James Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World in 1941 to argue that capitalism was waning and being replaced everywhere by managerialism.
He was right.
The term managerialism, though Burnham had good reason to use it, does not sing to us, and is not now as accurate, as we’ll see. I propose instead Expertocracy, the rule of credentialed Experts. (This is far from an original suggestion.) Managers to Burnham were trained men adept at directing people and in understanding the mechanisms of production. To us, however, a manager works at McDonald’s. Experts far better captures the nature of our ruling class.
Burnham lays out the history of feudalism and its transition to capitalism and how technological innovation, in machines and money, overturned the old system like the Blob eating through a company picnic. Money lenders and traders insinuated themselves into feudal culture, gradually making themselves lords and masters of the world. Custom and law became capitalist in nature. The strange concepts of making a profit, loans, interest, free employment and so on became known to all, so much so that nobody now thinks how extraordinary and unusual these are.
Nations and nationalism were the direct result of capitalist encroachment into the ruling class. Parliaments (we call it Congress), representatives of capitalists and capitalism, and not lords and kings, became the dominant ruling bodies, designed to protect capitalist interests and resolve disputes among capitalists.
Because capitalism, like all forms of government, has its weaknesses, it is not universally loved. It did, however, provide enough funds to create a learned leisure class. This was the beginning of the Expert. These Experts went to work designing, in theory, an ideal society. Late in the Nineteenth Century, and into the Twentieth, the bien pensant knew the world would soon spontaneously transform from capitalism to socialism, a complete classless society, a utopia of equality and egalitarianism, a world without elites where the masses would rule themselves. Be careful, because here’s another word that has grown out of its skin. Socialism now roughly translates to Burnham’s managerial economy.
Socialism, in its original definition, was always an Expert fantasy. A classless society would be impossible by definition to enforce (who would do the enforcing?), and only works in theory on infinitely plastic people. Theory is, as we now know, a powerful driver of Expert behavior, a point Burnham had not yet had the opportunity of seeing; indeed, Burnham was unable to disguise his admiration of managers. In any case, because of the love of theory, the idea true socialism and Equality have not left us; they are still aspired to.
Burnham’s approach was, as he emphasizes often, scientific. Though he couldn’t at times resist falling into scientism (who could?), he did his best to predict what would happen, not what he wanted to happen or what he thought was best. He matured this theme in The Machiavellians two years later, by bringing in the ideas of Machiavelli, Mosca, Pareto and others. There, too, he didn’t recognize his, or their, occasional scientism, and tended to be too dismissive of the role religion and metaphysical beliefs play in the elite (they all knew ideology drove the masses). But let that pass.
He started with basic premises of human nature and historical observation—not of words, but of deeds. (The two rarely match.) This allowed him to define basic terms:
A ruling class…means a group of persons who, by virtue of special social-economic relations, exercises a special degree of control over access to the instruments of power and receives preferential treatment in the distribution of the product of these instruments.
There always has been, and therefore we predict there always will be, a ruling class. The masses, except in unusual brief riotous circumstances, are never in charge, and are always willing to be led, grumble as they might.
That, plus the observation that there is always a struggle among men for preeminence is all the “theory” that is needed. From these premises, and some on basic human nature, bolstered by a few simple observations, Burnham deduced the rise of managerialism. Which happened the following way.
In capitalism, the owners did as they wanted with their money, their factories, their land, their employees. Ancient feudal customs and language faded or were repurposed: robber barons, railroad barons. The masses had some liberty to pursue employment without being tied to a specific piece of land. Capitalists could hire and firm whom they pleased, produce what they liked, start and stop their businesses at will, largely free of all restraints except those arising from the machinations of other capitalists.
Gradually, technology and learning increased. Managing people, the science of logistics, and the creation of increasingly complex machines soon required expertise beyond knowing how to shift money around. Many capitalists were unwilling to learn these new skills, so they retired from public life to enjoy their wealth, leaving the running of things to managers.
These managers were expert (small e) and educated (small e), and their ascension to the ruling class was natural. The same people came out of the same universities, where attendance is now de rigueur, went in and out of the same corporations, and in and out of the same bureaucracy and formal government positions.
Loyalties in the ruling class shifted from companies and the nation to the managerial class itself, which became more and more international. Nations still exist, of course, and while there are here and there nationalist resurgences, the trend to large managerial groupings across nations can’t be shaken off. Consider the explosion of grief and fury in the Expertocracy over both Trump and Brexit.
Indicative is a Yale professor taking to the New York Times recently to argue the USA should be governed by international law. Since by definition there can be no such thing in or above sovereign nations, sovereignty must lie outside the nation. Where? What the Yale professor meant is that the Expertocracy—he—should rule. This kind of argument, applied to all areas, will become increasingly compelling.
Burnham thought the transition to managerialism would by now be complete, especially in the forms then evinced in Germany and Russia, which were already then nearly fully managed societies, regardless of the outcome of the war. In The Machiavellians (1943), in a rare blown forecast, he foresaw the USA winning the war, and becoming a military-based managerial society. Again, technology created by capitalists beat out these predictions. We’re still not wholly an Expertocracy. Even so, encroachments of the Expert ruling class into more areas of life continues inexorably.
It is anyway clear capitalism as a force is largely spent. Businesses can no longer hire and fire whom they please. They are subject to Expert-theory-derived quotas of all kinds; regulations without number detail how workers must be treated. And in what they must be given, as if they are mobile serfs. Money cannot be invested without Expert approval.
Businesses cannot be built, physically or monetarily, without meeting requirements from scores of agencies, all staffed with Experts. You also, dear reader, cannot build where you like. If your land develops a puddle, Experts classify it a “wetland”, and subject it to their rule.
Endless examples will come to mind. Indeed, that is the point. We no longer think like those living under capitalism thought. We swim in Expert waters, and like fish, we don’t even know we’re wet.
The parliamentary system which grew with capitalism must continue to fade, and has already faded to a considerable degree. Who declares war today, parliaments or executives? “One after the other,” says Burnham, “the executive bureaus took into their hands the attributes and functions of sovereignty; the bureaus became the de facto ‘law-makers’.” The Expertocracy has also grown outside these structures and inside what we now call Big Tech and Woke Capital. Who banned a sitting President from using the Internet, Congress or Experts? Who regulates speech? The flow of goods? Privacy?
[G]overnment takes over fully, with all attributes of ownership, section after section of the economy both by acquiring already established sections and by opening up either sections not previously existing. There’s little need to examples: postal service, transportation, water supply, utilities, bridges, shipbuilding sanitation, communication, housing, becomes fields of government enterprise.
The Center for Disease Control, an “unelected”, as people like to complain, bureaucracy decreed that landlords could not control their own property and charge rent. This dictate, the result of Expert modeling (a melange of math and alchemy), became de facto law. There is no voting in the Expertocracy in any sense as we used to know it.
The only thing slowing the complete disappearance of capitalism is revolutionary (the word is over-used, but here apt) technology. We can recall when the Internet was not under Expert control. It was like the Wild West: all was allowed. Development was almost solely in the hands of the capitalists (they would never have called themselves that). Innovation kept they baying forces of Expert regulation under control.
It soon arrived, however, as Experts, terrified of the liberty, reined it all in. What was strange was that the capitalists who created the Wild West transformed themselves into Experts, or had their firms invaded by Experts. Naturally, some capitalists learned to identify as Experts. Individual bosses who become Experts know they are not only in charge of this company, but they are themselves in the ruling class. They didn’t see themselves as capitalists, but Experts. This explains how the German Green party received its largest ever donation from a Dutch “tech entrepreneur”, while the second-largest donation in Germany was from a bitcoin investor.
Power is diffuse in an Expertocracy, and less visible. Just who is in charge? Everybody and nobody. We should be worried. Burnham says the combined forces of the old managers and old government will “provide the basis for domination and exploitation by a ruling class an extremity and absoluteness never known before.”
The masses will acquiesce in the removal of ancient liberties, as they do in all things. They hated hearing, at first, that they will own nothing and be happy. Yet soon they will own nothing and be “happy”, where that word will take on a technical, quantitative meaning defined by Experts.
If most people did indeed want peace, plenty, and freedom from all forms of exploitation and tyranny? and if (what is just as necessary, though less often remarked) they also knew the means whereby these were to be got? and if they were willing and courageous and strong and intelligent and self-sacrificing enough to bring about those means to those ends? then no doubt the world would achieve a society organized in such a way as to realize peace, plenty, and freedom. But there is not any evidence at all from past or present history that all three (and all three would be required) of these conditions will be met. On the contrary, the evidence of the analogies from the past and the circumstances of the present is that people will act and wish and hope and decide in ways that will aid in the managerial revolution, in the carrying through of the social transition which will end in the consolidation of managerial society.
As we now see.
One big thing Burnham missed was that journalism rose as a political force under capitalism. In capitalist cultures it was often used as propaganda to wage wars against rivals, and of course to display advertising. Experts have taken it over almost completely now, so that at the top it is almost all propaganda. Experts consolidated journalism to provide one unified voice. They always desire unity in all things within their regional spheres (funny that they call this unity “diversity”).
True capitalism is never coming back, just as true socialism is impossible. The Expertocracy cannot be stopped. It will, within spheres, become increasingly international (China in theirs. USA in its, etc.; though there will be substantial overlap). It will assimilate all things.
The masses will not roil and and recoil against their new masters. They will accept. There will be no voting away of the Expertocracy. The Expert ruling class will allow voting only over limited choices, and if the vote is “wrong”, it will be openly changed or fortified. The idea of voting might remain, but it will be used, like journalism, only to manipulate.
It doesn’t follow necessarily that do be an Expert one must embrace the theory of Equality, or indeed any current theory beloved by today’s Experts. China proves that. This is also obvious especially to the large number of dissidents sufficiently endowed to become Experts, but barred because of theory incompatibility. They seethe under our idiot-effeminate version of the Expertocracy.
They long to displace the Expertocracy, but haven’t yet figured out that to beat them one must join the system. This realization will grow. Dissidents cannot restore capitalism, or even feudalism, but they can conquer the Expertocracy under the Reality flag. Their slogan will be: We must replace their Experts with our Experts.
The road to this takeover is not straight, or even well demarcated. Power in the Expertocracy is diffuse, not concentrated in any one man, or woman, or even in any one small group. This is why replacing one senator with another, or one president with another, of the country or an institution, does so little. The Expertocracy is Hydra without a central head.
So whether dissident Experts get away with capturing enough terriroty, or whether the current Experts, once fully in control, sate themselves with power or grow increasingly tyrannical (say, feminized and effeminate dictatorial Safety Firstism), thus compelling a crisis, we shall see. My money is on the crisis.
Subscribe or donate to support this site and its wholly independent host using credit card or PayPal click here
Update This appeared last night, too late to make it into the post proper. Moldbug/Yarvin says Burnham’s The Machiavellians is a better book than The Managerial Revolution, and this is so. But only because it’s broader and accounts for the thinking of others of like mind. In his suppositions of the rise of the Expertocracy, Burnham was right, as we see.
Yarvin also highlights, and obviously I agree, the diffuse nature of power of the “deep state”, which is best called our Expertocracy.
Video is worth your hour’s time.
Who gave these orders? Who decided that his or her opinion, expertise, and conflicts should be in charge? It was not a single person, not a crazy general or a despicable politician or a dictator, even if political interference in science did happen—massively so. It was all of us, a conglomerate that has no name and no face: a mesh and mess of half-cooked evidence; frenzied and partisan media promoting parachute journalism and pack coverage; the proliferation of pseudonymous and eponymous social media personas which led even serious scientists to become unrestrained, wild-beast avatars of themselves, spitting massive quantities of inanity and nonsense; poorly regulated industry and technology companies flexing their brain and marketing power; and common people afflicted by the protracted crisis. All swim in a mixture of some good intentions, some excellent thinking, and some splendid scientific successes, but also of conflicts, political polarization, fear, panic, hatred, divisiveness, fake news, censorship, inequalities, racism, and chronic and acute societal dysfunction.