Is there a ‘middle class’ or ‘Professional-Managerial Class’?

By ANI WHITE

This article was written for Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on class. Subscribe to the magazine or e-publication here.

A podcast discussion based on this article can be heard at Where’s My Jetpack.

In common vernacular, the concept of a ‘middle class’ has currency. 70% of Americans think of themselves as ‘middle-class.’1 It may seem bluntly obvious to many that there is a middle class. But what is the middle class?

Classical Marxists have tended to define the working-class as those who draw their income from work rather than capital, which would include most who self-identify as ‘middle class.’ Conversely, sociologists have tended to divide society into multiple classes by income, status, and other indicators. Recently, the concept of a ‘Professional-Managerial Class’, or PMC, has gained currency on the left.

So, is there a middle class? Is this the same thing as the ‘petite bourgeoisie’, or the ‘Professional-Managerial Class’? What might the answers to these questions mean for those of us who aim to take on capitalism?

Professional-Managerial Class

We will start with the concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, currently popular in ‘democratic socialist’ circles around Bernie Sanders. This concept was originally coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, founding theorists of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), partly to address a descriptive limitation in classical Marxism.

Although the Ehrenreichs do identify a historical dynamic needing further investigation, one central problem with the PMC category is the equation of professional and managerial. Professional simply means ‘high-skilled’, admittedly by a definition that devalues the skills of other workers. This may include a nurse, a tutor, or an IT worker, and any of these may be employed under poor conditions. Managerial simply means managing workers: it includes those who manage the nurses, tutors and IT workers categorised as ‘professional.’

In a classical Marxist conception, capitalist society ultimately polarises into two classes: workers who sell their labour, and capitalists who exploit it. Although there is a ‘petite bourgeoisie’, comprising mainly small business owners but also other middle strata, classical Marxists have tended to argue they will dissolve into one of the two major camps, often because economic insecurity would lead to proletarianisation. The Ehrenreichs argued a new class had emerged over the 20th century: the Professional-Managerial Class, defined as salaried, educated workers who do not control the means of production but are relatively privileged, and employed to reproduce capitalist social relations.2

Managers are generally expected to enforce the company line, so even if they don’t own capital, they may perceive contradictory interests with subordinate workers. Furthermore, managers may also wear a blue collar. So, you can be a professional without being managerial, or managerial without being a professional. Who does the average IT worker manage? Is the average IT worker in the same position as their office manager? The assumption that anyone wearing a white collar plays a managerial role does not stand up to scrutiny, but the PMC category does not make the distinction.

The PMC was the target of the recent book Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional-Managerial Class by Catherine Liu, which is an influential in circles such as popular socialist magazine Jacobin.3 An excoriating critique of Liu’s shallow historical account and populist politics can be found on Libcom’s article “The PMC and the Tucker Carlson Left”,4 but I want to zero in on the author’s facile culturalist assumptions about class. These are asserted in the introduction:

The much-maligned Hillary Clinton was honest in her contempt for ordinary people when, in 2016, she dismissed Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Their 2016 defiance of PMC and liberal nostra has only hardened into reactionary antiauthoritarianism, which another reactionary demagogue will seek to exploit. PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families, and deplorable child-rearing habits.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

The equations here are revealing – Trump supporters equal blue collar working-class, liberals equal white-collar managers. What data does the author marshal to back up this argument? Nada. We in Fightback have argued before, on the basis of exit polls and other data, that Trump’s support is primarily among the petite bourgeoisie and wealthier sections of the working-class5 – putting it simply, those earning over 50k tended to vote Trump, those earning under 50k tended to vote Democrat.6 In keeping with the hoary cliches of the Conservative Left,7 Liu goes on to attack the PMC for their ‘culture wars’:

When the tide turned against American workers, the PMC preferred to fight culture wars against the classes below while currying the favor of capitalists it once despised.

Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

If anything is an insult to low-paid workers, it’s the assumption that they are on the conservative side of the culture wars, in other words opposing rights for various social minorities. Once again, the author marshals precisely no hard evidence for this, only her own assumptions. In fact, a majority of Americans support progressive measures such as marriage equality.8

Liu contends that the shift towards capitalist-led ‘culture wars’ occurred after 1968. If there is a kernel of truth to the critique, it’s that capital has appropriated progressive symbols for its own benefit. However, this is in large part a concession to social movements, and would not work as branding if progressive social change did not have popular support. Discrediting Black Lives Matter because corporations post the slogan on Twitter is like discrediting Che Guevara for appearing on T-shirts. It’s admittedly true that at the height of neoliberalism, neoliberals were able to win over swathes of leftish-liberal middle class support, however this apparent consensus has been in crisis since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Liu comes to the point when she associates Elizabeth Warren’s campaign with ‘PMCs’, and Bernie Sanders’ campaign with resistance to their dominance. However, this perceived gulf between Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s politics reveals a limited political imagination. For all his rhetoric, Bernie Sanders equates ‘socialism’ with the police and army,9 as mayor of Burlington supported the arrest of anti-war protestors,10 and has repeatedly backed the centrist candidates openly loathed by his vocal left flank.11

Accusations against PMC Democrats can be diagnosed in many cases as projection. This echoes the old-fashioned sectarian Marxist deployment of ‘petite bourgeois’ as pejorative for anyone the sectarian disagrees with, by such a broad definition that it usually encompassed the people making the accusation. Catherine Liu herself is an academic, undoubtably a position that would be attacked as PMC if she supported Warren. The term PMC itself is hardly used beyond prolific Twitter users, who constitute around 2% of the US population and tend to be higher income than average (in a statistic worthy of Occupy Wall Street, 10% of Twitter users create 80% of the tweets).12

Liu admits to her membership in the PMC herself, and casts herself as a traitor to her class. However, without anything in the way of an empirical analysis of economic class, or an admission that the PMC in general are politically divided, casting herself as a noble exception is precisely the kind of individualistic moral positioning that she denounces, albeit with a more militant rhetoric in line with the times. In general, Liu’s insistence on her anti-liberalism is protesting too much, as she’s ultimately backing a Democratic electoralist strategy with no perspective for building working-class self-organisation.

The reality is that the various middle strata of class society are divided by liberal, conservative and even radical politics (especially during periods of upheaval). It’s not even necessarily true that left liberalism is predominant in the middle class as Liu and many others contend: upper-income workers and the petite bourgeoisie tend to support right-wing populism. Likely as a Humanities academic, Liu has encountered many leftish liberals without a serious critique of capitalism, but this is just one slice of the various professions identified as PMCs. Liu’s ‘class analysis’ essentially replicates the arguments of mainstream right-wing populism, repeating Murdoch talking points such as casting anti-sexual violence campaigns as irrational panics, rather than conducting an independent empirical investigation of class composition.

Although Liu’s book does outline the basic political economy of the global financial crisis, it does nothing to define economic class, ironic for an author who insists on the ‘antimaterialist’ nature of her political opponents. Liu justifies this theoretical looseness with a rhetorical gesture that her approach is polemical rather than ‘objective’, as if that lets her off the hook of actually analysing class society.

What is class composition today?

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with socialist, or communist approaches to class that an analysis of its economic character is the necessary starting-point. As previously outlined, classical Marxists tend to define class in terms of relation to production. More popular definitions tend to focus on income, or consumption habits. So how do we conceive class composition today?

Taking Sydney as their case study, Political Scientists Lisa Adkins et al argue that contemporary class should be conceived in terms of financial assets – particularly housing – rather than income.13 This argument draws on the influential work of Thomas Piketty, who emphasises the accumulation of wealth over income.14 The Anglosphere has very inflated housing markets – Aotearoa New Zealand has the second fastest growing house prices in the world15 – against a backdrop of steep inequality.

Marxists also define class based on property rather than income, but whereas classical Marxists emphasise the property of employers, Piketty’s followers emphasise assets such as housing. In studying the financialisation of everyday life in Australia, political economists Dick Bryan and Mike Rafferty conceive of class as having both industrial and financial dimensions. They note that industrial and financialised views of capitalism can be complementary:

The industrial, workplace-centred view and the financialised view are compatible in many ways. People work for wages or income and produce a surplus and also live in households and absorb risk. In this dimension the financialised view is just adding a new emphasis.

Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

This new emphasis on financial assets is partly due to a shift within the composition of capital. Financial capital has come to predominate over industrial capital.17 Related to this financialisation, it seems hard to deny that the inflation of housing assets in recent decades has created a ‘middle class’ relying on assets rather than wages (Daphne Lawless’ article in this issue goes into the implications of this for recent clashes over housing in Aotearoa New Zealand).

Sociologists also distinguish between economic capital and cultural capital.18 Cultural capital refers to accumulated signs of status: say being fluent in formal English, owning a Lexus, or grinding your own coffee. This notion of cultural capital undoubtably underlines the attack on ‘PMCs’ hoarding cultural signifiers of virtue, whether or not adherents of the theory admit to this concession to culturalism. Yet in identifying cultural capital with class position, they imply an automatic relationship which doesn’t necessarily exist. Academics, for example, are sharply divided on many political questions. In general middle, or mediating strata are divided over cultural, political and economic questions.

So, returning to the initial question, is there a middle class? Perhaps, to a point, we can accept the common sociological argument that there are many middle classes, or middle strata. There are small-business owners, managers in various industries, white-collar salary workers, self-employed contractors, union officials, those retired but owning housing assets – these are all different positions that could fit into the ‘middle-class’ box, but may have clashing interests and politics (e.g., whereas small-business owners have an interest in reducing tax, public sector workers have an interest in redistributive policies). The most you can say in general is that they do not straightforwardly fit into the binary of industrial worker and capitalist, but rather play various mediating roles.

Decline of ‘middle class’

Although many popular talking points about class are misleading, the widespread talking point of the ‘decline of the middle class’ has more truth to it. Young adults across the Anglosphere are less likely to own homes than their parents,19 face a more insecure labour market,20 and are more saddled with debt.21 In short, even many from relatively privileged backgrounds are downwardly mobile.

In their work “Death of the Yuppie Dream”, Barbara and John Ehrenreich place this ‘decline of the middle class’ in the context of a capitalist offensive beginning in the 1970s. Ehrenreich notes that alongside the gutting of working-class power that even undermined the position of many PMCs, there was also a cultural offensive against the ‘liberal professions’ such as academia (the inverse of Liu’s argument in Virtue Hoarders that PMCs were waging a cultural offensive against workers on behalf of capital). Following outsourcing of industrial labour, information technology increasingly facilitated outsourcing and automation of white-collar labour. Conditions in tertiary education were undermined. All of this was exacerbated, of course, by the global financial crisis. The Ehrenreichs argues this undermining of the PMC may be a basis for radicalisation22:

In the coming years, we expect to see the remnants of the PMC increasingly making common cause with the remnants of the traditional working class for, at a minimum, representation in the political process. This is the project that the Occupy movement initiated and spread, for a time anyway, worldwide.

Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

Yet in Virtue Hoarders, despite drawing on the Ehrenreichs’ concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, Liu is dismissive of their thesis regarding the decomposition and radicalisation of the PMC, largely justifying this dismissal on the basis of Occupy Wall Street’s failure. However, for all the limitations of Sanders’ and Corbyn’s politics, downward mobility is central to the revival of socialism among young people that has made these previously obscure backbenchers household names. Liu’s positioning of herself as an honourable exception to the PMC rule precludes an analysis of this shift in class composition and subjectivity.

Conclusion: Political transformation over moralism

In Marxist Georg Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness, Lukács disputes the notion that revolution would be ‘purely proletarian.’ By necessity, any mass social transformation must draw in various sectors, including middle strata. Moreover, this will not happen automatically, rather it requires the organisation of middle strata in the meantime:

Ay revolution will not be a purely proletarian affair; it will not be solely and clearly be a conflict between Capitalism and the Working Class. A revolution is a swirling grey affair, populated with clashing strata from all across the framework of society… At that point when the heat is on, we can’t be spending our time educating our newfound allies, we need to have done the work beforehand, it is too late to be trying to collect our hand when the hand needs to be played.

Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

The aim of a principled socialist critique of class society is not to moralise, but to transform. Sectarians attacking comrades on the basis that they are ‘petite bourgeois’, or the contemporary variant of PMCs trolling other PMCs on Twitter, are forms of point-scoring that do nothing to advance the cause of social transformation. Clearly there are middle strata in class society, with a greater degree of relative privilege than the most oppressed sections of the working-class. However, many can be organised, on the basis of a common programme encompassing the interests of all oppressed and exploited people. Past revolutions and social movements show that a section of the middle strata will join the right side of history, and the question must always be posed: which side are you on?

1 Martin, Emmie. “70% of Americans consider themselves middle-class – but only 50% are.’ CNBC, Jun 30 (tinyurl.com/cnbc-middle).

2 Ehrenreich, John and Barbara.” The Professional-Managerial Class”, in In Between Labor and Monopoly Capital (Pat Walker ed). South End Press. 1979

3 Liu, Catherine. Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional-Managerial Class. University of Minnesota Press. 2020

4 Comrade Motopu. “The PMC meets the Tucker Carlson Left”, Libcom, 21 Feb 2021 (tinyurl.com/libcom-pmc).

5 White, Ani. “What is the base of right-wing populism”, Fightback, 17 Mar 2021 (tinyurl.com/populism-base).

6 Zhang, Christine; Burn-Murdoch, John. “By numbers: how the US voted in 2020”, Financial Times, 8 Nov 2020 (tinyurl.com/trump-2020-base).

7 Lawless, Daphne. “Against “conservative leftism”: why reactionary responses to neoliberalism fail”, Fightback, 16 Feb 2016 (tinyurl.com/conservative-leftism).

8 PRRI Staff. “Dueling Realities: Amid Multiple Crises, Trump and Biden Supporters See Different Priorities and Futures for the Nation”, PRRI, 19 Oct 2020 (tinyurl.com/majority-marriage).

9 Healey, Patrick. “Preparing to Define Democratic Socialism, Bernie Sanders Points to Public Libraries and the Police”, The New York Times, 19 Oct 2015 (tinyurl.com/police-socialist).

10 Seelye, Katharine Q. “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist”, 25 Nov 2015, The New York Times (tinyurl.com/bernie-protestors).

11 Sullivan, Eric; Sullivan, Kate. “Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden for president”, CNN, 14 April 2020 (tinyurl.com/bernie-biden).

12 Wojcik, Stefan; Hughes, Adam. “Sizing Up Twitter Users”, Pew Research Center, 24 Apr 2019 (tinyurl.com/very-online).

13 Adkins, Lisa; Cooper, Melinda; Konings, Martijn. “Class in the 21st century: Asset inflation and the new logic of inequality.” EPA: Economy and Space0(0), pp. 1–25, 2019. Sage Publications.

14 Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press. 2014.

15 Bell, Miriam. “NZ number two in international house price growth ranks.” Stuff, 4 Jun 2021 (tinyurl.com/nz-no2).

16 Bryan, Dick; Rafferty, Mike. Risking together: How finance is dominating everyday life in Australia. Sydney University Press. 2018.

17 Peet, Richard. “Contradictions of Finance Capitalism.” Monthly Review, 1 Dec 2011 (tinyurl.com/mr-finance).

18 Bourdieu; ibid.

19 Nova, Annie. “Here’s why millions of millennials are not homeowners”, CNBC, 30 Aug 2019 (tinyurl.com/millenials-usa); Stats NZ. “Homeownership rate lowest in almost 70 years”, Stats NZ, 8 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/millennials-nz); Savage, Michael. “Millennial housing crisis engulfs Britain”, The Guardian, 28 Apr 2018 (tinyurl.com/millenials-uk); Chau, David. “House ownership is out of reach for ‘disenfranchised’ millennials, says CoreLogic property analysts”, ABC News, 28 Sep 2019 (tinyurl.com/millennials-aus).

20 Martinchek, Kassandra. “Young Millennials and Gen Zers Face Employment Insecurity and Hardship during the Pandemic”, Urban Institute. 18 Dec 2020 (tinyurl.com/yz-insecurity).

21 DeMatteo, Megan. “How Much Debt Do Millennials Have?”, CNBC, 19 Mar (tinyurl.com/millennial-debt).

22 Ehrenreich, Barbara & John. “Death of a Yuppie Dream”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Feb 2013 (tinyurl.com/pmc-decline).

23 Lukács, Georg. ‘Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation’ in History and Class Consciousness. Merlin Press. 1967

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