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On the Origins of the Professional-Managerial Class: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich - Dissent Magazine

🌈 Abstract

The article is an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich about the concept of the "professional-managerial class" (PMC) that she and her husband John Ehrenreich coined in 1977. It explores the origins, evolution, and current relevance of the PMC, as well as Ehrenreich's experiences and perspectives on the tensions between the PMC and the working class within left-wing movements.

🙋 Q&A

[01] The Origins and Definition of the PMC

1. How do Ehrenreich and her husband define the PMC, and what was the context for developing this concept?

  • Ehrenreich and her husband coined the term "PMC" in a 1977 essay for Radical America, motivated by their experiences in the New Left movement and observing the tensions between college-educated professionals and working-class members.
  • They characterized the PMC as distinct from both the old middle class (self-employed professionals, small tradespeople, etc.) and the working class, emerging with monopoly capitalism in the late 19th century.
  • The PMC are "salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function is the reproduction of capitalist culture and class relations."
  • Ehrenreich saw these tensions play out in her own New American Movement (NAM) chapter, where there were stark differences in how the college-educated "PMC" members and the working-class members interacted and related to each other.

2. What was the reaction to Ehrenreich and her husband's essay within the left at the time?

  • The essay faced significant backlash from within the NAM, with one member even telling Ehrenreich that she had done more than anyone to destroy the possibility of revolutionary socialism in the country.
  • Ehrenreich suggests the backlash stemmed from the left's desire to see itself as a unified working class, rather than acknowledging the real divisions and tensions between different class positions.

[02] The Decline of the PMC

1. How does Ehrenreich characterize the current state of the PMC?

  • Ehrenreich argues that the "center has not held" for the PMC, and that the PMC's "original dream—of a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited professionals—has been discredited."
  • She points to the undermining of traditional professions like law, journalism, and academia, with things like law schools faking graduate employment numbers and the rise of low-paid adjunct professors.
  • Ehrenreich sees this as similar to the deindustrialization and deterioration of conditions that the working class has faced, except that the top managerial end of the PMC has continued to do well.

2. How does Ehrenreich view the decline of the PMC?

  • Ehrenreich has a somewhat ambivalent view, acknowledging the positive aspects of the PMC's "service ethic" and professional ethos, while also seeing the potential for a more egalitarian future without the "smug, self-styled elite" of the PMC.
  • However, she cautions against seeing the PMC as entirely irrelevant or irredeemable, emphasizing the need to build coalitions and connections across class divides.

[03] The PMC and Left-Wing Politics

1. How does Ehrenreich view the PMC's relationship to the Democratic Party?

  • Ehrenreich is critical of the Democratic Party's abandonment of the working class, particularly under Clinton and Obama, who she sees as exemplifying PMC values of technocratic, expert-driven policymaking.
  • She sees the PMC's influence within the Democratic Party as contributing to its distance from the concerns of the working class.

2. What are Ehrenreich's thoughts on the Bernie Sanders campaign and the role of electoral politics for the left?

  • Ehrenreich supported Sanders in 2016 but is wary of the left placing too much emphasis on national electoral politics, which she sees as often distracting from more grassroots, community-based organizing.
  • She is ambivalent about her own involvement with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), criticizing the organization's tendency towards infighting and scolding, which she sees as counterproductive to building working-class coalitions.

3. How does Ehrenreich view the relationship between the PMC and organized labor?

  • Ehrenreich was critical of the deference that the DSOC faction within DSA showed towards union leadership, arguing that they were too beholden to the priorities of established union bureaucracies rather than the rank-and-file.
  • She believes unions have often failed to adequately champion issues like workplace democracy and privacy rights that are important to workers, and that the PMC has struggled to build meaningful connections with workers outside of these limited union structures.

4. How does Ehrenreich suggest the left can build effective coalitions across class divides?

  • Ehrenreich emphasizes the need for humility and a willingness to listen on the part of the PMC, rather than treating working-class people as "exhibits" or silencing their voices.
  • She argues that the left must find ways to articulate class solidarity that go beyond simplistic identity politics, recognizing both the shared experiences and the real differences between the PMC and the working class.
  • Ehrenreich cites positive examples like the collaboration between tech workers and low-wage contractors, as well as teachers striking alongside service workers, as models for the kind of cross-class coalitions the left should strive for.
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