Inside the Mind of the Professional-Managerial Class, Part Five: Elite Betrayal

You don't notice, and you don't notice that you don't notice, and you don't bring it up.

Inside the Mind of the Professional-Managerial Class, Part Five: Elite Betrayal

In this series (see Parts I, II, III, and IV), our resident Bay-Area psychotherapist takes us to the depths of the professional-managerial class psyche. Consider her the Virgil to your Dante.

The following clinical material is fictional, based on composite experience.

As a psychotherapist, I am intimately familiar with the sigh, the subtleties of frustration, fatigue, acceptance and loss expressed in a single audible exhale. A well-healed middle-aged tech-exec—not a woman prone to sighing—began a recent session with a particularly pronounced outbreath. Julia had a big reveal that morning, and she gave it to me straight: “[Major tech company] doesn’t value mental health. There’s just no other conclusion to draw!”

I felt surprised, not by the conclusion, but by the concluder: a senior HR executive, with stock options from twenty years ago and a compelling dedication to her work helping employees with various medical and mental health challenges.

She continued: “I believe in leadership—deep down, I know their hearts are in the right place, and I know it’s complicated—but after this many years, and this many frustrating, lost battles, I don’t think they care. They don’t! And I don’t know what that means for what it feels like to be me, doing my job.”

This is one of many stories of upper professional-class patients working at big name corporations expressing shock and dismay when they can at last no longer sustain belief in the beneficence of their company. For example:

  • “I don’t want to say this, but I’m beginning to wonder if this company really cares about people. I mean on some level they obviously do, but there’s a limit. It’s very upsetting.”
  • “I’ve finally admitted to myself that this is a shtick. It pains me to say so because I really, really bought into the concept, but in the end, it’s just a marketing ploy. It’s all about money.”
  • “I feel heartbroken about the layoffs. How could leadership do such a thing?!”
  • “It’s been a year since George Floyd. And you know, when that first happened, I thought all the rhetoric about D&I [diversity & inclusion] was more than rhetoric. I really did. But nothing changes. Not even internally! It’s all just PR.”

Why are these employees surprised by capitalists behaving like capitalists?

The straightforward explanation is that the upper echelons of the PMC inhabit a conflictual class position, which scrambles their thinking. Stocks, tantalizing promotional possibilities, and bonuses and benefits galore—who can blame them for believing their bosses are the good guys? The PMC resists a basic understanding of class conflict in favor of cohering as a social group around cultural and moral issues for simple material reasons.

Upper-PMC workers also need to believe in the “goodness” of their companies and the people who run them to do their jobs successfully. And the bosses are increasingly keen to confirm this belief, ever more interested in projecting to the public they’re on the right side of history. They care about Black Lives, feminism, democracy, mental health, and so on. Where marketing before surreptitiously sold sex appeal, today it peddles moral appeal, and a certain stratum of workers has been primed to accept the marketing as true.

The PMC understands that the world is in dire straits, and that they must commit wholeheartedly to doing something about it. Manic defenses rush in: grand activity triumphantly banishes doubt. An inflated sense of one’s own power masks the overwhelm of external reality. The goal is to stay busy all of the time—and not just busy in the traditional sense of productivity, but busy being a particular kind of human being.

The economy of subjectification demands a continual, largely unconscious curation of a self that is engaged, committed, socially aware, and virtuous—precisely not the kind of person who would kill themselves for a job they hate at a company that is morally bankrupt. Nor the kind of person who would accept an easy, pointless job in exchange for a lot of money. Personal accommodation to corrupt social structures to make ends meet threatens their identity. “It’s just a job” no longer flies as an excuse.

The ethos of Silicon Valley encourages this form of omnipotent denial. Winners abound, and they are clear evidence that you can indeed have it all: the money, the status, and the virtue. There aren’t that many such cases, but there are enough to keep the others playing. Attention and accolades and brilliantly successful big bosses stimulate powerful oedipal fantasies; rather than firmly maintaining hierarchical lines, Silicon Valley alluringly dangles the possibility of defying one’s fate, pulling for the primitive defenses and the irresistible apple of endless maternal suckling bliss—of course there’s a tenuous connection to reality.

The dynamics that can develop between a titillating, seductive powerful figure and a dependent one are explored at length in psychoanalytic literature—and, indeed, are structural to analytic praxis. Perhaps the bottom line is that it is all too easy for the powerful character to exploit the dependent one, and all too easy for the dependent party to negate or defend the bleeding.

Psychoanalysis always requires great restraint and humility on the part of the analyst; the patient simply cannot afford to accept exploitation and betrayal. Writing about her analyst’s profound betrayal, Muriel Dimen explains:

So you don’t notice, and you don’t notice that you don’t notice, and you don’t bring it up, because you fear he will either disavow or acknowledge his role: if he’s bad and denies it, then you’re crazy, and if he’s good and cops, then you have no right to be angry and your anger makes you bad and so it’s your fault and, voilà, you’ve no right to speak at all. And you don’t tell anyone else because you don’t want them to tell you to leave the analyst whom you need beyond reason.

Or, in Dianne Elise’s words, “Betrayal by a trusted other sends shockwaves reverberating not only forward into one’s future but backward into one’s past.” The truth, that chamberlain of freedom, in this case portends trauma. The fall to acceptance of elite treachery would mean losing things too precious to relinquish.

In consequence, recognition of elite betrayal is often only partial, or quickly retracted, with personal alienation firmly repudiated. Even if cynicism about corporate politics sets in, upper PMC make a valiant effort to leverage the self they have spent decades developing toward the greater good (ideally, without a pay cut). Often, patients start by moving to a similar position at another company, hoping things will be better there, which never turns out to be true. People at huge corporations, frustrated by the obstructive bureaucracy, leave for startups with splashy social impact lingo and influential investors. Startup workers sickened with egotistical hype and truly insane working hours land jobs at established companies where they hope stability will potentiate meaningful work. Some strive to find meaning outside of their company, focusing on some sort of social impact. They take extended leaves, travel to third world countries, and return with a new vision for solving big problems (that still involve making money).

Julia started her own VC foundation on the side, supporting female entrepreneurs. It’s a fine evasion of her larger questions. If she were to fully recognize the hollowness of exhausting herself in the service of an immoral company and the corresponding confrontation with the reality of elite betrayal, doing her job, being her, would feel impossibly straining. Leaving for good might do the trick, but for Julia, as for so many others, this is not an option.

Lizzie Warren, PsyD, meanwhile, remains in SF, locking herself in to lose herself in Facebook.