Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class – An Essay-Review in Memory of Barbara Ehrenreich, 1941-2022

Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class – An Essay-Review in Memory of Barbara Ehrenreich, 1941-2022 1

Yves here. This essay does a fine job of describing and kneecapping the sense of privilege and entitlement of the professional managerial class, based on a recent book by Professor Catherine Liu. which in turn builds on the foundational work of Barbara and John Ehrenreich.

To add: Peter Drucker had celebrated the rise of managerialism, but he saw it as a necessary and virtuous adaptation to the way industrial enterprises had grown in size and scope. He did not tie the development of this cadre to education; indeed, most top managers and even CEOs had worked their way up through the ranks and their success was rarely a product of where they went to school and how well they had done. So there was a stage when managers in industry held a distinct position, but were no more “special” than the owner of the local car dealership.

Another issue is that the pretenses of the professional managerial class rest on the idea that they have earned their position, that they are the victors in a meritocratic system and therefore legitimately deserve to rule. See our discussion in the 2007 Conference Board Review article, Fit v. Fitness, “The Illusion of Meritocracy.”

By KLG, who has held research and academic positions in three US medical schools since 1995 and is currently Professor of Biochemistry and Associate Dean. He has performed and directed research on protein structure, function, and evolution; cell adhesion and motility; the mechanism of viral fusion proteins; and assembly of the vertebrate heart. He has served on national review panels of both public and private funding agencies, and his research and that of his students has been funded by the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, and National Institutes of Health

“For as long as most of us can remember, the professional-managerial class (PMC) has been fighting a class war, not against capitalists or capitalism, but against the working classes.”  So begins the short but essential book Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class, by Catherine Liu, a professor of film and media studies at University of California-Irvine.  It will be nothing new to anyone here that the PMC was defined in Radical America[1] (pdf) in 1977 in two essays by Barbara and John Ehrenreich:

A middle class category of workers (that) must be understood as comprising a distinct class in monopoly capitalist society…The PMC as we will define it exists in an objectively antagonist relationship to another class of wage earners (whom we shall simply call the ‘working class’).  Nor can it be considered to be a ‘residual’ class like the petty bourgeois; it is formation specific to the monopoly stage of capitalism.  It is only in the light of this analysis, we believe, that it is possible to understand the role of technical, professional, and managerial workers in advanced capitalist society and in radical movements…We define the PMC has as consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function is the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.

Aside from a few updates such as “late neoliberal capitalism” as a natural progression from “monopoly capitalism” described by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy and Harry Braverman, this definition holds up 45 years later.

The Ehrenreich’s second essay (pdf) placed the New Left and PMC in context and foreshadowed much of the subsequent history of the PMC.  There have been more than a few quibbles about the analytical rigor of the concept of the Professional-Managerial Class, but quibbles they are, generally coming out of an evergreen and irresistible sectarianism on the Left.  What is class?  Marx, Weber, Durkheim?  My priors are those of a layman but lie with G.A. Cohen and Erik Olin Wright, for example, along with Vivek Chibber’s recent The Class Matrix plus work from Adolph Reed Jr, Touré F. Reed, and Cedric Johnson.

But as a thoroughly working-class kid who became a de facto member of the PMC by virtue of stubbornness plus some lack of imagination, and not a little good fortune in climbing the greasy pole of academic biomedical science, I know it when I see it.  Above all, the PMC are those to whom we must listen.  Always, and with no exceptions.  And therein lies the problem, ours and theirs.

Following the Ehrenreich’s work, Professor Liu notes that the PMC has vestigial memories of a time when they were truly progressive, when they “once supported working-class militancy in its epic struggles against robber barons and capitalists like (Mr. and) Mrs. Leland Stanford, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Mellon…”  Yes.  In this regard the PMC sees itself as the heirs of Jane Addams of Hull House, who did actually minister to the left out and left behind; John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen, who did seek to establish the university as a disinterested seeker of truth.

But today the PMC goes to Stanford (Hi, Rachel! where an “A-minus” is the “C” of yesterday) and its members “view private foundations bearing those same names as models of philanthropy and sources of critical funding and recognition.”  Yes.

And they still view themselves as “heroes of history,” but to extend the original conception of the PMC, they find the “working class is not a group they find worth saving, because by PMC standards, they do not behave properly: they are either disengaged politically or too angry to be civil.”  Yes.

“Liberal members of the credentialed classes love to use the word empower when they talk about ‘people,’ but the use of that verb objectifies the recipients of their help while implying that the people have no access to power without them.”  Yes.

And essential to this essay at making a little sense of the world,

The PMC as a proxy for today’s ruling class is shameless about hording all forms of secularized virtue: whenever it addresses a political and economic (and public health) crisis produced by capitalism itself, the PMC reworks political struggles for policy change and redistribution into individual passion plays, focusing its efforts on individual acts of giving back or reified forms of self-transformation.  It finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people (including all of those in flyover country, whatever their occupation).

Yes.  And finally, one more “Yes”:

 If PMC “politics amount to little more than virtue signaling, it loves nothing more than moral panics to incite its members to ever more pointless forms of pseudo-politics and hypervigilance…PMC virtue hoarding is the insult added to injury when white-collar managers, having downsized their blue-collar workforce, then disparage them for their bad taste in literature, bad diets, unstable families, and deplorable (Thanks, Hillary!) child-rearing habits.


No one could appreciate a good polemic more than I do (from either the Left or Right; such a thing is impossible from the mushy middle, whatever Arthur Schlesinger Jr. thought about a Vital Center).  Virtue Hoarders is one of the best I have read, ever.  What follows is my short, discursive response to the book, 80 pages of one jewel[2] after another on professionalism, political economy, family, education, and, of course, sex in the current world.

A reasonable question: Why did this little but powerful book resonate with me?

Primarily for the simple reason that I am a dual citizen of the two worlds in conflict, first by virtue of origin during the middle of the Baby Boom in a working-class, union household and culture that was perhaps unusually cosmopolitan at that time in the South.  And second by current membership in the PMC as a first-generation college student who became an academic scientist after serving at every level in the university from lab dishwasher to Professor/Associate Dean. 

Throughout my working life it has become clear to me that one sees, first but thankfully not only, what one is conditioned to see.  Not that I believe for a minute my perspective is especially privileged, but it has been relatively rare among my colleagues since I was the dishwasher in that laboratory.

So, why the mutual antipathy between the PMC and the non-PMC?  The idea of Meritocracy[3] comes first on my list. 

Although no statement should ever be prefaced with “Quite simply,” it is still a simple truth that the PMC views itself as the “betters” of “the other”, because of education, training, professional status, and presumed entitlement.  And this is why only the obtuse will fail to heed the will of the PMC.  The PMC cannot fail, it can only be failed. 

A funny thing about the definition of “the other” in PMC World is that it has no apparent limits.  Virtue Hoarders covers several recent striking aspects of this attitude (Chapter 2: Transgressing the Boundaries of Professionalism), so I will consider COVID-19 as another example of the power (and ultimate futility) of the PMC. 

From the beginning the PMC has been alternately hysterical or sanguine about the current pandemic.  This is covered daily here at Naked Capitalism, but it remains true that the much of what we have been told by our betters at CDC, NIH, FDA, the biomedical establishment, and Big Pharma regarding the pandemic and the damage it has done has been handed down by authority and authority alone.  From a short review I wrote about mRNA vaccines in January 2021:

 They (Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) are also the first two mRNA vaccines against a virus to be approved for use in humans.  Since the Zika virus epidemic in the Americas in 2015-2016, Zika vaccines based on mRNA have been in development.  Results are promising and these vaccines have worked in experimental animals.  But there is still no Zika vaccine currently available to prevent Zika infection and disease in human populations. 

And while adoptive immunotherapy for cancer has shown remarkable (if narrow) success, cancer vaccines based on mRNA technology are not in widespread use, despite the first proof-of-principle in 1995.  Notwithstanding the success in developing them and getting both COVID-19 mRNA vaccines to the clinic in record time, these vaccines are experiments in every way that matters.  Early results indicate they may be effective.  Under pandemic circumstances they are the right thing to do, primarily because they can be done right now.  No disinterested scientist and physician is likely to go any further than that.  That is not necessarily a fundamental problem with these vaccines, either.  Sometimes we must act in the here and now.  This is one of those times.


Two years later it is still one of those times, and we seem to be at sea regarding vaccination for SARS-CoV-2.  This experiment has failed to produce a distinctly positive result. 

Yes, perhaps disease is milder in the vaccinated, which is a clinical endpoint not considered two years ago and could be due in part to better clinical management of disease. 

But no, COVID-19 is not a pandemic of the unvaccinated.  Long COVID is a mystery, but very real and even more troubling.  These vaccines prevent neither transmission or disease, which is the natural expectation of the people, including physicians in their clinics and the “great unwashed” who persist in asking for the truth just as disinterested scientists would. 

Yet any criticism of the vaccines or advocacy for complementary approaches, pharmaceutical and physical, even from other erstwhile members of the PMC, are still often met with outright derision, as we can see here, where the nation’s leading infectious disease expert conflates science with something altogether different, authority. And authority is the stock in trade of the PMC.  Along with it running mate, the Noble Lie, going back to Plato.  We can all, including those disrespectful PMC-adjacent middle-class Westerners, get with the program or remain beyond help.  And understanding.

Pivoting back to Virtue Hoarders, the PMC notion of the family is represented very well by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfield of Yale Law School[4].  The former is most well-known for Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.  And together they later published The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise of Cultural Groups in America[5], a book that proved (the imaginary vulgar) Marx right by being “purely determined by the ‘material life conditions’ of its authors.” 

As Professor Liu puts it, in the default mode of the PMC in late neoliberal capitalism, in the United States “there is no polity, no class, no society, no collective endeavor, no social responsibility…only cultural groups vying for advantages…America will be a better place when there are only successful and unsuccessful individuals…competing on a level playing field,” to which they all drove in their Tesla, preferably a long-range Model S

That “good enough mother and father” who care for their children as best they can in their community, described by D.W. Winnicott almost 60 years ago?  They remain largely outside the imagination of the PMC and remain unrecognized and unappreciated, but not by those of us who teach and attempt to mentor their high-achieving adult students. When these students err, they admit they should have paid more attention to the schedule or the syllabus; such behavior is usually a one-off thing.  The students with helicopter (more and more like a predator drone these days) parents?  While not yet quite in the majority, they do require disproportionate attention.  And one does worry about them. 

The “good enough” mother and father are likely to produce a human being who will grow into a mature adult who is at one with the world.  The perfect helicopter parent often produces fear and misery, which with lucky outcomes will not lead to catastrophe.  But few of those bathed in the backwash of that rotor, however outwardly successful, are likely to ever be fully independent.

It has become clear that  “PMC elite workers (still) see themselves as the makers of history…laboring in a world of statistics, analytics, projections, predictions and identify performativity, virtue signaling , and affectual production.” While everyone else is just laboring in the world at something unimportant (more on that in a moment).  
But getting back to Barbara and John Ehrenreich, this is not sustainable: Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class (pdf).  Neoliberalism has finally and thoroughly caught up with the PMC, and the result is not pretty. 

From the beginning, the PMC was the intermediary and enforcer between the owners of the means of production, whether these were individual capitalists or large corporations, and the working class.  This engendered “a complex mixture of deference and hostility on the part of working-class people and paternalism and contempt on the part of the PMC.”  

The so-called “liberal professions” of medicine and law remained outside the corporate framework until fairly recently.  Now, not so much.  The true owners have reasserted themselves and animus against the liberal professions is “surpassed only (very slightly) by neoliberal hostility to what conservatives (and this includes all Liberals with a capital “L”) have described as the underclass.” 

The liberal professions have been crushed, generally with glee: journalism; education at every level where tenure, which should attach to all jobs after a suitable probationary period (5-12 years in colleges and universities), is despised especially among the professoriate; healthcare, where the MBA reigns supreme and doctors and nurses have little to say about the management of “non-profit” hospitals with billion-dollar reserves.  

The same holds true for universities with their multi-billion dollar “endowments” and a faculty full of adjuncts with no power, no future, and no real reason to care for their students other than an innate love of their students and the art of teaching.  Which does not pay the bills very well for very long.

So, basically what has happened, except at the highest reaches of a greasy pole that nevertheless gets thinner and shakier as it rises, is that the PMC now suffers the fate of the industrial working class, which began an uninterrupted losing streak at end of the Great Compression (pdf) in the mid-1970s. 

I remember this personally, because I worked for a year during 1973 and 1974 in a heavy chemical plant at a union wage of approximately $45,000 per year in current dollars. This, beginning as a 17-year-old high school graduate.  With the Recession of 1975, that job disappeared.  By the early 1990s the plant had been abandoned after it was sold by the large transnational corporation that opened it in the 1950s with a core of union workers from Syracuse (NY).  Production of essential chemicals was “offshored,” most likely to South Asia. 

But what galls the PMC the most, is “their original dream – of a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited professionals – has been discredited,” and their common lament that the people just won’t listen to reason remains unheard by their objects.  The vestigial sense that the PMC is doing “God’s work” has no current resonance with anyone outside their own echo chamber, which is loudest at the usual places: MSNBC, NPR, NYT, WSJ, The Nation, and the outer reaches of the Financial Times

Is there a way out of this?  Can the PMC return to the days of Jane Addams and John Dewey?  Yes.  But as an obligate appurtenance of Big Capital?  No. 

 [Any] renewal of oppositional spirit among the Professional-Managerial Class, or what remains of it, needs to start from an awareness that what has happened to the professional middle class has long since happened to the blue-collar working class.  Those of us who have college and higher degrees have proved to be no more indispensable, as a group, to the American capitalist  enterprise than those who have honed their skills on assembly lines or in warehouses of foundries.


This has always been true, but now that truth hurts.  And what remains of the working class does not really care, though there was a time when the working class did listen.  During the Great Compression, for example. 

My one observation, made soon after I began my first professional job as a scientific worker at the age of 19 remains valid: The primary problem with the PMC is that too few of them have ever needed to work for a living, said work meaning whatever was available at whatever wage that would keep one from starving on the street[6].  If the PMC had a better understanding of the human condition, we would not be in the place we are, as I give the final word to Catherine Liu’s final words in Virtue Hoarders:

 The PMC has refused to name the economic system that has ruined our planet, undermined our trust in public institutions, destroyed public health, diminished our childhoods, and litigated our pleasures.  Neither evil nor virtuous, the PMC is a secular and material antagonist.  In calling out the capitalism as the enemy of the people, we must also name our enemy’s most assiduous courtier and sycophant: the professional managerial class.


Ouch!  That left a mark!  But one that was needed, in the spirit of Barbara Ehrenreich.


[1] Radical America was one of the “little magazines” I read back in the day, largely because there was a newsstand across the street from my university that carried a substantial selection of such publications: Dissent, Working Papers for a New Society (edited by the young Robert Kuttner IIRC), In These Times, Dollars & Sense, etc.  And from the other side Commentary and The Public Interest, to be joined later by explicit responses to the Powell Memo (1971) such First Things, City Journal, and The New Criterion.  The most recent serious attempt at High Liberalism is Liberties, edited by Leon Wieseltier, formerly of the New Republic, and naturally the lucid, go-to place for the Liberal View of All Things.  Alas, that newsstand (does anyone even remember newsstands?) is long gone, as are the long rows of books in history, sociology, philosophy, and political economy to be found in my University Bookstore, which was a revelation to me and where one could find Perry Anderson and Herman Kahn, Milton Friedman and Michael Harrington, Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin, Ronald Dworkin and A.J. Ayer, Charles Murray, John Rawls, Alistair MacIntyre.  Now the choices in the same floor space are various and sundry versions of ugly, university-approved and trademarked ($$), apparel and nick-nicks from all the usual suspects: Nike, Adidas, Champion, Under Armour.  What do college students read these days?  Do not answer that, please!

[2] For example, p. 14: “By the 1980s, PMC elite fantasies about ordinary…Americans were colored by both yuppie and hippie fantasies: ordinary people were trapped in stultifying stable jobs, deferred gratification, and social conformity.  They were like Flaubert’s village idiots, but infuriatingly, they enjoyed good pensions and good benefits.  If the hippies hated the stability achieved by the union-negotiated peace with postwar corporations, yuppies actually went ahead and destroyed the institutions of lifetime-guaranteed employment through leveraged buyouts that led to blue- and then white-collar downsizing.  Yuppies were not American psychos or charismatic sociopaths – they were boring, anxious, and conformist – but they did represent a new face of the PMC elite: they served new masters and enjoyed the rewards of that service.  When Jack Welch took over General Electric in 1981, he personified as a super yuppie the ethos of management for stockholder value…Yuppies helped to birth a new world for capitalism…public austerity and private luxury, globalized economies and shiny cities surrounded by devastated hinterlands, a world of offshored labor and lightning-quick capital flows.”  On Jack Welch, see The Man Who Broke Capitalism.  Not that Jack Welch and his acolytes were not the likely outcome all along.

[3] The ur-text of meritocracy is The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) by the British sociologist Michael Young.  Meritocrats in the mold of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair seem at times to not realize the book was satirical/dystopian fiction, not a how-to manual.  Young was complemented in the early days by Richard Hoggart, whose The Uses of Literacy (1957) was subtitled “Aspects of Working-Class Life.”

[4] And an undoubtedly fraught but multilayered and fluid connection with their academic home.

[5] The three traits: Superiority complex, insecurity, impulse control.  Ugh.  This dovetails too well with Charles Murray to be taken seriously.  A recent well-reasoned perspective from the other side was published this year by the UC-Berkeley sociologist Loic Wacquant: The Invention of the “Underclass”: A Study in the Politics of Knowledge.

[6] We all have things that set us off.  Mine is the PMC description of the people and their jobs done by “the other” as “unskilled.”  An unskilled chemical worker would not last a week without hurting himself or another, or worse.  It requires great skill and awareness to work with and around heavy equipment and toxic chemicals.  The same is true for essentially all jobs – cook, barista, waiter, landscaper, welder, crane operator, carpenter, plumber, electrician, mechanic – even if these men and women have not been “trained” to parse Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler.  Or Anthony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky.

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