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I just read Emily Drabinski’s incisive review of Bundy and Wasserstein’s “Professionalism Reconsidered”, a really useful re-evaluation of the understanding of librarians as professionals (has anything really changed?). Drabinski’s conclusion, that transformation of the underlying social forces and relationships is necessary, is spot on, especially in the context of attacks on Canadian public librarianship (as hurting authors and the publishing industry), and defenses based on a “better” understanding of libraries’ return on investment.

Attacks on librarianship must be met on a different terrain. We might instead conceive of disinvestment in higher education and the demands of capital that all units on campus generate profit as the problem. In this case, the solution to our always already impending demise lies not in transforming ourselves, but in transforming the social and economic formations that directly attack librarianship and so many other necessary social goods.

Since I’m still thinking about the question of labour aristocracy from my recent post on the “Scholar’s Strike”, Drabinski’s piece made me wonder to what extent “professionalism” has come to mean precisely the aristocracy of labour. Has “professional” lost the social and economic sense it had in the 18th and 19th centuries, and now serves to mystify the fact that librarians are workers. In Althusser’s terms, does “professionalism” interpellate us as non-workers? Does “professional” now mean “labour aristocrat”, allowing the privileged echelon of workers to describe themselves in terms other than labour?

In classical political economy, the professions - clergy, lawyers, doctors, etc - were considered unproductive, paid out of the share of surplus value extracted either from agriculture (for the physiocrats) or industrial workers (for later economists). In The Accumulation of Capital (1913), Rosa Luxemburg describes the place of professionals in capitalist society:

Even under the sway of capitalism, society does not consist exclusively of capitalists and wage labourers. Apart from these two classes, there are a host of other people: the landowners, the salaried employees, the liberal professions such as doctors, lawyers, artists and scientists. Moreover, there is the Church and its servants, the Clergy, and finally the State with its officials and armed forces. All these strata of the population can be counted, strictly speaking, neither among the capitalist nor among the working class.

In this taxonomy, librarians would be considered not members of the “liberal professions”, but “salaried employees”. This upper-echelon of the working class - described by Engels and analyzed by Lenin in his book on imperialism - are bribed by higher salaries and better working conditions to become, in Lenin’s words, “the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism”. The term “professional” becomes in reality a euphemism for this social situation.

As the subsumption of labour has continued, however, even these social strata have become proletarianized. Subsumption takes labour that was previously not subject to surplus-value formation (i.e. was paid for by the surplus value produced by workers, or by the “superprofits” accruing to capital) and transforms even that labour into surplus-value production. With that process comes all the pressures and tensions of proletarian existence, which explains the rise in precarity among previously “professional” categories: librarians, academics, doctors, etc. As the labour aristocracy finds its aristocratic position more and more wiped out, becomes more and more proletarianized, the “professional” label does more and more ideological work, maintaining professionals as the “labour lieutenants” of capital, even as their actual privilege becomes more and more eroded. This is evident in the fact that precarity produces a “reserve army” of professionals - an idea that would have been completely contradictory to Engels and Lenin. The reserve army of workers serves to drive down wages and working conditions, and the more “professionals” become subject to this process the less of a labour aristocracy they constitute.

“Professional”, then, becomes less of an objective economic or sociological category, and more of an ideological one. While Bundy and Wasserman are correct, then, that librarians are not professionals in the sense they define it, we are professionals in the sense that we are “called to be” defined in that way (by LIS programs and our professional associations).

Drabinski notes the requirement for labour organizing:

Indeed, as they say in the union movement, management is the best organizer: pulling together as workers around shared grievances and enemies in order to struggle for better wages and working conditions can cohere a group of individuals like little else. The authors stop short of advocating for unions for librarians. Like other institutions, they claim, union bureaucracy can be stultifying, “a reinforcement of the very rigid authority structure of libraries which serves now as an impediment to innovation and furtherance of service commitments” (p. 24). In many cases, professional librarians still see unions this way: mechanisms for the production of staff and the rules that govern them that hobble the innovations a more “entrepreneurial” workforce would otherwise produce

The professional label, indeed the “endless” arguments over our professional status serves as an ideological drag on the kind of organization Drabinski advocates. But where Bundy and Wasserman see collective bargaining as a way of achieving professionalization, this strategy risks being recuperated in the logic of the aristocracy of labour. Labour organizing can’t result in a solidification of the divisions between labour aristocracy and other workers. Precarity and proletarianization are already here for “professionals”, and any large scale organization has to be based, as Drabinski says, on “pulling together as workers around shared grievances and enemies”. If we take the theory of labour aristocracy seriously (and it is contested even within Marxism), then we have to recognize that “professionalism” itself is an obstacle to that kind of solidarity. There’s a lot of ideological work that needs to be done (in older Marxist terms we would speak here of “class consciousness”) in order to overcome the obstacle posed by professionalism to solidarity and organization.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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