Asad Haider investigates the idea of the "Professional-Managerial Class", and the idea that "identity politics" is an expression of this group's class interests. This article was originally published on Haider's blog.
One of the most self-defeating forms of identity thinking on the contemporary left is the one that revolves around the idea of the “professional-managerial class” — even though it’s usually connected to a vehement attack on “identity politics.”
These professionals and managers, usually referred to as “PMC,” have been defined as the salaried mental workers whose jobs are essentially the reproduction of capitalism, and thus have distinct economic interests antagonistic to the working class, and constitute an obstacle to socialism.
You can be confident that the adherents of the anti-PMC discourse will respond to this essay by unmasking me as a member of the PMC, denouncing my class position, and declaring that everything I say is a rationalization of PMC class interests. Of course, most of the people saying this will also be members of the PMC. The anti-PMC discourse appears to have been pioneered by podcasters and professors. This is the contradiction that ultimately always surfaces when arguments proceed on identitarian grounds. Sadly, in the end none of us are really authentic. The guilt of it just means we have to denounce the inauthenticity of others even harder.
I will not defend the PMC. Some responses to the anti-PMC discourse consist of speculating that since the PMC is increasingly “downwardly mobile,” or “proletarianized,” its interests may converge with the working class. This theory is appealing to those who are members of the PMC, since these processes are indeed very real. But I find this pro-PMC response unconvincing. I find it unconvincing because first of all it’s clear that the strata which compose the PMC — whether or not they constitute a class in Marxian terms, which is an unresolved problem — are indeed a minority of the population, distinct from the working-class majority, who are highly susceptible to elitist thinking and are frequently an impediment to mass working-class politics. Even bad theories have some relationship to reality. I also doubt that labor struggles by aspiring members of the PMC — even though I have personally participated in them and benefited from them — will play a central role in constituting a powerful labor movement or a socialist politics. Educated elites who want to build socialism will have to leave the tower and join the class struggle of the working-class majority, which will require them to revolutionize their thinking and learn from the people they usually ignore or condescend to.
Nevertheless, the anti-PMC discourse isn’t very good at explaining why these problems exist, because it’s adopted an identitarian model that reduces politics to accusing one’s opponents of having a bad class background. This discourse converts class into an attribute of individual identity and annuls any political discussion, which would center on the content of arguments rather than the identity of the speaker. Instead, the speakers are simply denounced as PMCs in a discourse that ultimately amounts to the injunction to “check your privilege.” This is pointless moralism which even many liberal arts school undergraduates can see through.
Membership in the PMC is supposed to both explain why people say what they do, and also discredit whatever they say. Their ideas are just a reflection of their economic interests as members of the PMC, and the goal of the PMC is reproducing class inequality. Therefore people who belong to the PMC are uninterested in or even incapable of ever taking a position in favor of working-class politics. They may not even understand that such a thing exists, and will thus only ever cluelessly try to rationalize their class interests. Needless to say, such a theory of one’s opponent’s intellectual incapacity makes the accusers feel very smart.
According to anti-PMC discourse, the PMC, despite apparently arising at the end of the 19th century, has a specific kind of politics, which is “neoliberal.” You might have thought, along with every serious scholar of neoliberalism, that neoliberalism is a historically specific phenomenon resulting from the ruling-class strategy to respond to the crises of postwar capitalism, drawing on a program of social engineering based on the theories of figures like Friedrich Hayek. Actually, says the anti-PMC discourse, neoliberalism just means you like markets and inequality, so anybody whose politics you dislike can be described that way, especially if they’re critical of racism or have ever attended a protest. You might also have thought that members of the PMC are frequently straightforwardly socially conservative, like the affluent members of the Tea Party and the vocal supporters of Donald Trump, and that neoliberalism has historically tied market ideology to right-wing populism (especially nativism and “family values”) in the manner of Thatcher and Reagan. No, says the anti-PMC discourse: neoliberalism is “woke” and PMCs are therefore also “woke.” For proof of this theory, you just have to observe that people who are “woke” are invariably also neoliberal and PMC. QED.
This yields an ahistorical and apolitical back-and-forth about the moral rectitude of the PMC, which defines “wokeness” as either neoliberal or liberatory. Despite the economic language, the dispute ultimately defines class according to cultural traits and defends one vision of working-class culture against another.
However, the problem isn’t whether the PMC is good or bad, but rather the whole framework — I’ll call it the sociological framework — which assumes that political programs and ideologies are reflections of social position. This is the conceptual reason that I find the defensive pro-PMC response unconvincing: it shares the faulty premises of the anti-PMC theory, because it accepts the whole framework which says that political programs and ideologies are the expression of social position. The many self-hating PMCs who project their hatred onto fellow PMCs demonstrate that this obviously can’t be true: that is, they have ideas which contradict their supposedly objective economic interests.
I have to note that the critique of the sociological framework also applies to theories which account for the excessively homogenizing character of the category of the PMC. I mean the theories which differentiate, for example, between lawyers and car dealership owners. Such theories are more nuanced and in certain respects are useful for mapping public opinion. They give reasons from within the sociological framework that the PMC is an unhelpful category which should be abandoned. However, they also belong to the sociological framework and have to be criticized along these lines.
The sociological framework sounds “materialist” and even “Marxist,” though this doesn’t appear to have any correlation to reference to the works of Karl Marx and the subsequent history of Marxism. In reality it’s a weak position that not only fails to explain observable phenomena (the lack of alignment of people’s ideas with their social positions), but is also incapable of confronting the political challenges that could make socialism possible and which Marxists have actually grappled with for at least 172 years.
In my view, in fact, the whole discussion of the PMC displaces and obscures two fundamentally important problems in the history of Marxism: the problem of organization and the problem of ideology. Both of these problems can be quite simply summed up in two classical formulas: people’s consciousness is determined by their social being (Marx), and the “merger” between socialism and the labor movement (Kautsky).
The first formula is obviously very powerful, because it shows that history is not driven by ideas, but by material social relations which people act within without always being conscious of them. Intellectuals have a great tendency to exaggerate the causal force of their ideas. However, taken in isolation, this formula also poses important problems. If you radically extend this argument it’s hard to determine how people can form a consciousness which is against the existing social structure, if that structure does in fact determine their consciousness.
The way classical Marxism dealt with this problem was with a progressive narrative of history, in which the contradictions of the social structure led to a kind of automatic development of the consciousness of objectively existing class interests. While this idea is extremely appealing — history is on our side — it has never worked out this way. Revolutions in the most developed capitalist countries failed, and instead of forming a transparent class consciousness, people in these societies have very contradictory ideologies which combine progressive attitudes, like an opposition to inequality, with conservative attitudes, like the belief in entrepreneurialism.
So Marx and Engels would go on to present a more complicated vision of the political processes of revolution. There are actually different class positions at play in revolutions, different forms of alliances between classes and fractions of classes, and different programs that are formed from these alliances. The socialist position has to be actually posited and constructed and won’t just result automatically from the forces of history. What’s more, the determination of social phenomena by the economic is not total. The “superstructure” which rests on the economic “base” can also be a cause of things, it has its own effectivity that is relatively autonomous. If you ignore this, you won’t be able to understand what happens in politics or formulate a successful strategy.
The second formula (the “merger”) was quite important because it explained why it was that Marxism, which was supposed to be the doctrine of the proletarian revolution, was actually originated by intellectuals. Many of the theoretical problems that the PMC discourse today elides were posed in the history of Marxism about intellectuals. The idea was that to understand and effectively oppose capitalist society you needed bourgeois science, you needed the scientific understanding of society generated by political economy and critical philosophy. Marxism was the greatest realization of the scientific potential of bourgeois thought, and had to come from the minds of intellectuals (so argued Kautsky). The labor movement itself, the everyday working-class struggles for better conditions, would not necessarily lead to an opposition to the wage system, private property, and the capitalist state, so the scientific insights of Marxism were necessary. When this scientific conception of socialism was introduced from the outside into the labor movement, which was the self-organization of the working class, that would be the basis for revolutionary change.
In practice, however, this merger posed some very important organizational problems. It frequently became the case that intellectuals became a layer of leadership that was imposed on the working class, rather than cultivating the leadership of workers themselves. So despite the historical basis for the idea that intellectuals would have to bring socialist consciousness to the working class from the outside, it ran the risk of generating an elitist model of politics. It also caused considerable conceptual confusion: as the Italian communist Rossana Rossanda pointed out, how is it that if social being determines consciousness, intellectuals can somehow manage to miraculously escape their social being and adopt a scientific consciousness?
In fact, one might argue that intellectuals, whose job is to disseminate ideology, are far more likely to adopt ideas that rationalize the existing system, while workers, who experience exploitation every day, are more likely to understand the system which exploits them. Yet the “merger” formula was right to recognize that this understanding doesn’t happen spontaneously; it has to be constructed within organizational forms that undermine the elevated position of intellectuals and facilitate the flourishing of the intellectual capacities of workers.
The leadership over the working class by intellectuals was a result of the fact that Marxism was generated by and proliferated among intellectuals. But it produced anti-democratic structures that hindered the development of working-class self-organization. It also contributed to the emergence of a bureaucratic layer in socialist and labor organizations which pursued its own interests instead of those of the rank and file. The elite politics associated with the PMC is nothing new in this regard, and it is decidedly not specific to “social justice” or “identity politics.” It corresponds to the bureaucratic layer which has constantly emerged in socialist politics. These bureaucrats spoke the language of class and socialism, not “wokeness.”
Throughout the 20th century Marxists would reflect on these questions, to understand the political problems of organization and ideology in a way which didn’t just reduce them to reflections of the economic base. In fact, organization and ideology played a causal role and were frequently the terrain in which revolutionaries had to intervene. They were also the terrain in which the ruling class would formulate strategies to preserve the stability of the system. This is what a Marxist understanding of neoliberalism would really entail: understanding how the ruling class formulated a new political strategy to manage the crises of postwar capitalism. This strategy relied on a strong state, which is one of the reasons why it’s so stupid when self-proclaimed Marxists try to argue that any position against state repression is neoliberal.
Marxist theory also had to recognize that ideology isn’t simply an illusion in which the world appears upside-down, but is actually produced by institutions, and in this sense is also “material.” (To briefly allude to a complicated theoretical problem, a dualism which says that there are ideas and matter is actually idealist; materialism posits that there’s no reality beyond matter.) Furthermore, ideology is always being shaped and contested by contingent political processes. There’s no situation in which the scales fall from proletarian eyes and suddenly the bright shining objective class interests are revealed. Rather, there are political processes, organizational processes, by which particular class interests are constituted. The common-sense populism which says that the working class will automatically develop socialist consciousness is not supported empirically, and it’s not logically sustainable. The relationship between social position and consciousness is not automatic.
For this reason, the common-sense populist perspective can’t prevent elitism. Elitism isn’t a new, 21st century problem generated by neoliberalism. It’s a basic and fundamental problem of socialist politics which requires a serious response, not the hypocritical flailings of intellectuals against each other. Simply insisting on a supposedly authentic working-class standpoint, as though this will dilute or displace the intellectuals, provides no systematic political and organizational challenge to elitism. What’s more, it prevents us from recognizing how much the political discourse is monopolized by an intellectual elite, which uses PMC discourse to falsely claim that it represents an authentic proletarian standpoint.
Both the pro- and anti-PMC positions rest on the same assumptions, which view organization and ideology mechanistically and obscure the political processes that constitute them. Even if the PMC is proletarianized, this doesn’t mean it’s any more likely to develop revolutionary ideas. But there’s also no guarantee that the working class itself will automatically develop revolutionary ideas. The underlying mechanistic assumptions of both positions are what have to be challenged. Unfortunately the entire back-and-forth about the PMC appears to be based on a tacit and universal acceptance of the sociological framework, rather than the properly political framework of Marxism which would help us to engage in the political processes that could actually work towards socialism.