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Same Old New Class

In response to:

Same Old New Class from the September 28, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of David Bazelon’s book, Power in America: The Politics of the New Class [NYR, Sept. 28] Christopher Lasch talks about “the old, worn, discredited theory of the managerial revolution.” He also believes that “discussions of…the divorce between ownership and control are really not relevant to the understanding of American society….” I think that a large and important literature in economics demonstrates the opposite (see writings of Schumpeter, Adolf Berle, Gardiner Means, Edward Mason, Karl Kaysen, J. K. Galbraith, Robert Heilbroner, Frances Sutton, to mention only a few). The prevalence of the large corporation, with its shift of power from the owners to the managers has certainly changed the character of modern capitalism from an individualistic to a “collectivistic” system. The decision-makers in this new capitalism are managing the assets of others; They are members of a complex bureaucracy; they have become increasingly professionalized; and their power rests not on their ownership of the means of production but on their administrative position. Thus, they have become very similar to the members of our political bureaucracy and to the “new class” which Djilas found emerging in Communist countries.

Whether this group can be called a “class” is a matter of definition. Dr. Lasch defines a class as an “active agent of long-run historical change.” This is the Marxian concept of a class which has been implicitly absorbed also by non-Marxist intellectuals because of its seductive simplicity and its usefulness for social critique. As Selig Perlman has pointed out: for the intellectual a class, e.g., the proletariat, “takes on the aspect of a ‘mass’ driven by a ‘force’ towards a glorious ‘ultimate social goal’ ” (A Theory of the Labor Movement, p. 281). Definitely, the managers are not a class in this sense. But they are people who find themselves in similar positions, with similar problems, interests, outlook, and a similar style of life which is more than similar “manners” as Dr. Lasch believes.

The emergence of the managerial group disturbs the simple dialectical antinomy of Capitalists vs. proletariat, thereby disturbs the revolutionary élan. of the intellectuals who want to become socialist managers themselves. It is confusing for them to find these managers already sitting behind the barricades instead of the capitalist owners of the means of production. The fight then would become a fight between an in-group of managers and an out-group of would-be managers, an image which is not conducive to revolutionary élan.

The fact of the matter is that a kind of “socialism” has already arrived in the US but in a rather disappointing form: Galbraith has described it in The New Industrial State:quasi-public agencies called corporations in the private sector; “quasi-private” governmental agencies, in the public sector; (they are quasi-private because they cooperate closely with corporations); all are parts of the industrial-governmental-military establishment. Corporations and public agencies are cooperating and competing with each other for the accumulation of power; the profit motive is by no means dead but it is amalgamated with and obliterated by the drive for power. And the power is exercised not by atomistic independent individuals but by large-scale organizations; whether they are called GM, ITT, or “Armed Forces” makes very little difference. In all these organizations, managers, bureaucratic administrators of the funds and the assets of others, are making the basic decisions. And these decisions, whether they concern advertising, products, services, war, or taxation determine our fate.

The resistance of revolutionary intellectuals against the concept of managerialism has been increased by the errors of its proponents. It is as wrong to talk about a managerial revolution as it is to talk about an industrial revolution; both were and are long-run developments. But more important, the idea of managerialism has been used to whitewash the existing system. Especially the watering down of the profit motive was sometimes used as a defense against the charge that in capitalism goods are produced for profit, and not for “use.” It may be that Mr. Bazelon is guilty of this when he thinks that a managerial society would be friendly, tolerant, and non-competitive. The hub of the matter is that the rebellion and attack against the managerial system has to become much more sophisticated than the traditional Marxist and/or lib-lab line. Max Weber talked about the iron cage of industrialism in which the individual is imprisoned. What we are oppressed by today is the silken web of managerialism that does not oppress directly but bribes us into submission by incredible affluence and comforts. What’s more, this bribe is extended to the majority. For the first time in history the majority is relatively affluent and only a minority (at least within this country) is poor and deprived. This is why the traditional class-struggle ideology relying on the upheaval of the oppressed masses against the oppressing capitalists will not work at home. (It will work abroad; that is why the intellectual rebels find in neocolonialism such a convenient outlet for their class-struggle theories.) And finally the system of organization, specialization, and professionalization has become so complex that it is more and more difficult to know where to begin with reform. It is so complex that even the managers are hardly able to steer it in any desired direction, or even to know which direction is desirable.

This makes rebellion and social critique much more difficult. It will have to acquire the sophistication and professionalization that is available to the managerial elite. This is not a comfortable position for intellectual rebels of the traditional variety. Therefore they prefer to close their eyes to what is obvious.

Walter A. Weisskopf

Professor of Economics

Roosevelt University


Christopher Lasch replies:

Professor Weisskopf’s letter raises important and difficult questions—how difficult, Professor Weisskopf himself does not always seem to realize. It is one thing, for instance, to show that managers constitute an identifiable social type or even a class, and another to show that the existence of a managerial class has important political consequences. The second point does not flow automatically from the first.

Likewise the problem is not to show that managers have similar interests and a similar outlook, but to show that they have a distinctive outlook, which differs from that of the capitalists they are supposed to have superceded. It is just this point that has never been clearly demonstrated. Nor is the problem one of “definition.” If it could be shown that managers had a position of their own, with regard to any major issues, then one would be justified in regarding the emergence of the managers as a fact of political importance.

Yes, the managers manage other people’s money. So do capitalists, however, except in the most primitive stages of capitalist activity; and in any case the question is what difference it makes. What is the difference between managerial and capitalist views, say, of the war in Vietnam? How does managerial colonialism differ from capitalist colonialism? Or is colonialism, like capitalism itself—as Professor Weisskopf seems to imply—merely an invention of disaffected intellectuals?

Note the characteristic vagueness and imprecision with which the managerial theory expresses itself. What does it mean to say that the profit motive is “obliterated by the drive for power”? Does Professor Weisskopf suppose that Rockefeller, Morgan, and Ford, because they cared enormously about profits, therefore cared nothing for power? And when he says that power is now exercised by “large-scale organizations,” does he mean to imply that by contrast Rockefeller, Morgan, and Ford were “atomistic independent individuals”? In effect, the advocates of the managerial theory equate capitalism with a particular type of capitalism—laissez-faire capitalism, which at all times, moreover, existed chiefly in theory—and then define everything since laissez-faire as managerialism: “definition” with a vengeance.

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