After Administration

Do we need a theory of managerial class disintegration? Such an ambitious question can at the least be ventured given our headlines: Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the European Union and the larger rise of the Euronationalist parties, and the questioning of postwar international institutions, to name a few. A productive, Progressive and individualistic society has been predicated on the ability of such elites to manage rationally the interests of all, directing them toward an emancipated and egalitarian future. But belief in this narrative began declining decades ago, with only selfish inertia restraining more pointed attempts to usher it offstage. For that we needed lost wars, embarrassing to national pride, and also a financial crisis that visibly benefitted this same elite while providing only a small tide to lift those swamped by the financial crisis of late 2007 to 2009. The failure of elites was now met with their subjects’ loss of pride and interest in reestablishing what they had lost.

Why did we come to accept managerial rule in the first place?

We should look to the adopted Englishman by way of St. Louis, T.S. Eliot, to understand the dynamic we’re enduring. Eliot describes in his 1948 essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the rise of a system of administrators who set rational standards in industry, education, careers, government, even the arts, that displaced the traditional British class order with all of its virtues and vices. While concerned with British social order, Eliot’s thoughts apply, I think, to modern technical society as a whole. Administrative theory purges the previous class of custodians and inserts a new class of managers. But this elite which leveled the aristocratic order must form its own standards to maintain its rule. What will be the elite standards, and what will this group share in common with the country it rules? Eliot argues that they form an anti-culture and will only share in common with one another the technique of management, i.e., the committee meetings whereby they dominate a society. Believing they deserve their status and the vaulted space they occupy, they have no sense of duty or gratitude to the larger body they rule.

This much might sound familiar, but it’s their ideology—one which alienates the social order from its past—that Eliot insists is the key feature of how the administrative elite weakens a culture. The new class’s assumption is the essential malleability of society that can be shaped by theory without concern for history or culture or actual existing people; instead it serves the pragmatic needs of power, utility, and comfort. More important for Eliot is that the humanities, arts, theology, language, and education that were previously kept in one overarching conversation, formed by a perennial store of symbols, myths, stories, doctrines and embedded meaning, are now rationally separated under the guise of instruction, equality, and a secularizing mentality. It is this separation of the elements of culture and religion that take meaning and purpose from a social order and that liberates its politics from unwritten constraints. The secularizing mentality is a series of negations, Eliot observes, meant to provide energy after the old religion has been cut off. That is, a new set of values must be put in its place, and secularizing enthusiasm ensures that the patient takes the transplanted organ. But did it take?

And the perpetuity of this new elite’s rule makes that rule even more daunting.  We can accept standardization and a certain amount of machinery ruling us, Eliot thought, for a limited time and a definite purpose, wars, catastrophes, etc. But elites being people and thus selfish and provincial, they will try to keep the levers of power in their hands. How? Having achieved their status on the basis of examinations, educational attainment, and ideology it stands to reason that this class, united only by their functions, will find ways to make their position permanent. They will become a new estate, a new class. So they will come to govern inscrutably, striking down challengers as enemies of Progress, the people, and change. Those refusing to wear the veil of scientific morality are accursed because they might see the actual work being done: the separation of man’s deepest longings from the actual resources that might answer them.

In former times, the keepers of culture were not speaking to the people at large in their humane pursuits, but they provided the parameters of order in which graduated levels of cultural participation could take place, on the part of a variety of other members of society. The traditional aristocratic set isn’t necessarily of supreme importance, Eliot underlines, and does not have “more culture than the lower,” but represents “a more conscious culture and a greater specialization of culture.” And while such a claim is, in part, aristocratic, Eliot reminds us how it serves actual human beings who must confront the world as a common people who rule and are ruled, who give and accept reasons for maintaining their social and political order. To egalitarian objections of power-mongering, Eliot argues that equal responsibility would be loathsome for the social order, degrading it as the more deliberate and thoughtful members would be straitjacketed and those more removed from cultural concerns would be irresponsible in their contributions. There is no way around hierarchy, ultimately. But what kind of hierarchy will we have?

Eliot notes the centrality of the family to the succession of culture in this traditional class society. He does not mean by this observation merely the stability of the family (that was assumed), but in language similar to Edmund Burke, Eliot evokes an organic order that receives the past before taking thought as to what will be added:

I have in mind a bond which embraces a longer period of time than this: a piety towards the dead, however obscure, and a solicitude for the unborn, however remote. Unless this reverence for past and future is cultivated in the home, it can never be more than a verbal convention in the community.

Eliot argues that the normative claim for the traditional class society is that culture must be handed down and that this reception is the most important thing in building a home for the unborn. For it provides a repository of experiences that are in time but also timeless, and that have been sanctified by a common history and destiny of a people. The motives provided by such piety are what drive its members to maintain it.

Being is good, life is given and nurtured by love, and these “habits of right feeling” whereby the most important realities are perceived is upheld by, and inheres in, culture. On an existential note, love for the living tradition of one’s culture and the ballast it establishes leads the members of that culture to reproduce. To reject the past, doubt everything, and affirm nothing, save for a constructed future, or to forbid forbidding in the manner of a postmodern theorist, which now is our dominant public teaching, negates the very idea of an inheritance and something to keep, to preserve. It ends in sterility. A fact understood by the vast majority of western nations struggling with below replacement level birthrates, a reality that cannot be wholly explained by taxes and entitlements and high human capital societies that make child-rearing expensive.

After Administration

Eliot, however, wrote during the advent of modern technical society. How does his foreboding hold up? Perhaps the most confining aspect of the elite governance Eliot describes is that it turns us into consumers of experience, subjects who are administered to as opposed to independent men and women who are their own self-governors. The contents of our knowing become lost in the packaging as the expert must instruct the layman in how to regard things, even his very self. The rational expert, then, perpetuates power by use of scientific language that conceals reality through general theories that make man the dutiful subject eager to please, the subject who consumes beings and experiences rather than engage them as they are.

This consent to transfer sovereignty up the chain to the managers is now being rescinded. Where we go from here is hard to predict. A post-managerial society is troubling and could issue in its own authoritarianism. We might loathe the American ruling class while remaining quite unsure of Trump-nation. And we sense the European Union’s managers are really all about their power, and yet back of them is a series of Euro-nationalisms that are also highly problematic. Perhaps, though, this is just the first act—the troubled steps taken by those who again must understand who they are and what they are about. And maybe Trump and Brexit, even the rise of Le Pen, are a mid-course correction that warn us of immense dangers if we stay the current path without heeding the tremendous unpopularity of many post-Cold War norms.

More reflectively, we can wonder if a post-managerial future issues in a period that rhymes with political and cultural power that partakes of our more enduring nature as limited and fallen creatures who live relational lives in particular places and with particular people.

Richard Reinsch

Richard Reinsch is the editor of Law and Liberty.

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  1. gabe says

    Richard:

    Very well said as is the caution of “troubled steps”

    Let us hope that these may be the first steps of a new Awakening.

    Also, I had not known Eliot to be so Burkean!

  2. nobody.really says

    Interesting, if vague, essay.

    Fair enough, we are observing a popular rejection of liberal norms—and, in particular, “post-Cold War norms.” Some of us rejoice in the luxury of enjoying post-Cold War norms, rather than the Cold War norms or hot war norms that preceded them. But others ask, “Nice norms, but what have you done for me lately?” As Reinsch notes at the end of his essay, we make come to appreciate what those norms did for us—once we have lost them.

    It may be worth noting that Elliot wrote in 1948, the apex of US collectivism. Coming out of WWII, it was the era of Big Business, big unions, big patriotism, big newspapers, three TV stations, reverence for experts, re-assertion of gender roles, red-baiting, and WASP dominance. Those who expressed dissent were blackballed, leading the rest of the “Silent Generation” to hold their peace. It is unclear whether Elliot would express the same sentiments in today’s disaggregated world.

    But then, perhaps context matters less than temperament. After all, here we observe Reinsch in today’s context citing Elliot from 1948 and Edmund Burke from the 1700s. Perhaps they simply have what Learned Hand referred to as “a temper, of an attitude towards life; … that mood that looks before and after and pines for what it is not.”

    Except, in this case, it’s a mood that only looks before—that is, fundamentalism.

    Why did we come to accept managerial rule in the first place?

    A fine question. I don’t find an fine answer to accompany it.

    Could the answer be that we accepted it because, its flaws notwithstanding, a system that at least paid homage to meritocracy and rationality proved more appealing for many or most people than the systems it displaced?

    Yes, the choice to throw off the monarchy was a break with tradition, a step into a bold unknown future, but it seems to have suited many people well. The choice to abolish slavery went down badly with many folk, but seems to have gone down well with others. The choice to grant equal rights to women, to defend the interests of disabled, to accord a modicum of respect for gays—all reflected breaches with long tradition, and now all enjoy widespread public support. It is unclear what era Reinsch refers to when we were “independent men and women who are their own self-governors.” Was that during Burke’s era, when most people were subjects of a sovereign king and chattel slavery prevailed? Did it refer to Elliot’s era when the rights of wives were legally subsumed into their husband’s rights, states barely intervened in cases of domestic abuse, and Jim Crow prevailed?

    By citing the success of all these social changes, I don’t mean to deny the social turmoil they provoked and continue to provoke. But that’s the nature of fundamentalism. As Karen Armstrong notes, fundamentalism is not old; rather, it reflects a modern reaction to cope with modernity by appealing to an idealized past, thereby driving a grievance (justified or contrived) against the present. (In this vein, I commend this review of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present.)

    All that said, Reinsch (and Burke and Elliot) make a fair point about the appeal of parochialism and the limits of any kind of impersonal, idealized social order. And who knows? Maybe this lack of traditional social order explains the decline of US birth rates. Alternatively, that decline could reflect the growing prevalence of birth control and the declining demands for labor.

    If you live on a family farm where unskilled labor is prized, it may make sense to have lots of kids. If you live in a city where skilled labor is prized, it may make sense to use your resources to be able to finance lots of education for fewer kids. As more people move into cities, we may simply not need the same labor force we used to need. Consider the decline in birthrates throughout the developed world—including Japan. Is this because Japan has become insufficiently parochial? Or because the labor market has been in recession for decades?

    • gabe says

      Well, being the polished writer that you are, I must acknowledge that, at least, you did not call most Americans “deplorables” – I suppose “fundamentalists” is the best YOU can do – yet, some may find that term equally unsatisfying!

  3. Scott Amorian says

    Beautifully written essay. Thank you for taking the time.

    This makes me think of the problem of conscience, both in the leaders and the subjects.

    The managerial state depends on transparency of actions. When decisions are made fully exposed and under a microscope, the conscience of the decision maker is minimized. How can one choose according to conscience when one is rewarded or punished for every choice?

    A class of the old aristocrats were born, not made in full public view. The aristocrat was made without the machinery of carrots and sticks, so he could act more easily according to conscience. The managerial class not only lives by the machine but is a living part of it.

    Hierarchy cannot be avoided because hierarchy is necessary for order. But to what degree is the hierarchy controlled by the people pulling the levers of the machinery, and to what degree is it a thing of conscience? And to what degree does it follow a healthy conscientiousness?

    A lot of people support Trump because he is not made by the people pulling the levers. He ran his campaign with minimal donations and minimal party support, which means he was more free to act according to his personal conscience. We’ll find out soon how much it trickles down into the federal hierarchy, for better or worse.

  4. R Richard Schweitzer says

    This is a fascinating piece; largely for its inferences about “managers” (as a class), an “elite” in a social order, and the roles of each. It stimulates reactions (best stated as questions, but open to expression of perspectives).

    Who and what are “managers” and what are their various functions in social orders? For some perspective we might look at James Burnham’s ” The Revolt of the Managers;” written about the same time as Eliot’s essay.

    Who comprise the “elite” and what are their characteristics, which make them elite? Do we, in fact, now have an elite?

    From experiences, we observe that social orders, in the natural process of organization, develop “elites.” Looking back over prior periods we can identify and describe characteristics of their memberships; and, to some extent conjecture how they evolved. We might also observe particular functions of those elites and consider whether we may not sometimes err in presuming that in simply performing functions formerly conducted by members of the elite certain persons or groups have the status of an elite.

    Mr. Reinsch postulates that elites “rule.” Another perspective might be that elites do not “rule,” but rather preserve, enforce and provide for alterations of the rules spontaneously generated by the social order of which they are members. That function requires that the sense of obligations of the membership of the elite is always at least marginally greater then their sense of entitlements. From that perspective it would seem important to understand that sense of obligations (and the nature of the obligations themselves).

    From that viewpoint, the fall of the elites begins and accelerates as a sense of entitlements exceeds the sense of obligations, and no new membership can be constructed or arise unless and until it’s membership attains
    a necessary level of a sense of obligations.

    Administrators (in government and public facilities) acting as managers largely function as intermediaries; and while many members of a “managerial class” might aspire to membership in an elite, the nature of their functions do not augur well for that prospect. That is equally true in finance, industry and general business. Little in today’s observations would support an assertion that administrators constitute an elite (although many might aspire to that status).

    What we can take from Eliot’s essay is that the formation of the motivations for a sense of obligations arise in the family and are carried through from ideologies, religion in particular. We might draw the inference that we have not developed a replacement class of elites during the long period of secularization that began at some point in the very early part of the 20th century, and heavily impacted Eliot’s reactions.

    Whether it will require a return to former ideologies and religion, or the development and evolution of new ideologies and beliefs in order to establish a true elite with its true functions remains to be seen. In the meantime we have been observing the splintering of what have been the long evolved rules of the social orders of Western civilization as the previous elites have dropped away and their functions replaced by secularization, intellectualism and rationalization.

    It is perhaps more likely that the continuing fragmentation of social orders in Western civilization have given rise to more roles and functions for administrators and managers at many more levels of human interactions, especially those through governments. That is far more likely than any disintegration of the “managerial class,” whose functions continue to expand.

    • gabe says

      Richard:

      Glad to see your response to Reinsch’s fine essay. I was going to send you a “prompt” to do so but…

      “It is perhaps more likely that the continuing fragmentation of social orders in Western civilization have given rise to more roles and functions for administrators and managers at many more levels of human interactions, especially those through governments. That is far more likely than any disintegration of the “managerial class,” whose functions continue to expand.”

      This last paragraph I especially like as it seems to provide both a clear picture of what has (and is) transpired and provides (although unstated in these two sentences) a link to the cause(s), i.e., a loss of a sense of the obligations that a proper *elite* ought to recognize and feel bound by. Absent that sense, it is entirely likely, and history has shown this to be true, that the participants in the administrator class will soon feel “obliged” to protect only their own *institutional* prerogatives. I call this the “internalities” of Administrative Rule, in contradisctinction to the “externalities” in the private sphere they presume to be able to recognize and alleviate.

      Anyway, thanks again for the clear reminder of what precisely has developed over the course of the last century or so.

  5. Richard ReinschRichard Reinsch says

    Good comments here from everyone. Thank you. I think the something extra that Eliot gives here is the fracturing of society that is executed by a managerial elite. There is nothing really holding a social order together beyond things like equality or instruction toward production and progress. But can a society go just on this? I think there are signs and portents, cracks in the edifice, that indicate we cannot. How we begin to put ourselves back together without the social, moral, and religious capital that we once had is the difficult part.

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      “There is nothing really holding a social order together beyond things like equality or instruction toward production and progress.”

      That is an amazing statement – even if meant for the present social orders.

      At one of her talks Lisa Randall faced the question (on the physics of “matter”) – “How does it all come together?” For all of the questions dealt with at CERN (as we take matter apart) , she said: “That is the BIG question.”

      Did “equality or instruction toward production and progress” bring social orders into existence; are they the only cohesive forces of the social orders? What is the basis for such as assertion?

      Can we not look back over experience and see that sufficient commonalities of individual motivations amongst individuals and groups generate “cultures” ( within the “senses” sought by Eliot); that sufficient commonalities amongst cultures of groups generate social orders; that sufficient commonalities of social orders generate civilizations?

      How can anyone look back at the formation of European Civilization from the fragments of the municipal organization of the late portions of the Classical Civilization and avoid acknowledging the other forces (that certainly did not include “equality” or “education” as essential elements); principal among those forces: the
      evolution of Christian ideology and the Roman Church?

      Then:

      “I think the something extra that Eliot gives here is the fracturing of society that is executed by a managerial elite”

      For those who read that essay some guidance to text (1951 edition) where Eliot infers that a managerial “elite” is executing the fracturing of society would be helpful.

    • nobody.really says

      [T]he fracturing of society … is executed by a managerial elite. There is nothing really holding a social order together beyond things like equality or instruction toward production and progress. But can a society go just on this? I think there are signs and portents, cracks in the edifice, that indicate we cannot. How we begin to put ourselves back together without the social, moral, and religious capital that we once had is the difficult part.

      For sake of discussion, can we identify a specific society that pre-dates the rise of the managerial elites? Then we could evaluate the social cohesion created by that society’s social, moral, and religious capital, and compare it to the cohesion we enjoy today. And we might be able to evaluate how it came to pass that this earlier society was overtaken by the managerial elites.

      Otherwise, I fear we may fall into the intellectual trap of giving undue weight to the tensions of which we are aware—that is, contemporary tensions—and insufficient weight to the tensions of which we are ignorant—that is, tensions of an idealized past. Only by identifying real-life examples can we hope to avoid this pitfall.

      • gabe says

        Hey, fair question / request!

        And yep, there may be a tendency to idealize the past, although I do not believe that Richard is subject to such confusion.

        May I suggest that one looks at the social order(s) of the Babylonians, Hittites, Egyptians, Romans, etc. At a minimum, one will find social enterprises NOT centered upon equality / progress.

        BTW: I read Reinsch’s comment: ““There is nothing really holding a social order together beyond things like equality or instruction toward production and progress.” – as a critique, not an approval, of our current circumstance.

        So I ask: Is our PURPOSE to be productive and make progress?

  6. nobody.really says

    For sake of discussion, can we identify a specific society that pre-dates the rise of the managerial elites?

    May I suggest that one looks at the social order(s) of the Babylonians, Hittites, Egyptians, Romans, etc. At a minimum, one will find social enterprises NOT centered upon equality / progress.

    Ha! I guess this illustrates the point that that Reinsch’s argument is artfully ambiguous. I rather expect he (and Elliot) are talking about some Gilded Age/Downton Abbey era. Or perhaps the era just before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution—when economic growth was almost nonexistent, and so social norms endured much less stress.

    In any event, it would be useful to pick an actual target for comparison, so we don’t waste time in shadow-boxing.

    I read Reinsch’s comment: ““There is nothing really holding a social order together beyond things like equality or instruction toward production and progress.” – as a critique, not an approval, of our current circumstance.

    So I ask: Is our PURPOSE to be productive and make progress?

    I also read Reinsch’s remark as a critique, although perhaps differently than you. That is, I don’t understand Reinsch to oppose production and progress. Rather, I understand him to argue that production and progress are insufficient grounds for social cohesion, because when the economy ebbs, we’ll fall to pieces.

    Then again, maybe I’m just projecting—because these concerns occupy a lot of my attention lately. If you look at the decline of pretty much any empire, economic decline is part of the story. True enough, tribal ties—families, religions, nations, ethnic group, fraternities/sororities, old school ties—sometimes endure even in the face of economic decline. We expect parents to sacrifice themselves for their children. And true enough, meritocracy/market forces erode these loyalties.

    Why is it that both Northern Ireland and South Africa resolved their civil wars without collapsing into a total bloodbath, whereas Iraq could not? At least part of the answer lies in the growing economies that greeted both Ireland and South Africa: People in these countries could find new pursuits to displace their tribal loyalties that fed the cycle of violence and revenge. Social cohesion eroded, displaced by self-interested pursuits—and the byproduct was peace. In contrast, in Iraq there were insufficient opportunities for people to leave their tribal groups and pursue self-interest. So the tribal groups remained cohesive—and the wars raged.

    Economic growth in the West provided the fuel for encouraging people to relax their tribalist instincts and embrace a more internationalist perspective. But as automation, etc., has resulted in an ever more unequal sharing of this growth, people place ever less faith in “the system” and ever more faith in showing solidarity for their respective tribes. Thus we observe the rise of nationalist/tribalist politicians and Brexit. If employment rates were booming throughout the West, only the racists would be objecting to an influx of educated Syrians to bolster their nation’s wealth.

    If the labor market recovers—or if a plague/war wipes out a large chunk of the labor force–nations will rue the day they turned away this supply of young laborers. But until then, tribalism will reign because it’s what we do when we’re feeling threatened.

    In sum, I suspect that Reinsch is observing a result–that tribalism grows after social disintegration—and drawing a romanticized conclusion that embracing tribalism earlier we could ward off this disintegration.

    Tribalism is ballast: you need it to keep your ship from blowing over in the wind. We can disagree about how much ballast we need—about whether winds have grown stronger, or whether new ship designs make them tippier, etc. But Reinsch’s essay suggests that we should design ships for the purpose of maximizing the ballast they can carry. I embrace the opposite view.

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