Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Francis on Burnham.

The neglect of Burnham by liberal and even mainstream media is explained by many conservatives as the response to be expected from those whose incantations to the broad mind and the open mouth are belied by their contempt for those who dissent from their canons. Yet Burnham was also neglected by many conservatives, who knew him best through his column and his classic Suicide of the West, repeatedly reprinted since its first publication in 1964. George H. Nash in his monumental The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 acknowledges Burnham's importance in the emergence of conservative anticommunism in the 1940s and 1950s, but neither Mr. Nash nor most other students of American conservatism have fully appreciated the significance of Burnham's political ideas or their potential for constructing a serious and critical political theory for the contemporary American Right.
By far, the greatest influence on thinking of  Sam Francis were the writings of James Burnham.  A communist in the 1930's and who was in contact with Trotsky, Burnham became disillusioned with Communism in early 40's and eventually turned hard right. Though, Burnham "turned" right, he was never really "at home" with the post war Right from a social and intellectual perspective. What set him apart from most of them was his "modernist" understanding of contemporary events.
Burnham did not generally socialize with the conservative movement. He was not a member of the Philadelphia or Mont Pelerin societies, rarely contributed to conservative periodicals other than National Review, and seldom or never participated in the seminars and summer schools of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or Young Americans for Freedom. His aloofness was probably in part a personal choice, but it also reflected an incongruity between his mind and that of the mainstream of American conservatism as it has developed since the 1940s. Burnham and his more percipient readers were aware of the incongruity, which served to keep him at a distance  from many of his professional collaborators on the Right, while, ironically, causing the Left to concentrate its fire on his writings to a greater degree than on those of any other conservative intellectual figure of our era.
Burnham came to public prominence through the publication of his book, The Managerial Revolution.  Matt Forney gives a good review of the book here, though I disagree with some of his thoughts.  Even Orwell was impressed enough to write a rebuttal of it and the book and at the time earned considerable praise. And although Burnham's approach was strongly inspired by the Marxist analytic method, the book, in my opinion, needs to be seen within the same tradition of thinking as exemplified by Ortega y Gasset and Pitrim Sorokin. These thinkers recognised that  a fundamental change had occurred in society at the end of the 19th Century as a consequence of religious collapse, technology and more importantly, the rise in population mass. Traditional conservative thinkers tend to ignore the latter two in their analysis of human history, seeing human nature as something apart from the material conditions of man and society. Richard Weaver once remarked that Ideas have Consequences but  what's really important in the Burhnamite analysis is that the historical and material circumstances of man have consequences as well.  And one of the things which impressed me with regard to Burnhams analysis is the notion that more people doesn't just mean a bigger society, it also means a different type of society.  Quoting Francis: 
The twentieth century, for the United States as well as for the rest of the world, has been an age of revolution of far more profound transformational effect than any the modern world has ever experienced. Perhaps not since neolithic times has mankind undergone simultaneous changes in economic, social, political, and intellectual relationships of such far-reaching consequences. Some aspects of this transformation are obvious and have been explored by count-less analysts—the rise of totalitarianism, the intellectual revolution precipitated by Einstein and Freud, the decline of the Euro-American civilization and the rise of non-white power centers, the evolution of a "postindustrial" technology and economy in place of agricultural and manufacturing sectors. Yet for all the theories, explanations, and accounts of the twentieth-century revolution, there is no better perspective from which to view this transformation than James Burnham's theory of the managerial revolution, formulated in 1941. Despite many flaws, inaccurate predictions, and overstatements, Burnham's theory perceives the essential core of the twentieth-century revolution and contains the elements by which the complex political and intellectual ramifications of our age can be explained. Although in a narrow sense Burnham's theory sought to explain the civilizational impact of the "separation of ownership and control" in the corporate economy and the rise of large corporations directed by professional managers rather than by traditional individual owners and partnerships, in a broader sense his theory applies to political and social, as well as to economic, organizations. The characteristic feature of twentieth-century history has been the  vast expansion in the size, scale of transactions, and complexity and technicality of functions that political, social, and economic organizations exhibit. This expansion, which Pitrim Sorokin also noted under the label "colossalism," was itself made possible by the growth of mass populations and by the development of technologies that could sustain the colossal scale of organization. Just as business firms expanded far beyond the point at which they could be operated, directed: and controlled effectively by individual owners and their families, who generally lacked the technical skills to manage them, so the state also underwent a transformation in scale that removed it from the control of traditional elites, citizens, and their legal representatives. Just as in the mass corporations a new elite of professional managers emerged that replaced the traditional entrepreneurial or bourgeois elite of businessmen, so in the state also a new elite of professionally trained managers or bureaucrats developed that challenged and generally became dominant over the older political elites of aristocrats and amateur politicians who occupied the formal offices of government. Both in the economy and the state, organizations began to undertake functions for which a smaller scale of organization was not prepared and which the traditional elites of aristocratic and bourgeois society were unable to perform. A similar process occurred in labor unions, professional associations, churches, educational institutions, military organizations, and the organs of mass communication and cultural expression. In all sectors of twentieth-century industrial society, the growth of mass organizations brought with it an expansion of functions and power, a new elite wedded by its material interests and psychic and intellectual preparation to continuing expansion, and a metamorphosis of the organizations themselves as well as of the social and political orders they dominated.
What needs to be understood here is that Burnham recognised the rise of this class was not the product of some "conspiracy" or malignant design, rather he recognised that the rise came about through the complex interchange between commercial forces, technology and population. Changes which frequently, were enthusiastically embraced and forwarded by Conservatives as well. Take Capitalism, for example. The push for efficiency in capitalistic organisations doesn't just result in lower "overheads" but also selects for organisations which are highly centralized. What this means is that Capitalism in operation is synergistic with the centralising tendencies of the managerial state.* Likewise the current decline in the fortunes of the Press is less an intended outcome than and unintended consequence of technological innovation. It also illustrates why  "turning" the clock back is not a realistic option since turning it back involves not only a change in values but a change in the material and technological circumstances as well
The evolution of the new order and its ideology was not, of course, the result of a conspiracy or a conscious design on the part of its founders, but rather the product of an almost irresistible process by which new technologies, new forms of organization, and new ideas joined together to challenge and replace old forms that were unable to sustain or accommodate the immense scale of human numbers and their interactions. Those who gained from this process—the new managerial elites—encouraged it instinctively from a combined sense of their personal and group interests and their unquestioned faith in their self-serving ideology.
The past is dead, hence Francis's opinion that any new Right will not be a rehash of the past--sorry Trads--but will rather be a new formulation, while different, will maintain a continuity with the old. Still the important term here is "self-serving" ideology, something I will get back to in the next post.

Burnham was a student of power and wanted to understand who, what and how to wield it. Burnham's analysis led him to the conclusion that power in modern society was situated in the "managerial" class, which acted for its own interests by co-opting the lower classes[Ed: and Minorities] to squeeze the middle class which it saw as its greatest threat.  Particularly, it's bourgeois elements. It's interesting here to see that the problem is not just the elites but the proletariat as well. Francis recognised that the continual exploitation of the "bourgeois middle" would eventually radicalise it and motivate it to action.

Using Burnham's analytic method Francis felt that the best approach to attack the managerial state was for Conservatives not to "reach out to minorities", whom he felt would never bite, but to position themselves as representing the interests of the bourgeois middle. The failure to that would would leave a vacuum which would be exploited by a strong man who would.

Goodbye GOP. Welcome Donald Trump.

*(For those who have difficulties understanding, I'm not saying capitalism is wrong, rather that it has both positive and negative dimensions which cannot be seen by a simple balance sheet analysis.)



On a related note, Washington Summit Publishers is posthumously publishing Sam Francis' magnum opus Leviathan & Its Enemies:


Chent said...

I have been interested in the concept of the managerial revolution lately.

How does Burnham explain that managers are often hired by the wealthy, which are the ones who are calling the shots?

It seems to me that the wealthy have the power and the managers are only paid brains, the same way blue collar employees were only paid muscle in the past.

The Social Pathologist said...

The fact that the Wealthy need to employ managers, especially at the senior executive level, illustrates the fact that they are unable to manage businesses on their own. It's a tacit admission that they need other people to run their business, and its true that that the owners in this instance can imprint their character on a business through the choice of executive. But in listed corporations on the stock market, many fund investors are looking for a profit and not really interested in who runs a business as long as it generates the cash. It is in this type of situation and government, where the managerial classes reign.

Joshua Sinistar said...

Trump isn't a strongman, he's a builder and promoter. The Middle Class is America. Above and below is fat and waste. There are no real managers, just bureaucrats. Bureaucracies exist only to perpetuate themselves. After a point too many consume and not enough produce. After that point you either have revolution or collapse. Either way, Obama was the last mistake this system will make. Irregardless of what happens, the next leader must be a dictator or the entire system will simply crumble. The laws are too complex and the government is too bloated and inefficient to actually work anymore. Only a Dictator can make an inefficient system work long enough to be streamlined and replaced with one that's functional. Anything else invites and ensures collapse.

Hoyos said...

There is an additional advantage to hiring managers; they can be encouraged to engage in sharp dealings for profit, but if said chicanery is ever found out, the owners have protection.

Back to Francis, new needn't mean bad either, there was a time when Gothic cathedrals were new shimmering edifices. Tradition is a source and refiner of truth, but the real aim is the good itself.

Mikael Virtanen said...

It is true that managers create the forms of society, the frameworks of actions and organizations, but multibillionaires, CEOs and chairmans of big banks, high political leaders and other powerful people still decide the main directions where large complex organizations and society at large scale goes.

The Social Pathologist said...


This is a good comment and I think you are justified, in it. However let's take the following hypothetical scenario.

Suppose Elon Musk is opposed to transgender bathrooms will he oppose them? Suppose he privately does. His lawyers tell him that he will be subject to federal prosecution if he does not comply. His accountant tells him that he will lose business. His PR people tell him he's hurting on Social Media. Musk, who is primarily a business man interested in making a profit is going to take the advice his managers give him. It is true that as the owner of capital he could oppose the laws, but then a gaggle of lawyers will be set against him, the tax office would be weaponised to attack him, and the media flunkies would also put him to the shredder.

Furthermore,suppose Musk's employees are made accessories of the fact and prosecuted. How long could his business keep running?

Elon Musk's business is a complex organisation requiring managers to implement it, and they do impart their imprint on things.

The Social Pathologist said...


The feature of modern capitalism, especially in shareholder operation is the separation of management from ownership, which therefore provides for plausible deniability when things go awry.

Tradition is a source and refiner of truth, but the real aim is the good itself.


Trads conflate the Old with the True.

The Social Pathologist said...


Look forward to the book.

Jeffrey S. said...

I think Mikael is on to something, but your comment highlights the flaw in Burnham's thinking as well as your own. You say,

"Suppose Elon Musk is opposed to transgender bathrooms will he oppose them? Suppose he privately does. His lawyers tell him that he will be subject to federal prosecution if he does not comply."

But those lawyers will only tell him that if there is indeed a law on the books in the first place that allows those federal prosecutors to do something that insane. In other words, how did we get to the situation where so-called "gay marriage" became law and now trannies are the latest cause of the day? These laws are pushed by activists and by ideologues who are still shaping the polity -- I think we are back to Weaver and Burnham's managerial class is just along for the ride.

People with money can indeed try and shape opinion (look at what Peter Thiel recently did to Gawker) but it is a difficult task and there are often consequences for going against the ideology of the day (e.g. look at how the Koch brothers are treated by the Left, even though from a social conservative's standpoint, they are often the enemy!)

The Social Pathologist said...

These laws are pushed by activists and by ideologues who are still shaping the polity -- I think we are back to Weaver and Burnham's managerial class is just along for the ride.

Consider this thought experiment.

Imagine you wanted to push Gay marriage in North Korea and organise a protest, how do you think things would turn out?

On the other hand, try doing it in the West and I imagine the response would be different.

Activists can push all they want, but unless there is sympathy for their cause in the managerial apparatus then protest and activism won't work. That's the secret to understanding the Left's success in the 60's, the managerial apparatus in place at the time was already sympathetic to its ideas and was reluctant to mount a pushback.

Hint, the culture of the managerial apparatus determines the outcome of the protest.