What is the "administrative state," and why does chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon want to "deconstruct" it?
Three texts are key to understanding Bannon's florid resentments: ex-Communist James Burnham's 1941 classic The Managerial Revolution, Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, and the late Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy.
Burnham, who would go on to become an important contributor to National Review, wrote while socialism, of both the international (the Soviet Union) and national (Nazi Germany) varieties, and imperial Japan were on the march. World War I, Burnham wrote, had been the "last great war of capitalist society," while World War II marked the "first great war of managerial society." If Russia and Germany had arrived at the last station of totalitarianism, Burnham wrote, America under FDR's technocratic New Deal was at the very least on the same railway line.
[W]hen the government takes over, either in full ownership of the economy or in some degree of control, some section of the economy, by that very fact that section of the economy is removed, entirely or partly, from the reign of capitalist economic relations. That section of the economy is no longer in the full capitalist sense a "profit-making institution," with the profits going in one way or another to individuals who have one or another form of "property right" in the given institution. [The Managerial Revolution]
The Managerial Revolution was published three years before Hayek's equally influential The Road to Serfdom, which also sounded the alarm about creeping totalitarianism in Western economies. Both books can be forgiven for presuming the worst about national-governmental intervention into the economy. But we have the benefit of nearly 80 years of hindsight by which to judge the success and desirability of the so-called "mixed economy," in which unelected bureaucrats (Burnham's "managers") wield some measure of power. The answer, according to successive generations of democratic ratification, is … We like it this way, thank you very much. Burnham himself unwittingly allowed for the possibility that his angst would one day be proven overwrought in just this fashion. Rejecting his Marxist roots, Burnham said he had not "the slightest sympathy with any theory of historical 'mechanism' or 'determinism' which pretends that human wishes and thoughts and wills have nothing to do with the historical process." He predicted that people would "act and wish and hope and decide in ways that will aid in the managerial revolution, in the carrying through of the social transition which will end in the consolidation of the managerial society."
Burnham was right that "many persons" would decide in favor of the managerial superintendence of the national economy. He was wrong about where that choice would lead. Individuals have continued to flourish, as has Western society at large. The profit motive is alive and well. Money — the importance of which Burnham predicted, spectacularly wrongly, would decline under managerial society — still matters.
We like it this way, thank you very much.
The election of Donald Trump didn't vindicate Burnham. Far from it. If anything, it has revealed that a large segment of the Republican Party is pissed off that the managerial revolution stopped working for them. The Reagan/Thatcher reforms of the managerial society — so-called "neoliberalism," with its program of deregulation, deconsolidation, deunionization, and financialization — has largely redounded to the benefit of people whom Bannonites intensely dislike (supranational or "coastal" elites).
Which is where social theorist Christoper Lasch enters the picture — or, I should say, the Bannonite reduction of Lasch's critique of postindustrial society enters the picture. Lasch was no right-winger. His Revolt of the Elites was suffused with a sense of nostalgia for social-revolutionary movements. Today's elite, Lasch wrote (in 1995), are obsessed with "health and moral uplift" and conformity to bourgeois values. Unlike in the 20th century, the masses are more conservative than their would-be liberators. The industrial working class has "become a pitiful remnant of itself." And what does pass for new social movements (feminism, gay rights), Lasch wrote, demand inclusion by society's dominant power structure, not the overturning of it!
And here we arrive at both the tragedy and farce of Bannon's fusion of Burnham's administrators and Lasch's elite. Lasch explicitly rejected the notion that the elites as he identified them constituted a "new ruling class." Unlike the left-wing movements of the 20th century, our Laschian elites are marked less by a singular political ideology than by a "continued fascination with the capitalist market" and the "frenzied search for profits." "They are more concerned with the smooth functioning of the system as a whole than with any of its parts" — a concern that, Bannon correctly suspects, dilutes passion for the maintenance of national borders.
The practical, programmatic effect of Bannon's resentment — maybe we should call it resentiment, because it is French in the depth of its reverse pretentiousness — is to punish Burnham's bureaucrats for being associated in Bannon's fevered brain with Lasch's elite. The Trump administration will not ultimately lay a finger on the wealth or influence of the Davos jet-set. But it has a better chance of succeeding in decimating the bureaucrats at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Under the Trump administration, powerful interests are using Bannonite cultural resentment as a cloak for the retrenchment and concentration of their own power. They're going to pick your pocket and pollute your streams. And you're going to like it because they purport to hate Meryl Streep and Richard Branson as much as you do.