It can be easy to forget how new our political and culture-war conflicts are. Ten years ago, critical race theory was something you’d encounter only online or in academic settings, Democratic politicians were still talking about civil unions for homosexual couples, and the media and federal government were busy pointing out how far America had come in repairing the broken race relations of the past. Today, little remains of that old order. Just how fast has this transformation unfolded? Consider a simple measure of how frequently the word “racism” appears in the nation’s four largest newspapers: after staying basically constant from the 1970s to 2010, its usage explodes around 2012, with the Washington Post and the New York Times leading the charge.
Though this “Great Awokening” has scrambled political coalitions and upended widely held truths, wokeness itself remains a muddled concept. The obvious definition—that it is a belief system, what writer Wesley Yang has dubbed “the successor ideology”—has considerable merit. But as American polarization increases, it becomes clear that wokeness is also a social, economic, legal, and political phenomenon; it cannot simply be reduced to the ideas inside people’s heads. If wokeness is an institutional force, a comparative analysis can help describe it. Most Europeans can remember when America was considered stodgy and conservative, compared with progressive Western Europe. And yet, in 2022, the United States is experiencing deeper levels of polarization and social strife than other Western countries. Polls suggest a rapid loss of faith in public institutions. Americans identifying with either political party increasingly see the other party as a threat to democracy itself.
Why is it, then, that people in traditionally progressive countries—my native social-democratic Sweden being a prime example—can believe the same things, read the same books, and propound the same ideas as their American counterparts, without their societies experiencing the same sort of catastrophic polarization afflicting the United States? Why is it that capital seems to have gone woke in the United States more than in the rest of the West, with large companies intervening directly in political battles in a way that would be unthinkable in the Nordic countries? If this behavior were simply a product of neo-Marxist or socialist ideology, one would think that it would be more prevalent in a country like Sweden, where the ruling Social Democratic Party still sings “The Internationale” at its congresses.
The Managerial Revolution
The core thesis of James Burnham’s 1941 The Managerial Revolution helps explain what is happening in the West today. A former Trotskyite who later became a leading figure in postwar American conservatism, Burnham argued in that book that Western society would not see the collapse of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. Instead, he maintained, America would likely see capitalism replaced by a nonsocialist successor—one dominated not by capitalists in the classical sense but by a class of managers that would come to control the real economy, regardless of formal ownership status. This distinction—between ownership of, and control over, capital—was a topic of some discussion in the interwar years, with early analyses noting that apparatchiks in the Soviet Union had appropriated control over public resources.
In the United States, Burnham’s prophecy of a new managerial order came against the backdrop of the New Deal, which had coincided with a (somewhat understandable) loss of faith in capitalist ideas. The balance of power was shifting from property rights to a steadily increasing category of human rights, and Americans were becoming more accepting of state planning and control over larger parts of society. Burnham saw America in the early 1940s as being in a somewhat transitory phase. The old, capitalist order was clearly ailing, and managers were steadily growing their power at the owners’ expense. Still, the process of forming a new rulership class was by no means complete. While “control over the instruments of production is everywhere undergoing a shift” toward managers, wrote Burnham, “the big bourgeoisie, the finance-capitalists, are still the ruling class in the United States.” New Dealism was not yet a “developed, systematized managerial ideology” that was capable of fully replacing capitalism.
But if Burnham were alive today, he might see wokeness as exactly that: a systematized, managerial ideology capable of standing on its own as a claim to rulership over society on behalf of the new class of managers. Indeed, many of the dynamics that worried or fascinated thinkers like Burnham during the interwar and New Deal era seem to reappear today in hypertrophied form. Let us return to the question of ownership versus control. Here, wokeness serves to abrogate property rights, as seen in many controversies taking place in the business world. Consider the fate of the video-game behemoth Activision Blizzard, recently bought by Microsoft. After various ex-employees leveled allegations of workplace mistreatment and a frat-boy culture at its California offices, the company found itself under siege from multiple directions. First, the state of California sued it. Then, the media started covering the story with fervor. Various NGOs and activist organizations jumped into the fray, and the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation. Though the original accusations against the company had to do only with sexual misconduct in the workplace, the list of demands made on Activision Blizzard quickly expanded beyond the original crime. Firing the offending workers or instituting mere workplace reform wasn’t good enough; rather, Activision Blizzard would need to open up its internal hiring and firing decisions to some sort of public review to ensure that it met various “diversity” targets.
If one reads between the lines of the controversy, it becomes clear that the owners of a company now must subject their hiring process to review by other managerial institutions. The main practical demand that wokeness places on society is a massive expansion of managerial intermediation in previously independent social and economic processes. With Activision Blizzard, a controversy regarding the workplace environment quickly metastasized into a struggle to implement new, alternative human-resources structures that corporate leadership would not control, and to which it would have to pay, in effect, a kind of ideological protection money. In real terms, this represents a nontrivial abrogation of property rights: you may still own your company, but don’t expect to be free to run it as you see fit without the “help” of outside commissars.
Another example of creeping intermediation can be seen in the Hollywood trend to hire so-called racial equity consultants to ensure that characters from various minorities are sufficiently represented in movies and TV. Time was when a screenwriter would conceive of a plot and populate it with characters, drawing upon crude, inequitable instruments such as empathy and imagination; this is less and less permissible. Populating stories with various minority characters is not just encouraged but demanded—and one must do so only after employing intermediary consultants. Writing now requires intercession from a class of moral managers.
Institutional Prerogatives and Access to Resources
Seen in this light, wokeness is not a mere scholastic ideology. Indeed, the woke tend to be uninterested in any form of Socratic dialogue regarding their suppositions. In 2017, the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia descended into massive controversy after a writer, Rebecca Tuvel, published an argument that transracialism ought to enjoy the same sort of philosophical status as transgenderism. Tuvel appeared to make her argument sincerely, in an effort to explore the philosophical implications of people who transcend social categories, but the effort rendered her a pariah. If woke ideology has little use for academic discussions, it is quite adept at asserting control over institutions. One cannot separate woke controversies from struggles over hiring and firing privileges inside institutions. What appears to be a fight over principles is simultaneously a fight over institutional prerogatives and access to resources.
Like the managerial ideology that Burnham anticipated, wokeness both asserts a wide variety of rights that supersede ownership and insists upon the creation of a permanent caste of managers to monitor the implementation of these rights. This tendency toward intermediation now extends to almost every facet of modern society, including in areas previously seen as foundational to the political system. Democracy, for instance, is now seen as needing various forms of intermediation so as to function properly. Without the input of managers, the thinking goes, the raw expression of the popular will can lead to aberrations, such as the election of Donald Trump or Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. Calls are increasingly being made to impose a layer of experts qualified to judge just what political questions and issues could be safely left to purportedly benighted voters to decide.
The instinct to resort to expert guidance and thereby remove contentious issues from the realm of public debate takes many forms. Consider Extinction Rebellion, a radical environmental group of marginal prominence but one that has nevertheless articulated a vision for fixing our supposedly broken political systems along these lines. Extinction Rebellion envisions the introduction of “citizens’ assemblies” consisting of a representative portion of the population that would form a “mini-public.” This mini-public would then receive information selected by a caste of experts and formulate various recommendations based on it. The experts would listen to the mini-public’s (nonbinding) recommendations before making their own decisions about what was best.
The American Exception
But why has America become more woke than its European counterparts?
After all, many planks of progressive ideology, such as legal same-sex marriage, were achieved in Europe much earlier than in the United States. The ideas are fairly similar on both sides of the Atlantic. In my view, the material insecurity of the American managerial classes, whose numbers, as Peter Turchin argued, have grown too large to be absorbed by society in ways commensurate with their lofty economic expectations, helps account for this development.
Consider Sweden, which is far less polarized and enjoys a much more sedate cultural environment than the United States. It operates a massive government machine to furnish the scions of the managerial class with all sorts of work. My own municipality, Uppsala, a city two-thirds the size of Reno, Nevada, employs almost 100 people as “communicators.” Their official workload mostly consists of managing the municipality’s social media accounts and writing policy documents. The communications department is notoriously dysfunctional; the municipality hired an outside consultancy to find out what all these employees do all day. But in at least one sense, it does what it is supposed to do: provide make-work jobs for university graduates who would otherwise risk going unemployed—and become potential social agitators.
Sweden is rife with various taxes, carve-outs, fees, and other accommodations that together form a massive patronage machine employing artists, bureaucrats, gender studies majors, activists, curators, mindfulness consultants, environmental advocates, and much more. The state aggressively pays for art, education, NGOs, and even journalism—most major newspapers in Sweden depend heavily on subsidies to stay in the black. Perhaps the best illustration of the Swedish political economy is that Swedes pay in the neighborhood of $9 per gallon for gas. This massive cost difference owes almost entirely to taxes and fees, which fund social work. At first, the gas tax was intended primarily to pay for the maintenance of roads. Today, people argue for raising gas taxes to fund environmentalist causes. The managers running these causes are trying to fund themselves by imposing regressive taxes on their blue-collar countrymen.
Swedes, it’s worth observing, aren’t knocking down monuments of Carl Linnaeus. Even as the frenzy of iconoclasm and statue-toppling swept America, Swedish activists were content to launch an online poll on the subject of statue removal and give up, once it was clear that they didn’t enjoy majority support. Statue-toppling is less attractive when the municipality that owns the statues is likely to be your employer. Even if they were not designed with this purpose in mind, the social-democratic welfare states of Europe as a whole have been adapted to provide a new form of welfare for the college-educated, aspirational managerial classes. Aggressive tax policies once enacted to eliminate disparities between workers and owners have now been altered so that, in practice, they hit hardest against rural small-business owners and workers, while funding various subventions and tax breaks for residents in the comfortable urban cores. As environmentalism furnishes these urban-dwellers with a plausible excuse for ever-increasing intermediation in society, it is no accident that the base of green parties throughout Europe is almost uniformly wealthy, urban, and highly credentialed.
In the United States, by contrast, while some public-sector sinecures exist, it is hard to imagine such a pervasive culture of make-work ever taking hold. Deep-seated cultural assumptions weigh against it, as do other practical considerations. The scope of the U.S. welfare state is narrower (though it has always been understated and, indeed, is more redistributive than its European counterparts).
Further, the United States remains more federalist, meaning that large, state-driven projects shifting resources from one segment of the population to another are more difficult to implement. In Europe, managerial dominance in the economy can be justified as a natural outgrowth of the responsible welfare state. The woke rarely have to lower themselves to highway robbery—they can merely call for additional gas taxes to fund whatever managerial initiatives need funding. In America, woke managerial intermediation resembles a crude shakedown against private corporations and institutions. What is the future of the managerial society? Will the European response continue unabated? Will the U.S. overcome its unique idiosyncrasies and produce a uniform system in which tax collection—or perhaps tribute extraction—funds the expansion of the managerial state, overcoming the constitutional design? Probably not.
In Europe, managers are now facing a backlash as disillusionment with the welfare state grows. Regressive taxes have ignited fuel protests in Sweden, Finland, Ireland, and, most dramatically, in France. There’s no particular reason to expect Europe to be spared from large-scale conflicts between classes and political factions in the years ahead. If anything, the gilets jaunes’ rebellion prefigured a growing dynamic in European countries. In the meantime, scenes from both the United States and Canada suggest that workers operating outside the managerial structures of big unions are starting to resist intermediation by experts.
Leftists were always taught that workers, once robbed of leadership and organization from a well-educated vanguard, would devolve into an inert mass of potatoes with no political agency or ability to make their voices heard. This has proved wrong, and the future promises more conflicts between workers and the managers seeking to impose further restrictions on them. What about the owners of capital themselves? The old assumption on the radical Left— that small-business owners are the faithful incubators of reaction and thus will always end up on the opposite side of working people—may be disproved in the years ahead. Insofar as the petty gentry of capitalism is concerned, the managerial regime offers little in the way of carrots, while the ever-growing requirements of the expanding caste of bureaucrats and commissars places an unsustainable financial burden on them.
The dismal fate of Activision Blizzard also hints that, even for very large companies, the relationship between capitalists and managers isn’t necessarily one of happy symbiosis; it is increasingly becoming one of strife and parasitism. In short, woke managers want to impose a new political and social order. Managerialism requires intermediation, and intermediation requires a justifying ideology. Wokeness has accomplished what New Dealism never set out to do in the 1940s: it serves as a comprehensive, flexible, and ruthless ideology that can justify almost any act of institutional subversion and overreach. But already, the cracks are starting to show. With gas prices now rising precipitously and inflation running wild, the contradictions inherent in managerialism are likely only to sharpen in the days ahead. If wokeness is indeed the “highest stage”—to borrow from Lenin—of the managerialist society that Burnham saw coming nearly 100 years ago, then one needn’t be a revolutionary to ask: How long can it really last?
Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in City Journal.