Dear Sublation Magazine Readers,

Thank-you for supporting us by reading and sharing our articles. To help us keep all of our content free, please consider supporting us with a donation.

Our Deformed Professional Class


“All professionals are deformed,” begins a quip by acclaimed literary critic Merve Emre. She’s correct, but that insight applies in a larger sense. In her New Yorker essay, Has Academia Ruined Literary Criticism,” Emre uses the French phrase déformation professionnelle. The term describes how training and “professional socialization can distort an individual’s … normal way of processing information” along with  an “obliviousness to … other ways of perceiving the world.” These little-noted cognitive hazards (of “trained incapacity” or “occupational psychosis”) matter immensely since they strongly influence and can distort our public life. 

Political scientist Larry Bartels, for instance, exposes a distorting premise deemed essential in his profession, that “policy preferences are determined by economic self-interest.” Likewise, the trendy field of political economy presumes rational-choice theory to cast “voters, politicians and bureaucrats as behaving in mainly self-interested ways.” We might call this model of human behavior, with its extreme focus on self-interest, the political realism ruse. It is our culture’s fancy form of financial “might makes right” and it operates as an unquestioned norm among much of our political class. It is routinely asserted to be a core feature of human nature by economists, policy makers, journalists, and many other professionals. Yet a review of the empirical evidence Bartels quotes concludes that in fact “self-interest ordinarily does not have much effect upon the ordinary citizen’s sociopolitical attitudes.” 

So why do political elites typically assert the supremacy of self-interest? Are their lives so full of self-centered sociopaths? Doesn’t your own experience and the psychological realism of literature, TV, and film testify to our richly complex motives beyond selfish gain? Other fields of scientific literature confirm this sunnier pro-social view: in “The Unselfish Gene,” business scholar Yochai Benkler writes, “In no society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.” There seems to be ample evidence that so-called political realism doesn’t represent humans realistically. Yet fans of the phrase pull off a powerful rhetorical trick, seeming to speak for immutable reality itself. A fine line from Toni Morrison can demystify claims of neutral political realism. They are “the most obviously political stance imaginable since one of the functions of political ideology is to pass itself off as immutable, natural and ‘innocent.’” 

But this political realism ruse is far from innocent. It promotes elite interests while often harming others. It acts as an in-group socialization marker. To be a member in good standing of what scholar of public affairs Michael Lind calls “the overclass,” you must heed its creed of greed (deviation is taboo, it risks exile). This overclass (or “managerial elite”) projects its motives onto everyone as the very model of rationality and normality. In The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, Lind observes that “behavior not conforming to [the neoliberal overclass] model is declared irrational.” That’s no surprise in the greed-is-good right, but left-leaning overclass status is signaled and policed by an ever-changing “elaborate etiquette.” Keeping up takes diligent study of outlets that preach fashionable overclass doctrines, like the New York Times, MSNBC, and NPR (all offer culture war primers alongside regular creed-of-greed sermons). In Lind’s view, journalists and academics often use a “lexicon of overclass self-idolatry” while they “grossly mischaracterize” the working class. Their professional-class ethos has traits that typically put such “little value on family or national unity” that they would “strike most people as [typical of] an amoral sociopath.”

According to Lind this sociopathic “neoliberal revolution from above” has ended up “enriching the few and enraging the many.” That the overclass and ordinary citizens have such “profoundly different views of reality and morality” has spurred a rage-fueled populism. But it would be inaccurate (and uncivil) to pin the bulk of Trump-and-Brexit-style populism on irrational choices (by so-called deplorables). As Lind writes, the “desire to disrupt a quarter century” of erosions (under elites of both parties) does make sense. 

These ills have been brewing for decades, Barbara and John Ehrenreich coined the term “professional–managerial class” (PMC) in 1977 (before Reagan’s election). Christopher Lasch mapped more PMC sins in 1995 in The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (reviewed here). By 2021 Catherine Liu’s Virtue Hoarders was railing against the PMC pieties that dominate “political organizations, publishing, media, private foundations, think tanks, and the university.” She finds the credentialed overclass smugly convinced of its superiority while they disparage non-PMCs for “bad taste in literature, bad diets, … and deplorable child-rearing habits.” But in my view these commentaries don’t make clear enough that for most citizens not born into or later outfitted with overclass blinders, it is normal to weigh moral and social values and loyalties with economic factors, and to typically rank the former as higher. As columnist Shadi Hamid pithily put it 2018 “It’s NOT the economy, stupid. 

Yet in 2024 Democratic elites remain blinkered. They’re using blue-collar bribe tactics to “persuade white voters without a college education to focus on their economic interests”—a strategy that could easily backfire (it dishonors nonPMC unbuyable values and loyalties). As journalism scholar Musa al-Gharbi writes, how the leftish PMC frames issues “tends to be alienating to most other voters.” Furthermore the PMC isn’t consistent. To a degree, their self-interest and political realism takes a back seat to their in-group culturally-approved values; they wouldn’t, for example, argue that you should favor gay marriage or trans rights only if they’re in your material interests. Literary critic and philosopher Terry Eagleton, in Hope Without Optimism, laments the “moral shabbiness” of a culture that needs financial incentives to do what’s right. He notes that major progress (such as women’s suffrage and civil or gay rights) is typically achieved in the teeth of “ferocious resistance” from political realists who gain by shielding the status quo. (More on the ills of PMC-mimicking self-centered “left” politics here and on how it hinders rational climate action here.)

The second half of Emre’s quip is that “every professional is deformed in his own way.” But there are certain self-serving deformations shared widely throughout our professional overclass. We must resist the moral rot that their political realism ruse spreads. To defer to this business-suited version of monetary “might makes right” is to risk giving up on the right role of justice.