The Rump Professional Class and Its Fallen Counterpart

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve been thinking about the professional class–the class which sits between the wealthy billionaires and the ordinary workers. The professionals are college-educated and they are traditionally paid more than ordinary workers. But as economic inequality grows and the position of workers becomes more precarious, the professionals are less secure than they used to be. A university degree no longer guarantees a stable, robust standard of living, but it still separates those who have it from those who do not. Why? Because college students are socialised to pursue the degree as a means of demonstrating their merit. When that merit goes unrewarded, young would-be professionals grow very cross. They want their virtue to be recognised. Unable to earn more or enjoy a higher living standard than the workers, the would-be professionals retreat into the cultural realm. They use the language and ideas they learned at university to assert their moral superiority, gaining an imaginary victory over the workers. This condescension leads the workers to resent the professionals in turn, and makes it very difficult for these downwardly mobile professionals to form political alliances with the workers. All of this, of course, perpetuates the dominion of the rich.

To use a metaphor, the professionals are the house slaves of capitalism–they identify with the owners because they live better than the field slaves and are invited to participate in and contribute to the culture of the owners. But once they are deprived of their superior living standard and opportunity to culturally contribute, they can defend their feeling of superiority only by mocking the field slaves for being unable to read.

This is not to say that the whole of the professional class is going this way. Some college educated people still enjoy the economic and cultural advantages which historically belonged to all or most college-educated people. I want to explore how this group–what I call the “rump professional class”–interacts with the downwardly mobile group, which I call the “fallen professional class”.

There are a couple of sense in which the fallen professional class is fallen. Firstly, there are the very large number of college graduates who end up in jobs that don’t require a degree. These people are straightforwardly in the “fallen” camp:

Reason #34: Millions of College Grads Are Working Jobs That Don't Require  Their Degree - Ways and Means Republicans

Then there are jobs that require a degree but which are less secure and less lucrative than they used to be. Attacks on teachers’ unions, for instance, are gradually eroding the benefits and security which teachers have traditionally enjoyed. As this happens, the distinction in living standard between teachers and ordinary workers becomes blurrier and blurrier. Tenured teachers still have a better situation than most workers, but fewer and fewer teachers are put in position to acquire tenure. Within teaching, then, there is a minority of secure, tenured faculty–who are part of the rump professional class. Then there are teachers who have no realistic path to tenure and have been effectively turned into casual workers. These teachers are part of the fallen professional class. The rump professional class and the fallen professional class have largely the same education, but are nonetheless treated very differently, because the system is not interested in rewarding their merit but in reducing the cost of the education system.

The fallen professionals want to be part of the rump professional class, but can no longer access it materially. They can only access it culturally, by maintaining their familiarity with the language and ideas of the rump professionals. For this reason, the fallen professionals try very hard to continue to be part of the culture of the rump professionals. This enables many rump professionals to make money off their fallen counterparts by selling an ersatz version of the experience of professional class life. This takes the form of podcasts, YouTube videos, and prestige TV shows and films. By consuming this media, the fallen professional continues to feel part of the rump professional class, even as the fallen professional is robbed of the material benefits of being a member.

Because the fallen professionals want to feel superior to the ordinary workers, the rump professionals have a financial incentive to sell ideas which flatter this superiority complex. This has led, in recent years, to the development of a woke industry which invents new terms and grounds for taking offence. By using these terms and taking offence in these ways, the fallen professionals feel they are participating in the culture of the rump professionals and they can distinguish themselves from the ordinary workers, who fail to use the language or to recognise the offensiveness.

The rump professionals justify this commercialisation of radicalism on the grounds that it is ostensibly morally committed to resisting racism, patriarchy, fascism, or even capitalism itself. But the main effect of the product is to create cultural barriers between the fallen professionals and the ordinary workers, so the fallen professionals will continue to politically identify with the rump professionals and therefore with the rich. The language is used to label the ordinary worker a deplorable bigot, and the ordinary worker responds by seeking the absolute destruction of these professionals through right nationalist politics. Mortified by the right nationalism of the workers, the rump and fallen professionals lean ever harder into denouncing them as bigots, creating a vicious cycle which pushes the workers further and further to the right.

For some time now, the left has sought to use these fallen professionals as “class traitors”. They are supposed to lead left-wing movements and organise on the ground. But the fallen professionals cannot do this, because they have contempt for the people they are trying to lead. This contempt is nurtured by the cultural content manufactured by the rump professionals.

None of this is anyone’s fault, individually. Because it’s getting harder and harder to be part of the rump professional class, would-be professionals must do everything they can to compete, and that means they have to look for money wherever they can find it. Those who make it must make money off those who do not. Those who do not were fed lies from childhood. They were told that a professional class life was achievable, and they were told it would be wonderful and fulfilling. Their desire to get the recognition and meaning they were promised is a reasonable consequence of the way they were socialised. And how can the ordinary worker react in any other way? The worker cannot have dignity without resisting a professional culture that constantly denigrates workers for lacking elite education.

The question is whether there is any way out. Left to its own devices, this process will make the workers more and more nationalist, and the workers will use the state to annihilate elite liberal culture. If a large enough number of people receive professional education to overcome the workers, we’ll end up with a society in which woke virtue signalling is hegemonic. In neither case will the rich be threatened in any meaningful way.

We would need a political movement which could induce the fallen professionals to make an alliance with the workers. But who will lead such a movement? The rump professionals will not. The decline of unions and civil society organisations leaves the workers with no means of organizing themselves. Bernie Sanders tried to thread the needle, but his campaign was set upon by the rump professionals in 2016 and co-opted by them in 2020.

Increasingly, people are responding by choosing sides. Some are siding with the professionals against the workers, and others with the workers against the professionals. But the workers alone will produce right nationalism, and the professionals alone will produce woke neoliberalism. It is only through a dialectical synthesis of listening and expertise that we can have a political movement which recognises the problems we have and knows enough to solve them. The workers know the problems but they don’t know what to do. The professionals know how to manage complex systems, but they don’t know what’s wrong.

This is a big part of the trap that we’re in.