Review – Liu, “Virtue Hoarders”

Catherine Liu, “Virtue Hoarders: The Case Against the Professional Managerial Class” (2021) – I considered not doing a review of this, because it really is a glorified pamphlet. In this, it’s a lot like its competitor in my “let’s read unusual right-wingers” election, Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, and the resemblances don’t stop there, as I’ll discuss below. Most of the books I chose to put into that arc in my readings on the right slot have some kind of resonance with one or another vaguely zeitgeisty ideological trend: Wang Huning and the geopolitical rise of China (alas, the English translation I found was so bad as to be unreadable), Kaczynski is considered required reading by many on the accelerationist right, George Schuyler and racial pessimism, Peter Thiel and his bought and paid for Senate candidates, David Mamet and Thad Russell represent different flavors on supposed tough guy independent thinkers who are also culture war pantswetters.

Liu, for her part, is probably the writer of the lot who can least be called a right-winger, as she identifies as a socialist and anti-capitalist (George Schuyler did, too, while writing “Black No More,” but eventually became a conservative and minor National Review hanger-on). But I think given what “professional managerial class” discourse has become, and how Liu herself has used it… I first became familiar with Liu via left-wing facebook, where she used to be quite an active commenter- enough that I remembered her, despite the fact we never friended or followed each other, and I can’t recall any interactions with her (she is not on facebook, my network of choice, anymore, it seems). You can probably tell what that means: Liu was memorable because she was… and here we run into a vocabulary problem. As someone who believes more or less any reigning in of bigoted language is an attempt by nefarious bourgeois actors to police the working class, Liu herself should be the last person to point to how problematic most words a white man could use to describe an Asian woman acting outre in public could be. But, A. Liu and other… upside-down-and-backwards culture warriors on the sort-of-left aren’t known for their consistency or high-mindedness, and B. I hold myself to certain standards because of how I want to live my life. So… I’ll just say Liu made an impression on me with the vociferousness, frequency, and unsolicitedness of her commentary, all over leftbook, on any issue pertaining to the problems of what used to be called “political correctness” and is now called “wokeness” or just “woke.”

So, I was intrigued, in a car-crash rubberneck kind of way, when I saw she was putting out a book on “the professional managerial class.” The “PMC” as it’s inevitably abbreviated online is the sort of bogey-figure for the anti-woke left, and at the same time the closest they get to a coherent concept beyond “PC sucks” (which is funny… the antics of enforcers of moral codes, including those around social justice, often do suck… why do you need a big theory for this?). The idea here is that a class of people defined by their role using educational credentials to manage systems of production and reproduction use various cultures mores – lead among them “PC,” “woke,” whatever – to maintain their class position, sabotage the actual solidarity-based politics that could upend the class system, and just generally suck pretty bad. 

In the good old internet way, this is a massively expanded and bowdlerized version of a relatively nuanced and modest claim made by smart people a while ago. The idea of the professional managerial class began, back in the seventies, to explain the changing makeup and role of who exactly was running the capitalist machine. It’s pretty undeniable that credentialed professionals have been increasingly important to the management of capitalism (and have been since at least the late nineteenth century), and, as Ehrenreich was pondering when she modified some of the ideas of the Yugoslav socialist thinker Milovan Djilas, a fair number of members of the sixties New Left, like Ehrenreich, were now in that professional strata. What might it all mean? I’m pretty sure “diversity trainings are stopping the revolution from happening” isn’t what they had in mind, but here we are. 

Most stereotypes have some basis in fact, and there are, indeed, some pretty annoying promoters of a sort of civic virtue based on rather stilted, corporate-friendly diversity-thought out there. Some of them wind up in notionally leftist organizations and cause cultural problems, though typically not the kind that the anti-woke people would think. Moreover, it’s definitely true that a lot of organized leftists in the US and Europe have been through a lot of education and carry with them the organizational styles and sometimes the priorities of their environments – suburb, school, office job – even when they’re away from those things, meant to be antagonistic towards them. 

If Liu were a clever propagandist, she probably could have restricted her pamphlet to these problems. But as I remembered from her facebook comment tirades, she really does not know where to stop. She baldly and seemingly without irony or shame makes wildly inflated claims about the power and, especially, the unity of the PMC. Apart from the kind of analytical uselessness of any category that includes the head of HR at Facebook and a shift manager at Starbucks with 90K in student loans because both went to liberal arts college and think trans people are people, there’s also just sloppiness. Here, Liu’s work is similar to that of her friend Angela Nagle, the left’s favorite interpreter of the alt-right for about six months before people started noticing the slipshod quality of her work, capped by appearances on Tucker Carlson (Liu, of course, holds her up as a free speech martyr- I really don’t think Liu can help herself with some of this shit). 

Both the slipshod quality of the work, and the flaws in the analysis, can be seen most clearly in Liu’s rigid determination to break down everything into a set of dyads: there’s the PMC, which endorses the politics of identity because they seek to divide others, and there’s the working class, which has a politics of solidarity to unite themselves (Liu makes fleeting allusion to their being an actual capitalist elite in actual control of the economy but they are quickly ushered back behind the curtain). These qualities hold true, everywhere and always, throughout space and time. Bring up class or money: good! Bring up race, gender, sexual orientation: bad! I’m aware that most people who complain about cancel culture or woke culture or whatever on the left usually at least grant that racism and other “identity-based oppressions” are an actual thing it’s ok to organize against, but Liu basically does not, not in this text. It’s honestly pretty wild. 

It gets slipshod, too, not just in many many “citation needed” (and “I’ve read that book, the author isn’t saying what you’re saying they’re saying when you cite –their whole book– in a footnote instead of a page number”) moments, but in things that would probably have helped her argument. Perhaps the most baffling historical lacuna to me was her treatment of the Progressives. The Progressives of the early twentieth century were mostly lawyers, professors, social workers, and other… professional… managers… whose reforms had a lot to do with making American society more rational and easier to manage. Critics, supporters, and people neutral towards the Progressives all agree on this. If there was ever a professional managerial class hand on the American tiller, it was in the days of the Progressives… and they did enough weird, bad shit (along with the good they did- they were complicated) that they’re easy enough to make into bad guys, and to lump modern “progressives” in with them- conservatives do it all the time. 

Nope! Liu passed that one up. She talks about the Progressives a few times in this short book, and always in the positive, because they mostly monkeyed around with the regulatory state. They didn’t make anyone attend sensitivity trainings! They didn’t really do much with, say, labor organizing, or even income or wealth redistribution, or any kind of politics that didn’t benefit their class specifically, but it really is “talks about money + not woke = good” as far as Liu’s concerned. It probably doesn’t help that one of the Progressive weak spots was race (including against Asians, and uhhh, we needn’t get too deep into the psychology here buttttt), so, you know, being against their racism means you’re doing identity politics, and hence not doing a solidarity. To quote a line flung at Liu’s supposed maitresse Ehrenreich, that would be doing a no-growth. 

Liu made the interesting choice to divide up several of the chapters in this book into baffling pairs of good, non-PMC examples of something – childrearing, sexual mores – and bad, PMC versions. Doctor Spock (not the Star Trek guy, though some depictions of the PMC have a vaguely Vulcan cast), PMC individualist childcare, very bad; Donald Winnicot, says parents can be “good enough” unlike neurotic PMC parentic, good! Winnicot, of course, was by any standard just as much a member of the PMC as Spock or any other famous psychologist. Of course, so is Liu, professor of Media Studies at UC Irvine, as she admits. But PMC isn’t, after all, despite Liu’s professed hatred of cultural explanations (weird flex for Media Studies but about what one would expect from the worst field, don’t at me about Economics, Media Studies is much worse), an actual socioeconomic category as far as she’s concerned. It’s barely a political tendency. Honestly, it’s not even a set of cultural traits, not for all Liu’s trying, not in any coherent way. It’s a way to walk backwards into calling anyone who calls you on your shit a class enemy to be crushed. 

There is a legend – a poorly-verified and likely apocryphal one – that during the bloody and protracted civil war in Algeria that roiled through the nineties, one Islamist militia became undone by what it had seen and done and decided to become Islamist Satanists, massacring villagers to the dark being they became convinced ruled the universe, spiting the god they once devoted themselves to and who led them to this pass. There’s a way that whatever you want to call it – the post-left, the anti-woke left, the dirtbag left (the last a little bit less so, as they at least seem to derive some joy from life, unlike the others) – reminds me of that story. Swap out the bloodbath of nineties Algeria for the mild and entirely voluntary unpleasantness of tens twitter, which is a pretty big swap I admit… what I mean is, getting so deep into a mucky conflict that you decide that your particular circumstances (which you did most of the work to put yourself into) are so important that they deserve to define the moral universe and can generate monocausal explanations, that become a kind of warped-mirror-image of the ideology that led you into the soup to begin with. 

Look: I’ve known the sort of people this book, and the anti-woke left in general, lampoons (in the case of this book, ineffectively, missing a very very broad target some very stupid people have hit easily). I’ve known a number of expensively-credentialed, passive-aggressive people who do, indeed, use identity politics, less to divide on principle, and more as a cudgel to get their way in petty disputes. It sucks. But if you actually value solidarity, as Liu ritually intones she does, page after page, you wouldn’t let petty grievances with the Martin Princes of the academic left drive you into inane analysis and cooperation with the right. I think it’s pretty clear that for a little cluster of academics and social media gadflys, leftism was always a posture, associated with a kitschy caricature of working class life, than it was anything else. When that caricature became harder to retain – work at a Starbucks or a cleaning company or a call center or a nursing home and tell me they can’t handle knowing about trans people or the existence of racism – they flounced off. Numerous commentators who shared political or social media space with these people, mostly from the marginalized communities whose organizing the anti-woke left writes off, called that this would happen long ago. Extra half star for staying fully dedicated to the bit. *’

Review – Liu, “Virtue Hoarders”

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