Inherit the Earth
Is the PMC the new ruling class?
I’ve written a lot here about how politics is a contest for power between vying factions of the elite, with regular, non-elite people serving as little more than symbolic props in the fight. One of those elite factions is the ownership class, whose power is rooted principally in its control over economic capital. The other faction is the professional managerial class, whose power originates in its accumulated cultural capital.
Of course, there’s a great deal of overlap between the two factions, and everyone in the elite, regardless of which faction they belong to, possesses some mix of both economic and cultural capital. But how much of one form of capital you have relative to the other largely determines which elite faction your interests align with, which in turn shapes your political ideology. This is the roughly the Bourdieusian model of democratic politics in capitalist societies.
I’ve always assumed (as did Bourdieu) that the ownership class is the clearly dominant faction within the elite. At the end of the day, money is more powerful than manners or tastes or credentials. No matter how much the members of the PMC strive to elevate their culturally-derived status above that of the merely rich, they’re destined to fail. They’ll always be, in Bourdieu’s language, “the dominated faction of the dominant class.”
But Bourdieu has been dead for twenty years, and things have changed in the world in that time. We still live under capitalism, but it’s a very different capitalism than that of the prior century. The assumption that economic capital still reigns supreme — and that capitalists, accordingly, remain the ruling class — is worth interrogating.
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James Burnham’s 1941 book, The Managerial Revolution, opens with a critical essay by George Orwell, written in 1949, in which Orwell basically says Burnham’s whole analysis was wrong. Burnham had made some pretty bold predictions as modern capitalist society exploded all around him in the fires of World War 2. He believed that the future path of Western civilization could be discerned in the trajectories being taken by Russia, Italy and Germany. Though disparate and mutually hostile, Burnham believed that fascism and communism shared an important characteristic in common: they were both expressions of the massive expansion of the administrative state. This, more than their respective ideologies or particular political structures, would determine the course of those countries’ future development, because it was this factor that altered the material balance of class power (Burnham had once been a Trotskyist, and though by the time of The Managerial Revolution he had abandoned dialectical materialism as a philosophy and the Russian Revolution as a political project, his class analysis remained fundamentally a Marxist one).
Under the capitalism of the nineteenth century, when Marx made his observations, the class structure was relatively simple. For every factory, there were workers and there were owners. The owners owned the capital — the machines, the buildings, etc, and were entitled to the profits that came from selling whatever the factory produced. The workers sold their labor power to the owners for a wage. That wage had to be less than the actual value of the worker’s labor power, because profits were derived from that marginal difference. If the owner paid the worker what his labor power was actually worth, there would be no profit and the business would fail. Exploitation of the workers was thus baked into the production process of capitalism.
Because this basic dynamic was present in every capitalist enterprise, that meant that every worker shared one common set of interests vis-a-vis the owners, and every owner shared another common set of interests vis-a-vis the workers. This pattern was the basis for the objective formation of workers into a single, unified social class, and owners into another. Moreover, as the two parties’ respective interests were mutually antagonistic, those classes were aligned against one another. This is the basic set-up of Marx’s class analysis.
The capitalism of Burnham’s time was more complicated. With the rapid growth of technology came the need for scientific researchers, technicians and engineers to construct, oversee and improve upon increasingly technical production processes. And with the Fordist revolution in industrial manufacturing, the relatively small businesses of Marx’s time ballooned into massive corporate bureaucracies, which called for a growing tier of specialists in organizing and administering the evermore complex logistics of production. These needs engendered the rise of a new class of employees who were not, in the Marxist sense, “workers.” They didn’t sell their physical labor power for a wage like traditional workers did, but their specialized competencies for a salary. Profits were not contingent upon paying these employees less than they contributed to the production process, as they were for ordinary workers, so they weren’t “exploited” in the Marxist meaning of the word.
On the other hand, they weren’t owners, either. They didn’t own their lab equipment or their office furniture any more than the workers owned the machines they operated and the tools they worked with. Formally, they were employees in the exact same sense as the lowliest custodian or forklift operator. But, as Burnham pointed out, they weren’t so clearly divorced from the ownership role as regular workers were. Even if they didn’t own the means of production, the complexity of twentieth century industrial production processes left the owners helpless without them. In this sense, as a class, they controlled the means of production arguably even more so than the owners themselves. Moreover, “ownership” itself became much more diffuse and complex during the twentieth century, with corporations becoming the joint property of dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of individual and institutional investors, each with only a fragment of actual control over the business. Even by Burnham’s time, the executive tier of the new management class had more tangible, day-to-day command over their respective industries than did those companies’ legally authorized owners.
Burnham expected this managerial class to keep expanding to the point of undisputed hegemony, and he expected it to happen in a matter of years, not decades. In the Soviet Union, that hegemony had already been achieved. In fascist Germany and Italy, it wasn’t far behind. And even in the United States, where capitalist control was firmer than anywhere else in the world, Burnham believed that the New Deal would expand control by the state, where the managerial class’ dominance is uncontested, over private enterprise to a degree that the American economy would soon cease to be capitalist in anything but name. Once, globally, the managerial class had taken clear control of the means of production from the capitalists, they, and not the capitalists, would be, by definition, the new ruling class.
As Orwell pointed out later, though, with the benefit of hindsight, in major respects, Burnham could not have been more mistaken. Most obviously, Germany and Italy lost the war to the capitalist nations. Orwell couldn’t have known it in 1949, but the capitalists then went on to annihilate the Soviet managerial state and reconstruct nearly the entire global economy on capitalistic lines. The New Deal was rolled back in the U.S., and the social democracies of Europe were chiseled away for decades while the continent united into a capitalist megastate. These developments conformed to nobody’s definition of a “managerial revolution.”
But even if Burnham’s immediate predictions were pure hubris (as predictions, including Marx’s, tend to be), we should give his broad vision the benefit of the doubt. In the long view, he may not have been wrong.
Following Marx’s postulate that every social order contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, in The Managerial Revolution, Burnham makes continuous reference to the historical transition from feudalism to capitalism as an analogy for what he deemed to be the contemporary transition from capitalism to managerialism. In the early modern period, as the technologies of transportation, communication and production advanced in medieval Europe, the commercial possibilities they unlocked engendered the rise of a new mercantile class. Still lowly in status, through its control over trade and finance, this class gradually began to acquire material leverage over the aristocracy and the nobility. The crown had to turn to these proto-capitalists to finance the raising of the armies it needed for foreign conquest or to quell domestic revolts. The aristocrats, with their sprawling estates and their increasingly moribund agricultural practices, found themselves perpetually in debt to their burgher financiers. Well before they recognized it, Europe’s landed gentry had become largely dependent on the rising bourgeoisie, and were rapidly becoming an economic anachronism.
As the economic ground shifted, political institutions and ideological paradigms adapted to the new realities. Parliaments that had once been occasional, ad hoc bargaining sessions initiated by the king to secure the consent of urban financiers over emergency fiscal measures became more stable institutions. As its power increased, those parliaments became the bourgeoisie’s standing political organs in what were, in many European principalities, shaping into arrangements of shared governance with the crown. As the Enlightenment spread across Europe, republican ideologies became fashionable. Ideas about sovereignty being derived from the subjects below rather than from God above lent legitimacy to the bourgeoisie’s claims on political power. Philosophical concepts of natural liberty, limited government, the sanctity of contracts, the curtailment of arbitrary power and the enshrinement of equality before the law created the ideal legal conditions for the spread of capitalist relations of production.
By the time of the American Revolution, the entire feudal edifice in the West had been reduced to a ghost, both in the world and in people’s minds. Feudalism was a social structure based on hierarchies of personal loyalty: unequal but reciprocal privileges and obligations between inferiors and superiors in long vertical chains of fealty that reached from the peasant all the way to God. These chains had severely corroded in Europe, but in America, where capitalism would really be brought to global scale, they had barely been there to begin with. As Gordon Wood explains in The Radicalism of the American Revolution, colonial America was a “truncated society.” The top tier of dukes, earls and marquesses was entirely absent, and even the richest of planters in the South made an income that was a fraction of that of a middling aristocrat in England. The cultural idea of royalty and aristocracy lived on in the colonies, but objectively speaking, America was a flat society.
And then, in the eighteenth century, Americans began to move. As the population of the Northeastern colonies increased, people began to relocate from village to village and from colony to colony. They inhabited unsettled areas on mountains and in dense forests and dug existences out of the earth, with barely a social structure to speak of. The social institutions in long-settled communities began to unravel as young people, in particular, broke free of their grasps.
At the same time, a wave of entrepreneurialism swept the colonies as both the export market and the inter- and intra-colonial domestic market expanded. All over the colonies, farming families were doing household manufacturing work on the side: spinning cloth, distilling rum and cider, dressing skins and pelts. Credit markets developed to finance this emerging economy. The purchasing power and quality of life of even the poorest colonial Americans rose, further reducing their dependence on the large planters and other social superiors.
All of these developments — the flatness of colonial America’s social structure, the transience of its population, and the relative economic independence of its subjects — undermined feudal structures of authority, which depended on long-standing relations of economic dependency. It’s no coincidence, then, that a democratic uprising occurred first on the Western side of the Atlantic, before inspiring bourgeois revolutions on the European continent. But only in retrospect can we see how long these changes had been in the cards. Until the unthinkable happened, most people were barely aware of the world historical tide shifting all around them, because most people think in terms of their own lives and their immediate communities rather than in terms of great social transformations. “Most Americans, like most Europeans,” Wood writes, “scarcely grasped the immensity of the fundamental forces at work in the Western world.” They fought the British not for these big abstract principles of liberty and freedom, but for concrete, tangible reasons rooted in their daily lives. In Albion’s Seed, David Hackett Fischer tells this story:
Many years later, historian George Bancroft asked a New England townsman why he and his friends took up arms in the Revolution. Had he been inspired by the ideas of John Locke? The old soldier confessed that he had never heard of John Locke. Had he been moved by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense? The honest Yankee admitted that he had never read Tom Paine. Had the Declaration of Independence made a difference? The veteran thought not. When asked to explain why he fought in his own words, he answered simply that New Englanders had always managed their own affairs, and Britain tried to stop them, and so the war began.
Even on the dawn of the revolution, if you had asked a colonial American merchant or banker or petty industrialist if they considered themselves to be the new nobility of their society, they probably would have been flummoxed by the very idea. They still thought in the terms of the old regime. They might have complained of being treated with contempt and disfavor by the English crown in a manner unworthy of their social position. They might have said that the current king had abrogated his moral duties to his subjects and was unworthy of the crown on his head. They might have even inveighed against the entire monarchical edifice, and sung the praises of republican self-rule. They probably wouldn’t have claimed, though, that hundreds of years of political tradition had been rendered obsolete by the radical economic transformations of their age, and that a new world order was afoot. But that’s, in fact, what had happened, and was happening.
I am in no way suggesting that we’re on the precipice of a revolution. Rather, I’m suggesting that, as in Europe and the United States in the eighteenth century, most of the important changes have already occurred, but we haven’t quite recognized it yet. One ruling class has already been swapped for another — or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say, two factions of the ruling class have fused together. And like the Yankee veteran, we haven’t taken too much notice of it because we don’t tend to think about politics in these kinds of abstract terms. But if we force ourselves to take a closer look at the political and social behaviors of the PMC, certain tendencies seem to point in the same direction.
Coming Apart, a book I recently read by Charles Murray (yes, I know, and no, I don’t care), exhaustively documents the consolidation of what he calls “the new upper class,” by which he means not just the business owners but the managers, professionals, intellectuals and cultural creatives that we all recognize as Blue State America. He shows how, between 1960 and 2010, members of this class have clustered themselves into geographical bubbles in which they rarely have to interact with anyone outside of their general income and education level. That class segregation has carried over from neighborhoods into educational institutions, work sites, marriages, cultural pastimes, and, of course, political parties. Today, if you’re born into the professional elite (as I was in another era), it’s exceedingly easy to live your entire life, cradle to grave, without ever having an interaction more substantive than a commercial transaction with a member of the working class. And as Murray shows, while the new upper class has remained as prosperous and happy as its counterpart was six decades ago, on almost every important metric of social stability and personal happiness, the new lower class has plummeted, to the point at which working class “communities,” both urban and rural, have barely any social bonds left, but stunning levels of crime, violence, addiction, divorce, broken homes and unemployment.
There couldn’t be a clearer picture of a new “ruling class” than the one that Murray paints through his meticulous analyses of quantitative data. And that new ruling class doesn’t just exist objectively as, in Marx’s terminology, “a class in itself.” Today, it is very plainly a self-conscious “class for itself.”
As I explained in an earlier post, the reason why intellectuals tend to ally themselves in solidarity with the downtrodden and against the economically powerful is not because of some intrinsic enlightenment and abundance of empathy, but rather because by attacking the moral legitimacy of economic capital, they elevate the value of the cultural capital in which they possess an advantage. This was Bourdieu’s explanation for the default leftward political bias that prevails among the intelligentsia and the professional classes in general.
But even this pretense has seemed to largely vanish. Aside from a few radical chic gestures toward defunding the police and allying with trans “lives,” the professional managerial class has, over the last few years, stood in consistent and open opposition to the interests of the working class: the zealous support for Covid lockdowns and the indifference to the economic pain they caused, the insistence on vaccine mandates on threat of unemployment and the angry, authoritarian retaliation against anyone who dared to oppose them, the reflexive censorship of anyone who defied the authority of the expert class. Even when the PMC has acted in a spirit of ostensible generosity, it has been largely self-serving.
Aside from the occasional jab at culturally disfavored billionaires like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, the PMC and its political organ, the Democratic Party, has more or less abandoned even its performative opposition to the power of multinational corporations and finance capital. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find Republicans attacking huge corporations and Democrats defending them. The intra-elite struggle between the holders of economic capital and the holders of cultural capital seems to have become a thing of the past; the PMC, now indistinguishable from the capitalists, is finally behaving as a proper ruling class, acting politically in its own naked interests and either sneering at the ignorant proletarians or extending them a paternalistic hand. They may or may not outright own the means of production (a question for another post), but their control over the production process is so complete that it doesn’t really matter that much that its legal ownership is technically in the hands of various financial institutions, themselves controlled by the PMC. Albeit premature, this was exactly Burnham’s prediction.
In this context, the madness of woke discourse begins to make a little more sense. The foundational values that social justice activists have routinely maligned in recent years as outdated, reactionary or “white supremacist” are precisely those that were championed by the emergent capitalist class in the early modern period. Individualism, meritocracy, equality before the law, the Protestant work ethic — all have come under fire as pillars of oppression, in the same way that the cult of personal fealty and the entire moral code of feudalism was challenged by the rising bourgeoisie. Perhaps the rhetoric of the woke generation, then, is less about liberating the oppressed than it is about setting the table for a new ruling class and the new relations of production that that class will usher in. I don’t yet have a theory on how the specific tenets of wokeness favor managerial rule, but I suspect it has something to do with what Foucault calls “governmentality” (again, a subject for a future post).
In any case, this much seems clear: the capitalism of today is not the capitalism of nearly a century and a half ago, when Marx first described its class dynamics. It may soon be something other than capitalism altogether. Whatever it becomes, the world historical agent of change will not be the proletariat, as Marx predicted. It will be something he could never have imagined: the erstwhile middle managers of the bourgeoisie.
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