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James Burnham: Foreseeing Our Managerial Domination (Part II)

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“Ultimately, in order to thwart the managerial system, the American conservative movement needs to co-opt the managerial system.”

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part essay. Part one can be found here.

In part one, I briefly looked at James Burnham’s early life, as well as his belief in and ensuing break with doctrinaire Marxism. I discussed his views on social structures and the role power plays in their substance and how they change. Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution was the center of that essay. Modern Europe and China illustrated the managerial form of politics and economics in action. Now, we bring managerialism home to the United States and Britain, looking at their political and economic circumstances to see whether they match Burnham’s vision. As we will see, these do bear a strong resemblance, albeit evolved to suit the times.

Modern conservatism, meanwhile, has enabled rather than resisted these trends. Understanding these facts is the only way for conservatives to resist and even win politically, by gaining hegemonic power to enact their vision of a flourishing, stable, and decent politics and economics oriented towards the common good of the everyday man and woman.

Re-cap

Let us restate the fundamental premises of managerialism. Our societies went through a revolution in size and complexity from the end of the 19th century. As Burnham argued, this revolution then culminated between 1914 and 1945. The increased complexity of political and economic systems meant increased bureaucratization. Bureaucracies are inherent to complex organizations, which cannot do without a bureaucracy; otherwise, they would devolve into chaos. Real work is, therefore, at risk of replacement by administrative roles and tasks, in service of perpetuating the organization. Bureaucracies occupy the public domain and the private corporate world and interweave the two. Different descriptive terms are used, but this does not alter the managerial reality, with “manager” and “expert” simply different labels for managerial positions.

Instead of being motivated to increase profits (as under the old bourgeois capitalist system), managerialists are driven to increase their budgets and powers. Should one not wish to play this game, one will lose his position in the managerial system. The selection mechanism meanwhile ensures managers source fellow managers and subordinates with the necessary academic credentials. Managerial structures can be as creative as in the business sector. But rather than offering new products and services, managerial structures produce rules, legislation, and laws designed to mold people’s lives through their psychology, couched in therapeutic language.

21st Century Managerialism 

This is all complex and seemingly disconnected from people’s lived reality in the everyday to and fro of Western life. However, Burnham’s argument is that as the managers consolidated their power, commercial activity moved away from free-market capitalism towards a cartelized economy of large corporations coordinating and colluding with the bureaucratic state. This, of course, bears a striking resemblance to our economy today.

What else does Burnham describe than the large technology companies—Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft—and their stranglehold not only on their own sector but on increasingly large parts of the economy (and the interplay of this with the rest of society)? Companies like Amazon control the data and hosting infrastructure on which our modern economy and society are increasingly based. They control access to the means of cultural production, communication, and the media systems we use to make sense of the world, alongside the search technology and the devices on which this software operates. Control of access is control itself. Combined, the market capitalization of these managerial corporates is roughly equal to the GDP of France, the world’s seventh-largest economy.

The Overclass creates the illusion that the lower orders can become new members: meritocracy, in other words.

Real power is held by groups of managers in the political and corporate worlds. Managerial power stems from its ability to balance and manipulate the interests of other groups. Alongside this, the world’s top 0.1% blends with the managerial elite. Combined, they form what Michael Lind calls “the Overclass” and what Joel Kotkin calls “the Oligarchy”: around 10% of the far upper reaches of society, comprised of the technology and finance spheres together with non-elected state power centers, working together to maintain their control over the middle and lower classes. Kotkin calls these latter groups the “Yeomanry” and the “new Serfs.”

The Overclass has its own culture, its own morals, norms, and more. The Overclass creates the illusion that the lower orders can become new members: meritocracy, in other words. In reality, membership in the managerial elite is increasingly hereditary. It is about the ability to rise within bureaucracies, which means that educational credentials and attendant cultural taste and habits are key. Those outside, therefore, imitate the lifestyle and overall worldview of the Overclass in the hope that they will gain them entrance to the elite. The bureaucratic, managerial system at national and transnational levels facilitates and entrenches this. The Overclass—around 70 million people worldwide, writes Jeff Rubin—controls both transnational bureaucratic political and economic structures, through lower-level bureaucrats who, in turn, have power over those beneath them. This proceeds down to the junior management of the offices of national political administration and branches of global companies.

As Kotkin writes, the richest 40 Americans control more wealth than 185 million fellows of their poorest countrymen. Globally, the share of wealth held by the world’s top 1% increased from 7% in 1978 to 22% in 2012. The managerial elite has, according to Branko Milanovic, captured around one fifth of the gains in income worldwide since 1988. In 2017, the world’s top 1% captured 82% of the new wealth created that year globally. Within Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the incomes of the top 10% have grown triple the amount of median incomes. In the United States, the top 1% has captured around half of all income growth since the 1980s, doubling its share of income from 11% to over 20%. The income share of the top 0.1% of the American population has gone from 7% of total household income in 1978 to 22%.

Meanwhile, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that, since 1987, over half of the $23 trillion rise in the value of American non-financial corporations came not from economic growth but, instead, from the transfer of income from wages to profits. In other words, from workers to investors, from the middle class to the Overclass. The top 1% is expected to have two-thirds of the world’s wealth by 2030. One hundred billionaires own half the world’s assets. Trade agreements, market manipulation, labor arbitrage, and mass immigration combine to entrench the Overclass’s economic dominance at the expense of the shrinking middle-class, rapidly proletarianizing.

Kotkin argues that this power means that “today’s tech leaders increasingly resemble an exclusive ruling class, controlling a few exceptionally powerful companies, and like aristocracies everywhere they are often resistant to any dispersion of their power.” The Overclass built efficient global supply chains through multinational corporations. This disempowered workers and their unions in the process. Political power has increasingly moved from national governments to transnational bureaucracies, this remote power enforced by unelected and unaccountable judiciaries, at both the national and international levels. Burnham would not have been surprised.

This new managerialism also extends into the political sphere, as Burnham argued it did in the 1940s and the rest of the 20th century. In the United States, Britain, and Europe, a class of bureaucrats has grown and grown, now in de facto control of the running of government. In the United States, around 2.1 million work for the federal government, while 4.1 million are contractors. In the United Kingdom, there are now 430,750 full-time equivalent (FTE) civil servants, and total public sector employment is around 5.4 million, with the central government at 2.9 million and local government at 2.12 million. Around 32,000 people work for the European Commission, while in the European Parliament, around 7,500 people work in the general secretariat and in various political groups. This represents the top layer of the managerial structure that oversees European governance, down to national, local, and municipal levels. All of these bureaucrats are very successful in what matters most: increasing their budgets and strengthening their position. Life in the managerial system is one of constant scheming and power games, perfect for what Robert Reich calls symbolic analysts.

So, politicians may make the laws, but they are enacted by the managerial structure, overseeing the political life of the United States and Britain. With politicians and corporate apparatchiks interchangeable, the position—not the person—is important. As Pedro Gonzalez writes:

“…the modern managerial corporation separates ownership (shareholders) and control (another specially trained group), managerialism separates institutions from people, the economy from the country, and the government from the nation. The model of American governance today is the managed separation of ownership and control, applied to public as well as private life.”

The increasing transfer of law-making from the British government to the European Union was a prime example of this. This, thus, detached large parts of the realms of political and economic debate, dispute, and power from the democratic community. This was seen as beyond negotiation, settled, and, therefore, off-limits.

In the United States, the non-elected administrative state and its extra-governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, and contractors are engaged in what Paul Gottfried calls a “series of social programs informed by a vague egalitarian spirit.” As Gottfried writes, “what has taken its place in liberal democracies is a more enduring form of collectivism, the perceived growth of public administration as an instrument of equity. This has gone forward as liberal democratic states intrude on economic and social activities without, at least in the United States, nationalizing anything outright. The terms ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ no longer describe the process at work, which is one of administrative engulfment.” This is all expressed in therapeutic language for therapeutic ends, with “the regime and those who define and defend its beliefs…push[ing] and contin[uing] to push society toward a continuing self-transformation.”

Meanwhile, in Britain, the civil service and a “mixture of state institutions, state-funded institutions, and private trusts and charities” comprise the system of modern managerial government, with “ordinary MPs…abandoning their exercise of practical reason, farming off policy to remote interest groups, campaigns and charities, or at the very least to state bodies whose logic of governance were captured by such groups.” Robert Protherough writes that this “cross-infection of public- and private-sector values” has meant that “the distinction between government and management, once clearly understood, has over the last [forty] years been gradually lost.”

The emergence over time of large bureaucratic structures and the establishment of the Overclass at the top of an increasingly fragmented and stratified society are explanation enough for our current social problems. Moral decline, decried by conservatives, stems from managerialism, rather than being its cause. As in Burnham’s time, technocratic rule of expertise is seen as the guarantor of success and prosperity, not to be questioned, self-referential, and self-perpetuating. All of this has engendered and attended a dramatic and ultimately deadly decline in social mobility across the Anglosphere.

Much of the culture war is simply different elite groups trying to attain their particular aims through the instrument of the managerial state. Conspiracies participated in by some shadowy group or all members of the managerial elite offer no explanatory frame. What may look like a nefarious plan by a secret powerful cabal is, in reality, what results from increasing bureaucratization and managerialism. Under these circumstances, defense of the common life of the common man and woman (on the basis of a dispersed material prosperity) is increasingly difficult and leaves more and more people bereft of communal consolation and economic stability. The managerial elite is at risk when the ideology that has secured its rule—liberalism—is breaking down.

Liberalism as Legitimizer

Burnham, inspired by sociologist Gaetano Mosca, argued that every ruling class needs a ruling ideology for its legitimacy. “Ruling classes,” Mosca argued, “do not justify their power exclusively by de facto possession of it, but try to find a moral and legal basis for it, representing it as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognised and accepted.” Ideas do have consequences, given people’s belief in them and the fact that people make up the social structures that direct society.

However, ideas only have consequences insofar as they prove useful for elite legitimation. Not all ideas are equal, and some ideas are more consequential than others.

Liberalism, Burnham argued, was the ideology the managerial class used for articulating and maintaining its legitimacy. Liberalism, expressed as an ideology, stems from the structural interests of the elites that promote it. The internal incoherence of liberalism, completely detached from the realities of human nature and socio-political organization, has mattered not at all. At the heart of modern liberalism lies a vision of man—atomized, timeless, placeless—that rationalizes bureaucratic control of the social environment, while also laying the groundwork for the cosmopolitan ethic. The new bureaucratic elite that has arisen since the managerial revolution has supported and espoused this ethic because it delegitimizes the ideologies of its older, morally traditionalist, and socially bourgeois rivals.

The ideology of the new managerialism for the 21st century is what Lind calls “a synthesis of the free-market economic liberalism of the libertarian right and the cultural liberalism of the bohemian/academic left.” It is an ideology that legitimizes the continued power of unaccountable corporations and bureaucrats, working together to reinforce their hegemonic positions. Liberalism and its cosmopolitan ethic—articulated through the cultural and academic class Kotkin calls the Clerisy—were able to undermine all local and communal institutions by saying they were masks for bigotry and oppression. Familial, communal, and national ties—along with values of work, thrift, discipline, sacrifice, and postponement of gratification—were seen as barriers to the unfolding of the liberatory liberal doctrine that would ensure the continued access to the consumption of the market state.

Economically, capitalism is inherently “woke” in that it is fundamentally oriented to destroying and remaking traditional ways of life for its own market-friendly benefit.

Today, the ideology of the new Overclass is, undoubtedly, what writer Wesley Yang has dubbed the Successor Ideology, an ideology of extreme egalitarianism centered around identitarian categories of race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, and so on. Striking a Burnhamite tone, Yang captured the transition from the old form of liberalism to its new manifestation when he tweeted: “This successor ideology has been a rival to the meritocratic one and has in recent years acquired sufficient power to openly seek hegemony on campuses and elsewhere.” In reality, in its extreme atomism, subjectivity, and focus on liberty of identity, the Successor Ideology is a descendent rather than a replacement of ideological liberalism.

Elite education enables the new managerialists to retain their class and moral dominance, with the possession of a diploma mostly indicating birth into the economic elite. Elite educational institutions are largely seminaries replenishing the ranks of the Overclass. They fulfill their scholastic role by inculcating the new managerial ideology. The Overclass Successor Ideology acts as a signifier of intellectual acuity and moral probity. It is also a luxury, conspicuous belief system playing the same role as conspicuous consumption among the old aristocracy. It is held by those who can afford it.

Economically, capitalism is inherently “woke” in that it is fundamentally oriented to destroying and remaking traditional ways of life for its own market-friendly benefit. Woke capitalism is simply the latest expression of this tendency and a way to excuse immoral behavior through redemptive exploitation of minorities. The division of the Successor Ideology and its woke capitalist expression encourages and maintains the accretion of Overclass wealth, while fomenting racial and tribal animosity between groups as a deflection from Overclass hegemonic control and a failure to maintain the common good.

Conservative Impotence

Where are conservatives in all this? Well, mostly in the American scene, they have either been absent (lost in intellectual abstractions and chewing over ever more granular interpretations of obscure philosophical texts in small-circulation journals); collusive (accepting funds from the Overclass to their think-tanks and political groups and voting according to the wishes of lobbyists); or defeated (locked out of the institutions of power by those on the supposed Right who see their vision as a threat to the continuing dominance of the bipartisan Overclass).

The appeal to supposedly timeless and abstract theories known and understood by a select few reveals the tendency towards a world-denying idealism that is redolent of the Gnostic heresy, which held that the world is a sham and that a select group with the morally correct secret knowledge can liberate the rest from the grasp of illusion. The American conservative movement as embodied by intellectuals, whose only contribution to winning and keeping political power is to proclaim “ideas have consequences” while doing nothing to ensure their ideological allies gain the ability to makes those ideas have consequences, is Gnostic in its fatuous idealism.

This blind faith in timeless principles as the prime mover in human affairs is unfounded, as the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto realized: “rational, deliberate, conscious belief does not, then, in general at any rate, determine what is going to happen to society; social man is not, as he has been defined for so many centuries, a primarily ‘rational animal.’” Conservative idealists will cry that any reference to concrete economic, social, or geographic realities smells of determinism. But why their own insistence on the inevitable truth of timeless principles married to free-market economic orthodoxy is any less determinist is beyond me.

20th century conservatism, for all its lofty talk of principles and populist rhetoric about small government and individual liberty, only served to entrench the managerial elite in its occupation of the commanding heights of the economy, politics, and culture.

In Britain, it was the Thatcherite conservatives themselves who engaged in the most far-reaching rationalization and centralization of political power into the organs of the permanent state structures. According to Protherough, “By 1980 it was being asserted, as a self-evident truth, that ‘the management ethos must run right through our national life—private and public companies, civil service, nationalized industries, local government, the National Health Service.’” Prime Minister Tony Blair, Protherough writes, simply built on the great libertarian Thatcher’s legacy.

In the United States meanwhile, the neoconservative defense of capitalism and the bourgeois ethic of thrift and personal responsibility was defending something that no longer existed; the old big bourgeoisie capitalism had been displaced by the managerial class. The neoconservatives misdiagnosed what they saw as the “New Class.” According to Daniel Bell, this New Class was distinct from the managers occupying administrative positions in opposition to capitalism.

In reality, as Burnham correctly saw, the so-called New Class was, in fact, the economic and political managerial elite. It was defended by those who might have turned their considerable intellectual firepower towards its dismantling. Bell instead argued that capitalism relied on a restrained bourgeois culture and that the culture was changing to one of hedonistic impulsiveness and irresponsibility. While this may have been true, this change in cultural norms and mores was due to managerial capitalism itself, with the continuation and expansion of consumption part of the raison d’être for the managers’ existence, and which they had an interest in embedding.

Modern American conservatives who continue arguing about a new elite divorced from “real capitalism” do not recognize that, as Burnham did, “many of the children of capitalists themselves…perhaps sense that the dominion exercised by their parents as capitalists can be continued by the children only through giving up capitalism.” Instead, we are still treated to conservative paeans to capitalist dynamism, as though what we have today is an anti-capitalist cultural elite, rather than an interwoven managerial elite that combines the two and has long ago buried bourgeois capitalism at the bottom of the garden.

Conservatives like Ben Shapiro defend the free market principles of the dead, classically liberal, bourgeois capitalist order. Instead, they are defending the structures that erode the values they supposedly care about. Further, they are losing the ability to express their views in public, given monopolistic social media companies that are perfectly happy to censor inconvenient news stories that might damage their preferred political allies.

Calls to restore capitalism serve only to further emancipate the managerial elite from the political community.

The attacks by Shapiro and the thinkers of the centrist Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) on monsters like woke cancel culture are woefully misdirected. These are not distinct phenomena in and of themselves. They are offshoots of our modern managerial regime, part of the Overclass’s means to demonstrate its power through the arbitrary suppression of ideological dissent, alongside providing economic and social rewards to its allies in the heights of the culture.

The conservatives and IDW members who argue for defeating the Overclass in the public square by accusing them of hypocrisy and holding them to standards are deluded. The Overclass—in the form of technology monopolies—simply enters the digital public square with tanks and mows down the debaters or dissidents standing in its way. It has been, and continues to be, a rhetorical and dialectical Tiananmen Square.

American conservatism today is still largely controlled by ossified corporate boosterism at home and Wilsonian moralism abroad. It is vastly unequal to the task of reigning in managerialism. Couching its appeal to voters in the language of rolling back the frontiers of the state, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it, is a complete non-starter. This just reveals the intellectual and class disconnection of Conservatism Inc from the mainstream. As Michael Lind observes, “the business Republicans, whose preferences Republican politicians promote, on average make $69,711 a year, around $30,000 more than the Republican populists, whose preferences most Republican politicians ignore.”

The effect of Reaganite and Thatcherite conservatism and their successors has been the liberation of the managers. In the United States, this took the form of the ever-growing power of the administrative and judicial branches of the American market-state. In Britain, it resulted in the creation of a massive system of groups and organizations not part of the state but who have a huge influence on what type of policy gets made. Both President Ronald Reagan’s and Prime Minister Thatcher’s neoliberal and neoconservative successors simply dug the managerial state further into its position of dominance, under the guise of doing exactly the opposite.

Conclusion

The diagnosis of Burnham, augmented by Lind’s and Kotkin’s interpretations, is arguably an accurate description of the situation in which Anglo-American conservatism finds itself today. As Julius Krein wrote in 2017, “the contradiction of contemporary conservatism is that it is an attempt to restore the culture and politics of bourgeois capitalism while accelerating the economy of managerialism.” More of the same calls to restore economic libertarianism and social traditionalism—incoherent and unstable on the face of it—will do nothing to dislodge the managerial control of the means of economic and cultural production. Instead, conservatism, whether out of naivety, willful ignorance, or self-serving graft, continues in its implementation of the managerial agenda. Calls to restore capitalism serve only to further emancipate the managerial elite from the political community.

The managerial consensus of economic and social liberalism, as discussed above, is friendly to left-wing aims and hostile to conservative aims. It is sometimes difficult to decide whether it is tragic, farcical, or villainous that the American right, in particular, continues to defend the very thing that undermines its apparent principles. The cynical answer is that those in the Republican Party mostly fall into line because they both believe in, and benefit from, the managerial state. As a result, whenever a threat to it rears its head, the Right gathers together to repel the interloper.

Former President Donald Trump may have won in 2016 with a populist campaign, but he did virtually nothing to implement it in office. To govern, one has to appoint the people to do the boring technocratic things to effectuate one’s vision. President Trump failed to do this, governing like a typical neoliberal Republican who happened to be mean on Twitter. Celebrating Twitter owns and reading Dr. Seuss in Congress are a pathetic facsimile of populism.

Conservatism Inc seemingly has little or no wish to learn the lessons of 2016 or 2020, and those groups like American Compass that do want to learn and assimilate these lessons are subject to smears from establishment conservatives. Senators like Marco Rubio who call for doing economics differently—in his case under the heading of “common good capitalism”—have been called out for suggesting something akin to fascism. Right-wing dogmas are resilient, no matter how obsolete they are in reality.

Ultimately, in order to thwart the managerial system the American conservative movement needs to co-opt the managerial system. It needs to reorient itself away from abstract philosophical and economic pieties towards a recognition of concrete reality, accepting things as they are. James Burnham’s work (and its successors and interpreters) should be the go-to reference for how American economic, political, and cultural life is currently ordered. Only then will the American conservative movement truly be able to win power effectively and govern efficiently and justly, allowing for the flourishing of the country’s common people and common good. This is the only true and moral reason for government. It is high time conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic realized it.

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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