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?by Michael Lind / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
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 it.
It 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 overboard.
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.