I think it’s safe to say that Karl Marx would not have recognized the mystical lands behind the iron curtain. I think it’s also fair to say that Adam Smith would not have recognized 1950s America. I do however believe that James Burnham would recognize our current world order.
We are trained to think of only two mechanisms of social organization. Capitalism and Marxism. Capitalism, which started in the late middle ages (circa 1300s?) and ended in 1914 in a tremendous explosion of violence; and Marxism which was never more than a utopian idea. There’s a reason for this, capitalism provided a more natural division of power, wresting from one group of oligarchs and giving to another in a process of power-destruction which led to a greater period of freedom and the accompanying prosperity. Marxism was too easily coopted by the powerful and didn’t last the first few bursts of collective farms or worker-managed factories before it was centralized into communism, the first baby-managerial ideology (which itself only lasted about 70 years).
Which is all moot, at any rate, because both of those methods for social organization are now over. We are in a new mechanism, what James Burnham called a “Managerial Society”. That is what his book “Managerial Revolution” is about. And we are now firmly in Burnham’s “Managerial Society”. Now, I don’t really like the moniker – as you don’t. But this book is careful to remind us that what we call things is less important than the mechanisms by which our current society is organized. Capitalism, that method of social organization which dethroned feudalism and created a world of such tremendous prosperity and newly discovered liberty that it destroyed itself out of excess stuff, is now over. It could not survive the consolidation of economic power that was the end result of the incredible revolution of productivity (the industrial revolution) in which the division of labor engendered a powerless class manning the assembly lines and a group of – wait for it – managers, who controlled the mechanisms of production responding to the extraordinary economies of scale.
It is, however, more the philosophical child of Plato than Aristotle. Incidentally this is why modern managerialism fits better in the Democratic party than the Republican – Democrats are the more natural inheritors of collectivist political projects (‘New Deal’ and eugenics and Planned Parenthood and minimum wage and other attempts at social class-creation), they fit more neatly and are more comfortable with the herd (and know best how to manage it); whereas republicans – the offspring of Aristotle – have a more libertarian “leave me the hell alone” strain to them. But it should be mentioned that neither the .1% nor the 9.9% are necessarily party-affiliated. It is about class, not party and certainly not about ideology. Ideology is only deployed as a useful weapon by individuals vying against their competitors to join the 9.9% (or to hold their perch, at all costs there).
A few years ago I wrote a piece called “What is going on?” In this piece, I identified much of the current political project of the ‘managers’ as they seek to build permanent power for their class. However, I erred in that I also used the knee-jerk vocabulary which we are accustomed to hurling at each other: “socialism” and “communism” and “fascism” and other isms which are of course meaningless. And in that, I argued from one side of the ideological food-fight (the one I am most sympathetic to) – in doing so I lost the ability to more fully articulate not what I feel about what is going on, but what is actually going on. I am fully willing to remedy that, but probably not here. It would require some additional work. The point is, the “Managerial Society” is now a fait accompli.
So what is the “Managerial Society”? It is, to put it simply, the New Aristocracy so eloquently outlined by Matthew Stewart. Specifically (and this is where Burnham, writing almost 100 years ago, gets some things wrong), the current “Managerial Society” is a plutarchy controlled by – as Stewart says – the .1%. They control the means of production and the vast portions of planetary wealth. They have realized that to preserve their exalted positions they must control the state; coercive weaponry of power is what all monarchs of the world know they must possess, and the plutocracy is no different. In this, Burnham is also wrong – he identified the state takeover of the means of production as the beginning of managerialism. But that is his own Marxist underpinnings (he was a Trotskyist in the 30s before abandoning it to join William Buckley, like so many did in the heady days of ideology); the reality is that the Plutocracy and their massive productive machinery took over the state. But, now that they have it, they have no interest whatsoever in managing their sprawling empires. They are too busy at their private islands or in congress with each other – and you’ve probably never heard of them. They are not politicians, or actors, or sports figures. Those figures come from the “Managerial Society”, either as direct managers or the jesters meant to pave the way for the aristocracy’s permanent power by mining the debate by pulling at the heart-strings of their foot-soldiers on their Gramscian “march through the institutions”.
The “New Aristocracy”, the “Managerial Elite” are those 9.9% who control the productive capacity of the world; a marriage of the state and its mechanized managerial agenda and the ‘private sector’ which is no longer private but at the command of the “Managerial Aristocrats” through regulation and the revolving door exchange of public/private position. They have been called the “deep state” — too soon?
So who is everybody else? They are, of course, the underclass. The losers. BLM or MAGA – not to put too fine a point on it. Those foot soldiers who the “aristocrats” battling each other for control of the state and its privileges and power send to fight (and sometimes die) on the back streets of downtown Seattle or to seize our most hallowed halls in rage and impotence. “Nor will the bulk of those who have done, and will do, the fighting in the struggle be recruited from the ranks of the managers themselves; most of the fighters will be workers and youths who will doubtless, many of them, believe that they are fighting for ends of their own.” If they are on the MAGA side they are fighting globalism and if they are on the BLM side they are fighting for diversity; words they have been given by the managers which in no way represent what they will achieve should they ‘win’; for the “New Aristocracy” has been working hard to “raise the ladders as they ascend” – as economist Angus Deaton has said. Staying true to James Burnham’s instructions, none of this is a value statement. Capitalism opened the door (through the allure of permanent economic growth) to tremendous inequality and also the ability of the powerful to live well beyond their means, creating environmental degradation that we will be living with for generations. Marxism was never workable, and was discarded almost immediately by those who saw a path to permanent power and became the proto-managerial society until it too fell; for totalitarian managerialism does not have the feedback loops which allowed it to morph and adjust to the winds of popular discontent, natural disaster or scarcity and thereby save itself from destruction. The same is true for Nazi German “Managerialism”, which was of the same shade as the Soviet variety and perished for the same reasons. American “New Deal” managerialism has been longer lasting, because there have been – at least so far- feedback loops which allow citizens to express discontent, to vie for (increasingly complicated) access to the 9.9% and to punish the egregious Aristocrats (and even occasionally a Plutocrat or two), thereby preserving a sense of power where none exists in actual fact. Managerialism is here to stay, it is the way our society is controlled. The incentive structure, the economic structure, the class structure have imposed themselves – and advancement will increasingly follow proscripted methods, outlined perhaps by Dominic Green in his enlightening article “Oligarchy in America”. For those who want to win, they will follow the recipes. In America’s “Managerial Society”, there will be no other way to succeed.