Ruminations on the Cult of Professional Professionalism

There is a new cult of which I have been recently made aware. It is dangerous because it is subtle. It has the appearance of the best intentions; it has the appearance of contributing to the common good, but it does not. The cult that I am talking about is what I have deemed “The Cult of Professional Professionals.” These are the men and women in our world who have made a career out of being professionals. That is, they are experts at holding meetings, sending emails, interviewing for new jobs, building resumes, and networking. They write books about it that become New York Times Best Sellers. They promise to teach you how to win friends and influence people, all with the right mindset of a team player.

Surely though, professionalism is not a bad thing. I would certainly not want to argue that it is a bad thing. When we ask the plumber to come to fix our sink, we are pleased that he shows up on time, treats us with respect and cleans up after himself. We are pleased when our grocery clerk smiles and asks us if we found everything okay. Surely these are marks of professionalism too, right? Of course, but there is a subtle distinction. When we speak of a professional, we are speaking of somebody who has made a career in a specific field: a plumber, a doctor, a carpenter, a teacher. Given their career choice, we expect them to act in a certain way. There is a bar that we hold up in our minds by which we will measure them. We expect them to act in a way that is fitting for someone who is a professional plumber, doctor, carpenter, or teacher. The enthymeme in this scenario is that we are assuming that they take a pride in their work. Our expectations for them are built upon the premise that the Doctor wants to heal people well and carry the reputation for healing people well. The Carpenter wants to build houses well and be remembered as someone who builds houses well. When these people meet our expectations, we often say, “Oh he was so professional.” In reality, a professional is anyone who can make a living doing a certain task; we do not expect anyone to be able to make a living without taking pride in the thing they do. To summarize, professionalism is a quality which appears in someone who performs their work at a high level and takes pride in it.

So where does this turn into a cult?

Professionalism becomes a cult when it ceases to be applied to a particular end, but rather becomes sought after for its own sake and as a product to be bought and sold. I am reminded of Christopher Dawson’s essay “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind,” in which he writes that “the bourgeois was originally the middleman who stood between the producer and the consumer.”[1] Between the nobleman and the peasant is the class of the Bourgeois, which exists with the attitude like that of the merchant,

Whose relation to his merchandise is external and impersonal. He sees in them only objects of exchange, the value of which is to be measured exclusively in terms of money. It makes no difference whether he is dealing in works of art or cheap ready-made suits: all that matters is the volume of the transactions and the amount of profit to be derived from them. In other words, his attitude is not qualitative, but quantitative.[2]

Professional professionalism is the inevitable result of the Bourgeois Mind. As the middleman makes his money and rises to levels of wealth previously unknown, he effectively replaces the nobleman with an extremely wealthy working class. The common man is then reduced to selling himself as a professional who appears to take pride in his work, which is essentially simple drone work. Put another way, as the old bourgeoisie rise and create massive firms and Fortune 500 companies, the common man, in order to make his money, must sell himself to the old bourgeoisie, and they are buying professionalism. They want a man who appears to take pride in his work, shows up on time, and treats people with respect. They do not need to worry about whether the person can perform at a high level because the jobs really only require low-level skill.

The common man, on the other hand, takes no real pride in his work (despite his appearances). He only takes pride in his professionalism. That is what he is selling, and he is constantly looking to sell to the highest bidder. The most recent statistics report that people will change jobs roughly every three years and will change career paths 7-10 times throughout their life. When a new buyer is looking for a professional, all the professionals start selling. They are like phony bible salesmen who go door to door looking for the sucker who will pay them what they want, and then they sneak off with your leg.

It is not really their fault though. The Bourgeois Mind has permeated every area of our culture, so much so that Dawson writes,

We are all more or less bourgeois and our civilization is bourgeois from top to bottom. Hence there can be no question of treating the bourgeois in the orthodox communist fashion as a gang of antisocial reptiles who can be exterminated summarily by the revolutionary proletariat; for in order to “liquidate” the bourgeoisie modern society would have to “liquidate” itself.[3]

When our entire culture has been built on a certain mind, we cannot fault the culture when the inevitable result appears. In a previous age, the bourgeoisie were tempered by the peasants and the craftsmen who could “see in their work a part of themselves and identify themselves with it so that they would be happy if they could never be separated from it.”[4] It was an age where “the production of goods [was] the act of living men who, so to speak, incarnated themselves in their works.”[5] Our Professional Professionals have no work in which to incarnate themselves. They are provided opportunities to line the pockets of the already successful bourgeoisie, and so sell themselves as a Professional Professional and nothing more. They make their living by selling their professionalism to the highest bidder, the bidder who just wants somebody who shows up on time, respects people, and appears to take pride in his work, despite the fact that the man takes no pride in his work at all. The only thing he takes pride in is at how high of a price he can sell his professionalism.

So we end up with New York Times Best Sellers dictating how to make people like you and clinics on how to hold meetings and write an effective email. There are whole psychological theories on how to become a successful business professional. At this point, I would like to reiterate that professionalism is a quality that is in no way a bad thing. However, when we turn the signs of someones internal disposition to their work into the thing sought after, we abandon all substance that may have been present. We have been told that in order to be successful, we must be able to exhibit all the signs of a qualified individual, but need not actually have any talents or skills. We must become proficient at looking and acting professional. Sometimes they even recommend getting a piece of paper that says we are good at being professional. When we have accomplished that, we can then make a living being a professional. At which point, we will have become fully vested members in the Cult of Professional Professionals.

[1] Dawson, Christopher. “Catholicism and The Bourgeois Mind.” Crisis, December, 1986.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Sombart, Werner. Le Bourgeois (French trans.), pp. 25-27.

[5] Ibid

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