Virtue hoarders | UC Irvine School of Humanities

Virtue hoarders

The UCI professor’s new book explores the ideology of the professional manager class

Can people who work as white-collar workers really be allies of the working class when they benefit from structures that oppress others? In Virtue Hoarders (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), Catherine Liu, Professor of Film and Media Studies at UCI, analyzes this class, the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), and explains what it sees as a hypocritical ideology.

In the following questions and answers, Liu breaks it down.

Your book is a polemic about the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC). Can you help us understand what the PMC is and who is a part of it?

The Professional Managerial Class is a layer of any complex capitalist society made up of respected elites holding influential positions in the creative professions and in liberal industry, academia, government, journalists, the NGO and foundation world as well hold in American companies. Does that sound too vague? They are employees who had to get professional certification to do what they do. At the beginning of the 20th century, they made up a small part of the population in the United States and were a mediator class between workers who worked with their bodies in indescribable conditions and capitalists who owned factories, oil wells, mines and steel mills, etc. and the were known as robber barons. In 1900 there were many more family businesses and small business owners in the United States. Today this part of the population is much smaller and the PMC is much larger: elites with expert credentials are experts, engineers, doctors and MBAs. They manage other people and their wealth and produce content, but the PMC cannot live on the interests of their wealth alone. You own a lot of American assets but have to go to work. They now make up around 25% of the workforce, but they wield inappropriate power over culture and ideology. The academy is a place where we train the Professional Managerial Classes. In orthodox Marxism they would be called the petty bourgeoisie. John and Barbara Ehrenreich, who developed the concept of the PMC, discovered in 1977 that they were a new class that had emerged in the United States and that they had adopted progressive policies and interests increasingly different from those of the workers.

You have identified aspects of a particular culture of the PMC (e.g. lifestyle and family) and argue that that culture has roots in the counterculture of the 1960s. Could you speak to this connection?

The avant-garde and most of the elite elements of the PMC believe that their consumption and living habits are anti-traditional and alternative, much like what hippies believed in the 1960s and 70s. They practice yoga, take part in new ways of raising children, only buy organic food, etc. Think Gwyneth Paltrow and her lifestyle brand GOOP. Just as the Age of Aquarius did not require political organization, the Age of PMC Enlightenment does not require the support of a redistributive economic policy, but a kind of individualized mindfulness and virtue that makes this class uniquely incapable of solidarity. The emergence of “alternatives” to reason gave birth to the New Age, an apolitical version of the counterculture that anti-Vaxxers have helped out. Indeed, in the 18th century there was heated debate over the newly invented smallpox vaccine: Religious believers feared vaccination and thought it would question God’s will. You would think the intelligentsia or the educated elites are for science and enlightenment, but the PMC no longer believe in the public exercise of reason as a public good. In the humanities, professors were the first to question universalism and reason itself as oppressive, and we have reaped what our countercultural ideals have sown.

Regarding PMC parenting, part of the book that has had a tremendous response, my class believes in optimizing a child’s capacity, either based on creativity or competition. We fear that our children will experience a decline in employability or living standards, but structurally, with the disappearance of a social safety net, a lack of jobs and the disastrous American health system, our children are objectively faced with a much more vicious and irreconcilable world. Focusing our fears on our children and parenting techniques only perpetuates the idea that individuals can come up with solutions to a horrific world.

You have also argued that the PMC is central to American politics today. Could you talk about some of the possibilities that are true?

The PMC seeks to camouflage its own interests as a class tied to material interests in order to support the work of capitalism and the capitalists, and therefore has spawned the ideology that upholds the status quo. I know that makes me sound like an old left person, which I probably am, but I’m not the type of guy who wears a tweed hat and yells at you in the street. I yell at you in print. There are many things that I am not going to say on such a forum because I am an employee of the university, but I think that my class and the way their interests at the university have been managed is just the inequalities and injustices of the reproduce social whole. The PMC wants to see itself as virtuous heroes in historical battles, but only reproduces the status quo very well. No more will I say except to express my daily disappointment that those of us with gold-plated health insurance don’t want this for every person in this country.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I hope to give people the words to describe the ideological oppression of our time. I’ve already had such a tremendous response to the book and I think that’s because I was there to mention something we all know and have experienced. From public school teachers to nurses, doctors, union organizers to workers referred to as “first generation students” in the academy, people have written to me privately about how angry, anxious and stressed they are about their working conditions and the ones Ideology behind these terms. A public school teacher who gave up PMC prestige described his training in the Peace Corps as indoctrination in an extreme form of PMC pluralism: he was told that he could never and would never understand the community in which he worked that he must accept “difference” and just keep silent about it. Medical residents have written me about COVID logs working inhuman hours but because they are desperate for a job they cannot complain. A former Google employee and organizer described management’s willingness to “listen” to complaints from employees, while quietly chasing out the loudest critics of Google’s discriminatory employment policy. I just give people critical tools to use to name the ideology we all suffer from. A common language is the beginning of solidarity. This book is my contribution to the public discourse. I can no longer hide behind the professional facade. I’m planning the next short polemic on the history and rhetoric of the trauma discourse in America after Reagan.

I’ve also gotten a lot of feedback from comedians who wrote to me that it’s impossible to write jokes in our extra woken up world. The book contains a lot of humor: laughter can set us free. I really think so. I laugh at my own terrible PMC internalized instincts every day.

Photo credit: DiverCity Productions

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