Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class
by Catherine Liu
University of Minnesota Press, 90 pp., $10.00
The term Professional Managerial Class, coined in 1977 by John and Barbara Ehrenreich—and defined as “managers, ‘specialists,’ technocrats, technical intelligentsia”—is back in vogue; there is a PMC discourse now. For the Ehrenreichs, the term PMC was meant to distinguish “between people who worked essentially telling other people what to do . . . and people who do the work that other people tell them to do.” The Ehrenreichs took aim at wealthy liberals who had lost interest in the working class experience, and whose progressive values concealed a real contempt for working class people. While the use of the term PMC has evolved, the core insight of the Ehrenreichs has not been surpassed: There is a sector of modern society which claims a special privilege to tell other people what to do in the name of a feigned, liberal-minded compassion and professional expertise. The renewed importance of the term PMC, however, over the last two years, is a direct outcome of cultural obsession with ‘expert-trusting’ and ‘science-trusting’—as well the larger obsessive media spasm over Trumpish populism. The period between 2016 and 2020—the years in which the liberal establishment was in exile—provoked a class crisis. The PMC became visible as a class, and power structure, only after a populist revolt broke the illusion that governance could be handled by “managers, ‘specialists,’ technocrats, technical intelligentsia.” The COVID-era obsession with so-called expert doctors and scientists reflected the PMC’s belief that, because they were no longer entirely in charge, things were going off the rails—fantasies about how it would be ‘if Hillary had won.’ CDC regulations and blue state emergency regulations—lockdown culture in general—were a form of class revenge, as if to say: ‘This is what you get.’ The reason, therefore, that we’re now talking about the PMC more is that the pandemic was the moment when everything became subject to management (and the birth of a new subject who expects to be managed).
“A dangerous question for every sovereign is his origin.”
—Roberto Calasso, The Ruin of Kasch
The historical roots of the PMC run deep. As part of the secularization of the modern age, bureaucracy—along with a spirit of paranoid contractualism and reflexive litigiousness—replaced faith; bonds of honor and tradition gave way to scraps of paper, and folkways hardened into regulations. Much of the mysteriousness of the world not only faded away, but was intentionally sanitized—scrubbed away. Bureaucratic modernity covered its tracks, however, reclassifying the productive anarchism and localism of the past as hopelessly regressive, stupid, and violent. The victory of the bureaucratic way of life over folkways in the modern period was, and is, as total as the victory of Christianity over paganism in the last phase of the Roman Empire. Our lives—the fruits of this victory—are run by attending professionals from birth to death along a grid of regulations. The bureaucratization of daily life has become normalized, folded neatly into the modern concept of self. To go ‘off the grid’ is considered radically weird behavior: The grid is all we know and all we want.
This was not always the case. Prior to the 20th century, life was not standardized; agriculture, education, medicine, commerce, and language were more varied, localized, and historically determined. Daily life had more risks and fewer guarantees—but the state had less power, and less will, to mold individuals and small communities. Romantic conservatism—a constellation of thought which valued the rural, the quasi-feudal, and the traditional—was politically tenable; the resistance to modernization and homogenization was a mainstream position. The French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, for example, faced considerable headwinds in the 19th: a century in which many major writers, thinkers, and statesmen expressed considerable skepticism towards the notion that the complex dynamics of society could be mastered by rational, top-down political schemes. Thus, even while populations, networks, industries, and empires exploded over the course of the 19th century, most of this growth was bottom-up. Certain fields, like medicine and laboratory science, began to be professionalized—but, by and large, talented amateurs (or convincing charlatans), without accreditation, were free to practice their self-selected fields (and did so with remarkable success).
“All of us, public and elites, live under the historic shadow of governments that sought to recreate the human condition.”
—Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public
Ultimately, it was not until the 20th century, and its many crises and many progressive movements, that 19th century-style conservatism, with its respect for feudal traditions and the pre-industrial way of life, was defeated politically, culturally, and materially. The world wars, in particular, because of their scale, and their stakes, required rapid, collective material and social reorganization that left little room for individual resistance. The aristocratic spirit of the 19th century—not just of Metternich and Bismarck, but of Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche—lost its vote on the direction of society; the civilization of the 20th century borrowed little from War and Peace or On the Genealogy of Morals.
Conversely, in the 20th century, Kafka’s horror at systems of control and punishment, or simply the boredom of office life, or Zweig’s deep disgust at having to carry a passport after 1918, were symptoms of the gradual death of the old world, and the ascendency of the new. The mechanized, scientized 20th century was decidedly grim. “The tragedy of today,” D.H. Lawrence wrote, “is that men are only materially and socially conscious. They are unconscious of their own manhood, and so they watch it be destroyed. Out of free men we produce social beings by the thousand every week.” Lawrence, in his own inimical way, spoke literally of what Kafka expressed allegorically: Human beings were caught in the net of systems that they had built; something had gone badly wrong. The coalition of historical and mechanical forces that thrilled Walt Whitman in the mid-19th century had been thrown out of balance, and new technologies had not been deployed to increase social cooperation and conviviality, but to harness and tame the individual.
By 1950, after two ruinous global wars, the old world of honor codes and folkways was simply gone; two massive governmental systems—the USSR and the USA—were each left with half of the globe to manage and to repair. Military bureaucrats appeared to have won the war, so military-style bureaucracy would maintain the peace. Classical liberalism became managerial liberalism, and there was no longer any viable political or spiritual alternative to what Kierkegaard would call the “System.” A person was either an American “Organization Man” or a Soviet apparatchik. The rest, they say, is history.
Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoarders accurately begins with the observation that the PMC imagine themselves as activist heroes engaged in passionate “acts of giving back”. Liu, a self-proclaimed socialist, contrasts the active, politically muscular PMC progressivism of the early 20th century with the tepid, nominalist PMC progressivism of the early 21st. For Liu, professional, educated people in positions of authority—the top 10% of the country economically—no longer give a damn. They are concerned only with hiding their “allegiance . . . to capital.” More damningly, even activist movements like Occupy Wall Street give in to the PMC organizing principles of “unionized graduate students.” Occupy, as Liu sees it, failed because the occupiers were rigidly bureaucratic, status driven, obsessed with money, and “contemptuous of ordinary people.” Essentially, occupiers were leftist grad students playing dress up as activists—fetishizing “procedural regulations.” Since Occupy, Liu argues, the left has consistently failed to address its own operating principles and norms, privileging theory and optics over substantive political organization. Academic and careerist in spirit, PMC leftists follow the grant money. Liu offers The 1619 Project, a historical initiative of the New York Times Magazine, as an example of the kind of PMC ideological content that progressives under the sway of “powerful and affluent donors” produce; Liu calls this “private foundation ideology.” In short, non-profits promote (and sell) their own virtue—ignoring the practical, material pursuit of “equality, dignity, and emancipation” for whatever underclass subjects they have vowed to serve. Activism is just an excuse to hoard virtue.
Liu, consistent and lucid, provides the same kind of analysis of PMC virtue-hoarding in the realms of family values, literature, and gender theory. Her short book efficiently explores the way in which the smug spirit of modern managerialism infects politics, the home, intellectual life, and erotic life.
Where Liu’s book falls short is in its vision for a post-PMC world (if such a thing can be imagined). Virtue Hoarders ends with the blandest possible invocation to the socialist future. As Liu herself admits, somewhat admirably, she is the kind of leftist, culturally PMC academic who so often succumbs to bureaucratic wranglings rather than material, hands-on change.
But can the PMC’s politics be “abandoned,” as Liu would have it, within the academy—where attacking technocratic, PMC, Hillary-style centrism can be done without any skin in the game? Without any risk or moral challenge or crisis?
If the spirit of managerial faux-progressivism is so stultifying, so politically bankrupt, and so “opportunistic,” why should we fully trust a message that actually falls back on the kind of language that it claims takes the place of actually doing something? Why should we trust a PMC to write a critique of the PMC? Virtue Hoarders cannot help but hoard a little virtue for itself.
“Squishy and permeable as it may be, PMC is still a useful term for the class of professional managers.” — Amber A’Lee Frost
Since the energy crisis of the 1970s, the managed world has not managed to justify the disadvantages of modernity (ecological crisis, psychological crisis, desacralization) with increases in personal wealth and leisure. Information technology provided a last round of stimulus to industrial society, but the first generations of personal computing, Internet, smartphones, and social media feel more like a bridge (rigged with dynamite) to the future than to the past. The managed world continues simply because it already is, and the managerial aristocracy, the PMC, cling to the structures of this world with the same tenacity as knights who clung to chivalry even as cannons began knocking down their castle walls.
At the core of the PMC ideology is the belief that experts, working together, have set, and will continue to set, the human condition on a linear path upwards. Managerial liberals, by never acknowledging the externalities they create, and never engaging in historical or aesthetic thinking, can always justify themselves. There is always a number, a graph, and chart, that will show things are getting better. The PMC no longer make things or do things—not really; they nurse the entropy of the institutions that they have inhabited, trying to control the centrifugal forces unleashed by information technology (i.e., the uncontrollable).
Today, the PMC—maybe better to call it the Professional Mediocrity Caste—runs the decaying, fraying Pax Americana system via the array of dominant public and private institutions with which they have melded. The pride of the PMC is based not on its proximity to power, or its grip on power, but on its enmeshment with power. Power runs through its veins. The PMC microdoses on power.
“We’ve certainly come a long way from ‘give me your tired, your poor.’ . . . If we blithely exploit this young man’s ignorance, I don’t know who we are anymore.”—CJ Craig, The West Wing
PMCs mistake their notional, academic and institutional success with successful personhood; PMC existence is pegged to the career ladder. The modern PMC lives as if in a permanent, ongoing episode of The West Wing (what we can call Jen Psaki syndrome). Aaron Sorkin, not incidentally, is the ultimate poet of the PMC—the Whitman of the PMC. The Sorkin vision is one in which an incurably ignorant and perhaps violent member of the conservative underclass is taken to task by a clever and righteous professional liberal.
Not incidentally, To Kill a Mockingbird, which Sorkin adapted for the stage in 2018, is, as Liu points out, the fundamental PMC book. The “moral rectitude” of Atticus, the good lawyer, “renders the solution to racism attractive to the establishment.”
The ignorant must submit to Atticus Finchinization, to Sorkinization: They must allow a PMC to mock them, prove them wrong, invalidate their beliefs, and make up rules to restrain them. The reason that PMC media and politicians invariably call populists racists or transphobes—see the coverage of the Canadian truckers—is that the PMC seem literally unable to imagine that they would have to articulate an actual argument against populism; there has to be some kind of a priori nuke—some escape from intellectual and moral engagement with populists movements. A populist must be a bigot because a PMC must be Atticus Finch.
To Kill A Mockingbird stands in sharp contrast to a less famous, but perhaps more probing, work of fiction from the early 1960’s American south: Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” In O’Connor’s story, Julian, a liberal college graduate, happily convinced of the righteousness of his own beliefs, fails to respond morally and emotionally to his mother—a fat old racist white woman—or to the black woman his mother patronizingly tries (and fails) to give spare change to on the bus.
Julian, a believer in progress and civil rights, is totally ill-at-ease in the world itself, because it doesn’t conform to his theoretical idea of it. Julian forestalls his own “guilt and sorrow” by feigning moral indignation at his mother’s tactless gesture. Everything that rises does not converge. Progress proves asynchronous, inconsistent, and sometimes, in subtle ways, the opposite of what it claims to be.
The PMC creates meme supply chains. A ‘think tank’ is an ideological power plant—so is the New York Times or the latest report from the Ford Foundation. Dystopian movies which imagine challenges to the System as apocalyptic are part of this factory-style production of symbols. New docu-hagiographies like Fauci or I Am Greta similarly encode, or attempt to encode, notions of PMC excellence in the culture. According to National Geographic Films, Fauci “is an unprecedented portrait of one of our most vital public servants, whose work saved millions while he faced threats from anonymous adversaries.” The blurb claims not only that Fauci was “vital”—our governmental system requires Fauci in order to function—but that his managerial work at the NIH directly saved “millions of lives.” The powers attributed to Fauci are not simply absurd, they are mythical. The docu-hagiography Fauci would have you believe that one man woke up, pushed a couple of papers, sent some emails, held some meetings, and staved off the explosive replication of an airborne virus; Fauci would have you believe that the uncontrollable was in fact controlled.
Fauci, like Atticus Finch, is a well-educated servant of the common good who defeated a stupid, dirty, and dangerous underclass (anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers [Trump voters]) for the sake of a professional crisis management (lockdowns). Biden won the 2020 US presidential election partly based on the promise that he would never fire Fauci (as many suspected Trump would if he won). The promise to retain Fauci—indefinitely, presumably—symbolized the promise to maintain governance by professionals. Better to have a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist in charge than a nasty populist who doesn’t speak in academic jargon.
For the PMC, what might be managed must appear to be managed. Cancer, narcotics, and education were all projects of the late 20th century systems managers. In our century, the portfolio of failed projects and deceptive claims is robust. China just had to be added to the WTO. Saddam possessed nukes. The housing market was unstoppable. Iraq and Afghanistan would become stable democracies. Trump was a Russian agent. Most recently, we were told that COVID could be controlled if people just listened to doctor-bureaucrats. In France, for example, arch-PMC President Emmanuel Macron styled himself a “président épidémiologiste”—a pure contrivance based on his mastery of jargon. Hillary Clinton, similarly, bragged that, if she, rather than populist Donald Trump, had been elected, COVID would have been under control. Biden centered his own presidential platform on similar claims—on his willingness to finally, unlike Trump, listen to the ‘experts.’
The tragi-comedy of COVID policy was evidence that, in a managed society, the narrative of control becomes a positive good in itself (and that control narratives must be continually produced as reminders not only that the System is working, but that it’s there at all). The utterly false predictions and the fallacious models of epidemiologists were not held against them, but rather, defended (illogically) on the grounds that something was better than nothing, that a bad plan was better than ‘letting the virus rip.’ Terrorism, early in the Bush administration, was treated the same way. Doing nothing was conflated with murder; the terrorists would exploit even the tiniest gaps in our national defenses. In a crisis, there could be no limits to the deployment of the precautionary principle (better safe than sorry at any and all costs).
Natural opportunists, the PMC—the systems managers of the global system—have never had an essential political philosophy; in one era, they are conservative; in another, they are progressive. The PMC aligns itself with whichever party calls for management of symptoms and ignores causes—for interventionism of all kinds. The political philosophy of the PMC is essentially this: There is no such thing as elective surgery.
“Surprise rests on predictions about sensations, which depend on an internal generative model of the world. Although surprise cannot be measured directly, a free-energy bound on surprise can be, suggesting that agents minimize free energy by changing their predictions (perception) or by changing the predicted sensory inputs (action).”— Sir Karl Friston, “Does predictive coding have a future?”
The fundamental irony of the PMC is this: You are there to reproduce the system, regardless of its outcomes; you are amoral though you believe that you are right by association with hegemonic thinking. Security, soulless security, is the telos of the modern PMC-run state and globe. The PMC—whether in government, in business, in entertainment, medicine, education—oversee an increasingly, disturbingly worse world, airbrushing the profound moral failure of the technocratic mode of civilization, writing off the failings of modern existence with sophistical intellectual orthodoxies. Stripped of what German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls our “shell” of cosmic meaning, moderns have had to seek artificial forms of protection: the planned and the insured. We seek, as Sloterdijk writes in his magnum opus Spheres, protection in an “electrical medial skin”—a global skein of information conveyed by experts and officials that constantly informs, warns, advises, and commands.
What is sometimes called, in paranoid fashion, the ‘Deep State,’ could more accurately be described as a ‘Hive State’: an emergent, interconnected system-of-systems welded together by an implicit institutional imperative to maintain itself. The managerial mesh is actually deeply feudal—a system of institutional fiefdoms each of which protects its own interests.
The sheer size—over a million employees—and complexity of the United States Government, for example, mean that political action can only be engineered, and slowly at that. We might call this phenomenon bureaucratic conservatism: The magnitude of the federal apparatus guarantees that the professional managerial class is the ruling class (only insiders have the keys to the System).
What to some appears shadowy and conspiratorial—the masterstrokes of the elite—is emergent idiocracy: individual agents, with fixed, unchallenged ideologies acting in self-interest, producing aggregate consequences that they themselves didn’t even fully imagine. There is very little reason, therefore, to distinguish between state and non-state institutions, because power, in the Information Age, is increasingly deterritorialized and decorporealized.
“All that is necessary to salvation is contained in faith and obedience.”
There is direct lineage linking the PMC and the priesthood of the pre-modern age. Anti-PMC rhetoric, of which this essay takes part, has its roots in the anti-clericalism of the past: the throwing off of the surveillance of the Church by the peasants and bourgeoisie. Just as the average 19th century Frenchman wanted, in historian Owen Chadwick’s phrase, to “strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest”—modern populists fantasize about a world without experts and technocrats. The dyadic relationship between priest and sinner has been transformed into the relationship between the PMC and the public (doctor and patient; advertiser and consumer; politician and low-information voter; etc.).
The university is both a PMC system and a PMC-production system. Undergraduates at elite universities either go into corporations, global non-profits, or government, or they feed back into the university system itself. Academics are the whey, the unwanted byproduct, that is fed back to the farmyard animals. The cancerous growth of university administrations is actually necessary to keep the hundreds of thousands of dupes who have paid for expensive degrees from revolting against the scam. There’s nothing you can do with a ‘Gender Studies’ degree other than police other members of the university system. Bureaucrats who can’t pay off their graduate degrees get hired back by universities and governments as administrators, justifying the value of the degrees only by loophole. Recently matriculated undergraduates with $100,000 in student debt become Bernie Sanders supporters whose primary policy proposal is to eliminate student debt. The so-called ‘critiques of capitalism’ that academics reflexively produce (and reproduce)—in their papers, their conversation, their Internet chatter—are both uninteresting and too unspecific to be useful.
“Culture and the state—let us be honest with ourselves—these are adversaries.” —Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
We have as little say in the systems we participate in as soldiers of the Great War had in the strategies of their commanders. The planners of the Somme did not die at the Somme, and the planners of the Metaverse will most likely not choose to live in the Metaverse they create. All large corporatized, highly stratified organization-organisms are structured so that individual responsibility is dissolved, and decision-making emerges out of the chain of command. The coder writing an algorithm is no more responsible for the harm that algorithm might create than a field commander in World War I was for a failed offensive. We didn’t ask for the iPhone: We became enmeshed in iPhones. Teenagers today have not chosen TikTok: They were chosen by it. A tiny fraction of the global population invents the lives of the majority. Coders, party operatives, lobbyists, lawyers, academics, politicians, bankers, entertainment execs, and medical bureaucrats with similar pedigrees, jargons, beliefs, and tastes are paid, and paid well, to exert control over the public. It doesn’t matter what professions we constitute as PMC; what matters is identifying the underlying assumption that to be a professional means to decide. An unelected, decentralized network of managers—which extends across all kinds of business entities, and local, state and federal agencies—is sovereign: a barrier against democratic will and a hard limit on individual liberty. The PMC class is the disabling class: the collective apparatus that takes away the power to educate, heal, organize, and ultimately, to know ourselves as individuals.
“Under the stress of crisis, the professional who is believed to be in command can easily presume immunity from the ordinary rules of justice and decency. He who is assigned control over death ceases to be an ordinary human.”
—Ivan Illich, Medical Nemesis
Wither the PMC? In the short term, nowhere. Too many people have been conditioned to live in actuarial terror at the possibility of risk and are too easily shattered not only by death, but by change. A numbed, spiritually destitute populace barely notices the transition from kindergarten to the nursing home; life is a blur of passive anxieties and mild comforts; one’s hand is always held. For pain there are pills; for sadness there are pills; for anxiety there are pills; for boredom there are screens; for all moral, emotional, and erotic conflict, there are HR departments. For everything, there is something. Fundamentally, the PMC exist because certain structures of life exist—because too much individual decision making has been colonized by institutions and too many tasks have been monopolized by professionals and their guilds.
The fact is that the PMC will exist as long as the infrastructure of modernity exists. The PMC is the immune system of modernity, defending and repairing a system that depends on the repression of all that is individual, local, and existentially dignified for its own existence.
by Matthew Gasda