The Fiction of Managerial Effectiveness: Alasdair MacIntyre

The Fiction of Managerial Effectiveness: Alasdair MacIntyre

Many of those who express concern for the current condition of our society, as well as the trajectory it is on, tend to pour a lot of their energy into examining political ideology, political parties, the role that social and economic class play, but do not often look into the interconnected web of culture defining myths and how these play out in “the current situation.” One of the values of a thinker like Jacques Ellul is that he makes the connection between the administrative state and the fundamental myths of our culture. It is one thing to rail against the administrative state, against big government; it is another to peer into the problem and understand that the administrative state is a cultural necessity in the west. It is encouraging to see people reading Ellul, Burnham, Francis and others on this subject. The more the better. It is important that we explore all the connections between enlightenment liberalism, personal autonomy, the idea of human rights, the idea of human progress, scientific thinking, technology, and the administrative state.

The administrative state is not something that is ruining a good thing, that is, a free society. Rather, the administrative state is its logical conclusion, at least when liberty is conceived of in enlightenment terms. It is imperative we see that managerialism is the logical expression of western rationalism. To talk of wielding power to control and direct the bureaucracy for the aims of the right or for conservatism is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of the administrative state. Left wing politics is the natural expression of enlightenment liberalism. And the administrative state is the instantiation of both. Although people will try, there really can be no “right wing managerialism.” To proffer “solutions” which will be enacted and realized through policy or management is essentially to embrace the rules of the game as set up by our liberal culture following the enlightenment. The core myths of our society are essentially liberal. The implication of this is that any attempt to fix the problems generated by the managerial state using the managerial state can never arrest the trajectory of our society. They are built into managerialism itself.

As I will soon be discussing in an upcoming piece on Ellul’s “The Political Illusion,” we do not really have a choice at this point but to harness the power of the technical approach to societal management. It is of a piece with mechanized forms of production and manufacturing. As a nation we are no longer free to reject technology in spite of its ills, because that would make us vulnerable to our neighbors. Thus we must be rolling tanks off our assembly lines because other countries have assembly lines producing tanks. We must be a technical society because all other sufficiently powerful states are also technical societies. This means that technical management will be with us for some time yet, likely until some form of global collapse renders it dead. At that point, real political choice will return. Until then, we must learn to deal with a system that is designed to realize liberal ideology. We on the right, when we deal with the administrative state, must understand that we are playing inside someone else’s game where all the rules are designed to produce outcomes in line with liberal ideology. If you try to instantiate conservative ideas by means of the administrative state, they will end up becoming liberalized in their realization. Knowing this, though, it is imperative we understand as fully and deeply as possible what managerialism is, how it works, what are its strengths and, most importantly, its flaws. In aid of this goal, we turn today to a portion of Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue.”

Why the Manager?

MacIntyre wrote his book to help us understand the devastating effect that enlightenment rationalism and liberalism has had upon our moral thinking, and then how that change in thinking also had a ruinous impact upon the moral practices of western society. He also offered a proposal for a way forward, that is, the recovery of virtue. The quick version of his argument is that enlightenment thinkers wanted to found morality on reason alone. They did not want to base it upon superstition, that is, on the Christian-Aristotelian understanding that morality is based on a metaphysical order directed towards realizing in our actions our purpose, our telos, as human beings. Enlightenment thinkers thought they could find a way to ground morality and ethics in reason alone. This, MacIntyre shows in exhaustive detail, has been a miserable failure. This was one of the main goals of the enlightenment. The failure of this project effectively renders the enlightenment experiment a failure, with devastating consequences for our society.

He argues that what has emerged to replace the old teleological system of ethics is “emotivism.” Basically, I do whatever feels right to me. What happens when my feelings conflict with your feelings? They can only be resolved through the will to power. I have the power to impose my feelings upon you. This is why the hysterical protestor is such a feature of our society. They are logical expression of enlightenment liberal morality.

MacIntyre argues that we as human beings tend to be drawn to archetypes and he identifies three main mythical figures that guide our expression of personal moral autonomy. On the personal level we elevate the “Rich Aesthete” who lives for their own enjoyment, tasting all the pleasures of life. Their work, their play, all of that they do are done for their own personal advancement and fulfillment. This is the person who is projected to us through our televisions and social media. The second figure is that of the “Therapist” who is there to help us become “adjusted” to this modern life using scientific methods. They are not there to judge us or to speak truths we do not want to hear; rather, their purpose is to transform people who are maladjusted and unhappy into happy, well-adjusted persons suited to live in the modern world.

In the public realm, since the enlightenment has banished moral and religious questions from the public sphere, we are expected to deal only in questions of “effectiveness.” The archetype of this effective person is “The Manager.” The manager is the hero of the era of reason, science and technology. He is the one who turns raw materials into finished products, unskilled labor into a effective work force, and turns investments into profits. The expert manager is an aspirational figure, someone to be looked up to and admired. The manager is there to run society quietly and efficiently. Effectiveness is its own end, its own purpose, its own reason.

But managers, argues MacIntyre, do have the control they think they do. Managerial effectiveness is a fiction, he argues. The idea of “managerial effectiveness” functions much in the same way that “God” used to operate within society prior to the enlightenment. The pronouncements of expert managers are to be received with a kind of awe. They will effectively direct our lives in complete neutrality, basing their decisions on nothing more than “facts” and “science.” They are not clouded by moral prejudice. The expert manager rejects all teleological conceptions, that our life has a metaphysical purpose and that we live best when we pursue that purpose. No, his authority rests purely on his “effectiveness” and his reliance on “facts.”

This conception of the expert manager is built on the enlightenment idea that truth is “self-evident.” The “facts” will speak for themselves. All you have to do is simply collect them as they present themselves and their meaning will be obvious without any necessity for interpretation or an interpreter interposing himself between us and the pure necessity dictated to us by the facts themselves. The problem with this idea, argues MacIntyre, is that a “fact” so conceived requires a world without any prior theories or knowledge. Neither can you form any theories from these “facts.” Otherwise the pure “fact” would be tainted with my prejudices. The world in which “facts” exist is a world that can only exist if there is no interpretation of the world. The world would be uninterpretable. It is a world without theory and from which theories cannot be drawn.

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