"Hi! We're from the Professional-Managerial Class, and we're here to help!" The PMC downgraded the common experiences of economic exploitation which had formerly bound the Left together, supplanting them with exploitation narratives grounded in the experiences of race, gender and sexuality. Capitalism doesn’t oppress humanity, went the PMC’s argument, racism, sexism and homophobia do.
BARBARA AND JOHN EHRENREICH spotted the looming disaster on the Left nearly 40 years ago. This was an impressive achievement given the temper of the times. For right-wingers, the 1970s were a decade of dread. They feared that the Left was on the cusp of an irreversible victory. They would have been delighted to learn that their ideological foes faced disaster, but they would have struggled to identify the vector of their demise.
But the Ehrenreichs knew what it was. They had even given it a name: “The Professional-Managerial Class.” (PMC)
In the rather leaden Marxian prose then in vogue, the Ehrenreichs defined the PMC as “consisting of 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.”
In slightly less daunting language: the role of the PMC was to explain and justify the workings of capitalism to everyone who was not a capitalist, a professional, or a manager.
Who were they talking about? Well, in addition to the more obvious groups “hidden within the processes of production” i.e. “middle-level administrators and managers, engineers and other technical workers”, the Ehrenreichs controversially nominated “workers who are directly concerned with social control or with the production and propagation of ideology”. These they identified as “teachers, social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and TV scripts”.
Now, if you’re thinking: “Hey, that sounds like a description of the membership of the Labour Party and/or The Greens!” Well then, take a bow, because you have grasped the essence of the Ehrenreichs’ troublesome prophecy.
The PMC was already on the rise politically when the Ehrenreichs’ seminal paper was published in 1979. Its impact was clearly visible in the Democratic Party where a new generation of liberal politicians were ruthlessly marginalising the defenders of Roosevelt’s New Deal in preparation for the Carter Administration’s turn towards the “monetarist” ideas of the right-wing economist Milton Friedman.
The “turn” in the United Kingdom had come even earlier, in 1976, when the Labour prime minister of the time, Jim Callaghan, told his stony-faced party conference:
“We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession, and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step.”
If Callaghan’s pronouncement prompts the thought: “But that sounds just like the sort of thing David Lange and Roger Douglas used to say!” Then, once again, take a bow.
The institutions that Callaghan’s and Carter’s little helpers were most concerned to rein-in were the trade unions. Organised labour represented a dangerously independent repository of economic, political, social, and, most crucially, class power. While they persisted there was always the worrying potential for explanations and justifications unfavourable to the “reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”
By the 1970s, trade unions in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom had even begun to construct practical alternatives to the capitalist way of doing things. The arguments of class solidarity and collective action were acquiring an unprecedented degree of persuasiveness.
The policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan eventually put paid to the union threat. But the iron fist of neoliberalism urgently needed covering with a velvet glove.
The PMC was there to take on the task. They downgraded the common experiences of economic exploitation which had formerly bound the Left together, supplanting them with exploitation narratives grounded in the experiences of race, gender and sexuality. Capitalism doesn’t oppress humanity, went the PMC’s argument, racism, sexism and homophobia do. Eliminating these evils requires education, training and a willingness to embrace cultural diversity. A task far beyond the capacity of the working-class Left.
The Ehrenreichs knew how this would end. With the politics of identity and the politics of class in conflict – and left-wing unity shattered. The PMC and the working-class could have confronted the capitalists over who should own and control collectively created wealth. Instead, they confronted each other over the barricades of knowledge, skills and culture.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 February 2017.