Sunday, October 13, 2019

Professionals and the PMC

In Professional-Managerial Chasm Gabriel Winant offers a long and very sharp explanation of the professional-managerial class (PMC) and its role in capitalist society. I myself have spent some time studying the PMC, and I agree with pretty much everything Winant has to say about it. But Winant wants to reform the PMC; but the reform of the PMC as a class is impossible. Socialists can certainly appropriate some of the attributes and ethos of the class, and we are definitely taking many of its former members, but the class itself is irredeemable.

Winant correctly notes that the PMC is bleeding members into socialism:
Spend time in the forums of socialists who’ve long been loyal to Sanders and critical of “identity politics”—Jacobin readers, say, or in the listeners of Chapo Trap House—and you’ll see “PMC” everywhere, a sociological designation turned into an epithet and hurled like a missile.

The trouble, of course, would appear to be of the glass-house variety. While the anonymous millions of Sanders supporters do appear to come from lower on the social scale, the ideological cadre driving the Sanders movement features a huge proportion of activists who are credentialed meritocrats in their own right, or descended from them. The famous self-applied moniker of Chapo Trap House’s hosts and listeners, after all, is “failson”—the downwardly mobile, disappointing male offspring of complacent baby boomers. Go to a DSA meeting and see if you can count the grad students on two hands; throw in the coders or the teachers, and hands and feet together won’t be enough. PMC? De te fabula narratur.

But that's not any kind of trouble, any more than Engel's position as a capitalist was "trouble" for Marx's analysis of capitalism. Winant correctly notes later that a class is not the kind of people it's made of, but the role those people take. The phenomenon Winant observes does not seem much different from the proletarianization of the petty-bourgeoisie.

The role of the PMC in the United States (and China, if you take the Chinese Communist Party as an exemplar of PMC control of state power) is to act as an intermediary between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie through the exercise of state power. In China, the Party has much more successfully subordinated the bourgeoisie; in the United States the bourgeoisie has thoroughly subordinated the PMC. (In Russia, the Party tried to eliminate the bourgeoisie, but failed to effectively manage their society. Why? There are a lot of opinions out there, but I don't know, and you don't either.)

The PMC could have, perhaps, eliminated the American bourgeoisie, but they chose not to do so. Instead, they chose to prop up capitalism, to rescue and preserve the bourgeoisie; the capitalist class was rather less than grateful. But today? It's hard to see the American PMC having the will to try again; they merely wish to restore their old position in the 1950s, wielding state power to again rescue and preserve capitalism, whis is, of course, what Elizabeth Warren actually says she wants to do. But if she were to win (which she won't), she would fail.

The most likely danger is the one that Winant actually notes, that Warren will turn out to be just another Obama or Clinton, passive, bewildered captives to a hostile capitalist class. Winant acknowledges the strength of this claim, but argues that "it oddly holds the PMC constant, imagining that it continues to smoothly carry out the function for which it developed a century ago." But why smoothly? How could difficulty somehow rescue the credibility of the PMC? We merely have to imagine that the PMC wants to retake the function of reproducing and managing a capitalist society, with its concomitant exploitation of the working class, in no small part because that's all they know.

Winant mistakes the class for the people, observing, "The PMC is not the ruling class, it merely serves it, deliberately or inadvertently." Fair enough, but goes on to conclude that therefore, "professionals do share something with the working class, . . . the lack of ultimate control over their conditions of labor." The reasoning here does not work: just because someone is a "professional" does not mean they are a part of the PMC as a class. Winant observes the proletarianization of a lot of lower-level professionals, which by itself does not make a basis for compromise or alliance between the PMC and the working class; it just means the working class is getting people with more college degrees. Yes, the PMC as a class does serve the capitalist ruling class, but by choice, not force, and the members of the PMC as a class do have "ultimate control over their conditions of labor."

I do agree that the historical "failure" of the PMC to ally itself with the proletariat "did not invalidate the concept" of such an alliance. But this failure definitely does seriously undermine their credibility, and I would prefer an argument stronger than that it's not completely impossible for the PMC as a class to turn itself around.

Winant again observes correctly that there is a lot of hostility among professionals toward the PMC, noting that
Those who wield the epithet 'PMC,' then, do so not against strangers, but against the most familiar enemies: the ones who made it, for whom good luck or preexisting advantages paid off, and who maintained their ultimate loyalty to the existing order.
But Winant argues that this hostility misses the point, which is "not to abandon the PMC, but to turn it against its masters." I can certainly see turning low level proletarianized professionals against their capitalist masters; I don't see how the class as it sees itself is so easily reformed.

The question is partly whether Warren is a part of the PMC just because of her education and profession. She's not just a professional, she's a law professor, and a highly successful one at that. I can be fairly confident that she has not experienced any "lack of ultimate control over [her] conditions of labor." But a more important question is how she sees her role in the capitalist system. Does she see herself as someone there to challenge the power of the capitalist class, or to simply help the capitalist class use its power more effectively? Again, the PMC sees its role as the latter, not the former, as confirmed by the most successful representatives of the PMC such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (not to mention most of my colleagues, who are professors of economics).

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