Eighty years have passed since James Burnham wrote the 20th century’s most important, insightful, and ignored work of political science, The Managerial Revolution. Burnham, a former Trotskyite-turned-conservative political philosopher, argued that capitalism as a social organizing structure had been on its deathbed since the beginning of the First World War and would soon pass into insignificance. And, just as capitalism had struggled against and replaced feudalism, so too a new socio-economic principle—what I like to think of as “managerism”—was supplanting it.
Under this new socio-economic order, managers, not capitalists, control the instruments of production, and acquire more real power in society every passing year. According to Burnham, the state, laws, and culture would gradually transform politics and society to favor managerial rule and managerist thinking: a world in which all economic, social, and foreign relations problems can be solved on the national level by expert dominance, planning, and manipulation.
Written in 1941, The Managerial Revolution predicted a number of subsequent historical events, including the rise of globalism, the abandonment of the gold standard, and the United States’ entry into the European theater of WWII—and, as we shall see, the identification and criticism of managerism. What Burnham could not foresee, however, was just how unstable managerism would prove. Capitalism, for its part, had lasted hundreds of years after pushing out feudalism. Burnham seemed to think managerism might enjoy similar longevity as a social organizing principle.
But the two nations that (according to Burnham) most enthusiastically embraced managerist systems, the Soviet Union and Nazi German, only burned brightly for a brief period, before falling apart within a few years or decades after Burnham wrote. Nations that have been more gradual adopters of managerism, such as the United States and the non-German European countries, now suffer from catastrophic economic problems and class rancor.
It looks like managerism is coming unglued less than a century after its ascendancy and marginalizing of capitalism. In fact, another worldwide revolution of the socio-economic power structure appears set to unfold. If managerism is superseded, what will replace it?
MANAGERISM: A SYSTEM HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
A close student of Machiavelli, Burnham’s realism set him apart from his conservative contemporaries and made him a bestselling author in his day (Suicide of the West). His philosophy of political analysis might be summed up as such: Pay less attention to what political movements say and more to what they do. This philosophy made Burham an early skeptic of Stalinism and National Socialism (Nazism) when both ideologies were hailed by progressives and conservatives alike as the cutting edge of governance. Burnham’s approach strikes most Americans as strange, accustomed as they are to bickering over ideologies and terms, while reality marches resolutely forward. Today, pundits of the American Left and Right obsess over ideological debates like ‘socialism versus capitalism,’ seemingly oblivious that both socio-economic theories are passé.
Socialism, by any common definition, never got off the ground anywhere. In theory, socialism is supposed to create an international, classless proletarian (worker-controlled) society, one in which the state owns the instruments of production, and the proletariat rule the state. In reality, as Burnham explores at length, every attempt at socialism has quickly devolved into a sort of managerism of greater competence (as in the Soviet Union), or lesser competence (as in Venezuela today).
In these instances, a managerial ruling class ended up controlling the instruments of production ‘for the good of the proletariat,’ and the proletariat found themselves just as powerless as they were under capitalism—if not more so. In a sense, modern democratic socialists are correct when they say, ”Socialism has never really been tried,” but this is not for want of creating the proper conditions—that is, overthrow of the capitalists and seizure of the instruments of production. That has been tried many times. ‘Socialism,’ as it is used today, actually just serves as an edgy misnomer for power concentration in the hands of a managerial class, and bears no relation to theoretical socialism.
As for the ‘triumph of capitalism,’ the early and middle 20th century saw nominally ‘capitalist’ western democracies assume supervision or full control over countless areas of private property. It’s important to note that this was not a free market economy at all, and not capitalism. The emergency measures of WWI, FDR’s New Deal, and later President Johnson’s Great Society, saw public health, retirement benefits, food production, infrastructure, schooling, scientific research, rent and housing, energy production, arms manufacturing, banking and finance, transportation, communications, labor relations, and countless other economic concerns fall under state interference, management, or outright monopoly. Under these programs, the number of persons directly or indirectly employed by—or dependent on—the government exploded. Effective rule over these concerns vested not in elected politicians but in manager-bureaucrats ensconced in regional and federal agencies. In the United States, this industrial-bureaucratic complex has come to be known popularly as the administrative state—some going as far as to call it the 4th branch of government.
Understood in this way, today’s western democracies have followed more the Nazi model of managerism than the Soviet model. Much like in the Third Reich, capitalists in western liberal societies are allowed to exist, operate, even to receive state subsidies, so long as they align themselves with the needs and goals of the managerial class. Readers may recall the dramatization of the ‘allowed capitalist’ Oskar Schindler in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Socialist and communist regimes extirpated capitalists. The Nazis—and western managerist regimes since WWII—saw their way to disempowered and subsidiary capitalist participation.
Today, Elon Musk is the poster child for the modern ‘allowed capitalist.’ Tesla is reaping billions in government credits to manufacture products for which little organic market demand exists, but which the managerial class believe the populace should adopt (snazzy electric cars and solar panels). Less well known (but much larger in terms of dollars) is the government subsidy of air travel and Silicon Valley—both professional necessities of the managerial class. Airlines have secured more than $71 billion from local and federal governments since 2000, and tech firms—among the most valuable corporations on the planet—enjoy a range of corporate welfare too vast to list.
Regardless of their immense wealth today, capitalists’ freedom and power are a mirage. As Burham so astutely observed, managers don’t need to own things directly, when they control the institutions (corporations, nonprofits, governments, et al.) that wield staggering power and wealth. Private enterprises and tycoons who run athwart the managerial class find the administrative state and the legal system crashing down upon them like thunder (cf. the tobacco and firearms industries). No amount of lobbying or campaign gifting has resurrected the ancien régime, in which capitalists do as they like (think of the days of Carnegie and Rockefeller), and the state backs up their decisions with legislation and law enforcement. In the language of Marx, capitalists have gone from ‘exploiters’ to ‘exploited’—albeit comfortably exploited.
Anyone who doubts the senescence of capitalist rule need only examine the last administration. President Trump—supposedly the ‘most powerful elected official in the world’ and a billionaire to boot—found himself stymied, undermined, impeached, muzzled, and driven from the White House by a syndicate of corporate and government managers no one had ever heard of before (Comey, Fauci, Yates, Gadde, et. al.). The managerial class spanning the federal and state bureaucracies, the judiciary, the media, the military, the intelligence community, the tech industry, and the educational establishment saw that President Trump meant to curtail their power of discretion and independence from executive control. To preclude such a reversion, the managerial class closed ranks and cooperated with the president’s political enemies to destroy him under ideological pretenses, promoting flimsy tales that the president was a rapist, a fascist, a racist, a certifiable cretin, a Russian puppet, and a dangerous insurrectionist. Immunities of office were the barrier protecting President Trump from being torn to shreds in the streets by the managerial class.
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF MANAGERISM
In many ways, the false binary of ‘either socialism or capitalism’ has allowed managerism—unlike past socio-economic power structures—to avoid notice by the public as such. (If this binary isn’t obvious, try naming a third alternative with any widespread understanding or support.) Public figures swing between calling for ‘capitalist reform’ and ‘friendly socialism’ under Nordic-style government control. Nevertheless, the underlying struggle in recent years obtains not between capitalism and socialism—or even capitalism and managerism—but between conflicting visions of managerism.
American conservatives tend to favor ongoing capitalist participation in the managerist economy (properly overseen by state managers, of course). Witness conservative calls for enhanced government regulation of social media businesses, or the absence of any suggestion by conservatives that doctors should not be state-licensed or that the EPA should not regulate industrial pollution. American liberals, on the other hand, tend to believe capitalists are no longer worth the trouble and should be put down for good. Capitalists and private control of production are superfluous, so liberal thinking goes, as long as enough good managers exist to engineer prosperity and services—witness single-payer healthcare, government-guaranteed employment, government food programs, and universal basic income. American liberals aim for a pure managerist economy, and that pure managerism is variously euphemized as ‘fair redistribution of wealth,’ ‘democratic socialism,’ and ‘social justice.’
Despite the managers’ seeming triumph on all fronts against their capitalist rivals, popular disaffection with managerism continues to grow—and not just in the United States or among Trumpist Republicans. Managerism’s original promise of full employment, universal state care, economic fairness, and robust expert competence have failed to materialize. Instead, western populaces have been treated by managers to financial bungling and waste; perennial unemployment struggles; stratospheric debt, both public and personal; staggering income inequality; infrastructure neglect; ballooning bureaucracy (which, oddly enough, always seems to require more managers); an overcomplicated and bewildering legal system; maddening barriers to benefits and care to which the populace is supposedly ‘entitled’; and abrogation of traditional civil liberties that managers find inconvenient in their engineering of social life. The managerial class has tried with some success to blame their failures on ‘the rich‘ (capitalists) or politicians (whom they style capitalist catchfarts); but their scapegoating is wearing thin. Left-leaning Americans, too, and some European factions are taking notice of managerism’s failures and pushing for a shift away from centralized expert rule—most notably demonstrated by Brexit, England’s opt-out from pan-European managerism.
Added to this disaffection is a growing resentment by the non-managerial populace of all political persuasions against the managerial class, who seem to live in the Shangri-la promised to the masses for so long. Virtually everyone who ‘makes it’ into the government or managerial ranks receives wall-to-wall benefits, a comfortable guaranteed salary, social respect, long-term job stability, and strong demand for their skills, should they leave one job for another. Their material security and predictability allow managers to live in upscale neighborhoods, raise families, send their children to college, and engage in status consumption such as vacations and Elon’s Tesla cars. No longer do working-class parents hope their children start a business, take over the family farm, or learn a trade—those paths that held so much hope for advancement under capitalism. Parents today want their children to pass through the gate of managerial life (the universities) and join a government or corporate bureaucracy, living inside the high walls separating the managerial class from the scrabblers outside. As with all resentment, envy and disgust intertwine throughout.
Peoples living under managerism, however, hold a tiger by the tail. The complicated modern lives they lead are held together by esoteric technical management. The management may be less effective than advertised, and leave the masses struggling, but it at least keeps the lights on. Overthrow of the managerial class means the chaotic reversion to pre-Information Age living. To cite just one glaring example, without Tim Cook and the other managers at Apple, there will be no more iPhones to type out Twitter messages about how awful Twitter is. Americans have ceded control of virtually every aspect of their lives to managers, in areas as diverse as food production, medical care, and national defense. The managerial class cannot be guillotined or thrown into gulags as in previous class revolutions—not without a catastrophic loss of living standards or even total social breakdown.
Looking to the east for harbingers of things to come, Russia has pursued an alternative path to managerial-class eradication; but their alternative is almost as unsettling as guillotines and gulags. When the USSR fell apart, the power held by its managerial class passed into the hands of a wealthy, quasi-criminal oligarchy. The oligarchs allowed the managerial class of Russia to do their work on a leash, much as the managers allowed the capitalists to persist in a diminished capacity under managerism. Russia’s path seems a likely template for the United States in the near-term future.
There is no question the next four to eight years will see the managerial class tighten its grip on the levers of power, with concomitant frustration in store for those outside the managerial pale. At some point, we might expect disaffected working-class voters to elevate a leader who promises to break the grip of the managerial class and make experts ‘accountable to the people’; but who in practice subordinates the managerial class using the mechanism of an oligarchy, one that dominates everyone, manager or not.
The struggle between managerism and a new social organizing principle—what we might call ‘oligarchism’—has already begun. The next decade will almost certainly see a revolutionary confrontation in the west between managerism and oligarchy: The Oligarchic Revolution.