The PMC Is Not a New Class

There has been a persistent drive among intellectual advocates of advanced capitalism to identify new class forces to rejuvenate the system, alongside comparable efforts by leftist critics to identify new classes to lead its transformation. But, in fact, the class structure of paid work has shown a fairly consistent tripartite form since the emergence corporate capitalism in the nineteenth century. This structure consists of small numbers of private owners of the means of production, a majority of nonmanagerial workers hired to produce and distribute goods and services commodities primarily for owners’ profits, and overseers selected by owners to control nonmanagerial workers.

Traditionally, intellectuals have thought of class in terms of continua of inequitable consumption, income, or social status. In the 1960s and ’70s, some academics argued that the growth of the services industry, changes in social mobility, and technological advances heralded the death of a class system in industrial societies. But an objective review of the class structure of paid work in any advanced capitalist country over the past century reveals a persistent spectrum of class groups situated on each side of the capital-labor divide.

Among owners, corporate capitalists oversee investment in companies and corporations with multimillion-dollar assets and many employees; large employers include substantial owners of capital with large numbers of employees; small employers, typically in family firms or partnerships, tend to have exclusive ownership, smaller numbers of employees, and play active controlling roles in the labor process of their firms. The self-employed remain in formal control of their small commodity enterprises but are reliant on their own labor.

On the other side of the capital-labor divide are those employees without substantial ownership claims and not delegated any official managerial authority. This includes industrial workers who produce material goods in extractive, manufacturing, and construction sectors. It also includes service workers who create or deliver a wide array of sales, business, social, and other services. Third, there are professional employees who are recognized for specialized knowledge and granted discretionary control to design production processes and execute their own work, but they remain subordinated to employer and managerial prerogatives.

Between owners and clearly subordinated hired labor are managerial employees who tend to have mixed functions. Upper managers are delegated by owners to control the overall labor process at the point of production to ensure profitability, but also contribute their labor to coordinate this process. Under the authority of upper managers, middle managers perform administrative and accounting staff services. Supervisors control adherence to production standards by industrial and service workers but may also collaborate directly with them in aspects of this work.

The proportions in these class positions have varied by time and place. They have all been discernible throughout the period of corporate capitalism. None should be considered a “new class.” But new class enthusiasts have continued to generate novel contenders.

As for ownership classes, from the 1880s, corporate capitalists have invited growing numbers of individual nonowners with discretionary income to invest as small stockholders. These investors thereby believe themselves to be engaging in “peoples’ capitalism” and see themselves as small capitalists devoted to increasing the value of their shares.

Today large pension funds have become major players in all private equity stock markets. Older workers who are members of defined benefit plans can feel more secure than younger workers who have much more limited prospects for either homeownership or retirement. But such membership offers no significant control over corporate investments nor prevents portions of members’ deferred wages from being used to exploit other workers.

The concentration of corporate capitalist ownership has become so extreme that a few asset management companies like BlackRock now dominate most global stock markets. While much has been made of divisions among and the rise of new corporate elites since the onset of the Donald Trump presidency, the pragmatic politics of most corporate elites is evident in Jamie Dimon’s comments at Davos regarding the Trump-Biden race in 2024: “I will be prepared for both, we will deal with both, my company will survive and thrive in both.” Meanwhile, most other owner classes have seen a decline in their economic power. In spite of incessant media reports of stock values targeted at small investors, “peoples’ capitalism” is now even more illusory.

The most persistent illusion about new classes is probably the notion of a burgeoning managerial class gaining significant influence. The growth of corporations has seen the expansion of hierarchical management structures. Some have argued that a separation of owners from management has meant that managers have taken control of corporate decision-making with primary interest in firm preservation.

Since the Great Depression onward, pundits like James Burnham have touted technocrats and corporate managers of varied forms as the future leaders of postindustrial capitalism. But once again the unilateral power of concentrated corporate ownership to decide production measures, especially under recent neoliberal austerity conditions, has underscored the limited scope of managerial control. In spite of persistent claims about the growing power of a managerial class, upper managers now wield even less influence over firm assets than in previous decades when proponents of the “managerial revolution” were most vocal.

In the wake of the student and worker protests of the 1960s, left intellectuals pointed to technical workers in more automated industries as strategically located in complex production processes. They posited that these workers possessed a progressive class consciousness capable of spearheading the transformation away from capitalism. Variants of this hopeful enthusiasm in the ’60s for a “new working class” were soon dismissed by close empirical research.

Since the Great Recession of 2007–8, the search for new contenders has fixated on the “precariat,” referring to relatively highly qualified yet chronically precarious younger workers, particularly dissatisfied gig workers. However, there has been little direct interest in the class consciousness of these workers. Among left-wing intellectuals, there has long been a tendency to point to potentially revolutionary groups of exploited workers, then dismiss them for not measuring up to theoretical expectations — often without close attention paid to their actual conditions or sentiments. Of course, this is not to deny the presence of these workers in the labor movement!

Employment classes and occupations have commonly been conflated and confused, especially in the case of professionals. Many think of professionals as all in the same boat. But those trained in professional occupations can pursue various paths: they can become owners of businesses as self-employed professionals or professional employers; they can become managers of other workers; most commonly, they become nonmanagerial professional employees. Professionals appear across the class structure of advanced capitalism. Empirical studies have now documented how these professional classes differ in working conditions and political interests.

One of the most illusory amalgams in the history of class analysis has been the so-called “professional-managerial class” (PMC). This construct was suggested in the 1970s by well-meaning left intellectuals to account for the subsequent passivity of the working class after the protests of the ’60s. The original definition flags the function: “Salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose main function in the social division of labour may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist cultures and capitalist class relations.”

As with precursors such as John Galbraith’s “technostructure” and Daniel Bell’s “professional-technical class,” the Ehrenreichs’ PMC conflates managers with professional employees and assigns them influence well beyond empirical evidence. Similar “new classes” continue to be concocted as “liberal elites” reproducing the status quo, keeping nonmanagerial workers in their place. Right-wing ideologues now evoke even more diffuse versions of elite political and media circles on the coasts and in the cities of the United States to mobilize populist grievances against the “deep state.”

Whether the referent is to the PMC, “liberal elites,” or the “professional middle class,” this false amalgam is now being used widely on both the Right and Left of the political spectrum as both the agent and the prime target of legitimate race, gender, and disability issues. But focus on such a false class amalgam serves primarily to divert attention and energy away from issues grounded in material economic conditions and actually weakens prospects for social justice generally. Skepticism about the progressive potential of such illusory class forces is well warranted.

Professional employees and middle managers are both increasing proportions of the class structure. Nonmanagerial professional employees, or “knowledge workers,” now represent the fastest growing part of the nonmanagerial labor force; they are also the most highly organized, experiencing worsening working conditions and increasing underemployment. They are centrally involved in many social justice and environmental protest movements against capitalist offensives. But they face many obstacles and romanticizing them as “the new working class” is likely to lead to yet another instance of pique from left intellectuals when it becomes obvious that they are no savior.

If the past is any guide, new classes will probably continue to be proposed by pro-capital intellectuals as system saviors, and by left critics as pivotal agents of transformation. There are lessons to be learned from the history of such proposals.

First, virtually all proposed new classes in advanced capitalism have been based on very limited empirical evidence. In the main, they are more the result of hopeful speculations grounded in political biases. Whether you want to save the system or transform it, concocting a new class agent with no real connection to the existing class structure is a recipe for failure.

It is striking how few new class advocates have paid any attention to the basic tripartite employment class structure of corporate capitalism. Employment classes are based on paid work relations. No class stands alone. None succeeds without both internal alliances and alliances with other classes. This lesson is lost on new class advocates who are typically preoccupied with drawing vivid portraits of their favored emerging class agents.

Second, the speculative nature of new classes pretty much guarantees they will have little actual political effect. Since they don’t really relate to the existing class structure, they don’t figure in the political alliances needed to make any substantive changes. This point applies to presumed revolts of the masses as much as to specific new class agents. The populism from above promoted by authoritarian demagogues like Donald Trump is often characterized as appealing to a demoralized “working-class” base. What is actually demoralized is the established political structure of countries like the United States where dominant party agendas are now largely shaped by private corporate interests that don’t respond to most peoples’ democratic needs but do anger and alienate many.

Current autocrats have become very effective at appealing through both mass and social media to sentiments of anger and loss. But they continue to rely on corporate elite support and offer few democratic benefits and instead trade primarily in ethnophobic exclusions. Their popular appeal is not to a broad “working class” but to dissatisfied self-employed, small employers, and managers along with underemployed nonmanagerial workers in previously dominant ethnic groups who feel abandoned by the established political party structure and hope for a quick fix. For example, most of the arrested January 6 insurrectionists were small owners and managers.

If progressive class forces are to be effective in challenging the excesses, inequities, and existential threats of advanced capitalism, they will have to continue to build on the alliances of nonmanagerial classes in the existing class structure and their active involvement in the recent unprecedented social justice and environmental protest movements. This is already underway, far surpassing the expectations of “new class” advocates.

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