A Tyranny of Managers

N.S. Lyons on why China and the West aren’t really so different

Over the past few years, I’ve noted with dawning apprehension a growing number of respectable-or-formerly-respectable conservative commentators conclude that America is no longer really a free country, but rather some shade of totalitarian shadow-regime. When one or two commentators take the dive, you shrug and say, “Guess he’s lost it, too.” But as more join the chorus, you begin to wonder if it’s not that they’re not deluded conspiracy theorists, but that you have your head in the sand.

A recent addition, linked to by the notably not-disreputable Ross Douthat in The New York Times, is a Substack piece by the anonymous social critic “N.S. Lyons,” who argues with great subtlety and erudition that the West and China, rather than being polar opposites, are actually following different paths towards the same end. With a bit of historical perspective, China and the West appear to have more in common than they have in contrast with each other.

The piece is well worth reading in full, but it is also extremely long (over 29,000 words), so I’ll summarize it here.

The Managerial Regime

The root of the “China Convergence,” as Lyons calls it, goes back more than a century and has its origin in the Industrial Revolution. The specialization and centralization that came out of that technological boom resulted in a gradual takeover by the “managerial class,” forming at last a “managerial regime” that aims to control all aspects of society. 

The burgeoning new order is defined by a set of ideals, shared largely in common among the elites of the West and China, which Lyons lays out as so:

1. Technocratic Scientism: all human affairs should be engineered and controlled by science.

2. Utopianism: with the right management, a perfect society is possible.

3. Meliorism: no evil is an intrinsic part of the human condition; everything can be reduced to a problem in need of solving.

4. Liberationism: old customs and ideas are a prison from which humanity must be liberated.

5. Hedonistic Materialism: complete fulfillment can be achieved by the meeting of material and psychological needs.

6. Homogenizing Cosmopolitanism Universalism: all humans everywhere are interchangeable and stand to benefit from the same ideal system of management; local customs, though “perhaps quaint and entertaining,” are inefficient and present a barrier to progress.

7. Abstraction and Dematerialization: attachments to actual physical places and objects should be stripped away and replaced with a more manipulatable virtual or intellectual reality defined by the regime.

Looking at this list, the situations in the West and China don’t seem so different. The only difference between our soft managerial regime and a hard managerial regime like China’s, Lyons says, lies in points 5 and 6; in China, the ideals of hedonism and cosmopolitanism are replaced by collectivism and individual sacrifice for the benefit of the whole.

Soft and Hard Tyranny

The reason China and Western democracies share such similar characteristics is that they share some common history.

As far back as the 1880s, political science professor Woodrow Wilson was arguing that the American public, which he characterized as “a clumsy nuisance, a rustic handling delicate machinery,” was unequipped to truly govern. What was needed was a “universal class” of educated elites who could figure out how to do all the “new things the state ought to do” without interference. This was not about politics at all, he said, but merely management, because “Administrative questions are not political questions.” Thus they should be beyond the reach of political checks and balances.

The implication was that democracy needed to be kept safe from the demos; the unwashed masses must be herded into a “guided democracy” where people would get to feel like they “have a say” but would not actually be able to oppose the authority of the administrators in any meaningful way.

Wilson was elected president in 1912, and he used his presidency to further those goals, thus creating the foundations of our current bloated bureaucracy and the use of totalitarian means to crush dissent. A fellow worker in the reorganizing of American society was John Dewey, who helped transform the American education system. Under Dewey’s influence, American universities abandoned instruction in the classical virtues and focused instead on teaching technical skills and training students how to think “scientifically.” Dewey’s stated intention was “social reconstruction,” which meant reengineering American society and conditioning the polity to the goals of its governors—a result which, in the words of Dewey’s mentor Frank Lester, would be “a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupils.”

In 1919, John Dewey traveled to China for a long lecturing tour. He arrived as an anti-traditionalist movement was beginning and was received enthusiastically. “Chen Duxiu, co-founder of the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], said he thought Dewey embodied the whole spirit of the movement,” Lyons writes. To the anti-tradition revolutionaries, John Dewey was a “second Confucius”—Dewey Du Wei (“Dewey the Great”). The Chinese Communist party was founded in 1921.

In China, of course, the movement culminated in a revolution in which 300,000 books were burned in a single 3-day bonfire and millions of people were killed, and it was followed by years of terrorization and forced re-indoctrination of the Chinese people. That stands in stark contrast to what transpired in American history, but the ideology of Wilson and Dewey was at work in America as well. “In the soft managerialism of the West,” Lyons writes, “the effort to build a politically safer, more right-thinking New Man would adopt far more subtle, sophisticated, and gentle methods for washing brains.”

For instance, in 1946 the U.S. congress passed the National Mental Health Act, which gave the government the power to set up “psychological guidance centers” throughout America, allowing the managerial class to condition the minds of flyover-country dwellers. This growing “therapeutic state,” along with increased consumerism, resulted in a populace that was perpetually infantilized and therefore needed more guidance by the managerial class, thus fueling an ever increasing demand for government intervention and bureaucracy.

As bureaucracy spawned more bureaucracy, a vicious cycle ensued, gradually shaping the worldview of the American people and putting more and more power into the hands of the administrators. Just as Communist Party cells serve to propagate and enforce the received narrative in China, in America members of the managerial class, seeking career advantage and approval from peers, propagate the approved views of the managerial regime. Lyons writes:

Any concentration of a sufficient number [of] professional managerial class members – an HR department, DEI office, or communications staff, for example – can begin to function as a de facto “party cell,” serving as a ready-made surveillance and reporting mechanism, propaganda channel, and internal pressure group. This is the case no matter how deep into “hostile” geographic/class territory that they otherwise are.

Slowly, but surely, the long planned and dreamt-of reshaping of the American people is moving forward.

The Growing Need For Hard Tyranny

Yet in spite of these successes for the managerial regime, there remains one problem: it simply can’t achieve the utopia it sets out to create. “Building the Tower of Babel never works,” writes Lyons, “because not everything can be completely controlled by human cleverness.” So, as the ballooning system inevitably begins to break down under its own weight, it must be reinforced by increasing top-down authoritarian measures. As the rabble begins to rebel, the elites panic and clamp down hard.

Thus we see in our present day ever-increasing coercive measures, ostensibly intended to preserve the safety of the individual and the stability of “our democracy.” Twitter, Facebook, and Google openly collaborate with the US government, in what one federal judge called an “almost dystopian” scheme to manipulate the flow of information. The U.S. intelligence services work in partnership with universities, businesses, and NGOs to “combat and build resilience to disinformation,” as they put it.

More punitive measures are on the rise as well. These include alarming cases of “debanking”—banks closing clients’ accounts because of their unacceptable views, such as the case of British politician Nigel Farage, whose account was closed this past June because the bank had decided that he held “publicly-stated views that were at odds with our position as an inclusive organization.”

The state of things is reminiscent of China, where a “social credit” system is in development that can shut deviants out of almost all aspects of social and economic life. As the managing class in the West realizes just how much the people are willing to put up with, these sorts of coercive measures against deviants become more commonplace.

Under this program, the “woke” movement (like the countercultural revolution of the 60s) serves the managerial regime as a mere tool. Lyons writes:

The goal of the Woke revolution is not “deconstruction,” lawlessness, and social chaos forever; it’s the forceful refounding of a new and far more totalizing order. The managerial regime quickly intuited that this ideology, which it found lying around in a squalid corner of academia (its specific lineage doesn’t really much matter), presented an ideal tool for destroying its enemies and extending its power and control, and so opportunistically picked it up and adopted it as a hammer with which to smash things.

For all its anti-establishment pretensions, woke ideology does not oppose the true system, the managerial regime. It can be easily guided to destroy only the lesser systems standing in the way of the all-encompassing System our managers are trying to build.

The True Enemy

N.S. Lyons lays out his case in much richer detail than I can convey here. I encourage you to take the time to absorb the whole essay. The piece is especially compelling because it is not merely a cry of “conspiracy and treason”—it is an overarching lens with which to view world history. Whether or not you agree that things have gotten quite so bad in America as Lyons thinks, the general framework is convincing. For all the posturing about a global conflict between Freedom and Fascism, once you see what the governing classes in China and the West hold in common, it’s hard to unsee them.

Of course, Lyons is by no means the sole creator of this framework, or the first conservative to reject the narrative of the “the West and Freedom versus the Tyranny and Oppression of Evil Outside Powers.” In addition to the sources cited by Lyons in his essay, a prominent example is Richard M. Weaver, the iconic mid-20th-century conservative writer, who argued that the broadly educated aristocrats of the chivalric era had been replaced by an administration of specialists who could have no true understanding of the human person. J. R. R. Tolkien was another thinker who called out the managerial regime and vehemently rejected the simple dichotomies of Allies vs. Axis, the West vs. the USSR, and so forth.

The key is to look past idealized visions of what America and the West “once were,” or “really are,” or “still could be again one day,” and to instead face up to what our governments and elite classes are doing and have been doing for a long time in real life. Just read Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal, by small-farmer Joel Salatin. Or read Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions by the Lakota medicine man John Fire Lame Deer and his chronicler Richard Erdoes. You’ll be left with a feeling of absurdity and nausea. Both books are defiant—but they are defiant in the manner of a bound victim spitting in the eye of his torturer. The Power will not tolerate the survival of any true deviants, regardless of their ethnic, religious, or political identities. Anyone who does not bow to Management must be punished.

Further Reading:

Daniel Witt (BS Ecology, BA History) is a writer and English teacher living in Amman, Jordan. He enjoys playing the mandolin, reading weird books, and foraging for edible plants.

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