professional-managerial class

The professional-managerial class is a section of the middle classes consisting of managers and educated professionals whose qualifications allow them to command more autonomy over their own work, perhaps even migrate between employment and individual practice (like doctors, lawyers, psychologists, engineers, computer programmers, scientists, financial advisors, academics, etc.).

The term was coined in 1977 by Barbara and John Ehrenreich (members of the NAM which later merged to form the Democratic Socialists of America), who used it to critique some of their fellow members of the New Left for combining their opposition to capitalism with moralistic contempt of the working class. From a Jacobin article that raised this term in the context of the environmental debate(external link):

Politics, from a professional-class perspective, is a largely cultural terrain over knowledge and a coming-to-consensus on ideas. The professional class elevates “intellectual autonomy and public service” alongside credentials and expertise above all else.

Moreover, if the university is, in the Ehrenreichs’ words, “the historical reproductive apparatus of the PMC,” it also became an epicenter of two kinds of engagement with politics. First, there was an explosion of academic technocrats and other highly educated policy experts who espoused the professional-class commitment to expertise in solving social and environmental problems. Second, the university became a bastion of a new mode of radical political theory, which centered culture over old class lines of struggle.

Jacobin describes them as valuing “intellectual autonomy” and “public service”. Politically, they are often likely to believe that if people are just better informed, they’ll make better decisions. Or if you just make your argument really well to a right-wing policymaker, they’ll be forced to concede your correctness. Jacobin argues that the portion of PMC people who have “anti-system” politics are still most likely to think the solution is small-scale alternatives and anti-consumerism, which I think tracks. Honestly, like all the Mas­to­don anarcho-vegans remind me of this – I mean just read this description:

This kind of climate activist is more likely to understand that the cause of environmental problems is systemically rooted in capitalism, but their political response is to look inward through moralistic invocations to consume less, reject industrial society, and advocate micro-alternatives at the local scale. This kind of person might find the only outlet for such radical ideas in academia, or they might eschew a profession entirely in favor of more niche knowledge systems like DIY off-the-grid living or studying “permaculture” agricultural techniques.

Most members of the PMC, of course, do not have anti-systemic politics at all. They tend to be a bastion of liberalism, and have deluded ideas like “anyone can ‘make it’ in life if they just work hard” and “I derive my entire sense of self-worth from my work, which means everyone else must, too”. These are the kinds of people who think the answer to women having lower retirement savings to men is to put all young kids in childcare for 12 hours a day so women can toil away in paid labour for just as long hours as the men, and screech in entitled rage at the suggestion that public school is not just a babysitting service that exists to free parents up for work (cf. the hysterical reaction of the media class, which is part of the PMC, when schools were shut down at points during the Covid-19 pandemic). Basically this part of the PMC clings to the idea that the solution to women’s oppression is “make them work longer and harder” rather than any more rational way of distributing wealth and workloads. And they cling to this idea because they personally have intellectually stimulating jobs that they derive all their self-esteem from, and they lack the empathy to understand that most people have shit jobs that don’t form the central pillar of their identities at all. (Or else they do understand this, but then they blame the people with those shit jobs for not “working harder” to get a “better job”, because they don’t get how economies work and don’t understand that the vast majority of necessary labour is in “shit jobs”. Or else they understand that full well, but fully consider themselves and their class to be superior human beings to everyone working in “shit jobs”, so the system is still justified because it simply enforces the “natural order”.)

The bright side is that, with much of their labour in intellectual fields, members of the PMC are often open-minded and winnable on the basis of ideas. Because much of their own self-image is about their worth as people who self-sacrifice and engage in “public service”, they are also winnable to politics that don’t benefit them directly or personally (which is usually not true for other classes). The Ehrenreichs themselves saw themselves as members of the PMC, and viewed them as valuable – and even necessary – allies to the working class.

In a 2019 interview, Barbara Ehrenreich explained that many of the jobs she originally envisioned as making someone belong to the PMC (university teaching, journalism, legal work) have seen their conditions eroded to the point that it is no longer meaningful to talk about the majority of them as a separate class from the white-collar working class. Of course a distinction can still be made between tenured professors (PMC) vs sessional tutors (working class), or high-paid columnists (PMC) vs the entry-level journos expected to churn out seven articles a day (working class), but overall far fewer university graduates actually make it into the “middle class” these days, compared to the 1960s when it was basically a sure thing. As such, she views the concept of the PMC today as less valuable than it once was. I, on the other hand, have found it an absolutely illuminating concept that has explained so much about the politics of my own social circles.

See Also / References