Catherine Liu Hates Her Friends
A review of Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class
Who are the members of the professional managerial class? Neither capitalists nor workers, one strains to define them in purely economic terms. If you have ever dealt with members of the PMC, the first word that comes to mind is annoying. It might be part of a slightly larger summation of annoying and pretentious. But annoying is always going to make the cut because members of the PMC are not just managers by vocation, but also by personality. They love to regulate and micromanage: their subordinates, their children, and even themselves.
Is it due to nature or nature? Occupational hazard or innate insufferableness? No one really knows for sure. What is known is that these are the most annoying people on the planet. People who get positively aroused at the idea of telling you what to do, correcting you, and telling you that they just read an article in The New York Times about just that issue and now have something old to say in a new way. A day without them giving out a did you know factoid is like a day without sunshine. The type of people who can only have an orgasm if they see someone getting a parking ticket.
Catherine Liu lives among these people and seems rather fed up. Her new book Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class makes it crystal clear that she is having a lot of passive-aggressive lunch meetings with other members of the University of California, Irvine faculty.
Liu admits the book is a polemic against the PMC, which is refreshing if for no other reason than most of the work posing as professional scholarship on politics and culture today makes polemical arguments under the guise of sober expertise. There is nothing more PMC than laundering your particular personal agenda under the mask of objective technical analysis.
However, Liu focuses on another way the PMC mask their will to power: moral preening. She claims the professional managerial class hoards virtue for itself as part of its war against the working class. Which is to say, Liu recognizes that the PMC and the working class are, in fact, class enemies.
Building on the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, she accepts that the PMC at one time played a positive role in society by challenging the barbarity of earlier iterations of capitalism; specifically when members of the PMC were advocates for creating professional standards in fields like medicine and social research, and were advocating for welfare state economic reforms. But as the post-World War 2 capitalist settlement soured and neoliberalism became ascendant, Liu claims “the PMC preferred to fight culture wars against the classes below while currying favor with the capitalists it once despised.”
This was not a moral awakening, but an awokening. A power play by the PMC to secure their class position within the capitalist system using the lofty language of social justice to defend basic material interest.
Liu analyzes some of the tactics the PMC use to mystify class relations, and concludes that “whenever it addresses economic crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into passion plays, focusing on individual acts of ‘giving back’ or reified forms of self-transformation.”
Think global, act local. And what is more local than yourself? I just ate some fully organic non-GMO trail mix. I’m saving the world one nutty crap at a time. You’re welcome.
But it goes beyond delusional upper class savior complexes and I’m a good person branding exercises. There is an underlying logic to the mystification of class relations by the PMC as Liu says that “As a class the PMC loves to talk about bias rather than inequality, racism rather than capitalism, visibility rather than exploitation.”
Is there any doubt that this is so? For when it comes to economic exploitation, the PMC has a PhD in changing the subject. They manage to always come up with an explanation for economic problems that ensures the blame never falls on capitalism itself. We could have higher wages if people stopped being racist!
Liu breaks down her analysis of the PMC into their standpoint on: professionalism, child-rearing, art, and sex. Mercifully, the book is a short read (77 pages in my copy) because the PMC are some of the most trite and boring people you will ever encounter and reading about their lifestyle and cultural pretensions is less pleasant than listening to one of those neurotic trust fund brats scream about a triggering Halloween costume.
The main argument of the book, or so it seems to me, is that the professional managerial class of present is actively working against building socialism in the United States. That the PMC could really be considered the prime obstacle to unifying the working class as they continually divide working people along the rigid lines of identity to serve their own class interests:
[The PMC] prefers obscurantism, balkanization, and management of interest groups to a transformative reimagining of the social order. It wants to play the virtuous social hero, but as a class, it is hopelessly reactionary. The interests of the PMC are now tied more than ever to its corporate overlords than to the struggles of the majority of Americans whose suffering is merely background decor for the PMC’s elite volunteerism. Members of the PMC soften the sharpness of their guilt about collective suffering by stroking their credentials and telling themselves that they are better and more qualified to lead and guide than other people.
Looks like someone just got herself uninvited to an 80s party.
Regardless of all the offense that will be taken at Liu’s argument by her colleagues, the claim has a lot of merit. Yes, the PMC are tools for the bourgeoisie. So they are not the ruling class, but how seriously would anyone take rich CEOs if they said they did not want to increase compensation for workers because the workers were not morally righteous enough?
Yeah, not very seriously at all. Almost everyone would see through it as a cynical ploy to secure profits by keeping labor costs down.
Enter the PMC and their priestly woke lexicon and suddenly we are talking about diversity and inclusion, instead of wages and benefits. Being seen, instead of being paid. And feeling empowered, instead of having power.
Not a bad trick, really.
The book starts off with a focus on one PMC pathology that gets far too little attention: love of transgression. Whereas before the PMC promoted professional standards and tried rationalizing some of the social chaos unleashed by capitalism, today’s PMC tramples on standards and calls it sophistication.
Liu appears to have a particular grudge against postmodernism. She begins with the Sokal Affair and shows that despite the short term victory of embarrassing a postmodern journal by getting them to publish gibberish under the label of “postmodern physics”, the victims of the deception had the last laugh. Sokal actually lost the long game and the academy is now firmly in the hands of charlatans who are infecting every other subject on campus with their diseased anti-thought. Physics will not be safe for long.
The love of transgression is particularly noticeable in the visual art the PMC promotes. It celebrates ugliness and flattens any attempt at transcendence. The aesthetic value either does not matter beyond having the right message, or is purposely revolting in hopes of provoking a reaction of disgust. In the end, despite all its faux-rebelliousness, it is fundamentally a commercial endeavor. The PMC encourages mediocre art because good art defies easy explanation and confounds emotional control. You might even feel something you don’t want to. I did not consent!
In the chapter called “The PMC Has Children”, Liu identifies the cause of PMC helicopter parenting by saying that, for PMC parents, children “amplify social anxieties about competition.” This leads to PMC child-rearing becoming almost a contradiction in terms. Children are not raised so much as obsessively supervised to the point of psychosis. It would almost be better if the children actually were their parent’s employees, for then they would at least have some modicum of legal protection from being dragooned into becoming instruments for their parent’s endless quest for greater social status.
That an addiction to status competition colors every aspect of PMC parental life is not a surprise because - unlike other social classes - the professional managerial class has to go to immense lengths to reproduce itself each generation via educational and professional achievements. The relentless focus on credentials is a feature not a bug. There are only so many spots within the elite managerial system, so credentialing is really a mechanism to block competitors in a zero sum game.
To be fair, there has always been this kind of odious striving by members of classes who fear losing their position, and it often manifests itself by parents projecting their fears onto their children. And, of course, there have always been people whose entire life is defined by total preoccupation with status, with personifying social anxiety-induced butt sweat. But the current PMC in the United States is such an anomalously large class due to the vicissitudes of history that the scale is unprecedented. The scolding has gone nuclear as a generation of people see the doors to elite careers closing before them - just out of reach.
Given the intensity of the class anxiety right now in the core of America’s declining empire, photoshopping your child’s head onto someone else’s body to pretend they are a student athlete to get them into an upper class college seems almost… inevitable?
In the section entitled “The PMC reads a book”, Liu connects the class politics of the PMC with the desperately overwrought praise for To Kill A Mockingbird, a book that made a decent impact during its time, but has since ascended to stratospheric cultural heights. This canonical success is, according to Liu, because the book’s simplistic moralizing on class and race flatters the prejudices of the PMC.
Liu says that “Liberals have abandoned history, because they believe they are superior to the elites of the past and the contemporary working class at the same time.” And, wow, is the fawning treatment of this book a case in point.
To Kill a Mockingbird is the perfect PMC book because the hero of the story, Atticus Finch, is an educated professional who overcomes the provincial biases of his surroundings to achieve professional success and moral righteousness. The villains are dumb working class bigots who get their comeuppance by a superior, more cosmopolitan intellect. The message is clear: the educated upper classes are the enlightened ones, and only poor, ignorant fools are racist.
Yeah, that is a rather strange presentation of the history of racism in the American South.
White supremacy was never an exclusively white working class pursuit in the south (or north for that matter). In fact, it was the explicit elite ideology of the commercial oligarchs who ruled the United States; in its earliest forms as articulated by Thomas Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia, through the race eugenics movement exemplified by Princeton University president turned U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, and only (at least formally) repudiated with the Cold War legal and social reforms of the 1960s. Even today, it is not workers but the educated upper classes that books like The Bell Curve pander to. Such a belief in intrinsic superiority is necessary to uphold the myth of a meritocratic elite. Oligarchy loves a mask.
The author of To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, tried to offer a more complete picture of life in the south of her childhood in her sequel, Go Set a Watchmen. In the book, the courthouse hero of yore admits he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This tracks much better with the reality of race and class in the American South.
The founding members of the KKK were the elite of southern society, not the dregs. They were members of the defeated planter class fighting to reclaim their power after losing the Civil War, and then after winning back much of that power, they fought to maintain it against challenges by a series of social and economic justice movements through the years that culminated in the success of the Civil Rights movement. This is why so many southern politicians - of both major political parties - pandered to the Klan, or were actually members themselves.
A young ambitious lawyer like Atticus Finch seeking to achieve status and rank in southern society would surely don the white robes if he wanted to someday don black ones. Klan members were less Deliverance, and more Dallas.
Liu also notes a much more compelling reason that the PMC love that damn book. “PMC elites, consciously or unconsciously, want to humiliate their adversaries by attributing to them a desperate lack of intelligence, empathy, and virtue.”
I will defer on whether To Kill A Mockingbird is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the PMC’s worldview - Liu makes a strong case - and instead connect that need to humiliate the proles to a figure whose works have become required viewing for every PMC failchild throughout the land, Aaron Sorkin.
When it comes to absolutely loving to humiliate an adversary by attributing to them a lack of intelligence, empathy, and virtue; no one beats Sorkin. In the pilot episode of what has tragically become a must watch show for aspiring liberal politicos, The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet makes his first appearance on screen when a fictional leader of the Christian Right inexplicably cannot remember the First Commandment (Seriously?). Bartlet bursts into the scene to both correct the foolish deplorable and pontificate on the true meaning of the Bible, all while righteously slamming the Christian Right members for being soft on right wing terrorism. The show goes downhill from there.
I wish I could overstate how influential Sorkin has been on the PMC brain. Sorkin himself acknowledges his work is geared towards upper class liberals, and revealed in an Aspen Institute interview with David Brooks (because of course) that The West Wing pilot bombed in its first test screening in 1999, and was only saved by Warner Brothers convening another test screening made up of viewers who: came from households making over $75,000 a year, had at least one person in the household that was college educated, had a home subscription to The New York Times, and had home internet access (relatively rare in ‘99). And scene.
Liu claims that “To the majority of non-college people, the PMC increasingly appear as pedantic, hypocritical, and punishing.” That is a description of basically every Sorkin lead character, which he took almost to the point of self-parody in The Newsroom. The show opens with an apocalyptic PMC rant about how terrible it is no one trusts liberal institutions anymore, complete with a barrage of factoids to show the main character, Will McAvoy, definitely Did The Reading. The show goes downhill from there.
In recent years, Sorkin has returned to his first love, the stage. He even put on a new play during the Trump years to reassure the PMC that their smug sense of superiority was justified despite Hillary Clinton losing the election to a deranged game show host; a theatrical adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
From the PMC’s worship of To Kill a Mockingbird Liu moves on to “The PMC has Sex”, a title which upon first reading conjures up the idea of what it would be like to eat a gluten free cracker. But, no. You see, the PMC are the only people having good sex. Not good as in sexually satisfying. No. No. None of that. Good as in: righteous, appropriate, and correct. For they are above your petty attractions and ignorant infatuations. They do not have sex unless they have affirmative consent and a precise accounting of the power dynamics between all parties involved. Everyone else is engaging in immoral screwing. Shame on you!
That this attitude and corresponding pseudo-legal regime took over college campuses under President Obama’s tenure seemingly irked Liu to no end. She notes Rolling Stone’s epic fail of a story on a supposed gang rape at the University of Virginia - for which the magazine paid over $1 million to resolve - as indicative of the PMC’s need for a pretext to create a bureaucracy to meddle in people’s personal lives and justify their class.
She also takes a figure I had completely forgotten about to task, Emma Sulkowicz, the notorious “mattress girl.” Sulkowicz famously carried a mattress around with her while attending Columbia University, which she claimed she had been sexually assaulted on by a co-ed. She even made a pornographic video re-enacting her sexual encounter that undermined some of her own claims (Google it if you must, perv). And, after all was said and done, (you guessed it) another legal settlement was reached for the damage she caused.
In both cases, members of the PMC rallied around the supposed victims, only to learn that the due process standards they were actively destroying had been created for a reason, and that their peculiar understanding of human sexuality was not quite the orthodoxy. Not yet, anyway.
So, what have we learned? We learned that Catherine Liu hates her friends so much she wrote a book denouncing them. But, she made the case well. We can all agree, her friends are terrible. Team Liu.
And what about the professional managerial class? We learned that the “woke left” are really PMC failchildren trying to maintain their class position. That these middle class reactionaries use and abuse the language of social justice to mystify class relations because the reality is that most people, especially members of the working class, have no reason to support them or their class project. Only through deception and obfuscation can the PMC persist in their current position.
In the final analysis, any movement to build socialism in the United States will have to defeat the professional managerial class before moving on to the capitalist oligarchy. The PMC are not allies of the working class, but skilled and determined adversaries. They are the front line protecting the bourgeoisie. The only way is through.
While this seems like a tall order today, it is worth keeping in mind that part of the reason for the viciousness of woke identity politics is due to the PMC being slowly dismantled by the very capitalist system they so eagerly serve. With fewer and fewer positions available the intra-elite competition will only get fiercer. And despite their best efforts, many of them will be joining the working class soon enough. To which I say: Welcome home, Atticus.