Our Managerial Class Print
By George Marlin   
Tuesday, 24 February 2009

In 1941, New York University philosopher James Burnham published a prophetic book, The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World, to critical acclaim. Fortune called it the most debated book of the year. Time had it on its annual most notable list. And it made The New York Times best sellers. It was translated into a dozen languages.

Burnham (1905-1987), an ex-Trotsykyite who became a founding editor of National Review and returned to the Church late in life, held that self-destructing capitalism would not be replaced by socialism, which he thought “a mythical dream,” but by a managerial class that administers corporate policy.

Catholic social doctrine in the twentieth century largely oscillated between worries over collectivism and radical individualism; subsidiarity and solidarity were just two of the principles that emerged as remedies for these looming social problems. But Burnham saw a third thing waiting in the wings that has still not received adequate attention: the emergence of a managerial class with an ethos all its own.

In times of economic crisis, Burnham argued, the capitalist class – bankers, industrialists, merchants – will gradually be replaced by a new class of self-confident government managers. These administrative experts, directing engineers, and technocrats, will control ever-expanding government bureaus, agencies, and commissions that dictate how resources will be distributed. They will stress the state over individuals, will talk about planning more than free initiative, `jobs over opportunity, and as “economic conditions progressively decay, the reward allocated to the finance-capitalists [will] seem inordinate and unjustified.…” (Sound familiar?)

The managerial society will be promoted as the salvation of mankind ushering “in an age of plenty, sweetness, and light such that no man in his senses could do anything but welcome with rapture the prospect of the future.” This is now a familiar note in both domestic and international politics, but somehow the illusion raises few eyebrows.

Reflecting on the Depression era, Burnham concluded that the psychological effect of the New Deal had been “to undermine public confidence in capitalist ideas and rights and institutions” and “to prepare the minds of the masses for the acceptance of the managerial social structure.”

The Roosevelt administration created scores of federal agencies that governed by fiat. The National Recovery Administration (NRA), for instance, determined prices and wages throughout America until it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Subscribing to a “high wage” theory that assumed efficient cost-cutting measures were bad, NRA managers created volumes of price codes; every business, big or small, had to comply. Policing the nation for violators, NRA agents actually jailed a Cleveland couple who owned a dry cleaner “because they cleaned suits for five cents less than the NRA codes provides.” Reviewing this managerial nightmare, the world’s leading liberal economist at the time, John Maynard Keynes, dryly conceded that the NRA “probably impedes recovery.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s rhetoric reflected managerial ideology. During the 1940 presidential campaign, Burnham found that FDR’s speeches “called for the support of all classes, including ‘production men’, ‘technicians in industry’ and ‘managers’ with one most notable exception: never by any of the usual American terms of ‘businessmen’, or ‘owners’ or ‘bankers’ or even ‘industry’, did he address himself to the capitalists.”

The emerging managerial class that Burnham described in the 1940s has continued to expand – even during Republican ascendency in the last third of the twentieth century. Today there are more than 400 Federal agencies, programs and activities that include the Administration for Children, Youth and Families (ACYF), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Community Relations Service (CRS), Economic Regulatory Administration (ERA), Office of Human Development Services (HDS), Labor-Management Services Administration (LMSA), New Community Development Corporation (NCDC), Office of Community Services (OCS), Public Health Service (PHS), Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), Senior Community Service Employment Program (SCSEP), Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG), Volunteer Management Support Program (VMSP), Work Incentive Program (WIN), and Young Volunteers in Action (YUA). If you think that’s a mouthful, wait until you see the coming growth of these alphabet agencies.

The present economic crisis opens whole new vistas to managerial types. New York Times columnist David Brooks claims the new standards will be dictated by what he calls “Ward Three morality.”

Ward Three is a neighborhood in northwest Washington, D.C., populated by regulators, staffers, lawyers and senior civil servants – the new managerial class, who belong to both political parties. According to Brooks, this crowd, even though they are powerful and feared at their workplaces, are resentful because their incomes do not match their sense of their own importance and cannot finance the lifestyle they believe they deserve. As a result, writes Brooks, “People in Ward Three have nationalized extravagance and privatized Puritanism.”

Don’t expect the agenda of this professional governing class to be limited to economics. They will reach into every home and church. Catholics should be especially wary of them. Their significance in the world hinges on the transformation of America into a Ward Three nation. For them, liberty means obedience to the enlightened values of a managerial elite, which is also becoming international in scope.

Some of them may still believe in God, but He lives in a different neighborhood, has odd views not shared by the very best people, and anyway there are multiple crises to deal with – and managerial opportunities.

George Marlin is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact.

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