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 twenty-first 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 journalists 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 her 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 lifelong crush on him the summer he comes home from college to help out on the farm her father manages on the west coast of Ireland. Her mother does not approve of her daughter lusting after someone so much older but—a decade later and unaware that they have started seeing each other—tells Eileen that 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 both come from at least solidly middleclass backgrounds and attended college in Dublin, presumably Trinity, Eileen and Simon 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 now works in politics as a policy advisor for a leftwing 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 all 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 before. Simon clearly falls into the latter, Eileen the former.
The meteoric success of her best friend, Alice, only throws Eileen’s déclassée status into even 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 the age of twenty-four and goes on to put out several bestselling 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 she 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 later in the novel, Eileen’s jealousy and resentment belie the gushing tone of their emails. She scoffs upon learning Alice may simply buy the rectory 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 for a living. “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 he is often downright cruel to her, 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 middleclass friends and they now resent her success.
But her 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 that 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 that 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 did.) 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 not quite like him either.
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 literally their own small slice of the means of production. Many live partially, and in retirement often fully, off investments that 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 on the chasm opening up within the professional-managerial class, Gabriel Winant argues that 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 nineties. 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. Anthropologist Peter Turchin has spent decades 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 that 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 middleclass failsons aching to join them, acknowledging the antagonism between its existing membership and the rest of the working class calls the entire political project into question.
But the greater contradiction and existential risk to class politics is a refusal to engage in honest class analysis. Pretending that all workers are the same obscures rather than clarifies the reality of class. Tell a Felix that he is no different from an Alice or even an Eileen and he is likely to laugh in your face, 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 that, 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 she is right, for her own life, has less to do with whether she aligns with the working class than how far she is thrust down into it.