- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

American Machiavelli

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 [1]

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.

Follow @toryanarchist [2]

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "American Machiavelli"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On October 28, 2014 @ 9:39 am

“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.”

Just how that can happen is a conundrum. It seems barely possible that more people who are being disaffected can come to understand that we are now living in a de-facto oligarchy irresponsible to them and their interests. But how is it possible for the oligarchy to change its nature, given human intransigence, the length of the human lifespan and the even longer corporate hierarchical lifespan? One looks at such practical examples as the highly bureaucratized Soviet system, which lived 70 years, long past when it was obvious it had failed the people of the nation it ruled. Must we, too, wait 70 years?

#2 Comment By David Naas On October 28, 2014 @ 10:17 am

So our future, once we cast off our silly democratic superstitions is to be the same as the Chinese: rule by benevolent Oligarchs who have only our best interest at heart?

Yes, I read Machiavelli’s Discourses in high school, and was suitably impressed. I also read a statement by Trotsky, which I misremember as, “If the State is the only employer, being fired is as death sentence.” This in reference to Stalin’s State Socialism. I’m sure Mister Burnham read it also.

The difference between State Socialism and Oligarchical Collectivism is… meaningless, to the poor clod on the bottom.

The Masters of realpolitik are ever with us, suggesting the ordinary fools who go and vote should shut up and obey those who have their best intentions at heart. Or, merely obey whoever has won the power struggle.

In this, I find the instigator of my favorite cancelled-too-soon TV series to be most prescient. In Firefly, Joss Whedon (damned Liburul that he is) projected a future human society ruled by a combination of the oligarchs of China and the USA. With beneficial results. For the winners. He seemed to think it was not a really good thing.

Unlike Mister Burnham.

#3 Comment By Acilius On October 28, 2014 @ 11:31 am

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution. For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

#4 Comment By John Peer On October 28, 2014 @ 11:46 am

Great piece. I might have to re-read it. One question left unanswered though – is there a way to roll back the “managerial revolution”? (Which seems to be a process different from “overcoming oligarchy”, from what I gather.) You seem to imply that it’s some sort of teleological necessity, unless I missed something.

#5 Comment By Harry Huntington On October 28, 2014 @ 11:51 am

Fairer to say that Capitalism died and Managerialism won when Ronald Reagan killed off the US steel industry in the face of overseas predatory pricing. American capitalism since the visionary days of Alexander Hamilton thrived under strong Government managed trade protection. All economic systems are rule driven. Post-WWII America was in flux. That flux ended with the Reagan Revolution which put in place the present system that has massively transferred wealth and control to the 1%. Local banking (which fostered creativity and capitalism) was killed off. Financial capital was freed to engage in speculation that had zero to do creating wealth but much to do with generating cash for the speculators. Cash is not wealth. The pension system (which used to invest to grow American manufacturing) was transformed with the 401K into a system that funneled cash into the stock market to let hedge fund folks make massive cash for themselves with program trading systems (but create little wealth because stock market purchases are not capital investments).

The American system is in total collapse.

#6 Comment By geokat62 On October 28, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

“In such a system, the people still do not rule directly, but they can influence the outcome of elite contests at the margin.”

Contrasting this with Lincoln words of: ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’ does not leave one inspired.

Look, let’s not make this so complicated. There are two basic issues with the current democratic process: campaign financing and the undue influence of lobbies. Can we not all agree that money has to be removed from election cycles? Let’s start there by supporting the Public Campaign’s Clean Money Clean Elections efforts. Regarding lobbying, this legalized form of corruption will be largely addressed by removing their ability to inject funds into the campaigns of elected officials.

#7 Comment By David Naas On October 28, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

Acilius makes a good point. I had forgotten about Dennis.

A few years back, Goldberg wrote a silly book titled, “Liberal Fascism”. Silly because in 400+ pages of innuendo, he missed the truly frightening nature of the modern Corporate State — that it is neither Liberal nor Conservative, merely self-serving.

(And for those not concerned with history, the “corporate State” was the name Mussolini gave to the world’s first Fascist state.)

So, with what are we left? That Fascism, or even fascism, is a good thing(?), and the wave of the future, to which we had better become accustomed?(!)

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 28, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

I am going to proffer the least likely course, but the one I think is most effective.

The oligarchy in the US need realize one reality. That it is their best interests to ensure that the wealth flows down across and out.

#9 Comment By Acilius On October 28, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

@David Naas: Well, Lawrence Dennis seems to have thought that under an enlightened elite, a system which he would classify as fascist could be made more or less tolerable to the broad majority of the population. Dennis’ prescription for a tolerable fascism was one that stimulated the economy with domestic make-work schemes rather than militaristic adventures, and that put as little effort as possible into stirring up racial hatred and persecuting minority groups. Those make-work schemes were supposed to “ensure that wealth flows down across and out,” as EliteCommInc puts it, and the lackadaisical racism was supposed to be no worse than what was in fact established as law in the USA in Dennis’ time.

Dennis himself grew up as an African American child in the state of Georgia in the early twentieth century and as an adult was an extremely unpopular public figure, so he can have been under few illusions as to what sort of life might await those outside that broad majority. Dennis recounts a shocking episode in his book Operational Thinking for Survival. As a visitor to Germany in the mid-1930s, he was granted an audience with the Nazis’ tamed philosopher, Alfred Rosenberg. Dennis tells us that he suggested to Rosenberg that the Nazis stop physically attacking Jews and trying to force them to leave Germany, as they were doing at that point, and that instead they should subject them to the same segregation regime under which African Americans lived. Rosenberg dismissed the idea, but that Dennis would suggest it, in view of his background, is a tragedy in the classical sense of that term.

I’m by no means convinced that any of Dennis’ views were correct, but they are certainly worth considering. Among other things, I think that Burnham’s conception of countervailing power in The Machiavellians gains a great deal of depth and significance if we see it as, in part, a rebuttal to Dennis and an attempt to sketch out an alternative to Dennis’ bleak vision of the future.

#10 Comment By Jonathan On October 28, 2014 @ 7:26 pm

All of this (the machinations of foxes and the unquestioning fealty of lions) appears to boil down to one thing: the seemingly irreversible trend to an ideological-free corporatism-without-expectations. An indication of this trend can be identified as the buy-in from many corners of society including the president to placing the onus of the average annual rise in surface temperature onto industrial carbon emissions. The antidote implied by the environmentalist prophets of doom to the anticipated crisis resulting from global change is not a cap and trade policy to stem hydrofluorocarbon emissions as that would prove inadequate but rather a comprehensive centralized program further consolidating capital holdings under the aegis of an ever expanding state whose authoritative reach would run beyond any particular territorial boundary embracing a statism without expectations of greater prosperity, earthly paradises, der Übermensch, or national triumphalism.

One can see this tendency in foreign policy as well where every generation born after WWII has seen conflict. When one period of conflict ends another follows. It would seem that the territorial integrity of our country, the U.S., is under constant threat. But how real is that threat? And, how much more real, terribly real is the response? This constant preparation for war, and continual engagement in various conflagrations only hastens tethering private interests to les Affaires d’États. A cowed polity then shouts,”Pay no heed for the future. Only, circle the wagons!”

When is enough enough? How can we redress this centripetal trend towards capital consolidation and state power? How can we bring truth to power freed from the trials of failed causes and the burial mounds of muted voices?

#11 Comment By C. L. H. Daniels On October 29, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

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.

And yet, they have little incentive to do so. Myths are powerful, and enduring. That is their nature. Even if a talented elite were to come along who was willing to break from the myths and attempt the construction of a new political paradigm (Rand Paul, for example), the enduring power of political myths of both the left and the right will make this a tall task indeed. Such a person won’t be able to rely on all of the myths that modern political contests are fought with and will therefore be at a disadvantage when matched against existing elites.

I find it more likely that the reliance on myths continues, only the myths will evolve to become more extreme as public frustration with inequality and poor economic prospects for the lower and middle classes increases. Electoral government means that the prevailing myths of politics will be more responsive to the public mood than to the politicians who try to manipulate them. As public extremism increases, successful politicians will adapt accordingly. Civil conflict is a real possibility the longer our politics remain divorced from our problems.

#12 Comment By KD On October 29, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

The true sovereign is the one that is willing to sacrifice himself, up to the point of death, for the benefit of the people. This is not a conclusion of logic, but a principle revealed in history. On the other hand, the sovereign who sacrifices the people for himself is destined to have his grandchildren sacrificed by the usurpers. We can also see this principle operative in history if we go looking for it. But even an elite that regards these principles as superstitions must still, ultimately, pay the cost of power.

#13 Comment By Wax On October 29, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

A commenter said, “Civil conflict is a real possibility the longer our politics remain divorced from our problems.” Yes, and, the availing of countervailing force is consistently suppressed with a collaborative nexus between Capital and Government. Strangely, I would say to an American Conservative that Labor, its ability to negotiate worth, is, and will continue to be, the only avenue of consistent and workable countervailing force. There are definite and certain liabilities to Labor’s ascendance just as there are, now present, with Capital’s rule. And when I say Labor, I mean private labor- public unions are and must be a different consideration. FDR had misgivings about such things. A creative and educated class of foxes and a worldly and moving class of lions does not and cannot play into the common activity of humanity- Labor. I think the work we do, the things that occupy a great part of the use of our existences, shape us in ways we don’t see or more, presciently, want to see, want to see of ourselves. The myth of individual success is rampant and illogical- especially when the shape of the myth is cash and flash, power and renown. I’ve always wondered what would be the shape and substance of a constructive collective action to a conservative voice. I mean this openly and interested as a lover of one of our great conservative thinkers, Daniel Boorstin. This is my first visit to this sight and given the substance of this article, I will continue to read further articles. Also, I’ve just watched Madison Bumgarner pitch himself into legend- if only for the survival of baseball, may we ever combine our differences to some workable outcome.

#14 Comment By eero iloniemi On October 30, 2014 @ 10:05 am

A fresh perspective into the elite power struggle is given by David Priestland in his book Merchant Soldier Sage: a New History of Power.

#15 Comment By Polybius On October 30, 2014 @ 10:11 am

This is quite clearly a thoughtful essay and I enjoyed the comments as well. I do not agree with the author’s characterisation of the American polity. I have not read much of Burnham and so it would not be correct for me to pass on his observations. Nonetheless, I count myself fortunate to be an outsider, even if somewhat connected to the American psyche, by being an Englishman who had the luck to get his PH.D. in American Political Theory here in the United States.
I am struck by the fact that I have yet to find an authoritative voice (save Forrest MacDonald) on why the American Founding Fathers decided to call the American Experiment “novus ordo seclorum”. I have my own ideas of course and am preparing a work on what I think it means as a fundamental principle of the American system of government.
A careful read of John Adams (my dissertation subject) should alert us to what was going on in those heady days. To be sure, Adams and his contemporaries were fully aware of Machiavelli, not to mention a whole host of other prominent political philosophers both ancient and for them modern. They were aware, also, and I think from this is where my disagreement comes, of the nature of power (Adams devoured Hobbes, Rousseau and Montesquieu in particular). To me, their solution was to fight the English Civil War all over again (just read the debate between the House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay and Governor Thomas Hutchinson). That is why we have the persistent ‘myth’ of Limited Government.
Just go and re-read Federalist Papers No. 51, starting at “But what is government itself….” There is so much more here that it boggles the mind that our professors and betters cannot be bothered to re-acquaint themselves with the blessings they have inherited, much less pass them on to the next and future generations. And that goes for lawyers too.
Is America broken? Maybe, but I am betting on its unique nature to withstand the onslaught of the mediocrity that is the hallmark of the professional, the manager, the expert, the pundit and so on.

#16 Comment By Bernecky On October 30, 2014 @ 3:32 pm

Remember how, during every holiday meal, you could depend upon Grandpa to say that they all ought to be lined up and shot?

It’s still not the case that Pelosi and Feinstein figure their taxes on forms labeled “D” for “Democrat.”

#17 Comment By TGGP On October 30, 2014 @ 9:07 pm

I don’t think a unified Italy has worked out as well as Machiavelli hoped.

#18 Comment By Reinhold On October 30, 2014 @ 10:49 pm

“I don’t think a unified Italy has worked out as well as Machiavelli hoped.”
The city-states fought a lot and much of the population, left and right, wanted unification, but of course then in the 1970s both left and right got themselves into a civil war. The North and South still want nothing to do with each other. Nonetheless I doubt anyone could or should have resisted unification, ultimately.
“Politics seems inadequate to the crises.”
Which is why you see more and more discontent on the left and the right with the contemporary liberal market democracy here described as the competition of social forces––why you see more left and right radical populism (which this article too curtly dismisses). The thoroughgoing corruption of a government, maybe even a form of government, is visible to everyone, whatever they think the cause or the solution.

#19 Comment By Reinhold On October 31, 2014 @ 12:51 am

Also, it was probably BECAUSE Sorel thought revolution was simply a political myth that he ultimately turned to national corporatism, the right-wing mirror of anarcho-syndicalism.

#20 Comment By Michael On October 31, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

As a (fox-residue leaning) socialist, I have to say this is pretty interesting analysis.

However, your treatment of Occupy Wall St and the activist left (i.e. left of the Democratic party) is lacking. Summarizing Occupy as a movement to “throw the bums out” is quite off base.

Occupy was not simply a protest event as in a Tea Party Rally or Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor. Within each Occupy encampment (many of which persisted for months), there was a model for consensus decision-making without a leadership vanguard. There were working groups which performed necessary tasks very much within the syndicalist tradition that Burnham found at least analytically useful.

Through Occupy’s structure, it absolutely has done what Sorel suggested: achieved organization, reform and empowerment through the working of an impossible goal — work which continues in cities around the world.

In that sense, I’d say the Left is attempting your first approach to reform. The frame of “99% vs 1%” has crystallized in a crude way the nature of oligarchy, and through creating self-managed power structures, it has eschewed the notion of populist leadership.

Even if the Leftist goal of an economy driven by the workers is practically impossible, it will necessarily spawn an elite which is more open to foxes and lions than the current regime. Either directly, or through reaction.

#21 Comment By SecurityEcology On November 1, 2014 @ 4:59 pm

I must criticize Daniel McCarthy for misleading reductionism.
This essay takes valuable insights of Machiavelli, Mosca, Pareto,
and Michels, then tries to force complex, changing realities —
the Substrates and Currencies of Power — into simplistic, old,
abstract categories, i.e, the Big “Isms” of Capitalism, Managerialism.

You want Power? Fine. You take 100% of the “Manufacturing”
you think is so valuable … so long as I get 100% of the Malware

Today, financial-engineering technocrats labor to slice and dice
digital “Capital” into derivative tranches of Risk-shifting-input
and Reward-concentrating-output. “Agency” is distributed
throughout more dimensions than merely “Ownership” and “Control”.

The biggest and most misleading of all abstract “Isms” is Liberty.
Yet in this analysis, McCarthy declines to examine how Liberty —
and Consciousness itself — is shaped
by the Ideological, Organizational, and Technological influences
of its changing Cultural container.

Or are human beings radical individualists, who are “free”
of material constraints, social situations, and the historical trajectory
of their Cultural ontology?

In 1943 at Harvard, Churchill got it right:

“The Empires of the future are the Empires of the Mind.”

The manufacturing that matters most today, is still the
“Manufacturing of Consent”. And Herb Schiller’s oldie-but-goodie —
“The Mind Managers” — sketches some methods driving
this most important “Managerial Revolution”.

Consciousness is a commodity. Domestically, we know how to
reliably manufacture and modify the “Liberal” and “Conservative” varieties.

All the “sound and fury” of our international “alliance” against Islamic State
signifies nothing but competing elite factions (Qatar, Turkey, Saudis, Israelis)
trying to customize the next production run of swarming Wahhabis
(the lethal variety … for Export-only) to their advantage.

In the U.S., whenever the sheeple Herd gets restless,
more Circuses will compensate for less Bread.
Ideological myths and micro-targeted surveillance and manipulation
will suffice to “Manufacture Consent” … or at least to divert
the mob’s rage at other elite factions in the ruling power structures.

Yes, by all means, vote the bastards out!

“[One] must at least retain the semblance of the old forms;
so that it may seem to the people that there has been no change
in the institutions, even though in fact they are entirely different
from the old ones. For the great majority of mankind are satisfied
with appearances, as though they were realities … “

Machiavelli – Discourses on the first Decade of Titus Livius, Book 1, Chap. XXV

#22 Comment By Patrick Moore On November 1, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

“That a man of Burnham’s gifts should have been able for a while to think of Nazism as something rather admirable, something that could and probably would build up a workable and durable social order, shows what damage is done to the sense of reality by the cultivation of what is now called “realism”.”


Orwell’s essay, apparently a later version of several, can be found here (scroll down):


#23 Comment By Patrick Moore On November 1, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

One more Orwell quote, come across just now entirely by accident. Now, I disagree with many of Orwell’s answers, but I like him because he is honest and intelligent enough to ask many of the right questions. This question (from the next essay in the Gutenberg collection cited earlier) is one that, perhaps, Burnham ought to have asked himself more persistently. At any rate, it is the essentially primary question one has to answer before pronouncing with any intelligence on secondary matters like kingdoms, nations, social constructions, and history.

“The question [why should mankind bother to leave anything untouched by a technology ever more able to ‘shatter (reality) to bits and then/Remould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire’] only arises because in exploring the physical universe man has made no attempt to explore himself. Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one’s life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so.”

#24 Comment By Barto On November 3, 2014 @ 10:36 am

This article is brilliant. But it also shows how utterly hopeless things are for those who aren’t in, or can’t get into, the 1%.

#25 Comment By johnt On November 3, 2014 @ 11:16 am

My understanding of Burnham places his Managerial Revolution in his pro-socialist days. Not something he carried over to his National Review period.
In any case we are on the eve of an election, one that makes a mockery of oligarchy and statism, and I might add this article, one that places the surge of power back in the hands of the individual voter. Not always the case but often enough.

#26 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On November 3, 2014 @ 12:35 pm

If you’d like to improve your understanding of Burnham and discover how firm his belief in the managerial revolution remained until the end of his career, consult the Jan. 20, 1978 issue of National Review, in which Burnham reviews The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business. Or try Burnham’s 1966 NR essay “Why Do They Hate Robert Strange McNamara?”, lauding the defense secretary who personified the managerial class.

#27 Comment By Barto On November 3, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

This article by Daniel McCarthy is an unintentional call to radical pessimism.

Social Darwinism is in our genes. That’s what Daniel McCarthy is really describing in this piece, unintentionally.

In short, there can never be any cessation, peace, or detente in what Darwin called the “war of nature.” We humans are part of that nature. We are brutes who imagine otherwise. Like it or not, we are brutes because it is a permanent condition that our food supply always falls below the ever-increasing number of mouths to feed. The “struggle for existence” (another Darwin phrase), the “bellum omnium contra omnes” (Hobbes, “war of all against all”) cannot be repealed. Per Carl von Clausewitz, politics is war by other means.

All the systems of morality and all the systems of political ideas and ideologies–these all mean nothing. They are simply tools of political warfare, and all warfare is just about the survival of Group A at the expense of Group B and C.

There isn’t any better world coming for all, not a Conservative Better World for All, not a Liberal Better World for All.

The struggle for survival (which is all the struggle for domination really is) will go on as long as their are life forms (& regardless of the IQ of the life forms). This is an irrevocable Law of Biological Nature.

That’s what this article by Daniel McCarthy really shows, I think. Read it again. Notice its last paragraph, how weak and really hopeless it is, grasping at straws such as the idea that “factions among the elite must be willing to open competition.”

When in history have those with power ever willingly and freely surrendered their power and places of privilege on the speculation that such may be good for the great masses of anonymous strangers that make up society?

This one article by Daniel McCarthy in essence renders the whole purpose of this web site null and void.

Yet, Daniel McCarthy seems to retain his optimistic hope for a Better Conservative World for All. He seems to not grasp the significance of what he himself has written. No one else seems to grasp it either.

#28 Comment By SecurityEcology On November 5, 2014 @ 11:25 am

Normally, like John Gray, I have to play the Pessimist.
But in response to Barto, I get to play Pandora —
tormenting those comforted by their Faith in Futility,
with the seductive possibilities of Hope.

Realistic pessimism — as practiced by Machiavelli and Nietzsche —
demands hard intellectual inquiry,
not the comforting certainty of easy answers.
Social Darwinism and Malthusianism are simplistic models —
useful insights initially, but they soon overshoot their limits.

They ignore the Technological arms race, and the fact that
Infrastructure and Organizations are continually-evolving weapons.
A Realist needs to understand those weapons.

1800 years before Machiavelli, Kautilya advised the first Mauryan king
how to unite the Indian subcontinent using deception, spies, and poison.
Kautilya’s “Arthashastra” is usually translated as “The Science of Politics”,
but it’s really a broader study of social control via covert Intel,
economic incentives, and overt Coercion.

The Morlocks have been herding and preying on the Eloi over 2000 years,
in every culture. These basic dynamics have not changed.

Lions rarely survive “open competition”, unless allied with Morlock Foxes.

What changes are the weapons used by Lions and Morlock Foxes,
and the methods of “Herd Management” to control Eloi sheeple.

A Realist needs to understand that “progress” occurs chiefly
in Weaponry and “Herd Management”, not Morality.
That’s why we have the situation described by General Omar Bradley
in his 1948 Armistice Day Speech:

“The world has achieved brilliance without conscience.
Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

As John Gray puts it in (widely separated parts of) “Straw Dogs”:

“Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth,
or to improve human life.
The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked
as humans are themselves. …
Humans are weapon-making animals
with an unquenchable fondness for killing …
science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war …

It seems feasible that over the coming century, human nature will be
scientifically remodelled. If so, it will be done haphazardly, as an
upshot of struggles in the murky realm where big business, organized crime,
and the hidden parts of government vie for control.”

American Eloi want to believe that, “Everything is fine; if we just keep Shopping!.
Most who reject this illusion, are too weak to face the harsh realities
that Kautilya and Machiavelli saw. Instead, these troubled Eloi seek
“Easy Answers” on the Cultural Menus — of Jihad, Jim Beam, or
the hallucinatory Revival Meeting that is Electoral Politics.

I notice the Nov./Dec. 2014 hardcopy American Conservative magazine put
“American Machiavelli” directly following “Obama is a Republican”.
A nice touch! But probably too subtle for most readers to see the connection.

So — on our Election Circus Day — I’ll let G. K. Chesterton speak to that:
(It’s been 90 years since he wrote the following;
that demonstrates the speed and reliability of “Cultural Progress”).

“The Party System was founded on … the notion that
folly and futility should be fairly divided between both sides. …
The game could not be played properly unless the various pieces
of nonsense and hypocrisy were most carefully and equitably distributed. …

The whole modern world has divided itself
into Conservatives and Progressives.
The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes.
The business of the Conservatives is
to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.
Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution,
the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition.
Thus we have the two great types — the advanced person who rushes us
into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. …

It is true in a sense to say that things will be worse
before they are better. But it is truer still to say that
we shall have to go even further back
before we can get any further forward.”

#29 Comment By Barto On November 6, 2014 @ 11:47 am

The comment above about Morlocks and Eloi is interesting. (see comment by SecurityEcology). Morlocks and Eloi come from the book “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. That books is a projection of the results of Darwinian evolution on the human race in the future. The book is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the sustainability of civilization, due to the Darwinian dynamic of life-or-death competition for survival and reproduction that can never be quashed.

#30 Comment By Jonathan On November 11, 2014 @ 9:21 pm

The book is deeply pessimistic about the prospects for the sustainability of civilization,due to the Darwinian dynamic of life-or-death competition for survival and reproduction that can never be quashed.

Unless we merge with our machinery mastering nanotechnology and use it as appendages to our nervous system. Then this tendency towards civilization’s dissolution — the way of biological life — is ended. But with that so goes our humanity. If we hold to a materialist reductionist model, the soul of the human being is nothing but the soul of a machine and can thus be tampered with. If we subscribe to a Cartesian dualist view, there is no definitive border between the res extensa (material) and res cogitans (psychical) aspects of reality. By merging with our nanotechnology, that is, brain implants and use of other prosthesis, we just might cross that line.

Perhaps, and this is mere speculation too: our saving grace is found in the same source that divides us — namely that of religion as distinct from spirituality. The former provides a framework to organize our lives and to ritualize myths that provide meaning to our lives. And that religion, as a whole, in its traditional forms of expression, might provide the inner power, inner motivation, inner inspiration to hold our world together through the belief in a non adulterated, incorruptible presence that through its grace makes survival possible for us. This has no empirical basis in reality. It is taken up as speculation, hope, and therefore trust in the possibility of that which would otherwise be deemed as impossible.