Desperate Need for a Black Working Class Consciousness: The Fate of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC)

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

Anyone who knows me knows that I come from a large, working-class black family.  I am opening with that to say this: there IS such a thing as a black working class consciousness.  If you are western/ bourgeois/ academic and you need to call that statement “strategic essentialism” in order to make you feel better about your politics, then go right on ‘head, but, make no mistake about it: a black working class consciousness exists.  It is not some naturally-occurring thing; it is a socially constructed belief system, discourse, and political perspective shaped in conversation and proximity with other black people against the kind of super-exploitative, white-ruled working environments that black people must daily enter to feed and clothe their families, but also fully exit in order to maintain some humanity when they get back home.  I also open with this because it seems to me that a black working class consciousness is more important today than ever.

African American Women Welders during WWII

African American Women Welders (WWII)

I am picking up here from a previous post about the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC, as discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich. Their point is that the PMC’s work today looks a lot like the work that the working class always did— toiling in large structures as nameless cogs in automated systems.  I want to juxtapose this change in the work that the PMC does today alongside the fact that more black college graduate students are joining this PMC than ever before.   Instead of joining the PMC as the autonomous professionals that the decades before witnessed, first-generation black college graduates today will largely work in places where their everyday work life looks a lot like what their working class parents did (whether it be the service industry or a more factory-based industry).  This is the secret that we don’t share with our college students in a college system that is promising more and more students that a college degree will get them the keys to professional status— an economic system that no longer even operates that way.

I am not suggesting that we tell students to stop becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, nurses, and the host of other professional careers they come to college for.  What I am saying is that students will need the black working class consciousness of their elders even more in this new system that tells them they are NOT exploited workers but treats them as EXACTLY THAT!   This realization is in direct contrast to the ways that we often teach college curricula, especially college writing.  We bamboozle our students with fantastic stories about learning and entering discourse communities, academic professions, and middle class/bourgeois life and work. These are lies.  This is the way faculty, as part of the PMC, as the Ehrenreichs describe it, “rationalize” a dying system and extend current modes of capitalism.

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

Black working class people have always known that they were exploited; that the work that they are allowed to do is not soul-sustaining; that black men do not benefit from patriarchy’s role-making of the male breadwinner; that black women do not get to trade in homemaking/non-job life for female work subordination and privilege; that white men will not come to black women’s rescue as benevolent or non-benevolent patriarchs at work or home (even the oral traditions tell you that!  See Flossie and the Fox!); that the labor one does will not equate to monetary gain; that the labor one does will not be written into the master script as the story of what has sustained and made the nation; that white co-workers, in the same financial straits as you, will more often than not cash in on the “wages of whiteness” to falsely identify with a white elite that hates them just as much; that prisons, projects, and criminally underfunded schools are just where they put you to keep you where you are or place you somewhere when the menial jobs you once did are no longer available.  These are counter-ideological systems that I don’t think we fully situate.  I have in mind here the ways that we talk about women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and their focus on poor black folk as knowledgeable, usually in direct defiance of the male leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; we tend to think these women were making egalitarian, moralistic, feminist choices that re-defined leadership, and, yes, they were, but they were also forwarding and centering a counter-ideological system that the bourgeoisie just can’t give you.  We who do the work of teaching and theorizing college writing are also stuck in this discourse of depoliticized, moralistic choices.  We want to debate what it means, ethically, to ask students to give up “home cultures” and “mother tongues” when they are in the academy.  We want to rest on paternalism and talk about “preparation” of subordinated groups to move ahead in the world (we do not rigorously interrogate that social world, we just embrace ourselves as having the answers to moving forward in it without an admission of our white power as the key.)  Sometimes, we will call it racist to ask students of color to give up the communities in which they have made sense of themselves.  But we seldom explicitly address our current complicity in one of the most egregious systems of racialized capitalism when we tell students they will enter new types of work worlds with their college degrees.  We are, in essence, formulating and formalizing the process where students withdraw from and deny the kind of counter-ideological systems that they already have and can use to take on, see, and critique the system we are in.  We would rather throw our students out into an exploitative world and pretend it will not devour them up in the same way it has always done with workers. In my mind, this is the worst kind of teaching we could provide.

Professional-Managerial Class (PMC): Becoming/Dis-Becoming Writing Teachers

classwarfare1At the 2013 Conference of College Composition and Communication (4Cs) in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to be part of a workshop designed by Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, and Steve Parks.  It was a fruitful workshop that centered real dialogue … while also producing more than just dialogue.  On one of the panels during the workshop, Kurt Spellmeyer asked us to contextualize and trouble our academic identities and positions as the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC).  Part of his discussion focused on Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich’s 1977 essays in Radical America called “The Professional Managerial Class” and then later,  “The New Left: A Case Study in Professional-Managerial Class Radicalism.”  Their current extension/revision of that work is called “Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class.”    Marc Bousquet, at a later point in the workshop, pushed us to see that no radical activity or revolution will come from the professoriate; otherwise, we would have seen that already.  He urged us, instead, to see ourselves as and act as a working class, which would mean a class consciousness where we work, radically so, in our own class interest.

“Death of a Yuppie Dream” frames analysis of current modes of capitalist production, mass consumption, and neoliberalism.   Here we are talking about our current social circumstance where once autonomous professionals, the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC (doctors, engineers, lawyers, professors, etc), who have been defined by specialized knowledge and standards, now experience corporate domination and exploitation rather than the private autonomous spaces that once defined their work.  While the PMC often acted as a kind of buffer between vulgar consumption, profits, and exploitation, the PMC has also been its own worst enemy— basically, a buncha sell-outs.  Today, the PMC has been downgraded (i.e., more adjunct hiring than tenure track professors), absorbed into corporations (i.e., HMOs, large corporate law firms vs. private practice), and has faced serious decline (i.e., the dearth of journalism jobs). Meanwhile, a new kind of complex, multi-tiered management system exists to control labor, high-tech machinery, and consumer culture where the new PMC, especially the high-paid managers (i.e., upper level administration/managers), look more like CEOs than the autonomous professionals of the past.  The Ehrenreichs convincingly show that the PMC became “the rationalizers of society” who conflicted with capitalists but who also positioned themselves away from and, often, in opposition to the working class that they fully exploited.  The Ehrenreichs also want to point out to the PMC that we are as dispensable to capitalism as the factory workers ousted from assembly lines for “third world” labor exploitation.   In other words: what the hell are we holding on to this system for?  The Ehrenreichs helped me to see and understand the kind of cultural logic that I see operating in college writing programs in this particular moment much better.

I am still often shocked at how readily faculty, those on the tenure-track who have made it into the PMC, will themselves advocate for the most corporate structures to mechanize writing and writing programs:

  1. one, standard syllabus that everyone can implement across a hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students, junior faculty, and senior faculty;
  2. a set of standards/tests/assessments to ensure that students master exactly the kind of PMC logic that the Ehrenreichs criticize— discipline, appropriate academic curiosities, and “bureacratic modes of communication”;
  3. common assignments to be measured across one numerical system so that #2 can be automated more smoothly.

These mechanisms are not about education; they are the cultural logic of  mass production and consumption. The idea that conversation and dialogue with colleagues can produce consensus and community may as well be a foreign language and concept in this iteration of the PMC’s co-signing of automated/techno-regulated systems.  When it comes to under-represented college students of color in these systems, well there’s just no way for there to be a happy ending here.  Faculty of color really have no business being on board with these cultural logics when, at best, their focus on cultures and diversity will only be commodified, the new 21st century Booker T.’s, a fact that shouldn’t surprise given that bodies of color are always for sell across historically varied modes of capitalist production.

In true, sell-out fashion, the PMC becomes exactly the kind of “rationalizers” of capitalism that the Ehrenreichs critique with this mantra, ad infinitum: we are only being realistic. If the teaching of writing can be so “realistically” and simply automated, measurable, standardized, and replicated across multiple spaces, then why do we need full-time teachers… or teachers at all?  The ironic thing is that if the PMC does not turn against its own exploitation and begin to irrationalize capitalism and corporate, mass-automation, we only make ourselves more obsolete.  It seems true then that the lack of a class consciousness means you only undermine your own fool self.