Nothing Personal

Attacking the “professional managerial class” is not a form of tech criticism

Full-text audio version of this essay.

With the rise of digital technologies, increasing automation, and the offshoring of industrial jobs over the past century, a larger portion of the U.S. workforce has moved into management and the professions, including banking, academia, management, programming, legal and cultural work. According to Barbara and John Ehrenreich — who coined the term “professional-managerial class” (PMC) to describe these workers in two essays in the journal Radical America in 1977 — the percentage of American jobs that fit the category has gone from less than 1 percent in 1930, to about 24 percent in 1972, to about 28 percent in 1983, and by 2006, just before the Great Recession, to 35 percent. While not an exact proxy for professional-managerial work, 42 percent of the U.S. labor force worked from home full-time at the height of the Covid pandemic, while only 26 percent worked in-person.

What evolution of capitalism has brought this about? The past few decades has spawned many attempts to explain it. In the 20th century, besides the Ehrenreichs’ work that labeled the PMC, other explanations include now classic works of business administration, like Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand and James Beniger’s The Control Revolution, but also works like Gilles Deleuze’s famous “Postscript on Societies of Control,” Boltanski and Chiappello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, and Manuel Castells’s Rise of the Network Society. While texts like these traced similar trends, they generally stopped short of positing the existence of a new class with unique interests. (McKenzie Wark’s The Hacker Manifesto, which posits the rise of a “vectoralist class” that controls information rather than capital, is an exception). Yet recently, it’s the Ehrenreichs’ designation that has returned to debates about the implications of the past few decades’ shifts in technology, management, and capitalism. Invoking the concept of a “professional managerial class” necessarily poses specific questions: Does this class even exist as a cohesive entity? Despite not owning capital, how can it shape larger trends in capitalism? Has the rise of the tech sector and startup culture expanded its influence or merely its visibility? Finally, does its allegiances lie with capital or labor and how could they be shifted one way or another?

Invoking the concept of a “professional managerial class” necessarily poses specific questions: Does this class even exist as a cohesive entity?

In the Ehrenreichs’ analysis, the workers who make up the professional-managerial class do not create goods or provide services themselves but instead maintain the complex systems of advanced capitalist production by managing people, finances, software, logistics, and information flows. They also work in relatively new fields like marketing and advertising, to produce and manage the consumer demand required to sustain industrialized production. Drawing on Marxist theories of monopoly capitalism, according to which the state and large capitalist entities work together to manage the economy, the Ehrenreichs argued that these workers constituted a third class that was neither the traditional working class nor the bourgeoisie but something mediating between them.

The PMC controls flows of capital and technology yet does not own the means of production itself, so its class interests are accordingly ambiguous and contradictory: Members of the PMC maintain their class privileges through credentialism and other forms of gatekeeping, and their efforts to make work more “efficient” often contributes further to immiserating laborers in the workplace. But their rationalization of production also contributes to rising average living standards and, in a certain light, could help move society toward doing away with capitalists altogether, eliminating their merely parasitic influence on production processes. (Hence the Ehrenreichs saw the Soviet Union not as a “dictatorship of the proletariat” but a dictatorship of the professional and managerial cadres.)

But if the PMC once seemed significant as harbingers of capitalism’s broader transformation, indicated by their role in the growing complexity of capitalism’s technological and bureaucratic systems, what appears interesting about this class to commentators now is largely its cultural affectations. As Gabriel Winant wrote recently in n+1, the term serves less as a class analysis than as a prop in internecine arguments on the left: “Spend time in the forums of socialists who’ve long been loyal to Sanders and critical of ‘identity politics’ — Jacobin readers, say, or the listeners of Chapo Trap House — and you’ll see ‘PMC’ everywhere, a sociological designation turned into an epithet and hurled like a missile.” Even where the term PMC is not used, the recent handwringing by both the right and certain camps on the left about “cancel culture,” “out-of-touch media,” “campus indoctrination,” “New York values,” and so on speak to their belief that this class has turned toward navel gazing rather than addressing “real” political questions like income inequality, housing costs, the state of health care in the U.S. or its handling of international conflicts.

As the importance of technology, automation, and new media continue to grow, the frustrations related to and emanating from the “PMC” take on greater political importance. In particular, critics focus on two emerging and interdependent groups within this class — call them, for lack of better terms, the coders and the content creators. The coders are like Wark’s vectoralist class, the people who can manage flows of information in the wake of the explosion of logistics, finance, software, research, development and planning. The content creators are the beneficiaries of the rise of social media and the further shift to advertiser-paid news sources, breaking the stranglehold that established and monied media empires used to enjoy. This new cohort of journalists, scholars, and artists are the people who purportedly partake of and participate in what’s sometimes referred to as “the discourse,” which plays out through the software, platforms, and algorithms that the coders have been instrumental in making. As a result, those who now have seized upon “PMC” as an epithet theorize that the class has an outsized impact on what we watch, buy, and desire and is in a position to impose cultural norms and opinions, especially on those seeking to share in their power.

Moral culpability alone misses how the PMC — or others who would readily take their place — are compelled to follow the dictates of capital

Yet these two groups do not make up the totality of the PMC. And it is far from clear that they possess a coherent enough set of class interests and cultural values to impose them as critics fear. There is a distinct risk in focusing too much on those who appear to control new technologies and media rather than on the continued role that technological change and capital play in organizing production. In other words, the personal feelings of the PMC should matter significantly less in our analysis than the structures they respond to. Of course, there is nothing wrong with holding people morally responsible for their actions, but moral culpability alone misses how they (or others who would readily take their place) are compelled to follow the dictates of capital. Relying too much on the PMC’s personal predilections as a grounds for analysis or as a form of tech criticism can lead one to see a nefarious plot at work, replacing a structural economic critique with a conspiratorial one. This runs the danger of ultimately concluding that the same techno-capitalist structures could be left in place but yield a different outcome if only some “cultural values,” or those who hold them, were exchanged.

Catherine Liu’s recent book-length polemic Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class is demonstrative in this regard. The book recapitulates why some on both the left and right despise the PMC, but explicitly with the hope of uniting them in a universal socialist project that would reject “identity politics” for more traditional left-wing economic issues such as the redistribution of wealth and minimizing the power of capital. Where the Ehrenreichs analyzed the PMC in terms of class interest, history, and ideological influences, Liu focuses almost exclusively on culture and identity — a tendency that she attributes to the PMC itself in its own practices. As the tide turned against the working class following the collapse of 1960s radicalism, Liu argues, the PMC abandoned any cross-class solidarity and sought only the favor of capital, typified by Barack Obama’s brand of politics and an incrementalism apparent in Elizabeth Warren’s presidential bid. Yet Liu does not offer material causes for that turn; instead she leaves the impression that the PMC is intrinsically sympathetic to capital and was only looking for a reason to abandon workers in favor of its own symbolic self-congratulation.

What most clearly defines the PMC, on this view, is the constant creation of new modes of signaling “virtue,” understood here mainly as affectations prized for how they exclude others from the PMC habitus. For example, they are supposed to have created “a language of liberal tolerance that the working classes have not mastered. PMC elites, consciously or unconsciously, want to humiliate their adversaries by attributing to them a desperate lack of intelligence, empathy, and virtue.” Rather than approaching the PMC as a dynamic group defined by contradictory economic motives, the book proclaims the PMC’s shifting “allegiance from workers to capital” and explains it in terms of its disdain for the working class at some personal gut level. In response, the left, in Liu’s view, needs to engage in rigorous self-criticism and begin “identifying PMC values in ourselves, the better to liquidate them.”

Such an analysis is fundamentally cultural and paranoid rather than structural, relying heavily on such demonizing claims as “PMC virtue is the color of money” and “PMC elites control so much of our lives and quietly threaten us with exclusion if we do not follow their sanctioned lines of milquetoast politics.” The PMC is labeled capitalism’s “most assiduous courtier and sycophant,” and “PMC elites” are accused of becoming “even more worshipful of money and more contemptuous of ordinary people.” A scathing review at Libcom positions Liu with the “Tucker Carlson Left” and regards the book as an “effort to meet MAGA and far right forces half way in the hopes of gaining a nationalist welfare state … While the pitch still references a socialist-tinged set of talking points, it is based on amputating unpopular left and radical positions. What we’re left with is socialist nationalism.”

The PMC is depicted not in terms of its structural position in capitalism but rather by its apparently inherent greed. What we are left with is ultimately a desire for a conservative revolution

In works like Liu’s, the PMC is depicted not in terms of its structural position in capitalism but rather by its apparently inherent greed, its instinct for hoarding money and “cultural virtue.” Such an approach of demonizing groups of individuals at the level of character for socioeconomic phenomena that emerge structurally risks heading down the road that Moishe Postone describes in “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism,” which details how the Nazis propagated conspiracy theories linking Jews with “‘rootless,’ ‘parasitic’ finance capital.” For Postone, Nazism was not opposed to modernity or capitalism per se but instead celebrated its supposedly natural concrete side (i.e. industrial production) while vilifying finance, personified in the figure of the Jews and capable of being destroyed along with them. “In terms of their own self-understandings,” the structures of Nazi anti-Semitism, Postone argues, were “forms of romanticism and revolt” and experienced by believers as “antibourgeois” even though they reaffirmed capitalist relations that insist on separating intellectual and manual work.

What is so incisive about Postone’s larger analysis of capitalism is his insistence that no individual or class is the subject who ultimately decides the direction of capitalist development; rather it is capital itself that is subject. Consequently, any attempt to analyze economic and technological structures of control in capitalism that insist on identifying individuals who are “in charge” risk bordering on the paranoid and conspiratorial. It leads to efforts to change only who is in charge rather than the very structures that incentivize the modes of exploitation and control that are at play.

What Postone saw at work in the fear that finance was undermining “natural” production is analogous to fears today that the “natural” production of the working class is threatened by the abstract and sinister desires of those who control the changing technological and media landscape. The attempt to side with “ordinary people” in an “anti-PMC class struggle from the left” risks similarly fetishizing the concrete side of both capital and cultural production. This is precisely what the Ehrenreichs warned against in the 1977: “Guilty self-effacement on the part of the PMC radicals and/or simplistic glorification of the working class simply perpetuate the class roles forged in capitalist society.” What we are left with is ultimately a desire for a conservative revolution that would maintain the same structures of production but somehow eviscerate their abstract dimension in the form of those who, on a cultural level, pull its strings.

The systems of technology and bureaucratic management that produced the PMC are precisely the ones that make so many feel like they do not have control over their life. And so the right responds not with plans to dismantle the system but rather to find enemies — often foreigners, people of other races or Jews — and encourage conspiratorial modes of analysis that are further incentivized and reinforced with digital technologies. These attacks ignore the systems of technology and capital that articulate the class divisions and the means of often racialized exclusion, exploitation, and social control in contemporary American society.

What is paramount in moving forward is not a critique of the “cultural values” of this or that class but rather an understanding of the structures through which the members of the class move and how their interests are shaped. If the PMC is to build cross-class solidarity, it will require deep and historical analyses of how we got here and where we can go. Whether or not the PMC even exists as a class, let alone has a coherent plan for controlling anything, may serve only as a distraction. Both the PMC and the working class, as well as individuals inside these supposed classes, have shared and conflicting interests, especially as neither owns nor completely controls capital. Solidarity between individuals situated at these conflicting points of departure is possible, but it requires enveloping analyses that bring to the fore the complex structures and technologies that control and manage global capital — from the forces that are casualizing broad swaths of work to the computer networks that prop up just-in-time production and high-frequency trading to the growth of the prison-industrial complex and to the systems of surveillance that operate to support it. These issues are the real problem.

Justin Joque is the visualization librarian at the University of Michigan. He completed his PhD in Communications and Media Studies at the European Graduate School and holds a Masters in Science of Information from the University of Michigan. He is the author of Deconstruction Machines: Writing in the Age of Cyberwar and a forthcoming book on statistics, machine learning and capitalism.