America is badly governed. Congress has dismal approval ratings, sometimes as low as single digits. Presidential elections, settled by popular landslides in most postwar contests, now see margins of less than 5 percent separating winner from loser. Half or more of the country at any time disapproves of the president.

Politics is polarized. Yet activists left and right are frustrated that our politics also seems stuck in an unprincipled middle. Republicans and Democrats employ violent rhetoric against one another but are more similar than not in their behavior. Republican and Democratic presidents alike expand the welfare state; both parties endorse free trade; both are quick to use military force abroad. Even on divisive social issues, where popular passions are most irreconcilable, the conformity among the elite can be surprising. Only after Republicans like Ken Mehlman and Ted Olson had come out in support of same-sex marriage did the Clintons and Obama do so. Democrats are not necessarily as liberal, nor Republicans as conservative, as they seem.

Meanwhile, the troubles facing the country are grave. Wars, terrorism, and a sense of losing ground economically and strategically beset the national psyche. Politics seems inadequate to the crises.

These appear to be a variety of different and even paradoxical problems—how can our politics be both too extreme and too consensual? Yet one writer’s work pulls all this into focus. He was one of the key thinkers of the postwar conservative movement, though his thought is badly neglected on the right today. The man whose mind explains our politics today and suggests a diagnosis—if not a cure—for our condition is James Burnham. Once a Marxist, he became the American Machiavelli, master analyst of the oligarchic nature of power in his day and ours.

He was one of William F. Buckley Jr.’s first recruits for the masthead of National Review before the magazine’s launch in 1955. Burnham, born in 1905, had already had a distinguished career. He had worked with the CIA and its World War II-era precursor, the OSS. Before that, as a professor of philosophy at New York University, he had been a leading figure in the American Trotskyist movement, a co-founder of the socialist American Workers Party.

But he broke with Trotsky, and with socialism itself, in the 1940s, and he sought a new theory to explain what was happening in the world. In FDR’s era, as now, there was a paradox: America was a capitalist country, yet capitalism under the New Deal no longer resembled what it had been in the 19th century. And socialism in the Soviet Union looked nothing at all like the dictatorship of the proletariat: just “dictatorship” would be closer to the mark. (If not quite a bull’s-eye, in Burnham’s view.)

Real power in America did not rest with the great capitalists of old, just as real power in the USSR did not lie with the workers. Burnham analyzed this reality, as well as the fascist system of Nazi Germany, and devised a theory of what he called the “managerial revolution.” Economic control, thus inevitably political control, in all these states lay in the hands of a new class of professional managers in business and government alike—engineers, technocrats, and planners rather than workers or owners.

The Managerial Revolution, the 1941 book in which Burnham laid out his theory, was a bestseller and critical success. It strongly influenced George Orwell, who adapted several of its ideas for his own even more famous work, 1984. Burnham described World War II as the first in a series of conflicts between managerial powers for control over three great industrial regions of the world—North America, Europe, and East Asia. The geographic scheme and condition of perpetual war are reflected in Orwell’s novel by the ceaseless struggles between Oceania (America with its Atlantic and Pacific outposts), Eurasia (Russian-dominated Europe), and Eastasia (the Orient). The Managerial Revolution itself appears in 1984 as Emmanuel Goldstein’s forbidden book The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.

Could freedom of any sort survive in the world of 1984 or the real world of the managerial revolution? Burnham provided an answer—one Orwell didn’t want to hear—in his next book, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom. Liberty’s only chance under any economic or political system at all was to be found in a school of political realism beginning with the author of The Prince.

Machiavelli poses yet another paradox. The Florentine political theorist seems to recommend a ruthless and manipulative ethos to monarchs in The Prince—the book is a veritable handbook of tyranny. Yet his other great work, the Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, is as deeply republican as The Prince appears to be despotic. Whose side was Machiavelli on?

Scholars still argue, but Burnham anticipated what is today a widely accepted view: Machiavelli was fundamentally a republican, a man of the people, yet one who took a clear-eyed, even scientific view of power. And by discussing the true, brutal nature of politics openly, Machiavelli provided any of his countrymen who could learn a lesson about how freedom is won and lost. As Burnham writes:

If the political truths stated or approximated by Machiavelli were widely known by men, the success of tyranny and all the other bad forms of oppressive political rule would become much less likely. A deeper freedom would be possible in society than Machiavelli himself believed attainable. If men generally understood as much of the mechanism of rule and privilege as Machiavelli understood, they would no longer be deceived into accepting their rule and privilege, and they would know what steps to take to overcome them.

From his experience in government and reading of the classics Machiavelli distilled a number of lessons, which Burnham further refines. “Machiavelli insists,” he notes, that in a republic “no person and no magistrate may be permitted to be above the law; there must be legal means for any citizen to bring accusations against any other citizen or any official…” Freedom also requires a certain extent of territory, even if the means by which that territory is to be acquired are not as republican as one would wish: hence Machiavelli’s call for a prince to unify Italy. Machiavelli was a Florentine patriot, but he had seen his beloved city ruined by wars with other cities while mighty foreign kingdoms like France overawed them all. Cities like Florence and their citizens could be free only if Italy was.

Most importantly, within any polity “only out of the continuing clash of opposing groups can liberty flow,” writes Burnham:

the foundation of liberty is a balancing of forces, what Machiavelli calls a ‘mixed’ government. Since Machiavelli is neither a propagandist nor an apologist, since he is not the demagogue of any party or sect or group, he knows and says how hypocritical are the calls for a ‘unity’ that is a mask for the suppression of all opposition, how fatally lying or wrong are all beliefs that liberty is the peculiar attribute of any single individual or group—prince or democrat, nobles or people or ‘multitude.’

All well and good—but what has any of this to do with the perils of America in 1943, let alone those of seven decades later? The answer begins to emerge once later contributions to the Machiavellian tradition are taken into account. Burnham focuses on four late 19th- and early 20th-century thinkers: Italian social theorists Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto; French syndicalist Georges Sorel; and German sociologist Robert Michels. Together, their work explains a great deal about 21st-century American oligarchy—and what can be done about it.

Mosca’s signal contribution was a categorical one: all societies are logically divided into two classes, rulers and ruled. This may seem like common sense, yet in fact Mosca’s taxonomy dispels two persistent myths, those of autocracy and democracy—of one-man rule and rule by everyone. For even the most absolute monarch depends on a class of advisers and magistrates to develop and enforce his policies, while in the most liberal modern democracy there is still a practical difference between the elected and appointed officials who make or execute laws and the ordinary citizen who does neither.

The rationale according to which a society justifies the division between rulers and ruled is what Mosca calls its “political formula.” In the U.S. today, representative democracy is the political formula. For early modern monarchies, it was a theory of divine right. Under communism, the political formula was the idea of the party as the vanguard of the proletariat—the class that according to Marx would inherit the earth. For the Nazis the formula was the identification of the party and its leader with the mystical essence of the Volk.

Just as Machiavelli does not entrust liberty to any one class—nobles, king, or people—Mosca does not believe freedom depends on any particular political formula. Such doctrines are myths, even if some historically correspond only to the most repressive regimes. The reality is that liberty comes from specific conditions, not abstract formulas—conditions that permit open competition among what Mosca calls “social forces.” Burnham explains: “By ‘social force’ Mosca means any human activity which has significant social and political influence,” including “war, religion, land, labor, money, education, technological skill,” all of which are represented by different factions and institutions in society.

The ruling class represents the strongest forces—but which ones are strongest changes over time. Practices that allow competition among social forces thus imply a ruling class of some permeability, as well as one tolerant of organized opposition and dissent.

A lesson here for America’s nation-building efforts in the Islamic world should be plain—democracy and a paper-based rule of law count for nothing; actual social forces are everything. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya we understand nothing about the forces of tribe, sect, and interest. As a result, trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives lost are not nearly enough to create order, let alone freedom. We let our own political formula blind us to foreign realities.

Not all myths are politically debilitating, however. Burnham finds in the work of Georges Sorel—a revolutionary syndicalist who early in the 20th century became a fellow traveler of Charles Maurras’s Action Française and the nationalist right—a theory of myth as constitutive of political identity and a driver of political action. “A myth that serves to weld together a social group—nation, people, or class—must be capable of arousing their most profound sentiments,” says Burnham, “and must at the same time direct energy toward the solution of the real problems which the group faces in is actual environment.”

For Sorel, the archetypal myth of this sort was the anarcho-syndicalist idea of the general strike, in which all workers cease their labor and bring down society, resulting in spontaneous creation of a new and more just order. A Sorelian myth is not a utopian vision—the utopia is what comes after the mythical action—but it is also not a thing that occurs in time and space. It is an aspiration that in theory could be fulfilled but in practice never will be, yet in working toward this impossible goal much real progress—in terms of organization, reform, and empowering one’s group—is achieved.

Myths of this sort are plentiful in American politics. On the right, they include the idea of ending all abortion or returning to a pristine interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. On the left, they include the goals of eliminating all discrimination and bringing about universal human equality—as if more equality in some things might not lead to more inequality in others.

“A myth cannot be refuted,” however, “since it is, at bottom, identical with the convictions of a group, being the expression of these convictions in the language of movement; and it is, in consequence, unanalyzable into parts which could be placed on the plane of historical descriptions,” Sorel writes. Such myths “are not descriptions of things but expressions of determination to act.”

The key is the ability of myths to organize groups and mass movements. The effects of such mobilization, however, can be paradoxical. The election of a Tea Party senator like Ted Cruz, a Princeton and Harvard graduate whose wife is a Goldman Sachs executive, or a left-wing populist like Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor herself who is, if not a one-percenter, much closer to the top one percent than to the bottom 90, shows how the myths of the masses serve society’s winners.

Even organizations that come into being to rally the masses are themselves subject to the scientific laws of power, in particular the “iron law of oligarchy” described by Burnham’s third subject, the German-Italian sociologist Robert Michels. In works such as the book known in English as Political Parties, Michels shows that all organizations and movements have a leadership class whose interests and abilities are distinct from those of the membership. Democracy or equality—the idea that everyone participates on the same level—is antithetical to the very concept of organization, which necessarily involves different persons, different “organs,” serving different roles. And some roles are more powerful than others.

Not only do leaders corrupt organizations, Burnham observes, but the oligarchic nature of organization affects even the most selfless leader as well. “Individual saints, exempt in individual intention from the law of power, will nonetheless be always bound to it through the disciples, associates, and followers to whom they cannot, in organized social life, avoid being tied.” Many a grassroots true believer faults bad advisers for the mistakes of a Ronald Reagan or Ron Paul—but the problem is not bad advisers, it’s advisers, period. They are necessary, and they necessarily have their own motives and perspectives. Without them, however, there would be no organization. This is as true of grassroots groups, even purely volunteer ones, as of Beltway cliques.

Effective politics therefore means accepting the limits of human nature and organization and working within those limits, not expecting perfection. An organization as a whole must harmonize the interests of the leaders with those of the membership and direct them all toward political achievement.

The greatest of the modern Machiavellians considered by Burnham is the one he covers last: Vilfredo Pareto, whose accomplishments spanned the fields of economics and sociology. Pareto’s work on elitism sums up and extends the thinking of the others, though Mosca considered him a rival and copycat. Pareto examines not only social class but classes of social psychology: his magisterial Mind and Society reduces human motives to six fundamental classes of what Pareto terms “residues.” (They are residues in that they are what remains when everything less stable has been boiled away by analysis.)

Only the first two classes are important for Burnham’s investigation. Class I residues involve the “instinct for combinations”—manufacturing new ideas and tastes from the disassembling and reassembling of old ones; creating complex systems from simple materials; incorporating experiences of the world with ideas in novel ways. These are the instincts that drive the verbalist and theorist, the filmmaker, the philosopher, the magician. Class II residues, by contrast, involve “group persistences” and encourage the preservation of existing institutions and habits. These are the psychological forces of social inertia; they are also the forces of loyalty.

Burnham observes that Class I residues correspond to the character type Machiavelli describes as the fox, cunning and quick to use fraud to get his way. Class II residues correspond to Machiavelli’s lions, more comfortable with force than manipulation. A society needs both types. “If Class II residues prevail” in all strata of society, Burnham warns,

the nation develops no active culture, degenerates in a slough of brutality and stubborn prejudice, in the end is unable to overcome new forces in its environment, and meets disaster. Disaster, too, awaits the nation given over wholly to Class I residues, with no regard for the morrow, for discipline or tradition, with a blind confidence in clever tricks as the sufficient means for salvation.

After residues, the rock-bottom motives of men and women, come what Pareto calls “derivations.” These, writes Burnham, are “the verbal explanations, dogmas, doctrines, theories”—and ideologies—“with which man, with that passionate pretense of his that he is rational, clothes the non-logical bones of the residues.” Derivations may seem to be expressions of rational thinking, but they are not. “It is for this reason,” Burnham continues,

that the ‘logical’ refutation of theories used in politics never accomplishes anything so long as the residues remain intact. Scientists proved with the greatest ease that Nazi racial theories were altogether false, but that had no effect at all in getting Nazis to abandon those theories; and even if they had abandoned them, they would merely have substituted some new derivation to express the same residue.

Facts about voter fraud and the suppressive effects of voter ID requirements, for example, thus count for very little in today’s discussions of such laws—not because either side is consciously dishonest about its intentions but because such arguments are driven by emotional commitments that are not subject to proof or disproof. This is also why our cable news channels put little effort into persuading skeptics. The politics to which they cater is about group loyalty and its derivative mythologies. (To be sure, this costs Fox and MSNBC their credibility with people in whom Class I residues are stronger—not necessarily because such people are devoted to the truth but because they at least desire variety and complexity. Fox News is for lions, not foxes.)

No one is a slave of a single class of residues, however, and both within the individual mind and within society there are always competing currents. Elites in particular must cultivate a mixture of fox-like and lion-like qualities if they hope to retain power. An imbalance of these characteristics leads to social upheaval and what Pareto terms “the circulation of elites,” the fall of one ruling class and rise of another.

This happens especially when foxes, having outmaneuvered the lions in the struggle for power within society, are confronted by an external threat that cannot be overcome without violence. Foxes are inept in the use of force, apt to apply too much or too little, and always they prefer to secure their goals by deceit or diplomacy.

There is also internal danger from an imbalance of residues. Talented verbalists denied admittance to an elite whose ranks are closed will, instead of competing for power within the institutions of society, attempt to gain power by subverting those institutions—including through revolution, which they foment by sowing alienation and anger among the lions of the public.

Burnham feared that foxes were dangerously dominant in the America of his own time, which is why he followed The Machiavellians with a series of books arguing for a hard line in the Cold War: The Struggle for the World in 1947, The Coming Defeat of Communism in 1949, and Containment or Liberation? in 1953. His column in National Review, which he wrote from 1955 until ill health ended his career in 1978, was called first “The Third World War” and later, only a little mellowed, “The Protracted Conflict.”

He died in 1987, much honored by the conservative movement he had helped build. Yet he is poorly understood today, remembered only as a Cold Warrior rather than a brilliant social theorist of enduring urgency. Ironically, Burnham’s last original book, The Suicide of the West in 1964, may have contributed to misperceptions about his work. In it, Burnham describes liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide”—meaning not that it was the cause of the West’s loss of ground and nerve but that it was a rationale expressing a more fundamental mood of surrender. Burnham was assumed to be saying that the managerial revolution, having put in a place a new liberal ruling class since World War II, was leading America into weakness and withdrawal.

In fact, though Burnham hardly emphasized this for his free-market readership in National Review, liberalism was the ideology of Western capitalism’s suicide in the face of an assertively managerial Communist bloc. Burnham had, after all, argued in The Managerial Revolution that of the three great nations in the throes of the revolution—the U.S., Russia, and Nazi Germany—the U.S. was least far along the path and the most torn between its capitalist past and managerial future. Liberalism, even in its left-wing, statist iteration, is the characteristic ideology of capitalism, and it was the capitalist system as well as the West—Burnham identified both with the British Empire—that was committing suicide.  thisarticleappeared-novdec14

This might suggest Burnham’s social thought is even more antiquated than his Cold War strategizing. After all, the managerial Soviet Union is gone, and the capitalist U.S. has not only survived but thrived for decades in what is now a globalized free-market system. While the political theory of The Machiavellians doesn’t depend on The Managerial Revolution—it’s surprising, in fact, how little connected the two books are—his reputation must surely suffer for getting such a basic question wrong.

Only he didn’t get it wrong—for what is the political and economic system of China if not what Burnham described in The Managerial Revolution? Engineers, industrial planners, and managers have led China for decades, with unarguable results. Indeed, several East Asian economies, including those of American allies Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, are managerialist. As Burnham predicted, these economies have been highly successful at controlling unemployment and raising standards of living.

The American ruling class, by contrast, has pursued a largely anti-managerial policy, ridding the country of much strategic manufacturing. Such industry—including shipbuilding and semiconductor fabrication—is now overwhelmingly based in Asia. The U.S. hybrid system, transitioning from capitalism to managerialism, outperformed the Soviet Union. Whether it can outperform the next wave of managerial revolution is very much uncertain.

For the Machiavellians, freedom is not a thing to be won by popular revolt against the ruling class—for any revolt can only replace one ruling class with another. Instead, freedom requires that factions among the elite—representatives of different social forces or rival elements of the same one—should openly compete for power and seek to draw into their ranks the most talented foxes and lions of the people, to gain advantages in skill and strength over their rivals. In such a system, the people still do not rule directly, but they can influence the outcome of elite contests at the margin. This leads evenly matched elites constantly to seek popular support by looking out for the welfare of the common citizen, for perfectly self-interested reasons.

What has happened in America since the end of the Cold War, however, is that competition for popular favor has been reduced to a propaganda exercise—employing myths, symbols, and other “derivatives”—disconnected from policies of material interest to the ruling class. Thus monetary policy, foreign policy, and positions on trade and immigration vary little between Republican and Democratic presidents. This is a terrible situation—if you’re not part of the elite. If you are, all the gridlock and venom of our politics is simply irrelevant to the bottom line. For the non-elite, however, insecurity of all kinds continues to rise, as does a sense that the country is being sold out from under you.

America’s ruling class has bought itself time—for continuing capitalism in an age of worldwide managerial revolution—at the expense of America’s middle and working classes. Reform, alas, will not come from “throw the bums out” populism of either the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street varieties. It can only come from two directions: the best of the people must grow conscious of how oligarchy operates and why populist leadership is a paradox, and new factions among the elite must be willing to open competition on more serious fronts—campaigning not only on myths and formulas but on the very substance of the managerial revolution.

Daniel McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative.