Why the Administrative State Renders the Idea of Elite Replacement Theory a Non-Starter
One popular idea in dissident right circles is that what is needed is to oust the existing elites and replace them with new set of elites. I wish it could work, but unfortunately, it won't.
“What radicalized you?” This is one of the questions that gets asked fairly regularly in dissident right circles. Everyone here has an “origin story.” One day you are card carrying Republican who reads National Review and talks a lot about “the free market” and warns people about the dangers of “socialism;” next thing you know, you have a anonymous Twitter account, the pictures on your phone are filled with frog memes and you are a regular listener of Auron MacIntyre’s YouTube channel. You have jested in contrast to the leftist refrain that “real Marxism has never been tried” that “real Fascism has also never been tried.” You are firmly a member of the “dissident right,” whatever that means at this particular moment.
You have been helped along on this journey by ingesting various books like James Burnham’s “The Suicide of the West,” “The Managerial Revolution,” and “The Machiavellians.” You found your way to Mencius Moldbug’s “Unqualified Reservations.” You might even try your hand at reading the works of Carl Schmitt. You dig into the past to read older authors like Georges Sorel. Sam Francis’ “Leviathan and Its Enemies” finds its way into your hands. You probably spent some time dabbling with the “Intellectual Dark Web” before moving on to real dissident thinkers. You know what NrX is and @0x49fa98 means something to you. You dig into the various theories of what is wrong and what can be done. “The Cathedral” is part of your regular vocabulary. You talk about “the exception” as meaningful term. Doomerism is a serious philosophy. You have read the Foundationalist Manifesto. In amongst all this dissident right discussion, one idea regularly bandied about is that of “Elite Replacement Theory.”
It is a simple idea, really. As James Burnham pointed out in The Machiavellians,
“…no societies are governed by the people, by a majority; all societies, including societies called democratic, are ruled by a minority”
Burnham here is picking up the idea of the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” which argues that all sociological groups, from the small community or organization, up to the scale of the nation state, are always, regardless of the stated means of legitimizing power, including democracy, run by a small group of elites. Elite replacement theory argues that rather than focusing on winning elections, that what is needed is to replace these oligarchic elites with your own elites. They must be developed and cultivated and made ready for the task. Some argue that replacement happens in regular cycles.
One of the corollaries to this is the effort to identify who these elites are and the means by which they network and build the bonds necessary to nurture and sustain their power. Family networks. Schooling like the Ivy League universities: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and others. Organizations like The World Economic Forum come under scrutiny. You follow the money. In Canada they even have a name: The Laurentian Elite. The argument is that we need to identify these people, their networks and the places where they hold power and pull the strings behind the scenes, and we need to oust them and replace them with our own leadership elite.
I will not argue that these people and their networks are without power. That would be foolish. They wield tremendous wealth and influence. While this oligarchy is real, they are not the decisive reality. There is no cabal of “Illuminati” behind the scenes pulling the strings. That said, this group has situated itself within the decisive reality and are adept at navigating and using it to maintain their position and accumulate the wealth which comes from being the key managers of the decisive power reality. These elites are the technicians who navigate and manipulate the vast network that we call the “managerial state.”
It would seem natural to think that our problem is that these elite technicians of the current system have bad ideas and are wielding this system towards ends which are terrible and undermine the ability of our society to flourish. The thought goes that if we can replace them with our people who have good ideas and thus put the system towards good ends that this will allow society to once again flourish. Others would argue that if we take away their toys, that is shut down, or vastly scale back, or break up the managerial state, that this will reduce their power and allow the people to flourish on their own once the state is off their backs. Or better, we do both at the same time. Unfortunately, both plans are misguided because they fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the managerial state and how its technicians operate within it. It also fails to recognize that the managerial state in its many forms cannot be reformed or controlled. It is fundamentally a creation of liberalism for liberalism.
The first mistake is to think of administrative state like an empty vessel, a neutral entity, empty of content, merely waiting to be filled with the substance of policies by whomever is in control of the vessel. This understanding stems from the general view of technology which thinks of it as “neutral.” Technology is inert, just waiting for you to use it. What matters is the uses towards which you put it. You can do good things with technology or bad things with technology. It is up to us to choose how to use the tools we have at our disposal. Technology itself is an inert thing, merely waiting to be wielded by people towards ends chosen by its operators. This, argues a thinker like Jacques Ellul, or a Marshall McLuhan, is a fundamentally mistaken view of technology.
Before we look at the nature of technology and how this affects our understanding of the administrative state, we first need to grasp that technology is more than merely the machines, tools and devices that we use. Technology is fundamentally a way of thinking about the world. Ellul calls this “technique.” Technique, the technical way of thinking, he argues, looks to take human activities, break them down, abstract them, rationalize them and then systematize them. The goal is to improve consistency and efficiency, thereby producing repeatable results. The idea is to separate any and every human task or organization from its fallible, variable, organically embedded context in persons, memory or community, abstracting it out of its particular human context to rationalize it, universalize it, thus making it portable and reproducible. Then, once the system has been developed, people are then trained and inserted back into the system.
Technique has been immensely powerful and is responsible for much of the prosperity and success of the modern world. It is everywhere. We see it in the assembly line, in quality control processes, accounting standards, teaching methods, customer service methods, administrative systems and more. It is used everywhere. It is the idea that drives the policy manual. You can figure out every potential situation and can develop a plan or procedure to account for it. You can take human variance out of the equation. You don’t have to worry about people’s intelligence or capabilities, as long as you have the right systems and processes in place. Additionally, you can use technology to augment or replace people. The machines often exceed human capacity. Primarily, though, at its heart, technique is a way of thinking, a way to approach problems.
This way of thinking, argues Ellul, has a number of identifiable characteristics:
Rationality. Technique is always the application of rationality. It is never organic. Any rationally conceived plan, solution, method, approach, system and so forth is thus technical in nature, regardless of its outward form or its place in the historical progression of technical development. Thus, something like the American constitutional plan, because of its inherent rationality (i.e. It did not emerge organically. A group of men met together and developed the system. A planning committee.) is essentially a technique based solution. Whether this rationality is applied to building rockets, running the government or growing churches, these approaches are technical in nature.
Artificiality. At its heart, technique is opposed to nature. It is ideological. Technique never emerges naturally or organically. It is always developed and imposed. It is the creation of an artificial system. Technique destroys, eliminates and subordinates the natural world and makes it impossible to enter into a truly symbiotic relationship with it.
Automatism. Technique is always pursuing the “one best way” to do anything. Whether that is a political system, or running a fortune 500 company, or testing intelligence, or teaching students, there is always a single “best way” or a “best practice” for everything. If this single best way has not been yet found, the quest is to continually refine existing techniques until it is. The goal of technique is always working to achieve the most efficient way of doing anything.
Self-Augmentation. Once it reaches a tipping point, which we passed long ago, technique will proliferate almost without human intervention. One technique suggests the next. It become the default way to approach every problem, every new situation. Modern man is so absorbed in technique, so convinced of its superiority, that without exception he is oriented towards technical progress. Technical progress is equated with human progress.
Technical progress is non-reversible. What this means is that there is an axiomatic nature to technique. Technique and the technical are seen as a sign of progress. Non-technical means are seen at best seen as quaint, but generally as backwards or retrograde. To reject technique is to reject the very idea of human progress. All flaws in technique thus must be fixed by new and supposedly better techniques.
Technical progress is always geometric in nature. As the technical system proliferates, its complexity and sophistication grows exponentially. Thus the problems which accompanies it will also grow exponentially. But because of the abstract, rationalized nature of technique, the whole system becomes increasingly abstract in nature.
Monism. The technical phenomenon embraces all the separate techniques in order to form a single seamless technical whole. This is a process of self-augmentation, where techniques now depend upon and reinforce other techniques. It is a single grand entity which encompasses much of life and strives to include all things within its purview. Everything must be subjected to technical rationalization and control. In this sense, technique, as an ideology is inherently totalitarian in nature. It desires to subordinate all things to its exigencies. More than this, it insists that all thinking be in accord with the demands of technique.
Why is this important for understanding the nature of the administrative state? Just as Carl Schmitt made the argument in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy that the parliamentary system of governance based on such ideas as “the marketplace of ideas” are not content neutral but are, in reality, built for, and sustained by, liberalism, so too, and perhaps more so, the administrative state is built for, and sustained by, technique. The structures, tools, systems and policies of the administrative state are artifacts of technique. Almost the entirety of modern administration is technique based. An argument could be made that technique is akin to “unification theory” in physics. Technique is the ideological operating system upon which, not just the west runs, but all technological societies. It is the way in which almost every situation and problem is approached. Anywhere where you find an org chart, quality control, a policy manual or you do things like a SWOT analysis, you are dealing with technique. Whether it is in business, education, non-profits, churches and para-church organizations, and, yes, government bureaucracy, they all run using technique in various forms and levels of sophistication. Technique is fundamentally about control, efficiency and consistent results. It is a society wide approach to almost every situation and every problem. The administrative regime is everywhere. Once the system has produced a “best practice,” such as “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” it quickly becomes ubiquitous.
N.S. Lyons, in his recent piece, The China Convergence,
also makes the argument that managerialism is fundamentally an ideology with definite characteristics:
Technocratic Scientism. This is the belief that everything including society can be fully understood and controlled and managed by technical means. They look at the world as a grand machine that can be understood by human reason, abstracted, rationalized and then engineered to be continually improved.
Utopianism. The belief that through the application of reason and technique that we can perfect society. This is the idea of “progress,” that we as a society are moving “forward” towards a better future. Thus history itself takes on a moral character. The embrace of the traditional takes on a character of immorality, in that it desires what is “backwards,” thus holding back the better future ahead.
Meliorism. This is the belief that all human problems can be solved through the application of technique. Every problem has a technical solution that can be instantiated through management, policy and systems.
Liberationism. The axiomatic understanding of history, with its directionality towards utopia through the means of technique, biases thinking towards one of liberating people from past practices, ways of organizing society, customs, habits, and morality. The past must be dispensed with so as to make ready for the better future technological systems will bring us. We must constantly break down the barriers which restrain us from moving forward.
Hedonistic Materialism. The idea that we can achieve happiness through the fulfilment of material needs and psychological desires. If we have a desire, there should be some “solution” that can satisfy this desire. Consumption is a moral good. The restraint or repression of desire is a bad thing from which you need liberation.
Homogenizing Cosmopolitan Universalism. This is the “monad” applied writ large. All cultural uniqueness and particularity is erased or ignored. Human beings are fungible cogs who can be trained to fit into, operate and manage “the system” anywhere equally in any place. Move people around where they are needed as needed. Any forms of localism, particularism or federalism is inefficient and backwards, an obstacle to progress and thus immoral. The quest is always for the single universal system. Globalism, world government, the multinational corporation are all good things. Economies of scale are desirable in every situation. Every system that is good must be scalable and therefore must be scaled up to include all things.
Abstraction and Dematerialization. The belief that what is abstract and virtual is more real and better than actual physical reality. Physical reality is messy. Once we are liberated from the demands of the physical, we can remake the world. The world must conform to the system, to the plan, to progress.
What we must see when looking at technology in the forms of devices and machines as well as in the nature of management systems is that none of them merely inert artifacts. They do not gain their moral intent from how they are used. Managerial techniques and institutions are the products, the artifacts of an ideological framework, a way of thinking about the world that is itself not neutral. The administrative state must be seen as an artifact of the ideological system which produced it. Laying beneath political doctrines like “progressive liberalism” and “free market conservatism” or even doctrines like “constitutionalism” is that all of them run on the same root operating system: that of technique.
Let’s say that you are willing to accept this reality, that the world runs on technique. Can’t we develop better techniques than the current ones? Isn’t part of the problem that the systems are being designed and managed towards terrible ends? There is truth in this. But unfortunately, given the nature of technique, the solution cannot be to replace bad techniques with good techniques. Ellul examines this question in his book The Technological Bluff, making the case that technology is not neutral. Nor can techniques be classified as “good” or “bad.” The idea that we can replace bad technical systems designed towards bad ends, like the current regime of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” with good systems designed towards ends which will help society flourish, is fundamentally misguided and misunderstands the nature of technique.
Technique is neither, neutral, good, nor bad, says Ellul. Rather, technique is ambivalent. It does not care. With this, he is able to acknowledge that many techniques, technical systems, processes, policies, machines, oversight regimes, organizational structures, all of it in any of its forms are often introduced with good intentions. People introduce techniques and technologies because they think that by doing so they are making the world better. But, says Ellul, by understanding technique as ambivalent, we are better able to grasp its effects over time.
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