Letter: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the PMC

Date: 2021-09-10T21:59:58+00:00

Location: cosmonautmag.com

Comrades,

First, let me apologize for the title, as it is misleading, but hey, nothing like a provocative headline that gets the people going, right?

The recent letter by John Jay on the professional-managerial class (PMC), and Renato Flores’ article on organizational procedures and class biases, has inspired me to pull together some brief thoughts on how revolutionary socialists ought to theorize and act on the matter of the class composition of our organizations.

Mr. Jay makes an important point that we cannot satisfy ourselves with a simple dual-class framework of workers and capitalists. Capitalism, and society in general, is substantially more complicated than this, and while it may be a good starting point from which to devise a political program and vision, concrete revolutionary practice demands that we investigate the divisions and contradictions within the two classes. It makes as little sense to ignore divisions on the basis of occupation, income, and education, as it does to ignore divisions along racial and gender lines. The working class cannot be united, until we can fully grasp how it is divided.

However, I’ve generally found the framework of the “professional-managerial class” to be somewhat lacking, and it seems to be finding more use as a moral cudgel than as a tool for serious inquiry and strategic thinking. We need to be a lot more precise when we talk about the PMC, especially in the context of analyzing the class composition of socialist organizations. The PMC is typically described, as Mr. Jay does, as consisting of “lawyers, doctors, engineers, professors, and HR managers” – but these professions are absolutely not the dominant strata within socialist organizations. Take the DSA, for example; based on my own experiences, as well as recent survey data from the 2021 Convention, DSA members tend to be millennial-generation workers in the public sector, the education system, the nonprofit sector, and the tech industry. Thus, they are certainly white-collar (or “pink-collar”) workers – but this is not the same as the PMC. They may be professionals, but they are mostly not managers, and this is a crucial distinction, as crucial as the distinction between foremen and shop floor workers in a manufacturing plant. In other words, they generally are still “real workers”, dependent on wages for survival, and with few prospects for acquiring property or climbing into the ranks of the elites, just like the working class in general.

But forget theory for now; who is a “real worker” or not can be the subject of endless nit-picking and quibbling based on how you define “worker”, “production”, or “surplus value”, or what school of Marxism you tend to draw more on. Instead, let’s recognize the simple fact that these sectors – education, nonprofit, and tech – have been getting roiled by increasingly restive labor forces. The teachers’ strikes in 2018 in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, and subsequent strikes in other states, were probably the largest and most militant labor upsurges we’ve seen in a long time. The tech industry has also seen unprecedented unrest and labor activity, ranging from unionization efforts to quasi-strikes against certain technologies on ethical grounds. The nonprofit sector has also seen a similar trend in recent years, with an increasing pace of successful union drives, and signs of increasing tensions between the sector’s managerial class and its rank-and-file workers. If these white-collar workers are indeed mere PMCs, who have no business being part of the left, somebody oughta let them know directly so they can quit with all the ruckus! Anyways, the point here is that we should see the class composition of the socialist movement as being reflective of what is actually happening on the terrain of capital and class more broadly.

But, this is not to say that there is nothing wrong with socialist organizations being dominated by white-collar workers. The working class in general also consists of atomized service workers in the retail and food sectors, and all-pervasive logistics sector, which is made up of centralized giants like Amazon, but also the dispersed and atomized gig economy. These sectors are arguably the foundation of the modern working class in the US, and it is a big problem that the socialist movement is seemingly not becoming embedded in these sectors like it has in the aforementioned white-collar sectors. This probably comes down to factors related to the role universities and university-based socialist groups have played in socializing and radicalizing educated workers in the past couple of decades. After all, these other sectors have seen unrest as well (notably during the anti-police uprisings last summer), but this has not really translated into an influx of these workers into socialist organizations, or the formation of durable organizations of their own.

So, what is to be done? The ultimate point I want to make here is that analyzing the social and class composition of our organizations ought to be the starting point of developing a wider strategy and expanding the composition of the socialist movement. After all, understanding thoroughly where we are at in terms of composition is crucial for figuring out how we can proceed. Our short and medium-term strategy will, and should, look different if we were mostly made up of union workers in the building trades, or if we were mostly a bunch of undocumented migrant workers based out of small rural agricultural towns, and so on. If it turns out that we are in fact mostly a bunch of white-collar workers in education, nonprofits, and tech firms, then we need to think about what role these sectors play in capitalist political economy and how they are positioned in society, and how this will inform the expansion of the socialist movement. How might teachers be able to connect with service workers? (Perhaps by making opportunistic use of parent-teacher meetings). What could nonprofit workers do to reach out to workers in the building trades? (Maybe they could demand and fight for their organizations to develop specific outreach programs that they could exploit). How could tech workers reach out to gig workers? (This is obvious, since tech companies are the ones who have built the gig economy and are managing and manipulating it).

Of course, this is easier said than done, and here a particular line of criticism about the PMC does ring true for white-collar workers: that specific cultural differences can present a challenge to organizing. As Mr. Flores pointed out, the kind of procedural slog that can often emerge in the decision-making processes of socialist organizations is connected to class composition, and the adoption of the organizational form common to many middle-class cultural and professional institutions. I would both broaden and narrow down this dynamic: I think a lot of the daily life of socialist organizations, especially the DSA, is dependent on a variety of labor processes that are common, and indeed probably brought in from, office workplaces. This includes the heavy use of specific kinds of digital communication like e-mails and Slack channels, and dependence on documentation and information tracking through online word documents and spreadsheets. This stuff is necessary, but you probably need to have other forms of communication and structure, as well as some way to separate political decision-making and the labor of bureaucracy, if you’re going to try in a serious and systematic manner to bring in large sectors of non-white-collar workers into the socialist movement, and ensure that white-collar workers do not dominate its leadership. I’m not sure what this looks like, but I suspect that tenants movements are a good place to find out what can work in this regard – there is probably no other sector of struggle that has such a high level of class diversity.

Cheers,

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