Saturday, February 27, 2021

Is the Left the Prisoner of the Professional-Managerial Class?

That's a reasonable contention these days when the left is not only divorced from the working class, but doesn't even seem particularly interested in it. Instead left activists, now primarily drawn from the professional-managerial class (PMC), seem far more concerned with demonstrating their commitment to cutting-edge cultural battles than reaching the working class. If the working class doesn't "get it", it just shows how hopeless and reactionary they are.
That's kind of peculiar by standards of the historical left. One way to understand this development is by a class analysis of the PMC itself, a term that was popularized in the 1970's by Barbara and John :Ehrenreich. A short new book by Catherine Liu does this (available at a very low price from Amazon or even free if you rummage around on the internet). James Foley, in a useful review-essay on Brave New Europe, comments on and summarizes the book's argument as follows:
"Working-class associational life...reached a peak and collapsed, not just in party organisation and trade unionism, but also in religion, sport and culture. A working class (though changed) remains the social majority, but a “void”, as Peter Mair said, separates it from political and cultural representation.
Conversely, the traditional middle classes were transformed by the expansion of universities and white-collar occupations. This also reached a peak, somewhat later, when the over-production of cultural elites collided with the post-2008 breakdown of the capitalist system. Graduate wages fell to levels often indistinguishable from working class occupations. But economic convergence was matched by cultural and political divergence. While graduates entered the left and the unions in droves, their hunger for distinction entered with them. For this reason, universalist appeals to ‘the 99%’ fell flat: today’s leftism presents itself as an immense accumulation of subcultures, all seeking moral differentiation from a fallen cultural majority....
The great historical irony is that post-2008 left experiments, styling themselves against the establishment, would eventually reinforce the sociology of the Third Way. Perhaps the quintessential case, despite its early promise, was Labour’s recent lurch to the left. “Ideologically, Corbynism was a break from New Labour centrism,” notes Chris Bickerton, “but sociologically, it was more Blairite than Tony Blair.” Cynical though this assessment might sound, it is reasonably founded in fact. Blair’s clique had emphasised the “Southern question”, the need to break Labour from its “northern heartlands” (as Peter Mandelson is said to have sneered, who else would they vote for?) and speak to a younger, aspirational middle-class who had embraced market globalisation. By the time the Corbyn experiment had concluded – or, by the time the People’s Vote had colonised Momentum – this base of broadly liberal voters was effectively the party’s new heartland.
The result, not just in Britain, is a leftism where class dare not speak its name. Stimulated by a postmodern curriculum, graduates encourage – indeed, mandate – wrenching self-examination of whiteness, heteronormativity and patriarchy. Privilege, as they call it. But, on class, they have built paranoid, insulated walls against critique. When the question is even asked, some retort (correctly) that the “working class has changed”, implying (incorrectly) that they are the vanguard of a new social majority that passes through top tier universities. Others bristle at the tag PMC, the mere mention of which invites charges of “class reductionism”, now regarded as the greatest academic sin one can commit.
Within living memory, there were socialist cultures that defined themselves as working class, sometimes at the cost of silliness. At any activist get-together, there were Mockney accents, tracksuits and flat caps aplenty. Perhaps it was necessary to break from this live action role playing. But today, all of that has been replaced by an excruciating silence, punctuated by occasional explosions like 2016, which only reinforce a paranoid distrust of class analysis. Discussing the left’s class profile has thus become the proverbial minefield.
In that sense, Catherine Liu deliberately treads on just about every landmine. Virtue Hoarders, a book she styles as a “short introduction to the false consciousness of a class”, charts the decline of American intellectual life, the advance of PMC cultures, and an attendant hostility towards the working-class majority – all of it legitimised by radical rhetoric....They serve the (post)-neoliberal epoch by providing its moral vocabulary, built on the holy trinity of meritocracy, managed transgression and the centring of excluded voices.
The book’s central concept, “virtue hoarding”, offers a useful window into contemporary leftist dispositions. “The post-68 PMC elite,” Liu observes, believes itself to comprise not just our era’s best and brightest, but also “the most advanced people the earth has ever seen”. Yet while their elitism may be pronounced, it is also historically peculiar. Today’s leftists are not the first to style themselves as a vanguard of virtue. Traditional Leninism, to its critics, was guilty of adopting the lofty vantage point of the “true” proletarian, in contrast to the masses deluded by false consciousness. Much ink was spilled – often, ironically, by postmodern academics – condemning this outlook’s pretentiousness. Nonetheless, even at its worst, the Leninist stance implied a dynamic relationship to the majority: the goal was to “win” or “guide” the masses to the truth.
By contrast, today’s ideal-typical activists are radically different. Our vanguardists of virtue have no time for proselytising among workers – not even notionally. Instead, their goal is distinction, culturally, against a fallen majority, what Hillary Clinton called the “deplorables”. Virtue isn’t spread but hoarded. This explains the curiosity that, even where this group’s libertarian value system enjoys majority support, they continue to act as excluded moral minorities. Rather than stress common ground, which, ironically, has grown abundantly over the neoliberal epoch, they stress whatever makes them better than the masses....
Meanwhile, among peers, competitive virtue becomes a zero-sum game: I can have it only insofar as you are denied it. And, at the risk of reductionism, this directly mirrors the rationality of their class position: graduates specialising in symbolic manipulation – the hallmark of the PMC – compete for a shrinking number of jobs. Since their contributions are not measured in abstract numerical units, such as profit and loss for capitalists, or productivity for workers, their employability is defined by intangible status competition. Virtue here becomes a marketable commodity – and all the more when perceived as scarce."
Very provocative. Very interesting. I don't doubt that Liu has put her finger on one important factor explaining why today's left frequently seems so detached from political reality.

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