“Know Thy Enemy”: The Managerial Revolution and the Future of Conservatism | Robert Masterson

“I remember discussing with Sam many times the American Right’s apparent lack of curiosity about the socio-historical nature of its political circumstances. No one ever seems to wonder or explore why the Left is ascendant culturally and politically, while the Right (or at least the real Right) is consigned to the powerless fringe. The Right lacks a pathology to explain the power of its opponents—and shows no interest in finding one.” 

Jerry Woodruff, introduction to Samuel Francis’s Leviathan and its Enemies. 

One of the reasons why the left has been so successful in its endeavours is that they have at their disposal methods of examining and critiquing their surroundings. Marxism, for all its flaws, is a cogent historiography that understands the nature of power in a certain way, tracing the development of capitalism back through time in order to inform a critique of the present as well as a vision of the future. This not only allows it to grasp what it is up against but also how to defeat it on its own terms. As an added bonus, it is also incredibly easy to explain to a layman, at least at the most superficial level: the capitalists exploit the workers and must be overthrown to bring about a more equal society, this is the destined course of history. Of course, there is more to it than that, but in just one brief sentence anyone can grasp the premise; talks of dialectical materialism, class consciousness, or dictatorship of the proletariat, etc. certainly deepen one’s understanding, but ultimately lead back to the same conclusion. Whether one agrees with Marxism, or if its conclusions are valid or not, is irrelevant, those who follow it have the benefit of a strong intellectual framework, expanded upon by countless writers and academics since Marx and Engels themselves, from which to instigate political action. 

For one reason or another, the right seems to struggle with this. Those of an individualist streak insist that because people are fundamentally rational and have total agency over their circumstances, analysing power structures is essentially fruitless, as the position which one finds themselves in is, for the most part, their own responsibility. Others are hesitant to formulate a “critical theory”, if you will, as conservatives tend to see their role as preservers of values and institutions, with questioning them tantamount to heresy. It is why, particularly from the outside, we can be seen as lackeys of the status quo, which is of course a huge oversimplification. Since 2016, the consequences of his deficiency have made themselves apparent. 

The collective dismay from virtually every powerful institution across the globe when Britain chose to leave the EU and America voted Donald Trump into the White House prompted intense debate over the noticeable gulf of values between our leaders and the “ordinary people” they are supposed to represent. The terms “liberal elite” or “metropolitan elite”, whilst not by any means new, took prominence in mainstream discourse, and whilst they certainly allude to the root of the problem, they lack the kind of depth that a coherent theory of political power requires if it wants to go anywhere. It provides no answers to the questions of where this elite came from, why it holds progressive values, how it has infiltrated not just government but every institution in society, and why, despite the Conservatives in Britain having been in government for over a decade, this elite seem to keep on winning. 

Perhaps the worst part is that the mainstream right, the ones who are closest to any sort of power, seem to have declared victory over the liberal metropolitan elite. We got Brexit, based BoJo won a landslide, the Labour Party is in decline, we’re making Britain great again! Yet the so-called “woke agenda” (which they seem utterly incapable of doing anything about) is still pervasive, the concerns of the disaffected still haven’t meaningfully been dealt with, and the dominance of liberal progressivism over society has survived the populist uprising unscathed. The elite hasn’t gone anywhere; if anything, it can breathe a sigh of relief that people are satisfied with their superficial victories and are slowly starting to forget about it. 

Samuel Francis was among many who were also baffled by the rights apparent inertia when it came to understanding its constant defeats. When he began work on Leviathan and its Enemies in around 1995, it was a particularly bleak time for American conservatism. Indeed, in Beautiful Losers, published one year prior, he argued that the 1992 presidential election would be the demise of conservatism as an influential movement for the foreseeable future. The same could have been said of Britain post-1997, as New Labour swept into office and undertook the most destructively progressive government agenda in our history, with the Conservative Party during this time little more than a footnote. Leviathan and its Enemies present itself as a study to understand how it got to this point. It drew inspiration primarily from James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, which is in itself a conservative classic. Considering both works, and the “managerial revolution” more closely, there is an argument to be made that they resonate greater now than they did when they were written, and provide a thought-provoking entry point for a uniquely right-wing theory of political elites, from which to build a political movement. 

The Managerial Revolution

Burnham began by proposing that capitalism cannot be treated as permanent. Perhaps owing to his early years as a Trotskyist, he argued that no political or economic system possesses any inherent guarantee of longevity. The Marxist position is similar, their view of history as “dialectical materialism” is based on the premise that contradictions caused by class conflict ultimately leads to the overthrow of one ruling class by its discontents and the subsequent advancement of society. Where Burnham diverged was at the step after capitalism. Whilst Marxists believed the next logical phase of societal development is socialism, as the result of the proletariat revolting against the bourgeoise, Burnham foresaw a future that was neither capitalist or socialist. To understand why, we must first consider the nature of the bourgeoise. 

The early entrepreneurial bourgeoise operated at the small-scale localised level, their power bases limited to the communities in which they were situated. Indeed, most of them grew up in them, holding a sense of loyalty which was reciprocated by the locals who often saw them as a source of pride, as well as recognising their positive contributions to the community. Rather than exploitative slave-masters of the downtrodden, as Marxists like to portray them, the small-scale bourgeoise often employed few workers, almost exclusively drawn from the local area, and were either totally or majority responsible for the management of their enterprises; those who owned their businesses also controlled them. Furthermore, despite its “elite” position, the bourgeoise’s ability to expand its control of society was not only contained by its localist character, but also by what Bertrand de Jouvenel calls “social authorities.” 

Social authorities are autonomous, organically formed sources of power which exist outside the remit of the state. These include religious institutions, community organisations, and the family unit; whilst they may overlap to a degree, functionally they operate independently of each other. Competing social authorities all separately claim a level of allegiance from the individuals within society, creating a balance of power which means that no single one of them can form a monopoly of people’s loyalties and dominate the others. As a result, the bourgeoise constantly had to negotiate with them, tempering any expansionist ambitions it might have had. For example, owing to the small-scale bourgeoise, as already mentioned, being tied to the communities they emerged from, as well as their deep religious belief and family values, they have prevented them from totally committing to economic rationalism and the pursuit of profit and expansion at all costs.

However, this state of affairs did not last forever, as technological progress and population growth necessitated an increase in the size of virtually all aspects of life. This “revolution of mass and scale” meant the limited production of the small-scale bourgeoise was insufficient to cater to the needs of a rapidly expanding society, and would have to evolve with it. Naturally, as things get larger, they become more complex and harder to control, eventually reaching a point where the skills of the individual bourgeois entrepreneur are no longer sufficient to administer their now vast enterprise. Consequently, they must delegate these responsibilities to their “managers”, technically skilled professionals who possess the specific knowledge and training required to perform the administrative functions of mass organisations. Nominally, the managers are subservient to will of the bourgeoisie, but in the age of sole-proprietorship, hiring two managers means the person supposedly in charge is already outnumbered. As the revolution of mass and scale continues with never-ending pace, the quantity of managers increases, and the bourgeoise is eventually swamped by the sheer number of them. This severs “ownership” from “control”, as whilst an entrepreneur may own a company, they are constantly delegating to and relying on their managers, and in doing so, handing genuine control over its direction to them. Once the “locus of sovereignty” has fully shifted away from the bourgeoise to the managers, the former is replaced as the ruling class by the latter, not through violent uprising but a slow, orderly “managerial revolution.” 

Francis noted reasonable objections to this position, which accepts that the managers have increased influence in production, but insists that the bourgeoisie remain the dominant class of society. This is a valid point, as many considered to be part of the bourgeoisie still remain in highly prominent positions. However, just as remnants of the feudal aristocracy remain, no one would seriously argue they have any meaningful influence on the direction of society. As Francis explains, the bourgeoisie now live in a “gilded cage”, constrained by their dependence on the managers but still afforded wealth and celebrity. Those among them who wish to maintain an element of control must, by very definition, become a manager, in which case they will no longer propagate the values of the bourgeoise, which is only logical as they no longer belong to it. Unfortunately for most of them, they will eventually be ousted and replaced by diffused, stakeholder ownership.

At this point, some may be thinking this all sounds fairly innocuous. After all, if society grows and becomes more complex as a result, then surely it is logical for a new elite, with the skills required to administer it, to arise. This much is true, but deeper consideration reveals that the managerial revolution is not simply an amoral evolution of capitalism, but as Burnham originally suggested, a new form of society moulded in the image of a self-interested elite. 

The revolution of mass and scale was not exclusive to the previously small-scale bourgeois enterprises. Growth of the mass state, mass media, mass culture, mass education, and even mass democracy all demanded managerial expertise, thereby placing the managers in control of virtually every aspect of modern society. Mencius Moldbug calls this “The Cathedral”, a situation where all societal institutions are controlled by one elite, the managerial elite, and as a result will co-ordinate their various functions towards common goals and converge on a single ideology. Instead of the competing social authorities described by Jouvenel keeping each other in check, all authorities are under command of the same class, with the common people and their previously separate loyalties now totally dependent on them. Therefore, managerialism is not simply a question of big government or big corporate, but a consideration of how the revolution of mass and scale has eroded the differences between them to the point where it no longer matters. 

Burnham, as evidenced by his later book, was a staunch “Machiavellian”, a realist who believed politics could be reduced down to various elites vying for power, anything else is merely an extension of this. Political ideologies and policies, whilst they may bring some benefits to people outside the elite, are nothing but a tool to this end. It was this which troubled George Orwell, who in his review of Burnham’s works was concerned by his obsession with power above all else. Indeed, he was heavily influenced by Italian elite theorists Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, who argued that every society, no matter how democratic or egalitarian it claims to be, is ruled by a small minority class. They sought to understand the many ways in which dominant elites maintain their position, and ideology is one of these methods. Francis expanded on this, taking inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “bourgeois hegemony”, the idea that capitalism dominates the culture of society, and manipulating the behaviour of those within it to support capitalism, as well as instilling hostility to radical ideas such as Marxism. The managerial elite is no different, and just as the feudal aristocracy and the bourgeoisie utilised ideologies that propagated certain values to justify their position of power when they were the ruling class, so do the managers.

The aristocracy were land based and hereditary, and as such emphasised the importance of hierarchy and loyalty to perennial customs. The bourgeoise were small-scale producers and were all about “rugged individualism” and the benefits of hard work and restraint from indulgence. The managers are in many ways unique, in the sense that they are rootless. Instead of their power being inhered in a hereditary lineage, land, or a personally crafted enterprise, it comes from their ability to perform technical functions. These skills are acquired through the appropriate training, given to them by other managers, and qualifications which allow them to perform them, also given to the other managers. Due to managerial expertise being applicable to any mass organisation, the character of the organisation itself is soundly irrelevant to them; if it were to collapse, they could simply move on to another one. Think of the countless number of politicians who retired from politics to take up cosy jobs in banks or NGOs, and of course those in the private sector who transferred seamlessly into the world of politics. Consequently, the managerial elite is innately inclined against perseveration, as they must expand the demand for the deployment of their expertise in order to justify their position of power; hence the reason why they favour progressive ideologies. 

Indeed, central to most progressive philosophies is the idea that increasing material comfort is the path to a better society. The end product of Marxism, communism, is supposed to be a state of “post-scarcity”, where everyone has access to whatever they desire. Furthermore, the much-vaunted principles of progressivism do not occur naturally in society, and can only be brought about through intervention. Equality for example (which, notably, is a concept as intangible as the authority of the managers) can only be brought about by artificially levelling opportunities and outcomes. The managerial elite, the ones technically capable, and as the producer of consumer goods and services, are more than happy to assist in achieving these aims, but it comes at a cost. 

If the managers are to apply their skills to wider society in order to achieve progressive ends, it must resemble the mass organisations they originated from to ensure the smoothest delivery possible. It should be orderly and efficient, with obstacles to the growth of the demand for the services of the managerial elite eliminated. Religion for example encourages modesty, and actively rallies against excesses of materialism and greed. To the managers, this limits an individual’s consumerist potential, which if unleashed is essentially boundless; in reality, this translates into the potential for boundless dependence on the managerial elite.  

Historically, Francis noted that the New Left was a perfect opportunity for the managerial elite to dominate society. Up until the 1950s, the ambitions of the managerial elite were halted somewhat by a broadly socially conservative morality, which put it in a phase of consolidation. In the 60s however, the openness of morality breathed new life into the managerial regime, as the “bourgeois morality” such as deferred gratification, sexual abstinence, and modesty was soundly rejected in favour of hedonism, instant gratification, and a hippie mentality of “peace and love.” The irony, according to Francis, is that the Marxist influence of the New Left convinced them they were tearing down the bourgeois elite, unaware that they were no longer the dominant class in society. In doing so, they were playing into the hands of the managerial elite, both of whom had a share interest in the destruction of bourgeois morality. 

When people are detached from all moral and spiritual values, when they are told that owning their own property and keeping the fruits of their labour is selfish, that having a family is a ridiculous responsibility or that life is fundamentally meaningless, and they are stripped of their unique characteristics in order to appear “equal”, they become what progressive thinkers are so keen for them to be: a blank slate. Rather than liberating them, this merely provides an opportunity for the widespread mechanisation of society in the image of the managers. Consumerism, hedonism, cosmopolitanism, and freedom from any kind of restraint does not mean that people are therefore free from authority, they have simply shifted their dependence from other social authorities onto the managerial elite, which provides them with artificial, pre-packaged identities formed through no reference to the individuals themselves. It essentially places perfectly capable adults in a perpetual state of childhood, who in return for their servitude are sedated by an unending stream of consumer products designed to fry their dopamine receptors and pass as many responsibilities as they can onto the managers. As a wise man once described the crisis of the modern world: “don’t ask questions, just consume product and get excited for next product.”

The Future of Conservatism

This was only intended to be a brief overview of the theory of the managerial revolution (for more information I would highly recommend reading The Managerial Revolution, Leviathan and its Enemies, as well as Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State) to showcase one of the many potential sources the right could draw from in order to form a coherent analysis of the political elite it knows is there, but hasn’t quite articulated fully, at least in the mainstream context. The theory is certainly not perfect, but it helps us to understand why, despite the apparently conservative nature of power, modern elites are so progressive. Perhaps more significantly, it also begs many introspective questions which the right must answer going forward.

Is managerialism an inevitable consequence of capitalism? Capitalism is a contentious issue for conservatives; some see it as fundamental to our values, others, myself included, see it as a source of corruption. If managerialism is a product of the revolution of mass and scale, can those who support mass capitalism accept the consequences of this? Or is there a way to prevent it? If so, would this require the use of force to prevent the propagation of progressive values, or a more radical position of “de-growth” to return to the values of small-scale entrepreneurial bourgeoise?

Do we continue to defend institutions that, now under the control of the managers, no longer uphold the values they once did? The conservative tendency is to preserve, particularly long-standing institutions which have been part of our culture for countless generations. However, if they are no longer upholding these values, and more often than not, actively denigrating them in favour of their own, then are we being tricked into defending the power of our enemies because they maintain some auspices of traditionalism?

If we do decide to maintain these institutions, how do we go about re-aligning them when the problem is systemic, not confined to the instruments of power? If we were to go about dismantling the entire Cathedral, how do we begin to go about it? Recent history has already proven that getting elected into office is not enough. Donald Trump, who was supposedly the most powerful man in the world promised to “drain the swamp”, and the Conservative Party have been in government since 2010, yet the managers are far from dislodged. As they have control of every single powerful institution, re-securing the state alone will not be enough. The final consideration I will make in this regard is, if mainstream conservatism is insufficiently opposing the managerial elite, what is the alternative? 

Perhaps all I have done here is raise more questions and found no answers, I wouldn’t blame anyone for thinking as such. In my defence, difficult questions are arguably better when the answers are carefully considered over time. Unless the question is, “what do you want for breakfast?” However, there are some things I can say with certainty. We should not be squeamish about using our proud intellectual lineage to form ideological frameworks similar to those of our opponents; after all, if “Cultural Marxism” is winning, it must be doing something right. As Sun Tzu famously said, “Know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

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