At 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:
- one, standard syllabus that everyone can implement across a hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students, junior faculty, and senior faculty;
- 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”;
- 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.