Review – Burnham, “The Managerial Society”

James Burnham, “The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World” (1941) – Who does half smart like a renegade Trotskyite? From what I can tell of his biography, James Burnham didn’t come to Trotskyism the way you think a political figure born in the first decade of the twentieth century might- after becoming a communist and growing disgusted by Stalinism. No, he went in for Trotskyism directly as a young man, even got to know Leon Trotsky a little. He was a bright young intellectual New Yorker with an eye for power, and something told him Trotskyism was it. This isn’t a diss on Trotsky or his ideology, but on Burnham, when I say that shows he wasn’t as bright as he thought he was. There could be an infinity of reasons to become a Trotskyite and power ain’t one.

I guess Burnham figured that out and went all the way rogue by the time he published this in 1941. “The Managerial Revolution” proceeds according to a parody of the ruthless logic of the two figures Burnham most cribbed from, Trotsky and more than his old mentor Machiavelli. He somewhat gets the ruthlessness, performs it well enough for his audience of little magazine readers (back when little magazines were bigger). The logic eludes him. He tracks a real change in the world but gets the valences wrong, and makes classic mistakes like putting too many chips on prognostications that would play out while he still lived. Above all, he makes the classic mistake of assuming everyone — everyone with thinking about, anyway — thinks like him, all schemes, power, maps, org charts.

The basic point is simple enough- capitalism will be replaced, is being replaced as Burnham writes, by managerialism. Capitalism was/is rule by the bourgeoisie, defined by ownership of capital; managerialism is rule by managers, defined by their managing complex enterprises. Increasing size and complexity of organizations, along with the failures of capitalism, made the rise of the managers inevitable. Governments would be their tool- state management of the economy obviously being more efficient, as shown by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the New Dealers or some other bunch would show the way in America and that would be that for capitalism. In keeping with his Machiavelli schtick, “this isn’t how I like it, it’s just how it is,” Burnham repeatedly avers throughout the book.

The rise of management as a field, separate from ownership, is an important phenomenon and it’s well worth thinking about what it does to the class dynamic. That said, it seems people who think about it too much tend to overdramatize it- not just Burnham, also thinking here of the people who took the discourse of the “professional managerial class” from Milovan Djilas’ Yugoslavia to dirtbag left podcasts. It makes sense. Managers are bosses in a way owners don’t have to be, and bosses are annoying. But managers weren’t just annoying in Burnham’s time- they seemed like the future. All the stuff you could do with big bureaucracies, with the technology that you needed experts to invent and maintain and bureaucracies to direct, it was all over the place at the time. 1941 is also when the Nazis seemed at their most impressive, post taking over France, pre-Stalingrad.

You still need big bureaucracies and institutions to do a lot of things. Managers, their thought and their place in the class structure, are still important. But it seems like Burnham committed the classic mistake of assuming a static set of subject and object relations (which Machiavelli generally did not- and neither did Marx, Lenin, or Trotsky). Capitalism has proven quite capable of incorporating the wants and needs of managers, who displayed little in the way of class consciousness- what little they had aimed down, not up. Owners haven’t completely ceded the field of management yet. And while they wouldn’t exist without big complex institutions like governments and investment banks behind them, Burnham lived to see that small enterprises, like tech companies, could accomplish a lot. Indeed, the moral/political core of a lot of technical/organizational thought that came after Burnham ignored class distinctions in favor of thinking about whether technologies trended big — think steel foundries or auto manufacturing plants — or small: personal computers and the acid blotter (not that the former work without microprocessors made in giant expensive plants but that’s design thought for you).

Burnham would continue his rightward trajectory into friendship with William Buckley and become an editor at National Review. You have to wonder what ol’ Bill thought of this guy and his rejection of the free market- my understanding is that he didn’t come around to liberal economics for quite some time. I guess “anticommunism makes strange bedfellows,” as James Ellroy said. Or maybe not so strange. The managerialism critique, the idea that our capitalism isn’t really capitalism, that it’s some imposter just pretending, has a powerful attraction on defenders of capitalism tasked with explaining the system’s failures. It’s really the fault of — those people — who think they’re so damned smart, that they can just manage everything, not anything wrong with the system… this has legs, both for standard conservatives and for those who make the leap of “those people” meaning “the Jews.”

In any event, Burnham’s radical years left him with enough rigor to make this less painful to read than a lot of my readings on the right. I could follow along with it relatively well even when he was crashingly wrong, like predicting an Axis victory. It’s more of an odd artifact, the granddaddy of a meme that blobs around the noosphere, acting as a placeholder for critical thought, than anything insightful on its own. ***’

Review – Burnham, “The Managerial Society”

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