Of the many think pieces written during the recent presidential cycle, few have aged as poorly as Gabriel Winant’s 2019 essay “Professional-Managerial Chasm,” published in the literary magazine n+1. Written when the top contenders for the Democratic nomination were Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the essay attempted to mediate between the supporters of the two candidates by reassessing the political potential of the professional-managerial class, the educated, middle-to-upper-income white-collar workers who play an increasingly central role in Democratic politics. At the time, Sanders supporters were dismissing Warren as the candidate of the professional-managerial class rather than of the working-class constituency that Sanders claimed to stand for. Winant’s response was that whichever candidate prevailed, the future of left-wing politics lay in an alliance between the professional-managerial class and the working class.
Since Winant’s essay appeared, nearly all of its suppositions have collapsed. First of all, the two candidates that Winant assumed to be the rivals for the nomination underperformed and dropped out. Warren did not win a single state primary, and in 2020, Sanders proved a less appealing candidate to working-class voters than he had in 2016. Later, in the general election, Democrats consolidated their gains among the suburban upper-middle class, which had delivered them their midterm victories in 2018, but continued to bleed blue-collar votes, including among nonwhite constituencies. Far from heralding the alliance predicted by Winant and others, 2020 pointed to a growing divergence between middle-class professionals and the broad working class.
Catherine Liu’s polemical new book, Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class, argues that the professional-managerial class-working class alliance was doomed from the start for the simple reason that the two classes’ interests are fundamentally opposed. As Liu states in the first sentence of the book: “For as long as most of us can remember, the professional-managerial class has been fighting a class war, not against capitalists or capitalism, but against the working classes.” Whereas Winant claimed that the declining economic prospects of the highly educated have created the conditions for solidarity with the toiling masses, Liu views this as a mirage. Although the professional-managerial class has been losing ground to the 1% in financial terms, it has also been hoarding another commodity, virtue, and using it to wage all-out war against its social inferiors.
Virtue Hoarders is the latest entry in a decadeslong debate. John and Barbara Ehrenreich first proposed the term “professional-managerial class” in the late 1970s to designate a new social class that had emerged in advanced capitalist societies. The class’s role was to oversee, in their words, “the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.” As Liu explains, “the Ehrenreichs’ PMC comprises deracinated, credentialed professionals, such as culture industry creatives, journalists, software engineers, scientists, professors, doctors, bankers, and lawyers, who play important managerial roles in large organizations.” For the Ehrenreichs, “professional-managerial class” was a neutral descriptor, neither celebratory nor condemnatory. This is not the case for Liu, whose polemic, in effect, seeks to vindicate the use of the term as a slur by Sanders fans on Twitter.
The book’s main contribution to our understanding of class politics is Liu’s account of “virtue hoarding” as the primary mode of the class’s rule. As she explains, “Whenever it addresses a political and economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays.” The politics of virtue-hoarding is anti-universalist: Rather than pursue shared public goods, its function is to fortify the class’s dominant position by morally distinguishing it from the underclass.
The pandemic has served up various examples of virtue-hoarding. To stop the spread of COVID-19, professional-managerial class liberals have vigorously promoted the individual actions, such as wearing masks and staying at home, that happen to be most convenient for white-collar workers, most of whom have jobs that allow them to work remotely. Instead of targeting the bipartisan governance failures that allowed the crisis to escalate, they have vilified ordinary people for failing to live up to their hastily improvised but absolutist moral standards.
For Liu, the deeper problem with the professional-managerial class is that even as it trumpets its own superficial moral superiority through virtue-signaling, it has largely abandoned the actual virtues it once possessed: “The values of professionalism, with its disinterested call for accountability and respect of truths arrived at by a community of researchers.” Embracing a countercultural outlook in the 1960s, the professional-managerial class adopted a “transgressive antiprofessionalism” that Liu sees at work in tendentious scholarship and journalism that discards basic standards of truth for political ends. Like conservative social critics before her, she also lambastes the class’s hypocritical dismissal of bourgeois social norms even as it “embraces monogamy and family values” in practice.
Harper Lee’s beloved novel To Kill a Mockingbird figures in Liu’s book as the foundational myth of contemporary professional-managerial class liberalism. It has taught generations of young readers to revere a genteel lawyer, Atticus Finch, as a unique repository of decency, while viewing the “undeserving poor,” as embodied in the Ewell family, as the source of all social ills, including racism and sexual violence. Finch’s noble defense of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape, has inspired an attitude of “melodrama and sentimentality when dealing with inequality, imagining powerless people as innocent victims who it alone is uniquely able to ‘help.’” The suffering of the less privileged serves as a pretext for moral vanity — another opportunity to hoard virtue.
Liu makes clear that she is a member of the professional-managerial class and writing for a readership of that class. She describes the book as a “guide to identifying PMC values in ourselves, the better to liquidate them.” As long as members of this class are “unable and unwilling to face their identity as a class,” she explains, they will be trapped in a “false consciousness” that mystifies the structure of the society they inhabit and their baleful influence upon it. As this language implies, Liu is a Marxist, and as she explains, “The endgame in my critique is a return to socialist politics and socialist policies.” This differentiates her from a centrist writer such as Michael Lind, whose 2019 book The New Class War offered similar analyses but proposed a more centrist path to “class peace.”
The practical implications of Liu’s bracing argument are ambiguous. Winant’s proposal for an alliance between the professional-managerial class and the working class articulated the tacit premise of the revived Left politics that emerged from Occupy Wall Street and took off during Sanders’s first presidential run. Despite this revival, the socialist Left remains largely confined to academia, media, and the nongovernmental organization sector, areas of the economy dominated by elite university graduates. This is also true of the subset of the Left that would accept Liu’s critique. For its part, the broad working class is politically fragmented but mostly unsympathetic to socialism, in name if not always in policy. For now, there is no mass army to enlist in the anti-professional-managerial class war for socialism Liu wishes to fight, and recent political developments have not altered that fact.
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