A man from Mars visiting the United States at the beginning of 1997 might have thought that the country was wobbling on the brink of political crisis. He would have learned that the White House was occupied by a gentleman immersed in so many scandals that even supermarket tabloids could not keep track of them and that this same gentleman, having been re-elected without a majority of voters behind him, faced a Congress controlled by an opposition party sworn to working a revolution in government. Surely the Martian would have lost whatever passes for money on the Red Planet by wagering that the President would soon be thrown out of office, if not into jail, and that his opponents would mount a coup d’etat that would deliver the state into their hands.
The Martian would have lost his money because nowhere else in the galaxy could he have experienced any political force as inept, incompetent, and worthless as the Republican Party. Throughout the year Republicans in both houses of Congress lurched and wobbled like a drunken acrobat, ignoring opportunities for weakening the Clinton administration still further and again and again allowing the President to score political points. They allowed major issues like immigration, affirmative action, and activist judges to flop out of their hands and had nothing important to say in criticism of Mr. Clinton’s foreign policy — his locking the nation into a continuing and expanded commitment to NATO, his pursuit of global government in one guise or another, or his support for extending Most Favored Nation Status with China. By the end of June, the Martian would have been pining to leave the planet and take himself off to some other, more politically dynamic vista such as the craters of the Moon.
To be fair, the death of politics in the United States — not only this year but for the last several years, despite the “Republican Revolution” of 1994 — is not entirely the fault of the Grand Old Party itself. There are few real political issues in the United States today because there are few real political divisions within the Ruling Class, of which the leaders of both political parties are members in good standing, and there are few political divisions within the Ruling Class because at last that class has consolidated its power to the point that there is very little left for its members to argue about. Republicans and Democrats may bicker over the budget and quibble over nominations and electoral questions, but on the main architecture of the leviathan state and the functions and services it provides they have no quarrel. That much was evident in the presidential election last year, when both candidates had to puff and wheeze to fabricate something to debate over, but the ensuing tedium of the presidential race was not simply the result of the lackluster personalities involved but rather of a more far-reaching and underlying crystallization of the national power structure that they both represent.
As I have often indicated before, elites are not bad things in themselves, and whether you like them or not, they happen to be inevitable in human society. The relevant issue for people who don’t like a particular elite or ruling class is not how to get rid of it and get along without any social and political hierarchy but rather how to get yourself another elite that is more suited to your preferences — that is, to your social interests. With the emergence of the Populist Right in the last few years and its Middle American following, there is the prospect, remote as it may seem, that an alternative elite is already beginning to form that will eventually be able to challenge and replace the incumbent dominant class.
I have also indicated before that the most accurate analysis of the incumbent ruling class remains James Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution, a theory formulated in 1941 and often pulverized by academic sociologists and economists, but a theory also which keeps coming back, in one form or another, to provide — after a dozen other analyses and theories — the most reliable depiction of the realities of power in twentieth century America. Just last year, Burnham’s theory of the managerial revolution came back yet again in a new book that revives and restates it.
The book, America’s New Economic Order by neo-Marxist economist Donald Clark Hodges, is dedicated to Burnham, who was Hodges’ teacher at New York University in the 1940s, and, despite certain flawed assumptions and analyses in Professor Hodges’ Marxist formulations, it is of some importance not only as a reminder of the enduring truths that Burnham discovered about American society but also for certain new insights that Mr. Hodges brings to it.
The Burnham theory, crafted just as Burnham was defecting from Trotskyism, held that a new kind of economy and society was evolving in the United States, as well as in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, that was neither capitalist nor socialist. The new society was what he called “managerial,” and it consisted essentially in the seizure of control of the largest corporations by their managers from their stockholders. The argument was that the managers — meaning those professionals equipped with the technical and managerial skills to make the advanced economy that the corporations dominated function — were evolving into a new class that would replace the “capitalists” or stockholders because the capitalists simply did not have the skills to run their own companies.
As an ex-Marxist himself, Burnham then believed that control of the economic power of the corporations was by itself sufficient to determine the structure of a new ruling class, but he also extended the concept of “manager” to state bureaucrats. Like corporate managers, the munchkins of the emerging leviathan state did not hold formal rights of ownership to their offices, but they did have the technical skills to make their offices function. Those who did have a formal “right” to their offices — the citizens who “own” the government and the office-holders they periodically elect to office — in reality exercised no more real control of the state than petty stockholders did over corporate assets and operations. Thus, the managers in the economy joined with their cousins, the managers of the state, to coalesce into a new ruling class. Unlike the old capitalist or bourgeois class, the new class did not depend for its power and position on rights of property and ownership or on classical democratic-republican and constitutional principles, and hence it had no vested interest in preserving or respecting those formalities.
What it did have an interest in was preserving the structures of the advanced economy, the mass state, and the functions they performed, because only so long as the economy and the state depended on the technical skills necessary to their functioning would they also need the managers. The overriding interest of the managerial class, then, was (a) to get rid of the remnants of “bourgeois” society in the form of the limited, neutralist, minimalist state and its slogan of the “rule of law,” as well as the smaller, entrepreneurial forms of business that were not so technical that their owners could not operate them without managerial expertise, and the cultural and social framework in which the bourgeois elites flourished, and (b) to advance and perpetuate the structures — like the corporation and the mass state — that allowed a dominant place for the managers themselves and to construct a new cultural and social framework that would legitimate their dominance of society.
The managerial class, of course, did not gain power all at once, and throughout most of the twentieth century, using the ideology of what came to be known as “liberalism,” it competed on a political and cultural level with its rival, the bourgeois or capitalist class (especially in smaller owner-managed and family firms), which wrapped itself and its interests and values in what came to be known as “conservatism.”
Mr. Hodges’ new book largely accepts this theory, and in doing so he parts company with most of his fellow Marxists, who have never liked Burnham’s analysis. He correctly sees that John Kenneth Galbraith’s “New Industrial State” is mainly a reformulated version of Burnham’s theory and that what Galbraith called the “technostructure” of the corporation is largely identical to what Burnham had called the “managerial class.” Unlike Burnham in his more mature writings, however, Mr. Hodges seems to have remained a fairly conventional economic determinist, and he argues that the corporate managers or technostructure has simply captured the state — not, as Burnham came to see, that the state has evolved its own technostructure that weds or fuses with its corporate siblings.
It is Mr. Hodges’ thesis that what the managerial revolution represents is in fact the triumph of socialism — what he calls “managerial socialism.” Socialism triumphed, in his usage, not because the state expropriated the capitalists or owners but because the managers themselves did so, and the managers’ lack of dependence on property and profit (as opposed to corporate growth) means that they have no fear of the state. On the contrary, they rely on the state for subsidies, fiscal privileges, bailouts, government contracts, and various policy postures that benefit managerial as opposed to entrepreneurial structures.
Mr. Hodges also reviews the intellectual history of managerialism in the United States, tracing it back to Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, which described an emerging public economy similar to what Burnham later predicted, and showing how various theorists of the early twentieth century like Frederick Winslow Taylor, John Dewey, Elton Mayo, Thorstein Veblen, and Simon Patten, among others, shaped the managerial regime that evolved. These writers collectively provided a theoretical framework for the new managerial class that offered instruction on what to do with the mass or non-elite population. That framework envisaged a population stripped of its social and cultural institutions and values and administratively assimilated into the new social patterns imposed by the new class. Patten, for example, “the father of consumerism,” argued that “expanding consumption would compensate the worker for necessary drudgery and keep him on the job.”
It would encourage him to “endure the deprivations of this week in order to secure the gratifications of a coming holiday.” The principal task of education is to integrate him into the life of modern society, “to make him aware of that life, and so to arouse him to participation in it through . . . the amusements and recreations of parks, theatres, ‘Coney Islands,’ [and] department stores.” In the words of Patten’s protege, Rexford Tugwell, “the gains [must] seem to most people . . . to outbalance the losses,” so that they “find relief from otherwise intolerable conditions in higher wages, more leisure, better recreations.”
As Hodges points out, what Patten called “welfare management” “meant a revival of the ancient Roman program, of ‘Bread and Circuses’ . . . By amusing the underlying population, they would contribute to pacifying it,” and “acceptance of both the political and economic systems in America was obtained by fraud rather than by force.”
Mr. Hodges’ book is a useful re-statement of the Burnham thesis and shows that the theory remains valid despite the heap of criticism and even vilification that has been piled upon it. Yet he might have carried it further by discussing how the managerial class dismantles bourgeois and per-managerial culture and social institutions and generates new ones suitable to its own interests.
Because their power and positions depend upon their own acquisition of technical and managerial skills, the managers are unable to emulate ruling classes of the past by creating hereditary structures that can pass their power on to their heirs. Hence, institutions like the family cease to be important to them as power bases, and managerial culture has tended to disintegrate the family structures through both law and social policy as well as through continuous ridicule and delegitimization of it. Nor for that matter do the managers need or want any of the institutions and social identities of pre-managerial civilization in religion, nationality, community, race and ethnicity, or morals. What they demand is centralization and uniformity, which offer blank slates on which their own power and interests can be carved.
But while they cannot pass on their positions and power to their natural heirs, what they can do is perpetuate their power by ensuring that the technical and managerial skills on which their power is based are transmitted. Hence, in place of traditional educational institutions, they create mass universities centered around the scientific and social science curricula that provide training in the skills of the new elite and adapt the educational institutions to the managerial need for the destruction of traditional culture and beliefs. Universities and educational institutions in general, then, under the managerial regime, are not places for acquiring education in the traditional sense but rather factories for the reproduction and perpetuation of the elite itself and its ideological legitimization.
It is possible to quibble with both Burnham’s original formulation of the theory of the managerial revolution and with Mr. Hodges’ reformulation of it, but the theory as a whole explains a great deal about the politics and the cultural history of twentieth century America. Among other things, it helps explain why the American ruling class commits itself to such seemingly suicidal and anti-social behavior as its war on the family, nation, race, and religion (the war is not a sign of decadence but rather of the social needs and interests of an elite that views these social identities as obstacles to its power) and why conservatism has been such a flop (it has ceased to represent a social and political force that can compete effectively with its managerial rivals). Most of all, it helps explain why American politics, in the wake of the managerial consolidation of power in state, economy, and culture and in both political parties, is so sterile, and why neither the “liberal” nor the “conservative” shade of the political spectrum has any serious quarrel or disagreement with the other side. When politics becomes interesting again, it will be a sign that someone or something other than the Ruling Class is beginning to reach for the power that the managers have all but monopolized.
This article was originally published in Chronicles Magazine in September 1997.