Sally Rooney’s latest novel shows there is no place for Marxism in the professional-managerial class

Following the publication of her first two books, Sally Rooney noted she would like to know how to write a Marxist novel. This raises the question: what, in the 21st century, constitutes a Marxist novel? Rooney’s novels have always explored class tension, but none feature capitalists at war with the working class. His characters, as his fiction repeats ad nauseum, are normal people. ”They are not billionaires or industry titans, although they are often relatively wealthy, sometimes moderately famous. They belong to a distinct class of elite workers that authors John and Barbara Ehrenreich have. called the professional-executive class’ (PMC) in a pair of often cited 1977 testing for Radical america. Other characters come from humble working-class backgrounds, and much of the interpersonal conflict in his novels stems from putting the two groups in the same room – often the same bed.

In Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful people, where are youLongtime friends Alice and Eileen have a tumultuous new relationship with Felix and Simon, respectively. Eileen has known Simon since childhood. She has a crush on him the summer he comes home from college to help out on the farm her father runs on the Irish coast. Her mother doesn’t approve of her daughter lusting for someone much older, but – a decade later and without knowing that they’ve started seeing each other – tells Eileen she would be lucky to have one. man also out of his category. When asked if he would be lucky to have Eileen as well, his mother laughs.

Although Eileen and Simon at least come from solidly middle-class backgrounds and attended Dublin University (presumably Trinity), they have diverged in life by the time they finally reunite. Eileen has held the same position as an editorial assistant at a small literary magazine since graduating. Simon works as a political advisor for a left-wing parliamentary group. Both have prestigious jobs, but only Simon earns real money.

This divergence of fortune is something that Rooney’s generally well-educated audience will know all too well. The Ehrenreich discuss this in their 2013 follow-up test, Death of a Yuppie Dream ”, detailing the dissolution of the professional-managerial class into a set of proletarian, low-wage white-collar workers and another of elite professionals often operating more directly than ever in the service of capital. Simon clearly falls into the latter; Eileen the first.

The runaway success of Eileen’s best friend Alice only further highlights Eileen’s downgraded status. The two meet at university and become roommates. While Eileen languishes at literary magazine, Alice gets a six-figure book deal at 24 and continues to release several successful novels.

A lot of Beautiful people, where are you takes place in an epistolary manner, the two women exchanging long emails. Despite regular correspondence, Eileen refuses to visit Alice even though Alice has taken up temporary residence in a former parsonage just hours from Dublin after a mental health crisis and a short stint in a psychiatric ward. When they finally reunite, Eileen’s jealousy and resentment belies the spouting tone of their emails. She doesn’t care to hear that Alice can just buy the house. (“You came here on vacation and now you’re going to love it, stay on vacation forever. Why not?”) Eileen rejects an invitation to live in the parsonage by reminding Alice that she has to work. Aren’t we all doing it, ”Alice replies, which she must understand is not the case.

The tension between the two women is fueled by Alice’s mischievous new love interest. She meets Felix from Tinder at the start of the novel. The date does not go well, especially after Felix realizes that she is not only a writer but rather a writer. They continue to date even though Felix can’t – or rather doesn’t want to – hide his disdain for Alice’s wealth and its implications. (“He absolutely despised me,” she writes Eileen.) Although Felix is ​​often downright cruel to Alice, Alice endures his abuse, uttering only occasional lines. She knows firsthand where Felix comes from. She was not always rich. His father was an alcoholic and a mechanic, his family life troubled. According to her, Eileen’s family never liked her because they wanted her daughter to have good middle-class friends and now she is angry with her for her success.

But Alice’s understanding of the classroom is not entirely experiential. Typical of Rooney’s characters, she learned the language and logic of anti-capitalism while attending an elite college. Her emails with Eileen include long lamentations about the harshness of their life under capitalism, though an offended Eileen reminds Alice that her life – no matter how hard or painful – is objectively privileged.

Both women find their education insufficient to understand and deal with class tensions in their own lives. These lives often say more about the classroom as it is actually experienced by normal people than the critical theory they learned in college. They never went out on a picket line. Alice doesn’t even have a boss. Eileen is not about to syndicate the small literary magazine by offering it a respectable job, however low paying it. Their lived experience with the classroom has less to do with fighting one employer than the other for employment and other opportunities.

Intraclass conflict is generally understood to escape a socialist conception of class struggle. “Individualism is the territory of liberals, not socialists. But that only applies here if we accept that Alice and Eileen are of the same class. Felix, clearly, no. Initially hostile to Eileen for having had a presumably cushy job supported by taxpayer dollars, he is shocked to learn that Eileen earns less than he does at the shipping warehouse. (“How about you?” asks Eileen , as if she didn’t know why he would assume she did more.) While it may lack jargon, surely not having read either Marx or the Ehrenreichs, Felix recognizes Eileen as a proletarianized elite. he’s not like Alice but not quite like him either.

Many within the contemporary left refuse to accept the professional and managerial class as anything other than a collection of cultural associations. Marxism, after all, defines classes in terms of their distinct relationships with the means of production: capitalists derive their wealth from the ownership of capital; workers sell their labor for wages. So, according to the theory, a worker is a worker is a worker, as Eileen unconvincingly argues at a party.

The problem is, in modern financial capitalism, the wealthy elites use wages to buy stocks, property, and other assets. Their 401(K) s and Airbnb properties are their own little part of the means of production. Many live partially (and in retirement, entirely) on investments that low-wage workers have little access to. Alice will never have to work another day in her life again, whether or not she writes another book. Eileen must.

This would seem to place Eileen in the proletariat and Alice in the petty bourgeoisie, but only if we ignore how the PMC reacts to its own proletarianization. Mobile-down professionals, often drowned in student loan debt, are terrified of stepping out of the elite. Writing on the chasm that opens within the professional-managerial class, Gabriel Winant argues professionals – in an increasingly contradictory situation, as the neoliberal order we helped build has turned against us ”- should align with the social class that will really support us – the working class. But this is far too hopeful, because as long as the professional-managerial upgrade exists, even the potential downgraded elites will remain torn between a working class they do not want to join and an elite upgrade they do.

Those who do class analysis outside a socialist framework have no difficulty in describing the situation. Beautiful people, where are you dramatize. Christopher Lasch wrote on the class war between the new professional and managerial elites ”and the working class, as well as a shrinking middle class, back in the 1990s. More recently, self-proclaimed democratic nationalist ”Michael Lind identifies the class antagonism between the managerial outclass “and the working class in The new class war: saving democracy from the managerial elite. Historical sociologist Peter Turchin spent at least a decade modeling How? ‘Or’ What elite overproduction ”creates societal discord and intraclass conflict among those competing for limited spaces in the outclass. Even moderate conservative commentator David Brooks wrote in Atlantic on how the the bobos – or the X people, or the creative class, or whatever you want to call them – have merged into an island, mixed Brahmin elite that dominates culture, media, education, and technology.

If you are wondering why David Brooks makes a sharper class analysis than the left, consider that it costs nothing for those who do not belong to the left to recognize an antagonistic class position between the executive class and the class. factory Girl.

Make war against liberal elites ”fits well with a conservative agenda or a neoliberal project. Wealthy liberals can recognize their privilege without jeopardizing their meritocratic and technocratic worldview, or their sense of virtue, as long as they embrace the contemporary nobility obliges a benevolent and benevolent outclass. But, for a socialist movement whose ranks are predominantly drawn from the professional-managerial class and the descending middle class, the failures eager to join them, recognizing the antagonism between its existing members and the rest of the working class calls into question the whole political project. .

The greatest contradiction and the greatest existential risk for class politics is the refusal to engage in honest class analysis. Pretending that all workers are the same obscures (rather than clarifies) class realities. Tell a Felix that he is no different from an Alice or an Eileen and that he might be laughing, maybe pulling the lever on Brexit or Trump.

In an email to Alice, Eileen laments the rise of an inconsistent and powerless identity politics, but cannot articulate a workable alternative. She poses, if a serious left-wing political project is still possible,maybe it won’t involve people like us – in fact, I think it certainly won’t. “

Whether Eileen is right has less to do with her alignment with the working class than with how deep she is in it.

This essay was originally published in September at The hedgehog review (produced by the University of Virginia), reprinted here with permission.

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