“The Permanent Problem” is an ongoing series of essays about the challenges of capitalist mass affluence as well as the solutions to them. You can access the full collection here, or subscribe to brinklindsey.substack.com to get them straight to your inbox.
I have written already about contemporary trends that increase the risk of a descent into tyranny. Given the ongoing marginalization of ordinary workers in the labor market, it is reasonable to assume that their dependence on government for income support will deepen over time. Meanwhile, governments’ ability to track their citizens’ movements, purchases, social connections, and even thoughts and emotions is rapidly improving thanks to the internet, smart phones, and developing AI technologies. Put these two things together – a population dependent upon government as never before, and more legible to and manipulable by government than ever before – and the possibilities for abuse are obvious.
Here I want to explore another source of vulnerability to despotism, one noted by conservatives from Burke onwards. And that is the risk of runaway centralizing rationalism. When traditional authorities are toppled and ancient arrangements are swept away, and all the intermediate social structures that grew up over centuries are dismantled, the structure of society radically simplifies: what once was a complicated, often convoluted amalgam of overlapping and competing hierarchies and authorities and loyalties resolves into an undifferentiated mass of subjects under a single, rationalizing central authority.
In his classic work The Quest for Community, the conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet summarizes the Burkean critique: “Society, Burke wrote in a celebrated line, is a partnership of the dead, the living, and the unborn. Mutilate the roots of society and tradition, and the result must inevitably be the isolation of a generation from its heritage, the isolation of individuals from their fellow men, and the creation of the sprawling, faceless masses.” And from there it is an easy step to “omnipotent political power arising from the disorganization of social institutions.”
Burke’s prescient warning of the dangers of utopian rationalism (he wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France three years before the Terror) launched the intellectual movement of modern conservatism. Over the course of the 19th century, though, the triumphs of liberal modernity – both the wealth explosion triggered by industrialization and the ongoing extension of personal freedoms and political rights – revealed the serious blind spots and limitations of that movement. As Thomas Paine summed up his answer to Burke in The Rights of Man: “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.” Excess solicitude for ancient ways and established hierarchies blinds conservatives to the real suffering and injustice that exist under established institutions – and to the possibilities of genuinely liberating progressive reform.
However incomplete its vision, conservatism does possess important partial truths. And in the 20th century, the old Burkean suspicion of centralizing utopianism once again proved illuminating – in particular, by revealing the supposed ideological opposites of communism and fascism as the products of a common totalitarian impulse. That impulse was seen as a response to “mass society,” the social order created by industrialization: a gigantic system of superhuman scale, directing and coordinating the efforts of millions of anonymous strangers, most of them serving as interchangeable cogs in a mechanism they neither controlled nor understood. Such social conditions, as Nisbet put it, inspired a “quest for community” – a desperate search for coherence and structure and belonging in the wake of industrialization’s wrecking ball. For many dangerous decades during the 20th century, it was totalitarianism of one stripe or another that seemed most responsive to the needs of those questers:
The almost eager acceptance of the fantastic doctrines of the Nazis by millions of otherwise intelligent Germans would be inexplicable were it not for the accompanying proffer of moral community to the disenchanted and alienated German worker, peasant, and intellectual…
Marxism as a mass movement is no different… To a large number of human beings Marxism offers status, belonging, membership, and a coherent moral perspective. Of what matter and relevance are the empirical and logical refutations made by a host of critics as against the spiritual properties that Marxism offers to millions…
The greatest appeal of the totalitarian party, Marxist or otherwise, lies in its capacity to provide a sense of moral coherence and communal membership to those who have become, to one degree or another, victims of the sense of exclusion from the ordinary channels of belonging in society.
Conservative fears of “mass man” (in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase) abated in the closing decades of the 20th century, first with the reviving fortunes of the political right and then with the collapse of Soviet communism. In the “end of history” 90s, there was considerable confidence that America, as an inherently “center-right nation,” would lead a world now disabused of utopian fantasies into a sunny new century of expanding freedom and prosperity.
Two decades and counting into the dispiriting 21st century, however, the old conservative fears about the breakdown of established social structures look newly relevant. At the root of the malaise gripping the United States and other advanced democracies is the fact that these societies are disintegrating. Family and household sizes are shrinking, while church attendance and community service are down. Civil society organizations have been hollowed out, as mass-membership organizations with active local chapters have been shunted aside by elite-dominated nonprofits whose “members,” if they have any, are simply people who write checks. Private sector union membership has collapsed in the United States, and unions are in decline almost everywhere. Stable, decades-long employment at a big, established company is no longer a realistic expectation, and labor force participation has slipped considerably. Mass participation in politics has withered due to professionalization and the growing focus on the political theater of relative status contests. Partisanship grows inflamed and radicalized as political parties lose their ability to control candidate selection and shape debate. The ability of elites more generally to maintain control over information flows and thereby manufacture consensus has been badly degraded by the new, wide-open media environment, and the legitimacy of democratic governance and established institutions more broadly is ebbing badly.
In short, virtually all the intermediate institutions that lend structure and coherence and solidarity and workable consensus to the superhuman scale of contemporary mass society are in decline. You can see it in the steadily dropping numbers for public trust in most major social institutions. The result is progressive atomization, as people’s connections to anything other than the market and state loosen and fray.
Under these circumstances, as the bottom-up structures of mass society disintegrate, the only thing holding the social order together is top-down control. And as power concentrates in the center, the risk of a slide toward authoritarianism steadily mounts.
We can already see the risk clearly enough: we are in the midst of a widely acknowledged global “democratic recession” in which a number of democracies have succumbed to authoritarian rule and others, including our own, are under serious stress. The immediate threat, of course, is coming from the populist right. Yet there has also been a surge in illiberal and authoritarian tendencies on the left, and there is at least some justification in seeing the populist uprising of recent years as a backlash against that surge.
Let me refer now to a trio of writers whom I consider to be among the most thoughtful and insightful observers on the political right today: Tanner Greer, Matthew Crawford, and N.S. Lyons. Crawford is far and away the best known of the three: a research fellow at the University of Virginia and sometime motorcycle repairman, he is the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head, two superb books that both made a big impression on me. He now writes regularly on Substack at “Archedelia.” Greer is an independent researcher and writer who publishes on his website “The Scholar’s Stage”; Lyons is the pen name of a foreign policy professional who writes on Substack at “The Upheaval.”
If you enjoy my writing, I suggest you check out all three authors and browse around for essays of interest. For present purposes, let me point you to the following pieces in particular: “Thoughts on Post Liberalism,” “On Cultures That Build,” and “Lessons from the 19th Century” by Tanner Greer; “What is vitalism?”, “The rise of antihumanism” (published in First Things), and “Minoritarian moralism” by Matthew Crawford; and “The China Convergence,” “A Prophecy of Evil: Tolkien, Lewis, and Technocratic Nihilism,” and “Upheaval Interview: Matthew B. Crawford” by N.S. Lyons.
I’ll start with Tanner Greer, whose analysis is the most modulated of the three. Unlike the “post-liberals” now so prominent on the intellectual right (with whom Crawford is at least a sympathizer and Lyons is fully aligned), Greer does not identify our current predicament as rooted in the allegedly fundamental errors of Enlightenment liberalism. “Post liberalism faults the wrong fall,” Greer writes. “Neither stripping our culture of the ideas of Ms. magazine or the ideas of James Madison could end the despair and anomie of American life. The problem is bigger than political philosophy.”
Greer instead locates the fall in the complexification of economic life ushered in by industrialization – and with it the rise of management and bureaucracy to cope with all the complexity. As economic life – and then, consequently, political life – assumed superhuman scale, the result was a dramatic increase in the degree to which life was organized and directed from afar. And as the new organization- and expertise-intensive system came to displace older ways of doing things, people gradually lost their habits of spontaneous local organizing and problem-solving. Which brings us to the present state of affairs: “In the 21st century,” Greer writes, “the main question in American social life is not ‘how do we make that happen?’ but ‘how do we get management to take our side?’”
Here’s a long passage that fleshes out this argument:
To understand this point, consider the situation faced by the median 19th century American in a state like Minnesota or California. He lived in a social, economic, and political world that was largely fashioned by his own hands. Be he rich or poor, he lives as his own master, independent from the domination of the boss or the meddling of the manager. If he had settled near the frontier, he would have been involved in creating and manning the government bodies that regulated aspects of communal life – the school board, the township, the sheriff’s department, and so forth. Even if he was not a frontiersman, he was a regular attendee at the town, city, county, and even state government meetings most relevant to his family’s concerns. Between his wife and him, his family participated in a half dozen committees, chapters, societies, associations, councils, and congregations… To these formal institutions might be added dozens of informal task-based gatherings…
This would change between the 1880s and the 1940s. Over those decades the median American transitioned from a life of autonomy and self-government to a life of dependence or domination. Now gainful employment meant working for a wage under the eye of an overseer. Eventually, the commands of the foreman were augmented by the gentler web of routines, rules, and procedures decided in faraway boardrooms. Specialists and executives – specialists and executives our median American had never met, and never would – were now deciding the patterns of daily life for millions of their countrymen…
As went the working world, so went the political. A political culture once focused on affairs close to home – where interventions by individual citizens might matter – was superseded by a vast federal apparatus. Its regulations were baroque and confusing; its regulators lived at imperial distance from lives they regulated. With each passing decade another domain of knowledge – law, industry, science, commerce, and even culture – would be taken out of the hands of the every man and walled off as the preserve of credentialized expertise…
It is no accident that the culture wars exploded only after the first generation born under bureaucracy came of age. The New Left was a rebellion against life under management. But the rebels had no experience with practical problem solving, strategy, or other skills of self-government… The New Leftists (and their counterculture foils, the boomer generation of touchy feely evangelicals) sunk their quest for meaning into the only place open to them: the existential exploration of identity and the loud expression of their individual values. Thus the selfish egoism of the boomers was less a result of wayward heresies whispered in the 1970s – much less the 1670s – than it was the obvious end game of bureaucratized life.
There are no villains in Greer’s narrative, only the unfolding logic of radically changed circumstances. The centralizing rationalism that is the agent of the Fall in this story is not that of Enlightenment epistemology or political philosophy, but rather of capitalist industrialization. With expertise and initiative increasingly concentrated within a professional and managerial elite, personal agency – and with it, the internal locus of control that is so central to human flourishing – has leached away from the rest of society.
Matthew Crawford’s analysis starts with bureaucratization and the rise of the professional-managerial class, but then moves on to focus on ideological developments within that class. It is virtually inevitable that people in control will seek to expand the borders of their empire, and so it has been with the PMC. It is thus eminently convenient that the worldview that now dominates contemporary society’s elites is one that focuses on humanity’s infirmity – that is, its profound dependence on expert oversight and control:
There is a tacit picture of the human being that guides our institutions, and a shared intellectual DNA for the governing classes. It has various elements, but the common thread is a low regard for human beings, whether on the basis of their fragility, their cognitive limitations, their latent tendency to “hate,” or their imminent obsolescence with the arrival of imagined technological possibilities. Each of these premises carries an important but partial truth, and each provides the master supposition for some project of social control.
In Crawford’s view, this anti-humanist worldview and the managerial imperative it inspires have not only drained agency and vitality out of ordinary life, but in so doing have fundamentally undermined the democratic nature of the polity. In Greer’s account, we see only the vacuum created by the over-managed loss of agency; with Crawford, we get an account of how the vacuum is filled by increasingly despotic overreaching:
We are watching an ongoing transformation of our political regime, in which sovereignty (that is, the authority to decide) has gradually been relocated from its constitutionally prescribed setting, which granted a presumptive deference to the majority, to a set of mutually supporting technical and moral clerisies. These staff a state-like entity that expands its dominion on two fronts: the “woke” revolution and the colonization of ordinary life by technical expertise.
These appear unrelated, but share an underlying logic. Both displace and delegitimize vernacular practices, as well as the understandings that support them. On both fronts, the legitimacy of the ruling entity rests on an anthropology that posits a particular kind of self—a vulnerable one, which the governing entity then positions itself to protect. Both developments expand the reach of managerial authority, generate new bureaucratic constituencies, and disqualify common sense as a guide to reality. On both fronts, the entity expands through claims of special knowledge.
The net result is that, instead of a separation of powers, initiative and discretion are concentrated in what I will call the Humanitarian Party. It encompasses the diverse organs of a sprawling parastate that includes corporations, foundations, media, universities, and NGOs, and gathers these to a shared political vision. It identifies classes of people needing special protection (sexual and racial minorities, the immunocompromised, “climate refugees”), adopts them as clients, and conspicuously puts these before us in idealized form.
Thus presented, recognition clients serve as mascots for various programs of social control that are powered by an ideal of compassion. However compassionate, such programs transfer power to a new class of social managers and political rent-seekers.
Crawford is sympathetic to the post-liberal view that these developments are an inevitable consequence of centuries-old philosophical errors, but he pulls up short of declaring radical disaffection from the modern world. (In his interview with Lyons, he says that “I would be happy enough if we could just go back to, say, 1985.”)
There’s no hedging with Lyons: he goes all the way with post-liberal radicalism. Like Greer and Crawford, he identifies the “managerial revolution” (citing James Burnham) as a critical turning point in social development. The complexification of economic life, and the attendant rise of management and bureaucracy, gave rise to a new managerial elite, which in turn developed its own justifying ideology: “While this managerial ideology, in its various flavors, presents itself in the lofty language of moral values, philosophical principles, and social goods, it just so happens to rationalize and justify the continual expansion of managerial control into all areas of state, economy, and culture, while elevating the managerial class to a position of not only utilitarian but moral superiority over the rest of society – and in particular over the middle and working classes.”
Lyons describes the reigning managerial ideology (at least in its Western variants) as comprising the following elements: (1) “technocratic scientism” (“The belief that everything, including society and human nature, can and should be fully understood through scientific and technical means”); (2) “utopianism” (“The belief that a perfect society is possible – in this case through the perfect application of perfect scientific and technical knowledge”); (3) “meliorism” (“The belief that all the flaws and conflicts of human society, and of human beings themselves, are problems that can and should be directly ameliorated by sufficient managerial technique”); (4) “liberationism” (“The belief that individuals and societies are held back from progress by the rules, restraints, relational bonds, historical communities, inherited traditions, and limiting institutions from the past”); (5) “hedonistic materialism” (“The belief that complete human happiness and well-being consists of and is achievable through the fulfillment of a certain number of material needs and psychological desires”); (6) “homogenizing cosmopolitan universalism” (“The belief that … the systematic ‘best practices’ discovered by scientific management are universally applicable in all places and for all people in all times”); and (7) “abstraction and dematerialization” (“The belief, or more often the instinct, that abstract and virtual things are better than physical things, because the less tied to the messy physical world humans and their activities are, the more liberated and capable of pure intellectual rationality and uninhibited morality they will become”).
Lyons distinguishes the “soft managerial regime” of the advanced democracies from the “hard” variety of China-style authoritarianism, but he argues that these share important common elements and indeed are in the process of converging – with China moving toward subtler forms of control and the democracies trending toward more naked coercion. In any form, the managerial regime as Lyons conceives it is inimical to both individual autonomy and popular self-government:
It swiftly broke down traditional informal bonds of stable, resilient communities that had for centuries helped to shelter individuals, and tore up moral norms that had helped them structure and discipline their lives without the aid of the state. So liberated, the self-expressive individual was made a king in name, but left far more isolated, alone, and vulnerable in actuality. Such an atomized individual proved far easier pickings for the mass corporation, which swooped in to offer all manner of ready-to-purchase replacements for what was once the social commons, and for the state, which acted on demand to guarantee the sovereignty of these liberated selves and protect them from their own choices. Their capacity for self-governance thus degraded, and encouraged to think of themselves as reliant on the state for their freedom, the public’s demands for management by a higher authority then only increased relentlessly.
In a fascinating disquisition on the anti-technocratic Christian vision of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Lyons traces the origins of technocracy and its totalitarian itch to a gnostic revolt against God and the goodness of creation – including, most importantly, the goodness of normal human life. I don’t have the space to share his analysis here, much of which I consider to be genuinely insightful, but it’s clear that he has come to regard Enlightenment rationalism and liberal modernity as essentially demonic projects, destined from their outset to hatch various totalitarian plots for the “abolition of man.”
I reject this post-liberal position completely and unreservedly. It is of course true that there are totalitarian tendencies in modernity – we saw them come to full flower in the great tyrannies of the 20th century. But the dominant tendencies have surely been liberating and humanitarian: a colossal increase in the number of human beings coinciding with a dramatic uplift in material living standards; an explosion in scientific knowledge and technological capabilities coinciding with mass literacy and schooling; the emergence of governments subject to popular control and the rule of law coinciding with the stigmatization of war and widespread embrace of an ideal of universal human dignity. I find it genuinely hard to understand how thinkers who accuse their opponents (with some justification) of anti-humanism can fail to recognize the profoundly anti-human implications of their ideas. How does one profess love for God’s creation and then hold the view that the vast majority of people alive today are here only because of some dreadful mistake?
With that important and fundamental difference noted (which, to repeat, does not apply to Tanner Greer), I will say that I find much to agree with in this critique from the right. These three men’s account of how complexification and bureaucratization have brought about mass learned helplessness jibes with thoughts I expressed in “The need for a counterculture.” The connection they draw between expressive individualism and ongoing atomization mirrors my analysis in “The loss of faith” and “Saying yes.” Their disdain for identity politics aligns with my own, as expressed in “The performative turn.” Greer’s discussion of the generally enervating effects of “life under management” has important overlap with points I made in “Loss aversion (by any other name) and the decline of dynamism.” The worries I expressed in “The retreat from reality” and “Choosing the experience machine” line up with Lyons’s points about abstraction and dematerialization. And Lyons’s depiction of a developing global managerial monoculture complements points I made in “The absence of systemic competition.”
But while I agree that contemporary society’s concentration of social power and initiative within the PMC elite carries real potential for despotic abuse, I find the efforts of Crawford and Lyons – and other post-liberals – to portray the United States today as an emerging progressive tyranny to be overwrought and unconvincing. Yes, I bemoan the censorious turn of social justice radicalism over the past decade or so, and the degree to which that ideology has swept first through academia and then government, K-12 schools, and corporate America. Genuine injustices have occurred, and the stifling of free expression has been real. And the focus of contemporary radicalism on identifying and rooting out wrongthink of various kinds does carry a whiff of the totalitarian. Nonetheless, it takes a serious lack of perspective to see in all this a more serious threat than authoritarian populism, which actually succeeded in mounting an insurrection against the peaceful transfer of power. Crawford and Lyons also lean heavily on the pandemic experience in making the charge that managerialism has now assumed a harder and more coercive edge. The less said about this argumentative strategy, the better: at one point Lyons refers to the novel coronavirus, which likely killed more than 20 million people, as “relatively mild.” It hardly needs to be said that I don’t believe that trying to protect people from a deadly infectious disease outbreak constitutes mindless “safetyism.”
Crawford and Lyons also overstate the degree to which managerialism’s spread to every nook and cranny of society reflects any kind of conscious ideological project. The reach of the “therapeutic state” and the influence of the “helping professions” have certainly expanded greatly since the advent of mass affluence, but much of that expansion has simply been in reaction to the totally nonideological operations of information age capitalism as determined by untold millions of totally nonideological consumer decisions. (Lyons is actually quite clear in recognizing this fact, but he unpersuasively tries to lump all business and consumer behavior into a larger and monolithic “managerial regime.”)
But one needn’t see contemporary America as a partisan tyranny, or the product of one overarching and anti-humanist ideological vision, to reach the conclusion that contemporary society does contain elements of a kind of soft despotism. Here the still-relevant authority is Alexis de Tocqueville, and specifically his speculations near the end of Democracy in America on “what sort of despotisms democracies have to fear.” His prophetic warnings anticipated much of what has been discussed here. Writing when industrialization was still in its preliminary stages, he somehow intuited how conditions of democratic equality could steamroll over traditional structures and arrangements, leaving a flattened social landscape populated by solitary, isolated individuals and overseen by “an immense and tutelary power.” Here’s a portion of that famous passage:
Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood….
The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting; such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
I see the writings of Greer, Crawford, and Lyons as an updating of de Tocqueville’s analysis – and, with all the exceptions taken and caveats noted, I believe that their critique of contemporary society carries real weight. It is not out of bounds to spy the shadows of despotism in our current top-heavy social structure: there is too much power concentrated in elites, there is too little capacity for self-direction and initiative outside the elite, and as a result human potential is being squandered on a massive scale.
But the enormous question looms: what is to be done? None of the three critics whose works I’ve been discussing here really faces up to the indispensability of high levels of organization and bureaucracy. It is only by the grace of the managerial revolution that we now have the luxury to even imagine the possibility of building societies with widespread flourishing. And to achieve the technological breakthroughs in energy and agriculture needed to safeguard our civilization from catastrophe over the longer term, we need large-scale impersonal markets and bureaucracies to continue functioning at high efficiency.
The argument I am trying to advance on this blog is that there is a way out of our impasse. It is to be found in the fact that, while large-scale impersonal social institutions remain irreplaceable, their operation no longer requires mass mobilization of the population within those mass institutions. To rise to the challenge of the permanent problem, global capitalism must continue, but the global capitalist monoculture is something we can and should outgrow.
A full, radical break with modern organization at superhuman scale is madness: it would entail billions of deaths and will never happen absent catastrophe. On the other hand, a partial, semi-radical withdrawal from organization at superhuman scale – in pursuit of abundance within face-to-face communities – is already technologically feasible and sustainable and can become much more so. And I believe that this hybrid solution would make the organization-intensive sector of the economy more sociologically sustainable as well – by narrowing its responsibilities, delimiting its boundaries, and providing a clear and attractive exit. In exploring this possibility, conservatives like Greer, Crawford, and Lyons and techno-optimists seeking the next level of social development may be able to meet on common ground.