Can lyric poetry save us from our Hobbesian selves?
Do we need a theory of managerial class disintegration? Such an ambitious question can at the least be ventured given our headlines: Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the European Union and the larger rise of the Euronationalist parties, and the questioning of postwar international institutions, to name a few. A productive, Progressive and individualistic society has been predicated on the ability of such elites to manage rationally the interests of all, directing them toward an emancipated and egalitarian future. But belief in this narrative began declining decades ago, with only selfish inertia restraining more pointed attempts to usher it offstage. For that we needed lost wars, embarrassing to national pride, and also a financial crisis that visibly benefitted this same elite while providing only a small tide to lift those swamped by the financial crisis of late 2007 to 2009. The failure of elites was now met with their subjects’ loss of pride and interest in reestablishing what they had lost.
Why did we come to accept managerial rule in the first place?
We should look to the adopted Englishman by way of St. Louis, T.S. Eliot, to understand the dynamic we’re enduring. Eliot describes in his 1948 essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, the rise of a system of administrators who set rational standards in industry, education, careers, government, even the arts, that displaced the traditional British class order with all of its virtues and vices. While concerned with British social order, Eliot’s thoughts apply, I think, to modern technical society as a whole. Administrative theory purges the previous class of custodians and inserts a new class of managers. But this elite which leveled the aristocratic order must form its own standards to maintain its rule. What will be the elite standards, and what will this group share in common with the country it rules? Eliot argues that they form an anti-culture and will only share in common with one another the technique of management, i.e., the committee meetings whereby they dominate a society. Believing they deserve their status and the vaulted space they occupy, they have no sense of duty or gratitude to the larger body they rule.
This much might sound familiar, but it’s their ideology—one which alienates the social order from its past—that Eliot insists is the key feature of how the administrative elite weakens a culture. The new class’s assumption is the essential malleability of society that can be shaped by theory without concern for history or culture or actual existing people; instead it serves the pragmatic needs of power, utility, and comfort. More important for Eliot is that the humanities, arts, theology, language, and education that were previously kept in one overarching conversation, formed by a perennial store of symbols, myths, stories, doctrines and embedded meaning, are now rationally separated under the guise of instruction, equality, and a secularizing mentality. It is this separation of the elements of culture and religion that take meaning and purpose from a social order and that liberates its politics from unwritten constraints. The secularizing mentality is a series of negations, Eliot observes, meant to provide energy after the old religion has been cut off. That is, a new set of values must be put in its place, and secularizing enthusiasm ensures that the patient takes the transplanted organ. But did it take?
And the perpetuity of this new elite’s rule makes that rule even more daunting. We can accept standardization and a certain amount of machinery ruling us, Eliot thought, for a limited time and a definite purpose, wars, catastrophes, etc. But elites being people and thus selfish and provincial, they will try to keep the levers of power in their hands. How? Having achieved their status on the basis of examinations, educational attainment, and ideology it stands to reason that this class, united only by their functions, will find ways to make their position permanent. They will become a new estate, a new class. So they will come to govern inscrutably, striking down challengers as enemies of Progress, the people, and change. Those refusing to wear the veil of scientific morality are accursed because they might see the actual work being done: the separation of man’s deepest longings from the actual resources that might answer them.
In former times, the keepers of culture were not speaking to the people at large in their humane pursuits, but they provided the parameters of order in which graduated levels of cultural participation could take place, on the part of a variety of other members of society. The traditional aristocratic set isn’t necessarily of supreme importance, Eliot underlines, and does not have “more culture than the lower,” but represents “a more conscious culture and a greater specialization of culture.” And while such a claim is, in part, aristocratic, Eliot reminds us how it serves actual human beings who must confront the world as a common people who rule and are ruled, who give and accept reasons for maintaining their social and political order. To egalitarian objections of power-mongering, Eliot argues that equal responsibility would be loathsome for the social order, degrading it as the more deliberate and thoughtful members would be straitjacketed and those more removed from cultural concerns would be irresponsible in their contributions. There is no way around hierarchy, ultimately. But what kind of hierarchy will we have?
Eliot notes the centrality of the family to the succession of culture in this traditional class society. He does not mean by this observation merely the stability of the family (that was assumed), but in language similar to Edmund Burke, Eliot evokes an organic order that receives the past before taking thought as to what will be added:
I have in mind a bond which embraces a longer period of time than this: a piety towards the dead, however obscure, and a solicitude for the unborn, however remote. Unless this reverence for past and future is cultivated in the home, it can never be more than a verbal convention in the community.
Eliot argues that the normative claim for the traditional class society is that culture must be handed down and that this reception is the most important thing in building a home for the unborn. For it provides a repository of experiences that are in time but also timeless, and that have been sanctified by a common history and destiny of a people. The motives provided by such piety are what drive its members to maintain it.
Being is good, life is given and nurtured by love, and these “habits of right feeling” whereby the most important realities are perceived is upheld by, and inheres in, culture. On an existential note, love for the living tradition of one’s culture and the ballast it establishes leads the members of that culture to reproduce. To reject the past, doubt everything, and affirm nothing, save for a constructed future, or to forbid forbidding in the manner of a postmodern theorist, which now is our dominant public teaching, negates the very idea of an inheritance and something to keep, to preserve. It ends in sterility. A fact understood by the vast majority of western nations struggling with below replacement level birthrates, a reality that cannot be wholly explained by taxes and entitlements and high human capital societies that make child-rearing expensive.
Eliot, however, wrote during the advent of modern technical society. How does his foreboding hold up? Perhaps the most confining aspect of the elite governance Eliot describes is that it turns us into consumers of experience, subjects who are administered to as opposed to independent men and women who are their own self-governors. The contents of our knowing become lost in the packaging as the expert must instruct the layman in how to regard things, even his very self. The rational expert, then, perpetuates power by use of scientific language that conceals reality through general theories that make man the dutiful subject eager to please, the subject who consumes beings and experiences rather than engage them as they are.
This consent to transfer sovereignty up the chain to the managers is now being rescinded. Where we go from here is hard to predict. A post-managerial society is troubling and could issue in its own authoritarianism. We might loathe the American ruling class while remaining quite unsure of Trump-nation. And we sense the European Union’s managers are really all about their power, and yet back of them is a series of Euro-nationalisms that are also highly problematic. Perhaps, though, this is just the first act—the troubled steps taken by those who again must understand who they are and what they are about. And maybe Trump and Brexit, even the rise of Le Pen, are a mid-course correction that warn us of immense dangers if we stay the current path without heeding the tremendous unpopularity of many post-Cold War norms.
More reflectively, we can wonder if a post-managerial future issues in a period that rhymes with political and cultural power that partakes of our more enduring nature as limited and fallen creatures who live relational lives in particular places and with particular people.