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James Burnham: Foreseeing Our Managerial Domination

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This depoliticization of the public realm extends to the selection of the managerial class itself. Elections matter not at all. The managers perpetuate themselves…”

Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part essay. 

The American right in particular, and the Anglo-right more generally, has lost itself in abstractions and pretty ideas that serve to distract and deflect from engagement in the real-world issues of social and political structures, alongside physical environment and geography. This obsession with ideas exemplifies the “idealist fallacy,” which means conservatives have little chance of seeing what passes for their vision for government being implemented. This has been a problem with post-war conservatism in both the United States and in the United Kingdom.

The man who saw this most clearly was the one-time Marxist and friend of Trotsky (and later anti-Communist) James Burnham. Burnham’s thought holds pertinent lessons for today, and the Right should heed them. We need more Burnham and less Buckley, if for nothing else because class, ideology, and the conflict when the two connect and collide is still with us. Conservatives are in a class war whether they like it or not, and it might help if they realized this and actually started contesting it. Burnham’s work—dated though parts of it undoubtedly are in their diagnoses and analyses—is still a good place to start in understanding and appreciating today’s landscape.

Early Life, Marxism, and Tragic Modernism

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Burnham was born in Chicago, Illinois on November 22, 1905. His father, Claude George Burnham,  was an English immigrant and executive with the Burlington Railroad. The family was Catholic, and Burnham practiced his cradle faith until college, rejecting the transcendent faith of Christianity for the secular faith of atheism. His education was impressive and showed his intellectual powers. He attended Princeton, graduating top of his class. He then went to Oxford, studying at Balliol College where his professors included J.R.R. Tolkein. He gained a professorship at New York University in 1929, teaching philosophy. 

During the 1930s, Burnham joined that group of New York intellectuals friendly to Marxism but mostly unfriendly to Stalinism’s revealed brutality. Among them was Sidney Hook. Burnham joined the Trotskyite camp and became close friends with Trotsky himself, becoming his chief correspondent and ally in the United States. Even so, he broke away from his doctrinaire Marxism. 

Burnham could not bring himself to see the Soviet Union as any sort of fulfillment of the socialist revolution, not even a “degenerated workers state.” Instead, he correctly viewed the supposed secular Soviet heaven on earth as a nightmare made of men, machines, and millions of corpses. Burnham left Marxism behind after the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact and the subsequent Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe. Displaying the zeal common to converts to a new faith, he became a fervent anti-Communist by the 1940s. Burnham argued for an active anti-Communist policy, even for rolling back the frontiers of the Soviet Union. 

Burnham took his keen analytical and explanatory powers into the nascent world of post-war American conservatism, helping William F. Buckley found the conservative flagship publication National Review, from which he could argue for this active anti-Communist stance. It is not too much to say that Burnham provided the third leg to the conservative fusionist stool of moral traditionalism, economic libertarianism, and anti-Communism. Even so, Burnham maintained a form of social analysis that still bore the inflection of his Marxist days. 

Burnham’s views on the place of elites and their role in directing society, combined with how they are replaced, are redolent of a kind of modernism we are less accustomed to finding among intellectuals. This was true of his earlier and later works. In The Machiavellians, the ultimate statement of his theoretical political framework, Burnham explored the school of political thought founded by Machiavelli through to his positivist heirs of the 19th and 20th centuries: Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Roberto Michels, and Georges Sorel. Burnham concluded that human political behavior was empirically observable and could be understood through a “science of power” inferred from historical examples. To this effect, Burnham wrote that “the recurring pattern of change expresses the more or less permanent core of human nature as it functions politically. The instability of all governments and political forms follows in part from the limitless human appetite for power.” 

This emphasis on the concrete and real over the abstract and ideal, on “the limitless human appetite for power,” separates Burnham from the ethical absolutes of premodern philosophy, upon which traditionalist conservatism bases its creed. Burnham did not seek to constrain power and human desires by ethical precepts nor did he call for the inculcation of morality through religious institutions. Instead, he argued:

No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labour leaders nor businessmen, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use which they will seek to make of power…Only power restrains power…when all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do. A despotism, any kind of despotism, can be benevolent only by accident.”

What could restrain power was a balanced distribution among diverse social and political forces that reciprocally checked the power of each other, and, as a result of this conflict, political freedom and civilization could flourish. This conflict model—as opposed to the moral consensus model of someone like Edmund Burke—was decisively modern. In this conflictual view of politics, consensus arises from conflict and eventually by domination of one social force. What Burnham calls “ideology” was a fiction, akin to what Machiavelli saw in religion, designed to enforce the legitimacy of the regime. 

Burnham represents a very different kind of modernism than that depicted by Peter King in his book The Antimodern Condition. King defines modernism as “concerned with a particular rational approach to the world, that sees human perfectibility as a necessary aim and that this can be achieved through the application of scientific or technical means. It involves the placing of innovation and newness over tradition.” King is correct to point to modernist thought as a means to revolutionary and secular millenarian ends, with progress as its highest good. Yet there is another side to modernism, represented by Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Hume, Madison, and others. 

The modernism of which Burnham was emblematic was secular, empirical, historicist over metaphysical, and rational in its modes of inquiry; it eschewed moral absolutism, was pessimistic and skeptical concerning irrational and desirous human nature, and saw “balance” rather than moral virtue grounded in transcendence as the means of restraining human nature. This form of what one might call pessimistic modernism rejects the definition of modernism as our capacity to transform our existence and the world in which we live, avoiding the millenarianism that often ensues. 

This kind of modernist thought will alienate many on both the Left and Right, each prone to the blank-slate fallacy that human beings can rewrite their own natures and capabilities if they change their environment to allow this transformation. Burnham’s pessimism flies in the face of liberal and left-wing optimism. But it also lacks the moral guardrails rooted in transcendent religious truth many conservatives (including myself) see as vital to creating and maintaining a relatively beneficent social order. His focus on power as the prime force and fact of life bears a resemblance to that of the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, who argued that our soul—our inner life—is nothing until acted on and shaped by power. The innate potential for excellence and virtue of Aristotle and the soul-wracking but grace-saved divide between purity and sin of the Christian heart are effaced completely. This nihilism is not too far away from Burnham’s bleak realism. It is something those intrigued by Burnham’s thought should bear in mind, lest they lose sight of the ineradicable dignity of the human person, as the embodied soul.

However, Burnham is one of the few, keenest thinkers who offered a modernist framework that could seriously challenge the Left. Principles require power for their implementation. There are, therefore, aspects of his thought that conservatives should pay attention to today. This is where we head next.

The Managerial Revolution 

Burnham was not entirely original in his approach to social, economic, political, and cultural structures through the analytical framework he employed. His work is valuable because of the perceptiveness of his diagnosis of a new kind of society, with a new elite that defines the shape of society and decides its direction. In politics, individuals and the ideas they hold (and the ideals they cling to) only matter insofar as they can be expressed and enforced through the structures that enable this. Therefore, Burnham’s class analysis bears recovering for our own situation.

The key idea of Burnham’s interest here is what he called the “managerial revolution,” articulated in the book The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World, published in 1941. Burnham’s central contention is that laissez-faire capitalism as practiced by the bourgeois class, which came to dominate the 19th century West, had become obsolete in light of succeeding events. The “big bourgeoisie” had almost been entirely replaced by the new elite class of managers. These were educated men who, rather than becoming business entrepreneurs like their fathers, entered, expanded, and entrenched roles of management in large organizations. 

This managerial revolution—so-called because it marked the transition from one socio-economic and political order to another (with the change in elites that implied)—not only transcended the differences between public and private sectors. It also effaced the boundaries of nations, cultures, and ideologies. Burnham argued that this transition had not only taken place in the United States through the New Deal but also in comparable revolutions that were occurring in the other Western liberal democracies, as well as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The New Deal, with its unprecedented interweaving of government into the private economy, was the landmark in the gradual process Burnham saw unfolding around him. The decisive point in this transition from capitalism to managerialism occurred from World War I through the Great Depression. The Depression revealed that bourgeois capitalism had fundamentally failed both economically and ideologically, the rhetorical clothing of power having “become impotent.”

It was during this period, Burnham argued, that the state arose as the instrument for most efficiently moving larger and larger parts of the economy away from capitalist ownership towards managerial control. As a result, Burnham wrote that “the managers will exercise their control over the instruments of production…not directly, through property rights vested in them as individuals, but indirectly, through their control of the state…The state—that is, the institutions which comprise the state—will, if we wish to put it that way, be the ‘property’ of the managers. And that will be quite enough to place them in the position of ruling class.”

As the managerial class consolidates its power, commercial activity moves away from a capitalist free-market of competitive firms seeking profits. In its place grew an economy of large corporate cartels, which operated under, and through, state regulation and coordination. Classical economic principles apply less and less as a result, with government avoiding the pesky issue of profits. Political power itself is found less and less in the institutions of the bourgeois capitalist state, like Congress or Parliament. In its place, there grows an executive bureaucracy, comprised of administrators in different departments, working to manage, order, and thus control the new economy. As a result, nonmanagerial political institutions of government, run by elected officials and politicians, are increasingly relegated to nominal status—the “locus of sovereignty” residing in the administrative structures. Results that conform to the managerial vision are deemed democratic, while those which dissent are deemed illegitimate. The manipulation of language accompanies the manipulation of previously democratic institutions.

This revolution took place across government, the labor unions, academia, philanthropy, and the organizations of power that underwrite the state: police and the armed forces. The new managerialism led to an interweaving of private industry and the world of public government. This meant, as Burnham wrote, that “the control of the state by the managers will be suitably guaranteed by appropriate political institutions, analogous to the guarantee of bourgeois dominance under capitalism by bourgeois political institutions.” 

Rather than government gaining legitimacy by securing the liberty of the governed, under managerialism, legitimacy is gained by managers’ power to provide for “freedom from want” through equal access to consumption. Consumption is apolitical, reducing citizens to depoliticized atoms no longer engaged in a civic dialogue about how they are governed. The covenant between ruler and ruled is erased. The managerial class feels no moral or ethical limits to the exercise of its power, the upkeep of access to the bread, and circuses of consumption as the means to its domination. This depoliticization of the public realm extends to the selection of the managerial class itself. Elections matter not at all. The managers perpetuate themselves “through the possession of privilege, power, and command of educational facilities, [they] will be able to control, within limits, the personnel of the managerial recruits.”

This separation of political power from the polis itself flows logically from the separation of ownership from control. Social and political power is increasingly removed from elected individuals towards self-appointed credentialed officials and experts qualified to hold the administrative positions that now comprise government. Rather than electoral legitimacy stemming from democratic authority, their power results from their academic credentials and their administrative expertise. Democratic accountability is dead, while managerial accountability is all. 

In the business world itself, these organizers and coordinators had, Burnham argued, almost entirely supplanted the shareholders, the boards of directors, and the financial-capitalists as the decision-makers. As Burnham writes, the managerial economy is different in kind from bourgeois capitalism because “the position, role, and function of the managers are in no way dependent upon the maintenance of capitalist property and economic relations.” 

Burnham argued that managerialism succeeded because of its greater capacity to fulfill capitalist drives than capitalism itself. In order to maintain acquisitive growth, the managers became indispensable to the big bourgeoisie. However, managerialism’s momentum cannot be reduced to technology desire. Technical complexity does not by itself induce managerialism. Rather, it is the need for coordination of mass systems—mass society, mass production and consumption, mass politics, mass institutions—that demands specifically managerial aptitudes. Managerialism, Burnham argues, is the logical next step of capitalism’s universalist drive. Its power stems from the growing dominance over ever-larger spheres.

Under the managerialist dispensation, rights of property ownership that inhere to the bourgeois become increasingly irrelevant. As Burnham wrote, “ownership means control,” and the managerial revolution was the long process whereby managerial control effectively becomes ownership. “Control over access [to the means of production] is decisive, and, when consolidated, will carry control over preferential treatment in distribution with it: that is, will shift ownership unambiguously to the new controlling, a new dominant, class.”

There is a radical difference in ownership between bourgeois and managerial capitalism, however. In the managerial world, rather than seen as an individual right inherent to the person, ownership is a function of the managerial position. The individual holding it does not matter. According to Burnham, “The managers will exploit the rest of society as a corporate body…their rights belonging to them not as individuals but through the position of actual directing responsibility which they occupy.” As a result, the managers gained the powers of ownership without the same sense of property or responsibility. They became de facto owners of private industrial and public government enterprises but without fully having a stake in the enterprise.

This separation of production and consumption under managerialism leaves both the old bourgeois and the working classes dependent on the managers to maintain their ability to consume, consumption having gained the top of the ethical hierarchy. Being the coordinator of production and dispenser of consumption endows the managerial class with power over both the rulers of the old order and those subservient to them. Those at the bottom still exist to serve those above, even if those new masters have changed and induced a greater dependency than there was before. They become increasingly susceptible to the managerial ethic of cosmopolitanism, consumerism, hedonism, and progressivism, tied to those who disrupt their ways of life that bring stability, flourishing, and meaning. 

Managerialism in the World

This will seem rather abstract without concrete examples. Let us consider manifestation of managerialism in the world today. Burnham predicted that the world order under managerialism would, in geopolitical terms, be oriented around a series of superstates, with the withering of sovereign nation-states of the capitalist era. He named the United States, Europe, and East Asia as the three he expected to see rise in the world to come. Reading Burnham’s predictions is often frustrating in his combination of certainty with absolute error. So many of them were wrong. In this case, however, his prescience is chilling. His description of a European superstate is striking in its resemblance to the European Union, a political system increasingly sovereign and aware of itself as an integrated political entity. The European Union is not democratic as we would understand it, with the powers that be far and distant from the ruled, with the bureaucracies staffed by managers administering the evolving superstate. The vote for Brexit was a repudiation of this coldly technocratic worldview and expression of managerial power on a continental scale. 

Burnham prophesied a superstate in East Asia. Today’s People’s Republic of China fulfills his vision. There is confusion among analysts about what to label the modern Chinese state as: Is it communist, socialist, fascist, authoritarian, mercantilist, or state-capitalist? All of these labels describe some aspect of the Chinese state but perhaps the best encompassing term is a managerial state. If one stops to think about it, Burnham’s description of what a managerial state is and how it functions is surprisingly appropriate for modern China. The Chinese state has no bourgeoisie, for a start, and never really had one. From the moment it opened up under Deng Xiaoping, there has been extensive interlinking between the massive bureaucracy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the economy. 

The Gaokao exam that Chinese students take is designed to select the new generation of political and economic managers, by sending them to, if they are highly motivated and intelligent, one of several top Chinese universities. Once there, the students will study courses like anyone else but with the goal in mind of joining the elite who run the CCP and run the economy, which has always, to some extent, been the same thing but is now increasingly the case. 

The state apparatus as embodied by the CCP decides which corporations win and which lose, through its investment and subsidization decisions. An example pertinent to the United Kingdom is the telecom giant Huawei, the main purveyor of 5G capabilities, and founded by ex-People’s Liberation Army officers. As research by the Henry Jackson Society has shown, Huawei has little to no independence from government wishes. As such, it has posed a significant security threat to the United Kingdom as part of its communication infrastructure due to its de facto status as an arm of the Chinese state. 

The control by interchangeable state and corporate bureaucrats enables the continuation of economic growth and attendant access to acquisitive consumption, all in service of maintaining a pliant population, enough of whom have been made free from want by the Chinese managerial state to never bother wondering about their lack of civic agency and political power. 

The severing of ownership from control is also a fact of Chinese political economy, with such close ties between corporate owners and government bureaucrats, to the extent the representatives of the CCP are often found in corporations, both checking ideological compliance of the workers and owners, and that the organizations are producing and allowing consumer access in the correct way. The CCP has the final say in control over access to the means of production, as well as over who can benefit from the distribution of product. 

This control over production and distribution maintains the CCP’s power and control over both the economic elites and the common man or woman. This is backed up by the ideological vanguard in the military and police, all reinforced through technological surveillance, itself stemming from state requirements exploiting corporate technology. The political ramifications are obvious: no democratic accountability, a pseudo-political community, and a government by party bureaucratic structures. China under the CCP is the managerial state par excellence.

This managerialism in foreign form serves as a concrete example that puts this theory in a real-world context. In the next part, we bring the managerial revolution home and consider its effects in the United States and the United Kingdom and what this means for conservative politics today.

Henry George is a writer from the U.K., focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, Arc Digital, Reaction, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review. 

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