A Choice Of Inevitable Futures
Gwydion M. Williams looks at Burnham’s Managerial Revolution and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
Revolutionary politics is politics that changes the definition of the normal. Before and after a successful revolution, people will be equally convinced that certain things are normal and even inevitable. But they won’t be the same things, not unless the revolution has failed.
Looked at from the viewpoint, European Leninism was not at all a failure. A lot of what was ‘abnormal’ or ‘Bolshevik’ in 1917 had become normal by 1991, and often well before 1991. The New Right prefer to believe that since the current ‘normal’ is normal, and so would have happened anyway without all of the suffering linked to Leninism. (Suffering linked to capitalism is another matter, that was necessary despite the inevitable future being just bound to happen.)
Look back into history, and you’ll be astonished by the number of Inevitable Futures that you find. I’m looking here at just two of them, both linked to Orwell’s 1984 (which I’ll deal with in its own right in a future article).
Between the two World Wars, there was a widespread belief that Western civilisation was in decline and would soon collapse. From the late 1980s, many people have tried to forget this and pretend that the New Right had direct continuity with pre-1914 Europe. To take this line, they had to say and believe that a splendid Capitalist-Democratic Europe suffered from an unexpected outbreak of trench warfare in 1914, and was then plagued by Fascism and Communism for no good reason. The alien nature of pre-1914 values had to be glossed over, as had the loss of faith when the victors of the Great War realised what it had cost. Social Democrats and Christian Democrats – the people who actually rescued Western Europe when it seemed doomed in the dismal aftermath of World War Two – were in the 1980s condemned as weaklings who made unnecessary concessions to left-wing demands.
Closer to the actual events, people knew that values formed in the 19th century had led to the horrors of 1914-18. They saw no way out. The consensus in the years leading to World War Two was that the West had risen from barbarism, achieved civilisation, lapsed into decadence and would soon fall back into barbarism. Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies – published in 1930 – has one of his characters explain that the mood of the times is based on a certainty that another war is coming, even though no one wanted it. The novel ends with a war in progress, a war than can be expected to end in total ruin for Western values. At the time, there were many reasons to expect just that.
In response to the weakness of the mainstream and a belief in impending doom, at least two viable alternatives arose within the broad framework of Western values. But then, after the perils and triumphs of World War Two, the Western mainstream unexpectedly regenerated itself, taking elements from these alternatives and without breaking formal continuity.
Both the New-Right and the liberal-left cover up this process by speaking of the Western mainstream’s continued commitment to freedom. Freedom for what? People would have used the same rhetoric about freedom at the start and at the end of the 20th century. But if you look at the actual nature of what is understood by ‘freedom’, this has changed out of all recognition.
At the start of the 20th century, equality of the sexes was a contentious issue, with a majority of men saying ‘no’. Votes for women in national elections had been achieved in a few places, beginning with New Zealand. But it was also being fiercely resisted. The revolutionary-socialist Paris Commune had votes for women during its brief existence in 1871. Remarkably, women in France didn’t get the vote again till 1944.
Inequality applied to more than politics. It was acceptable for men to have sex outside of marriage, though it was not respectable. For women to have sex outside of marriage was unforgivably bad up until the 1950s and was not viewed as normal until the 1970s. The views of the Western mainstream have changed out of all recognition.
At the end of the 20th century, sexual equality is at least theoretically conceded in most of the world. Even more dramatic is the change in practice. Men who theoretically accepted female equality at the start of the 20th century often treated women in a way that no man nowadays would venture, even if they resented the current equalisation.
I said that at least two viable alternatives arose within the broad framework of Western values. I mean Leninist Communism and the various fascist movements, notably those of Italy and Germany. Socialism and Social-Democracy were broadly part of the framework of Western values, sharing both its weakness and its later regeneration. There was also a large anarchist movement that prided itself on being outside of the framework of Western values, but I refuse to count it as a viable alternative. Political anarchism flourishes when the state-machine is intrusive and a bit old-fashioned: it seldom survives the outbreak of real-life anarchy. The loss of the fixed social framework that people are actually dependent upon shows just why Anarchism is not a serious choice. As a mass movement, it was absorbed into either socialism or communism, a process that had already been happening before the First World War and the weakening of the framework of Western values. Bits and pieces of anarchism also found their way into fascism. A few little groups hung on as anarchist and survive to this day, but with diminishing importance.
On the matter of sexual equality, socialists and anarchists had been the main pioneers. There were other, including women from the privileged classes who wanted the same status as the males and had no intention of conceding anything to the men and women below them in the social hierarchy. Breaking the framework were fascism and communism, with communism upholding theoretical equality and fascism demanding that women be returned to their traditional roles. Practice differed from these ideals – Hitler made use of the talents of female film-directorLeni Riefenstahl and aviator Hanna Reitsch: Bolshevism didn’t put a great many women in top positions. Still, Alexandra Kollantai was the first woman to be politically powerful in her own right, rather than exercising surrogate power as someone’s wife, sister or daughter.
But European Leninism also withered well before its 1989-91 collapse. Sexual equality was an issue where the Western mainstream eventually assimilated a Leninist idea and applied it with more thoroughness in practice. Leninism had Kollantai, but no one else of note. The Soviet Union sent the first woman into space, but didn’t send another until the US space program began training female astronauts, a concept that would have been denounced as communist in the 1950s and even the 1960s. Western governments began giving women a few of the top jobs from the 1970s, whereas Russia regressed in the late-Soviet era.
Let’s look at some specific issues:
Sex outside marriage.
The Western mainstream would not legitimise this until the 1970s or 1980s, when a modified version of 1960s radicalism became the mainstream. On this particular issue, fascism and communism both favoured the attitude now accepted as normal: that early sex was fine, though it was also good to eventually settle down and marry.
All of this excluded official tolerance of homosexuality, one of a small number of radical changes which the Western liberal/left genuinely did pioneer. Nazism unofficially tolerated homosexuals when they had useful skills, but so did everyone else.
As with sexual equality, communism pioneered the attitudes now viewed as normal. Fascism wanted to go in the opposite direction, roll back the changes of the previous few decades. It is also true that the west since the 1970s has gone further than late-Soviet practice. It was disastrous for European leftism that Brezhnev kept the Soviet system stable and static when it should have changed radically or else collapsed. Disastrous also that so many on the left were equivocal about it at the time.
Similar to racial and sexual equality, except that I can’t see that fascism was any more imperialist than the Western mainstream. The fascist powers were out to build their own empires, but also worked with anti-imperialists to undermine their rivals. In the end, it was their subversive side that counted for more.
Mahatma Ghandi and the Indian National Congress chose to stay neutral in the anti-Fascist war. Some Asian nationalists worked with the Japanese. Despite Japanese brutality to other Asians, this policy broadly worked.
Oddly enough, Hitler ended up doing more damage to White Racism than was done by any of the west’s principled anti-racists. He opted for an alliance with Imperial Japan, without apparent concern at what this would do to the world’s established racial hierarchies. Of course Hitler was following the example of Britain, which made a strange alliance with Japan and gave Japan freedom to wage war against Tsarist Russia in 1905. Did they never reflect on how this would be seen by their own non-white subjects?
Awkwardly, Nazism was closer to the modern view than any other governing party before the 1960s. They also pioneered a recognition that cigarettes were dangerous. Of course there were plenty of ‘green’ viewpoints that were nowhere near Fascism – William Morris, for instance. But I am talking here about the beliefs of people with immediate power to change the world.
Fascism and especially Nazism were pioneers of the ‘Mixed Economy’, the idea that the state should take overall responsibility but not try to remove or replace private enterprise. This was the immediate basis of Fascist power – people got tired of liberal claims that a ‘free economy’ would heal itself if left alone. The global economy of the 1930s was visibly not healing and was falling apart. The financial crisis of 1987 was the first of many when the rich called in the state to rescue them when things got tough.
Communism demanded total equality and fascism favoured separated and privileged elites. The Western mainstream has moved in the direction of communist ideas.
The New Right has reversed some of the earlier achievements on economic equality. This has been done by mobilising a populist resentment against the ‘managerial elite’ of the Keynesian era. Since the people who listened are now worse off, this may prove a short-lived achievement.
The communist ideal was that you should earn your status, not inherit it. Fascist ideas were mixed, a bit of both. The Western mainstream has become increasingly meritocratic. A 1958 book called The Rise of the Meritocracy was intended as a satire on this, but it is pretty much ignored nowadays.
In Britain, Sir Alec Douglas Hume was the last prime minister from the old elite. There is unlikely to be another one – Old Etonians are privileged but not elite.
The USA, once a pioneer of meritocracy, has now fallen behind. Since World War Two, Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Kennedy came from families that were already powerful, as did both Bushes. Truman, Nixon, Johnson, Carter and Bill Clinton were pretty much self-made, as was Gerald Ford, who was appointed rather than elected. If Hillary Clinton is the next president, it will be mostly due to her husband’s earlier success.
By contrast, no leader of the Soviet Union or the subsequent Russian Republic has been from elite background, apart from Lenin whose father had been an important Civil Servant in Tsarist times. The same is true of China since the fall of the last Emperor. [Xi Jinping is the son of a former Vice-Premier of China – not a hugely important post in Chinese Communist politics.]
Romance and Grandeur in politics
This was a major factor in the success of Fascism, the romantic and heroic promise that seemed to make sense of a world where conventional ideas had visibly failed. This sort of promise helped the Bolsheviks also, even though the Communist movement claimed to be the ultimate in rationality
Critics of ‘irrationality’ in politics overlook what should be obvious – that it meets a basic human need, which has to have a safe outlet and is worthy of being turned to useful ends.
Liberal ‘rationalism’ is anyway often phoney, an assertion of prejudices. This has been even more true of the New Right. It is rational to believe that markets will find the ideal economic outcome, because….. There is actually no coherent basis, just a false claim that Adam Smith proved it. He does nothing of the sort: he simply slips in the notion as an unproven assumption in The Wealth of Nations.[G]
Associated now mostly with the Nazis, genocide was the standard method of Western imperialism when faced by inconvenient natives. Britain’s Liberal Imperialists developed most of the methods used later by the Nazis. It was Anglo policy in the 18th and 19th centuries to remove unwanted native populations in North America, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa. Charles Darwin casually predicted that the Maoris of New Zealand would die out “like their own native rat”.[H]
The Concentration Camp was invented by the British in South Africa, an application to white enemies of methods previously applied only to non-whites. The British were building on methods used by Spain in Cuba, but Spain lost that war. Spain put up barbed wire to fence humans, but was not inhumane enough to remove ordinary people from their own homes, as Britain did to the Boer farmers.
Genocide is now also a term applied to Soviet methods, despite the obvious point that the Soviet system wanted to include everyone. Soviet policies did not reject populations as ‘racially unsuitable’ as the various Anglo states did until the mid-20th century. Bolshevik attitudes when they came to power in 1917 reflected decades of repression and pogrom under the Tsars. Tsarist brutality offended the civilised conscience of the time, but that did not stop first France and then Britain making an alliance. They also knew the cost of a failed revolution: in France the government had massacred the left after the Paris Commune.
Despite which, the Bolsheviks were initially moderate, abolishing the death penalty and in many cases letting their enemies go free. It was the anti-Bolshevik Russians who started the mass killing.
The Big Picture
Fascism was trying to roll back the social change of the 19th century, the stuff that John Stewart Mill had been advancing. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Soviets were the best defenders of the progressive outlook, while actual ‘democratic capitalists’ were weak. Now that the main struggles are over and progressive viewpoints are no longer challenged outside of the Islamic World, the New Right claim trans-factual knowledge that it would have happened anyway. And also that ‘Islamo-Fascist’ attitudes are in no way a product of New Right policies, just coincidentally arising after a massive humbling of secular and progressive regimes in Islamic countries.
Without access to the trans-factual knowledge possessed by the New Right, one might have thought that a resurgence of Islamism was a bloody obvious consequence of humbling or overthrowing secular nationalism. Mundane thinkers might also be thankful we have nothing worse than Putin in the Soviet Union. Vladimir Zhirinovsky was for a time a very serious quasi-fascist alternative, peaking at 23% in 1993. He remains formidable: he has got 8.2% in the 2007 election, whereas Hitler’s Nazis got 3% of the votes in the second election in 1924 and just 2.6% in 1928. If Putin’s policies end in disaster and a return to chaos, Zhirinovsky could rise again. Or it could be someone more formidable – Zhirinovsky’s father was a Polish Jew and he has always seemed an odd leader for Russian ultra-nationlism. [I]
[Thankfully, this has not happened, so far. But Putin’s politics seem to include an awareness of this danger, which is why he could not afford to look weak when Western-backed leaders in Ukraine took a provocatively anti-Russian line after their unconstitutional takeover in February 2014.]
Mundane thinking leads to a strong suspicion that the world was tilted in a pro-Soviet and anti-Fascist direction by the way that World War Two was fought and won. That the West felt forced to make concessions during the Cold War when the Soviet system offered a better deal on women’s rights and racial equality. That it was pressure from a rival social system that led the West to encourage more social equality and allow the decay of old-fashioned respectability.
The New Right are obliged to argue that this was a total coincidence. They have a surreal history in which there is perfect continuity with modern liberalism and the world before 1914. Rather, the world as it was not then, but as it should have been, a link made possible only by a body of trans-factual knowledge that they claim possession of.
I’m not a believer in trans-factual or transcendental knowledge, not least because its various claimants give different trans-factual answers on the basics of life. About which food are acceptable and which should be shunned. Whether and how freely you may use violence to achieve what seems like a good end. Likewise for lying and oath-breaking. Whether married love or celibacy should be the sexual idea, and also the range and degree of alternatives that can be tolerated along with this ideal. Whether it is possible to be both pious and rich. Whether we are reborn after death, or go to a suitable afterlife, or are just extinguished.
In the Western tradition, the most widely respected trans-factual claimant would be Plato. In as far as he was talking about pure maths he had a point, though Greek maths stagnated soon after his era and failed to properly develop algebra, a task performed by Muslim civilisation. And on more concrete matters, Plato rejected the notion of the Earth going round the sun, which other Greek thinkers had argued for. Plato also believed that sight was based on a kind of radar coming out of the eyes, ignoring the obvious point that we readily see the distant sun and moon, a point that Leonardo was to note in his own day.
But at least Plato and Socrates acted consistently on a belief that they possessed transcendental knowledge, however mistaken they may have been. The New Right bend their stated principles to fit the needs of the rich. Taxation is enslavement. Military conscription is OK, just so long as there is a regular war. Wealth should be the reward of talent, but also it is wicked to apply death duties to huge chunks of unearned wealth passing to the heirs of the rich. Real believers in transcendental knowledge will accept hardship and unpopularity in defence of what they believe to be true. When have the New Right ever been willing to suffer for anything? They have a splendidly stoical attitude towards other people’s suffering, suggesting that this will toughen and improve them. But when it comes to themselves, different Eternal Truths must be applied.
All of this may seem rather remote from Burnham and Huxley. But it is the context in which they must be understood. Their views were formed in the very alien social environment of the pre-1914 world.
Burnham Hails Hitler
Burnham was born in Chicago, but his family had been English Catholics.[C] He was a leading Trotskyist in the 1930s, but by 1942 he had become something very different. The vision of The Managerial Revolution is that the world would simplify into three super-states, based on the existing power of the United States, Germany and Japan. He showed his Trotskyist roots by supposing that Stalin’s Soviet Union would be no match for Nazi Germany, and paying no attention to the highly effective Communist movement in China. George Orwell noted that in as far as it was possible for Burnham to be proved right or wrong, he was almost always wrong. Despite which, Orwell re-jigged Burnham’s vision for 1984, with Eurasia an obvious follow-on from the Soviet Union and Eastasia a bit vague, with a creed called ‘Death Worship’. ‘Death Worship’ sounds like it is Orwell’s understanding or misunderstanding of Japanese values.
Like many ex-Marxists and especially ex-Trotskyists, Burnham puts far too much weight on his half-arsed understanding of economics. The three super-states are supposedly based on the industrial bases of Europe, the USA and Japan. But Japan in the 1940s was still quite a weak economy: Japan got as far as it did against mighty foes by courage and military skill: qualities unfortunately tainted by cruelty and ruthlessness, but still impressive. East Asia after 1945 became two or maybe three distinct systems. The economic success of the alignment of Japan with its former colonies Taiwan and South Korea won the Cold War for the West. But Soviet-aligned North Korea was doing well up to the 1960s. Mao’s system in China was already formidable when the USA compromised with it in the 1970s. Meantime Europe from 1945 to 1991 managed fine as two separate systems. South-East Asia and the Republic of India have also successfully built their own industrial bases.
Burnham sneers at the Soviet Union and sees it as very like Nazism. There were points in common, obviously. But the Soviet Union was firmly committed to the Enlightenment vision of racial, sexual and social equality. Nazi Germany was equally committed to rolling back those things. Non-fascist states in Europe were mostly dominated by conservative parties that at the time felt a lot of sympathy for the aims of fascism, even if they rejected fascist methods. The USA in Burnham’s time was wobbly and might have gone either way. Racial segregation aimed at US negros had been getting worse across the decades and only began to be dismantled during the Cold War. It was the Soviet Union that first included large numbers of women in its armed forces, including some formidable infantry snipers and warplanes-pilots. [J]
Burnham also has a point when he notices the similarities between Nazi populism and the growth of professional managers in the USA. But of the various top Nazis, only Goering and maybe Himmler could be imagined as successful professional managers in some alternative timeline where there had maybe not been a 1914-18 war.
Burnham also goofs when it comes to skilled work, supposing that the vast majority of it is just about to vanish and be ‘dumbed down’. “Today, it takes a couple of weeks to make a worker ready to take his full place on a production or assembly line. Even so-called skilled work today needs no more than a few months training. But, conversely, at the same time today a small percentage of tasks requires very great training and skill.” [A]
Some formerly skilled trades are now made easy. But new skilled trades have grown up to replace them. Modern managers are mostly recruited from the new groups of skilled workers and the gap between the two is not very large. Successful managers bridge the gap as far as they can, at least between themselves and the skilled group just below them.
If the world often seems on the verge of being ‘dumbed down’, that is maybe because we only remember the cleverest and most skilful stuff from past eras. A well-read person might know about a dozen 18th century authors and a couple of dozen from the 19th century. Naturally it is better than the hundreds of 20th century authors we may read. There is always reason for pessimism, but it is a lazy and pretentious intellectual posture. Any idiot can despair: the trick is to see what’s going well and what’s going badly. What has changed beyond hope of recovery and what may soon bounce back.
Burnham in 1941 wrote off parliamentary rule. He saw it as reduced to a small shred in Japan and “England”, and in the United States “more than half way into its grave”.[B] I’m not certain how far Japanese parliamentarians were dominated by their militarists and how far they were part of the enthusiasm – though Japan had been a Constitutional Monarchy from 1890.[D] In Britain, parliament was always totally in control and let Churchill act the grand warlord because he seemed the best hope of victory, was in fact the best man to unite the whole nation. In the US, Roosevelt could not get the USA into the war until he managed to goad Japan into attacking him by cutting off their raw materials. He was also hugely lucky that Hitler declared war on the USA: many in Congress wanted no part in another European war and it’s moot if Roosevelt could have forced them.
Burnham was strongly biased to believe in ‘inevitable’ domination by an elite, with the mass powerless. It was a logical outcome of first believing in Trotskyism and then finding that the working class preferred choices that Trotskyism disapproved of, either moderate socialism or Stalin’s version of Leninism or even the traditional ruling elite. The notion that the working class might have had a point and that Trotskyism might have misjudged things is one they seldom can accept: they prefer to migrate to a right-wing authoritarianism. This was Burnham’s own position during the Cold War – he lasted till 1987 and was associated with the Neo-Cons in his final years.
Huxley nurtures his resentments
The Managerial Revolution reflects the stressed 1930s. Brave New World takes most of its assumptions from the 1920s, the merry self-indulgent Jazz Age. The two books are not normally seen as similar. But Burnham and Huxley share assumptions. Big business, Soviet Communism and Fascism are three aspects of the same thing. The Old Order was very nice but hopelessly doomed. The new order will be absolute and impossible to challenge.
They may even have flowed together in their influence on George Orwell. An oddity of Brave New World is that Mustapha Mond, the highest representative of the repressive system, turns out to be elegant and well-informed, familiar with the logic of protest but having thought beyond it. Allowing for the much nastier and more violent assumptions of 1984, this parallels the most surprising feature of the tale, the sophisticated viewpoint of the chief torturer / interrogator. You might have expected a shallow or greedy boss for a bad system: there are enough of them in real life, after all. But both Huxley and Orwell chose to play it otherwise. Maybe something about the class hierarchy; the top man must be worthy of his exalted place.
Mustapha Mond’s name seems to come from Mustapha Kemal Ataturk and Alfred Mond, charismatic British businessman and founder father of the gigantic chemical corporation ICI. Other hybrid names – supposedly formed from a limited list of names approved of by the World State – are Bernard Marx, Lenina Crowne, Polly Trotsky, Benito Hoover and Darwin Bonaparte.[E] He takes much the same view of ‘managerialism’ as Burnham, and later Orwell. And all of them miss the substantial points.
The World-State envisaged by Huxley is actually full of absurdities. Citizens are encouraged to shun natural beauty and consume manufactured products in intricate sports – why? A commercial society like the USA has an interest in tying everyone to consumerism, but that’s because it has to keep them spending and distracted from other options. The World State controls the economy and allows no intellectual opposition, so it might as well have its citizens cheaply admiring natural beauty – which in turn would make it seem less absurd.
The most bizarre feature of Brave New World is the rigid system of classes, or rather castes, with each citizen designated from birth for one of five very distinct groups. The lower classes, Gammas and Deltas and Epsilons, are also biologically manipulated to produce dozens of identical individuals from one fertilised egg. For no apparent reason, this is not done to Alphas or Betas: presumably this is Huxley’s class prejudice peeping through, it is OK for the lower orders but not for our sort of people.
Huxley’s expectation that class barriers would re-solidify is another point in common with Orwell. The system of 1984 has three rigidly separate classes, Inner Party and Outer Party and Prols. Both men seem nostalgic for the more rigid divisions of the pre-1914 world, even though neither were securely a part of it. The limited social levelling of the 1930s was too much for them.
Nazism was officially the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the National Socialist German Workers Party. A lot of the members were ordinary workers or farmers, though the leadership was almost entirely lower-middle-class. Leninism was always a workers movement, initially with a lot of middle-class and upper-class leaders, but increasingly led by actual workers as it developed. American ‘managerialism’ was also relatively open, with top managers often being self-made and sometimes starting out on the factory floor.
After 1945 and a victory in which the Soviet Union did the bulk of the fighting, while the USA dominated the war in the West and the Pacific. The old class system had been based on a claim of military and governmental skills that turned out to be unreal, and by the end of the war it was thoroughly doomed. Inequality has revived since the 1980s, but Thatcherism also unintentionally destroyed the weak remnants of that privileged class, much to the surprise of those members of the elite who saw her as their champion.
Huxley, Orwell and Burnham represent the grumbles and pessimism of the class that messed up the world by choosing to fight the Great War through to the bitter end, when it could have been ended as a draw in 1915. Germany wanted a return to the pre-1914 status quo when it became obvious that there would be no quick victory of the sort Prussia had won in 1866 and 1870. Britain fought on in the hope of wrecking Germany, a rising industrial rival. With US help, Germany was eventually wrecked, but the whole structure of the pre-1914 world was wrecked in the process. Naturally, most Anglos did not blame themselves.[F] It was all the Inevitable Future, for which they were in no way responsible.
[A] The Managerial Revolution, page 74, Putnam edition of 1942.
[B] Ibid, page 136.
[C] Wikipedia entry for James Burnham
[D] For the text of the Meiji Constitution, see [http://www.ndl.go.jp/constitution/e/etc/c02.html].
[E] For more details, see the Wikipedia entry for Brave New World.
[F] Honourable exceptions include Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Olaf Stapleton.
[G] I give details of Smith’s dubious methods in my book Wealth Without Nations.
[H] Page 521, Darwin, by Adrian Desmond and James Moors, London 1991.
[I] Wikipedia entry for Vladimir Zhirinovsky
[J] See for instance the Wikipedia entry for the ‘Night Witches’. This was the German nickname for two women-only air-combat regiment that made an impressive showing in World War Two.