An anthropologist announces the fall of the liberal professional class

Summary: Part three concludes anthropologist Maximilian Forte’s series about the death of liberalism. Here he looks at the fall of the liberal professional class. A well-deserved fall, with incalculable consequences.

“I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.”
— William Buckley on “Meet the Press”, 17 October 1965.


The Dying Days of Liberalism
Part three of three.

By Maximilian C. Forte at Zero Anthropology,
18 January 2017.
Reposted with his generous permission.

How Orthodoxy, Professionalism, and Unresponsive Politics Finally Doomed a 19th-century Project.

The Fall of the Professional Class

That nobody could possibly do a better job than the professionals is a core belief of elite liberalism,” Abi Wilkinson wrote in Jacobin, adding:

“Suspicious of mass democracy and emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union, elite liberals came to assume that we’d reached the end of history — that every other social order had been tried and proven inferior. Capitalist democracy, stewarded by sharp, well-intentioned experts, had allegedly emerged from the scrum as the unquestioned victor. For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage. While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?

“If politics is about nothing more than the effective administration of the current system — if it’s about nothing more than putting one’s faith in an able pilot — experience and technical expertise are the primary requirements. Ideological differences are immaterial, conflicting interests obsolete”.

Wilkinson wrote this in dissecting the elitism embedded in a recent, popular cartoon in The New Yorker, which again presents the average, Trump-supporting or Brexit-supporting voter as anti-knowledge, as unqualified to govern.

“These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us.
Who thinks I should fly the plane?”

"Smug pilots" in The New Yorker By Will McPhail
From The New Yorker, by Will McPhail.

Wilkinson then takes apart the airplane metaphor:

“…it assumes that the existing pilots have been doing a decent job. But what if they kept periodically crashing, and declined to repair the damage before taking off again? What if, due to operator negligence, the people in the cheaper seats were forced to hold on for dear life because some of their windows were shattered? What if, in other words, the pilots didn’t seem to care about the health and safety of those in economy class because they were too busy trying to keep the passengers in first class happy? This rendering is much closer to reality”.

"Listen, Liberal" by Thomas Frank
Available at Amazon.

In a book that attracted some attention during the US election, Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? is worth reading in particular for its chapter devoted to “The Theory of the Liberal Class,” which makes extensive use of the writings of sociologists and political scientists. The book opens with a quote from David Halberstam’s 1972 book, The Best and the Brightest, a quote that speaks of, “a special elite, a certain breed of men whose continuity is among themselves. They are linked to one another rather than to the country; in their minds they become responsible for the country but not responsive to it”.

Rather than focus on “the One Percent,” Frank asks that we look critically at “the Ten Percent,” which includes “the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status,” from which the Ivy Leaguer Obama came, as did most of his Ivy League cabinet, explaining the self-justifying and self-flattering slew of comments from Obama about those who are “qualified” to govern and “knowing what you’re talking about”.

Professionals value credentialed expertise, and tend to listen mostly just to each other. They monopolize the power to prescribe and diagnose, in consultation with each other: “The professions are autonomous; they are not required to heed voices from below their circle of expertise” (Frank, 2016, p. 23). Professionals emphasize “courtesy” with one another (hence the incessant tone policing), and show high contempt for those of lesser rank, including precarious professionals. Post-industrial technocrats, the ones who hail the “knowledge economy” and “education” as a solution to all social problems, have bred their own ideology: professionalism. Frank notes that as a political ideology, professionalism is “inherently undemocratic, prioritizing the views of experts over those of the public” (p. 24).

Though they usually claim to act in the public interest, Frank observes that they have increasingly abused their monopoly power, started looking after their own interests, and increasingly act as a class (p. 25), an “enlightened managerial class” of quasi-aristocrats (p. 26). Frank’s critique outlines how the Democrats became the party of the professional class, disposing of labour along the way (p. 28). As a result, they care little about inequality, because their own wellbeing is founded on it. Inequality is essential to professionalism (p. 31). Meritocracy is opposed to solidarity (p. 32).

"Crucifixion of labor" by Samuel Dinsmoor
“Crucifixion of labor” by Samuel Dinsmoor.

Collapsing Liberalism

All of the preceding add to the reasons why I am arguing that it is not just Hillary Clinton, nor just the Democrats who were defeated, but something much larger. Too many “large” institutions failed at their basic tasks, too much fell, when so much was put up for grabs, i.e., globalization, US military bases, trade, class, the judicial system, schooling, healthcare, etc. Yes, the Democrats have been reduced to little more than a party of mayors, whose “survival” only really registers at the municipal level, having lost the presidency, the Senate, the House of Representatives, most state governorships, and the majority of state legislatures. The breadth and depth of the defeat, and the entire architecture used for conveying and defending their ideology failed to such an extent that we must conclude that it was the ideology itself, and the social and economic project that it championed, that was also rejected.

In being rejected, against all the apparent odds, and to such a degree, one has to assume that the damage done is irreparable. Will the stalwart defenders of the current global order who speak in terms of “irreversibility” and “inevitability,” apply these same concepts to their own defeat? A collapse this big opens too many previously unseen doors for it to be just a momentary hiccup for the system.

In Canada, where political developments generally trail the US, we see a replay of the collapse of the liberal project which tries to conceal class differences and class exploitation under the signs of diversity and identity politics. From Gay Pride Day to the World Economic Forum at Davos, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s itinerary often reflects what has become standard for the transnational liberal elite. No coincidences here: as we learned from the Podesta Emails, Trudeau is a Clinton surrogate — he was identified as follows: “Prime Minister Trudeau has been a longtime progressive ally of CAP’s [Center for American Progress, allied to the Democratic Party]…. an active and engaged partner in our Global Progress program”. Another email bore an attachment showing a photo of John Podesta whispering into Trudeau’s ear. The title of the message calls Trudeau “Mr. Canada”.

While Mr. Canada staunchly declares that he stands for “feminism,” he has nothing to offer a struggling working mother who is being carbon-taxed into poverty and homelessness, in an energy-rich country that could be fully energy self-sufficient for the next two centuries were its energy not drained out into the world market. Mr. Canada proudly declares that he stands for “diversity,” yet he adheres to monolinguality in Quebec in arrogant disregard for an Anglophone Quebecker worried about her healthcare. He praises his new minister of foreign affairs, noting her fluency in Russian, and yet underplays the fact that Mr. Canada’s top diplomat is herself barred from entry into Russia, thanks to Russian countersanctions against Canada which we needlessly provoked. Now Canada pretends to be a torchbearer for the liberal imperialist project of Obama-Clinton, on the track to becoming the last loser to defend globalization, seemingly pretending it can pursue a globalization of one.

Today the professional class, the upholders of a dying liberalism, can be heard in the media crying about an imaginary Russian intervention. Not that they have suddenly joined the ranks of anti-imperialists: they were silent on the more than 80 foreign elections in which the US has interfered, not to mention the dozens of US-backed coups, not to mention that the US has an institutional infrastructure (the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the CIA, the Office of Transition Initiatives) dedicated to foreign intervention, armed with decades of policies, laws, and strategy documents steering the course and depth of political intervention abroad.

How ironic, that the hackers complain so loudly about getting hacked –- for once. Where they have been really hacked, however, is in the domains they refuse to acknowledge: that Putin is ten times the statesman of an Obama; that the Russians excel in diplomacy; and that Russia has important anthropological lessons on international relations …that of course our liberal professionals dismissed — and they lost, good and proper.

The three chapters of this essay.

  1. An anthropologist announces the death of liberalism.
  2. An anthropologist explains the causes of liberalism’s death.
  3. An anthropologist sees the fall of the liberal professional class.


Maximilian Forte

About the author

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.

He writes at the Zero Anthropology website (many of his articles are posted at the FM website. it is one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading — excerpt…

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about liberalism, about experts, and especially these…

  1. Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?
  2. Do we face a future without confidence in experts?
  3. Our confidence in science is crumbling. Why? How can we fix this?
  4. 2015 might bring an end to the great age of experts’ experiments on us.
  5. Tips to find the experts that help you see the world more clearly.
  6. Will our geopolitical “experts “lead us to ruin?

Two books by Maximilian Forte

Slouching Towards Sirte
Available at Amazon.
Who is an Indian?: Race, Place, and the Politics of Indigeneity in the Americas
Available at Amazon.

9 thoughts on “An anthropologist announces the fall of the liberal professional class”

  1. There’s a lot of information here and I believe it all to be true really if not in fact but at least in spirit. Look at Michigan…a historical democratic state that was strongly about the working class. We voted Trump.

      1. Bonsai,

        I agree. But that’s been true for always. It didn’t stop the great post-WWII era of trade liberalzation, or the fantastic expansion of US exports — 3.7% of GDP in Q1 1954, 12% in Q4 of 2016 (“we don’t make nothing” is one of the great right-wing lies).

        What’s changed?

    1. We can probably put some of the blame here on the Thatcher/Reagan-era policies. A lot of neo-liberalism/Third Way Democrat/etc. stuff was the Democrats getting tired of losing elections and shifting gears to what, even at the time, was often called Republican Lite. I gather a similar process happened in the UK.

      Chickens come home to roost eventually.And even now, what could be more 80s than Trump as President?

  2. An interesting finale, even if I think his closing remark about Putin suggests that the ultimate flaw of the liberal/professional class was being insufficiently oppressive, rather than wrong. (A nicer way to put this would be ‘less focused on the well being of domestic working classes,’ although I have no idea how much of Putin’s policies are actually oriented towards that.)

  3. “We do not care what the citizens want or say. We know what is best for them and the city. That is what they hired us for and why we run the show.”
    An actual conversation with the City Manager and his Director of Community Development of a major Metro City.
    One year after I completed a major Development directly across the boulevard from City Hall. A very unnecessarily contentious process that took an interminable amount of extra time, money and effort.

    THIS is a sample of a few similar conversations I have experienced. “Technocrats” is a term used today. And this attitude has been increasing in the halls of power to the point that there is no longer any pretense of citizen input. And also very little elected Offical input as these technocrqts simply outlast and survive any politicians Term. The internal structures are even more insidious. And anti civic.

    Max tells us exactly “what has changed”!
    Read above, use your imaginations.


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