Professional Managerial Class Liberalism and Global Migration

A Response to “Migration and Mobility” at the Annual Conference 2018 of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung, “Knowledge and Society in Times of Upheaval”, Berlin, 20-21 November 2018.

By Thomas Jessen Adams

“I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what has lit the flame.”  So said former U.S. Secretary of State and failed 2008 and 2016 Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in a late November 2018 interview with the Guardian. “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken…but I think it’s fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message-‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’-because if we don’t deal with the migration issue, it will continue to roil the body politic.”

In 2018 one does not have to look far to find a broad spectrum of politicians and thinkers citing the so-called “migration issue” as the driving force behind reactionary politics in Europe, North America, and the Antipodes.  Whether in relationship to the electoral successes of Viktor Orban, Brexit, and Donald Trump or the seeming rising tide of the AfD, Marine (and Marion) Le Pen, the Swedish Democrats, Pauline Hanson, and a host of others, the global commonality in the rebirth of right-wing nationalism appears as a deep transnational zeitgeist of xenophobia and nativism. 

One irony of Clinton’s recent comments is that within two short years she has gone from close association with the dream of open borders for commodities and labor to a leading critic of “compassionate approaches” to global migration from the perspective of political pragmatism and fear of so-called populism. Indeed, a main line of attack that she and her supporters waged in her Democratic primary battle with Bernie Sanders was his argument that “open borders” was a concept advanced by corporate interests and capital—epitomized by the Koch brothers—and thus it was false for him to claim the label of “progressive” and label her a centrist or moderate.  This irony, by no means specific to Clinton but rather more generalized across what we might understand as professional-managerial class (PMC) liberalism is worth exploring in relationship to the recent panel “Migration and Mobility” at the 2018 Annual Conference “Knowledge and Society in Times of Upheaval” of the Forum Transregionale Studien and Max-Weber-Stiftung
—Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland, which took place at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). Through a variety of approaches the papers presented by Xóchitl Bada, Jan Jansen, and Leo Lucassen point to three interrelated tendencies that PMC liberalism exhibits in relationship to the political “problem” of contemporary global migrations. By way of shorthand we can understand these tendencies as: ahistoricism, or perhaps more appropriately, antihistoricism; a disregard for labor issues; and a vision of politics grounded in elite brokership and technocraticism.

In brief, following from Barbara and John Ehrenreich, professional-managerial class here is defined as those “whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations.”[1] Without making any broader claims about the sociological or historical coherence of this group as a class, as a shorthand it is a useful heuristic for grouping together an international cohort that has benefitted materially and politically from economic globalization. Thus, PMC liberalism can be understood as the continued aspiration for “a society ruled by reason and led by public-spirited intellectuals” and where equality is defined by the removal of ascriptive and juridical barriers to meritocratic achievement and not redistribution of material resources.[2] 

Jan C. Jansen at the Annual Conference 2018 in Berlin, 
Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

While not his main purpose, in his paper, “Migration Control and Agency During the Atlantic Age of Revolutions: 1770s-1820s,” Jan Jansen points us toward the extent to which a decontextualized ahistoricism characterizes so much of contemporary discourse on global migration as well as the importance of the resources (political, economic, cultural) that migrants bring to bear when crossing borders. Focusing on the Atlantic littoral between the American and Haitian Revolutions Jansen catalogs the manner in which personal documentary evidence like passports, freedom papers, and the certificates of associational culture arose in tandem with an immigration bureaucracy and control. While by no means his main analytic subject, Jansen’s research points tangentially to important points often lost in the current context. 

First, the 250,000 people who fled the revolutions in France and Haiti demonstrate how the category of refugee cannot be divorced from the political, economic, and cultural power of the people who inhabit the category. Just as more recently elite Cubans left behind post-Revolutionary Cuba for a sympathetic and anti-communist United States and the White South Africans who fled interracial democracy in South Africa for the Antipodes found an ease of political and cultural acceptance, so too did the elites of Ancien Régime France and the plantation owners of San-Domingue find American cities like Philadelphia and New Orleans welcoming. While various national and international legal regimes debate who can claim refugee status and for what reason, the experience of these groups remind us that what is often most consequential is not the form or extent of persecution or dislocation one is fleeing, but the economic and political resources (including at different historical moments racial or ethnic ascription) the displaced person can marshal. The ability to be documented has always been a function of the potential documentee’s access to social and political power.  Jansen demonstrates this trend in the absence as well as the growth of freedom papers in slave societies after the Age of Revolution attests. For those whose physical appearance or some other characteristic in particular legal and extra-legal contexts marked them as potentially unfree, freedom papers and the bureaucracies that produced them became integral tools in delineating who was and was not a slave. This was an especially important development in a world where both opportunities for physical mobility were increasing and various economic and political orders were becoming more dependent on slave labor. Yet, the very attainment of papers themselves—and all the attendant rights of mobility and liberty they entailed—were the function of the political and social power that individuals and groups brought to the table in relationship to these bureaucracies. Indeed, as Jansen points out, the most documented people of the era were black loyalists to Britain during and after the American Revolution. Their usefulness to England as soldiers and allies allowed for them to demand and obtain the bureaucratic instruments of freedom in contexts where their racial ascription might have otherwise made it questionable. This was not conferred on them by the generosity of the Crown but fought for and won in a world in which their interests coincided with those of Great Britain.  

Xóchitl Bada at the Annual Conference 2018 in Berlin, 
Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz.

In her paper on “Transnational Networks for Portable Labor Rights in North America,” Xóchitl Bada helps to open up the key question that the PMC liberal approach to migration leaves unaddressed: labor rights. In contexts like that of the contemporary United States, it is precisely that status of undocumented workers as undocumented that makes them particularly attractive for employers. Timeworn and usually racist canards about work ethic and living needs have always been used to paper over this fact. Undocumentedness brings with it a lack of access to many of the resources that have been purchased over centuries of bloody labor history. Minimum wages, overtime rules, workplace health and safety standards, rights to be free from harassment and discrimination, and a host of other benefits were not conferred out of the liberal public-spiritedness of employers but entrenched via confrontation. Bada makes this clear when she points to the fact that in the contemporary U.S. there is one labor inspector for every 141,000 employees. The paltriness of this number is the result of a multi-decade counteroffensive by American business against the successful institution of these rights from the 1930s through the 1960s.

Nevertheless, American law and international treaty does confer some of these rights upon the undocumented. And, as Bada points out, a host of immigrant rights groups in the U.S. and Latin America are doing yeoman’s work in educating migrants of their rights and possibly remedies to their violations. The problem as it has always been is enforcement and the broader political and social context. Mitt Romney’s immigration plan of “self-deportation,” Barack Obama’s record number of deportations, and Donald Trump’s unleashing of an almost vigilantized Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency all point to this particular problem. Whether under Obama or Trump, such a context of mass-deportation (Obama) and quotidian terror (Trump) means that even if undocumented workers are able to plausibly access remedies to the violation of their labor rights, employers are operating in a world in which the plausibility of deportation or indefinite detention remains so acute that even heroic efforts at raising the consciousness of immigrants around the portability of some rights pales in comparison to the chips that their bosses bring to the bargaining table.

Leo Lucassen at the Annual Conference 2018 in Berlin,
Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz.

In “Migration, Scholarship and the Public Debate: An Uphill Battle,” Leo Lucassen provides an invaluable primer for those of us who occasionally find ourselves moving beyond the scholarly confines of academic discourse and into the public debate around these issues. Lucassen’s suggestion that when we lose our scholarly imprimatur and become perceived as citizens or activists by television viewers and radio listeners we lose the power we can bring to these debates perfectly mirrors my own experience in Australia. Presenting facts, extended frameworks, comparisons, and global context rather than clear opinion is particularly important.  For instance, the fact that EU countries saw more asylum seekers between 1990 and 1999 than in the last decade is either unknown, forgotten, or ignored by broad public discourse as well as elite political actors like Clinton. 

Lucassen suggests a further context that brings me back to the original questions surrounding PMC liberalism and global migration. Just as the U.S. under Obama began to outsource immigration enforcement to Mexico by incentivizing that country’s hardening of its southern border, so too do E.U. countries pay those of Africa to keep migrants from reaching the borders and shores of Europe. Like drone warfare in relationship to imperial hegemony and internal political legitimacy, these policies illustrate the bankruptcy of liberal PMC approaches to migration. One cannot understand why migrants leave Africa or Central America without understanding the recent actions of ostensibly liberal regimes like those of Obama and Clinton in Honduras or Francois Hollande in Mali, let alone centuries-long histories of colonialism, imperialism, and exploitation that is the longue durée context for contemporary dislocation. Thus, for Clinton to suggest that what “lit the flame” of reaction was the all too relative “compassion” of countries like Angela Merkel’s Germany is not simply ahistoric, but antihistoric as reckoning with the history would force the U.S. Secretary of State during the 2009 coup in Honduras to come to grips with her own role and that of American economic imperialism and anti-socialism.  Furthermore, what’s so striking about her comments to the Guardian—and Clinton is merely a stand-in here for the broad liberal PMC approach—is its deep disdain of mass politics. “The roil(ing) body politic” needs to be tamed, not by democratic countermobilizations but by well-meaning statespersons and experts disavowing compassion and generosity. 

This is the worst possible political and intellectual response to right-wing nativism. The only way to defeat a mass politics is with a stronger mass politics. Pushing a not-interventionist foreign policy has proven remarkably—and to many commentators surprisingly—popular in countries like the U.S. and the U.K. as articulated by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Another key component of building such a politics, as Bada’s work hints at, is at the workplace and through policies that push the mass-enforcement and raising of labor standards—regardless of citizenship status. Severing the connection—real or perceived—between economic dislocation and immigration is the most pressing strategy and policy to counter nativist mass-politics. Questions of cultural assimilation and national identity are decidedly less “roiling” when people have economic security and jobs they do not abhor. Furthermore, in a world where anti-immigration sentiment frequently goes hand and hand with a deep distrust of a professional managerial class that has benefitted from globalization while many everyday Americans and Europeans get left behind, a focus on labor has the added effect of separating the wheat from chaff as it were amongst the PMC. A sizable portion of that global elite likes migration precisely because many migrants are undocumented, conditional, or temporary and thus more easily exploited. A successful mass politics against nativism must be framed in terms of those who benefit from exploitation against those who are exploited. By disavowing the questions of history, labor, and politics that these papers suggest, professional managerial class liberalism aids and abets the forces of reactionary nativism. 


[1] Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” Radical America, 1977

[2] Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class (New York: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2013) 10. 


About the Author

Image result for Dr. Thomas Jessen Adams 

Thomas Jessen Adams is Visiting Fellow at re:work: Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Senior Lecturer of History and American Studies at the University of Sydney. He is an historian of American social, cultural, and political life with a particular interest in understanding how various kinds of inequality have been produced and at times overcome. To that end, his research ranges across a variety of spatial and temporal contexts with particular foci on American labor, political economy, contentious politics, racial and gender ideology, and social movements with special attention to American cities and the U.S. South.


Citation: Thomas Jessen Adams, Professional Managerial Class Liberalism and Global Migration, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.02.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/17867.


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