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

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

How do we recognize the similarities between people of different class positions without papering over the differences?

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 march in Chicago in October (SEIU Local 73)

“Professional-managerial class” (PMC), a term coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in a 1977 essay for Radical America, has recently emerged from academic obscurity as a shorthand, of sorts, for technocratic liberalism, or wealthier Democratic primary voters, or the median Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member, depending on who you ask.

The Ehrenreichs characterized the PMC as distinct from both the old middle class (self-employed professionals, small tradespeople, independent farmers) and the working class. Emerging with monopoly capitalism in the late nineteenth century, the class came into its own by the mid-twentieth century and formed a core of the New Left. In their essay, “class” is both “a common relation to the economic foundations of society” and “actual relations between groups of people, not formal relations between people and objects.” In other words, the authors felt that their erstwhile New Left comrades related to the working class in a distinct way, not simply as fellow workers.

When the social worker confronts her client, or the manager his worker, they do so in an “objectively antagonistic” relationship. The PMC are “salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”

These contradictory interests are a product not only of social location but of social function. A mediating class, the PMC only exists “by virtue of the expropriation of the skills and culture once indigenous to the working class”—cultural production, social reproduction, and so on. They relate to the working class with a mixture of “contempt and paternalism,” while workers interact with them with “hostility and deference.” As such, even as the working conditions and pay of members of the PMC deteriorate, it’s not a certainty that they will line up on the side of the working class, much less that such a coalition would be without tension.

Such was the thesis set out by the Ehrenreichs in 1977. Given the term’s newfound currency, and the inconsistency with which it is thrown around, I called up Barbara Ehrenreich last week to speak with her about the PMC’s past and present and the context in which she and John Ehrenreich coined the term. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

Alex Press: You coined the term “PMC” in a pair of essays from 1977 in Radical America whose motivation was a desire to analyze the New Left’s trajectory. Could you lay out in your own terms how you define the professional-managerial class, and what the context was for the concept?

Barbara Ehrenreich: We wrote that essay in a rather tedious way to try to not offend the Marxists—and we would’ve included ourselves in that category. But it was very much growing out of what we were experiencing politically on the left. John Ehrenreich and I had a New American Movement (NAM) chapter that often met in our house, and it was interesting in that it had such a mix of people by class—not, unfortunately, by race, but by class. There was a clump of people who were warehouse workers, who were involved in an organizing drive, and then, at the other extreme, there was a full professor and his wife. So it was fascinating and also terrifying to watch the interactions.

I think I in particular was very sensitive to these things because of my own background. My father had originally been a copper miner, and the other men in the family were railroad workers and other miners. But I had gone to college and gotten a PhD, so I was also a card-carrying member of the PMC. I could see the tensions rising. The professor and his wife, who became very dominant in the group, had a lot of contempt for the more working-class people. It was cringeworthy. To me it was important that people get along. We wanted a movement that would include the college teachers and the warehouse workers.

It didn’t work out. The professor and his wife walked out. First, they denounced me personally—they brought a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book, which they read aloud from, only whenever Mao was denouncing liberals, they would say “Barbara.” It was just bizarre, and it was painful at the same time. This climactic meeting took place in the home of two of our working-class members: he was a locksmith, and she was a nurse’s aide. They had treats set out for people to nibble on, cookies and cakes, because that’s what you do when you have people to your house—and the professor and his wife just ignored it. And that’s not how you act when you’re in somebody’s house. It was awful.

I saw similar things going on in other parts of the country. For example, there were fights that would break out in food co-ops—they were called the “Twinkie wars.” People wanted the food co-op to carry the highly processed, no-doubt-bad-for-you foods that they could get in the supermarket, and the more PMC types did not want that.

So, there was a lot of empirical data that went into this essay. There was a real difference between people who worked essentially telling other people what to do—and teachers get included in that—and people who do the work that other people tell them to do. It becomes a difference between manual and mental labor, but it carries with it a shitload of weight—I see it all the time, the contempt for especially white working-class people among leftists of college backgrounds.

The general response to that essay was very negative coming from within NAM. For example, I remember a NAM member—who went on to become quite a prominent centrist pundit—whispering to me in a NAM national meeting that I had done more than anybody to destroy the possibility of revolutionary socialism in this country. Kind of shocking; a big burden to bear for the rest of your life.

Press: What provoked that level of backlash?

Ehrenreich: It seemed like our whole sense of integrity as people on the left rested on our also being working class. We had to be in the same relationship to capital as, say, blue-collar workers, and I just don’t think that’s true. We were saying: let’s be upfront about this division.

Press: In your 2013 reflection on the PMC, you write, “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.” You add that “the PMC’s original dream—of a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited professionals—has been discredited.” What happened to the PMC?

Ehrenreich: I do think it’s been seriously smashed. In that article we wrote for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, John and I talk about professions as basic and seemingly eternal as law, for example. That’s been undermined: law schools fake the number of their graduates who end up with jobs that are even related to the law. You of course know what’s happened to journalists; we don’t get paid. College teaching [has been] totally undermined by essentially minimum-wage adjuncts. So I would say that what happened to the blue-collar working class with deindustrialization is now happening with the PMC—except for the top managerial end of it, which continues to do very well and perhaps amounts to about 20 percent of the population.

Press: In that 2013 essay, after characterizing the PMC as “in ruins,” you ask, “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?” Where do you fall in answering that question now?

Ehrenreich: That’s a hard one. We have to appreciate what has always been the raison d’être of the PMC. There is a service ethic, which can still be found among many professionals. There are also the usual number of corporate lackeys who will do anything they’re asked to, but the service ethic is something that is not appreciated enough.

Nor do professionals themselves appreciate how much this sense they are doing something worthwhile is also a part of the consciousness of blue-collar workers. I have a truck driver friend who likes to point out that every single thing I get in the supermarket was delivered there by truck. Nothing works without people like him. And although it’s getting harder and harder to take pride in jobs like that, as they’re more minutely monitored or surveilled, we should be able to build on that and connect broadly through that sense of pride and craft.

I’m surprised and taken aback by what I got from [Gabriel Winant’s] article. I got the sense within DSA, for example, “PMC” has become a slur of sorts?

Press: In parts of left media, including Jacobin—where I work—I think the term has become a shorthand to point out that the interests of, say, pundits, or wealthier Democratic primary voters, aren’t identical to those of working-class people. So it’s gained some currency in light of the 2020 presidential election in particular. But your 1977 essays also have some bearing on analyzing DSA’s composition—there’s something similar happening now that is not unlike how you looked at the New Left’s composition in the original essay.

Ehrenreich: It’s interesting, but I hate to see “PMC” turned into an ultraleft slur. We’re going to have to work together! You’re probably college-educated yourself.

Press: So what would you say to anyone who thinks members of the PMC are more or less irrelevant for the left, either because they’re strategically useless compared to the power of, say, the industrial working class to disrupt capital, or because they’re irredeemable, condemned always to serve as an adjunct to capital?

Ehrenreich: Well, [“PMC” as a term] is becoming less important as this polarization goes on within the professions, such as college teaching. The few people who are at the top are not going to very readily take up the fights of adjuncts, much less of the sanitation workers on campus. When my book Nickel and Dimed came out, I was traveling around the country and speaking on college campuses and trying to tell students that their education is being provided not just by administrators and professors, but by everyone else including the people who clean the classrooms at night. And that they had to look around and make common cause with the people on campus who were being ground down by low wages.

Press: There are interesting examples of just that sort of coalition today. Tech workers—highly paid engineers—organizing alongside third-party, low-wage contractors at their companies, like janitorial or cafeteria staff. Or take the teachers’ strikes: in Chicago right now, the teachers are out alongside the SEIU Local 73 service workers.

Ehrenreich: Well, that’s thrilling. I’m very glad to hear it. Sometimes, like in healthcare, it’s very hard to get nurses to form alliances with the technicians and even the lower-level nursing staff. And that’s because nurses have such a fragile grip on professionalism themselves. They’re still not taken seriously by doctors and administrators. I can understand it, but these are the things organizers have to work on step by step.

Press: When you wrote the original PMC essay, there was an emerging analysis on the right, among neoconservatives, about the so-called “New Class.” Today, there’s an equivalent of sorts, a right-wing populism that draws on the likes of James Burnham and will even at times criticize global capitalism in favor of an emphasis on the nation-state, and on white Americans in particular. But it’s done in a classic bait-and-switch fashion, offering traditionally reactionary economic policies.

I’m thinking of Richard Spencer, Tucker Carlson, and Josh Hawley—the Republican Senator from Missouri. They all come from a PMC background themselves. What do you make of this milieu?

Ehrenreich: It’s a painful subject. I’ve always wanted a left-wing populism that could reach out to the same sorts of people [the right-wing populists are targeting]. Their hypocrisy, of course, knows no bounds: if you or I were to suddenly get a lot of media attention for our denunciations of capitalism, they would be all over us for our privileged lives, I guarantee, no matter how unprivileged you may feel. You know, “why aren’t you taking in a bunch of asylum seekers in your apartment?” and so on. They insist on some kind of extreme altruism on the far left but see no contradiction between what they’re doing and the effects on working-class people of what they’re saying—they don’t see that it applies to them.

In 2016, I suddenly became very popular with the media. I started getting all these calls to explain “What is this white working class? Do I know any of them?” The extreme gap between our media and the working class seems to me at times unbridgeable. In the nineties, I was working with an editor at a liberal women’s magazine. I’d wanted to write something about “why not marry blue-collar men?” instead of all the “searching for someone who’s richer, taller” pieces. The editor listened to this pitch and then said—referencing the blue-collar man—“but can they talk?” I was aghast. I was in fact actually married to [a blue-collar man] at the time—after my marriage to John, I ended up with one of those warehouse workers I mentioned who was in NAM. And he was and is an intellectual; he’s read far more Marx than I have.

Press: How do we recognize the similarities between people of different class positions without papering over or flattening the differences?

Ehrenreich: It deserves very serious discussion. For example, we should ask: what bad habits do we bring to a mixed-class situation, and what good habits? We must think this through a lot more. I’m very worried now thinking of something like DSA, that the working-class impression will be that we’re a bunch of scolds, telling people that they’re racist, that they’re homophobic. And sometimes, before you’ve even got a word out of your mouth, some people are cringing because they think that’s what you’re going to say to them. We can’t organize like that. But I don’t know these answers.

Press: What’s the PMC’s relationship to the Democratic Party?

Ehrenreich: The Democratic Party really let down the American working class in the nineties and thereafter: Clinton, Obama. People are right to be skeptical, though the forms that skepticism takes are all too often racist. It was so clear when Hillary Clinton was running, because she exemplifies PMC values—the technocratic aspect anyway: get a bunch of experts from Harvard and MIT in the same room and we’ll figure out a solution. And Obama did the same kind of thing: when he came into office, he called in televised, high-level meetings on the economy, and all the people around the table were businessmen.

Press: What do you make of the momentum that emerged around the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016?

Ehrenreich: It’s wonderful. I supported Sanders four years ago. This time I don’t want to get into it—I got very mad a few months ago at the lefties on social media attacking each other. I worry when the left puts too much emphasis on electoral politics, especially national electoral politics. That goes back to my days in DSA and the fights that would ensue over whether DSA should endorse this candidate or that candidate for president. Come on, it doesn’t really matter. The one time it mattered to me was when Jesse Jackson was running. Mike Harrington and his folks were against endorsing Jackson. It wasn’t like endorsing would make a big difference to Jackson or anyone else, but I thought it’d be a nice gesture: you have somebody you agree with, you should back them up.

But mostly, I think that it’s foolish to think the endorsement of an organization with 60,000 members is going to affect major elections.

Press: You mention DSA. So, NAM, which you were a part of, folds, and you’re part of creating DSA. Can you talk about those years?

Ehrenreich: With a certain amount of ambivalence and regret.

I opposed the merger of NAM and DSOC [the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee]. That’s how NAM disappeared; it merged with DSOC to make DSA. I opposed the merger for political reasons. I knew Mike Harrington basically from debating him in public on all sorts of issues. It’s embarrassing, because now when I look back, I ask: why did I accept the co-chair position [of DSA]? And all I can say is, well, vanity! Vanity was some part of it. And the thought that I could have an influence. I didn’t realize what I was up against.

Press: What do you mean by that? How were the years of co-chairing DSA and working with Harrington?

Ehrenreich: Well, this could be a whole essay—something I write just before I die. It wasn’t easy. There were great people in DSA at this point: Cornel West and Frances Fox Piven were friends of mine. But there was also this core that had come from the DSOC strain of thought—it was very strongly anti-communist socialism—and we weren’t shaped by that very much. Being anti-Soviet did not mean that we were obsessed with being anti-communist at all.

Press: During that period, the power of the socialist left is in decline, and so is that of organized labor. What was the left’s relationship to the unions?

Ehrenreich: NAM didn’t have any formal relation to unions. I mean, a lot of our members were union members or even organizers, or organizers of dissident movements within unions, so there was certainly a connection, but it was not like the connection that DSOC had. Mike cultivated personal relationships with a number of labor leaders—some of whom were great, like [William] Winpisinger from the machinists’ union. There were very good people among them, but it also meant that DSOC had to stay within the parameters set by union leaders, which meant a preoccupation with the old working class that was being destroyed at the time. There was a new working class coming up that was more women, more people of color, yet DSOC’s politics were still stuck with the old leadership.

I didn’t understand why we had to be so damn deferential to union leaders.

Press: Compared to, say, rank-and-file workers?

Ehrenreich: Exactly. And to provide solidarity when there were strikes and so on. But I just couldn’t see taking political leadership from these guys.

Press: What is the difference in what you wanted and what those guys wanted?

Ehrenreich: When you’re talking about union leaders, you’re talking about people who at that time ran very big organizations involving a lot of money. It’s a cultural thing, in part—I came out of the New Left of the sixties. We were pro-union, but saw unions as quite limited in their aspirations.

After I wrote Nickel and Dimed, I was invited to speak to AFL-CIO leadership. It was a full room, maybe fifty people, in their big palace in Washington, D.C. And I was talking about the complete lack of rights workers have at work: speech, assembly, privacy—they have nothing. And the response was “Well, when they join unions they’ll have all those rights.” Bullshit! That’s not something unions have put forward. Unions didn’t fight, for example, pre-employment drug-testing—which I think is now becoming recognized as a major privacy issue. They were not interested in democratizing the workplace.

So there’s a huge chasm really between my kind of politics and the kind I found in the DSOC part of DSA. They quickly abolished the position of co-chairs [after Michael Harrington’s death] because they’d be left with, well, me. I don’t want to be a buzzkill for DSA here, but people should know it was always fractious.

Press: Some of the tension you lived through is being reproduced now. There’s a questioning of how white-collar workers build a coalition with working-class people, and the question of how these workers’ identities factor in comes up a lot; it can complicate things. Surely part of the reason you were originally grappling with the concept of the PMC was because of the problem of this inwardness, or individualism, that professional-class people were hung up on. After all, it’s the nature of the PMC that it will be constantly articulating itself, reflecting on itself, and so on—that’s their job. But it can get in the way of building power.

Ehrenreich: Or making any kind of human connection to other people. I’ll give you another anecdote—though this is not about DSA. In 2009, there was an event—part of an international series of socialist gatherings—in Detroit. There was a workshop at this conference, and I had invited a group of working-class people from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who I had become close to. About six or seven of them drove from Fort Wayne to Detroit, and they were mostly laid-off foundry workers: stereotypical white men—though, actually, not all of them were white. I was closest with one of them, Tom Lewandowski, who created a workers’ organization and was the head of the Central Labor Council in the Fort Wayne area. [At the event], they talked about what they were facing in the recession. And then some woman in the room who was an adjunct professor suddenly says, “I’m tired of listening to white men talk.”

I was so aghast. Of course, it was a big setback for my friends from Fort Wayne, who were humiliated. I advised Tom not to get into settings where he would be subjected to that ever again. There has to be a way to say to such people, look, we know you probably aren’t doing great as an adjunct, but have some respect for other people’s work and their experience, and recognize that they are different from you in some way. I’ve just had too many encounters like that, which are kind of heartbreaking.

Do you see that kind of thing?

Press: I do, yes. I think that’s related to what I meant by a particularly individualistic understanding of identity—which seems like an obstacle.

Ehrenreich: Right, yeah. Why can’t we do a better job of making this argument? Every time I question identity politics, some feminist friend of mine is going to jump on me.

Press: I do think it’s possible to do, but yes, to your point, it can be hard to be critical while also being very clear that the criticism isn’t coming from being against feminism, or against anti-racism, but from those exact commitments, and an assessment of what’s necessary for building a mass movement.

Ehrenreich: Which means putting together a new kind of class out of some of the parts of the old one. We don’t want to turn class into just another dimension of identity, since class is always aspirational in the sense of trying to connect people who haven’t been connected before, even if they have the same kinds of jobs.

Press: What do you mean by that?

Ehrenreich: Well, class has elements of identity. If I’m just navel-gazing, I’d say yeah, some part of my identity does come from the old industrial working class, just family-wise. Another part comes from being a woman, and so on. But we’re trying to reach beyond these limits, and some of these divisions too, and that’s the challenge.

I think what that requires from the PMC, first of all, is a little humility. Listen to people. That goddamn adjunct professor should’ve thought about what it is that foundry workers do all day, and used it as a learning experience if nothing else. It’s a problem, and I’ve seen it in among union people, too—not an expressed contempt for their members, but a willingness to use “ordinary workers” as exhibits of sorts: “Okay, now we’re going to have so-and-so speak about her experience trying to get some control over her schedule,” but after that, they shut them up. It reminds me of a time I got really mad at one union person and told her “Hey, they’re the ones who are going to lead this movement. You can help, but that’s all.”

Alex Press is an assistant editor at Jacobin. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, Vox, and n+1, among many other places.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of over a dozen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. She lives in Virginia.