Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Morality, the market and the role of professions in capitalism

Hannah Forsyth

At a recent conference, a senior colleague asked what my book was called.

‘The rise and fall of the professional class!’, he exclaimed, ‘have they fallen already?’

It was an understandable response, for it seems not so long ago that scholars were all pointing our Foucauldian fingers at the power of the expert, the medical gaze, the nexus between knowledge and power, the embodiment of discourses in professional work, and the ways that objectivity, the foundation of much professional authority, was itself an apparatus of domination. All that scholarship hardly suggests that the professional class has fallen.

And yet, it is my inescapable conclusion that the professional class is no longer in its former place of power. To be fair, it may be more accurate to say that the professional class is still in the process of falling, but most of us in professional jobs in hospitals, schools, accountancy firms and universities will see ourselves losing influence and being squeezed relentlessly.

I’ll come back to that. First, to understand the fall of the professional class, I found we needed a larger geography – the Anglophone world –­ in which to understand its history. Most histories of professions understandably focus on particular places, usually the US or UK. The problem that I found was that keeping focus on those big hegemonies veiled something important. We knew that America invested in the kind of education that grew the professions faster than Britain and Europe. But we did not know that so did Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia – with similar consequences across the settler colonies, for the rapid growth of white-collar work. This was by contrast to Britain where finance was the only professional field growing at the time – unsurprising, given the City of London’s centrality to global capital.

This tells us something new. It was perhaps not so much the case that Britain lagged behind America in human capital investment. Rather, expanding the geography shows that something about settler colonialism encouraged it.

Portrait of Staff Nurse R.C. Everard of the Australian Army Nursing Service. (Donor Staff Nurse R.C. Everard), Australian War Memorial Photograph Collection, Image Number H17163. Copyright expired – public domain.

Let’s think about who was in charge in the Anglo settler colonies. By the late nineteenth century, the British middle class had spread throughout the world, administering empire. Even though the US broke away from Britain, the American middle class was still socially and institutionally entangled with others in the Anglophone world, especially as they grew professional associations.

Barbara Ehrenreich once suggested that sometimes it seems like the only thing that this middle class had in common was their fear of falling in status. This was deeply insightful, but in fact what really held the middle class together was their commitment to virtue.

In the settler colonies, where they were pretty much in charge, this middle class shared ideas infused by virtue across the colonies, and with Britain – who sometimes saw them as ‘social laboratories’. Virtue informed the ways the New World would become civilized and profitable.

By the 1870s and 1880s, this middle class influenced the flow of the ‘great heaves’ of investment, as economic historian Sidney Pollard once called them, which were then binding the City of London’s finance professionals to the colonies.

Investment to colonial enterprises like railways circulated through settler colonial economies, settling where the middle class believed value resided: humans. The effect of this human capital investment was the growth of the professions. As education grew, so did the number of teachers. Nursing grew rapidly too, as the colonial middle class looked for improved healthcare – and, often enough, moved around a bit more than those in Britain, so that family was not available to care for them when they were sick or injured.

Settler colonization helped stimulate this. Every time a piece of land was bought or sold, a business transferred, or buildings planned, lawyers, accountants, engineers and surveyors were involved. As the colonies expanded, these grew quickly too.

The professions they built were often modelled on those in Britain, but in the settler colonial environment they grew much faster.

Virtue was central to the process. Each profession had their own – nursing had duty and purity, engineering and accountancy accuracy and probity and so on – but together these virtues amounted to a kind of investment. By pairing money and morality, the emerging professional class hoped for colonial economies that would yield a combination of social and financial profit. This made them virtue capitalists.

Was this virtue real? It has been our tendency to see professional virtue as either fake – self-serving, producing expertise that reinforced their own power – or heroic. Each profession has its own story about this. Lawyers are central to the venerated rule of law, journalists to the rise and maintenance of democracy, engineers believed they literally built civilization, educators civilized children and industry, accountants ensured probity and so on. I argue that the binary of fake/heroic is false. As virtue capitalists, professionals were both self-serving and constructing what they thought would be a good society.

This whole civilized apparatus was built on stolen land, with culturally genocidal consequences. Indeed, teachers, social workers and healthcare workers were among those most implicated in the child removal, language suppression and assimilation procedures (based on policies and laws written by lawyers) that constituted settler colonization’s ‘logic of elimination’ – all materially enabled by planners, surveyors and engineers.

It quickly expanded beyond the settler colonies. Indeed, by the mid-twentieth century, the professional class ruled the world. They did this in alliance with managers, enabling professional expert ‘knowing’ to be seamlessly implemented with managerial ‘doing’. This was the professional-managerial class, or what Americans refer to as the PMC. This PMC not only ran the big international organizations and set global strategy, but they also structured the rules by which lives would be governed.

The professional ideal, as Harold Perkin showed in his classic history of professions in Britain, was based on merit. This merit ensured that success, prosperity, and professional authority were linked. In the settler colonies, and then around the world, it structured the hierarchy of society.

Those hierarchies, as we know from all the earlier studies on professional power and dominance, also reflected hierarchies of class, gender and race. Young nurses taking entrance examinations were asked to write about ‘duty’, ‘women’s work’ and to describe a ‘recent pleasure excursion’ – tests of prior class status in a profession seeking to exclude the working-class nurse caricatured by Dickens as ‘Sairey Gamp’.

These hierarchies were forged and embedded in the settler colonial setting. They were implicitly about race – seeking a civilization ruled by a white, Anglo middle class.

So, after the Second World War, when anti-colonial movements took the opportunity that decolonization offered to imagine and promote alternative hierarchies, the system that professionals built was shaken. Each one paired the global economic crisis of the 1970s with a moral crisis. As schools desegregated, teachers saw their historical complicity with racism, as did social workers. Medicine became the target of feminist criticism, engineers realized they’d helped pollute the world and accountants, under inflationary conditions, experienced a legitimation crisis over how to calculate profit – or even if profit was real.

This meant that when managers shifted strategies to respond to globalization in the 1980s, professionals now saw their virtues as old fashioned. They helped dismantle it, building in its place externalized systems. In part, the disconnect from personal ‘character’ was to undermine the self-interest that virtue enabled.

But it also made it subject to managerial audit.

The result was a kind of moral deskilling. Just like the deskilling that happened in factories, where artisanal products were reduced to sequences of unskilled tasks, so too was professional virtue reduced to risk and quality processes that, crucially, were managed.

This was how management separated from professionals, splitting the PMC. As an empty, generic ‘success’ became the only virtue to which management was committed, professionals found their work was compromised.

Now, each side actively competed for influence in workplaces and in politics.

This was a gendered process. It was not only that management was mostly male, while professions were increasingly populated by women, though that did happen. It was also that managers did ‘tougher’ work, not involving morally difficult, and sometimes questionable, decisions as they faced global flexible accumulation. This ‘masculinized’ management. The same move, moreover, also ‘feminized’ the professions – made many of them more precarious, and less autonomous – like much feminized work, throughout the history of capitalism.

In the end, we are left with a new kind of class conflict. But professionals versus management is not generative in the ways that Marx described labour versus capital. On the contrary, this ‘intra-bourgeois’ conflict is causing us considerable harm – particularly in a moment where professional expertise is markedly crucial.

Finding our way past this is tough, for the task of undoing the harm professionals have done is still incomplete, especially in relation to First Nations peoples and cultures – a return to the past will not work. Instead, a new future will be needed, perhaps reconnecting some of the ‘doing’ of management to a more decolonized set of virtues.

Virtue Capitalists by Hannah Forsyth

About The Author

Hannah Forsyth

Hannah Forsyth is a historian at the Australian Catholic University, Sydney. She was President of Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society 2020-1. Her first book was...

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