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3 January 2024

Will Britain ever be free of bureaucrats?

Managers have become the new authoritarians.

By Adrian Pabst

They are the heads of quangos, universities and HR departments. They promote supposedly universal values of efficiency, value for money, equality, diversity and inclusion. Their influence extends beyond politics and the economy to culture and society. From the chief executives of regulators to the boss of HS2, from university vice-chancellors to HR managers, the managerial class dominates not just our public institutions and big business but also, increasingly, our everyday existence.

At the workplace and across Britain’s broken public services, we face mindless managerial meddling that has not served us well. Poor regulation of privatised industries. Sewage polluting our rivers and oceans. The spiralling costs of a high-speed railway that will now stop, not in Manchester, but in Birmingham. University over-expansion treating academics and students like commodities. A diktat on unconscious bias training, mindfulness sessions and work-life balance. Managerialism is in overdrive but isn’t working.

The class of managers is not new. As the American philosopher and political theorist James Burnham noted in his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution, managerialism is not a bureaucratic reaction against the free market but rather an aporetic extension of laissez-faire capitalism. In a world of growing complexity based on the division of labour, the capitalist class of private owners or public funders cannot operate all aspects of organisations. They have to employ experts who are responsible for what Burnham calls “the tasks of the technical direction and coordination of the process of production”. The managerial class includes “operating executives, superintendents, administrative engineers… or, in government… administrators, commissioners, bureau heads, and so on”. Whereas the capitalist class controls property and prices, managers are in charge of production and people. Together they extend market power into all areas of social life.

Burnham was wrong to prophesise that the managerial class would replace the capitalists and institute total state control of the means of production. (During the Second World War he erroneously predicted the victory of Nazi totalitarian statism over liberal market democracy.) But he was right to point out the convergence of state with market power, arguing that the executives and managers of private businesses or state corporations are aided and abetted by bureaucrats and functionaries. Far from constraining capital, managers make people and the production process comply with the maximisation of corporate profit or public-sector efficiency.

[See also: Can realpolitik be ethical?]

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Managerialism is the hegemonic creed of the ruling elites. It underpins not just Milton Friedman’s doctrine of legally licensed greed – government should legislate that the sole purpose of business is to increase the returns to top executives and shareholders. Hence the domination of the City of London and the uncapping of bankers’ bonuses. The managerial creed also informs the costly private-finance initiative deployed by John Major’s Conservatives and New Labour: funding public capital projects such as NHS hospitals from private-sector sources. The costs of the upfront investment are repaid over decades, giving private providers a steady stream of profits, and keeping debt off the public-sector balance sheet. A public-private partnership is a euphemism for an organised Ponzi scheme.

In each case, the social purpose of business or government is sacrificed on the altar of maximising economic utility. The concern with cold utilitarian calculations – “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” – unites Britain’s old elites and new classes. Binding them together is a belief in individual emancipation from forms of shared belonging and constraints on choice, contract and commerce. Tony Blair’s project of integrating Britain into the international “knowledge economy” is of a piece with Boris Johnson’s and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s boosterism about Global Britain. Thus liberalism, as with JS Mill, is ineluctably drawn towards positivism. And managers are the embodiment of what the founder of positivist philosophy Auguste Comte called scientists, the priests of a new “positive” religion of humanity.

Today the managerial class hoards power and privilege. They, not just technocrats, oversee most organisations across the public, private and third sectors. Unlike technocrats who lack a politics but at least have the merit of some knowledge and skills, managers are philistines. Armed with spreadsheets, the managerial class equates evidence with measurable metrics.

This world-view is encapsulated in the motto of the management consultants at McKinsey: “Everything can be measured, and what gets measured gets managed.” People and production are increasingly reduced to key performance indicators. In the name of procedural fairness, managers subordinate substantive moral judgement to utilitarian standards. In this process they depoliticise the polity by replacing the conception of politics as the self-government of citizens with a conception of politics that amounts to the administration of things and governance by numbers. What gets lost is ethical judgement and a sense of statecraft – the art of politics rather than the supposed science of policymaking.

Managerialism and the move towards policy is a move away from politics, from interests, tradition and ethics towards a supposedly neutral space of policy options. These tend to obscure relationships, power and history. In our time it tends to conceal interests in a fog of abstract aspiration and categories such as “efficiency”. This could be considered the honour that vice pays to virtue, but more often it confirms the thesis that “when rights collide power decides”. The rule of the managerial class is sinister because it is more subtle than overt authoritarian control. National renewal will require not just better managers but a transformed managerial class at the service of national interests and the flourishing of all.

[See also: There’s nothing moderate about “centrism”]

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