We can read it as the coming of modern, scientific government in the United States. Or we can read it as the transfer of power from political democracy to the American university system—which, just for the sake of a catchy catchword, I like to call the Cathedral.
—Mencius Moldbug (alias, Curtis Yarvin), A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations
The Cathedral has substituted its gospel for everything we ever knew.
—Nick Land, The Dark Enlightenment
Bernard Stiegler in his unreadable scholarly postmodern account of the coming automation of society – Automatic Society 1: The Future of Work (Polity Press, 2016), “demonstrates once again (as he has done in virtually all his many previous books),” according to Bert Oliver, “that our technological era, like every distinctive technological epoch before this one, has generated novel technologies in such rapid succession that they have the effect of disrupting social life fundamentally, continually requiring new cultural practices and social adaptations – in this case the probable massive shrinking of employment because of digitalization”.
Another harbinger of this world of disruption and non-work is Peter Frase whose popular Four Futures: Life After Capitalism offers, according to Ben Tarnoff, “two heavens and two hells: two ways that automation might facilitate a flourishing of human life, and two ways that it might maximise human misery. In all of these potential futures, automation is the constant; what changes is the political and ecological context – in other words, who owns the robots and how climate change affects the resources on which technology depends”.
Frase’s four futures scenarios begin with “communism”, in which he estimates that it “might be realised by robots running on an unlimited clean energy source, providing the material basis for a post-work, post‑scarcity and post-carbon world” (ibid).
Next is the notion of “rentism”: Rentism is where abundance exists, but “the techniques to produce abundance are monopolised by a small elite”. This “monopoly is maintained by owning not merely the robots, but the data that tells the robots how to do their job. A world where you can automate everything is a world where you can encode any task as information” (ibid).
If we survive the problems of climate change and automation a third possibility arises: Socialism. For Frase in socialism, there are no shortcuts. “Automation exists, but the breakthrough that creates a cornucopia of carbonless energy doesn’t. This means we have to cool the climate the old-fashioned way, through a massive, state-led campaign to radically remake our infrastructure, our landscape and our patterns of consumption” (ibid).
And, finally, Frase’s fourth and final future, “exterminism”, is as Tarnoff hyperbolizes “truly terrifying”. Exterminism has the robots and scarcity of socialism, minus the egalitarianism. The result is a neo-feudal nightmare: the rich retreat to heavily fortified enclaves where the robots do all the work, and everyone else is trapped outside in the hot, soggy hell of a rapidly warming planet. “The great danger posed by the automation of production, in the context of a world of hierarchy and scarce resources,” Frase says, “is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite.” The elite can always warehouse this surplus humanity in prisons and refugee camps. But at a certain point, the rich might find it more convenient to simply exterminate the poor altogether, now that they’re no longer needed as workers. (ibid)
Rentism: The Monopoly of Plutocracy and Oligarchs
I want to take a closer look as this scenario because it seems the prevalent one being promoted by our contemporary universal Church of Progressive Era Capitalism. Some call this institution of wealth accumulation and power the Cathedral: a combination of Corporate ownership and influence peddling of government through its control of the massive bureaucratic machinery of NGO’s, Funds, Academia, Sciences, and Media-Industrial-Military complexes which provide a Secular Platform comparable to that of the Catholic Church during the Medieval Age.
In a 2001 Financial Times article, the global advertising firm Young & Rubicam declared that “Brands are the new religion. People turn to them for meaning.” As Steve Denning in Understanding The Failing Religion Of Business (Forbes Magazine) recently stated “Organized religion has often been accused of becoming a business. More recently, there is talk that the management of business has become a religion.” James Burnham in his 1941 book The Managerial Revolution would outline the basic and fundamental aspects of what we’ve come to know as the American Corporatocracy. As Bruce E. Levine in an article on Huffington’s Post suggests: “The truth today, however, is that the United States is neither a democracy nor a republic. Americans are ruled by a corporatocracy: a partnership of “too-big-to-fail” corporations, the extremely wealthy elite, and corporate-collaborator government officials.”
Since the Enlightenment the notion of ideologies has always been a part of the background hum of capitalism and its universalist discourse. Ideologies capable of influencing and winning the acceptance of great masses of people are an indispensable verbal cement holding the fabric of any given type of society together. Analysis of ideologies in terms of their practical effects shows us that they ordinarily work to serve and advance the interests of some particular social group or class, and we may therefore speak of a given ideology as being that of the group or class in question. However, it is even more important to observe that no major ideology is content to profess openly that it speaks only for the group whose interests it in fact expresses. Each group insists that its ideologies are universal in validity and express the interests of humanity as a whole; and each group tries to win universal acceptance for its ideologies.1
For capitalism the basic ingredients of its ideological faith (if you will), the hidden fabric of ideas and beliefs that pervade its mind-set, and the ones that have from the beginnings been promoted by the Cathedral are associated with “individualism,” “privatism,” and doctrines of “natural rights” (“free contract,” the standard civil rights, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” etc.) which are held to belong in some necessary and eternal sense to each individual. (Burnham, 21)
For Burnham this previous and fundamental ground of capitalist society has all but disappeared (1941) and been replaced by the Managerial Society. The basis of the economic structure of managerial society is governmental (state) ownership and control of the major instruments of production. On a world scale, the transition to this economic structure is well advanced. All the evidence at our disposal indicates that the development will continue, will, in fact, proceed at a rate much speedier in the future than that of the past; and that the transition will be completed. (ibid., p. 95)
Of course Burnham was looking at the great transformation during the Great Depression and the Roosevelt Era. In our own immediate era just the reverse of this has happened, rather than the economic structure and major instruments of production of managerial society being under the control of governmental (state) ownership it’s just the opposite. Government is itself under the control of Corporate, Plutocratic and Oligarchic control and power, and therefore ours is a society dictated to by way of a duopoly of surface politics of a supposed two-party establishment system of Democrats and Republicans, Liberal Progressive and Conservative Reactionary. But in truth below the normalized ideological face of our media controlled view of America is the Deep State of Corporatocracy. One might say we’ve transitioned from the Managerial Society to the Corporate Society.
During the 1930’s and through WWII Nazi and Fascist regimes were powered by revolutionary movements whose aim was not only to capture, reconstitute, and monopolize state power but also to gain control over the economy. By controlling the state and the economy, the revolutionaries gained the leverage necessary to reconstruct, then mobilize society. Roosevelt in some ways instigated such a model whether willingly and knowingly or not by socializing certain industries and providing vase Works Programs. In contrast, inverted totalitarianism is only in part a state-centered phenomenon. Primarily it represents the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.2
Inverted Totalitarianism: The Managed Society
Unlike the classic forms of totalitarianism, which openly boasted of their intentions to force their societies into a preconceived totality, inverted totalitarianism is not expressly conceptualized as an ideology or objectified in public policy. Typically it is furthered by power-holders and citizens who often seem unaware of the deeper consequences of their actions or inactions. There is a certain heedlessness, an inability to take seriously the extent to which a pattern of consequences may take shape without having been preconceived. (Wolin, KL 241)
As Slavoj Zizek in his classic The Sublime Object of Ideology puts it:
If our concept of ideology remains the classic one in which the illusion is located in knowledge, then today’s society must appear post-ideological: the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism; people no longer believe in ideological truth; they do not take ideological propositions seriously. The fundamental level of ideology, however, is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself. And at this level, we are of course far from being a post-ideological society. Cynical distance is just one way … to blind ourselves to the structuring power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them. (Žižek 1989, p.33)
In this sense our very pretentious belief that we educated one’s, we cognitive workers of the world, can see through the ideological masks of capitalism and are therefore post-ideological. But as Zizek suggests this is another sweet lie we love to tell ourselves, a cynical take that allows us to create a fantasy in which we very well know what this capitalist world of power is about, that we can see very well what the vast and secretive corporate networks of power are doing, how they are controlling us, etc., but that we can live outside it. Such fantasies, Zizek reminds us, go without saying and hide us from the basic truth that we are still enmeshed in these very real worlds of ideology because “we are still doing them“.
So the notion that we have escaped the “managed society” is a fantasy, and as Wolin puts it, the tendencies in our society point in a direction away from self-government, the rule of law, egalitarianism, and thoughtful public discussion, and toward what I have called “managed democracy,” the smiley face of inverted totalitarianism. (Wolin, KL 351)
But what is Managed Democracy? Reformulating the early work of James Burnham (1941) Samuel Francis in Leviathan and Its Enemies: Mass Organization and Managerial Power in Twentieth-Century America will provide us a part of the answer. He argues that in the course of the first half of the 20th century, a “new class” of managers emerged in the economy, government, and culture of the United States and that this new class or elite adopted an ideology and a set of policies that reflected its common interest in acquiring and consolidating national power. The emergence of this new “managerial” elite led to a protracted political and ideological conflict with the old “bourgeois” elite that prevailed in the United States between the Civil War and the Depression, and this conflict underlay most of the issues on which the “Left” and the “Right” in American politics divided between World War I and the 1980s. At the end of the 20th century, a new social and political force unknown to Burnham, the “post-bourgeois proletariat,” may be emerging to challenge managerial dominance and to offer a new synthesis of bourgeois and managerial values and interests.3
As Francis would note neither control of the economy nor of the state nor of the culture by itself will establish its controlling group as the dominant elite of a society. Control of all these modes is necessary to establish dominance, and it is argued that, despite differences and subsidiary conflicts among the managerial groups in each mode, these groups share sufficient interests, beliefs, and perceptions in common that it is meaningful to speak of a unified managerial elite, if not a managerial class. (Francis, KL 281)
Whether you’re on the Left or Right the work of Burnham, Wolin, and Francis is not only pertinent to understanding the strange world we live in, but goes a long way in showing how we got here and possible ways out of our quagmire. The monstrosity that was built over decades I’m terming Cathedralism is not new and I’ve taken it from neo-reactionary thought in Mencius Moldbug (Curtis Yarvin see: Atavisionary’s The Cathedral Compilation or pdf: here) and Nick Land (The Dark Enlightenment).
For Moldbug the Cathedral (Managerial Elite Institutions) the Cathedral is the end product of the humanistic tradition of liberal progressive civilization that began with the Enlightenment: “Cathedral, it is simply the culmination of the great human quest for knowledge.”4 He’ll cast a long look on the various types of societies that have given birth to the Cathedral. The first type of society or synoptic society is central coordination of information. One can know type 1 societies by their right-wing preference for strong leaders and authoritarian control: Oriental despotisms and modern Nazi and Fascists States.
The second type of synoptic society the consensus society. If a type 1 society is a government in which the State controls the press and the universities. A type 2 society is one in which the press and the universities control the State. “It is easy to tell the two forms apart, but the customer experience is pretty much the same.” (Moldbug) We would know it as the privatization of control in society: extra-governmental military, police, security, prisons, etc. All the corporate takeovers of the various governmental institutions that can be made profitable to private enterprise.
The third type of synoptic society is Karl Popper’s open society. In a type 3 society, thoughts compete on the basis of their resemblance to reality. Institutions which propagate thoughts compete on the basis of the quality of the thoughts they propagate. (Moldbut, p. 1038) In many ways this is comparable to an inventive or creative society:
Creativity, an intangible global resource that is inherently qualitative and practically impossible to program, is the lifeblood of this new capitalist era. Capitalism thus enters a new global phase where intangibles— rather than tangible resources— are most valuable, where research and intellectual appropriation— rather than industrial or service production— are most important for corporate profit, and where the global power of corporations depends not so much on raw materials or the capacity to use labor in production, but on conceiving new inventions and innovations. No aspect of human existence, life or nature can be considered safe from the global reach of this new capitalist era, so long as it has the potential to advance the quest for greater corporate profit and power.5
As Moldbug will put it, “good ideas outcompete bad ideas in a type 3 society, because most of us would rather be clueful than deluded. While many individuals have cognitive biases—such as a natural preference for optimistic over pessimistic predictions, or the reverse—these average out and are dwarfed by the general ambition of intellectuals, to see reality as it actually is. Intellectuals are brutally competitive by nature, and delight in exploding the delusions of others. Nonsense should not last long around them.” (Moldbug, 1039)
We still live in a type 2 society in which the control of the perception of reality is in the hands of the Cathedral: the secular institutions that educate (academia), provide us news (media), protect us and secure us (military/police – external/internal, outside/inside), promote our welfare and health (sciences, pharmaceuticals, environmental agencies), and most of all provide us convergent technologies (genetics, nanotech, information and communications technologies). In our type 2 society we are bound to a open secret: that we are passive and compliant citizens of a democratic political economy that rules most of the planet through military land and sea power, trade, and logistics. We hide from ourselves that this authoritarian regime is a globalist enterprise of Empire, and that other Empires (China/Russia and their satellite nations) seek the same. So we live in a carefully programmed and scripted lie, a fictional universe of ideological constructs based on binarism in which a friend/enemy, us/them, inside/outside, presence/absence, secure/unsecure, etc. world is promoted to us with a smiley face of inverted totalitarianism. And, so far we’ve accepted it all passively with little or not real resistance as if this is just the way it is, the way it has always been, and “how can I change it anyway?” We lie to ourselves to continue our lives, raise up our children, and feel good about ourselves, have dignity, and live without guilt or shame.
America is an Empire without walls or has been up till Trump. American history in the 20th century has according to Francis been in a civil conflict between two very different elites based on two different kinds of organization. The dynamics of that conflict and its eventual resolution in favor of the managerial elite based on mass organizations, rather than the details of the history of the conflict, is the main subject of future society and its resolution. “Left” and “Right” are interpreted as labels that indicate these different elites and the issues over which they contested, but ideas associated with both the Left as well as the Right have proved useful in offering interpretations of the major American socio-political conflict of this century. Today, it is likely that any further conflict between managerial and bourgeois groups will no longer generate a Left-Right division in the conventional senses of those terms, but certainly there will be no shortage of conflict in the United States in the future. (Francis, KL 301)
- Burnham, James. The Managerial Revolution: What is Happening in the World. Praeger (April 24, 1972)
- Wolin, Sheldon S.. Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Kindle Locations 237-240). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Francis, Samuel. Leviathan and Its Enemies: Mass Organization and Managerial Power in Twentieth-Century America (Kindle Locations 256-263). Washington Summit Publishers. Kindle Edition.
- Moldbug, Mencius. A Gentle Introduction to Unqualified Reservations. Unqualified Reservations (July 10, 2015)
- Luis Suarez-Villa. Globalization and Technocapitalism (p. 2). Ashgate. Kindle Edition.