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Escaping the Triangle: Rene Girard and the Professional Managerial Class by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Escaping the Triangle: Rene Girard and the Professional Managerial Class

At the Stock Exchange (ca. 1900), a 45 x 62.9 cm lithograph by Jean Louis Forain (1852-1931), located in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Photo: courtesy of CMA’s open access initiative, CC0 1.0.

In a previous essay, I argued that the hostility with which some people seem to react in the face of coherent, inherited, beautiful forms, is owed to perceiving some threat in them. It is as though a thing that is whole in itself (in space as well as time) confounds our problem-solving faculties, inviting admiration in which the critical mind must cease its ordinary activity—a kind of deathly vertigo. For this reason, fulfilment of any kind is often not genuinely desired. 

The French philosopher Rene Girard points this out when mapping the triangular structure of desire: a subject that desires, an object that is desired, and a model who mediates desire. The model is observed enjoying the object, so that the subject learns that this object is, in fact, to be desired, that it has a social meaning, that it bestows pleasure or status. The subject will tend to engage his model as a rival. What is really desired is the status of the model—reaching for the object he possesses is more excuse than end. 

Such rivalries, Girard tells us, might rip a society apart, were it not that, eventually, a scapegoat is singled out for the whole community to reconcile against, and for aggression to be siphoned off to. But some basis must be sought in order to justify making someone or something into a scapegoat. There must be something to which the subject is as averse as he is attracted to the object of desire. This implies a second triangle, so that the subject is “pinched” between a role model and what is desired (ultimately, status) and a scapegoat and what is detested (low status). His relationship to the model becomes one of submission to the degree that he yearns to sacrifice the scapegoat. Social atomization and antagonism proceed together. And yet, again, fulfillment is ever postponed. The scapegoat is forever—there must always be someone to blame. 

Today, in the West, we observe a very specific Girardian triangle maintaining and furthering existing arrangements. Status is attributed to what Barbara and John Ehrenreich call the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), a term they coined in the late 1970s. Barbara Ehrenreich summarized the moniker in an interview

There was a real difference between people who worked essentially telling other people what to do … and people who do the work that other people tell them to do. It becomes a difference between manual and mental labour, but it carries with it a [lot of] weight—I see it all the time, the contempt for especially white working-class people among leftists of college backgrounds. 

The aspirant to PMC status is a product of ‘elite overproduction,’ that is, the proliferation of people with degrees and qualifications that, they were told, would land them stable, generous salaries, except that there are more people qualified to be PMCs than there are PMC positions. A scapegoat is needed, then, in order that the PMC will not rebel against a structure that renders his job expendable or, more commonly, in order that the aspirant to become a PMC will not let the brunt of his frustration fall on those whose status and material conditions he desires. 

The scapegoat is the ideological opponent, often rural or working class. By representing older, inherited identities, this scapegoat is cast as a hold-out, restraining progress, where progress means future, ever-future, fulfilment. Here, the scapegoat is the imagined past, the country hick, the redneck, etc. These American terms all have European equivalents. In Spain, they are the tabernarios, or tavern-dwellers, as one government official described right-wing voters. In practice, individual emancipation from the past, for example by replacing old cultural homogeneity with multiculturalism, simply functions to further undercut the stability would-be PMCs crave, in this case by bringing in cheap immigrant labor and making it an unspoken matter of principle that salaries need not allow young couples to start a family.

PMC is as popular a term in certain leftist circles as is ‘failson.’ The latter denotes sons and daughters of wealthy, well connected people, from Jared Kushner to Hunter Biden, but can be used in a broader sense to refer to the children of well-off or merely middle-class families whose prospects for securing the stability and purchasing power of their parents is rendered bleak by economic conditions, but certainly not helped by their lack of real-world competence (their skills being entirely geared towards mental labor, towards filling that dearth of PMC jobs). Failsons are mostly Generation X and Millennials. It is they that represent the fiercest subject of our present Girardian triangle, the most magnetized against the scapegoat and therefore, discourse aside, the most loyal peon of the model and its status-quo—the very status-quo that bars him from the employment stability his parents enjoyed. The failson, then, is the enforcer of demographic and economic trends that will ultimately only increase his vulnerability, along with that of the society at large—sometimes a literal, violent enforcer, as in the case of antifa destroying storefront property and justifying looting, which the large corporation can easily write-off while small businesses shut down permanently.

Sadism against the scapegoat corresponds to masochism or penance and the receiving of an indulgence. By accusing someone of enjoying structural privilege, one exorcises one’s own. The rhetoric that presents the populist-voting scapegoat as morally tainted allows the accuser to dislodge his own taint (thus terms like ‘white ally’). Self-deprecation allows one to partially anticipate and insulate oneself from criticism. 

This is not to imply that such a dynamic is stable—it is, after all, facilitating the acquiescent collapse of the middle class and so can only be a short-term phenomenon—but this requires a longer exploration, as does its geopolitical analogue. In terms of the latter, suffice it to note that by promoting a certain conception of progressive humanity or the ‘international society’—a model—coupled with aggressive stereotyping of a given country, not only is that country’s politics polarized, but separatism is fostered (were it not for those southerners, clinging to religion and odd bits of folklore, why, Catalonia and Emilia-Romagna would migrate north and cease to be Mediterranean at all…)

The attack on older cultural forms (now marginalized but presented as if they remained dominant, as though cultural norms were still those of the 1950s) has long defined youth culture or counter-culture. Its supposed rebelliousness is the means by which the aspirant punches down to the less privileged in order to prove his conformity to a radical iteration of hegemonic ideology and thereby ride that wave of radicality to a higher status. The strategy of the super-woke failson anticipates resistance by using terms and premises that the establishment cannot rebuff without rebuffing its own basis. He may, for example, demand that a corporation take action to ensure inclusive discourse by ‘cancelling’ someone whose speech he finds offensive, making himself a champion of the company’s own stated values (like a real-world, unpaid HR department officer), and presenting any opposition to this as opposition to a self-evident good (inclusion). This is a means for proving his ambition and ability to police discourse, that is, his managerial competence (and, to the degree that a certain ideology is perceived as a means of upward mobility, it will transcend class—the enforcer, as we described him, can come from any background, even if one predominates). At bare minimum, this provides an escape valve for the frustrated failson to take his anger out on culturally deprivileged groups (‘hicks,’ tabernarios, ‘deplorables’) while serving the model by reinforcing discourse that legitimizes it. As Swedish Marxist writer Malcolm Kyeyune puts it:

We should not make fun of the activist who despairs at the state of the world when good, solid middle class people with solid grades can no longer achieve the upper middle class lifestyle they were promised…

But “…the more this class of people who are now tethering on the edge of proletarianization grows,”—in fact, they will not sink into a proletariat as it was, manufacturing having been largely outsourced or automated, but into some kind of precariat—“the more parasitical they will become, must become,” that is, the more they will seek to use the state to perpetuate themselves, partly through subsidies for mental work, art exhibits, cultural event planning, report writing, panel organizing and other ephemera for unabashedly politically correct messaging. Kyeyune goes on:

The left is bleeding working class support everywhere. The left is picking up support among the more affluent and well-to-do stratas everywhere … This is not incompetence, or cowardice. It is not personal, nor can it be fixed by the actions of individual persons; it is a vindication of historical materialism … It is time for the ‘socialism’ of the professional and managerial class and the socialism of the working class to part ways … [workers] have abandoned the left parties because the left parties have abandoned them, not ‘culturally’ as some proponents of identity politics would like you to think, but materially

Partisans of “the socialism of the working class” will

not promise new masters and new yokes to live under, new aristocracies and ‘vanguards’ to subsidize, new cadres of people selling them moral sermons and sensitivity courses. We will promise them a chance at revenge.

This deprivileging of cultural alienation (yes, cultural concerns are less fundamental than economic ones, but they are also, for that reason, higher) and commitment to class antagonism (promising revenge), represent opportunities for non-leftist critics, who can meet the appetite for tradition and identity as well as economic sanity, and who can extend a hand to PMC defectors and failsons as well as workers. 

Yet prominent voices on the Right are beginning to push back against ‘woke’ identity-politics with quasi-Marxist class analysis (pointing out that talk of structural racism and sexism are distractions, we might say “false consciousnesses” or ideological superstructures, that allow the elites to more effectively wage class warfare). The Right is, in places, becoming the old Left, which accounts for the sympathy Tucker Carlson elicits from leftists in the vein of Kyeyune. The danger in this is that important cultural and moral issues will be occluded behind renewed economic determinism (I don’t think Carlson, for his part, falls into this trap). On the other hand, culture and morality were long ago reduced to artefacts to be cheered or booed in the culture-war of a “society of spectacle.”

Today, one of the purposes of any genuine political alternative, then, must be to disrupt the Girardian triangle, partly by offering failsons more than a comfortably conformist way to fail, something radically different from their workplaces, those miniature third-world economies with no middle-class, whose low salaries must be shored up by their parents. Just as intellectual projects are now more freely and impactfully pursued through podcasts funded by patrons than at universities, the Girardian triangle is deactivated when PMC aspirants stop aspiring, stop justifying their mediocre career-path through the dubious, mystical key of eternal CV-building

The triangle we live under is extremely fragile. For one thing, as we have mentioned, it is transitional, and not intended to produce long-term social cohesion, unlike the examples described by Girard in his work. It quite clearly leads to undesirable outcomes for the subject whose compliance it is, for now, still concerned with maintaining. Further, what is desired is not really desired, as a PMC job is only attractive in comparison to the precariousness of a high-turnover entry-position treadmill, and is not in line with the dominant discourse of emancipatory, materialistic individual self-realization, in light of which even job stability is only a provisional good. 

The practical solution is not to reduce national identity and moral causes to a proposition voted for every four years, nor to pretend that class-warfare can resolve these questions, as though manufacturing and industry could again be concentrated in such a way as to produce large, urban middle classes without engaging with the fact that those arrangements rested on a cultural and social fabric that is now depleted and in need of regenerating (here, the Right seems to want to borrow just enough from Marxism to return to the premises of an economic liberalism it barely abandoned). It is heartening to see the interest in some quarters around saving the depopulated countryside, for example, but for such to be a reality, it must be material, it must provide young people access to skills and land, and experiment with how new technologies can be appropriate. The conservative, ‘populist’ project (by whatever name) must be able to facilitate sustainable, generationally reproducible, ways of life, away from PMCs and Human Resource departments, and not merely to reform the economy of the past few decades. We must produce prominent voices, aesthetic attractors to seduce people away from their status-seeking and their preference for rivalry or scapegoating over actual enjoyment. Burnout, even among twenty-year olds—for our whole culture feels deeply tired—is a great ally in this. Under different conditions, love for cohesive, inherited forms will be easier to cultivate. 

Carlos Perona Calvete has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, and has worked mainly in the field of European project management and policy research.

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