American ‘Blue Labour’?
Mike Macnair reviews 'Virtue hoarders: the case against the professional managerial class' by Catherine Liu
Catherine Liu’s short book does what it says on the tin. It is a quick, fun read, polemicising against views which are currently dominant in the US academic left and mainstream media, and characterising these views as expressing the interests of the ‘professional managerial class’ - or ‘PMC’ - as opposed to those of the working class.
Liu labels the PMC as self-identifying as virtuous - in particular as practising civility of discourse and anti-discrimination, as opposed to the (supposed) racist, sexist, etc backwardness and incivility of the working class. But these PMC claims deny the significance of economic inequality - because members of the PMC are themselves beneficiaries of the regime of economic inequality.
The book starts with an introduction to the PMC concept and its relation to the increased salience of class in American political argument - in fact, more strongly from the right than from the left. There are then four substantive chapters, loosely tied together by this theme. The first, ‘“Transgressing” the boundaries of professionalism’, is in substance a polemic against post-structuralism/post-modernism, starting with Alan Sokal’s hoax article accepted by Social Text and moving to Occupy, the campaign to blacklist Angela Nagle after the publication of her book Kill all Normies, and the ‘1619 project’, to reach the conclusion that “members of the PMC believe themselves to be virtuous vanguardists …” (p33).
‘The PMC has children’, is about competitive middle class parenting and its relation to the ‘Moynihan thesis’ (from the 1965 ‘Moynihan report’) that poverty is due to weak family culture. ‘The PMC reads a book’, is about the canonisation of Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird and its connection to compulsory school curriculum arrangements and the attack on teachers. ‘The PMC has sex’, attacks both the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s-70s, and the new moral panic about sexual assaults on campus - and Laura Kipnis’s critique of this panic; Liu concludes the chapter with the point that the original #MeToo case of Harvey Weinstein is, in fact, more symptomatic of ‘normal sex abuse’ than campuses, because it was the radical inequality of the economic relations which enabled Weinstein to enforce his will.
The final chapter calls for breaking with the “ideological distortion of leftist politics by PMC values” (p75). And this:
Conservative and progressive PMC elites and the institutions they control are actively hostile to worker power and socialism as such. Therefore solidarity and organisation are more critical than ever to long-term political struggle. Affect-driven protests, raucous crowds and violent rioting may provide the political openings for social change, but political transformation at the scale we need demands discipline of the kind the academic left is used to condemning.
So far, so good. These are, in principle, strong points. The problems are, however, two interrelated issues.
The first is that what Liu offers as an implicit alternative to ‘PMC values’ is a politics of nostalgia - back to the social democratic (or in US terms ‘new deal’) consensus of the 1950s-60s. The second is that the class explanation of what Liu characterises as “PMC values” is an overtheorisation of what is, in reality, current ideological fashion - which, though widespread among the intelligentsia (as all current ideological fashions tend to be), is also found among sections of the working class; and conversely can easily be displaced by a fashion for nationalist-traditionalism.
The first point is the simpler of the two. Liu frames her argument, as we have just seen, in terms of the existence of a possible alternative politics of working class solidarity. But the spin of this argument is towards the ‘socially conservative national egalitarianism’ which has in this country been tagged as ‘Blue Labour’ (or, indeed, ‘Red Tory’).1 We can see this at a series of points. Liu appeals to “professional standards” (pp2-3, 17-18, 76) and claims that it was after 1968 that the PMC shifted from the side of the working class to that of capital.
She relies (p11) on Christopher Lasch’s Culture of narcissism (1979), which was, whatever its original intentions, actually one of the foundation-texts of rightist and centrist ‘culture wars’ and the attack on teachers in the name of ‘family values’ and ‘standards’, which she rightly attacks at pp46-50. The other side of this Lasch-coin is that she regards the 60s-70s ‘sexual revolution’ as ‘Sadeian’ (in the legacy of the Marquis de Sade) (pp57-59) and as “aristocratic libertine thought” (p68).
She tells us (p19) that the post-war “liberal consensus was based on state and corporate support for lifetime employment, labour power2 and strong social services and redistributive economic policies”. And at the end of the book: “While a mixed economy may be the short-term reality that we dare hope for, let’s strengthen the hand of the socialist aspects of that hybrid system” (p77).
Catherine Liu was born in 1964, and was an undergraduate student at Yale in 1981-85; which means that her personal experience of the “post-war liberal consensus” was that of a small child in its dying days - right at the end of the US civil rights movement and the high period of the anti-Vietnam war mobilisation. She could have researched the background to the ‘consensus’ and to the 1970s turn away from it, but has chosen instead to treat it as an image of the ‘possible’.
It is entirely reasonable from the standpoint of today’s world of endemic unemployment and precarity to have some degree of nostalgia for the years of the long post-war boom and ‘consensus’; just as it is now reasonable for people to have some degree of ‘Ostalgie’ in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik - or nostalgia for the Brezhnev era in Russia after “shock therapy” wrecked the economy.
But it is essential to understand what the ‘libertarian left’ of the 1960s-70s - who came up with the ideas which have more recently been appropriated by ‘neoliberal intersectionalism’ - were fighting against. And this was not the managers, social workers and so on as an ally of the working class, but the managers, social workers and so on as the disciplinary authority standing immediately over the working class. In the academy, it was the ideologies of Weberianism, ‘structural functionalism’ and so on, and the claims for a value-free scientific professionalism which could support unethical experiments on prisoners, etc. And on the other side of the cold war - just referred to - it was Stalinism. The libertarian ‘new left’ was seeking to create a leftism which would not be a Stalinism (without falling into Trotskyism …). What they constructed was mistaken, and could be appropriated by capital for its own ends - just as the bureaucratic planning regime they fought against had been originally early-20th-century socialist, but appropriated by capital for its own ends.
Secondly, it is important not to overstate the degree to which the social policy of the 1950s-60s was consensus; and it is important to recognise its economic and geopolitical context. The extent to which the Conservative Party in Britain manoeuvred through the period to obtain ‘less eligibility’ for public housing, and to reinstate the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, without being seen to oppose the welfare state, has been recently studied.3 That there was similar and more overt opposition in principle to trade union power, progressive taxation and welfarism in the US was notorious at the time and figured throughout the period (alongside Stalinism in the east) as an argument for Brits and Europeans not to demand too much: “always keep a hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse”.
The economic context was the massive capital losses in 1939-48 (and the radical reduction of the claims of British capital, under the imperial regime destroyed by the USA’s insistence on the UK giving up power). Like a major crash, this destruction of capital set free the conditions for a sharp rise in profitability and a global ‘long boom’. The rather limited solidarity between classes in the ‘advanced countries’ in this period was paid for by this boom. The geopolitical context was the massive extension of Stalinist regimes, and imitative left-nationalist regimes, and the existence of mass communist parties in a good many ‘western’ countries.
It was also the period of ‘decolonisation’ - but of the failure of this to deliver an end to practical subordination, and the recognition of ‘neocolonialism’; and of the Korean and Vietnam wars and a series of other interventions by the US and its British attack-dog. The very substantial concessions to the working class were made in order to secure loyalty to the state.
How helpful is it for Liu to characterise the ideas against which she polemicises as “PMC values”, expressing the interests and life-world of the PMC as a class? The answer is actually that, overall, it is misleading. Assuming for the moment that the PMC is rightly characterised as a ‘class’, you would expect that ideologies which express its class interest would be longue durée phenomena, going as far back as the existence of the professions into the late Middle Ages, and of managerial structures to early corporations (East India Company, and so on).
The idea of ‘meritocracy’ does have such long antecedents. Thus, for example, the figure of the ‘lost heir’, whose aristocratic blood shows through, allowing him to reclaim his inheritance even after years in ignoble obscurity, was already a standard plot in the 13th century, and was still there in the 19th. The ideas of capitalists as ‘wealth creators’, and the virtues of the free market as tending to advantageous equilibrium outcomes are already at the core of Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of the bees (1714) and very unambiguously still with us.
From this point of view only one of Liu’s chapters potentially qualifies as expressing the life-world of the PMC: ‘“Transgressing” the boundaries of professionalism’ is both a novelty and actually still a minority pursuit in the academy. ‘The PMC reads a book’ is half about a particular ideological product (To kill a mockingbird) and half about the capitalist class and state’s efforts to ‘Gradgrindise’ education.4 ‘The PMC has sex’ pastes together the short-lived libertinism of the late 60s with the current moral panic about sexual assault among undergraduates.
The one chapter which does address a permanent feature of the life-world is ‘The PMC has children’. The obsessive pursuit of attempting to ensure that your children do not end up lower-status than you is, indeed, a common feature of the life-world of the middle classes. The pressure was merely temporarily reduced in the post-war long boom period (and into the 1970s) - but not that much, in truth; the ‘generation gap’ already expressed the resistance of (some) youth to their parents’ endeavours to make sure they conformed and got ‘good jobs’. But the problem is that it is not specific to the PMC. The concern is shared by all variants of the middle classes, small businesspeople as well as professionals and managers - and by the upper layers of the working class (skilled and some semi-skilled workers). It is this feature of being a concern shared by a large part of the working class which has allowed the capitalist class to pull off the ‘education reform’ con-trick.
Then the question is posed: is the PMC itself really a class, in the sense in which this term is used in Marxist theory? The original 1977 articles by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, which coined the phrase, defined the PMC - empirically identified as “cultural workers, managers, engineers and scientists, etc” - as “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labour may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations”. This was already an amalgam, linking plain productive skilled workers (engineers and many scientists, nurses) with the ‘core case’ of managers, and with ‘cultural workers’ – who usually were, in the 1960s-70s as much as now, effectively self-employed/small-business operators. The state and state operations in the early 20th century were subsumed into this amalgam, so that the state as such disappeared.
As became clear in the Ehrenreichs’ second article, the purpose of the amalgam was to smear the student-based ‘new left’ of the 1960s-70s, and in particular the ‘vanguardist’, ‘Leninist’ groups, as expressing interests of the PMC-amalgam opposed to those of the working class.5 This, then, logically implied subordination of the student radicals to the ‘authentic representatives of the working class’ - the trade union bureaucracy. This logic was ‘cashed out’ when the New American Movement, of which the Ehrenreichs were part, fused in 1983 with the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee, led by Michael Harrington, to form the Democratic Socialists of America as a pressure-group within the Democratic Party.
The American ‘new left’ and its equivalents elsewhere, meanwhile, took the “long march through the [academic] institutions” (the echo of Maoism is intentional) and emerged at the end of it as senior academics who had lost their socialist commitments, but retained from their Maoist, etc youth commitments to versions of anti-racism and anti-sexism in forms built round popular-frontism, labour aristocracy theory, ‘surround the cities’ and ‘speaking bitterness’ (primacy of personal experience) commitments. This political trend could then ‘ride on’ the turn of the US state, starting with its military after Vietnam, to a politics of anti-discrimination.
The paradox is that ‘PMC theory’ remains within the framework of the most disabling aspect of the ‘new left’, and in particular the Maoists: that is, the tendency to reduce all political differences to class conflicts. It is most disabling, because for the working class as a class to use any organisation as a vehicle of self-expression, the class needs the freedom to organise within the organisation and if necessary against the leadership. It also needs local self-government and the local and sectoral right to publish, without this immediately leading to suppression or split. These rights, and open debates within common organisations, are also essential means by which the class educates itself to lead the society. Explaining all political difference as immediate class conflict is inconsistent with this need.
The ‘case against the PMC’ provides a good argument against the political ideology of the survivors of the ‘new left’ - but, as posed in class terms, would actually work to undermine the working class self-movement it seeks.
bluelabour.org; P Blond Red Tory London 2010.↩︎
This means strong trade unions, not “labour power” in the Marxist sense.↩︎
For example. see parts of T Bale The Conservatives since 1945: the drivers of party change Oxford 2012; and RM Page Clear blue water? The Conservative Party and the welfare state since 1940 Bristol 2015.↩︎
For the English version of this campaign (among other things), see weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1153/what-kind-of-education.↩︎
‘The professional-managerial class’ Radical America Vol 11, No 2 (1977) pp13-14, and ‘The new left: a case study in professional-managerial class radicalism’, Vol 11, No3 (1977), pp9-22.↩︎