The Managerial Society

Over the course of the last century, since the First World War, some social observers have come to call the new political formation or civilisation that emerged from the war “the managerial society” and have described its mode of governance as “managerialism”.

“The managerial society” is as good a term as others, I suppose. Arthur Selwyn Miller called it “the techno-corporate state” in which State and Corporation partner in governance through a collaborative management of social order (“public private partnership”). Jacques Ellul called it “the technological system” and insisted (with some justification) that “managerialism” was just another application of technics to problems of political and social organisation, (so one had to probe deeper into the nature of technology and technicism itself).   Others call it “the mass society”, or “the consumer society”, or “corporate society” or “the information society” or “the risk society” or “post-modern society” and so on.

And some just call it “the System” or “Babylon”.  And some just call it “the Matrix”.

It is as if one thousand separate observers each had a piece of a one thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in their hands whose full picture they did not know (or perhaps even suspect of existing), and each believed their piece to be the very last piece of the puzzle, or for that matter the entirety of the puzzle itself.  It has also been compared to an octopus – a creature with many legs.

In that sense, contemporary civilisation is equally like a complex crystal that reflects many facets of itself.  A multi-faceted crystal or a jig-saw puzzle are equally respectable similes.  I have used all these terms for Late Modern society in the Dark Age Blog or the Chrysalis at one time or another as they seem to me all equally valid.

No crystal exists with just one facet or face, yet many people seem to think this way. This was Jean Gebser’s objection to narrow perspectivisation or what he called “deficient rationality”. It is also what Blake condemned as “single vision”.  And although Gebser believed that Picasso had overcome the limitations of narrow perspectivisation, and that the “sphere” would be the symbol of the new “integral consciousness” he saw emerging in our time, the most common metaphor I come across today for the holistic or integral consciousness is “diamond mind” or “crystal mind” – transparent, translucent, and what perceives, and is perceived as being, multi-dimensional and yet as an integrated whole.  The ecologically-minded already have something that corresponds to diamond mind.

Eckhart Tolle and A.H. Almaas also had visions of consciousness as being like a diamond (Rumi used the simile of the ruby). So let diamond mind be the totem and emblem of your highest aspiration and the new consciousness, and don’t get stuck in “single vision & Newton’s sleep” staring at only one facet of the crystal.

With that brief aside, I want to return to the problem of “the managerial” civilisation as it has emerged during and since the World Wars, for it had its beginnings then.  The social and political management problems of organising the population for mass warfare or “total war” came to be applied subsequently to the organisation of the peace, for it is true that “mass society” and the managerial problem emerged simultaneously during the period 1914 – 1945. The civilisation with its values that existed before this period was swept away and it was replaced by a different civilisation with different values sometimes also dubbed “the Great Society” (which name actually does not convey much about itself. It is also reflected in UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s “Big Society” slogan and policy, but which appears to be mostly a ruse).

(Eerily, the name “Nat Wei” associated with the UK Conservatives’ Big Society policy is the same name as one of the founders of Ira Levin’s dystopian society in his book This Perfect Day — “Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei“)

Managerialism is typically at the heart of many dystopian visions, being a scientistic or  technocratic approach to social organisation in which “individuality” is reduced to a role, and “personality” reduced to a function. This pressure on consciousness to become nothing but role and function is a feature of “Economic Society” or what is called “economism”.

The word “manage” comes from the horse-trade.  There’s a connection between “manger” (or stable) and “manager” as well as “manu-“ (for “hand” or “handle”). A “manager” earlier was a livestock-handler or herder. Thus the phrase “Managerial Society” and managerialism implies a parallel problem and solution between handling livestock and handling society and man-in-the-mass.

If there seems to be something degrading about that correspondence it is because there is, which is why the “invisible hand” of the techno-corporate state that organises our life-times and affairs is largely hidden from view and wants to remain so, even criminalising all attempts to expose it (as in the Snowden case).  In this it can largely count on the voluntary and willing collusion of men in the mass (or women for that matter) who are completely convinced that they are being “unique” individuals and personalities living unique lives when, in fact, they are only role and function (which belongs to delusion and self-deception).

So there is this cognitive dissonance. For as you yourselves may know or feel, the script of your life has been very largely written for you in advance and has fundamentally denied your individuality while nonetheless paying lip-service to your “uniqueness”.  For, in truth, for managerialism you are only a statistical abstraction. Your life-times are highly regulated, scheduled, and organised in advance of your years. From cradle to grave, your life-times are exactingly managed and organised into role and function – into patterns of production and consumption, into roles of work and leisure – 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure, 8 hours sleep – or into “shifts”, so that it comes to seem entirely “natural” that the calendar of your days (including your holidays and “vacations”) are nonetheless all tightly scripted and regulated.  And every day of your life you are probably bombarded with advertisements and infomercials all repetitively instructing you in the required thinking and behaviours you must perform to attain “the good life” (some say it may be up to 3,000 a day).

It’s a basic principle of all propaganda – repeat a falsehood often enough and it comes to be believed as the truth. I once reported on the words of an advertising executive who was interviewed by the CBC. He insisted that advertisers don’t peddle products or consumer goods. What they do is sell a “vision of the perfect life” (his words) to everyone in which the product being peddled is shown to have a necessary place. Not to have that product or commodity would be to remain imperfect, meaning unfulfilled or unsatisfactory (ie, in a condition of dukkha).  Even how you approach courtship, gender or sexual relations is modelled for you.

“Managerialism” is what some call “social engineering”. And although they often denounce it as such, it is more often a case of envy. They simply want their own hands on the levers and are as zealous to micro-manage the lives of others as they resented it when done to them. It’s the old joke — “democracy is great as long as I have more of it than anyone else”.  I know a man who, having once read the strange book None Dare Call It Conspiracy came to believe that the Earth was actually managed by a small but powerful elite called  “the Committee of 300”. He made such a deal about it that finally someone remarked (quite accurately) that he really wanted it to be “the Committee of 301”, and simply felt that it was a grave injustice that his unique genius wasn’t recognised and that he had not been invited as a member. It was quite true.  He had delusions of grandeur precisely because he sensed that he was, in reality, merely a part of a manipulated herd, a mass, an undistinguished and unknown quantity, an “It” – and he deeply resented that. So, although he made a stink about “social engineering” at the same time he found managerialism as such unobjectionable as long as he was in on it (the man, by the way, had explicit social conservative and even fascist tendencies).

Even dissent is tightly scripted and regulated (and thereby co-opted). In fact, it is so tightly regulated and scripted today that one can even call it “stage managed” in such a way as to uphold the façade of democratic accountability and spontaneity, while deflecting it and ignoring the substance of it. That is also part of “managerialism”, for the chief strategy of managerialism is co-optation.

Both nature and human nature are managed according to the same rationale and the same model on the assumption that both are potentially unruly, ungovernably wild forces needing to be constantly scrutinised, disciplined, organised, and regulated.

The “masses” have been feared since the French and Russian Revolutions. Even Napoleon feared le peuple.  This suffices to account for why managerialism and its applied ensemble of the technologies of political and social control exist at all – continuous public polling, “endless propaganda“, perception management, surveillance programmes of all kinds, etc.  While the illusion of free choice must be maintained, it is in effect deprived of substantive meaning. I have read this with my own eyes in the statements of those implicated in the current mass surveillance controversy. The top-secret programme “Mastering the Internet” was justified, one claimed, because people might make the wrong political choices – in effect, that they might exercise political choice at all, for what is a “wrong political choice” is not specified. Presumably, it is anything that upsets the status quo, the fear of political “innovation” now being as strong in the secular State as it once was in the Catholic Church, theological “innovation” having been a chief justification for the Inquisition.

Irony abounds at our “end of history”. Managerialism in our time brings to Inquisition a level of refinement and execution that the latter did not and could not have.

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3 responses to “The Managerial Society”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Another article from The Guardian, this one by George Monbiot, that adds to the issue of the “managerial system” or techno-corporate state, “It’s business that really rules us now”

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/11/business-rules-lobbying-corporate-interests

    He makes some good points.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Significant quote: “In the past the man has been first: in the future the System must be first” — Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of scientific management, or sometimes called “Taylorism”.

    To the extent that “the System must be first” and not “the man” has been realised, there is necessarily a corresponding devaluation of humanism as a core creed and philosophy, and with that too, any notion of the universality of human rights. Taylor’s “the System must be first” recalls Crane Brinton’s succinct definition of modernity too — as “the invention of a system for inventing systems”.

    Dystopias arise from such thinking, of course, and in Taylor’s remark (which was recorded in 1911) we see the kernel of that worldview that was to emerge after the first World War that also gave impetus to dystopian literature and the despair and disillusionment of the intelligentsia (such as A. Huxley, H.G. Wells) and those of the so-called “Lost Generation”.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    The old system of absolute monrachy is gone and now, instead of a single absolute monarch, we have many many kings 🙂 This is rapidly becoming a very small planet.

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