something not immediately material going on in what you describe as the PMC’s general response to Brexit. There’s been a similar, if less dramatic, tendency among PMC liberals here, perhaps since Clinton if not longer. Part of what has kept them voting Democratic is the comfort it affords them in feeling more cosmopolitan and moral than their right-wing neighbors, co-workers, and family members. To the extent that the psychological gratification they receive from cultivating that self-perception contributes to the liberal element of the class’s cohesion, it functions like religion, professional codes, or other such ideologies, and, in that sense, it’s an element in the class’s reproduction as a class. This tendency no doubt undergirds their affinity for producing and consuming notions like “cultural capital.”
The Winant comment [that “a minoritarian movement that has a vision of winning broad hegemony cannot afford contempt as its posture toward proximate social strata”] is truly instructive. Apparently, despite what I’ve been given to understand is his strong commitment to unions, he sees socialist politics as a project to be built from the foundation as a cross-class affair?
DG: I think this level of submerged class contempt is paradoxically a function of how competitive the academic labor market is. Having secured a position at an elite University in such a ruthless market leads to some self-delusions, you can almost hear him spitting about how his lessers are just jealous of his success.
Great points all around, the disdain for mass democracy and mass party politics by the PMC is I think a common thread across continents. AR I had never read Konrad and Szelenyi’s book but I suppose I should, is that book the origin of the term “New Class”?
And regarding how to make the PMC submit I think that C. Wright Mills put it well:
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 marketplace 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.6
I think this is consistent with AR’s point about political expression as a class. Further, I think AJ and AR’s point about sections of the class “defecting” to a more working-class programmatic orientation is true in periods of proletarianization or immiseration but that defection might prove episodic unless, contra Winant, the union movement, and some organized political expression of the working class, is able to make a serious bid for power.
AR: That Mills quote is on target. I think the Konrad and Szelenyi book is worth reading at least suggestively. They weren’t the source of the New Class notion. That was the Yugoslav “dissident” Milovan Dilas in the late ‘50s in a book of that title.7
AJ: I remember that “New Class” question coming up in the thread on that Jacobin-essay dismissing the “PMC” as extreme right dogwhistle. I guess the good thing about Winant is that he doesn’t dismiss the term out of hand.
Regarding the Szelenyi and Konrad, I’m fascinated by the lengths post-war left regimes—both in the Soviet Union or in Sweden—went to “contain” their middle classes, rather than “activate” them and how this contributed to their success. Maybe the trauma of fascism was an important factor here, in which the middle classes got just a little too excited about that man Hitler.
There’s this wonderful book by a Soviet scholar, Alexei Yurchak—Everything Was Forever, Until it Was No More8 —which shows that the entire dissident culture of the 1980s—this “spontaneous civil society” that opposed the regime and wildly celebrated by Western liberals—was actually a pure regime creation. Its culture was purely internal to Soviet culture writ large. Which was exactly what Soviet rulers sought to engineer because it allowed for containment. Unsurprisingly they were shocked when the regime actually disintegrated in 1989.
Swedish social democrats did a similar thing when they forced their middle classes to live in the same social housing as industrial workers, with the idea that social housing had to be so high-standard that it would cater for the status needs of middle classes as well. They were literally terrified of the idea that skilled workers would start living in separate areas, and thereby segment themselves against lower strata. Middle-class independence would imperil the whole class compact Swedish social democracy had built itself on.
Maybe that’s the real task for leftists today: not to “mobilize” the PMC but to “demobilize” them in the right way. Or, how you get them to shut up, and finally let the others speak.
DG: AJ I think you are exactly right. The wage compression strategy was also key to the Swedish experience. Weakening the PMC, blurring the distinctions between them and the working class was the policy of the most successful experiments.
AR: And that’s what’s interesting, perhaps instructive for us, about Swedish social-dems’ characterization of their base as “the people” insofar as it was an attempt to absorb the PMC into the working class rhetorically and programmatically.
AJ: Yes, this would actually allow us to reconceive of populism less as an identitarian gambit but rather a means of subordinating middle class to working class interests, with the “people” as rhetorical glue. Obviously you can have a different kind of populism where PMC intellectuals brandish voiceless working classes to further their own advantages within their class. It’s volatile.
AR: Of course I agree with all you say, AJ, and especially the punch line that the ways the middle classes will go are unpredictable and the implications of that punch line. Then again, I’m one of those “strong tendencies” rather than “laws” of capitalism types, as I believe any historicist must be. I think this perspective can also lead us to revisit moments like, in the US, Taft-Hartley’s restriction of unionization to what Lichtenstein describes as geographical and occupational archipelagoes in the late 1940s. How might working-class political consciousness and politics look today if foremen and insurance clerks and salesmen, or IBM bookkeepers been able to form unions at that moment when many of them were inclined to do so? How would the fractional components of the PMC look politically today, even if many of them actually formed unions to keep from falling into the working class? E.g., how different are the guild tendencies among nurses, teachers, and engineers from those among electricians, carpenters, and roofers? (This is where, for those, like DG and MN, who are thinking about the history of the PMC, I suggest David F. Noble’s America By Design,9 as well as [Harry] Braverman, and Vinel’s The Employee: A Political History.10)
I remain struck at how much of the ways that we (not us on this thread) think of class in American society, especially the normative signs working class and middle class, in ways defined for us by social scientists and other ruling class ideologues over the decade and a half after WWII. Given that, I think the practical strategic approach is to treat the idea of the working class as our constituency rather loosely, as we did in the Labor Party by defining the class broadly as everyone who must or is expected to work for a living (maybe add in some Zweig-like criteria like degree of supervisory responsibility, etc., to satisfy formalist considerations). In that way, the working class is partly a political category: those who accept the discipline of a working-class political program. That may not be the only way to jettison mystifications like suburban, lower middle class, etc., but it can be one way, to treat the revolutionary working class as an objective historical possibility formed partly through political struggle.
MN: One thing to add to the PMC discussion as I pretty much agree with viewing it as a political formation. The reason I brought up the structural definition project is that if you define the PMC as a laboring group whose job it is to exercise power over workers on behalf of capital, only portions of those commonly understood to be PMC actually fit this bill. The job of financial admins or management consultants is very different from teachers and nurses, and I’d even argue the role of academics and financial managers is also slightly different from both. So I think there’s also something to looking at different sectors, workers actual jobs, and their role in the economy combined with the trends at their workplace (increasing proletarianization). Ultimately AR is right that we don’t really need to overtheorize this stuff since different sectors wind up making their political thoughts of the moment obvious.
I don’t think unionization will completely solve the problem because there are plenty of academic unions who still have bad politics (maybe that’s too much of a reduction of the point in bringing it up). The Swedish example I think provides a helpful addition because there it wasn’t just a matter of unionizing white collar workers but pursuing a political economic strategy to put them on the same level as workers in other sectors.
On why so many academics in horrible material situations still identify with elite ideology, one thing I’ll add is that access to very limited opportunity in academic job markets is helped by accepting elite ideology and hurt by rejecting it in a unique way. Again take the counterexample of a teacher, you don’t have to believe in Lamarckian views on poverty to teach kids in poor neighborhoods math and keep your job. But when your job is ideological production and you’re asking your boss to hire you so that you can disprove his whole body of work that creates both an ideological and a material conflict. I think the culture emerges from the material constraints of the market.
Also to the question of how we organize them, a few others have said this but I think its entirely contingent. The reason M4A is a successful demand in the US is because of the collapse of the healthcare system for almost every class.
AR: MN, I’m with you. That point about academics is crucial. The incentives to fashion one’s intellectual predilections to earn the Nihil Obstat from the ruling class’s minions begins nowadays in the womb of grad school. It always did, really, but there are fewer niches for those who don’t conform, as, at one level, the distinctions, or pretense of distinctions, between academic, real estate, pharmaceutical, and hedge fund managers have largely melted down and, at another, what passes for high-flying common sense in the various disciplines has generated—spawned, tenured, and otherwise legitimized—its own version of a left intellectual life. Thus the Mellon Research Initiative on Racial Capitalism isn’t an oxymoron.
MN: Yes so basically Wright ends up with class structure as a matrix with two factors: control over means of production x control over labor. The middle classes (Wright’s contradictory locations) are the classic petit bourgeois (control over means, but don’t earn profit by appropriating the labor of others) and the managerial class (domination over labor, but no control over means).
The matrix is simple enough, but has to be qualified that all sorts of mechanisms are still being worked out to clarify things like temporary class mobility (e.g. the graduate student who comes from wealth), intra-class households, etc. I forget if Wright ever resolved the even thornier issue of state employed workers.
That puts nurses into the working class (no means, no domination), academics would vary depending on where they are in their career. It also leads to some weird stuff like a financial manager for example would technically be a member of the working class since they only manage portfolios not labor and themselves are controlled by managers.
I think that’s why for political reasons the PMC is a really helpful designation because it helps to make sense of certain workers strategies given their location in political-economy, and not necessarily their technical position in the wage-labor relation, which you can accept or reject based on your flavor of Marxism. It’s limitations definitely speak to the advantages of the tendencies vs. laws approach. This is one of the few places I’m a bit of a both-ander. The use of the more granular theory is to provide a set of constraints within which real actors have to operate. I think that’s one sense in which Winant could be granted credit for saying that these people are part of the left regardless of what the theory says should or shouldn’t happen.
The stakes here seem less about the theory and more about the kind of political program we are trying to forge. For all intents and purposes, the left in the US is de facto pursuing a populist program right now anyway. It’s not clear to me how we are actually alienating middle class people with demands like Medicare for All, environmental protection, better schools, free childcare etc. And for those who would be so offended by us pointing out that Warren isn’t going to deliver any of that, do they really believe that the issue is the rhetoric in Connor [Kilpatrick]’s article? The counter to Winant’s observation about the presence of PMC socialists is that when many of these people enter the left, they spend their time warping the program to focus on group therapy and trying to make us buy their books. That’s a class interest reasserting itself.
AR: “I think the stakes here are less about the theory and more about the kind of political program we are trying to forge. For all intents and purposes, the left in the US is de facto pursuing a populist program right now anyway. It’s not clear to me how we are actually alienating middle class people with demands like Medicare for All, environmental protection, better schools, free childcare etc.”
Yes, absolutely. Everything else must follow from that.
AF: I think one thing we keep touching on is that Ehrenreich’s PMC has obviously only become more anachronistic ever since she began observing its decline. The post-war economy was a glitch, that the Taylorizers have been Taylorized, and the Professional Managerial Class is only ever becoming more “professionalized”—making the barriers to entry much higher, and “de-managerialized”—stripping them of their control over the staff and institutions they once managed. In addition to the more technical clarifications on “class,” calling them the PMC at this point is a bit like calling it the Midwest because however many years ago we didn’t know how wide the continent was (even though we now know that Indiana is actually east of center). Nonetheless I think the term is still a historic misnomer that describes something that is (somewhat) definable.
The one thing I would emphasize is that due to the social location that AR mentions, the PMC (or erstwhile PMC if you prefer), are still definitely very hyper-aware of their (real or imagined) proximity to their formerly guaranteed managerial roles. The baffling number of grad students who somehow still think they will be the exception, that they will get tenure or somehow make it work, is probably the most stunning example. I do think the “abolition” of the class is the answer—a la the Swedes and housing, getting rid of tuition and irrelevant education obstacles, taking the institutions of the PMC like universities and hospitals into the public good etc. I also think it’s also it’s a good litmus test for who among the PMC are amenable to the socialist project. Ask a broke adjunct if they would like to see their university made free and public and they’ll usually say yes. Ask them however if they would like their profession reoriented as a public employee—say absorbed into a civil service job like the Germans do—and I’ve heard a number of answers—though not all bad! I’m not sure if these are conversations that grad student unions etc. are having, but it seems to me these are the most interesting ambitions for higher education. I don’t know much about this stuff and I’d like to read more but I’m not sure where to start.
On a related note, I would push back a bit against AJ, MN and AR’s characterization of Winant’s article lacking rigor, not because it’s untrue (it is), but because I don’t think that matters in terms of the debate, and I think that’s worth keeping in mind. First of all, not only do I think it’s perfectly fine not to have done “all the reading,” I believe it’s literally impossible to be so thorough that your PMC critics won’t accuse you of dilettantism. It’s a classic tactic of PMC professionalization as a barrier to entry, and it doesn’t work in our favor. If I had to wait until I had done all the reading my opponents insist I have to do before disagreeing with them, I’d never write a thing, and this is by design (Imposter Syndrome is the chemical warfare of the PMC). I’m certainly no fan of Audre Lorde, but I don’t think you can use that kind of writing to argue with the PMC, mainly because the fix is in; it’s a low-stakes game that they invented to favor their limited and highly specific intellectual skill set.
JBO: I agree with pretty much everything here. My only worry is that I don’t find much solace in this Olin-Wright talk about contradictory class positions. There doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly smooth road from material interests to political solidarity. This point has obviously been made before, but I think it still bears repeating, if only to pour some cold-water on excitement about easy coalitions between PMCs and the working class. The problem with the idea of a contradictory class position seems to me to be built into the way that Wright understands class. Wright operates with a conception of exploitation in which people are exploited more or less depending on how much control they have over their per capita share of available social assets. This can produce some quite strange categorizations, as MN has already pointed out. Within this framework it is pretty easy to see how one could think that a contradictory class location, where workers are “exploited” (in Wright’s sense), could allow for the possibility of political solidarity. When what one gains from the social system becomes less than what one suffers, people can be radicalized. Something like this seems to be behind a lot of optimism about the immiseration of PMCs. However, the fact that a particular form of exploitation registers as exploitation is dependent not on any objective fact about how much of the pie one is getting, but on the expectations of what one thinks one is owed. This is a normative and political problem. American workers might think that getting a two week’s paid holiday is a luxury, British workers might think it’s inadequate, and the French see themselves as entitled to over a month. The standards and expectations of workers, and consequently the definition of exploitation, are changed by the political norms that are prevalent. We can’t, in an analytic fashion, sidestep this issue and proceed from an analysis of reality to political action. The fact that I interpret a particular state of affairs as leading to a particular action, joining a union, voting for Sanders or Labour, is primarily dependent on the dominance of political norms, not some positivistic conception of material interests which could be inferred from my location on the social hierarchy.
More generally, I think there is a more substantive issue with the way that PMCs think of politics which can’t be reduced to their contradictory class position. This is particularly apparent in the political movements which understand themselves as led by PMCs. Within these movements the norms and general presuppositions that they have are often thoroughly anti-majoritarian.
This is of course just one example, but I have (embarrassingly) been spending quite a lot of time close to Extinction Rebellion—going to trials, interviewing protesters and the like. Two things that stands out are—and maybe I’m saying nothing new here—their incredibly technocratic view of politics and their eagerness to identify with elites. The second point is, I think, relevant here. The ACAB-Brigade in the UK have understood this in terms of a refusal to confront the police, which I think is confused. The more fundamental issue is that they aspire to create solidarity between themselves and anyone that they see to be in a position of authority. When they come into contact with elites, or anyone in a position of authority, they understand conflicts as disagreements; however, when they talk about working class people (they never interact with them) they see themselves as up against irrational brutes. This is clearly a product of socialization, but it runs so deep into the way that PMCs think about politics that, in the absence of any organized politics that could force them to accept working class leadership, it is hard to imagine the voluntary submission to the interests of the working class that AJ was suggesting. The contempt for working class people—and I think this is an issue that is more extreme within racial groups where the idea of racial homogeneity masks PMC disgusts—is apparent in the way that PMCs represent and discuss the working class.
This seems to carry over to Brexit where the political norms of sections of the PMC are incompatible with the concept of majority rule. I agree with PC here that PMC opposition to majority rule can’t be cleanly reduced to their material interests. I’d only add that one of the motivations for anti-Brexit sentiment is a dogmatic insistence that if the UK were to disentangle itself from the EU then they would be left alone with racist animals. Even if you tell them that their own material conditions will improve, say, through rail nationalizations, they aren’t moved. They would rather live in a political community run by their betters.
by Lambert Strether
Thanks for an illuminating discussion.