UCI professor's new book examines professional-managerial class ideology
Can people working salaried professional and white-collar jobs truly be allies to the working class when they benefit from the very structures that oppress others? In Virtue Hoarders (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), Catherine Liu, professor of film and media studies at UCI, analyzes this class, the “Professional Managerial Class” (PMC), and elucidates what she sees as a hypocritical ideology.
In the Q&A that follows, Liu breaks it down.
Your book is a polemic about the professional-managerial class (PMC). Could you help us understand what the PMC is and who is a part of it?
The Professional Managerial Class is a stratum of any complex capitalist society that is made up of credentialed elites who have influential positions in the creative professions and liberal industries, academia, government, journalists, the NGO and foundation world, and corporate America. Does this sound too vague? They are white-collar salaried workers who had to get professional certification to do what they do. At the beginning of the 20th century in the United States, they made up a small part of the population and were a mediating class between workers who labored with their bodies in unspeakable conditions and the capitalists who owned factories, oil wells, mines, steel mills, etc. and who were known as robber barons. In 1900 in the U.S., there were many more family farms and small business owners. Today, that part of the population is much smaller, and the PMC is much larger: credentialed elites are experts, engineers, doctors and MBAs. They manage other people and their wealth and produce content, but the PMC cannot live on the interest of their wealth alone. They own a lot of American assets, but they have to go to work. They make up now about 25% of the workforce, but they exert an undue amount of power over culture and ideology. Academia is a place where we train the Professional Managerial Classes. In orthodox Marxism, they would be called petit bourgeois. John and Barbara Ehrenreich, who created the concept of the PMC, noted in 1977 that they were a new class that had emerged in the U.S. and that they had taken over progressive politics and had interests that were increasingly divergent from those of working-class people.
You’ve identified aspects of a particular culture of the PMC (lifestyle and family, for example), and you argue that this culture has roots in the counterculture of the 1960s. Could you speak to that connection?
The vanguard and most elite elements of the PMC believe that their consumption and lifestyle habits are anti-traditional and alternative, much in the way that hippies believed that in the 1960s and 70s. They do yoga, participate in novel child rearing methods, only buy organic food, etc. Think Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle brand GOOP. Just as the Age of Aquarius did not require any political organizing, the age of PMC Enlightenment requires not the support of redistributive economic policies, but a kind of individualized mindfulness and virtue that makes this class uniquely incapable of solidarity. The emergence of ‘alternatives’ to reason spawned the New Age, an apolitical version of the counterculture from which anti-vaxxers have drawn succor. In fact, during the 18th century, there were pitched debates about the smallpox vaccine that had just been invented: religious believers were terrified of inoculation and thought it challenged the will of God. You would think that the intelligentsia or the educated elites would be for science and the Enlightenment, but the PMC no longer believe in the public exercise of reason as a public good. In the humanities, professors have been the first to question universalism and reason itself as oppressive and we have reaped what our countercultural ideals have sown.
In terms of PMC parenting, a part of the book which has gotten an enormous response, my class believes in optimization of a child’s capacity, either on the basis of creativity or competition. We are terrified that our children will experience a decline in earning ability or standard of living, but structurally, with the disappearance of a social safety net, a dearth of jobs and the catastrophic American health care system, our children objectively confront a much more vicious and unforgiving world. Focusing our anxieties on our children and childrearing techniques only continues the idea that individuals can devise solutions to a terrifying world.
You’ve also argued that the PMC plays a pivotal role in present-day American politics. Could you talk about some of the ways that’s true?
The PMC wants to disguise its own interests as a class that are bound by material interests to support the work of capitalism and capitalists, so it produced the ideology that keeps the status quo in place. I know this makes me sound like an old Left kind of person, which I probably am, but I’m not a guy wearing a tweed cap and yelling at you on the street. I yell at you in print. There are many things I won’t say in a forum like this because I am an employee of the university, but I think my class and the way its interests have been managed in the university merely reproduce the inequalities and injustices of the social whole. The PMC wants to see itself as virtuous heroes in historical struggles, but it merely reproduces the status quo very well. I won’t say anything more than that except to express my daily disappointment that those of us with gold plated health insurance do not want that for every person in this country.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
I hope to give people the words with which to describe the ideological oppression of our times. I have had such an enormous response to the book already and I think it’s because I was there to name something that we all know and have experienced. From public school teachers, to nurses, to doctors, to union organizers, to working class people who are called “First Gen” students in the academy, people have written to me privately about how angry, afraid and stressed they are about their working conditions and the ideology behind those conditions. One public school teacher who abandoned PMC prestige mongering described his Peace Corps training as basically indoctrination in an extreme form of PMC pluralism: he was told that he could never understand the community he was working in and that he had to accept “difference” and just keep quiet about it. Medical residents have written to me about COVID protocols that have them working inhuman hours but because they are desperate to get a job, they cannot complain. A former Google employee and organizer described the willingness of management to “listen” to employee grievances while quietly pushing out the most vocal critics of Google’s discriminatory employment policies. I’m just giving people critical tools by which to name the ideology under which we all travail. A shared language is the beginning of solidarity. This book is my contribution to public discourse. I can’t hide behind the professional façade any longer. I’m planning the next short polemic on the history and rhetoric of trauma discourse in post-Reagan America.
I have also had a huge response from comedians who have written to me that it is impossible to write jokes in our extra woke world. There is a lot of humor in the book: laughter can set us free. I really believe that. I laugh at my own horrible PMC internalized instincts every single day.
Photo credit: DiverCity Productions