Ideas of the PMC

three recent books offer historical views of the rise of the professional managerial class within the emergence of the so-called “knowledge economy.”

X-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • Margaret O’Mara, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
  • W. Patrick McCray, Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture
  • Alex Sayf Cummings, Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy

In 1963, the President of the University of California, Clark Kerr, saw the future and thought it would be full of ideas. Or at least that it would be full of knowledge production. Kerr argued that “the production, distribution, and consumption of ‘knowledge’ in all its forms is said to account for 29 percent of gross national product…and ‘knowledge production’ is growing at about twice the rate of the rest of the economy.” The labor mediator-turned-higher-education-administrator believed that, “What the railroads did for the second half of the last century and the automobile for the first half of this century may be done for the second half of this century by the knowledge industry: that is, to serve as the focal point for national growth.” Writing at the height of postwar American power, as a booming economy and a spirit of consensus liberalism dominated, Kerr would soon face the ire of the very “knowledge workers” he sought to train. In places such as the University of California system, young New Leftists rejected his vision of them as widgets in the coming knowledge factory. Instead, those “bred in at least modern comfort” in the years after World War II, as the famous Port Huron Statement put it, saw all around them racism, sexism, alienation, and inequality as well as the escalating horrors of the war in Vietnam and the ever-present shadow of nuclear annihilation. Nonetheless, the notion of a postindustrial “knowledge economy” did not vanish. The idea that manipulating information, ideas, and research would replace the making of actual things as the key engine of economic growth persisted throughout the uncertain 1970s, it took off in the 1980s and 1990s, and right through the first decades of the twenty-first century, it has continued to loom large as the supposed future of American work and abundance.

The Americans laboring in Kerr’s new “knowledge industry” have taken many names and guises since the 1960s. They have been called white-collar workers, disruptive student radicals, later latte-drinking liberals, the upper middle class, yuppies, bobos in paradise, boomers (as if the entire postwar generation, no matter what their wealth or line of work, had been at the 1964 Free Speech Movement on Kerr’s University of California campus), Atari Democrats, New Democrats, Clintonites, Obama lovers, neoliberals, and the ten percent. Cultural critic Catherine Liu scathingly called them “virtue hoarders” in her recent polemic against them. In other contemporary squabbles on the left, these Americans were branded Warrenites rather than Bernie Bros. They were liberal professionals protecting who critics dismissed as ultimately more committed to protecting their own status than joining a new coalition of working Americans brought together in opposition to the elites in the “one percent.”

Who are these Americans working in the upper echelons of the knowledge economy, exactly? One of the best ways of understanding this amorphous but important class of Americans came from two veterans of the 1960s New Left, Barbara and John Ehrenreich. In a two-part 1977 essay published in Radical America, the Ehrenreichs argued that this group was a distinct, but distinct class: the Professional Managerial Class. The PMC, as they are now often called, came into existence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were not the old petty bourgeoisie of small-business proprietors and independent farmers, but a new class whose expertise was required to make an industrial economy function: engineers, scientists, teachers, doctors, social workers, functionaries, bureaucrats, and other professionals and managers who had the know-how to create and control the levers of the modern capitalist world. The PMC often sided with those above them on the economic ladder as their members pioneered more efficient means of expropriating surplus labor value from workers. Yet the PMC, the Ehrenreichs noted, were also workers themselves. Particularly as their numbers grew within the expanding knowledge industry after World War II, they became more and more like the rest of the working class, with whom they maintained important connections both structural and cultural.

A powerful group in both their importance to the emerging knowledge economy and their deeply ambiguous positioning within American capitalism, the PMC created norms that now dominate the nation’s sense of itself. Professional training, expertise, education, credentialization, technical acumen, and an ideal of meritocratic advancement (usually more fiction than actuality)—this is now the vision of how to get ahead and stay ahead in the United States. The PMC also, as Barbara Ehrenreich would later write, possesses an intense “fear of falling” from their class position. As Clark Kerr imagined they would in 1963, the PMC has played a crucial role in shaping American culture and politics, but perhaps not in the ways he expected. Instead of happily working in the knowledge factory of the coming information society and information economy, the PMC has instead remained a confusing and unstable force in American life, pushing forward what Alex Sayf Cummings cleverly calls the “idea of the idea economy,” what W. Patrick McCray names as a “creative culture,” and Margaret O’Mara simply describes as “the remaking of America.”

These three historians do not take up the theory of the Professional Managerial Class explicitly—O’Mara focuses on the political economy of Silicon Valley, McCray combines the history of technology with the sociology of art to tell the tale of the Technology-and-Art movement, and Cummings investigates Research Triangle Park in North Carolina as an unexpected origin point for today’s knowledge economy—but each in her or his own way also tracks the rise of the PMC. Together, their books reveal something important: Cummings, McCray, and O’Mara all notice how close-knit networks have repeatedly shaped the nature of PMC membership. The knowledge economy expanded, but the Professional Managerial Class actually remained quite constrained, with access to it quite fraught for those not already situated at its most privileged levels.

In Margaret O’Mara’s political and business history of Silicon Valley, we realize that even in this most celebrated of locations, where tech was supposedly revolutionizing everything and a New Economy had emerged on the Information Superhighway, the on-ramps were few and far between. Instead, a tight circle of venture capitalists, engineers, and programmers consolidated power rather than spreading it to a broader populace. McCray examines collaborations between elite avant-garde artists and postwar engineers; these eccentric, edgy connections across disciplinary divides yielded strange and wonderful art, yet ultimately the dream of breaking through to radical reimaginings of technological society mostly led back only to the existing economic imperatives of commerce and industry. In Cummings’ book on Research Triangle Park, the story of the PMC takes a Southern twist. Yet the new knowledge factory sometimes looks like nothing more than an update of the old paternalistic Southern mill town rather than a bold new vision of the New South in the Information Age.

In these books, we see, again and again, the PMC flicker into view: both its dream of realizing a more rationalized, meritocratic, and flourishing postindustrial civilization for the many often and its often-hypocritical role providing technicians for implementing ever more barbaric form of capitalist exploitation and immiseration.

In the Shadow of the Valley—Margaret O’Mara’s The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America

O’Mara’s book is worth starting with because she examines one of the most important places, both materially and symbolically, for the rise of the PMC within the emergence of the knowledge economy. She seeks to understand what made Silicon Valley distinctive, to define what one might call a sort of Santa Clara Valley exceptionalism. The prevailing myth is that the Valley grew out of an embrace of libertarian freeness, of countercultural experimentation melded with geeky research know-how. Against this boosterism, many have noted that federal government defense spending largely funded Silicon Valley’s rise to prominence. O’Mara splits the difference. In her history, “it is neither a big-government story nor a free-market one: it’s both.” She contends that the largesse of Cold War defense spending combined with a tight circle of engineers and financiers to push forward the business success of the region. As she writes, “This book is about how we got to that world eaten by software. It’s the seven-decade-long tale of how one verdant little valley in California cracked the code for business success, repeatedly defying premature obituaries to spawn one generation of tech after another….” At the same time, O’Mara shows how Silicon Valley’s story is not just a local one to Northern California. It is also, she claims, a “history of modern American” as a whole. In her study, Silicon Valley cannot be understood without tracing its links to old-money financial firms and companies back East or to the development of extensive Defense Department spending and intensive lobbying efforts in Washington DC. For O’Mara, the key insight is that “the Valley’s tale is one of entrepreneurship and government, new and old economies, far-thinking engineers and the many non-technical thousands who made their innovation possible.”

Within her story we keep seeing how local and national (and sometimes international) factors intersected to shape a political economy conducive to generating favorable business conditions for those in control of Silicon Valley. Here we visit the upper echelons of the PMC, where their interests (and some of the figures themselves) really were outright capitalists and not an ambiguous upper middle class or managers. O’Mara notes that much of the seed money for the earliest tech companies came not just from the federal government, or from Stanford University, but also from existing economic interests. Venture capitalists such as Arthur Rock, soon to become titans of the region, used the profits from IBM stocks to fund new chipmakers and computer companies in the 1950s. “The firms origins underscored how tightly wedded the Valley was to outside, old-economy interests from the very start,” O’Mara concludes. Companies such as Hewlett Packard succeeded in this context and the close ties between a small group of venture capitalists, company owners, lawyers, and politicians would keep Silicon Valley going through subsequent waves of invention and development as well as challenges and difficulties. Even as things got more countercultural in the 1970s, O’Mara shows time and time again how the culture and politics of a small network retained control.

Yet, as Silicon Valley developed within the so-called military-industrial complex, a new and far larger group of engineers, managers, and professionals began to dominate the region, supported primarily by Defense Department contracts. “By the end of the 1950s,” O’Mara explains, “tens of thousands of engineers streamed daily into Lockheed’s doors in their white shirts and narrow ties, working on cutting-edge technologies so top secret that they couldn’t tell their families over the dinner table what they did at work that day. Nearby suburbs filled with Lockheed men and their wives and children, further skewing the Valley’s demographics toward the white, the middle class, and the college educated.” Here was the PMC of the 1950s. Roughly a decade later, their children began to come of age, lending the Silicon Valley PMC a more colorful, radical, hippie-ish flavor, but one, she contends, that was not that different in key respects. “Blending the change-the-world politics of the counterculture with the technophilic optimism of the Space Age,” these new Silicon Valley workers were “a steadily enlarging techno-tribe that emerged in the Bay Area and other college towns and aerospace hubs at the turn of the 1970s.” That said, according to O’Mara, “the gulf between the scientific Cold Warriors and the techno-utopians was not as great as it seemed.” Younger countercultural technologists may have embraced more libertarian lifestyles and even, at times, liberal and even radical politics, but they nonetheless maintained a deep faith in technology and capitalism as the best ways forward. Their hair was longer, their clothing more colorful, and their ideas zanier, but in the end, they sought to maintain their PMC status. They thought, as some in Silicon Valley liked to say, to try to do good while also doing well, impervious to the contradictions between the two.

Whether wearing a white collar or a tie-dyed t-shirt, the workers of Silicon Valley embraced the new managerial styles of the postwar era. The “HP way” at Hewlett Packard encouraged loose rules and creativity, setting the precedent for subsequent firms. If these were knowledge factories, they were not like the factories of old. Instead, Silicon Valley companies “blended the organizational chart of the twentieth-century corporation with the personal sensibilities of the nineteenth-century sole proprietorship,” O’Mara writes, which is a nice way of describing the PMC labor ideal. More crucially, while younger Silicon Valley programmers and engineers stayed up late playing video games and inventing new kinds of human-computer interactions at infamous places such as Xerox PARC, those calling the shots began to lobby and fight in California and Washington DC for low taxes and lax regulation. From local bars such as Walker’s Wagon Wheel in Mountain View, they extended the PMC approach into the halls of power and influence in the California legislature and eventually in Congress and the White House. “The horizontal networks of Silicon Valley,” O’Mara explains, became “a webbing of firm and VC, lawyer and marketer, journalist and Wagon Wheel barstool.”

Some of this mode of PMC social organizing, O’Mara proposes, even got baked into the tech itself, particularly in the shaping of the World Wide Web. For instance, Larry Page’s algorithm for Google’s search engine may have started in the peer review process of the academy, but she contends that “his circle of links also called to mind the ecosystem of the Valley.” As O’Mara convincingly points out, “Those most connected were the post powerful; credibility and reputation came from knowing others in the network.” The social formations of Silicon Valley shaped the technology it developed, which in turn now shapes the social formations of how we search and sort information, people, culture, value, and more in the technology at the center of the knowledge economy.

O’Mara also notices that a key part of Silicon Valley’s “code” for success has been its labor practices. Tech firms adopted loose managerial tactics partly to keep out unionization. The staunchly pro-capitalist, anti-labor position of company owners allowed them to make common cause with everyone from Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich to the new “Atari Democrats” of the Valley itself. The PMC as a class thrived in Northern California because of the ambiguous boundaries these work norms created between those at the top and those just below them. Stock options, open offices, flexible hours, acceptance of eccentricity, and the encouragement of individual initiative kept employees in line. Yet in recent years, engineers, programmers, and other employees have nonetheless begun to shift their views on their working conditions. “Keeping the networks tight and personal,” as O’Mara puts it, led to sexual harassment and racial inequities as well as increasingly alienating labor practices. Even as manufacturing itself moved overseas from the Santa Clara Valley, maybe the New Left protesters against Kerr had been right all along: the sparkling corporate campuses of the San Francisco Peninsula were becoming dark, Satanic mills after all. Knowledge factories after all are still factories.

Engineering Art—W. Patrick McCray’s Making Art Work: How Cold War Engineers and Artists Forged a New Creative Culture

In Making Art Work, W. Patrick McCray shifts the story from O’Mara’s focus on the political and business history of Silicon Valley to the experimental collaborations between avant-garde artists and corporation-employed engineers in the 1960s and thereafter. He argues that these experiments set the stage for today’s “creative classes,” so celebrated as they are by recent urban studies theorists such as Richard Florida. While art historians have long explored the objects these artist and engineers produced together, few have used close archival examination of their “activities,” as McCray calls them. Familiar characters from art history such as Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, the Judson Church contemporary dance choreographers, and other luminaries of the 1960s avant-garde New York art scene appear, but we also learn much more about the curators and engineers who joined in—colorful characters such as Frank J. Malina with his Leonardo journal, Gyorgy Kepes, and two key shapers of the art-and-technology experiments, Johan Wilhelm “Billy” Klüver with his Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) and Maurice Tuchman, curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and director of its Art and Technology Program. We also learn much more about the engineers who arrived from places such as Bell Labs (where Klüver worked for a time) to help artists bring their visions to fruition. At events such as the 1966’s 9 Evenings at the 69th Street Armory in New York (originally planned for Stockholm Festival of Art and Technology) and later efforts, the focus turned to all kinds of out-of-focus experiments that might access the strange new potential of technological life. Artists, working with engineers, wired up bodies for electronics, worked with telephony and closed-circuit televisions to create dizzying experiential environments, sought to evoke Space-Age, cybernetic, ambient settings of interactivity between people and machines, and even created fake weather—an artificially generated fog at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.

Their work was eccentric, but it looped back to the high stakes of labor in the knowledge economy. The key place where someone such as Billy Klüver and his Experiments in Art and Technology program found a home, for instance, was in the labor mediator Theodore W. Kheel’s “Automation House,” founded in 1967 in New York City by the American Foundation on Automation and Unemployment as a center for the study of working conditions in the age of increasingly automated modes of industrial production. Avant-garde artists and their collaborating engineers may have seemed utterly different, but they found commonality in the question of their labor and the framework of anxieties about automation of it. As members of the PMC, they seemed capable of possibly identifying downward socioeconomically rather than upward, of using artistic collaboration and community to forge a new vision of the knowledge economy and American life within it.

McCray has a fine eye for the ironies of the cross-disciplinary work in which these artists and engineers engaged. Artists, by and large, wanted to be more engineers, conducting research and learning how to become “managers of technological processes,” while engineers sought to infuse their work with more artistic eccentricity. For artists, McCray believes, the curiosity about working with engineers “was partly a desire to work with new and often unavailable technologies. Added to this was a sense of crisis about the relevance of commodifiable, object-oriented art made using traditional media in a rapidly changing art world.” Engineers, meanwhile, “faced mounting attacks about their complicity in the arms race, environmental destruction, and other global ills.” Therefore, “the art-and-technology movement presented an opportunity to humanize technology and redefine their profession.” The artists wanted to be engineers, the engineers artists. Both wanted to redefine what a PMC-dominated society might look and be like.

What one notices most of all in McCray’s study is the restlessness of artists and engineers keen to push past the constraints imposed by institutions upon their labor and its outputs. Organized as different from each other, artist and engineers who participated in the art movement McCray documents discovered that they had much in common. They both longed to push their professional work into domains not quite conquerable by corporate and capitalist forces. Here was a nascent kind of PMC resistance, efforts to get wilder and more outlandish in expending resources on processes of collaboration rather than products that could be clearly and immediately commodifiable. Rather than point to ways of making more money, they produced artworks that sought, as art can do, to hold up a mirror to society.

This was quite literally the case when it came to Robert Whitman’s work with engineers at Bell Labs and Philco-Ford: they constructed mirror systems that enveloped viewers in experiences of “gentle narcissism” by projecting hologram-like images that appeared to blur the boundaries between the real and the illusory, the material and the dematerialized. Here was an effort to speak to the PMC’s vision of itself as immersed in the new postindustrial world, where technology served to advance individual efforts at self-actualization. It was the kind of approach criticized a few years later by Christopher Lasch as the PMC’s “culture of narcissism,” but it also had a populist slant, aimed at the masses as well as elites. The Art and Technology Movement of the 1960s and 70s, at least as McCray portrays it, sought to reach the everyman as much as those who would later be able to attend Burning Man, but by the 1990s its legacy of daring interdisciplinary exploration had nonetheless been thoroughly reintegrated into corporate America. At Nicholas Negroponte’s MIT Media Lab and elsewhere on campuses as well as in countless tech companies, the goal was not to enable PMC workers to push out from technology into artmaking, but rather to bring the benefits of artmaking with technology into the corporation. Art shifted from the possibilities of the prophetic to the necessities of making profits. Richard Florida’s “creative classes” had arrived. The more idiosyncratic experimentation of McCray’s “creative culture” was largely a thing of the past.

Triangulations—Alex Sayf Cummings’s Brain Magnet: Research Triangle Park and the Idea of the Idea Economy

McCray documents a world gone by, yet the intellectual labor and creativity of the PMC continues to be a crucial aspect of the knowledge factory, the information society, or, as Alex Sayf Cummings playfully puts it, “idea of the idea economy.” Her book focuses on the rise of “cognitive capitalism,” but not in Silicon Valley or the elite artworlds of New York, Los Angeles, and Art Expos; rather, Cummings turns to a seemingly unlikely place: the pine forests of the Piedmont in North Carolina between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. There, a group of boosters began to envision a postindustrial economy in the hinterlands. In a place of mill towns, textile factories, and furniture factories as well as the lasting legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, academics, politicians, local business owners imagined that a place devoid of manufacturing—except for the manufacturing of ideas—could be built.

The place they brought into being would prove so successful that many now refer to the region simply as “the Triangle,” named after the place they managed to create: Research Triangle Park, often shortened to RPT. Cummings uses RTP to document how a “new political economy” of creativity and ideas “was part of a concerted cultural project, one that explicitly valued certain types of labor and industries—and, by extension, certain kinds of people—as more important than others.” In Research Triangle Park, we glimpse the rise of the postwar PMC with a Southern twist.

Later in Cummings book, she tells us about a sign along a road in Research Triangle Park on which someone has graffitied a kind of vernacular slogan, “We think a lot.” The question of intellectual labor—its value yet its oddly policed boundaries—returns again and again in this fascinating study. She writes, “”RTP and the Research Triangle as a whole offer an early and crucial example of a development strategy based specifically on leveraging intellectual and cultural resources—such as universities and the arts—to present an attractive image of a place to live for an emerging class of scientific and technical workers. Indeed, the aim was not merely to create an image of a place but to invent an entire place itself….” While this top-down imagining and creating of RTP could, as Cummings smartly notes, resemble nothing less than an updating of the paternalistic mill towns that populated the South during the height of industrial America, nonetheless they demanded the recruitment and support of a new class of professionals and managers. “RTP was a place expressly designed for knowledge workers before that term was even introduced,” she explains. “It was green, pastoral, sprawling, quiet, clean—everything that a traditional city was not. It was a landscape modeled on a college campus, thought to be an ideal place for thinkers to think.” In fact, “Nothing was accidental or organic…. The park’s planners and boosters not only created a template of what an environment for intellectual labor ought to look like.” In doing so, “they also pioneered an approach to economic development that leveraged creativity, culture, and especially universities to attract advanced industries and educated workers.” For Cummings, it is “in RTP, not Silicon Valley” where “one finds a conscious and deliberate effort to build an information economy.” Here, she argues, away from the big cities and centers of financial and cultural power, we can better see how “the rise of this cognitive capitalism has been too little recognized by scholars and policy makers” as something made rather than inevitable. Whether in the early vision of a kind of open office at the modernist Burroughs Wellcome building or in the recruitment of scientists who were refugees from East European communism or in the triumphant landing (for RTP’s boosters) of an IBM research office, federal government divisions focused on environmental research, and, in 1977, the National Humanities Center, RTP became a fantastical vision—and then a dramatic realization—of the Professional Managerial Class’s labor and lifestyle as part of the knowledge economy.

Nowhere does this appear more vividly than in the rise of the software company SAS under the watchful eye of its libertarian-minded manager Jim Goodnight. Goodnight left an alienating engineering position at General Electric’s facility connected to the US space program in Florida to work in academia at NC State and then found his own company. “In his career,” Cummings contends, “we see a glimmer of the yearnings that later gave rise to the flexible work culture of the creative class, who might be unencumbered by the constraints of traditional factory, office, or retail workers but who also put in time around the clock.” Goodnight created a workplace of perks, from childcare and artists-in-residence programs to flexible labor conditions to company recreational clubs, in order to recruit and retain workers. He became a latter-day Southern factory owner, with his own mansion quite literally adjoining SAS’s corporate campus. Only now the product whose production he oversaw was dematerialized. It was knowledge, research, analytics, consulting services, software. For Cummings, the shirtless dudes playing ultimate frisbee on SAS’s pastoral corporate campus may have seemed new, but really they were just the latest incarnation of the managerial functionaries hired to keep things going at the Southern site of production. From “the chemistry PhDs” in the earliest days of RTP during the 1950s and early 1960s, to the “hip software engineers” who began to arrive in the 1970s, the members of the PMC took up their job in the updated factory of a deindustrialized economy. They may have looked different over time, but to Cummings “in terms of education and cultural capital—as well as their role as sought-after residents, workers, and taxpayers—whether it is 1965 or 2005” they shared much in common. As she puts it, “The tastes simply changed,” but the arrangements of class and capital remained much the same.

The PMC at RTP brought many good things to North Carolina—a new tax base, a sense of being at the cutting-edge of modern American economic and cultural developments, and even limited success in overcoming Jim Crow segregation between middle-class black and white populations. Nonetheless, for Cummings, the success of RTP’s “pastoral capitalism,” as the architect Louise A. Mozingo calls it, remains quite fraught. “The knowledge economy,” Cummings writes, “continues to be an elitist formula for development and growth—one that occludes many in pursuit of the interests of the most educated and credentialed among us.” In response to these shortcomings, Cummings makes a daring call to expand who gets to count as creative, as full of ideas. “If the future is only a playground for the affluent and educated, an endless multiplication of the manicured lawns of SAS or the whisky bars of downtown Durham, who gets in and who gets left out?” she asks, compellingly arguing that “surely everyone is creative in their everyday lives in ways big, medium, and small.” Therefore, “If we favor an economy dedicated to the idea of ideas, we would benefit from a far more capacious notion of what creativity and innovation really mean.” RTP helped the PMC come to North Carolina, but only newer and more expansive conceptualizations of “the idea of the idea economy” will overcome its shortcomings in realizing a more just and egalitarian South—or America as a whole for that matter.


These three books tell cautionary tales about the PMC, but they also suggest something else: that beyond a narrow and exclusive definition of the PMC is perhaps the possibility for a different kind of knowledge economy, one that functions for the masses rather than just the upper classes. Much as the Ehrenreichs were suspicious of the PMC’s elitism and their members’ anxieties about falling downward in status and power, the two theorists nonetheless held out hope for the potential of the PMC to side one day with those below them. The Ehrenreichs did not fully abandon the idea that a broad-based coalition might emerge from the shared structural conditions of working for wages within the knowledge economy. In the studies of O’Mara, McCray, and Cummings, we glimpse both sides of the PMC: their failure by and large to deploy expertise in service of something more than capitalist exploitation, yet also their continual push to remake America in a new way, to imagine a more creative culture, to honor the idea of the idea economy as an expansive rather than a limited concept. In these three books, a more transformative mental picture of professionalism lurks within the stupid historical realities of the knowledge economy that the PMC has managed to produce.

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