Courtiers and Sycophants: Catherine Liu’s Case Against the Professional Managerial Class

An excoriation of the professional managerial class that strips attention from the people it purports to help.

By Lukas MoeJuly 20, 2021

Courtiers and Sycophants: Catherine Liu’s Case Against the Professional Managerial Class

Virtue Hoarders: The Case against the Professional Managerial Class by Catherine Liu. University of Minnesota Press. 90 pages.

AMONG THE pleasures of the HBO series Succession, which satirizes a Murdoch-like media dynasty, is the unembarrassed spectacle used to portray the spiritually dead. Departing from television that fetishizes plutocrats, Succession transports us to their plausibly perverse reality. One episode follows the Roy family to Hungary for a corporate retreat qua wild boar hunt. The wheels of power here are represented by a convoy of Range Rovers snaking down a country road, a night of revelry that ends with a roast of pigs as well as the patriarch’s suspected betrayers, who are blindfolded and made to root around for a scrap of meat on the floor — let them eat sausage. A satisfying image of the unhappy rich.

But whose unhappiness? To dwell on the systemic consequences of the Roys’ bad behavior would diminish the pleasure of observing them in their natural habitat. Indeed, the structural truth of Succession is that it can’t show life outside the inner circle because that would hold a mirror up to the lives of its audience, people like us, wanting escape. To show capitalism’s real costs — unlivable wages, unaffordable health care, unpayable mortgages, police violence — risks confirming that the misery is our own.

Virtue Hoarders, Catherine Liu’s polemic against the professional-managerial class (PMC), holds up the mirror to “PMC nature” that Succession doesn’t. Liu expands the category of the white-collar worker to include two tiers of people: those with professional training (teachers, nurses, engineers) and those with managerial ambitions (the administrator, the director of medicine), whose credentials and affective self-discipline signal their shared identity as PMC. The term was coined by Barbara and John Ehrenreich in 1977, who noted the “salaried mental workers” emerging from the ruins of the New Left, which puzzled Marxist theories of class composition and production. As professionals saw their fortunes rise, the working class languished in wage-stagnant jobs, weakening unions, and disappearing industries. The irony was that the PMC drew their technical expertise and driving self-worth from the very workers they regarded from a distance.

Do these meritocrats keep Roy world going with their moralism? Liu, a professor at UC Irvine, draws from a well of experience, humor, and rage to show us how the PMC’s quest for class domination continues to unfold in our gilded age, often by massaging class away or hiding it in the folds of identity politics. The latter, as Liu joins the Ehrenreichs in arguing, results far less often in redistributing money and power than in performing righteousness that pits individual grievance against bigotry and stigma. Debates over class and race, as if either were somehow the correct “strategy” to pursue in building a majoritarian left, verge on sectarianism as the right coopts “canceling” for a culture war bludgeon.

Liu publicly aligns herself with the socialist resurgence led by Bernie Sanders, the vanguard of which, Democratic Socialists of America, grew out of the same political malaise as the Ehrenreichs’ manifesto. In this respect it’s worth noting that Virtue Hoarders was first reviewed in the conservative Washington Examiner, even earning Liu a spot in “the Tucker Carlson Left,” an online ignominy she probably relishes.

The book itself is a stiff breeze, a pamphlet whose smack to the reader’s sensibility, épater le bourgeois, reflects Liu’s desire to cut through the status quo of “centrism,” the hand-wringing of “pseudo-radicalism,” the masquerade of “sanctimonious austerity” that licenses lifestyle fads like the keto diet and intermittent fasting.

She has two goals: to name and shame her own class’s values — to cancel, or as Liu prefers, “liquidate” them — and to explain why, despite signs of decline in the neoliberal forever present, and despite Stalinist overtones, it is necessary to overcome the PMC to achieve a more just, more socialist future. As if doing Audre Lorde one better, Liu rouses us to burn down the house we’ve been living in and give the tools back to the workers. “We must be heretics. We should blaspheme.”

Liu takes on her own academic profession as she critiques postmodernism’s abandonment of economic thinking. Intellectuals hoard virtue in syllabi, book clubs, and the Obama-era Common Core curriculum, a high-minded bleeding edge witnessed most recently in the controversy around The New York Times’s 1619 Project. But this shouldn’t distract us from PMC pettiness, a guilt-fueled anxiety about “privilege,” Liu thinks, that “makes them work very hard to humiliate others.” The connections to higher ed are especially pointed, perhaps for dealing directly with Liu’s own expertise — precisely the “professional values” she defends.

Subsequent chapters offer less convincing case studies — “The PMC Has Children,” “The PMC Reads,” “The PMC Has Sex” — which decode the “crypto-Puritanical regulation” of how we parent, eat, and censor speech (this last being the real live wire). Pious self-fashioning reproduces in microdoses the macro accumulation of virtue through “individual passion plays.” Members of the PMC are no less “shameless about hoarding,” than, say, a certain president was in stockpiling the pseudo-values of downhome United States; both are holding upside-down Bibles. The PMC grimaces, though, while the demagogue grinned.

It’s been 20 years since David Brooks discovered, in Bobos in Paradise, the contradictions of his own class. Of course, he didn’t put it this way. The admixture of the bohemian and the bourgeois in American society, the 1960s and the 1980s blending in an organic smoothie, was a neat way of distinguishing classical liberals like Brooks himself from navel-gazing arrivistes. Liu’s departure is not her critique of the PMC so much as her view of what it could have been: a guild responsible to the welfare state, a class of professionals cohering in a disciplined rejection of market logic.

As these questions loom, it’s unclear to me whether Virtue Hoarders enlivens the PMC debate or grinds the gears. Offered as a handbook for vigorous self-scrutiny, it recommends “a return to socialist politics” with only glancing attention to practicalities. This makes it oracular, in a way, about the post-Trump future. Liu refuses to prognosticate.

Every age has its radical noise machine. But without the daily indignation elicited by Trump, the Biden administration is also disquieting. The geriatric president is an avatar of harmless PMC rule, with a Lethe-like effect on us all. Will the PMC forget its penitential self-loathing now that real evil has been deposed? In a satire of power like Succession, unlike a satire of the PMC like The Office, the goal is to seduce, not to charm. The shark tank discomfits and addicts us. Liu prods us to act, to be, in some sense, as ruthless in exercising our bad faith as the ruling class is blithe about theirs.


A teacher and scholar of American poetry, Lukas Moe lives in San Jose.

LARB Contributor

Lukas Moe is writing a book about American poets and their ambivalent radicalism.


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