Making sense of the global managerial revolution

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Always and everywhere, power attempts to centralize.

In his book “On Power,” the political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel explains that power is always seeking to erode barriers to that process of centralization. In its most organic construction, civilization is formed out of overlapping spheres of social sovereignty. Man is a political animal, and none of us exist in complete isolation but instead find ourselves bound into a web of social dependencies and obligations. The family, church, tribe, guild, and fraternity each make demands on and provide for the needs of their members.

Particular peoples with particular identities and ways of being are the enemy of universalized bureaucratic management.

This network of voluntary and involuntary associations grants us identity and meaning while also providing us with a community within which we can practice virtue. Our dependency on and duty to these spheres sustain and define us, but they also serve as barriers to the centralization of power. Those with very specific familial, religious, and regional identities and obligations are far less likely to follow the dictates of centralized authority. Power must collapse these opposing spheres of power if it is to achieve its goals. Regional authorities, organic identity, and natural hierarchies are all barriers to the centralization of power.

Meeting a massive challenge

In the 1940s, James Burnham introduced the idea that a “managerial revolution” had radically altered the modern state. Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and liberal democracies like the United States may have significant differences, but ultimately each of these states rested on a managerial structure.

After the Industrial Revolution, the paradigm of mass production and mass consumption required a shift in social organization. Large bureaucratic structures were required to meet the logistical, technical, and social challenges of mass society, and those organizations required a new class of experts to operate them.

These mass bureaucratic structures promised a miraculous degree of material abundance. By operating at scale, logistical mastery would generate an enormous degree of wealth through efficiency. To reliably extract this degree of efficiency, the new class of experts would need to apply a standardized set of managerial techniques. Just as the uniformity of cogs in a machine is necessary for the operation of an assembly line, the mass managerial bureaucracy requires universalization to scale the massification of human organization.

In his book “Leviathan and Its Enemies,” the paleoconservative theorist Samuel Francis continued Burnham’s critical work by outlining the process by which the managerial revolution dissolved the competing structures of bourgeois capitalism. While capital had already revolutionized many competing social spheres, managerialism required their complete abolition.

Always and everywhere, power seeks to centralize, and managerialism gains strength through centralization via mass bureaucratic social organizations. Cultural and moral particularity from competing spheres of social sovereignty hinders the uniform application of managerial techniques.

The individual worker who has a large family with many children may be unwilling to devote his entire life to the corporation. The devout Christian may oppose commerce on the Sabbath or the practice of usury. The devout Muslim may require the observance of certain dietary restrictions. An individual whose family has lived in a region for generations may be unwilling to sacrifice the well-being of that particular community in the name of economic efficiency. Particular peoples with particular identities and ways of being are the enemy of universalized bureaucratic management.

From community to dependency

Francis observed that the managerial elite attempt to break down barriers to universal application by homogenizing culture. Hedonistic and cosmopolitan identities are highly malleable, so the managerial elite desire a deracinated population that can be easily manipulated. By replacing dependency on morally and culturally particular structures like family or church with dependency on mass managerial structures like public education or the welfare state, the managerial class can gain power over individuals and separate them from other social spheres.

By focusing on abstract issues, the managerial elite can locate their decision-making centers well outside the nation itself. This makes it almost impossible to hold real power accountable.

Progressive secular humanism, or wokeness, allies with the managerial revolution by disincentivizing the creation of opposing spheres of sovereignty. It stigmatizes family formation and traditional religion, labeling them as low status. Organic identities are replaced with more general and commodifiable identities, which can be consumed and discarded. In the name of liberation, individuals are stripped of every natural duty and dependency, making them entirely reliant on the managerial regime. Without the protection of competing social spheres, deracinated individuals are left defenseless against the state and corporations that demand total allegiance.

In addition to outlining the cultural assimilation required by managerialism, Samuel Francis predicted that its internal logic would compel it to pursue globalization. Managerial structures produce their abundance through large-scale organization, necessitating the continuous expansion of logistical networks. Nations’ boundaries are arbitrary barriers to the mass bureaucratic mindset, and once the managerial elite complete their revolution within their own borders, they will naturally turn outward. New markets mean access to new consumers, natural resources, and laborers, but the revolution is never purely economic.

Managerial regimes find it easier to coordinate with other managerial regimes of the same order, which is why the United States and the wider West have been obsessed with the spread of liberal democracy.

George W. Bush and other conservatives have often been mocked for the idea that at the heart of every nation lies a liberal democracy yearning to be free, but this is simply an extension of the universalism that the managerial revolution demands. Massified national organizations naturally seek to expand their power by becoming international organizations. The World Health Organization, International Monetary Fund, World Economic Forum, NATO, and several other international entities are constantly seeking to add new nodes to the managerial network, creating a loose globalized managerial order without any formal name.

These organizations always emphasize problems of an international scale. Global warming, pandemic response, and world overpopulation are all issues that are too large for any one nation to address on its own. By focusing on large and abstract issues, the managerial elite can locate their decision-making centers well outside the nation itself. This makes it almost impossible for the citizens of that nation to hold real power accountable even as they continue to participate in the democratic process.

McCulture trumps tradition

For the ever-expanding network of managerial bureaucracy to spread profitably into new regions, it must successfully homogenize culture. It is not enough for a culture to become uniform inside a nation; it must become uniform across the entire international network.

The conversion of nations into liberal democracies assists in this process. Democratic elites must introduce mass media, bureaucratic organization, and therapeutic amelioration if they are to achieve the kind of social engineering that is required to maintain power under a system of popular sovereignty.

New democratic leaders in foreign countries thus benefit greatly from connecting their subjects to the global network of managers already established by the West. Mass media begins its work, and McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Apple stores soon follow.

The good news for those who see the nation as the best social organization for human flourishing is that the current managerial order cannot last.

The traditions and history of the nation are slowly worn away as a tide of foreign culture flows in. International organizations become major employers as well as cultural staples and grow in importance until they are so integral to the operation of the country that no one can imagine how they ever got along without them. Managers and personnel flow over borders as naturally as the goods those organizations produce.

The very idea that the people differ in any significant way from those of any other country slowly disappears. No group has claim to any given nation because all nations are now part of the mass managerial network. The managerial elite develop international class interests because their interdependent networks make the nation itself an interchangeable unit.

Managing a government is seen as no different from running an international corporation or a non-governmental organization. All these entities feature similar bureaucratic structures, and managers have an easy time moving between them.

Humans aren’t widgets

Just as it sought to homogenize culture inside its original borders, the global managerial order must break down the particularities of the nations to which it seeks to expand.

This is why wokeness has gone international, with movements like Black Lives Matter gaining traction in countries like England or Ireland where no history of racialized conflict existed. Starbucks is running ads about transgenderism in India for a reason, and it has everything to do with coffee consumption when properly understood. The United States is using gay rights as part of its justification to send billions of dollars in military aid to both Ukraine and Israel.

Progressive secular humanism is the universal acid meant to dissolve all cultural particularity and turn the people of each nation into blank slates onto which managerial techniques can be freely pressed.

The good news for those who see the nation as the best social organization for human flourishing is that the current managerial order cannot last. Humans are not interchangeable widgets. We are not meant to lose our heritage, traditions, religions, and languages for a bureaucratic Tower of Babel.

Like Soviet communism, managerial liberalism has made faulty assumptions about human nature that will doom it. Late-stage managerialism will eventually fall apart. The question is whether Western nations will have leaders ready to guide their people to a brighter future.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a talk delivered on Tuesday, July 9, 2024, at the fourth National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C.

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