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The role of professionals in a market economy
By William Deresiewicz
It used to be we had a deal. Professionals ran society for the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie rewarded them handsomely for it. Doctors, lawyers, psychologists, professors: all of them had a lot of prestige, a lot of autonomy, and in the first three cases, some very nice incomes, as well. At a lower level—decent compensation if not munificent, respect if not esteem—were teachers, nurses, clergymen, social workers. Professionals were key to keeping the system going, and in particular, to tending to people’s individual needs.
The most privileged ministered to the upper classes themselves—a lot of lawyers in this category, a fair number of high-end surgeons and specialists in fancy private practices, a few Episcopal priests and Ivy League professors—while the rest were assigned the far less pleasant task of looking after everybody else. Another way to put it is that a lot of lower-level professionals—think of public school teachers, nurses in the big hospitals, almost every social worker, community college professors, the most selfless of the doctors and lawyers, and throw in the members of the public employee unions (cops, prison guards, civil servants)—were in the business, are in the business, of human waste management.
The system, by design, has more people than it needs—the unemployed and unemployable—to keep a check on what economists euphemistically refer to as “labor costs.” Other individuals—broadly speaking, the working class—aren’t superfluous so much as deliberately immiserated (those labor costs again). This is also how we staff our military. The arrangement is bound to generate a certain amount of pathology—your crime, your homelessness, your mental illness, your lung cancers and liver diseases—and that entails the personnel to keep the garbage processed and sorted, to staff the welfare offices, VA hospitals, prisons, public schools. Note, by the way, despite the customary lamentation over the squandering of human resources, that society can get along perfectly well (I mean the economy can, the upper classes can) with, say, a sixth of its members in poverty and another third stuck at the wrong end of the spectrum. The price of keeping them all policed, incarcerated, emergency-roomed, and badly educated is simply a cost of doing business. It’s deeply immoral, of course—completely disgusting, really—but if society were moral, we wouldn’t need religion.
In any case, over the last few decades, the bargain between the professionals and the plutocrats, which had emerged in the 19th century and held sway for most of the 20th, broke down. You get one guess as to which side welshed. The professionals were becoming too powerful; besides, there was a whole lotta marketizing to be done. So now we have managed care, adjunct professors, psychopharmacology replacing therapy, law firms shedding jobs, and an all-out assault on the public employee unions. The upper class seems to have wagered that professionals will continue to clean up its messes even as they’re being pushed toward the dirt themselves. The question is, when will they start to push back?
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.