Beautiful Losers, by Samuel Francis
Beyond The Beltway With Burnham
Mises Review 1, No. 3 (Fall 1995)
University of Missouri Press, 1993. x + 237 pgs.
The heart of Samuel Francis's brilliant criticism of contemporary American conservatism is found in his essay "The Other Side of Modernism", included in the present collection. Most conservatives, he claims, whether libertarian or traditionalist, condemn the Left from an absolutist moral point of view.
Modernism, which holds that "[h]uman knowledge can be only empirical; moral statements can be only relative or factual . . . and human action cannot be modeled on transcendent or spiritual goods that either do not exist or cannot be known" (p. 131), thus ranks for most traditionalists as a stance to be utterly repudiated.
James Burnham, best known for The Managerial Revolution, broke with traditional conservatism precisely at this point. He agreed with the modernist denial of absolute values, yet arrived at a conservative position nonetheless. In his 1943 work The Machiavellians, Burnham viewed politics as the struggle of competing elites for power. The appetite for power could be restrained only through "a balanced distribution of power among various social and political forces that mutually checked the power of each other" (p. 133). (So exact is Francis's knowledge of Burnham that he cites differences in wording between the 1963 reissue of The Machiavellians and the original edition.)
Instead of mere reflection on ideas, the Right needs to grasp the realities of power. The failure of the Right to do this has rendered it vulnerable to takeover by liberalism and the managerial elite it represents: it is for this reason that Francis terms the American Right "beautiful losers."
Francis's analysis, in its penetration and power, brings to mind Burnham's provocative comparison in The Machiavellians of Dante's De Monarchia with The Prince. And the reservations I have about Francis's account closely resemble the doubts I had when reading Burnham.
Dante may well have had an unrealistic view of Italian politics. But does this follow just from the fact that he attempted to sketch out an ideal Christian political regime? Whether there are absolute values is one thing; whether these values are thought to operate in history as "an unearthly ballet of bloodless categories" independent of power and interest is quite another. Why must one adopt a "modernist" attitude toward values in order to count as a realist?
But this criticism in fact points to a strength of Francis's (and Burnham s) position. Even if one rejects the modernist account of values, one can still recognize the force of Francis's point that the realities of power cannot be ignored. Even moral absolutists need to be concerned with interest and power at any rate, if they care about giving effect to their ideas.
And I am inclined to the view, on second thought, that I have underestimated Francis's subtlety. Although he writes with apparent sympathy for Burnham's modernism, and seems critical of traditionalists, I cannot find any explicit profession by him of the modernist creed. It would not be surprising if it turns out that this ironist has baited a trap for prospective critics.
If one heeds Francis's advice and looks at the realities of power in contemporary America, what do we find? Francis adopts Burnham's famous thesis of a "managerial revolution." Developments in science and technology, along with the attendant growth of large corporations, have in the 20th century made old-fashioned capitalism, based on small business, obsolete. Nowadays, managers and a technical- scientific elite control the economy.
Liberalism expresses the interests of this managerial elite. Those who wish to counter liberalism, cannot proceed effectively by appealing to the same groups whose interests liberalism serves.
Instead, the Right must seek to lead another social class: "Abandoning the illusion that it represents an establishment to be conserved,' a new American Right must recognize that its values and goals lie outside and against the establishment and that its natural allies are not in Manhattan, Yale, and Washington but in the increasingly alienated and threatened strata of Middle America. The strategy of the Right should be to enhance the polarization of Middle Americans from the incumbent regime, not to build coalitions with the regime's defenders and beneficiaries" (p. 230). On this basis, Francis dissects the neoconservatives, who, he shows, are not allies of the Right, but its enemies.
Those whose economics has been shaped by the Austrian School will not look with complete favor on the managerial revolution thesis. In the standard Austrian view, supported by much contemporary work on the problem of agency, capitalists control corporate managers through the stock market and the market for firms. But Francis's analysis survives even if parts of the scaffolding on which it rests are kicked away.
So long as one agrees that there is a managerial class whose interests liberalism represents, why need one hold that this class controls the economy in order to oppose liberalism? The prospects for wresting control of the political system from the liberal elite seem better if in fact they do not dominate the economy as well. Nevertheless, one can also accept the thesis of managerial dominance, if so inclined, while remaining true to Austrian economics. To do this, all one need do is drop the assumption that technological developments made managerial supremacy inevitable. Perhaps the managerial elite assumed control owing to contingent political events (such as regulation in securities markets).
Indeed, Francis's analysis seems much better off without an inevitable managerial revolution. If technological developments make necessary control by a managerial elite, what can an elite that rests on Middle American Radicals hope to accomplish? Perhaps it can destroy the existing elite, but will not the same technological developments that in the first place gave us the managers reinstate them? If it is replied to this that a new managerial elite need not adopt liberalism, how tight is the postulated connection between the presently existing managers and liberalism? Perhaps they did not have to adopt liberalism either.
Francis's book is packed with penetrating observations, such as the connection he draws between environmentalism, the view "that human beings are perceived as the products of their social and historical environment rather than of their innate mental and physical natures" (p. 213), and the progressivist ideology.
Francis's book ranks among the most skillful dissections of contemporary conservatism to appear in many years. Francis's originality and keen analytical powers make his book essential reading.
Cite This Article
Gordon, David. "Beyond The Beltway With Burnham," Review of Beautiful Losers, by Samuel Francis. The Mises Review 1, No. 3 (Fall 1995).