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Barbara and John Ehrenreich: The Real Story Behind the Crash and Burn of America's Managerial Class

How the rise and fall of the professional-managerial class has impacted the last hundred years.

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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.

 
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