Review of Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoaders (Continuum, 2021)

This is a strongly persuasive polemic that makes a cultural case against a class that it doesn’t coherently define and also reads that class back in history and into thinkers who don’t share the framework Liu has borrowed from the Ehrenreichs in the 1980s. The resurrection of Ehrenreich’s PMC thesis gives a Marxist gloss to complaining about generic elites and Liu hardly invented it. More strongly linked to the so-called current “post-left” (a movement towards more socially conservative social democracy with strong populist flavor, which is probably the third movement to use the moniker), this critique became popular after the failure of Bernie Sanders in 2020. While it is a sound critique of a kind of moral kitsch that developed among academics between the 1960s and 1990s that has spread out into the larger culture, this moral kitsch is not limited to nor even solely emergent from the professionals and managers that get linked together here. Instead of admitting, as E. O. Wright did in his late work on a class that the importance of strata within the Marxist conception of class needed to be taken seriously, the existence of a vaguely defined educational “Professional Managerial” emerged. Unlike the managerial class of James Burnham or Peter Turchin’s theory of elite (and elite overproduction), the “PMC” seems to be anyone who has the moral and ideological kitsch that emerged in left and liberal groups. The critique of that kitsch is fair enough, but do all managers or professionals share it? And what does it have to do with Marxism?

Effectively as described by Liu, the PMC are virtue hoarders, which is fair enough, but are they classified in the Marxist or even liberal sense? Neither a clear relation to commodity production on income predominates? Liu compares Nagle’s “Kill All Normies” to the Sokal hoax, which as a person who works for the publisher that published Nagle and voted to publish it with criticism about its somewhat superficial engagement with the history of the more radical right, I find to be a hilariously bad analogy. Furthermore, the nationalist and nostalgic assumptions implicit in Nagle’s work were to be made explicit later in her post-left turn. Now, Nagle didn’t talk about the PMC but the ideological content of the left dominated by academia–academia which produced both Nagle and Liu themselves.

The interesting problem here is probably best dealt with by Mike McNair, one of Liu’s more charitable critics, in his review of Liu in the Weekly Worker,

“The first is that what Liu offers as an implicit alternative to ‘PMC values’ is a politics of nostalgia – back to the social-democratic (or in US terms ‘new deal’) consensus of the 1950s-60s. The second is that the class explanation of what Liu characterises as “PMC values” is an overtheorisation of what is, in reality, current ideological fashion – which, though widespread among the intelligentsia (as all current ideological fashions tend to be), is also found among sections of the working class; and conversely can easily be displaced by a fashion for nationalist-traditionalism.

She tells us (p19) that the post-war “liberal consensus was based on state and corporate support for lifetime employment, labour power2 and strong social services and redistributive economic policies”. And at the end of the book: “While a mixed economy may be the short-term reality that we dare hope for, let’s strengthen the hand of the socialist aspects of that hybrid system” (p77).

Catherine Liu was born in 1964, and was an undergraduate student at Yale in 1981-85; which means that her personal experience of the “post-war liberal consensus” was that of a small child in its dying days – right at the end of the US civil rights movement and the high period of the anti-Vietnam war mobilisation. She could have researched the background to the ‘consensus’ and to the 1970s turn away from it, but has chosen instead to treat it as an image of the ‘possible’.

It is entirely reasonable from the standpoint of today’s world of endemic unemployment and precarity to have some degree of nostalgia for the years of the long post-war boom and ‘consensus’; just as it is now reasonable for people to have some degree of ‘Ostalgie’ in the former Deutsche Demokratische Republik – or nostalgia for the Brezhnev era in Russia after “shock therapy” wrecked the economy.

But it is essential to understand what the ‘libertarian left’ of the 1960s-70s – who came up with the ideas which have more recently been appropriated by ‘neoliberal intersectionalism’ – were fighting against. And this was not the managers, social workers and so on as an ally of the working class, but the managers, social workers and so on as the disciplinary authority standing immediately over the working class. “

In short, the PMC that Liu posits was not an extension of the prior PMC but a battle against it. The nostalgia there ignores that the workers’ left was undermined by the very consensus for Liu seems to be nostalgic, something under which she did not live but she does want to defend. For people burnt by the culture war that many social democrats posit as a reason for the failure of Bernie Sanders against the neoliberal elite, this may seem convincing, but despite Liu’s (and Nagle’s) invocation of Christopher Lasch, Lasch had spent his first four books prior the oft-cited “Culture of Narcissism” exposing that this was not the case. The new left was not the cause of the failure of the populist and socialist left in America, but as Lasch clearly delineated in most of his career in the late 60s and early 70s, the result of it.

This is not to say that the moral kitsch that Liu describes and academic self-righteousness around it does not exist and is not self-undermining, but the PMC is not a class in the Marxist sense. Even in the circuit of production, it does not have one singular role. This becomes apparent in Liu’s understanding of education, equating the neo-liberalization of education with charter schools as a workers’ battle as if teachers are part of the working class, but under Ehrenreich’s definition of the PMC and in the curriculum choices (such as Liu’s rather odd focus on Harper Lee as somehow endemic of this problem).

As I have hinted before, the PMC concept itself is not particularly coherent. But its current use is particularly pernicious, whatever Liu’s politics or intentions. For all its implied critique of the moral kitsch and student-focus of the new left, it actually accepts a new left problematic. Again, quoting from Mike McNair, “The paradox is that ‘PMC theory’ remains within the framework of the most disabling aspect of the ‘new left’, and in particular the Maoists: that is, the tendency to reduce all political differences to class conflicts.” But I would go beyond McNair, who chastises Liu’s use of Lasch because of the use of Lasch in the culture war by people who McNair hints he knows are misreading him, because the other issue is that class analysis here owes more to people like David Brooks, James Burnham, Peter Turchin, and Michael Lind–the latter two I even respect even though I fundamentally disagree with their rejection of Marx–but have essentially non-Marxist or anti-Marxist views of class. In short, selling conflating anti-socialist views of class with socialist ones while not addressing that the PMC is not what killed the industrial working class as a movement: declining profitability during the end of Keynesianism did.  Furthermore, for people complaining of privilege, the argument for the PMC often just amounts to an argument from privilege itself: educational privilege and the helicopter parenting of children. In an area of increased centralization of wealth in the hands of a few and of declining profits in real commodities, this is predictable. To truly understand what is causing these problems, de-industrialization, the failure of Fordism, and the increasing importance of rentier economic models need to be understood far more than pretending a cultural battle that DOES even extend into urban vs rural working class is due to the emergence of a nebulous new class or that the nostalgia for the post-war consensus serve as an answer to neoliberalism.