George Walford: The Managers

Half a century ago James Burnham saw that the Marxists, calling on us to admire their splendid revolutionary robes, were in fact naked. His book, The Managerial Revolution, [1] showed that socialism had not replaced capital- ism anywhere and had no reasonable prospect of doing so; instead, the managers were taking over. By managers Burnham meant ‘those who already for the most part in contemporary society are actually managing, on its technical side, the actual process of production, no matter what the legal and financial form – individual, corporate, governmental – of the process.’ [2] They do not own the system they control, and will not come to do so, for in the managerial society the major productive units come into the possession of the state. Nor do they seek profit; [3] unlike the former owners government normally operates, by capitalist standards, at a loss. Already in 1942 the United States government provided half the medical services in that country, and if we include all types of relief then half or more of the population depended wholly, or in determining part, on the government. [4] Capitalism has a limited state, the managerial society an unlimited one. [5] The ‘laws of the market’ (a good ex-Trotskyist, Burnham puts the phrase in quotes) control capitalists but not governments. [6]

Some of his predictions have not stood up. The number of sovereign states has not diminished [7] but rather increased with the break-up of the empires. (The appearance of what amount almost to private commercial empires does not negate this movement). Politically active Indians, if not ‘the Indian masses,’ have indeed shown themselves to want independence, [8] but achievement of it has not yet brought them under German or Russian domination. Saying that the coming world would divide into three superstates centred upon the USA, Germany and Japan, Burnham foresaw the EC and the Japanese miracle, and his prediction that the USSR would split, gravitating part towards Europe and part towards Asia, now seems more plausible than it can have done in 1942 when he made it. But he expected these changes to come about through war [9] and the advent of nuclear weapons, if nothing else, has ruled that out. The 1940 American presidential election was neither the last nor the next to last. [10]

His main assertion, that the owners of the means of production no longer exercise much active or effective control over, them, has received increasing confirmation since he wrote. He saw that developing technicality was already excluding untrained owners from any active part in control, and computers and automation have carried the process to virtual completion. Management has not become a science in the same sense as mechanics or macroscopic physics, for it deals less with inert material than with human beings, offering less scope for the atomistic and positivistic assumptions. But it aspires to that condition; like the hard sciences it seeks to realise in practice the ideology of precision.

Burnham expected government to take over ownership of the means of production. He argued that the USSR, the New Deal, Nazism and Fascism all showed it starting to do so, and had he written later he might have added British governments from 1945 to 1979. From where we stand today things look different. Government has taken an increasingly large part in operating the economic system, imposing regulation, increasing taxation, and providing support for those who get squeezed out of the competition, but it largely refrains from ownership, confining itself to a supervisory role. The results of government intervention, whether called nationalisation as in Britain, or socialism as in the USSR, have not encouraged further progress along that path. Ownership remains for the most part in private hands and active financial control in those of people occupying a social position much like that of the technical experts Burnham recognised as managers; so far as the role played by managers goes he seems to have under – rather than over – stated his case. In Britain under the Conservatives government supervision has concentrated upon trying to ensure that business and industry should conduct themselves in a principled way, leaving the participants largely free to pursue their private interests within these limits, but the EC bureaucracy has been imposing tighter standards. Increasingly it tries to establish not just principle but the specific principle of competition above the interests of individual nations, industries or firms. To the extent that this activity controls the activities of the managers (technical or financial) we have the ideology of precision imposing itself upon that of principle / domination.

[1] Burnham J. 1942 The Managerial Revolution or, what is happening in the world now. London: Putnam;
[2] 76
[3] 79
[4] 102
[5] 112
[6] 109
[7] 167
[8] 170
[9] 170
[10] 247

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SYSTEMATIC ideology presents the major ideologies as forming an evolutionary system. This version of evolution takes revolution into account, but even so it meets resistance.

Ted Lewellen, noting that evolution gets noisily driven out every so often from social anthropology, holds that it remains an inescapable assumption; a view of the wide range of societies studied by anthropology almost compels the adoption of some arrangement according to the degree of cultural complexity exhibited. (Lewellen Ted C. 1983 Political Anthropology; an introduction Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc. xi).

from Ideological Commentary 56, May 1992.