The professional-managerial class doesn't really exist in the way leftists want it to
But someday it might!
A consistent problem in the literary humanities is "If we see an absence of something in primary sources, does that mean it didn't exist? Or is it that the idea of the thing didn't exist, so it couldn't be written about? And to what extent can we even say a thing existed if people didn’t have a concept of it?"
One debate of this nature is at the core of Democracy Against Capitalism, the book I am (slowly) reading by Ellen Meiksins Wood. This book is, if anything, less readable and more academic than the previous book of hers I'd read: The Origin of Capitalism. It's clearly meant to be read by other academics in her field (which I think is Marx-inflected Political Science?). Like the previous book, which was concerned with a very internecine academic debate over whether there always existed a sort of proto-capitalist impulse whose power was suppressed politically, or if that impulse arose at some point in historical development, this book is concerned with an internecine academic debate about whether class relations are an inevitable result of a certain method of production or if class relations are created socially, as people purposefully constitute themselves into classes.
It reminds me of a Rochefoucauld quote, which is often misquoted as: "People would never fall in love if they hadn't heard it talked about." Which seems very profound and yet, also a bit...iffy? Certain apes mate for life--what causes that if not love?
But the true quote is: "There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing."
This version is undoubtedly true. There are clearly people who, when they describe being in love, are not describing the consensus understanding of what love entails. I love to read advice columns, and quite frequently there will be some variation on "I love him, but..."
In some cases, this is legit--in other cases, it's clearly not, as with the woman who wasn't interested in kids and called off her engagement because her fiance’s ex-wife died and he took full custody of their kid. Like...this woman told him that she loved him, but what she meant was “so long as you don’t have full custody of your daughter.” There is no father who would’ve proposed to a woman if he’d understood how conditional her love was. They were not speaking the same language.
I still haven't finished the Democracy Against Capitalism book, if you can't tell, but the thesis seems to be that changes in the mode of production do change class relations, but they change them in history, through concrete processes that we can observe. This all goes back to the idea of whether there was a "proto" working-class consciousness in 18th century Britain. Hardcore Marxists are like, no, working-class consciousness couldn't exist until there existed a capitalist mode of production. Wood's argument is there must be a middleground between a sort of economic determinism and social determinism--that to say economic processes lead to class formation is merely to beg the question, because what leads to the changing economic processes? As she puts it:
Class as ‘structure’ conceptualizes away the very fact that defines the role of class as the driving force of historical movement: the fact that class at the beginning of a historical mode of production is not what it is at the end. The identity of a mode of production is commonly said to reside in the persistence of its production relations: as long as the form in which ‘surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producer’ remains essentially the same, we are entitled to refer to a mode of production as ‘feudal’, ‘capitalist’, and so on. But class relations are the principle of movement within the mode of production.
The history of a mode of production is the history of its developing class relations and, in particular, their changing relations to the relations of production. Classes develop within a mode of production in the process of coalescing around the relations of production and as the composition, cohesion, consciousness, and organization of the resulting class formations change. The mode of production reaches its crisis when the development of class relations within it actually transforms the relations of production themselves.
Makes sense to me! As longtime readers will know, part of my charm is that I'm easily convinced by the last thing I read. Probably next week I'll read Althusser and feel completely different. Wood is also the most recent Marxist writer I've read (this book was published in 1995), so it's given me some insight into the development of Marxism in the post-Soviet era, and particularly into "Post-Marxism", the idea, in essence, that the economic mode of production does not lead, per se, to any particular political formation. Which is to say, there is no guarantee in a capitalist economy that a working class will develop, or that, if it develops, it will advocate for greater ownership of the means of production. Which I find interesting! It's funny there are so many lay Marxists wandering around, talking about the working class, when nothing is more obvious than that the race and nation constitute much more powerful forms of group consciousness.
One thing I've gotten from the Great Books is a suspicion that we are not at the end of history. Recorded human history is short on a cosmic scale, but long when compared to the modern era. Large technological changes have unleashed tremendous social forces, but it's not clear how those social forces will shape us as a people, and how we will use political power to restrain or shape or even terminate those forces. Our feeling that economic forces are out of control and cannot be stopped might merely be an artifact of the last two hundred years, just like an observer in 1242 might have quite justifiably concluded that the Mongols were soon going to rule the entire world.
When it comes to current class formations and our relationship to the means of production, it seems obvious that outright ownership of the means of production (i.e. ownership of capital) is only one of the means by which surplus is transferred to a certain class. It has long been the case in the United States that many of our richest people are wealthy not as a result of their ownership of capital (real eastate, stocks, and ownership in hedge funds, primarily) but as a result of their income. Even if the grant comes as stock options, the director at Google who is worth $10m is not really a capitalist in any sense Marx might have understood, instead he is wealthy because he has reached a certain level in an institution. Although it's better to rise up high in a healthy, profitable institution, you can make plenty of money running a failing one: the director at Best Buy or former director at Radioshack is probably also pretty well-off!
The question for a large section of modern society is not, how do I gain, accumulate, and grow capital, it is how do I get paid a lot of money? Moreover, as these institutions grow, they have increasingly learned to use political power to create their profits—capitalism was created when politics and economics were divorced, but for some time now they’ve been coming back together. For instance, the Disney corporation is worth dramatically more today than it would be in the relatively weaker intellectual property regime that existed fifty years ago (until 1976, the length of copyright was a mere 28 years, renewable once). This bears less resemblance to capitalism than it does to the "extra-economic" methods of surplus accumulation used in various imperial systems--powerful political actors lobby the state to create and enforces certain forms of property rights, in ways designed to protect those powerful political actors.
This is not new to anyone, of course, and the term for people who rise within and control institutions is “the professional-managerial class”. But when people talk about the professional-managerial class, it's just very confusing, it's a very hard thing to pin down. It's very difficult to make the PMC resemble something in the real world. We want it to be an insular aristocracy, educated at elite schools and colleges and grad schools, that gets automatically ushered to profitable positions within institutions. But it's not quite that. For one thing, the most profitable sector: private enterprise, is seemingly more meritocratic in its hiring than the non-profit sector. You will see a lot more Fortune 500 CEOs who went to non-elite colleges than will be true if you look at professors. The same is true for politics. A lot of people who went to non-elite colleges have become senators, congresspeople, even Presidents (in the case of President Biden). In some fields (journalism) it's very hard to get ahead without an elite pedigree, while in other, seemingly very related fields (writing sci-fi novels), it's much easier. And it's just hard to really iron it all out and make it fit any sort of coherent theory. In America today, a working-class person is probably more likely to make a million dollars by age forty than to be in a tenure-track professor position.1 Why is that? What is going on here? Why is wealth seemingly so much easier to attain than high social status?
Like, yes, you can allege that there is a PMC, and if you squint at things, the idea sort of makes sense. The NYU professor and the Wall Street Journal writer are the social equal of the wealthy hedge-fund guy (I didn't use Columbia and the NYT as the example, because in that case the journalist and professor would be the social superior of the hedge fund guy!) And because that social equivalence exists, there is a sort of cross-cutting connection: she can marry that guy, or her kids can marry that guy--she is likely to feel some class-based connection to that guy.2
But that is a very specific swathe of occupations. Because neither the NYU president, the WSJ writer, and the hedge-fund guy feel as if they're of the same class as the Coca-Cola exec who lives in Atlanta, even though the latter might earn more money, and they feel even less of a connection to the general contractor in Vallejo (see footnote). But does the Coca-Cola exec feel a connection to the Vallejo GC? What if the GC is of Mexican descent and the Coca-Cola exec is super white? What if the exec is black and the GC is white? Like, I know that for the professor, writer, and hedge-fund guy, race doesn’t affect their class connection—they could be of any or any race, but they still read the New York Times and shop at Whole Foods and drive an EV. But does that have any real economic or political meaning? Like...if you expand your point of view, it's just clear that the PMC doesn't exist, as a real class-formation that holds concrete power, in the way we'd like it to. It exists, but only as one of several competing class formations that are struggling for control of our institutions (yes this akin to the Turchin ‘elite overproduction’ hypothesis, I know…I feel so embarrassed, but unlike Turchin I am not positing that there is some ideal number of elites, I am merely accurately noting that in terms of class consciousness, there is no unifying class consciousness that binds the Coca Cola exec and the NYT reporter).
It's possible, however, that this is only temporary! Because if we've seen anything over the last fifty years, it is the elitification of previous non-elite professions. Fifty years ago, you didn't even need a college degree to become a journalist. Now it's impossible without one. And it's the same for a lot of other fields: there are more and more sci-fi writers with elite credentials, for instance. And with the rise of tech and of private-equity money, we're seeing the finance-guy (generally of elite background) seep into other fields. I was just reading about how all the ski resorts in America are owned by two private-equity groups. The executives at that group are much more likely than the executives they replace to have gone to Harvard or Wharton. Like...fifty years ago, running a ski resort didn't require any connection to international high finance. Now it does. And the same is true for lots of things: veterinary hospitals, dental clinics, fast-food chains, they are all getting snapped up by private equity. I predict it won't be long before a lot of regular restaurants and bars are owned by private equity groups. The leveraging of this new finance (PE and venture finance) is a hallmark of the PMC, whereas the leveraging of old finance (bank loans and bonds) was a hallmark of the old capitalist class.3
And this is a process that likely isn't over, and which might not end within our lifetime. It's possible that fifty or a hundred years in the future, sociologists will look back on people like me and ask whether we had "class consciousness" or not. And the answer is...we sort of did...but the class also didn't totally exist yet...and yet there is also a way in which even that proto-class consciousness helps to bring this process of class formation to its completion. Like, maybe the future sociologist will say that the PMC developed in part because of the Harvard professor who hates “banks” and “corporate greed” and argues for regulation against, say, Exxon and Bank of America, but doesn’t know what a private equity fund or care about them, and how these attitudes are perhaps abetted by the fact that the NYT reporters who might report on evil corporates are married to PE guys but not to oil guys.
Or maybe they’ll say something different. Who the heck knows. I’ve never understood this Left-Hegelian tendency to try and intuit the course of history so you can go up top and steer the ship in the right direction. Like, girl, either humans can influence the course of history or we can’t. If we can’t then it doesn’t matter whether you help or not, and if we can then you should worry about what’s right and wrong, not where you think the ship is headed anyway. And from that perspective, I guess I still sort of believe there shouldn’t be meaningful social classes in the first place, and that everyone ought to have the same access to the resources needed to live a good life—but then that’s a very PMC thing to believe, isn’t it?
America has 22.7 millionaires and 600,000 professors, though probably only a small fraction of both groups are younger than forty, and many of the professors are also millionaires, particularly if their own their houses in a nice college town like Berkeley, and most of the under-40 millionaires inherited their money, and how difficult it is to achieve either aim really depends on how many people are attempting to achieve each one, and then there’s also the case that a given person might have a much higher chance of achieving one aim than of achieving the other. And who knows what percentage of which of the groups (the millionaires, the professors, and the people striving to be both) are really working class, and while we are at it, what does it even mean to be a working-class professor or a working-class millionaire? Is that even a coherent concept in modern America? I mean it’s definitely something people say, so it is a concept that exists, but precisely how would we define it? Like, the Harvard-educated finance guy whose dad was a trucker feels a lot less like a working-class millionaire than does the general contractor with an associate’s who saved up and bought a few rental properties in Vallejo. And yet both might have the same parental background! And now I am starting to feel like this footnote and the sentence to which it refers are going to cause the most number of comments for this post, but I’ll leave them up anyway.
There is also a clearly gendered division of labor here. Within the PMC, there are certain jobs that are very female (journalism, writing, professing, medicine) and certain that are very male (finance, surgery, engineering). The division makes much more sense if you posit the two halves being literally and figuratively married, as (in my experience) they tend to be.
On a sidenote I recently read Andrew Carnegie’s Autobiography. It’s certainly America’s most celebrated rags to riches tale: a telegraph boy with a sixth-grade education becomes the richest man in the world. How did it happen? Well, he caught the eye of a railroad exec and followed that guy from job to job, and the guy introduced him to other important people, and eventually when he was in his twenties, Carnegie got the opportunity to buy into a concern that made railway cars, and he used his savings and some bank loans to buy in. Thereafter, access to credit was a huge part of his rise, although he was also a genuinely impressive, for instance as a pre-teen telegraph boy he taught himself to transcribe directly from aural Morse Code to written English, without the intermediary step of writing down the dots and dashes. Apparently, this was super impressive and was part of what caught the eyes of higher ups.