The rise of a post-industrial, technologically advanced society affected social and economic structures worldwide. James Burnham and Daniel Bell foresaw how drastically society would change over the following decades, as well as the consequences of these tendencies toward globalism and liberalism.

We like to say that every idea, every thought, every emotion—no matter how novel—has already been conveyed by someone, somewhere; such is the nature of the “universality” of the human experience. Even our most contemporary problems have their early traces in books from previous centuries, as people who were witnessing their changing world recorded their thoughts to warn about what could happen from even our best intentions. Many thinkers who saw the dangers that the modern world would bring presciently understood that adage we like to tell ourselves as conservatives: “Ideas have consequences.”

The modern phenomenon of globalization is another element of our age that was warned against early on. Thinkers and writers from various disciplines began writing about traces of globalist threats in their communities since the early twentieth century. Many of these warnings about globalization and increased state power, for one, came as a consequence of the changes in the political structures of nations after the Second World War. Political theorist and philosopher James Burnham, in his important work, The Managerial Revolution (1940), warned about a shift in class dominance as a result of globalization. After the fall of France, Burnham wrote, “[t]he day of a Europe carved into a score of sovereign states is over; if the states remain, they will be little more than administrative units in a larger collectivity.”[1]

In his analysis of social structures, Burnham found that his society was defined and ruled by its elite, as opposed to its politicians. The growth of the administrative state, he realized, eventually turned into growth in bureaucracy, hence a “managerial” takeover. The political theorist Kenneth Minogue had a similar sentiment. As a result of globalization, Minogue foresaw a rise in a “new oligarchy” that would emerge “within and above the nation-state,” comprised of experts such as lawyers, politicians, administrators, and scientists.[2] But if it was the case that Burnham was writing about a social revolution, then why would his prediction be pertinent to a study on the literary origins of globalism? Burnham emphasized that the most important social institutions are also economic and political because social shifts follow economic and political shifts.[3] Thus, globalization as it is often defined—as an economic and political phenomenon—also has social consequences, and it would appear that Burnham noticed the social effects first, before the economic and political causes.

Burnham’s understanding of the social revolution of his time was closely tied to the increase of the speed at which change was taking place. He observed that “occasionally, in human history, the changes take place so rapidly and are so drastic in extent that the framework itself is shattered and a new one takes its place.”[4] Reminiscent of Henry Adams’ 1907 analogy of the broken neck of history, Burnham also believed that social change in the twentieth century was occurring at a pace that altered the way of life so drastically that it became something entirely different. Burnham elaborated on this point, writing that “[t]he system of property relations, the forms under which economic production is carried on, the legal structure, the type of political organization and regime,” were all so “sharply altered” after the Second World War, that they became an entity of their own; “different in kind, not merely modified in degree.”[5] If politics and economics had become truly different, then it followed that society, too, was facing a radical shift in purpose and function.

Capitalist society displayed the first example of this shift in purpose. Burnham posited that capitalism propelled citizens to live in a “world” society because it was the natural result of economic development, which sought markets, sources of raw materials, and investment outlets.[6] Burnham argued that the capitalist state asserted authority over fields of human activity that would generally be recognized as falling within the jurisdiction of the state.[7] Thus, a newly re-focused capitalist society was intervening with the role of the state and forcing people to reconsider the role that the city was meant to play for its citizens.

But what led to the rise of a capitalist society that limited the state’s activities? Burnham blamed “the most famous of all capitalist theories of the state,” the liberal theory, as the flawed tradition that was ruining social organization and corroding the role of the nation state.[8] Liberalism, according to Burnham, served the prime interest of promoting capitalist economic progress by letting the economic progress take care of itself, only intervening in the negative sense by removing any obstacles against the free market. Burnham astutely pit theory against the practice: The philosophical tradition of individualism and private property rights (liberalism) against the political manifestation of this tradition. He upheld that liberalism is self-defeating because it pushes sovereignty away from itself. Liberalism’s fatal mistake, Burnham wrote, was that it placed political authority “up in the clouds” instead of being “concretized in some man or group of men.”[9]

Burnham’s economic critique of globalization turns into a critique of liberalism’s ineptitude at stopping these social shifts. Liberalism, he argued, created this shift in the institutional locus of sovereignty because “the history of political development of capitalism is the history of the shift in locus of sovereignty, more particularly to the lower house of parliament.”[10] Because the political shift to parliament coincided with the development of capitalist society, Burnham observed that liberalism as an ideology was, politically, too weak with regards to asserting authority—to the point that it would eventually succumb to capitalist dominance as it refused itself any objective authority over any other ruling principles.

If capitalism is understood to be self-expanding and incentivized by profit, then the global implications of Burnham’s concern with liberalism and capitalism become clear: The initial separation of ownership and control that allowed the managerial elite to gain influence in society can transform and grow beyond the nation-state. Burnham posited that if political problems were settled by a form of scientific reasoning such as market forces, then people should expect the political system in a managerial society to “take the form of a single world state” that would presuppose “a large measure of general social unity… in culture, education, in material standards of life.”[11] Capitalism, then, necessarily had “universalist ambitions.”[12] For Burnham, moreover, managerialism would eventually trump capitalism because production, the key facet of capitalism, is a “social and political phenomenon,” while consumption, the key facet of managerialism, is “apolitical.”[13] The popular legitimacy of the managerial elite does not require any form of liberal social contract, as capitalism does, nor does it subscribe its power to any “self-imposed ideological limitations.”[14] Thus, Burnham predicted that the success of a growing managerial elite, propelled by globalist expansion of the marketplace, would be closely tied, if not entirely attributed, to the eventual failure of liberalism.

It is worth bearing in mind that what Burnham observed in society as a managerial revolution reaffirmed to him an error in Marx’s socio-economic theory. That communism would, as the natural development of history, eventually overcome capitalism, proved to be a fable in the face of a growing consumerist culture. His book, moreover, has been considered his attempt to create an “alternative to Marxist historical theory.”[15] So what is the alternative? Burnham predicted that a globalized world in the future would bring about new forms of political disagreement. Since the nation-state was weakening as a result of the combination of unbridled capitalism and faulty liberalism, Burnham predicted that the problems of the future would be similar to class warfare, but that it would take the form of globalists versus non-globalists; or, to put it in his terms, “wars of the metropolitan centres against backward areas and peoples.”[16]

In a similar form of analysis, American sociologist Daniel Bell’s prophetic reflection on the changes of his time, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1976), warned about the socio-political consequences of the pending Information Age. Bell’s argument supplements Burnham’s book because it provides another critique of liberalism budding from the early stages of globalization. Bell’s method, however, was different: He wrote against the deterministic trajectory of history that argued that capitalist industrialization in England meant that all other nations that attempted to industrialize would follow the same fate.[17] Bell also set himself apart from James Burnham’s political theory as he presented it in The Managerial Revolution, calling Burnham’s book an ‘historical sweep’ that turned it into a caricature.[18] Instead, Bell attempted to craft a theory for how rapid changes in a post-industrial society would alter the social structure in America, which he used as his “singular” but by no means exclusive, “unit of illustration.”[19]

Burnham’s class-based notion of a managerial revolution was not possible to Bell because he believed that corporations and bureaucracies were composed of individuals. Industrial society, he argued, was a different concept from the technology-based society that was emerging in his lifetime: Industrialization and its social consequences were not entirely dependent on their nation to flourish, which is why it was able to take place in “antagonistic societies” with different political systems like the Soviet Union. A post-industrial society based on technology and science, however, would differ from the manufacturing society of the previous two centuries because it would not be a “substructure” of change within a “superstructure”; it would become a dimension of society itself that would “pose management problems for the political system that arbitrates the society.”[20] Bell foresaw a world where information would become its own economy, with a necessity for a new knowledge class and a preference for services instead of goods. But this new shift toward science and technology would place pressure on social structures, inevitably setting certain classes and ways of life aside.

Bell conceived of three dimensions to society: social structure, polity, and culture.[21] Social structure was “separate analytically from the two other dimensions of society.”[22] These three parts of society were becoming gradually more and more disjointed as a result of post-industrial society. The “disjunction of culture and social structure” was “bound to widen” in a post-industrial society because, “if the modern social structure is a distinctively new kind of social organization, then contemporary culture in its concern with the self combines the deepest wellsprings of human impulse with modern antipathy to bourgeois society.”[23] It is important to notice that Bell did not believe post-industrial society, or post-industrialization itself, to be a cultural change; rather, it was a change that ran parallel to culture that would end up inevitably enveloping and altering it. Because society was becoming “increasingly conscious of its fate,” it would seek to control “its own fortunes” through politics.[24]

The increasing power of the administrative state is an underlying theme in Bell’s study. He wrote, “politically, the problem of a post-industrial society is the growth of a non-market welfare economics and the lack of adequate mechanisms to decide the allocation of public goods,” and he concluded that “the most besetting dilemma confronting all modern society” was bureaucratization.[25] Near the end of his analysis, Bell’s understanding of post-industrial society turned into a criticism of unchecked capitalism and of liberalism, arguing that liberalism’s problem is its inability to “define the bounds” of capitalism, leaving the moral order of society “in a state of confusion and disarray.”[26] Bell concluded by referencing the global implications of the post-industrial cycle, saying that while in his lifetime it took place within the national economy, the same process would repeat itself on the larger scale in the world economy of later years.[27] The political implications of economic globalization were clear to Bell: “There is a paradox,” he wrote “of the spread of a world capitalist economy in the nation-state as the economic order becomes more subordinate to the wider context of political decision.”[28] This predicament is a paradox indeed, for the attempt to globalize a country necessitates subordination to the administrative state.

The problems that Bell studied in his society were not much different in principle from those that “the new capitalist and industrial nations faced in the hundred years between 1850 and 1950.”[29] Still, the end of the twentieth century carried with it a new feature that rendered the new problems international and therefore global: “The increased interdependence of the world economy and the rise… of the world business corporation” meant that “the context of all decisions” would become international in essence.[30] Bell wrote that thinkers like Henri de Saint-Simon, August Comte, and Herbert Spencer, “the theorists of industrial society,” created a “radical opposition between the industrial spirit and the military spirit.”[31] The industrial spirit emphasized work, production, and rationality that transcended national borders in order for countries to create wealth. Interestingly enough, Bell criticized the military spirit in a characterization of his own, as “display, waste, and heroics.”[32] But the important take-away from Bell’s biased view of the military spirit is how it heightened the importance of patriotism and citizenship, and how that spirit was dying as a consequence of industrialization: That Bell never made a connection between the death of what he called the military spirit and the failure of liberalism does not negate the possibility of a correlation.

Globalization’s socio-economic paradox also caught the attention of French philosopher, Jacques Maritain. In writing about the problem of world government strictly from the point of view of political philosophy, Maritain noted that interdependence of nations is “essentially an economic interdependence” that was not naturally willed because it came into existence from technical and material processes, not political or rational ones.[33] The result, Maritain posited, was one of political instability. He wrote,

An essentially economic interdependence, without any corresponding fundamental recasting of the moral and political structures of human existence, can but impose by material necessity a partial and fragmentary, growing bit by bit, political interdependence which is reluctantly and hatefully accepted, because it runs against the grain of nature as long as nations live on the assumption of their full political autonomy. In the framework and against the background of that assumed full political autonomy of nations, an essentially economic interdependence can but exasperate the rival needs and prides of nations; and the industrial progress only accelerates that process…[34]

Again, Maritain was writing from a perspective of an industrialized age; but this perspective only informed his foresight of an economically interdependent world. To establish economic interdependence without rephrasing our understanding of our moral and political structures would only accrue political and social discontent as culture becomes increasingly material.

Writing about the state, Maritain predicted that the tradition of liberalism in light of globalization would shift the role of the state so that the state would “no longer be in the service of men” but that “men will be in the service of the peculiar ends of the state.”[35] He wrote that the political problems that arise from economic globalization challenge us to decide if the human conscience and moral intelligence are able to make the “machine”—the world government—a positive force in the service of mankind.[36] That is to say, can we impose on our “instinctive greed” a “collective reason grown stronger than instinct” without having to go through a period of trial and error?”[37]

People who were already living in a society with growing globalist ambitions and seeing the social consequences it was having on their livelihood would have been cynical in response to Maritain’s question. In his 1999 essay, “The Whole Horse,” Wendell Berry, for example, wrote against the effort to globalize the industrial economy through “government-sponsored international trade agreements” such as the World Trade Organization. Mr. Berry noticed the contradictory policies of such an institution, saying it “gives the lie to the industrialist conservatives’ professed abhorrence of big government.”[38] Mr. Berry astutely recognized what both Burnham and Bell had analyzed: “The power to do large-scale damage… calls naturally and logically for government regulation…”[39] What Mr. Berry called “a world-governed by economic-bureaucracy” would destroy “local adaptation everywhere by ignoring the uniqueness of every place.”[40]

Mr. Berry considered local economists to be the solution, as great centralizers who sought “an appropriate degree of self-determination and independence for localities.”[41] This esteem of local economists, Mr. Berry argued, could help to radically revise the idea of a city. Local economists could see the city “not just as a built and paved municipality set apart… to live and trade transportation from the world at large” but as “a part of a community which includes also the city’s rural neighbors.”[42] The city’s problem between “the industrial and the agrarian” and “the global and the local,” Mr. Berry assured, needed re-emphasis on community.[43]

German economist Wilhelm Röpke’s The Social Crisis of Our Time (1948) analyzed the social tensions that arose from economic and political changes. For Röpke, accepting that the socio-political crisis of his time had a “spiritual-ethical” facet also assigned to his epoch “its proper place in the history of thought.”[44] Placing an age against its historical background, Röpke argued, allowed people to think critically about their society to analyze how their epoch could be distinguished from previous ones and to realize how it evolved from its past. Röpke distinguished his age as being a “spiritual interregnum,” a moral vacuum created by “the dissolution and disintegration of all traditional values and norms” caused by “boundless relativism” in the form of positivism.[45] But Röpke’s alleged social crisis was not another book harping on societal moral decay. Instead, Röpke insisted, the social crisis of his time was the result of political and economic shifts whose consequences had not been properly analyzed. Only with this a relativist inclination, indicative of a post-modernist society, could globalist socio-economic arguments in favor of universality hold sway over the traditional precepts of liberalism.

Röpke believed that healthy society required structure and a hierarchical composition in order to allow communities to create their own functions, be it within their neighborhoods, churches, or other associations.[46] A spreading notion of individualism, however, caused society to disintegrate “into a mass of abstract individuals who are solitary and isolated as human beings but packed tightly like termites in their role of social functionaries.”[47] He argued that relations between men, as a result of economic policies and politics, which pushed for marked competition and central organization, were being reduced to a “mechanical” kind that was comprised of buyers and sellers.[48] Politics and economics, moreover, affected the landscape, creating “bloated,” big cities with industrial areas to accommodate “the speed and instability of economic life,” resulting in a “materialist and rationalist life” that featured “mass production” and “worldwide interdependence.”[49] He argued that all these changes were the result of liberal democracy because it failed to “understand the limitations inherent in the democratic and liberal principle.”[50] Liberalism affected economic policy, and in turn, it eventually manifested itself in people’s quotidian lives through politics of centralization and bureaucratization.

Röpke always tied his theories to what he called “the basic question”: How is the will of the state formed? His answer was divided into two possibilities, either autonomy or heteronomy—”autonomous authority or extraneous authority.”[51] If at the core of the problem lay the autonomy of the nation-state, or its subordination to an external authority, then globalization would have been of great importance to Röpke because it presented a shift towards heteronomy. Near the end of his work, Röpke wrote about what he called “an international new order” and refuted those thinkers who pushed for a “liberal international economic order” while favoring collectivism at home.[52] This contradiction, Röpke warned, would create social inequalities at the national level that would not be reconciled with an alleged universalism that would favor certain political actions internationally and implement contradicting policies nationally.

It would appear that Burnham and Bell’s criticisms of globalization and liberalism in the twentieth century were not isolated incidents; rather, they were two famous thinkers who echoed the sentiments of many other people who were feeling the pushes and strains that an interconnected world was creating on their lives. Anyone who has reservations towards globalization will find himself nodding along with Bell and Burnham’s words, and re-discovering these authors creates an important historical backdrop for contemporary studies on the topic.

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Bell, Daniel, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, (New York: 1973).

Berry, Wendell, ‘The Whole Horse’, The Art of the Commonplace, (Berkeley: 2002).

Burnham, James, The Managerial Revolution, (Harmondsworth: 1942).

Maritain, Jacques, Man and The State, (Chicago: 1951).

Röpke, Wilhelm, The Social Crisis of Our Time, (Glasgow: 1950).

[1] James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, (Harmondsworth: 1942). p. 8.

[2] Kenneth Minogue, Special Collections, University of St Andrews, pp. 10-11.

[3] Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 16.

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Ibid., p. 16.

[6] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[7] Ibid., p. 31.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. p. 32.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 161-162.

[12] Julius Krein, ‘James Burnham’s Managerial Elite’, Spring 2017 [30 May, 2018].

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, p. 166.

[17] Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, (New York: 1973), p. x.

[18] Ibid., p. 14.

[19] Ibid., p. x.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 12.

[22] Ibid., p. x.

[23] Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, pp. 478-480.

[24] Ibid., p. 13.

[25] Ibid., pp. 118-119.

[26] Ibid., p. 479.

[27] Ibid., p. 485.

[28] Ibid., p. 486.

[29] Ibid., p. 483.

[30] Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, p. 483.

[31] Ibid., p. 355.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Jacques Maritain, Man and The State, (Chicago: 1951), p. 189.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Maritain, Man and The State, p. 192.

[36] Ibid., p. 191.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Wendell Berry, “The Whole Horse”, The Art of the Commonplace, (Berkeley: 2002), p. 242.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., pp. 243-44.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Berry, ‘The Whole Horse’, The Art of the Commonplace, p. 242.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Wilhelm Röpke, The Social Crisis of Our Time, (Glasgow: 1950) p. 6.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., p. 10.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Röpke, The Social Crisis of Our Time, p. 6.

[49] Ibid., p. 14.

[50] Ibid., p. 17.

[51] Ibid., p. 101.

[52] Ibid., p. 235.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of James Burnham (left) and a photo of Daniel Bell (right). 

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