Every would-be populist in American politics purports to defend the “middle class,” although there is no agreement on what it is. Just in the last couple of years, the “middle class” has variously been defined as everybody, everybody minus the 15 percent living below the federal poverty level; or everybody minus the very richest Americans. Mitt Romney famously excluded “those in the low end” but included himself (2010 income $21.6 million) along with “80 to 90 percent” of Americans.
The Department of Commerce has given up on income-based definitions, announcing in a 2010 report that “middle class families” are defined “by their aspirations more than their income […]. Middle class families aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for their children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations”—which excludes almost no one.
Class itself is a muddled concept, perhaps especially in America, where any allusion to the different interests of different occupational and income groups is likely to attract the charge of “class warfare.” If class requires some sort of “consciousness,” or capacity for concerted action, then a “middle class” conceived of as a sort of default class—what you are left with after you subtract the rich and the poor—is not very interesting.
But there is another, potentially more productive, interpretation of what has been going on in the mid-income range. In 1977, we first proposed the existence of a “professional-managerial class,” distinct from both the “working class,” from the “old” middle class of small business owners, as well as from the wealthy class of owners.
The origins of the professional-managerial class
The notion of the “PMC” was an effort to explain the largely “middle class” roots of the New Left in the sixties and the tensions that were emerging between that group and the old working class in the seventies, culminating in the political backlash that led to the election of Reagan. The right embraced a caricature of this notion of a “new class,” proposing that college-educated professionals—especially lawyers, professors, journalists, and artists—make up a power-hungry “liberal elite” bent on imposing its version of socialism on everyone else.
The PMC grew rapidly. From 1870 to 1910 alone, while the whole population of the United States increased two and one-third times and the old middle class of business entrepreneurs and independent professionals doubled, the number of people in what could be seen as PMC jobs grew almost eightfold. And in the years that followed, that growth only accelerated. Although a variety of practical and theoretical obstacles prevent making any precise analysis, we estimate that as late as 1930, people in PMC occupations still made up less than 1 percent of total employment. By 1972, about 24 percent of American jobs were in PMC occupations. By 1983 the number had risen to 28 percent and by 2006, just before the Great Recession, to 35 percent.
The relationship between the emerging PMC and the traditional working class was, from the start, riven with tensions. It was the occupational role of managers and engineers, along with many other professionals, to manage, regulate, and control the life of the working class. They designed the division of labor and the machines that controlled workers’ minute-by-minute existence on the factory floor, manipulated their desire for commodities and their opinions, socialized their children, and even mediated their relationship with their own bodies.
At the same time though, the role of the PMC as “rationalizers” of society often placed them in direct conflict with the capitalist class. Like the workers, the PMC were themselves employees and subordinate to the owners, but since what was truly “rational” in the productive process was not always identical to what was most immediately profitable, the PMC often sought autonomy and freedom from their own bosses.
By the mid-twentieth century, jobs for the PMC were proliferating. Public education was expanding, the modern university came into being, local governments expanded in size and role, charitable agencies merged, newspaper circulation soared, traditional forms of recreation gave way to the popular culture, entertainment and sports industries, etc.—and all of these developments created jobs for highly educated professionals, including journalists, social workers, professors, doctors, lawyers, and “entertainers” (artists and writers among others).
Some of these occupations managed to retain a measure of autonomy and, with it, the possibility of opposition to business domination. The so-called “liberal professions,” particularly medicine and law, remained largely outside the corporate framework until well past the middle of the 20th century. Most doctors, many nurses, and the majority of lawyers worked in independent (private) practices.
In the 1960s, for the first time since the Progressive Era, a large segment of the PMC had the self-confidence to take on a critical, even oppositional, political role. Jobs were plentiful, a college education did not yet lead to a lifetime of debt, and materialism was briefly out of style. College students quickly moved on from supporting the civil rights movement in the South and opposing the war in Vietnam to confronting the raw fact of corporate power throughout American society—from the pro-war inclinations of the weapons industry to the governance of the university. The revolt soon spread beyond students. By the end of the sixties, almost all of the liberal professions had “radical caucuses,” demanding that access to the professions be opened up to those traditionally excluded (such as women and minorities), and that the service ethics the professions claimed to uphold actually be applied in practice.
The capitalist offensive
Beginning in the seventies, the capitalist class decisively re-asserted itself. The ensuing capitalist offensive was so geographically widespread and thoroughgoing that it introduced what many leftwing theorists today describe as a new form of capitalism, “neoliberalism.”
The new management strategy was to raise profits by single-mindedly reducing labor costs, most directly by simply moving manufacturing offshore to find cheaper labor. Those workers who remained employed in the United States faced a series of initiatives designed to discipline and control them ever more tightly: intensified supervision in the workplace, drug tests to eliminate slackers, and increasingly professionalized efforts to prevent unionization. Cuts in the welfare state also had a disciplining function, making it harder for workers to imagine surviving job loss.
Most of these anti-labor measures also had an effect, directly or indirectly, on elements of the PMC. Government spending cuts hurt the job prospects of social workers, teachers, and others in the “helping professions,” while the decimation of the U.S.-based industrial working class reduced the need for mid-level professional managers, who found themselves increasingly targeted for downsizing. But there was a special animus against the liberal professions, surpassed only by neoliberal hostility to what conservatives described as the “underclass.” Crushing this liberal elite—by “defunding the left” or attacking liberal-leaning nonprofit organizations—became a major neoliberal project.
Of course, not all the forces undermining the liberal professions since the 1980s can be traced to conscious neoliberal policies. Technological innovation, rising demand for services, and ruthless profit-taking all contributed to an increasingly challenging environment for the liberal professions, including the “creative ones.”
The Internet is often blamed for the plight of journalists, writers, and editors, but economic change preceded technological transformation. Journalism jobs began to disappear as corporations, responding in part to Wall Street investors, tried to squeeze higher profit margins out of newspapers and TV news programs. The effects of these changes on the traditionally creative professions have been dire. Staff writers, editors, photographers, announcers, and the like faced massive layoffs (more than 25% of newsroom staff alone since 2001), increased workloads, salary cuts, and buy-outs.
Then, in just the last dozen years, the PMC began to suffer the fate of the industrial class in the 1980s: replacement by cheap foreign labor. It came as a shock to many when, in the 2000s, businesses began to avail themselves of new high speed transmission technologies to outsource professional functions.
By the time of the financial meltdown and deep recession of the post-2008 period, the pain inflicted by neoliberal policies, both public and corporate, extended well beyond the old industrial working class and into core segments of the PMC. Unemployed and underemployed professional workers—from IT to journalism, academia, and eventually law—became a regular feature of the social landscape. Young people did not lose faith in the value of an education, but they learned quickly that it makes more sense to study finance rather than physics or “communications” rather than literature. The old PMC dream of a society rule by impartial “experts” gave way to the reality of inescapable corporate domination.
But the PMC was not only a victim of more powerful groups. It had also fallen into a trap of its own making. The prolonged, expensive, and specialized education required for professional employment had always been a challenge to PMC families—as well, of course, as an often-insuperable barrier to the working class. Higher degrees and licenses are no longer a guaranty of PMC status. Hence the iconic figure of the Occupy Wall Street movement: the college graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts and a job paying about $10 a hour, or no job at all.
Whither class consciousness?
So in the hundred years since its emergence, the PMC has not managed to hold its own as a class. At its wealthier end, skilled professionals continue to jump ship for more lucrative posts in direct service to capital: Scientists give up their research to become “quants” on Wall Street; physicians can double their incomes by finding work as investment analysts for the finance industry or by setting up “concierge” practices serving the wealthy. At the less fortunate end of the spectrum, journalists and PhDs in sociology or literature spiral down into the retail workforce. In between, health workers and lawyers and professors find their work lives more and more hemmed in and regulated by corporation-like enterprises. The center has not held. Conceived as “the middle class” and as the supposed repository of civic virtue and occupational dedication, the PMC lies in ruins.
More profoundly, the PMC’s original dream—of a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited professionals—has been discredited. Globally, the socialist societies that seemed to come closest to this goal either degenerated into heavily militarized dictatorships or, more recently, into authoritarian capitalist states. Within the US, the grotesque failure of socialism in China and the Soviet Union became a propaganda weapon in the neoliberal war against the public sector in its most innocuous forms and a core argument for the privatization of just about everything.
But the PMC has also managed to discredit itself as an advocate for the common good. Consider our gleaming towers of medical research and high-technology care—all too often abutting urban neighborhoods characterized by extreme poverty and foreshortened life spans.
Should we mourn the fate of the PMC or rejoice that there is one less smug, self-styled, elite to stand in the way of a more egalitarian future? On the one hand, the PMC has played a major role in the oppression and disempowering of the old working class. It has offered little resistance to (and, in fact, supplied the manpower for) the right’s campaign against any measure that might ease the lives of the poor and the working class.
On the other hand, the PMC has at times been a “liberal” force, defending the values of scholarship and human service in the face of the relentless pursuit of profit. In this respect, its role in the last century bears some analogy to the role of monasteries in medieval Europe, which kept literacy and at least some form of inquiry alive while the barbarians raged outside.
As we face the deepening ruin brought on by neoliberal aggression, the question may be: Who, among the survivors, will uphold those values today? And, more profoundly, is there any way to salvage the dream of reason—or at least the idea of a society in which reasonableness can occasionally prevail—from the accretion of elitism it acquired from the PMC?
Any renewal of oppositional spirit among the Professional-Managerial Class, or what remains of it, needs to start from an awareness that what has happened to the professional middle class has long since happened to the blue collar working class. The debt-ridden unemployed and underemployed college graduates, the revenue-starved teachers, the overworked and underpaid service professionals, even the occasional whistle-blowing scientist or engineer—all face the same kind of situation that confronted skilled craft-workers in the early 20th century and all American industrial workers in the late 20th century.
In the coming years, we expect to see the remnants of the PMC increasingly making common cause with the remnants of the traditional working class for, at a minimum, representation in the political process. This is the project that the Occupy movement initiated and spread, for a time anyway, worldwide.
Barbara Ehrenreich is honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, she is a contributing writer to Time magazine.
John Ehrenreich is professor of psychology at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He wrote The Humanitarian Companion: A Guide for International Aid, Development, and Human Rights Workers.