Following the publication of her first two books, Sally Rooney said she would love to know how to write a “Marxist novel.” This raises the question: What, in the 21st century, constitutes a Marxist novel? Rooney’s novels have always explored class tension, but none feature capitalists at war with the working class. Her characters, as her fiction repeats ad nauseum, are “normal people.” They are not billionaires or titans of industry, though they are often relatively affluent, sometimes mildly famous. They are from a distinct class of elite workers that authors John and Barbara Ehrenreich termed “the professional-managerial class” (PMC) in a pair of oft-cited 1977 essays for Radical America. Other characters come from modest working-class backgrounds, and much of the interpersonal conflict in her novels arises from putting the two groups in the same room — often the same bed.
In Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, longtime friends Alice and Eileen navigate tumultuous new relationships with Felix and Simon, respectively. Eileen has known Simon since childhood. She develops a crush on him the summer he comes home from college to help out on the farm her father manages on the coast of Ireland. Her mother does not approve of her daughter lusting after someone so much older, but — a decade later and unaware they started seeing each other — tells Eileen she would be lucky to have a man so out of her league. When pressed if he would also be lucky to have Eileen, her mother laughs.
Though Eileen and Simon come from at least solidly middle-class backgrounds and attended college in Dublin (presumably Trinity), they have diverged in life by the time they finally get together. Eileen has worked the same job as an editorial assistant at a small literary magazine since graduation. Simon works as a policy advisor for a left-wing parliamentary group. Both hold jobs offering prestige, but only Simon makes any real money.
This divergence in fortunes is one Rooney’s generally well-educated audience will know too well. The Ehrenreichs discuss it in their 2013 follow-up essay, “Death of a Yuppie Dream,” detailing the dissolution of the professional-managerial class into a set of proletarianized, low-wage, white-collar workers and another of elite professionals often operating more directly in the service of capital than ever. Simon clearly falls into the latter; Eileen the former.
The meteoric success of Eileen’s best friend, Alice, only throws Eileen’s déclassé status into greater relief. The two meet in college and become roommates. While Eileen languishes at the literary magazine, Alice secures a six-figure book deal at 24 and goes on to put out several best-selling novels.
Much of Beautiful World, Where Are You unfolds in epistolary fashion, with the two women exchanging long emails. Despite regular correspondence, Eileen resists visiting Alice even though Alice has taken up temporary residence in a former rectory house only a few hours outside Dublin after a mental health crisis and short stint in a psychiatric ward. When they finally reunite, Eileen’s jealousy and resentment belie the gushing tone of their emails. She scoffs upon learning Alice may simply buy the house. (“You came here on holiday and now you’re going to like, stay on holiday forever. Why not?”) Eileen rejects an invitation to live at the rectory house by reminding Alice she has to work. “Don’t we all,” Alice replies, which she must understand is not the case.
The tension between the two women is stoked by Alice’s impish new love interest. She meets Felix off Tinder at the beginning of the novel. The date does not go well, especially after Felix realizes she is not just a writer but rather a writer. They continue dating even though Felix cannot — or rather, will not — hide his disdain for Alice’s wealth and its implications. (“He absolutely despised me,” she writes Eileen.) Though Felix is often downright cruel to Alice, Alice suffers his abuse, issuing only the occasional rejoinder. She knows firsthand where Felix is coming from. She wasn’t always rich. Her father was an alcoholic and mechanic, her family life troubled. By her account, Eileen’s family never liked her because they wanted their daughter to have nice middle-class friends and they now resent her success.
But Alice’s understanding of class is not entirely experiential. Typical of Rooney’s characters, she learned the language and logic of anti-capitalism while attending an elite university. Her emails with Eileen include long lamentations about how hard their lives are under capitalism, though an offended Eileen reminds Alice her life — however hard or painful — is objectively privileged.
Both women find their education insufficient for understanding and navigating class tension in their own lives. Those lives often say more about class as it is actually experienced by normal people than the critical theory they learned at university. They haven’t ever gone out on a picket line. Alice doesn’t even have a boss. Eileen isn’t about to unionize the little literary magazine offering her a respectable job, however little it pays. Their lived experience with class has less to do with struggling against an employer than with each other for employment and other opportunities.
Intraclass conflict is generally understood to fall outside a socialist conception of “class struggle.” Individualism is the territory of liberals, not socialists. But that applies here only if we accept Alice and Eileen are of the same class. Felix, clearly, does not. Initially hostile to Eileen for holding a presumably cushy job supported by taxpayer dollars, he is shocked to learn Eileen makes less than he does at the shipping warehouse. (“And why shouldn’t you?” Eileen asks, as if she doesn’t know why he would assume she made more.) Though he might lack the jargon, having surely read neither Marx nor the Ehrenreichs, Felix recognizes Eileen as part of a proletarianized elite. She is not like Alice but also not quite like him.
Many within the contemporary Left refuse to accept the professional-managerial class as anything more than a set of cultural associations. Marxism, after all, defines classes in terms of distinct relationships to the means of production: Capitalists derive wealth from the ownership of capital; workers sell their labor for wages. So, as the theory goes, a worker is a worker is a worker, as Eileen argues unconvincingly at a party.
The problem is that, in modern finance capitalism, affluent elites use wages to purchase stocks, properties and other assets. Their 401(k)s and Airbnb properties are their own small slice of the means of production. Many live partially (and in retirement, fully) off investments low-wage workers have little access to. Alice will never have to work another day in her life, whether or not she ever writes another book. Eileen must.
This would seem to place Eileen in the proletariat and Alice the petite bourgeoisie, but only if we ignore how the PMC is reacting to its own proletarianization. Downwardly mobile professionals, often drowning in student loan debt, are terrified of falling out of the elite. Writing about the chasm opening up within the professional-managerial class, Gabriel Winant argues professionals — “in an increasingly contradictory situation, as the neoliberal order we helped build has turned against us” — should align “with the social class that will actually back us up — the working class.” But this is far too hopeful, for as long as the professional-managerial overclass exists, even déclassé would-be elites will remain torn between a working class they do not want to join and an elite overclass they do.
Those doing class analysis outside a socialist framework have no trouble describing the situation Beautiful World, Where Are You dramatizes. Christopher Lasch was writing about class war between “the new professional and managerial elites” and the working class, as well as with a shrinking middle class, back in the 1990s. More recently, self-styled “democratic nationalist” Michael Lind identifies the class antagonism between the “managerial overclass” and the working class in The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite. Historical social scientist Peter Turchin has spent at least a decade modeling how “elite overproduction” is creating societal discord and intraclass conflict among those vying for limited spaces in the overclass. Even moderate conservative commentator David Brooks wrote in The Atlantic about how the “bobos — or X people, or the creative class, or whatever you want to call them — have coalesced into an insular, intermarrying Brahmin elite that dominates culture, media, education, and tech.”
If you’re wondering why David Brooks is doing sharper class analysis than the Left, consider it costs those outside the Left nothing to acknowledge an antagonistic class position between the professional-managerial class and the working class.
Waging war against “liberal elites” dovetails nicely with a conservative agenda or neoliberal project. Affluent liberals can acknowledge their privilege without jeopardizing their meritocratic, technocratic worldview, or their sense of virtue, so long as they adopt the contemporary noblesse oblige of a benevolent and caring overclass. But, for a socialist movement whose ranks draw overwhelmingly from the professional-managerial class and the downwardly mobile, middle-class failsons aching to join them, acknowledging antagonism between its existing membership and the rest of the working class calls the entire political project into question.
The greater contradiction and existential risk to class politics is a refusal to engage in honest class analysis. Pretending all workers are the same obscures (rather than clarifies) class realities. Tell a Felix he is no different from an Alice or an Eileen and he is likely to laugh, perhaps on the way to pull the lever for Brexit or Trump.
In an email to Alice, Eileen laments the rise of incoherent and impotent identity politics but cannot articulate a feasible alternative. She posits, if a serious left political project is still possible, “maybe it won’t involve people like us — in fact I think it almost certainly won’t.”
Whether Eileen is right has less to do with whether she aligns with the working class than how far she is thrust down into it.
This essay originally appeared in September at The Hedgehog Review (produced by the University of Virginia), reprinted here with permission.
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Sohale Andrus Mortazavi is a writer based in Chicago.