The Dilemma of Managerial Liberalism

The following review of Paul Gottfried’s After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton 1999) appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Telos.

The title of this book refers to the practice and ideology of contemporary Western government, which, in Gottfried’s view, bears little resemblance to historical liberalism and in many ways is its opposite. Where, after all, is the division and limitation of power, the protection of private property, and recognition of an inviolate private sphere where the state has no business? How can an order be ‘liberal,’ in which social planners reconstruct the human soul, or ‘democratic,’ in which government feels itself entitled to reconstitute a people it finds lacking? Nevertheless, what Gottfried describes is managerial liberalism, which has become the engine of the managerial state.

The contemporary managerial liberal state represents the convergence of several lines of development that have had the cumulative effect of demolishing the bourgeois liberal order. A prominent aspect of this book is its reconstruction of the history and sources of liberalism, and Gottfried presents the story comprehensively: the struggles between classical and revisionist liberals, the expansion of the franchise, the growth of public administration and the welfare state, the attacks on bourgeois culture, the ever-broader demands of pluralistic ideology, the attempts to re-educate the public, and the medicalization of dissent. He emphasizes the novelty of the form of political society that has emerged, the seriousness of the opposing tendencies within liberalism that the new order had to overcome, and the difficulty opposition now has finding any footing in a society that at all points has become thoroughly dependent on public administration.

The regime now common to all Western societies follows a well-defined pattern marked by entitlement programs, sexual and expressive freedoms, and the disappearance of self-government. Politics is inspired by the view that government exists to promote individual gratification, and with that justification administrators dominate the whole of life. Managers run everything, appealing to expertise, equity, and the need to battle prejudice by sensitizing and re-educating citizens. Social welfare programs divert resources to government and reduce the need for institutions other than the state bureaucracy and various contractual arrangements. ‘Inclusiveness’ abolishes all connection between the workings of society and any specific cultural heritage, so that only rational formal institutions that the state can easily control remain important. The drive to eliminate prejudice establishes a comprehensive system of control over social life and destroys the attitudes and habits ‘ sex roles, religious ties and standards, ethnic and cultural loyalties ‘ on which independent and especially non-market institutions rely for functioning and strength. The personal has been transformed into the political.

Despite the comprehensive control of society by this managerial liberal state, its ideology enables power relations to remain hidden. Although the ambition to transform social relations has eliminated any liberal antipathy to the use of force, that antipathy remains as basic as ever to the liberal self-understanding. Since the purpose of government is understood to be individual self-gratification, it is thought that it can have no substantive ends other than those of the individual. Its activities are therefore understood as assistance, therapy, or the defense of individual rights, while resistance is viewed as harassment, violence, or psychological pathology. The liberal claim to accept the authority of science and reason remains, but truth and logic are supplemented by junk science, tendentious scholarship, ostracism of dissenters, and suppression of thought when discussion threatens to go the wrong way.

Gottfried has little trouble demonstrating the inaccuracy of the ‘liberal’ self-image and the inadequacy of common scholarly accounts. The contemporary liberal state does not leave people alone, and is neither indifferent to their values nor afraid to exercise power for the sake of overriding and changing them. It is manifestly not a broker among competing interests; the opposition between government policy and popular attitudes on such issues as immigration and affirmative action is evidence enough of that. It is in fact an imposing system of power, backed by a huge public sector, by lower and middle class recipients of public assistance, and by media, journalistic, and expert defenders, whose importance is enhanced by the regime’s power.

The dispute between old-fashioned liberals and democratic reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries ended, of course, in victory for the latter. Circumstances were against the bourgeois liberal view. Urbanization and economic growth favored democratization, as did cultural trends. The period of bourgeois liberal civilization has been marked by intellectual and cultural efforts to destroy it ‘ materialism, atheism, etc. ‘ that continue today with postmodernism. Economic, social, intellectual, and cultural factors converged to transform practical politics. The English Liberal Party made the transition from the old liberalism to the new between 1910 and 1914, the basic institutions of managerial liberalism were in place in Scandinavia by the 1920s, and after 1945 they became universal in the West. Since 1989, there has been a general collapse of coherent opposition, even in thought, to the managerial liberal regime.

That regime is enormously successful in many ways. Gottfried’s emphasis on its popular support is particularly valuable as an antidote to the expectations of some opponents that a wave of popular discontent is going to sweep it away and lead to a revolution or restoration. The citizen-clients are thoroughly attached to their entitlements, and have come to believe (especially the women among them) that government should above all be caring. Acceptance of pluralism and the fight against discrimination as moral and social imperatives has become almost universal; concerns about self-government and moral traditions do not carry remotely similar weight. Financing social welfare programs may be a chronic and serious problem, but radical change is unthinkable.

Popular support for specific programs and acquiescence in others is, however, combined with dissatisfaction with the whole. People no longer believe the regime’s rhetoric of freedom and democracy; it is too obvious that government ignores the will of the people and presents justifications for its policies that are false or contradictory. The increasing irrationality of liberal practice and ideology ‘ the intolerant tolerance, the suppression of free discussion in the name of openness, the reliance on bogus claims of expertise ‘ points to an inner incoherence also manifested in postmodernism. To some degree, that incoherence is no doubt what accounts for the radical conflicts among theories of liberalism. Is contemporary liberalism continuous with the liberal past or a new departure? Is it afraid of power or power-mad, tolerant or tyrannical? Does it suffer from relativism or moralism? Intelligent observers disagree on such basic points, and the reason is the contradictions at the heart of liberalism.

Gottfried suggests that the contradictions between claims of democratic freedom and the reality of managerial rule, possibly exacerbated by failure to deliver the promised prosperity and security, are likely to lead to a crisis of legitimacy. He declines to foretell the future, however; even if discredited, old understandings and arrangements can last a long time when there is nothing to replace them, and at present there is very little on offer. The response of neoconservatives, communitarians and the religious Right to the overwhelming success of managerial liberalism has been to construct a social criticism that, as Gottfried points out, concentrates on cultural, moral, and spiritual issues in isolation from social realities. Such critics make no complaint about the current organization of power, but suppose that its consequences for people’s character, aspirations and mutual relations would be different if different people were in charge. An older traditionalist Right, concerned mostly with failures of the moral and spiritual imagination, is still more removed from issues of social organization. Gottfried believes that a postmodernist New Right in Europe has a more realistic understanding of the nature of the managerial state and its ideology, but it too fails to offer a persuasive alternative. He sees populism as the principal current challenge to the managerial state. In a sense, that view is correct almost by definition: if management by experts is the problem, the solution must involve more authority and participation on the part of the people, and therefore a populist element. But populism has its problems, some of which Gottfried touches on. For example, populism has no stable elite and therefore no coherent principles. Unless it becomes an aspect of a larger understanding of society that could only be articulated by an elite, and therefore becomes less populist, it cannot define and limit itself and so become part of a stable political constitution. Lack of settled principles made past populist movements sporadic, easily diverted, and unable to make enduring changes that advanced their fundamental goals. It is not clear what there is in present movements that makes them different, or what they would do in power that would much change things.

In recent years, as Gottfried points out, populist movements have often incorporated an emphasis on free markets and other aspects of 19th century liberalism that offer a way to weaken managerial elites and give popular attitudes and habits more play. Nonetheless, the popularity of many social programs has made it impossible to be consistent in this regard. A difficulty populist movements now face is that in general the managerial regime addresses material concerns better than any competitor, and popular consensus on cultural issues has diminished to the point that raising them exposes a movement to effective attack as extremist or fascist. Populist leaders have therefore become opportunistic in their approach to issues. It is therefore doubtful that populist movements are a serious threat to the regime. Electorally, they have been most significant in Catholic societies, especially those in which the state has weak historical credentials. Even in such special circumstances, however, they have remained minority protest movements, more successful in making issues visible than in doing much about them. What relative popular success recent populist movements have gained has been based on immigration, distrust of established politicians, and dislike of a state bureaucracy that manages to be both interfering and unresponsive. Concern over immigration has less to do with cultural issues, however, than with jobs, crime, and strains on entitlement programs. There may be some interest in a stripped-down populism that jettisons cultural issues in favor of concerns regarding physical safety, standard of living, and bureaucracy that is oblivious to popular concerns. Whether any such movement could much change the direction of managerial society is doubtful.

That does not, of course, mean that managerial liberalism will last forever. Populist movements may be harbingers of a more articulate and comprehensive challenge to managerial society. Beyond that, the current regime has intrinsic weaknesses that the author does not dwell on, as well as the strengths he notes. One issue Gottfried touches on briefly, only to dismiss, is whether the current regime may be changed into something quite different by social incoherence resulting from making pluralism an enforceable absolute, and by corruption, inefficiency, and inability to maintain the competence and loyalty of its own elites. He shrugs off worries about crime, and holds that the regime can manage administratively, through warehousing and therapy, whatever behavioral problems may result from the general loosening of informal social ties and traditional standards of behavior. He suggests that the tasks of the regime will become more difficult to the extent ‘diversity’ comes to include more Third World immigrant groups that reject pluralism. However, he does not deal with other cultural problems created by managerial liberal ideology, e.g., the difficulties managerial liberal society is likely to have generating the competent, loyal, and motivated elites upon which it depends. In fact, he appears to take elite loyalty and efficiency as given.

It is not obvious, however, that bureaucracy, therapy, political correctness, and managerial science can substitute for moral habits and attitudes of the kind that in the past have supported orderly and productive social life. Managerial liberalism radically weakens the informal moral connections that tie people to those around them and to society at large. The weakening of such connections makes resistance to the managerial regime more difficult, and to that extent strengthens it. However, without them it is not clear that those subject to the regime will retain the loyalty and discipline needed to induce sacrifice of private interest to the public good. Scientific management cannot eliminate the necessity of such sacrifice on the part of officials and institutions tempted to abuse their positions, and often on the part of the people in general, especially in times of crisis. Nor is it clear that egalitarian individualism comprehensively institutionalized can be reconciled with successful childrearing, or politically correct suppression of thought and discussion with success in the comprehensive administration of social life. Such issues relating to culture and morality are contentious, no discussion would satisfy everyone, and it would be difficult to do more than sketch the main considerations without writing a much longer book. Nonetheless, the questions are important enough for the future of managerial society to suggest that at least a sketch would have been helpful.

The abolition of informal and therefore particular cultural tradition as a basis for social order has serious consequences. In a comprehensively administered society, a crisis of legitimacy and rationality can readily become terminal. A state that has become thoroughly irrational, corrupt, and unable to call on the loyalty of its people can hang on if other social institutions continue to function. The effect of managerial society, however, is to make all institutions thoroughly dependent on the state. As a result, administrative decadence can lead to social malfunction far more pervasive than any found in earlier forms of society. Thus, in the Soviet case it led to gross social and economic failure, and then to collapse of the regime, followed by mafia rule and an unparalleled fall in life expectancy. Of course, the differences between Western societies and Soviet society was more than a matter of degree, and reports of the death of liberalism have been both numerous and false. Managerial liberalism has shown a great deal of flexibility, allowing and even subsidizing political opposition, while finding ways to manage it. When needed for efficiency and rationality, it has allowed necessary changes such as economic liberalization. Perhaps it will come to allow a certain degree of autonomous authority to cultural tradition as well, enough to hold families together and maintain a degree of loyalty, discipline, and public spirit. Many neoconservatives advocate just such a policy.

However, cultural traditions are difficult things to manage. They are local, informal, non-rationalized, and resistant to bureaucratic fine-tuning. It is impossible to force them to measure up to contemporary standards of equality and inclusiveness. Acceptance of their authority is at odds with such basic liberal tendencies as rationalism, individualism, and hedonism. Managerial liberal society therefore tends to view cultural traditionalism the way Soviet society viewed economic liberalism, i.e., as an enemy with which little compromise is possible. Whatever enthusiasm managerial liberals have had for the welfare state, they never suppressed advocacy of economic liberalism as ‘greed’ in the way they now suppress advocacy of ethnic cohesiveness or traditional sex roles and sexual standards as ‘hate.’ Thus, it is doubtful that the regime will be able to make an accommodation with cultural traditionalism. To the extent that it proves impossible to base human relations wholly on constructed, rather than on evolved institutions, the managerial regime will ultimately face very serious and likely insuperable problems.

It is difficult to achieve force and clarity except through limitation, so a reviewer inevitably ends up with topics he wishes had been developed further. Gottfried deals by preference with public institutions and their history, and therefore with general ideas in relation to those things much more than with ideas in their own right, their inner relationships, and the rational grounds for their acceptance. He insists that ideas like pluralism are important and cannot be reduced to expressions of interest or rationalizations of practice. Nonetheless, he does not discuss them much as ideas, and leaves it something of a mystery why anyone should believe in them. He is disinclined to take managerial liberal ideology seriously on its own terms, even hypothetically, or to accept any relation other than opposition between it and other forms of liberalism. Instead of a common liberal essence he sees only a common name that lends the current regime a spurious continuity with the past. At least in this connection, he does not treat the transformation of ideas in accordance with their inner tendencies as an important factor in history. Where he takes issues of principle seriously on their own terms, it is in passing and by inference. For example, he judges as well as describes the new order, using bourgeois liberalism as the standard, but does not go into his grounds for doing so. He evidently expects that others will find that standard persuasive as well, and even seems to imply that managerial liberalism is in trouble because it cannot be defended on bourgeois liberal grounds. He does not explain why that should be so, however. While some of his concerns, such as the value of self-government, are obvious, more explicit discussion would have been helpful.

As Gottfried observes, the managerial state is not merely a system of power. Its elites share a genuine belief in their ideology, which profoundly affects their actions. Causes like abortion, gay rights, and mass immigration serve the interests of the managerial state by undermining principles of social organization at odds with it, such as cultural and family particularism. Nonetheless, the managerial state has existed in fascist and communist forms as well, and so, as Gottfried notes, ideologies that favor quite different causes could also support it. Cutting short discussion of the autonomous role of principle therefore comes at a cost. If ideas matter, then the intrinsic qualities of managerial liberal ideology likely play an important role in the success of the managerial liberal state, and the developing implications of basic liberal principles in the development of liberal society. A comparative discussion of the older and newer liberalism’s understandings of the world, how the one grew out of the other, and the validity of their respective justifications, would therefore have promoted a better assessment of the nature of managerial liberalism, its strengths and weaknesses, and its ultimate prospects. Is its victory over all competitors something that followed from material circumstances and contingent events, or is there a deeper logic? Does managerial liberalism somehow express modernity better than any alternative, so that it is better able to arouse enduring support and can be dislodged only though some radical transformation or rejection of modernity? It is difficult to give a final answer to such questions, but we cannot grasp our situation without dealing with them. After Liberalism presents an indispensable analysis of our present situation from a point of view that accepts the importance of ideas but is nonetheless predominantly institutional. In dealing with the issues it raises so urgently, analysis of power is of course necessary. Basic philosophical and theological thought—not to mention commitment and conversion—are likely to be yet more so.

James Kalb

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