Management At the Gates: Several Years Reflections on James Burnham

Section 1: The Calculus of a Class

So I was re-reading the James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution by George Orwell, I do not need to remind my readers that all the right-wing American love for Orwell and his work on the blacklists. Orwell was sort of socialist, although it is hard to say if he was a fading between a soft nationalism in Social Democracy or was some sort of Trotskyist. It is clear, however, he took James Burnham seriously. Now, we also have the fact that Burnham was an ex-Trotskyist who worked for the National Review after predicting a victory for fascism in the 1940s. Indeed, Burnham fascilated Shachtman’s break with Trotsky, which splittered the Trotskyite left into a thousand pieces for decades and arguably paved the way for Neo-conservatism. That is something that paleo-conservatives and Marxists tend to agree on. So he is problematic to say the least, yet Orwell points something out about the first part of Burnham’s first book:

Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralized society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic. The rulers of this new society will be the people who effectively control the means of production: that is, business executives, technicians, bureaucrats and soldiers, lumped together by Burnham under the name of ‘managers’. These people will eliminate the old capitalist class, crush the working class, and so organize society that all power and economic privilege remain in their own hands. Private property rights will be abolished, but common ownership will not be established. The new ‘managerial’ societies will not consist of a patchwork of small, independent states, but of great super-states grouped round the main industrial centres in Europe, Asia, and America. These super-states will fight among themselves for possession of the remaining uncaptured portions of the earth, but will probably be unable to conquer one another completely. Internally, each society will be hierarchical, with an aristocracy of talent at the top and a mass of semi-slaves at the bottom.

In his next published book, The Machiavellians, Burnham elaborates and also modifies his original statement. The greater part of the book is an exposition of the theories of Machiavelli and of his modern disciples, Mosca, Michels, and Pareto: with doubtful justification, Burnham adds to these the syndicalist writer, Georges Sorel. What Burnham is mainly concerned to show is that a democratic society has never existed and so far as we can see, never will exist. Society is of its nature oligarchical, and the power of the oligarchy always rests upon force and fraud. Burnham does not deny that ‘good’ motives may operate in private life, but he maintains that politics consists of the struggle for power, and nothing else. All historical changes finally boil down to the replacement of one ruling class by another. All talk about democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity, all revolutionary movements, all visions of Utopia, or ‘the classless society’, or ‘the Kingdom of Heaven on earth’, are humbug (not necessarily conscious humbug) covering the ambitions of some new class which is elbowing its way into power. The English Puritans, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, were in each case simply power seekers using the hopes of the masses in order to win a privileged position for themselves. Power can sometimes be won or maintained without violence, but never without fraud, because it is necessary to make use of the masses, and the masses would not co-operate if they knew that they were simply serving the purposes of a minority. In each great revolutionary struggle the masses are led on by vague dreams of human brotherhood, and then, when the new ruling class is well established in power, they are thrust back into servitude. This is practically the whole of political history, as Burnham sees it.

There is a problem presented to simple class taxonomies that have been glossed over by many Marxists and, honestly, is part of why Marxism has had such a hard time since the 1980s: the capitalist owners of production in the West are diffused, they are not so much a class as bond-holders spread-out through both the wealthier sections of the working class, old capitalists, and investors. The CEO is often rich in commodity and capital that the de jure capitalist, yet the CEO is technically managarial wage labor. In the post-industrial West, this is something like labor aristocracy rid large. Now the interesting that is that Marxian political economy still functions pretty much in a textbook manner as people like Andrew Kliman have shown, but the class taxonomies entirely work in the way they did when capital was first written. So there is something to Burnham’s thesis about the managerial class. Yet Burnham seems to take glee in the rise and dominance of the managerial class–in fact, if one looks at the history of neo-conservatism, they opted to BECOME the managerial class of the GOP establishment from a “liberal faction” in the GOP in the Nixon years until the near end of the Bush fiasco. Orwell points out an important problem in Burnham:

The notion that the machine has altered human relationships, and that in consequence Machiavelli is out of date, is a very obvious one. If Burnham fails to deal with it, it can, I think, only be because his own power instinct leads him to brush aside any suggestion that the Machiavellian world of force, fraud, and tyranny may somehow come to an end. It is important to bear in mind what I said above: that Burnham’s theory is only a variant – an American variant, and interesting because of its comprehensiveness – of the power worship now so prevalent among intellectuals. A more normal variant, at any rate in England, is Communism. If one examines the people who, having some idea of what the Russian régime is like, are strongly russophile, one finds that, on the whole, they belong to the ‘managerial’ class of which Burnham writes. That is, they are not managers in the narrow sense, but scientists, technicians, teachers, journalists, broadcasters, bureaucrats, professional politicians: in general, middling people who feel themselves cramped by a system that is still partly aristocratic, and are hungry for more power and more prestige. These people look towards the U.S.S.R. and see in it, or think they see, a system which eliminates the upper class, keeps the working class in its place, and hands unlimited power to people very similar to themselves. It was only after the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it. Burnham, although the English russophile intelligentsia would repudiate him, is really voicing their secret wish: the wish to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip. Burnham at least has the honesty to say that Socialism isn’t coming; the others merely say that Socialism is coming, and then give the word ‘Socialism’ a new meaning which makes nonsense of the old one. But his theory, for all its appearance of objectivity, is the rationalization of a wish. There is no strong reason for thinking that it tells us anything about the future, except perhaps the immediate future. It merely tells us what kind of world the ‘managerial’ class themselves, or at least the more conscious and ambitious members of the class, would like to live in.

Fortunately the ‘managers’ are not so invincible as Burnham believes. It is curious how persistently, in The Managerial Revolution, he ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country. At every point the evidence is squeezed in order to show the strength, vitality, and durability of Hitler’s crazy régime. Germany is expanding rapidly, and ‘rapid territorial expansion has always been a sign, not of decadence . . . but of renewal’. Germany makes war successfully, and ‘the ability to make war well is never a sign of decadence but of its opposite’. Germany also ‘inspires in millions of persons a fanatical loyalty. This, too, never accompanies decadence’. Even the cruelty and dishonesty of the Nazi régime are cited in its favour, since ‘the young, new, rising social order is, as against the old, more likely to resort on a large scale to lies, terror, persecution’. Yet, within only five years this young, new, rising social order had smashed itself to pieces and become, in Burnham’s usage of the word, decadent. And this had happened quite largely because of the ‘managerial’ (i.e. undemocratic) structure which Burnham admires. The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the U.S.S.R. while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.

So where does that leave us? Democracy? Paul Mattick had some interesting criticism of Burnham too:

“Liberty” is possible only, he says, if no single force among the various “social forces” enumerated by Mosca becomes strong enough to swallow up the rest. To be sure, he admits that present-day development tends to destroy the basis for social opposition. Nevertheless, he is not “yet convinced that freedom … is impossible.” Private-capitalist property rights in the instruments of production, even under trust and monopoly conditions, he says, “were a sufficient fragmentation of economic power to provide a basis for liberty.” Complete state control of all economic power destroys this basis. But one does not need to defend the first in order to prevent the second, for there are other means than capitalist property rights to prevent centralization. The state itself, Burnhan suggests vaguely, could be decentralized or organizations along syndicalist and corporative lines could be instituted.

To make the defense of Machiavellian “democracy” more to the taste of the non-elite, Burnham discovers finally that “through a curious and indirect route by way of freedom, we return to self-government, which we were unable to discover by any direct path.” The existence of an opposition in society, he says, indicates a cleavage in the ruling class. In a society with public opposition, the conflict within the ruling class cannot be solved within the ruling class itself. Since rule depends upon the ability to control the existing social forces, the opposition seeks to draw forces to its side. It must promise certain benefits to various groups and, when in power, it must keep some of these promises. And thus the “masses, blocked by the iron law of oligarchy from directly and deliberately ruling themselves, are able to limit and control, indirectly, the power of their rulers.” This tricky business is, of course, only another formulation of Hegel’s “cunning of reason” and of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.” And under certain circumstances these ideas contain some truth, for the absence of regulation is itself a kind of regulation, and the various limitations that beset the actions of the ruling class give to its behavior a certain direction. Yet it is plain nonsense to say that the masses control their rulers because they are controlled by them.

To make promises and to keep promises are two different things. At times the former “Marxist” in Burnham recognizes that “the general pattern of social development is determined by technological change and by other factors quite beyond the likelihood of human control.” At other times, however, he forgets that there are objective limits to the actions of men and the actions of elites. At any rate, he does not trouble himself to find out in what situations the life-conditions of the non-elite may be improved by way of the struggle between the out-elite and the in-elite, and under what conditions the struggle of elites is unable to affect the life of the masses in other ways than negative ones. But without such concrete investigation, the idea of the “indirect rule” of the masses can serve only ideological purposes. It sweetens the “bitter truth” that masters there must be, and it soothes the conscience of the elite which, after all, appears now as the servant of the people.

Burnham fundamentally resists this by trying to view class in terms of politics and not production, but the taxonomic problems Burnham saw didn’t go away.

November 11, 2011


One of the haunting things that Burnham really hits you on is that the capitalist class is largely irrelevant to the functioning of the system. In fact, capital ownership is so diffuse that outside of the .01%, mostly in the financial sector, and the CEO’s who serve them, we have no idea who is clearly the target: it is has true this is a problem as it makes the focal point of class rage generally aimed at abstractions such as corporations. While corporations have legal person-hood, you can’t put a corporations head on a pike. Furthermore there are some other instances one must look at honestly: the hyper-specialization of labor was not just a function of ideology, although this is true, but this relationship between the material states of technology and the division of labor lead one quickly to realize that the “socialist man” will not overcome the specialization of knowledge required in advanced technology any more than capitalist man does without rejecting or re-purposing  most modern technology. This, however, assumes that such technologies would retain their current form or that specialization implies hierarchical relations in the totality.

Burnham was profoundly accurate on that problem: technology and spatial dynamics are not new to Marxian thought. Indeed, Marx writes almost rapturously on this in Das Kapital , but it seems like the way the material transactions play out seems to limit the possibility that one can apply easily the understanding of Marx from the 19th century. Yet, the crisis of capital do seem to still function: the business cycle remains unresolved and most ways out of that cycle seem to involve massive destruction of capital and human lives. Austrian economists, the most pernicious school of modern economics, point out that war is merely the destruction of capital, but the raw logic of competition makes this clear. All naive descriptions of capitalism seem to point out that competition is both zero sum but also blank without preferences for supply lines, means of crushing competition early, and strategic manipulation through public relations and outright collusion.

Yet why where Burnham’s political analysis so wrong in the geo-politics of world war 2? Well, Burnham may have been right about the change of the change of class, but many of his foundational assumptions were flat wrong. For example:

Only the hopelessly naive can imagine that France fell so swiftly because of the mere mechanical strength of the Nazi war machine – that might have been sufficient in a longer run but not to destroy a great nation with a colossal military establishment in a few weeks. France collapsed so swiftly because its people had no heart for the war – as every observer had remarked, even through the censorship, from the beginning of the war. And they had no heart for the war because the bourgeois ideologies by which they were appealed to no longer had power to move their hearts. ( p. 34 of the Managerial Revolution)

Yet it is the bourgeois ideology that produced the technological state in which the Burnham’s managerial “revolution” took place. In other words, Burnham is reifying the ideology. Ideologies reinforce the material conditions through reproducing the means of production–to borrow a concept from Althusser–but as some other Marxian thinkers have been reminding us against Althusser and Gramsci lately: ideologies also emerge and mutate in line with material conditions. It was not that bourgeois ideologies were indefensible or that the French could not maintain them, but that the conditions of mobilizations were not within French thought given their prior victory in World War 1. This flaw, of course, let Burnham to predict that the Fascist state with its supposedly anti-bourgeois and anti-proletariat bias–or more specifically, its lumpenproleteriat bias–would emerge victorious. He was flatly wrong, but I don’t know if it was because the liberating idea of “democracy” as Orwell claimed.

Yet the same book contains this insight:

In the new form of society, sovereignty is localized in administrative bureaus. They proclaim the rules, make the laws, issue the decrees. The shift from parliament to the bureaus occurs on a world scale. Viewed on a world scale, the battle is already over. The localization of sovereignty in parliament is ended save for a lingering remnant in England (where it may not last the next few months), in the United States, and certain of the lesser nations.

There is no mystery in this shift. It can be correlated easily enough with the change in the character of the state’s activities. Parliament was the sovereign body of the limited state of capitalism. The bureaus are the sovereign bodies of the unlimited state of managerial society. (p. 141)

One can see this explicitly in the rise of the importance of cabinet positions in the US as the mainstay of the power of the executive branch. Furthermore quasi-state institutions like the Federal Reserve and the European National Banks are also easily in this category. The sovereign body of the legislature in both parliaments and congress are largely their to rubber stamp the decisions of the technocrats within those rolls. This is even more blatantly obvious in the EU’s fear of public democracy and referendums as it knows that no single nation state will want to take the austerity measures to maintain an essentially pegged currency. Argentina is the primary example here.

Yet Burnham is problematic here:

“Experience has shown that the existence of a large number of sovereign nations, especially in Europe (and with somewhat less acuteness in Latin America), is incompatible with contemporary economic and social needs. The system simply does not work. In spite of the fact that the post-Versailles European arrangements were set up and guaranteed by the most powerful coalition in history, which had achieved victory in the greatest war of history, they could not last. The complex division of labour, the flow of trade and raw materials made possible and demanded by modern technology, were strangled in the network of diverse tariffs, laws, currencies, passports, boundary restrictions, bureaucracies, and independent armies. It has been clear for some while that these were going to be smashed; the only problem was who was going to do it and how and when. Now it is being done under the prime initial impulse of Germany.” (p165)

This is another reason why Burnham thought that fascism would be dominant, but he failed to imagine that the managerial revolution wasn’t actually a revolution, but an adaption that was already in bourgeois ideologies. For the working class was always just a wage earner, which since the 1920s has been essentially everyone with the exception of small, inefficent petite bourgeois whose material capital is often less than that of a managerial wage-earner even in the middle section of a large corporation. One of the brilliance of the limited-liability corporation that Burnham did not take into his account of the situation was that it was a way of making class itself diffuse and convoluting the working class of the first world with the capital interests through 401Ks, IRAs, etc. Micro-investment spread capital outside of the mere capitalists as even when I worked at Lowes in the early 2000s, I was a partial owner of the capital of the company by having minute shares of company stock given to me as an employee.

So this does not transcend Marx’s capital, but evolves from it. These contradictions are not removed, but shift focus making it harder and harder to pin the anger. Yet the logic of the 99% has put a picture on the situation. The iron law of olgiarchy in modernity, which is implied in capital, fascist, and late feudal orders. The primary means of power are still the means of production, and the primary mystification was ideological. So if this undoes Marx’s critique in totality is highly doubtful as Marx’s predictions for capital hold fast to reality way more than Burnham’s predictions for the managerial class, but there are internal contradictions within the notions of the current system left unexplored by simple class dichotomies.

Yet one wonders if there isn’t something Utopian about the whole enterprise.

I will have to dig deeper on the challenges this poses.

November 24, 2011

III. The Primitive and the Managerial: Burnham and Zerzan’s Two Critiques of Marxism

El Mono Liso  write a very insightful post on Zerzan:

I don’t mean to be overly droll about it, but I will get to the provocative and perhaps exaggerated crux of this essay: my view is that Marxists, in spite of claims to being materialists, don’t really take matter seriously. And Zerzan and his kind do, at least from where I am standing. To very important and elementary questions as to who will mow my lawn and who will work at the Dairy Queen on a Sunday afternoon, Marxists and other socialists seem to just say, “We’ll figure it out later,” “That is for the masses to decide,” or, “That’s not what is important. Here, read more Lacan.” Perhaps I am just getting cantankerous as I enter my mid-30′s, but increasingly, to every single leftist meme, essay, quotation, or talk, I am beginning to have the same reaction: “I don’t think you’ve thought this through”. To the question of who will take out the garbage, my right-wing Tea Party neighbor has the perfect answer: the losers, because they deserve what they get. And taking out the garbage will motivate them to start their own businesses, work their way up, and thus create other losers they defeat on the free market who will have to take out the garbage. And all we come up with is robots, which assumes the current imperial order in a more benevolent form.

In that sense, Zerzan’s throwing the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub, and the bathroom out the window and going back to the days before speech doesn’t seem so absurd. I have to say that, while at Berkeley, I hated anarchists like any good “Trot”. I loathed lifestyle anarchists, and I despised those people who hung a platform from the Campanile with a sign saying, “End animal vivisection!” They were putting trees and animals before people while the great ghetto of Oakland and the rest of California seemed to be calling out to be saved. My feelings in that regard have not changed to a large extent, but I am beginning to more and more connect the dots between all of these struggles. I may not now, or ever, be ready to sign on to an “anti-civilization” critique. But I am under no illusions that any of this can be saved. Nor do I have any particular will to save a social order that robs Peter to pay Paul. As in any addiction, our own desires could be the cause of our own destruction. The very idea of trying to get “the masses” in a phalanx so that they can do what we tell them to do seems to betray that will to destroy.

While some of you are aware that I interviewed KMO from C-Realm podcast and have mentioned before that I too have noticed that the Marxian focus on the material conditions has gotten pretty damned abstract.  Marx himself purged over the statistics in dusty tomes in the British library system to get his ideas, but our parsing of statistics (with a very few exceptions) moves further and further from the material world itself.   No more Hegel on his head, Hegel may have tricked us and turned materialism itself upside down–Zizek and a few other lefty agitprop academicians have all but just said this outright.  Zerzan picks up on our flaws: that our analysis doesn’t seem to have material limits or deal in the the engineering problems that the left has had outside of just being the “slow liberalism faster, economic liberalism slightly slower” party.  El Mono Liso is right: Zerzan does want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and to which I would add, he may be missing the inherent reitification in  technology that is pre-human and in the functioning of an ant hill or a beehive: not just the agricultural man.  This, however, does not remove the ringing of his critique.   What if every cook can’t govern the complex machine that is the post-Enlightenment social efface?  IF Lenin had to maintain production to the NEP and Bakharin had to come up with ways to motivate the management, there seems to be a real problem here.   Zerzan says, “progress against modernity can only be done in absolute negativity, complete renunciation” and he does so on a version of the theoretical grounds laid out in Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, and then he says basically: “You won’t have enough energy for your vision even if you figured out a way around management.” (I am being slightly hyperbolic in my paraphrasing, but the original argument is laid out here) You can’t have your modern world without you managers, so to hell with your modern world.

James Burnham’s political trajectory is similar in critique origins but entirely different in outcomes.  His critique of Marxist class analysis is that it was fundamentally unable to see the shift in production away from ownership directly to a form of managerial elites who worked in tandem to capital that was made diffuse.  Furthermore, he explains the situations of the Soviet Union as a development from this fact:  the management sector resembles that of the capitalist sector under Fordism.  This, if anything, has gotten worse in time since Burnham’s death and his political conservatism increasing.  Burnham thought Marxism was unable to deal with anything other than binary thinking through dialectics and thus could not conceive of the change in the modes of leadership.  Burnham would also mirror Adorno’s critique in another way: he said that Marxists could not account for why working class thinking was confused even though Marxian theory itself actually did account for the production of social consciousness by the larger place in production.   Now I may say the fundamental insight about the nature of producing society in the working class is not actually questioned in Burnham, Burnham’s challenge is simple: “Marxists, you don’t understand your enemy and thus cannot see what is walking among you now.”   Whatever  one can critique of Burnham, whose politics towards the managerial elite he described seemed to be “If you can’t beat them, join them,” the fact that Marxist class antagonism is often incredibly vague.  We do not talk about who precisely is our enemy other than capitalist class as a whole, but do not try to explain exactly who is in that class and how they are in it. Again the move away from the materiality of class seems very apparent:  a class is composed of people, we can know exactly who they are, but with diffuse capital ownership that may be much harder to do, and perhaps even more so, the average Marxist academic may actually be implicated in looking at lot like the management.

These two critiques are not death-nails in the coffin of history, but they must be addressed: the material and moral compasses of Marxian analysis must be addressed, or  it is true that we are just idealists in denial ourselves.

March 2013

IV.  We aren’t off this hook

In Burnham’s “Managerial Revolution”  the following is stated:

 “Changes in the technique of industry have, on the one hand, reduced more and more workers to an unskilled, or close to unskilled, category; but, on the other, have tied the process of production more and more critically to certain highly specialized skills, of engineering, production planning, and the like, requiring elaborate training not possessed by, or available to, many workers. With the methods of production used in Marx’s own day, there was a higher percentage of skilled workers to unskilled. The gap in training between an average worker and the average engineer or production manager was not so large – indeed, in most plants and enterprises there was no need to recognize a separate category of engineers and scientists and production managers, since their work was either not needed or could be performed by any skilled worker.

Today, however, without the highly trained technical workers the production machine would quickly run down; as soon as serious trouble arose, or change or replacement was needed, or plans for a new production run were to be made, there would be no way of handling the difficulties. This alters gravely the relative position of the workers in the productive process. In Marx’s time one could think without too much strain of the workers’ taking over the factories and mines and railroads and shipyards, and running them for themselves; at least, on the side of the actual running of the productive machine, there was no reason to suppose that the workers could not handle it. Such a possibility is today excluded on purely technical grounds if on no others. The workers, the proletarians, could not, by themselves, run the productive machine of contemporary society.”

The assumption that ability difference in complex systems is all  training is just an assumption and one that we have little evidence for and a lot of evidence against: you are arguing that moving from a simple system to a complex one is just a matter of education because you think because you can move from the complex system to the simple one.  It is often argued that the fact every governor can learn to cook is an example that proves the inverse, but this leap is actually formally bad logic (the inverse is not necessarily true of any postulate). Historically, Lenin tried to do this in a time when technical expertise actually required less intellectual ability than now. Lenin (and even Stalin) did actually do wonders for making working class with ability move into positions of power and in the betterment of education, but it did not completely level things in terms of ability and a managerial class did develop in almost all the communist countries (and almost all Marxist factions admit this but argue over exactly when it happened. When the Trotsky/Burnham debate was going on, this was denied). The point here is not that most differences in humans are natural, but that we don’t know what is or isn’t truly and haven’t figured out a way to transcend that. The goal of Marx was to make that irrelevant (as I keep harping about in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha program), the way we talk about these difference now in terms of equality here is basically claim that differences just don’t exist. That makes us open to be corporate management and Stalinist management, even Mao, who was most accutely aware of this problem in his rhetoric (after all that was the aim of the cultural revolution was a removal of a managerial class, aside from empowering his faction) obviously couldn’t stop in it China or the rise of Deng would not have happened.  Yet Mao was scared by the implications of this: The Shanghai commute frightened him, Lin Biao frightened him, and the inability to have Taylorist management frightened him.  I realize that key point about capitalist is its specific way of exploiting labor through surplus value, but I don’t disagree: the fundamental insight of Marx still applies but it is an insight to which we don’t have an answer since we don’t know the nature of who and how the exploitation is currently being done.  Vagueness like the 1% do not do it justice: the primary profiteers from systemic exploitation and oppression do not have to be those who actually manage it.

The practical problem, which frankly Marx avoided of spelling out how this is possible in a positive programmatic sense, requires more than vague notions about the power of education. It requires some fundamental value to enact it, and that value must arise from material conditions itself otherwise we are just hoping that an idea will do it for us. If we do think an idea will do it for us, we have returned to a Hegelian notions of Dialectic in a pure form with all the religion embedded in that. 

At best, we must admit that Burnham was onto something about the changing nature of capitalist class diffusion without changing the centrality of the production of value. These stages of the capitalism itself should scare us because they actually do say something about the changing nature of the revolutionary subject itself: the working class. This requires, at minimum, a much more specific notion of what these material conditions consist than I see in most Marxist discourse. In fact, with rare exception, most of what we see Marxist critique do is just textual exegesis. That is the province of the professor and the priest: thinking must involve much more than that without falling into the pitfall we see liberal empiricism falling into which cannot question current conditions or Hegelian dialectic, which takes the ideal itself at the given. We haven’t transcended that: we have neither transcended capitalist theory and practice in either a theoretical model or a possibility of praxis. Since I do think we have fallen down on specific class analysis and I also think we tend to think of ourselves and not our liberal counter-parts as “the left,” we have fundamentally blinded ourselves to the thinking we would need to do to make action meaningful. 

Otherwise, the baby and bathwater argument of Zerzan seems to be relevant, but I agree with you, if that’s the case, we’re pretty much all dead. There is a reason why I place Zerzan and Burnham together as almost flip coins on the same problem.

Let’s not stop here. I disagree with Burnham in a crucial way:

“In its own more confused, less advanced way, New Dealism too has spread abroad the stress on the state as against the individual, planning as against private enterprise, jobs (even if relief jobs) against opportunities, security against initiative, “human rights” against “property rights.” There can be no doubt that the psychological effect of New Dealism has been what the capitalists say it has been: to undermine public confidence in capitalist ideas and rights and institutions. Its most distinctive features help to prepare the minds of the masses for the acceptance of the managerial social structure.”

Burnham is defining capitalism in terms of Adam Smith, not in terms of Marx here.  Capitalism is a matter of free exchange here, not a matter of exploitation of surplus labor value.   While Burnham does lay down a good argument to how proto-capitalist members worked within feudal regimes before undermining them, he seems premature in claiming that a capitalist form is undermined.  Yet this error, while it is an error, does not change the fact that we must deal with the fact the rules of capitalism have fundamentally morphed since the advent of both Keynesianism and it’s (neo)liberal return to an older capital form.  Burnham’s  description of both the change of ownership and the way Keynesianism, fordism, and Stalinism empowered a particular group that has much harder for us to deal with conceptually stands. This seems like merely a strategic error on the Marxist part, but it is not.   Even if Burnham’s description of the managerial elite as a new form of governance is fundamentally untrue: it was a tendency the entire history of capitalism that one sees in the development of labor aristocracy itself. That victory over Burnham should not give us much comfort.  The strategic difficulty is is the conceptual difficulty: Why can’t we motivate workers to fight their exploiters when they are not clear who the exploiters are and since they, themselves, often have minor levels of stock in their own companies, they have been made to feel loyalty to the brand as if they were capitalists because of the diffusion of ownership. When your boss exploited you or when the Tzar exploited you, it was much easier to hang him or appeal to him to embrace a different class role. To be true, this is strategic problem, but management has been much better at managing the labor supply itself, and thus making the risks to act much higher: you would think having a more mechanized workforce would make a smaller working class in employment more powerful since fewer people would have to coordinate to shut down an automatized plant, but those people are to a large degree class aligned within the working class to management itself, and furthermore motivated to loyalty because of the ease of replacement given their skills are so specialized that they cannot easily do anything else.

A strategic error is misplaying the chess piece, a theoretical error is not knowing what a chess piece does:  Who constitutes a class and how it functions is the same as not knowing that the chess pieces do. It doesn’t change the game of chess, at least, not all at once, but it does change what is going on. Who is the bourgeoisie?  That we know by its definition after Marx: the owners of capital. Who are the owner’s of capital? Do they operate the levers of the economy anymore? Do shareholders actually control what is going on and the elasticity of the labor supply? And if workers are all also shareholders, who do you hang to seize control of production?

The problem of the exploitation of surplus value remains unsolved, and thus we are still dealing with capitalism and also the production of value. But the locus of battle is completely obscure until production itself is changed, but how to change it when you don’t who to you are resting the reigns of capital from.  It is not like Burnham was the only person who predicted the problem: there was a tendency in left communism and in Maoism to see this as a problem. Burnham’s cynical answer: embrace the managerial elites so at least you can pick a better one.  That led to things unforeseen even to Burnham: the rise of Neo-conservatives within the Nixon administration and within hawkish circles in the Democratic party. Zerzan’s answer is the other answer, but like I said above, it is one that ends in nothing we recognize as human.

What does this mean in the long run as Marxism seems to be regain a currency that it had lost since the 1980s is yet be understood, but I don’t think these challenges can be just shaken off. They must be answered–concretely and in the realm of material analysis.

V. It’s labor aristocracy stupid.

While I have linked James Burnham’s critiques of Trotsky as a flip-side to Zerzan’s critique, I now want to look the so-called Third Worldism more critically. The key Marxian concept that was abandoned is the idea of labor aristocracy for the managerial elites that Burnham describes could have been easily fit into the classical critique of labor aristocracy.   Orwell was one of the most serious “socialists” to critique Burnham and considered him twice. Orwell’s answer strikes us as horribly naive:

Fortunately the ‘managers’ are not so invincible as Burnham believes. It is curious how persistently, in The Managerial Revolution, he ignores the advantages, military as well as social, enjoyed by a democratic country. At every point the evidence is squeezed in order to show the strength, vitality, and durability of Hitler’s crazy régime. Germany is expanding rapidly, and ‘rapid territorial expansion has always been a sign, not of decadence . . . but of renewal’. Germany makes war successfully, and ‘the ability to make war well is never a sign of decadence but of its opposite’. Germany also ‘inspires in millions of persons a fanatical loyalty. This, too, never accompanies decadence’. Even the cruelty and dishonesty of the Nazi régime are cited in its favour, since ‘the young, new, rising social order is, as against the old, more likely to resort on a large scale to lies, terror, persecution’. Yet, within only five years this young, new, rising social order had smashed itself to pieces and become, in Burnham’s usage of the word, decadent. And this had happened quite largely because of the ‘managerial’ (i.e. undemocratic) structure which Burnham admires. The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the U.S.S.R. while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.

Burnham was wrong about the fascist managerial state, but Orwell was also tragically wrong about the democratic state as a real opposition to it. In fact, that was part of Burnham’s point, the same conditions in all countries have produced a set of managers that functioned as a similar class.  One can see that in the amazing consistency between Republican and Democratic administrations in regards to the management of the executive as well as the rise of the Red Engineers and the introduction to neo-liberal forms of state capitalism/neo-mercantilism in post-Deng China. Orwell’s critique, however, was more problematic than just a naive belief in democracy and the decent English, in his “Second Thoughts on Burnham” he went on:

Power worship blurs political judgement because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice. The rise and fall of empires, the disappearance of cultures and religions, are expected to happen with earthquake suddenness, and processes which have barely started are talked about as though they were already at an end. Burnham’s writings are full of apocalyptic visions. Nations, governments, classes and social systems are constantly described as expanding, contracting, decaying, dissolving, toppling, crashing, crumbling, crystallising, and, in general, behaving in an unstable and melodramatic way. The slowness of historical change, the fact that any epoch always contains a great deal of the last epoch, is never sufficiently allowed for. Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies, because, even when it gauges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible. With this in mind one can criticise his theory in a broader way.

The mistakes I have pointed out do not disprove Burnham’s theory, but they do cast light on his probable reasons for holding it. In this connection one cannot leave out of account the fact that Burnham is an American. Every political theory has a certain regional tinge about it, and every nation, every culture, has its own characteristic prejudices and patches of ignorance. There are certain problems that must almost inevitably be seen in a different perspective according to the geographical situation from which one is looking at them. Now, the attitude that Burnham adopts, of classifying Communism and Fascism as much the same thing, and at the same time accepting both of them — or, at any rate, not assuming that either must be violently struggled against — is essentially an American attitude, and would be almost impossible for an Englishman or any other western European.

Orwell then credits the English character for seeing through this: problematically, mimicking the more problematic rhetoric of the Germans.  Yet Orwell seems fundamentally wrong now despite whatever is true about the moral prerogative against power.   For there is something darker lurking here in Orwell’s avoidance of the ‘primitive accumulation,’ to use Marxist terms, in England’s working class success. He could not see that he was part of what Burnham was describing.

It is in this gap that is interesting: Zak Cope’s book, Divided Classes/Divided World, and an interview with him on the topic. This brought me to this paragraph:

My initial motivations for writing the book were threefold. Firstly, I wanted to examine why workers in the rich countries seemed to have given up on socialism. As Donald Sassoon’s magisterial One Hundred Years of Socialism shows, the working class of the imperialist countries has for a century and more struggled to regulate and socialise capitalism, not replace it. If it is true that capitalism is an inherently exploitative and oppressive socioeconomic system how is it that workers in the rich countries have been so content to put up with it? Moreover, how is it that workers in the developed capitalist countries are so far from having, as Marx wrote, “nothing to lose but their chains”? My second motivation, then, was to counter those ideologies on the left which seek to explain these phenomena (that is, metropolitan working class conservatism and embourgeoisement). So, for much of the left, it is its militancy, its productivity or a combination of both, that explains metropolitan labour’s relative affluence. Paradoxically, however, the Western left has felt the need to explain working class conservatism by something other than this. Thus it has tried to excuse metropolitan labour’s conservative, complacent and fully reactionary politics with reference to its having been brainwashed or divaricated from its revolutionary tasks by all-powerful ideological state apparatuses (attempts to excuse it with reference to job insecurity and “precarity” notwithstanding). In short, for much of what passes for the left, it is “false class consciousness” that has led the Western working class to prefer social democracy, social partnership, and blatant national chauvinism (all these predicated on a political alliance with the capitalist class and its representatives) to socialism. Finally, and most fundamentally, the book was motivated by a desire to reinvigorate an internationalist perspective which had been sorely neglected by a Marxism deeply marked by a pernicious Eurocentrism. In that sense, the book was motivated by wholehearted opposition to colonialism and imperialism, which provide the real underpinnings of embourgeoisement, reformism, and racism alike.

One notices immediately the parallels between what Cope is describing the movement of Orwell’s own consciousness. Burnham’s concerns about the managerial elite and the Maoist view of the labor aristocracy map together like a micro-national and macro-national view of a similar development.  The technical focus on the mechanization and informational ends of production and the accumulation of raw resources moved to the third world.  Now, this is actually ebbing now and consequently one sees peaks of growth in Latin America and South Asia, but conversely one sees China and even to a lesser degree India engaging in mercantilist-like policies in Africa, and have moved from primitive accumulation among themselves to primitive accumulation elsewhere.   The pacification of the existing Maoist remnant remains a goal of the leadership of the CCP.  The developing countries start acting like prior imperialist ones once a certain level of internal technological sophistication is reached: China is still not quite there, but the rise of the red engineers and not the rise of the red lawyers within the CCP do not look well for them not following the same stages of accumulation. Indeed, the fact that the bourgeois revolution in China is co-terminus with the communist one makes this must more likely.   Is China’s rhetoric moving more nationalist like other developed nations?  Hard to say, but the netizens of China seem to have a distinctly nationalist tone.

Mao did foresee this as a problem: even the most cynical reading of the cultural revolution and it’s red terrors make that obvious, but Mao rehabilitated Deng himself (and then expel him again only to have him rehabilitated again), and we are where we are now.  There is still some of the hostility in the PRC, but the class nature of China is still pretty clear and obvious.  So the Third-Worldists are most likely right about imperialism–there is labor aristocracy at the core, but “cultural revolution” was not enough to change the MATERIAL need for a managerial class, and the exploitation of surplus value has not been absolved by the state.  This explains why Nepal and rural India have clearer revolutions than say even a degenerating Greece: yet neither Nepal’s revolution has cover come the extraction of surplus value, or even parliamentarianism.  In this we can see a vague outline of how embourgeoisement within labor transforms the nature of the working class.   Yet I do not see anyone address the material conditions that create the problem.   Cope’s questions are critical because it explains why Orwell was so blind and so wrong to the way the future would develop.  Yet there is keeping third-world nations from establishing there own capitalist forms, or state capital forms, which depend so crucially on management.

What are the material conditions for liberal regression and for left degeneration?  The material conditions that produce a new organization within the working class itself which has structurally diffused the bourgeois elements of ownership. The working class, however, is still there in the wings no matter how strong it’s labor aristocracy is or how deluded it all becomes.  Mao was right to see the problem, but placing voluntary politics above production in importance did not give him the tools to get out and left him in the fog of war as he brought the tanks in, and then the technocrats.

March 2013


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