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The laptop class
A look at a new politics of tech
For fans of tech guys mouthing off about bullshit online, there are few better follows than Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of mega-VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, and the egg-shaped mind behind Mosiac and Netscape, two of the earliest web browsers. Marc, aside from directing a huge amount of financial capital through the tech sector and sitting on the board of Facebook, also acts as a reliable weathervane for whatever the prevailing vibe is among the right-wing flank of the industry.
Recently, he has been maniacally focused on what he describes as the laptop class, which he describes thusly:
Arriving promptly in the replies, our good friend Elon Musk offers his view:
Andreessen went on to offer a reading list on the professional-managerial class to his followers, and has tweeted about it many dozens of times since. He has seemingly realised over the past month or two that the professional-managerial class is the keystone to his muscular, pro-tech worldview, and that he has successfully put a name to the constellation of individuals and institutions that piss him off the most.
On the one hand, it’s amusing to see a venture capitalist like Andreessen approvingly directing his followers to read leftist literature like the works of John and Barbara Ehrenreich. After all, his class position is literally in his job title. But I think his recent obsession is instructive, and says quite a bit about an ongoing realignment in the politics of tech.
But first some background, which loops into some broader political conversations percolating in the culture at the moment.
The professional-managerial class (PMC) was first described in those terms by the Ehrenreichs in their now-famous 1977 essay, though other thinkers had identified and begun to draw lines around the phenomenon prior to that. The pair were trying to figure out a materialist explanation for why American capitalism had managed to chug along through the 20th century, and why the New Left and its menagerie of radical students and social activists had failed to do much about it. Karl Marx’s prediction that industrial capitalism would obliterate the middle class of his era had played out more or less as promised, but it hadn’t resulted in a clear polarisation between the working class and the bourgeoisie.
Something had gone bung. The bureaucratic, managed capitalism of the mid-20th century had generated a new, professionalised class which acted as a middleman between capitalists and workers, enforcing their antagonistic relationship. This class — including people like accountants, journalists, academics, doctors, nurses and teachers — threw up category errors when forced into the two-class system Marx had imagined. They seemed to possess characteristics of both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie while belonging to neither. They didn’t control the means of production and in most cases were paid a wage, but nonetheless pursued interests different to, and often in opposition with, those of the working class.
Many 20th century socialist thinkers accepted that some new middle class with unique qualities had emerged, but thought that diverging from Marx’s two-class model in understanding it would break the whole analysis. (It might even be a kind of sacrilege.) The Ehrenreichs, on the other hand, identified the PMC as a distinct class that “lies outside the polarity of labour and capital”, and includes people with “a wide range of occupations, skills, income levels, power and prestige”.
What the PMC does, they wrote, is enforce and reproduce the political and class order of capitalism. In other words they, as their name suggests, manage. They keep the wheels of the system spinning, and help discipline workers in various ways on behalf of capital. According to the Ehrenreichs, this class is also fundamentally unproductive. This isn’t intended as an insult, just sober accounting. (A nurse doesn’t ‘produce’ anything, but most would agree they serve an essential social role.)
The right has long had a similar story, without the nasty Marxism. Conservative philosopher James Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution in 1941, which argued that the importance of family ownership and private property to capitalism was declining, and that a new elite made up of managerial professionals was rising to take the throne instead. They were imagined as the western, capitalist version of the sclerotic ruling class of bureaucrats and party functionaries that emerged in countries following Soviet-style communism. The ‘new class’, as understood by conservatives, is one you’ll no doubt have heard a lot about over the years: sniffy liberal elites imposing their sicko values on the population at large.
The category gets a little more amorphous when thinkers try to apprehend its cultural dimensions. Token New York Times conservative David Brooks, who no one would accuse of having a scientific understanding of class, called them the ‘bobos’ — meaning ‘bourgeois bohemians’ — describing them as “highly educated folk who have one foot in the bohemian world of creativity and another foot in the bourgeois realm of ambition and worldly success”. It doesn’t map entirely neatly to the PMC as Barbara and John Ehrenreich conceptualised it, but you get the sense he’s shooting at the same barrel from a different perspective.
In a 2013 essay, John and Barbara Ehrenreich revisited their original ideas, and concluded that the PMC had actually not done so well since the late seventies. Many of the things that happened to blue-collar workers during deindustrialisation ended up happening to many service professionals too, they wrote, and the class itself was falling to pieces — with some being proletarianised and joining a precarious working class, and others being invited into the exclusive club up top:
So in the hundred years since its emergence, the PMC has not managed to hold its own as a class. At its wealthier end, skilled professionals continue to jump ship for more lucrative posts in direct service to capital: Scientists give up their research to become “quants” on Wall Street; physicians can double their incomes by finding work as investment analysts for the finance industry or by setting up “concierge” practices serving the wealthy. At the less fortunate end of the spectrum, journalists and PhDs in sociology or literature spiral down into the retail workforce. In between, health workers and lawyers and professors find their work lives more and more hemmed in and regulated by corporation-like enterprises. The centre has not held. Conceived as “the middle class” and as the supposed repository of civic virtue and occupational dedication, the PMC lies in ruins.
Despite their conclusion, the concept of the professional-managerial class has picked up significant steam again in recent years, and especially post-2016 and its political upsets. The core issue people have been trying to understand is the global phenomenon of the traditional working classes looking towards right-wing populists for political solutions, as both the neoliberal consensus and centre-left parties wither on the vine.
One explanation is that socially liberal, moralising PMC have successfully seized our politics and institutions — including labour unions and parties — alienating a less urbane, less progressive underclass. This institutional capture is blamed for the decline in power and effectiveness of the left, as well as for backlashes like Brexit and the election of Trump. The recent anti-woke moment, expressed on both right and left, assumes that this ascendant, highly-educated class has weaponised culture and language against people who aren’t hip to the ever-evolving program.
In her book Virtue Hoarders, Catherine Liu — who does not like these people much at all, as you might guess from the title — says that today’s empowered PMC is “convinced of its own unassailable position as comprising the most advanced people the earth has ever seen” and “finds in its particular tastes and cultural proclivities the justification for its unshakable sense of superiority to ordinary working-class people”. In a widely-shared article for n+1, Gabriel Winant describes how PMC has become a slur within leftist spaces too, “hurled like a missile” at those who have the whiff of the credentialed meritocrat about them.
The term has essentially become shorthand for ‘elite liberal Democrat’ in the US. As such, it serves a useful culture war role for a right-wing movement that is much more comfortable talking about and leveraging economic class in their arguments. Many ‘populist’ publications, like Sohrab Ahmari’s Compact, purport to be cross-partisan efforts to marry social conservatism with social democratic economics in an effort to knock the PMC from power. (The fact there have been plenty of failed or abandoned projects in this vein since 2016 suggests it might not be as easy a marriage as they say.)
In Australia, there’s perhaps no better example than the current war over the teal independents, who represent the possibly painful divorce of the right wing of the PMC from the Coalition, who they have traditionally supported as a bulwark against the wealth redistributions promised by Labor. Look at the candidates and you’ll see a lineup of management consultants, neurologists and PR executives, which verges on parody. Now that the political equilibrium is being shaken up, you see this class pursuing their interests independently of the old party system, and far away from the interests of resources capital.
So, what does any of this have to do with our current generation of tech overlords?
A few weeks ago, I outlined the basic precepts of what I called ‘tech revanchism’, which is a concerted effort by the industry to reclaim the moral territory lost during the ‘techlash’ of the 2010s. After years of getting slapped around by the media and political class for everything from the evils of social media to increasingly ubiquitous advertising and surveillance, the tech industry and its associated culture is mounting a defence of the benefits of rapid technological development to human civilisation.
They tend to call it ‘tech optimism’ or some variation, but it really is a revanchist project. They want to get us back to the post-dotcom, pre-Facebook era when public attitudes toward tech were generally much sunnier, and software and hardware developers were being talked about as if they were on the vanguard of civilisational progress rather than slimy nerds trying to automate or quantify every facet of human existence. Those halcyon days back when the internet was imagined as a liberalising force rather than a gigantic psychosis machine and site of political control.
Part of that defence, like the thread above, means asserting the moral and practical value of their work. That means getting a population restive about everything from Big Tech censorship to screentime for kids to believe in the positive potential of technological development. It means building things, as Andreessen himself put in an essay popular within the industry which pitches software designers as of a kind with those who build hydroelectric dams and highways.
“Our lens is rational optimism about technology and the future,” writes Margit Wennmachers in the opening salvo for Future, the pro-tech content shopfront of Andreessen Horowitz. “We believe that it’s better to be alive after the industrial revolution than in an agrarian society.” (Bold!)
But the other part is neutralising the class which animated the backlash in the first place. When Marc Andreessen and Elon Musk talk about the laptop class, they’re talking about the professional-managerial class, but they’re talking about them in a particular way. Though they might pay lip service to the classical idea that the PMC’s role is to discipline the unruly working class, it seems like Andreessen’s true complaint is that these people sit on their laptops and post jealous and rude things about software developers and their venture backers, who they resent for being both productive and paid well for it.
It’s interesting to think about this in terms of the political realignment of the tech industry more generally. Just ten years ago, you’d absolutely have put sandal-wearing Californian tech workers in the PMC bucket thanks to their cultural affiliations and kinship networks alone. They were, in large part, wealthy liberal Democrats with progressive social values in a highly professionalised industry. They might not have indulged the same elitist cultural proclivities associated with David Brooks’ bobos, but they were in the same ballpark.
While this remains true in many respects — see the widely-covered response of Twitter employees to Elon Musk’s planned acquisition — the cultural positioning is shifting, and many developers are trying to define themselves in opposition to the traditional tech workforce. They pitch themselves not as professionals but as builders, who generate value from thin air by the sweat of their brow and a few thousand lines of code, and subscribe to a different sort of politics. It plays out as a sort of class repositioning, as a new generation of tech worker and entrepreneur sells themselves as the revolutionary class of a new digital era, rather than the professionals and managers of yore. Tech revanchism is the politics of that era.
There’s no better example of this than the crypto and Web3 industry — heavily subsidised by Andreessen Horowitz and other VC money, incidentally — which valorises building to a comical degree, despite not yet building much of legible civilisational value beyond creative ponzis, alternate reality games, monkey pictures and ever more sophisticated financial instruments. Watching the mass of development talent migrate into the (until recently) red-hot crypto sector, its not hard to see parallels with the Ehrenreichs account of scientists giving up their research to become quants on Wall Street.
Along with Musk’s deliberately trollish announcement today that he will vote Republican going forward — despite always being very much aligned with the Republican position on organised labour — there has obviously been a political vibe shift in the tech world. How it continues will be interesting to watch.