The Fiction of Managerial Effectiveness: Alasdair MacIntyre
MacIntyre discusses why "managerialism" cannot provide a proper framework for a flourishing society: the idea of managerial effectiveness is dangerous fiction that will lead to social collapse.
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.
You simply cannot do this. You cannot see the world “as it is.” You always encounter the world through your own prior knowledge, history, theory and prejudices. You absorb the things you see, hear, touch and taste into a prior schema. Your apprehension of the world is always biased and prejudiced. You never encounter such a thing as an abstracted truth. Our experience of the world is always embedded in a web of culture, prior experience, past learning as well as our own basic wiring, our unique personhood. In this sense, 17th and 18th century moderns who believed themselves to be seeing the world “as it is” and thought of themselves as understanding truths that were “self-evident,” may, as a result, made themselves one of the least self-aware eras in history. To a thinker in the middle ages, the modern idea that we can separate facts and values would seem alien.
In the process of “purifying” itself, the natural sciences rejected the idea of final causes and with it moral thinking, instead focusing only on natural laws. The universe is mechanical and its order can be understood on its own terms without any reference to any metaphysical purpose it may or may not have. As a result, the study of the world becomes self-referential.
This approach was eventually adopted by every discipline, especially the social disciplines. They attempted to uncover the “self-evident” natural laws of human behavior and psychology. As a result of focusing on how things were working, questions of why things are the way they are or what their purpose may or may not be are out of bounds. We are searching only for the mechanical laws of behavior. MacIntyre argues, though, that human behavior is such that it is too complex, too subtle to formulate anything even closely approaching something like a “law” of human behavior.
The promise of the psychological and social sciences is that we can predict what people with do if we manipulate them in certain ways. If we change certain conditions, people will respond in consistent and predictable ways. Even at the outset, though, there is a problem. The expert managers and scientists do not include themselves in the system. They are outside the system, observing it’s self-evident truths, the facts of human behavior, generating laws. But they themselves are unaffected by these same laws.
This is what happened with both government and business bureaucracies. These agencies and companies use “scientific management” to effect the results they deem will be effective for the country or the company. They are the “experts” who stand above and apart from society, who can manipulate people scientifically for desired outcomes. Because governments and large companies can recruit the “experts” and have the resources and competence that most average citizens do not, they use this advantage to justify their manipulation of society. Their claims to authority, power and money come by invoking their own competence as scientific managers of social change. The “manager” in all western locales is a similar type. They claim to have “value neutrality” and at the same time also claim a “manipulative authority.” They alone have the requisite mix of competency and detachment to manage, to manipulate, society.
But, asks MacIntrye, do we in truth now possesses the ability to make law-like generalizations about social and psychological behavior? Are our bureaucratic rulers justified in this claim or not? When we dig into the material, we quickly discover that the both the psychological and social sciences have uncovered little that is of predictive value and little that can yield consistently repeatable results. Often one finds that most of their predictions are simply flat out wrong. He wonders if we should not conclude that the psychological and social sciences are actually failed experiments and are not really “sciences” at all?
The response to this from the “sciences” is to claim that they don’t come up with “laws” but, rather, merely “probabilistic generalizations.” This, argues MacIntyre, is in reality an admission that the social and psychological “sciences” are not really sciences at all. If the best thing you can do is tell us what might happen, what will probably happen, you are trying to make educated guesses as opposed to actual scientific inquiry. Machiavelli, says MacIntyre, used the concept of “fortune” to illustrate to his readers that no matter how good our generalizations are, they will all, at some point be defeated by the “bitch-goddess” of unpredictability. This unpredictability, though, may not lead us to make different generalizations. Very often, stuff just happens.
MacIntyre argues that the whole concept of effective management runs up against a wall. That wall is the unpredictable nature of events. The undoing of the managerial system is that it cannot account for the things that cannot be predicted. Managerialism relies on plans built from past knowledge and things continuing to happen in the same way tomorrow as they do today. That is the main false assumption of managerialism. He identifies four main sources of unpredictability.
The radical nature of innovation. Could anyone have predicted the wheel before someone invented the wheel? If they could, they would have had wheels already. By its nature, radical conceptual innovation cannot be predicted. The idea that we can predict innovation is itself conceptually incoherent. By this he is not including general predictions like: “some day, men will fly.” Rather, we are dealing with rationally grounded predictions based on evidence. You cannot predict innovation, for if you could, it would have already occurred.
The unpredictability of certain future actions generates unpredictability for the future actions of others. If the observer cannot predict how his own future actions may affect and change the future actions of the person he is observing, he will not be able to accurately predict the actions of the person he is observing. Unless you are omniscient such that you can know all the actions from all persons and how each of those actions will interact with the future actions of others, you simply have to accept a high degree of unpredictability. Those that are trying to remove unpredictability through planning and management are trying to take on that role of omniscient gods.
Unpredictability arises from the “game theory” nature of life. Rationality and predictability requires that we know all the relevant information for making such a decision. But how do you even know what information you will need? Game-theory as a disciple relies on incomplete information. You do not know what decisions others are going to make and this makes your decision unpredictable and uncertain. Not only that, but game theory requires that we hide information from each other for our advantage. Victory in a game theory contest requires that we use deceit to our advantage. This introduces further uncertainty. You cannot trust the information you are receiving because it may be falsified for the advantage of someone else.
Trivial contingencies can powerfully influence events in unpredictable ways. This is the aptly named “butterfly effect.” One drop of water falling the wrong way, is the one drop too many that causes the avalanche of mud that buries the village killing everyone. Can that one drop of rain be predicted?
After examining the ways in which unpredictability can undermine “scientific management,” MacIntyre goes on to examine the sources of predictability. What things can we do that we can count on?
The scheduling and coordinating of our social actions. We can structure and order our days with routines and then coordinate our routines with the routines and habits of others. He argues that much of this is actually unspoken and done at a pre-conscious cultural level. He argues that through enculturation, we learn and pick up and know more of people’s expectations of us than we are even consciously aware. This conscious and unconscious coordination makes communal life as a society predictable.
Statistical regularities. People will often know certain things happen in certain ways and at certain times and happen in these ways consistently even when they don’t know causally when they will happen. He argues that just because things happen in a predictable manner, though, does not mean necessarily that this predictability can be explained. We know certain things will happen even though we don’t always understand why they are happening. But we are able to use this predictability to order our lives and make successful decisions. It also enables us to engage in long term projects, even if these projects still remain vulnerable to a certain degree of unpredictability. The enlightenment hope was that this fragility and vulnerability to our decisions could be overcome at some point in the progressive future. It is this impulse that animates the big data and AI enthusiasts.
We have enough knowledge of causal regularities of nature to order our lives. Winter, spring, summer, fall come in their cycles. There are rains, snows, floods, droughts, plagues and the like that do happen. We know they will happen, however unpredictably, and we can prepare for them and manage our lives around them.
We also understand certain regularities in social life. Not all people are born rich. Your inherited class will likely limit your opportunities. These and many other types of social realities are generally predictable and we can account for them in our decision making.
The Interplay of the Predictable and Unpredictable
Knowing these two things, that there are certain predictabilities and certain unpredictabilities does make plans possible, but it renders them fragile and vulnerable. This fragility and vulnerability is the essential weakness of the managerial state. The managerial state exists in denial of fundamental realities of human interaction. On the one hand, we need to reveal ourselves to the world in predictable ways in order to accomplish anything with other people. Yet, this predictability makes us vulnerable to manipulation by others. So we are required to keep a portion of ourselves hidden so as not to be taken manipulated by others. We enter into society to engage in shared projects with others, but remain at the same time opaque so as to protect ourselves from others.
This is one of the paradoxes of organizations. To build an organization you require open and engaged people establishing predictable systems, yet these same people remain to some degree hidden and unpredictable. That and the myriad of unpredictable events and circumstances work to undermine those same predictable systems. Because of this dynamic between the revealed and the hidden, the predictable and the unpredictable, the idea that we can create a society through scientific management that can eliminate all problems is doomed from the start because it is incapable of accounting for what cannot be known or predicted.
Thus, a true totalitarianism is doomed from the start. Every attempt to manage a society creates the conditions that will lead to its own demise. This is not a thing of ideology, even if the hope it could be achieved was born out of enlightenment liberal ideology. Conservative management will no more succeed than liberal management. This is the fatal flaw of something like a “common good conservatism” approach to the management state. This is not to say that things cannot go on for quite some time before they fail. The will fail though. Reality will always catch up with managerial systems.
This is the truth that we need to embrace, that managerial effectiveness is a myth, a fiction of modern society. The recent Covid response regime is a perfect case study in managerial ineffectiveness. In societies that are bureaucratically managed there will emerge social movements informed by what MacIntyre calls a “prophetic irrationalism.” It is belief that we can harness the rational power of the administration towards the achievement of social ends. We should expect this from both the left and the right. They are all doomed to fail, because scientific management cannot account for the unpredictability of life.
According to MacIntyre, there is a brutal either/or that we must reckon with. Either one follows through with the enlightenment project to its eventual failure and the ensuing social collapse or we must come to the conclusion that the enlightenment project was not only mistaken but should never have taken place in the first place.
There is no third alternative.