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<nettime> Managerial capitalism?
Brian Holmes on Wed, 20 Sep 2017 08:18:58 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Managerial capitalism?

On 09/17/2017 05:28 PM, Örsan Şenalp wrote:

The agency of managerial class, which is preparing to claim full economic
and political power, unified, absolute is Musk, and Schmidt.
The way Trump translates such thrust, and by reversing towards national
capitalists, sounds and looks like fascism
Which was a form of managerial class power-claim; though was not aiming
absolute power.

Orsan, just in the spirit of good debate, I'd like to say that I see only one country in the world right now where "managerial capitalism" is in the ascendant, that's China. Everywhere else the state-corporate connection has eroded and private ownership has come back seriously to the fore.

Probably most nettimers never heard of James Burnham's 1941 book, "The Managerial Revolution." In it, Burnham described the eclipse of the nineteenth-century owner-entrepreneur and the rise of corporate bureaucratic structures working in close cooperation with the state. The idea had already been formulated as early as 1932 by A.A. Berle and Gardiner Means in their book "The Modern Corporation and Private Property." They found that the rise of shareholding "has destroyed the unity that we commonly call property," transferring control from de jure owners to de facto managers. The notion that modern corporations represented a form of social property was used in turn by the Roosevelt administration to justify vast new regulatory powers of the state, which were legitimated by the rather obvious need for an adequate steering mechanism to get through the Great Depression. Burnham, even though he was in the process of becoming a reactionary, asserted in substance that the New Deal was now the universal form of the mid-twentieth-century state, visible also in the total mobilization of the Nazis and in the Soviet five year plans. During the war (1942-45 for the Yanks) the American state took direct control of corporate activity, to the point where the new look of capitalism became a lot harder to ignore. In the decades that followed, liberal commentators such as Galbraith or Raymond Aron agreed in substance with Burnham, as did the British Trotskyist Tony Cliff, in his 1955 book "State Capitalism in Russia."

OK, end of history lesson. Let's talk about the present.

In the Brexit and Trump campaigns, massive nostalgia was expressed for the prosperity of the 1950s, with flag-waving nationalism standing in for the unutterable reality of state capitalism. In the US, Steve Bannon represented the demand for "economic nationalism." That demand remains the centerpiece of Trump's rhetoric, but otherwise it's going nowhere. The news is full of owner-entrepreneurs: Zuckerberg, Musk, Bezos, Brin, Page, Koch (times 3), Buffet, etc. Their rise is the culmination of a deliberate plan to reverse the New Deal, carried out by the libertarian capitalists of the 1960s and 70s whose names we all now know (if you don't, just check out Jane Meyer's "Dark Money," in that book the US libertarian contingent is characterized in all its gory details). Shareholder activism and the imperative of return on investment has put an end to the comfortable distance between managers and owners. Government Sachs (I mean, the preponderance of major bankers in US and European administrations) appears much more as a hostile takeover than as a merger of equals. What's missing in this equation is just Hillary: the chance for the oligarchs to make an enduring political deal. But it's not there, the instrumental rationalism that characterized Cold War varieties of state capitalism is nowhere to be found. What you have instead is the classic plague that Marx denounced: uncoordinated market chaos.

Today in his speech at the United Nations, Trump declared unlimited national sovereignty - to the point of nuking North Korea if necessary. Is it managerial capitalism? Hardly. For that you need good old bureaucratic deliberation, which is what put the chill in the Cold War. Instead, hot Trump at the UN is just the rantings of a psycopathic narcissist appealing to all the Americans who have been left in the lurch by the arbitrary market-based evolution of chaotic neoliberal capitalism, where rationality is a quaint relic of how your grandfather did things.

The hallmarks of contemporary society are the daily quest for maximum profit, plus blind navigation with no care for the future. The mid-twentieth century attempt to create a steering mechanism has been entirely abandoned. Obviously populations (including myself by the way) are absolutely terrified about what might happen next. Many are even stupid enough to vote for fools who promise whatever, a return to the good old days. However, only one country continues to deploy the steady deliberate power that everyone else rejected sometime in the late 1960s.

Alone among governing elites, the Chinese Communist Party continues to apply reason to reality. The problems with its ratio are obvious: it was "glorious" (ie rational) to get rich in the 1980s and 90s, according to the famous axiom of Deng Xioaping. Except unfortunately that meant that China became the low-wage, high-pollution manufacturing platform for Western corporations, or the "imperial handmaid" of the US, as one New Left Review article put it. In 2008 the Chinese elites realized their folly and set about correcting their course, so as to develop their own middle-class consumer base and start moving their industries up the value chain. Now, with the "One Belt, One Road" policy, they want to extend their brand of industrial civilization along a Central Asian transportation corridor stretching all the way to the biggest consumer market in the world, namely the European Union. The point of their new plan is to do like the US managerial capitalists did in the 1950s: use geopolitical domination to ensure vast corporate markets, not only for light consumer goods but also for heavy producer goods. This is what an integrated state-corporate complex does. It's the time-honored, twentieth-century way of resolving a major crisis.

I don't believe in the Chinese Communist Party any more than I believed in Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan. However I do see the CCP practicing a form of managerial capitalism, and I think that if they were able to bring ecological imperatives into their state-led pattern of development (as they seem to be trying to do) that might have real benefits for humanity and maybe even other species. As for the rest, I think that the gap between the rhetoric of economic nationalism and the reality of owner-entrepreneurialism is simply the proof that in the so-called West, the crisis that emerged in 2008 continues on unabated. How could it not? No Western polity has invented any new power of collective governance on the scale of the nation, let alone on the global scale. The postwar liberal world-order is broken and nothing has replaced it. China may well invent something new, beyond managerial capitalism. It's normal, they're the new hegemon. Meanwhile the so-called West has regressed to a chaotic owner-entrepreneurialism, and if no new steering mechanism is found we will all sink into an ersatz fascism without a plan, which is just the panic response to market chaos.

Is panic a synonym of managerial capitalism? I don't think so. But maybe I have misunderstood you, Orsan. The point of all good debate is to thrash out understandings, misunderstandings and counter-understandings, until some sharable form of clarity emerges. I aim at nothing else.

all the best, Brian
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