Theory associated with James Burnham (1905-1981).
The characteristic feature of modern industrial societies is the rise of managers as the effective wielders of power, particularly in the economy. In capitalist societies this means that owners or capitalists are losing power; in state socialist or communist societies, that politicians or the working class are losing it.
James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution (London, 1941)
The Managerial Revolution
Burnham’s seminal work, The Managerial Revolution (1941), theorized about the future of world capitalism based upon its development in the interwar period. Burnham weighed three possibilities: (1) that capitalism was a permanent form of social and economic organization and would continue indefinitely; (2) that it was temporary and destined by its nature to collapse and be replaced by socialism; (3) that it was currently being transformed into some non-socialist future form of society. Since capitalism had a more or less definite beginning in the 14th century, it could not be regarded as an immutable and permanent form. Moreover, in the last years of previous economic systems such as those of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, mass unemployment was “a symptom that a given type of social organization is just about finished.” The worldwide mass unemployment of the depression era thus indicated that capitalism was itself “not going to continue much longer.”
Analyzing the emerging forms of society around the world, Burnham saw certain commonalities between the economic formations of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and America under Roosevelt’s New Deal. Burnham argued that in the short period since the First World War, a new society had emerged in which a social group or class of “managers” had waged a “drive for social dominance, for power and privilege, for the position of ruling class.” For at least the previous decade, there had grown in America the idea of a “separation of ownership and control” of the modern corporation, notably expounded in The Modern Corporation and Private Property by Berle and Means. Burnham expanded this concept, arguing that whether ownership was corporate and private or statist and governmental, the essential demarcation between the ruling elite (executives and managers backed by bureaucrats and functionaries) and the mass of society was not ownership so much as control of the means of production.
Burnham emphasized that “New Dealism”, as he called it, “is not, let me repeat, a developed, systematized managerial ideology.” Still, this ideology had contributed to American capitalism’s moving in a “managerial direction”:
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.
In June 1941, a hostile review of The Managerial Revolution by Socialist Workers Party loyalist Joseph Hansen in the SWP’s theoretical magazine accused Burnham of surreptitiously lifting the central ideas of his book from the Italian Bruno Rizzi’s La Bureaucratisation du Monde (1939). Despite certain similarities, there is no evidence Burnham knew of this book beyond Leon Trotsky’s brief references to it in his debates with Burnham. Burnham was influenced by the idea of bureaucratic collectivism of the Trotskyist Yvan Craipeau, but Burnham took a distinct conservative Machiavellian rather than a Marxist viewpoint, an important philosophical difference which Burham explored in greater detail in The Machiavellians.
In The Machiavellians, he developed his theory that the emerging new élite would prosper better if it retained some democratic trappings—political opposition, a free press, and a controlled “circulation of the élites.”
His 1964 book Suicide of the West became a classic text for the post-war conservative movement in American politics, proclaiming Burnham’s new interest in traditional moral values, classical liberal economics and anti-communism. He defined liberalism as a “syndrome” afflicting liberals with guilt and internal contradictions. His works greatly influenced paleoconservative author Samuel T. Francis, who wrote two books about Burnham, and based his political theories upon the “managerial revolution” and the resulting managerial state.
Burnham’s writings were thoroughly criticised by George Orwell in his 1946 essay “Second Thoughts on James Burnham”