PMC vs NAM?
What, you mean your parents didn't own any manufacturing companies?
Members of UAW Local 287, Warner Gear in Muncie, Indiana, Oct 1960 (credit)
Class theory is full of puzzles. For example: if someone is a CEO, and the son of CEOs, and describes himself as “anti-union,” is he working class? Actually that one isn’t too hard. So it’s puzzling that the American Prospect — home to much of the best coverage of union avoidance within Bidenomics—would run a friendly interview with Nate Adams, an anti-union contractor (and self-described CEO). The apparent reason is that Adams provides blue-collar ballast for the case against the PMC (professional-managerial class), and by extension against the supposedly PMC-dominated climate movement.1 TAP headlined the piece “‘Climate-Focused Clients Tend to Be Rude,’” and is promoting it with Adams’ quote: “Also, climate-focused clients tend to be rude. White-collar people looking down on blue-collar is the last acceptable prejudice.”
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Beyond that quote, the interview is less an insight into the (obviously real) class tensions within the Biden coalition, and more of a list of Things Contractors Don’t Like. Adams tells TAP how annoying he finds his “climate-focused clients” (who are focused on “virtue signaling” and, presumably more to the point, are “very entitled in their dealings with contractors,” i.e. “they tend to take a lot of time, ask a lot of questions, then not spend the money.”) Adams also dislikes doctors, since (in common with many people of various classes) he feels that they sometimes talk down to him or disregard the value of his time.2 Completing the grab bag approach, we learn that “engineers are also classic at triggering contractors,” because they are know-it-alls.
What are Adams’ qualifications as a tribune of the working class (beyond the fact that he is from West Virginia and, as TAP helpfully informs us, that “he spent July 4th camping with his family”)? Adams says he “grew up as a cross between white- and blue-collar.” That may be a matter of personal judgment, but note that the definition of blue collar here is quite wide: “My parents had two manufacturing companies.” Specifically, the companies were part of the vast downstream of auto components, manufacturing “high-precision steel sleeves to fix steering gears.”
Since the birth of the American auto industry, the auto parts sector has been a bastion of reactionary anti-union employers. A good example is Barry Goldwater, who people tend to think of him as a quintessential sunbelt figure (perhaps they know also that his family owned a chain of department stores in Arizona). But most of Goldwater’s personal fortune came from the inherited wealth of his wife, whose father, uncle, and brother were executives at Borg-Warner, a classically anti-union midwestern auto parts maker long committed to fighting against the New Deal through organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). This, more than any philosophical libertarianism, explains why Goldwater believed that Walter Reuther and the UAW were “more dangerous to America than…anything Soviet Russia might do to America.”
Thus, Adams is emphatically not a former New Deal Democrat alienated by the latest woke trends. He is someone who can say, frankly: “I've never been a big fan of unions growing up with a family manufacturing company.” It comes as little surprise that he, like Joe Manchin, is a vocal opponent of the Biden administration’s attempts to steer its EV subsidies toward unionized automakers, rather than toward Elon Musk. In fact, he’s happy to describe himself as “anti-union” in general, though he’ll add (in a line familiar to anyone who has ever spent 5 minutes organizing) that unions did good things in the past, when workers had real problems.
TAP doesn’t ask, but it goes almost without saying that Adams’ own contracting business is non-union. My understanding is that this less a personal choice than a broader reality about residential construction, and not just in West Virginia. That said, Adams is also against unions in his sector on principle, since he thinks employers simply “can’t be” abusive (at least in the current labor market) and since rising labor costs pose a direct conflict with his profits. He is willing to acknowledge that the chronic skilled labor shortage requires some kind of non-union apprenticeship program, ideally one in which public higher-ed money (rather than employers) would bear the up-front cost of training. As Andrew Elrod has pointed out in Phenomenal World, leaders in the anti-union segment of construction recognized as far back as 1992 that this chronic shortage existed, partly thanks to their own destruction of the unions which had handled training and apprenticeship. But “recognizing the problem was easier than remedying it.”
Adams tells TAP: “80 percent of contractors vote conservative. So if we’re pissing off conservatives, we’re pissing off the people doing the work.” This is, let’s say, a controversial description of who does the work. But TAP responds by smoothly seguing to the grievances of another fraction of capitalists: “It’s like how car dealers are overwhelmingly conservative, and many of them oppose electric vehicles.” To which Adams nods: “There you go.”
If it needs to be said, there are many blue-collar conservatives in West Virginia and elsewhere, which is something people on the labor left should think (and are thinking) about. It is also sometimes worthwhile to talk to employers to learn what they have to say about their sector. I don’t see this interview advancing either cause.
The whole thing reminds me of a very revealing Ross Douthat column on the Canadian truckers’ protests, titled “A New Class War Comes to Canada.” Douthat explained the class war in question by linking to a Substack by “the pseudonymous writer N.S. Lyons,” in which Lyons “identif[ies] and categorize[s] two classes of people in society.” First up are the Physicals:
The first is a class that has been a part of human civilization for a really long time. These are the people who work primarily in the real, physical world. Maybe they work directly with their hands, like a carpenter, or a mechanic, or a farmer. Or maybe they are only a step away: they own or manage a business where they organize and direct employees who work with their hands, and buy or sell or move things around in the real world. Like a transport logistics company, maybe.
The Physicals are distinguished from the Virtuals, of whom Lyons writes
They don’t interact much with the physical world directly; they are handlers of knowledge. They work with information, which might be digital or analog, numerical or narrative. But in all cases it exists at a level of abstraction from the real world. Manipulation and distribution of this information can influence the real world, but only through informational chains that pass directives to agents that can themselves act in the physical world – a bit like a software program that sends commands to a robot arm on an assembly line.
This way of thinking is obviously destructive of any real understanding of class dynamics. Even on its own terms and chosen examples, it is incoherent to suggest to say that someone who owns a transport logistics company is the diametrical opposite of someone who manipulates abstract chains that eventually terminate in concrete physical actions. Of course we understand why Douthat—a man who got his start celebrating the physical destruction of the Chilean labor movement—has an interest in mystifying the real relations between human beings. The question is why The American Prospect would want to join him.
The defining feature of the current PMC debate is that most people on all sides of the question are themselves PMC (or better). The TAP interview extends this constitutive paradox even further, by bringing in someone whose daily work combines professional consulting expertise and managerial authority.
There is also some sort of complex around authority and expertise: “I view [doctors] as intelligent, because they made it through medical school. Not that I couldn’t have. That wasn’t the path that I chose.” My own background is not blue collar, but I would guess that most blue collar people would describe their potential access to medical school somewhat differently.