[Paleopsych] Prospect (UK) Michael Lind: In defence of mandarins

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Michael Lind: In defence of mandarins
No. 115 / Oct 2005

    The meritocratic mandarinate and its humanist culture cushioned mass
    democracy from the excesses feared by 19th-century liberals. Now the
    mandarins are in retreat will the nightmare of mobocracy come true?

    Michael Lind is senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the
    author of "What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of
    America's Greatest President"

    Pity the poor mandarin in a modern western democracy. In Britain, the
    senior civil servant is a figure of fun; the idea that the man in
    Whitehall might know best is regarded across the political spectrum as
    an absurd anachronism. In France, economic stagnation is sometimes
    blamed on the once-mighty énarchie, with the implication that France
    would be better off under the leadership of US-style MBAs. In the US,
    "mandarin" is a term of abuse reserved for members of the nation's
    once-powerful northeastern establishment.
    Is the democratic mandarinate of the modern west going the way of the
    premodern Chinese version? If so, this should be a cause for alarm,
    for one of the main reasons that the experiment with large-scale
    democracy has worked is because it was accompanied by the creation of
    a modern mandarinate.
    From the American founders, Macaulay, Acton, and Mill to de
    Tocqueville, Guizot, Weber and Ortega y Gasset, the conservative
    liberals of western Europe and North America feared that universal
    suffrage would produce "mobocracy." But the nightmare of mass
    democracy never fully materialised, in large part because of the
    political and cultural role of the mandarinate--the "new class" of
    Marxist and neoconservative social theory, the Bildungsbürgertum
    (cultured middle class) as opposed to the Besitzbürgertum (propertied
    middle class). The strategists of this group, including Wilhelm von
    Humboldt and Matthew Arnold, proposed that a meritocratic elite, based
    in the middle class but not limited to it, provided the natural
    leadership for a modern society. The historical alliance of the
    hereditary aristocracy and the church would be replaced, in the west,
    by an alliance between a meritocratic mandarinate and the university.
    In addition to providing the education of the mandarins, the
    university, liberated from religion, would be the home of a secular
    but traditional pan-western high culture that would replace the
    Christian religion as the shared civilisation of Europe and its
    offshoots. In constitutional politics, the meritocratic mandarinate
    would moderate tendencies toward demagogy, plutocracy and
    special-interest corruption by supplying the leaders of the career
    services within government and the informal establishment outside of
    [Essay_Lind2.gif]-SubmitIt worked. Mobocracy was averted in
    universal-suffrage democracies by a version of the Polybian "mixed
    constitution." For Polybius, Cicero and many later political thinkers,
    the ideal constitution was a mixture of monarchy, aristocracy and
    democracy. The mixed constitution is not to be confused with the
    separation of powers advocated by Montesquieu and found in the US
    federal and state constitutions. The purpose of the mixed constitution
    was to balance social forces, not to separate government functions.
    The modern mixed constitution is a blend of democracy and meritocracy.
    In it, the mandarinate--in government and out of it--plays the role of
    the aristocracy in the Polybian system, checking the elective
    "monarchy" of democratic executives and the majority "tyranny" of
    democratic legislatures.
    But this unofficial system has been breaking down for some time, as
    the elected executive has overpowered the mandarinate as well as the
    legislature. In parliamentary democracies like Britain, the separation
    of the roles of head of government and head of state helped to
    restrain plebiscitary populism for several generations after universal
    suffrage was adopted, as did the strict rules and conventions on
    government behaviour guarded by senior civil servants. However, by the
    late 20th century, as many have observed, prime ministers like
    Thatcher and Blair were behaving like presidents, while US presidents
    were behaving like kings. The increasingly powerful mass media,
    instead of acting as constraints on plebiscitary populism, have tended
    to act as cheerleaders for it, even while savaging particular
    governments and political leaders.
    In both parliamentary and presidential democracies, the chief
    executive has been elevated from first among equals, in a
    parliamentary cabinet or a US-style departmental cabinet, to the
    status of a monarch. The demotion of cabinet ministers and, indeed,
    the cabinet itself has been accompanied by the aggrandisement of the
    presidential or prime ministerial court. In Britain senior mandarins
    who tried to fight this trend--Ian Bancroft under Margaret Thatcher,
    Robin Butler under Tony Blair--were sidelined. Meanwhile, informal
    political advisers are treated by the media as more powerful than
    government ministers, and they often are, in the same way that the
    most powerful people in a monarchical regime were often favourites,
    mistresses, stable-boys, henchmen, and astrologers. (The total number
    of special advisers has risen from 39 to 80 under Tony Blair.)
    The decline of the informal constitutional role of the meritocratic
    mandarinate has been accompanied by a crisis in the source of its
    legitimacy, the secular tradition of western high culture that until
    recently provided the basis of an education in the liberal arts. The
    idea of the liberal arts was an innovation of the late 19th and early
    20th centuries. The debate between classicists and modernists in the
    Victorian era ended in a synthesis, in which Greek and Latin, the
    earlier basis for the education of clergymen and aristocrats, were
    replaced by a more flexible pattern of instruction, including modern
    classics, modern history and modern languages. The middle-class
    mandarins educated in this new tradition in turn served as patrons,
    and sometimes producers, of contemporary art, literature and
    scholarship, and set standards emulated by upwardly-mobile members of
    the working class.
    All of this now lies in ruins. Four sources of authority are invoked
    to fill the vacuum left by the decline of the modern humanism that
    legitimated the mandarinate: pro-fessionalism, positivism, populism
    and religion.
    Professionalism is the opposite of mandarinism, in the sense in which
    I am using the latter term. It was not always so. In the
    Anglo-American countries, more than in continental Europe, the
    professions have in the past served as the basis of democratic
    mandarinism. In the US, for example, the great law firms and
    investment banks that would allow their members to serve in the
    government for years on end sometimes compensated for the absence of a
    high civil service. Nevertheless, over time professionalism and
    mandarinism have diverged.
    While the mandarin is a generalist, the professional is a specialist.
    The mandarin's claim to social authority rests on a liberal education,
    which is assumed to be the best preparation for public and private
    service. The professional's claim to authority rests on mastery of a
    complex body of technical or scientific knowledge. The needs of
    professional accreditation have tended to make professional education
    increasingly technocratic. Legal education in the English-speaking
    world, for example, once consisted chiefly of a gentleman's liberal
    education plus Blackstone's Commentaries. Now a liberal education is
    at best an optional preliminary to a legal education.
    In higher education as a whole, the trend since the 19th century has
    been away from general education towards the balkanisation of
    universities into various self-contained intellectual disciplines,
    each with its own, often pseudo-scientific, methodology and
    self-contained body of knowledge. The professional ideal, among
    academic professionals as well as other professionals, is a world of
    vertical careers, with entry at the bottom but no lateral mobility. In
    the view of specialised professionals and academics, the mandarin is
    an incompetent dilettante, a despised amateur--why, mandarin humanism
    does not even have a methodology of its own!
    In Britain and the US, where professionalism has all but obliterated
    mandarinism and the humanist culture that supports it, French
    politicians like Dominique de Villepin who write poetry, novels and
    literary criticism are treated as figures of fun. In Britain, a senior
    civil servant who spends his leisure construing Hölderlin, like John
    le Carré's spy George Smiley, is acceptable if increasingly
    anachronistic. But British and American politicians who publish
    fiction are expected to publish light fare, like detective novels or
    tales of suspense. Playwright-politicians like Václav Havel,
    novelist-statesmen like Mario Vargas Llosa and poet-statesmen like
    Octavio Paz are more common in continental Europe and Latin America,
    where the professional ideal of the technocratic specialist has not
    yet completely displaced the mandarin ideal.
    Unfortunately, the major contemporary critique of the professions
    comes not from defenders of the mandarin ideal but from free-market
    utopians. As William L Sullivan points out in a recent symposium on
    the professions in the journal Daedalus, "The prevalence of the notion
    that the market is self-regulating and morally self-sufficient has
    cast doubt on the public value of an individual's lengthy and
    expensive induction into a professional guild."
    The second enemy of mandarin humanism is positivism of left and right.
    John Gray has described positivism as the Enlightenment project of
    restructuring society on the basis of a pseudo-scientific ideology.
    Born in the 18th century, positivism in this sense is older than
    modern mandarin humanism, which arose in the 19th century in part as a
    reaction against it. In Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold dismisses
    Jeremy Bentham and "the fanaticism of his adherents," declaring:
    "Culture tends always thus to deal with the men of a system, of
    disciples, of a school; with men like Comte, or the late Mr Buckle, or
    Mr Mill."
    Culture and ideology are secular sibling rivals, battling it out in
    the ruins of revealed religion in a struggle to define modernity. Each
    is a worldview and a political programme. What ideology is to
    positivism, culture is to mandarin democracy. Arnold connected the
    lack of respect for high culture in Britain with the lack of a
    meritocratic administrative elite: "We have not the notion, so
    familiar on the continent and to antiquity, of the state--the nation
    in its collective and corporate character, entrusted with stringent
    powers for the general advantage, and controlling individual wills in
    the name of an interest wider than that of individuals."
    From the 19th century to the 21st, the positivist ideology that has
    challenged the modern humanism of the democratic mandarinate most
    consistently has been not Marxism or some other form of left-wing
    positivism, but rather classical liberalism and libertarianism. From
    Herbert Spencer to Milton Friedman, proponents of laissez-faire
    capitalism have denounced the career public service in which
    meritocratic mandarins are most likely to be found as plugs in the
    mouth of the market's cornucopia. In the contemporary US, President
    George W Bush has endorsed legislation that would destroy all career
    government services outside of the military and foreign policy
    branches, by giving department heads the right to set their own rules
    for hiring and dismissal. Needless to say, instead of producing the
    libertarian utopia of limited government, this will simply lead to the
    further colonisation of the US federal bureaucracy by self-serving
    interest groups.
    Democratic mandarinism is rejected by populists as well as by
    professionals and positivist ideologues. Whatever their views of
    particular economic policies, populists share with free-market
    economists the premise that preferences and values are given and not
    to be questioned, much less shaped, by a cultivated elite. The idea
    that the well educated have an obligation to set an example in manners
    and taste for the less educated, a notion inherited by the
    meritocratic mandarinate from aristocrats, patricians and the
    Christian clergy, is rejected with equal vehemence by the egalitarian
    left and the populist right.
    Both sides of the culture wars are populist. The anti-elitism of the
    populist right is directed not at a self-conscious mandarin
    establishment, which does not exist any more, but rather at the
    counterculture, which now makes its home in university departments
    from which most mandarin humanists have been purged. The
    counterculture hates elitism as much as the populist right, its
    members pride themselves on the rejection not only of traditional
    norms but of the very idea of norms. For both sides, cultural
    authority bubbles up spontaneously from below. The multicultural left
    and populist right differ only in preferring different "authentic"
    folk cultures--those of immigrants and minorities for the left, those
    of the native working class for the right.
    In the mid-20th century, the restrictive nature of the broadcast media
    gave mandarin humanism an artificial advantage. Because even
    commercial television and radio stations were natural oligopolies with
    guaranteed profits, mandarin programmers could include a substantial
    amount of sophisticated material without fearing the loss of
    advertising revenue. It is startling to read that US television
    viewers in the 1950s were treated to on-air discussions with WH Auden
    and Lionel Trilling. But market forces put a stop to that even before
    cable television forced programmers to compete with a large number of
    rival channels by giving the people the "masscult" dreaded by thinkers
    in the early 20th century: reality television, soft porn, stock-car
    racing and robot gladiators. To the extent that the mandarin idea of a
    high culture survives, it is among traditional conservatives, whose
    conception of culture, unfortunately, is that of museum curators.
    After professionalism, positivism and populism, revealed religion
    provides the final alternative to the authority that the high culture
    of the west bestowed upon the modern democratic mandarinate. The
    secular idea of high culture always competed with the religious idea
    of divine truth as the basis of social authority. It was only to be
    expected that the clergy, having been dislodged by the clerisy, would
    seek to regain cultural authority.
    The cultural politics of the contemporary US can hardly be understood
    apart from the resurgence of Christian clericalism, even if this is
    not a factor in post-Christian Europe. Of the four sources of social
    authority other than humanist high culture, three--professionalism,
    positivism, and populism--throw the individual seeking guidance back
    on his own resources. All three are relativist. The professional, the
    economic libertarian and the populist politician or pollster, asked
    "How should I live?" can only reply: "What do you think?" One thinks
    of the New Yorker cartoon in which a child asks a teacher: "Do I have
    to do what I want to do?"
    But the traditional preacher, priest or mullah does not treat what
    economists call "preferences" as innate attributes of a person that
    cannot be questioned. On the contrary, in orthodox religions,
    individual behaviour and the social order are expected to conform to a
    divine order of some kind. In this respect, the cleric and the
    mandarin have much in common. While the mandarin and the cleric may
    disagree on the identity of the community and the nature of its
    standards, they agree in their rejection of the relativism that
    provides the basis of contemporary culture. The virtuous mandarin
    unites Bildung or strenuous self-cultivation with active citizenship
    in the same way that the devout believer unites self-examination with
    the performance of communal duties. But the community of the mandarin
    is worldly, the nation and the larger civilisation to which the nation
    belongs, rather than a religious congregation and the larger community
    of human beings and supernatural beings of which the congregation is
    believed to be a part.
    The mandarin thus is a scapegoat for all of the major forces in
    contemporary society. The humanist programme of mandarin education is
    rejected alike by the professional (for whom education is vocational),
    the positivist (whose task is to expose the power relations that works
    of literature or history conceal, in preparation for doctrinal
    instruction in an ideological system), the populist (whose goal is
    either to replace the classics with a contemporary canon or to
    reinterpret them to make them "relevant" for today) and the religious
    believer (for whom the substitution of mandarin humanism for revealed
    religion was always an enormity). The mandarin is an amateur, to the
    professional; a statist, to the libertarian; an elitist, to the
    populist; and a heathen, to the religious believer. What possibly
    could be worse than a society run by such people?
    The answer is a society without them. The contemporary US, and to a
    lesser extent Britain, shows the consequences of turning a modern
    democracy into a mandarin-free zone.
    In continental European countries, the existence of mandarin-dominated
    civil services has retarded the development of a "court" around prime
    ministers and chancellors. In the US, however, the kind of political
    patronage system abolished in other democracies generations ago means
    that every time the White House changes hands, thousands of appointees
    are given positions throughout the government. These appointees are
    loyal not to the government institutions in which they serve, nor even
    to the party of the president, but to the president himself--they are
    "Bushies" or "Clintonites" or "Reaganites." When a president of their
    party is out of power, many of these "in-and-outers" serve as
    lobbyists in Washington or spend their exile in think tanks or
    universities. The mentality of the in-and-outer appointee is that of
    an opportunistic courtier, not a principled and civic-minded mandarin.
    It is in the interest of job-seeking courtiers to magnify differences
    between the parties on policy, as much as it is the duty of the
    mandarin to seek the common ground of the public interest.
    To the extent that the mandarin ideal of duty to the public survives
    in the US, it is found among America's career public servants in the
    national security executive: the military, the foreign service and the
    intelligence agencies (America's domestic bureaucracy being weak and
    patronage-ridden). The most damaging opposition to George W Bush and
    the neoconservative clique has come from soldiers like Anthony Zinni,
    career civilian experts like Richard Clarke, the former "terrorism
    tsar" and diplomats like Joseph Wilson, whose wife Valerie Plame was
    "outed" as a CIA operative by Bush's chief adviser, Karl Rove, as part
    of a campaign to punish Wilson for rejecting the president's claim
    that Saddam was importing nuclear material from Niger. These and other
    career public servants have been models of Ciceronian rectitude--a
    fact that is more than a little troubling, because Cicero was one of
    the few leaders of Republican Rome who was a civilian. It is not a
    good sign that in the American republic the officer corps has become
    the mandarinate by default.
    America's unofficial mandarinate, the northeastern establishment,
    crumbled in the last quarter of the 20th century. The result is a
    social experiment in today's US as audacious, in its own way, as that
    of Soviet collectivism: an attempt to have a government without a
    governing elite. The US ship of state veers now in one direction, now
    the other. From a distance, one might conclude that the captain is a
    maniac. But a spyglass reveals that there is no captain or crew at
    all, only rival gangs of technocrats, ideologues, populists and
    zealots devoted to Jesus Christ or Adam Smith, each boarding the
    derelict vessel and capturing the wheel briefly before being tossed
    The decline of mandarinism in modern democracies has profound
    implications for political power and cultural authority. If I am
    right, the informal "mixed constitution" of mandarin democracy averted
    the formation of the mass society that liberal thinkers dreaded. But
    even though it failed to materialise in the liberal democracies of the
    20th century, the nightmare of mobocracy may come to be in the 21st.

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