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…