Occupy Wall Street and the Decline of the Professional Managerial Class

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Discussion

by BARBARA EHRENREICH AND JOHN EHRENREICH:


"“Liberal elite” was always a political category masquerading as a sociological one. What gave the idea of a liberal elite some traction, though, at least for a while, was that the great majority of us have never knowingly encountered a member of the actual elite, the 1% who are, for the most part, sealed off in their own bubble of private planes, gated communities, and walled estates.

The authority figures most people are likely to encounter in their daily lives are teachers, doctors, social workers, and professors. These groups (along with middle managers and other white-collar corporate employees) occupy a much lower position in the class hierarchy. They made up what we described in a 1976 essay as the “professional managerial class.” As we wrote at the time, on the basis of our experience of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, there have been real, longstanding resentments between the working-class and middle-class professionals. These resentments, which the populist right cleverly deflected toward “liberals,” contributed significantly to that previous era of rebellion’s failure to build a lasting progressive movement.

As it happened, the idea of the “liberal elite” could not survive the depredations of the 1% in the late 2000s. For one thing, it was summarily eclipsed by the discovery of the actual Wall Street-based elite and their crimes. Compared to them, professionals and managers, no matter how annoying, were pikers. The doctor or school principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker might be condescending, but only the 1% took your house away.

There was, as well, another inescapable problem embedded in the right-wing populist strategy: even by 2000, and certainly by 2010, the class of people who might qualify as part of the “liberal elite” was in increasingly bad repair. Public-sector budget cuts and corporate-inspired reorganizations were decimating the ranks of decently paid academics, who were being replaced by adjunct professors working on bare subsistence incomes. Media firms were shrinking their newsrooms and editorial budgets. Law firms had startedoutsourcing their more routine tasks to India. Hospitals beamed X-rays to cheap foreign radiologists. Funding had dried up for nonprofit ventures in the arts and public service. Hence the iconic figure of the Occupy movement: the college graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts and a job paying about $10 a hour, or no job at all.

These trends were in place even before the financial crash hit, but it took the crash and its grim economic aftermath to awaken the 99% to a widespread awareness of shared danger. In 2008, “Joe the Plumber’s” intention to earn a quarter-million dollars a year still had some faint sense of plausibility. A couple of years into the recession, however, sudden downward mobility had become the mainstream American experience, and even some of the most reliably neoliberal media pundits were beginning to announce that something had gone awry with the American dream.

Once-affluent people lost their nest eggs as housing prices dropped off cliffs. Laid-off middle-aged managers and professionals were staggered to find that their age made them repulsive to potential employers. Medical debts plunged middle-class households into bankruptcy. The old conservative dictum — that it was unwise to criticize (or tax) the rich because you might yourself be one of them someday — gave way to a new realization that the class you were most likely to migrate into wasn’t the rich, but the poor.

And here was another thing many in the middle class were discovering: the downward plunge into poverty could occur with dizzying speed. One reason the concept of an economic 99% first took root in America rather than, say, Ireland or Spain is that Americans are particularly vulnerable to economic dislocation. We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free-fall. Unemployment benefits do not last more than six months or a year, though in a recession they are sometimes extended by Congress. At present, even with such an extension, they reach only about half the jobless. Welfare was all but abolished 15 years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment.

In fact, once an American starts to slip downward, a variety of forces kick in to help accelerate the slide. An estimated 60% of American firms now check applicants’ credit ratings, and discrimination against the unemployed is widespread enough to have begun to warrant Congressional concern. Even bankruptcy is a prohibitively expensive, often crushingly difficult status to achieve. Failure to pay government-imposed fines or fees can even lead, through a concatenation of unlucky breaks, to an arrest warrant or a criminal record. Where other once-wealthy nations have a safety net, America offers a greased chute, leading down to destitution with alarming speed."