Elizabeth Warren and the managerial semiosphere

In the third chapter of the signature work of Scottish-born philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, MacIntyre describes how within each epoch, a set of stock characters appears — something akin to archetypes — who represent key social roles. Taking his cue from English Medieval morality plays and Japanese Noh theater, these stock characters actually “define the possibilities of plot and action.”

MacIntyre gives the examples, for instance, of Victorian England being narrated through the stock characters of the Public School Headmaster, the Explorer, and the Engineer, and Wilhelmine Germany, narrated through the Prussian Officer, the Professor, and the Social Democrat.

Writing in 1981, MacIntyre saw capitalist modernity’s contemporary stock characters — his attention directed at the hegemony of philosophical emotivism — as the Bureaucratic Manager, the Rich Aesthete, and the Therapist. He would later add The Protester, and you, dear readers, once you’ve wrapped your head around this idea, might add your own. Since 9–11, for example, The General might be added — the salvific white father, armed on the frontier “between civilization and savagery.” Nowadays, in the post-truth interregnum, perhaps the Fact Checker.

One character that is a constant since After Virtue’s first publication in 1981 is the Bureaucratic Manager.

Bear in mind, now, that stock characters, or epochal archetypes, are not merely social roles. They are like essences to be “lived into.” The actual person who happens to be a bureaucratic manager, for example, may not like her job, and may even disagree with the assumptions buttressing the justification for her job, but she performs her social role dutifully. The stock character has no such conflicts.

The question, again, that arises from this elaborate analogy is how exactly does this stock character circumscribe our imaginations by circumscribing “the possibilities of plot and action”? And for this intervention, the next question is how does Elizabeth Warren fit into this schema?

First, we need to review and summarize what MacIntyre means by “emotivism.” Emotivism is sometimes called the “hurray-boo theory,” meaning there is no ultimate authority to which we can refer that justifies any moral position. This is a Humean doctrine that grew out of the increasingly influential idea that science (read: empiricism) has the only legitimate universalizing truth-claim, and the concomitant notion that, at bottom, every moral conviction is predicated entirely on some deeply entrenched and yet highly personalized and unprovable bias disguised as belief. One point that MacIntyre emphasizes at the beginning of the chapter is, “A moral philosophy — and emotivism is no exception — characteristically presupposes a sociology.” Hume was an eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, working in England, who had family ties to aristocracy, worked as a merchant for a time, and ended his years as a British diplomatic secretary; and so his sociology was what he could discern from his position, class, and time.

The post-Humean who became a founder of sociology as an actual academic discipline was Max Weber. It was Weber, living in the ever more bureaucratized Germany of the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who actually did the first extensive research into the phenomenon of bureaucracy — of which he was critical, but which he believed to be an overall good that was historically inevitable. (All history once manifested appears to have been inevitable once it actually is.)

MacIntyre’s modern stock characters give us a window on how moral philosophies are socially embodied. This is trickier in emotivist modernity, in part because it’s the water in which we are the fish, but chiefly because emotivism attempts to deny that morality has any social grounding at all. If the ultimate authority is a self, emptied of any history or connection (the abstract individual of liberal law, e.g.), then this would seem to foreclose the social embodiment of emotivism. The problem is that this phenomenon we call society no longer shares some vision — some telos — of the higher good. In a pluralistic society, the thinking goes, it is actually dangerous to articulate a higher good (than “the individual”); therefore social order is to be maintained through a quest not for any higher good, but for efficiency and — given the potential conflicts in pluralistic societies — control.

In reality, given the point of moral philosophy, this shunts moral accountability from the community to the individual with no shared account of the moral relation between desire, will, and practice. Society is to be administered. So rises the bureaucratic manager, who is nonetheless — MacIntyre points out — still stuck in the ethical impasse created by emotivism’s inability to resolve the contradiction between ethical frameworks like utilitarianism (Bentham, e.g.) and categorical duties/rules (Kant, e.g.).

MacIntyre challenges Weber on bureaucracy, but in some particulars MacIntyre agrees with Weber — very much an emotivist — that managerial power is ultimately arbitrary; and the exercise of it “entails the obliteration of any genuine distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative relations.”

He further clarifies, “[T]o treat someone else as a means is to seek to make him or her an instrument of my purposes by adducing whatever influences or considerations will in fact be effective on this or that occasion. The generalizations of the sociology and psychology of persuasion are what I shall need to guide me, not the standards of normative rationality.”

Let me give an example. A few years ago I was looking for a part time job near my home. There was a video store chain (Family Video) that advertised a job, and so I did a bit of research, whereupon I stumbled onto a manager’s hiring guide that instructed every manager who was assessing a potential hire, and who had decided to reject that applicant, had an actual script they had to memorize, saying something to the effect of, “Thank you for coming. We’ll give you a call.” This script was designed to do two things: one, to end the interview, and two, to avoid telling the truth that the manager has already decided not to hire you so you would leave peacefully then tire of waiting and go elsewhere. The manager who told me that lie didn’t think of what she was doing as lying. She was managing, and in the execution of her bureaucratic duties, she was following the company’s rules. She never even stopped to consider, much less regret, that she had been involved in this micro-deception. Morality is now rooted in “the individual,” and that more social/public realm is fenced off for the pursuit of efficiency (pursuit of what is irrelevant, and therefore another moral outlier).

With the philosophical context established, then, we turn to the manager her- or himself, and the question of bureaucratic efficiency. As Weber and MacIntyre agree, now that we live in a thoroughly bureaucratized society, “no type of authority can appeal to rational criteria to vindicate itself except that type of bureaucratic authority which appeals precisely to its own effectiveness. And what this appeal reveals is that bureaucratic authority is nothing other than successful power.” Bureaucratic power depends on this Escherized rendition of reality. It’s an illusion with profound material outcomes that are unquestioned until they no longer work — that is, maintain a generalized stability sufficient to sustain accumulation (the strange attractor in all liberal political philosophy).

As long as the bureaucrats are in power, they can maintain their own legitimacy by letting this grand deception — that bureaucratic machinations are expressions of competence per se — drift along on its own inertia.

Bureaucratic management, that is carrying water as a bureaucrat for the ruling class — here, we get more political — is structurally antagonistic to popular solidarities that grow strong enough to challenge ruling class legitimacy or power. The unspoken assumption of bureaucratic, or technocratic, rule, then, is that society must be run from above, and that popular expressions of solidarity that appear in response to the failures of technocratic rule are potential existential threats to that rule, and therefore to the bureaucratic class themselves.

One of the manipulative features of technocratic rule is, in the ugly verb-to-noun language of technocracy, its “messaging.” This is a pure form of manipulation. Official pronouncements, for example, may or may not be true, but they are designed not primarily to faithfully reflect reality, but to gain acquiescence and-or support for official positions, policies, and actions.

The contemporary term “code-switching” most often refers to, for example, a Black person who works in a predominantly white institution and learns the idiom, verbal and embodied, of that work culture, which is alien to the culture of that person’s home — what us old timers still call “double consciousness.” There is an analog here with socioeconomic classes. The bureaucratic manager (sometimes as politician) has to be able to signal one thing to the target of her manipulations, i.e., the public, while simultaneously signaling to her own class cohort (and the dominant class they serve) what her real intentions are.

Class strata have their own semiotic orders. When you’re part of the same family, you are able to read all the pre-verbal codes, borrow from among the same faces on the same wall, and display the same body language. Warren’s $200,000-a-year cohort are managers, bureaucratic gamers, like Warren, insiders to whom she can signal with her very demeanor that she will carry them back into their comfort zone even if she says otherwise now to win the left. Ten years ago, this may have worked. Not any more.

Everyone below the bureaucratic stratum knows damn well that whatever it is that is structural and systemic for our society, it doesn’t work anymore. There is going to have to be something different, and that means different. People with combative and exclusive imaginations saw this in Trump. People with more accepting and inclusive imaginations turned to Sanders. And everything is like it was in 2016, only more. Only one thing still unites their imaginations.

No one wants managers. When technocratic managerial rule can’t deliver, it suffers a loss of legitimacy. People rightly believe, “They’ve fucked things up enough already.”

Whoever wins 2020 will be a candidate with a vision of sharp change. Some people sense this much, even if they are bewildered (all Americans are bewildered) about what that vision might be. Elizabeth Warren is not that candidate; and if she runs against Trump, Trump (or whoever succeeds him) will win . . . again.

Her Janus-faced code-switching is admirable to members of her own class, because they associate it with competence — getting things done, realism, the willingness to manipulate. No one else admires it though. Whether we have a simple or sophisticated analysis of the forces at play, thirty years of working class stagnation and anxiety have sensitized us to the incessant bullshittery of manipulative managers. They may not be conversant in sociology or political economy, but they can spot a technocratic faker a mile away, because they’ve been watching these people fail to deliver on anything for decades. True, Trump is a different kind of faker; but Trump has engaged them in a kind of social network game, where (as he continues the same policies as Democratic neoliberals, but accelerates them) he says something provocative, then he and his devotees have a good laugh at your reactions, which they can then riff on for months. The problem — for the right — has been that he himself, though he has a talent for mobilizing petulance and pigheadedness (my generation of Baby Boomers are the most adolescent generation now living), is that he is — apart from his willingness to shock — as dumb as cookie dough.

When I watch Warren, I see how self-constrained she is as she tries to simulate her working class credentials. Her postures are all thought-out, posed. Anyone who wants to see this acted out, check out her cringe-worthy Instagram “beer commercial.” Why does this not affect her support from people who make over $200,000 a year? Because that is a managerial class, and they — like her — think that the rest of us require manipulation and that we are too stupid to know when someone is insulting our intelligence. They know she’s code-switching, and they admire that as the effective performance of her obligations as a technocrat.

As smart as they think they are, they haven’t fully grasped the degree to which she, and they, have failed . . . and lost the thread. Here is my ad as Trump advisor that says, “Elizabeth Warren for Chief of State.” It’ll bite, because it has an essential element of truth.

Now, compare Warren’s approach with what Sanders said during his closing remarks at the recent rally with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez in Queens, New York. “Are you willing to fight for someone you don’t know?”

What moral vision does that embody? It’s not the bureaucratic one.