In the court of tyrants

I’ve been reading Moral Mazes, an account of life in the corporate management suite by sociologist Robert Jackall. At bottom, it’s a description of life at court. The desires of the powerful are what matter, responsibility exists to be shifted, an Act of God (recession, change in management, public relations issue, whatever) might change everything overnight, and whatever happens has to be presented as part of a rational and controlled system in which one was right all along and nothing could ever interfere with the steady increase in earnings quarter to quarter.

Such a situation naturally leads to amoral self-seeking and endless manipulation of illusions in which the original purpose of the activity disappears. Rational management, it seems, isn’t so rational. In the twentieth anniversary edition of the book that just came out the author tacks on a discussion of the recent meltdown of the financial system that applies the same general analysis to explain why the people running the show were so irresponsible, self-involved, and generally clueless. What he says might have come out of Chronicles or any paleoconservative publication—he even gets into immigration as an example of our rulers’ fecklessness.

It occurred to me that I should try to combine Jackall’s analysis of the ultimate effects of the separation of management and ownership in large business enterprises with the analysis of the managerial state I put in my book The Tyranny of Liberalism.

So here are some thoughts toward a Grand Unified Field theory of the present situation:

  • To understand what’s going on today we have to combine an analysis of business corporations with an analysis of the arrangements that supposedly act as watchdogs and limitations—government regulators, political overseers, professions like journalism, “civil society” institutions, and so on.
  • Steve Sailer used to complain about the “marketing major postmodernism” of the Bush administration, and universities today have become much like other big self-aggrandizing institutions. Everywhere you look there’s spin, self-seeking, and lack of concern with reality behind a facade of rationality and concern for the public good. Everything has become like everything else in basic ways, with postmodern relativism an accurate reflection of important aspects of what’s going on.
  • Differences of course remain between business and other sectors. Government is much more comprehensive than business in its organization and interests, and makes more of a distinction between the bureaucratic/rational and the political/factional aspects of its functioning. (As Jackall points out, those aspects tend to merge in business hierarchies.) The civil society sector (journalists, academics, NGOs) is more miscellaneous in nature and organization than the other two. It seems much weaker, but the appearance can be deceptive. The pen is mightier than the sword, and civil society has most of the pens.
  • Such differences are no doubt important but I’m not sure how they play out. With respect to purposes the situation grows clearer. Business stands for getting the job done, delivering the goods, and making money. It believes in the bottom line. Government stands for the public interest. That’s why it’s into PC, which counts as the public interest because it stands for the interest of those who constitute the public in receiving an equal share of every possible benefit of society.
  • So business vs. government is efficiency vs. equality. That’s no surprise, since it’s the same as the contrast between market-oriented right liberalism (usually called conservatism) and state-oriented left liberalism. To extend the analysis, the civil society sector (journalists, academics, NGOs) is supposed to provide ideas, analysis, and general informal oversight. Business, government, and civil society acting together are therefore supposed to provide the Good (efficiency), the Just (equality), and the True (information and expertise).
  • In fact, of course, the internal politicking and external positioning Jackall describes play a dominant role in all three sectors. He points to that as a reason the connection between success and producing good results gets attenuated in business, and the same applies in government and the civil society sector.
  • The usual argument is that each sector acts as a check on the others and no doubt that’s true on many points. One problem though is that collectively they constitute the ruling class. As such they have an obvious common interest over against the people at large. They claim collectively to constitute the best possible system but that’s doubtful so they undermine and discredit possible competitors.
  • In particular, they hate it when people try to act independently (e.g., the TEA parties) and they don’t like the arrangements (e.g., functional cultural traditions and moral institutions) that make independent action possible. So they get together and establish the tyranny of liberalism. Anything outside rationalized egalitarian technocracy, family and religion for example, is at war with the Good, Just, and True—that is, with the condominium of business, government, and civil society. Such external powers have to be wiped out in the name of efficiency, enlightenment, protecting the weakest among us, whatever. The business of the people is to do and believe what they’re told, make the choices allowed them, approve what the ruling class has decided, and signal when there’s been a failure of public relations.
  • Separation of ownership and management is always a problem. In the old days it was absentee landlords, today it’s the sort of thing described in Jackall’s book. That’s only one example though of the separation of functions that defines modern society. There’s also the separation of actor and expertise and regulator and beneficiary. The managerial state, in which the state becomes an overall system that takes care of us and supposedly knows better, is the sum of all such separations.
  • So what to do? The idea of subsidiarity—let the people live their own lives!—seems the right idea in principle, but it’s basically just a way of restating the problem. It doesn’t tell us how to put that principle into effect except in bits and pieces here and there (e.g., “hooray for family values”). Still, saying there really is a problem is important and may be the most important single thing we can do at present.
  • We can also say why there’s a problem. Carrying division of labor too far leads to the kind of irrationalities Jackall describes. Also, efficiency, equality, and expertise aren’t really the same as the Good, Just, and True. They’re what those things reduce to when bureaucratically rationalized. As such they certainly have some use, but if you always insist on them you’ll squeeze out the fuller versions that are your real interest.

1 thought on “In the court of tyrants”

  1. A humorous look at the same subject
    In case you haven’t already seen these shows, I would highly recommend Yes, Minister and the sequel Yes, Prime Minister, a British TV satire. It examines many of the same questions as Jackall’s book, though focusing of course on government bureaucracy. Moreover,even though the show was made in the 1980’s, it is still just as relevant today.

    My first reaction was to laugh at how ridiculous the characters all were, but then I nearly started crying because it was so true.


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