Notes on The Democratic Surround; managerialism

by Sebastian Benthall

I’ve been greatly enjoying Fred Turner’s The Democratic Surround partly because it cuts through a lot of ideological baggage with smart historical detail. It marks a turn, perhaps, in what intellectuals talk about. The critical left has been hung up on neoliberalism for decades while the actual institutions that are worth criticizing have moved on. It’s nice to see a new name for what’s happening. That new name is managerialism.

Managerialism is a way to talk about what Facebook and the Democratic Party and everybody else providing a highly computationally tuned menu of options is doing without making the mistake of using old metaphors of control to talk about a new thing.

Turner is ambivalent about managerialism perhaps because he’s at Stanford and so occupies an interesting position in the grand intellectual matrix. He’s read his Foucault, he explains when he speaks in public, though he is sometimes criticized for not being critical enough. I think ‘critical’ intellectuals may find him confusing because he’s not deploying the same ‘critical’ tropes that have been used since Adorno even though he’s writing sometimes about Adorno. He is optimistic, or at least writes optimistically about the past, or at least writes about the past in a way that isn’t overtly scathing which is just more upbeat than a lot of writing nowadays.

Managerialism is, roughly, the idea of technocratically bounded space of complex interactive freedom as a principle of governance or social organization. In The Democratic Surround, he is providing a historical analysis of a Bauhaus-initiated multimedia curation format, the ‘surround’, to represent managerialist democracy in the same way Foucault provided a historical analysis of the Panopticon to represent surveillance. He is attempting to implant a new symbol into the vocabulary of political and social thinkers that we can use to understand the world around us while giving it a rich and subtle history that expands our sense of its possibilities.

I’m about halfway through the book. I love it. If I have a criticism of it it’s that everything in it is a managerialist surround and sometimes his arguments seems a bit stretched. For example, here’s his description of how John Cage’s famous 4’33” is a managerialist surround:

With 4’33”, as with Theater Piece #1, Cage freed sounds, performers, and audiences alike from the tyrannical wills of musical dictators. All tensions–between composer, performer, and audience; between sound and music; between the West and the East–had dissolved. Even as he turned away from what he saw as more authoritarian modes of composition and performance, though, Cage did not relinquish all control of the situation. Rather, he acted as an aesthetic expert, issuing instructions that set the parameters for action. Even as he declined the dictator’s baton, Cage took up a version of the manager’s spreadsheet and memo. Thanks to his benevolent instructions, listeners and music makers alike became free to hear the world as it was and to know themselves in that moment. Sounds and people became unified in their diversity, free to act as they liked, within a distinctly American musical universe–a universe finally freed of dictators, but not without order.

I have two weaknesses as a reader. One is a soft spot for wicked vitriol. Another is an intolerance of rhetorical flourish. The above paragraph is rhetorical flourish that doesn’t make sense. Saying that 4’33” is a manager’s spreadsheet is just about the most nonsensical metaphor I could imagine. In a universe with only fascists and managerialists, then I guess 4’33” is more like a memo. But there are so many more apt musical metaphors for unification in diversity in music. For example, a blues or jazz band playing a standard. Literally any improvisational musical form. No less quintessentially American.

If you bear with me and agree that this particular point is poorly argued and that John Cage wasn’t actually a managerialist and was in fact the Zen spiritualist that he claimed to be in his essays, then either Turner is equating managerialism with Zen spiritualism or Turner is trying to make Cage a symbol of managerialism for his own ideological ends.

Either of these is plausible. Steve Jobs was an I Ching enthusiast like Cage. Stewart Brand, the subject of Turner’s last book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, was a back-to-land commune enthusiast before he become a capitalist digerati hero. Running through Turner’s work is the demonstration of the cool origins of today’s world that’s run by managerialist power. We are where we are today because democracy won against fascism. We are where we are today because hippies won against whoever. Sort of. Turner is also frank about capitalist recuperation of everything cool. But this is not so bad. Startups are basically like co-ops–worker owned until the VC’s get too involved.

I’m a tech guy, sort of. It’s easy for me to read my own ambivalence about the world we’re in today into Turner’s book. I’m cool, right? I like interesting music and read books on intellectual history and am tolerant of people despite my connections to power, right? Managers aren’t so bad. I’ve been a manager. They are necessary. Sometimes they are benevolent and loved. That’s not bad, right? Maybe everything is just fine because we have a mode of social organization that just makes more sense now than what we had before. It’s a nice happy medium between fascism, communism, anarchism, and all the other extreme -ism’s that plagued the 20th century with war. People used to starve to death or kill each other en masse. Now they complain about bad management or, more likely, bad customer service. They complain as if the bad managers are likely to commit a war crime at any minute but that’s because their complaints would sound so petty and trivial if they were voiced without the use of tropes that let us associate poor customer service with deliberate mind-control propaganda or industrial wage slavery. We’ve forgotten how to complain in a way that isn’t hyperbolic.

Maybe it’s the hyperbole that’s the real issue. Maybe a managerialist world lacks catastrophe and so is so frickin’ boring that we just don’t have the kinds of social crises that a generation of intellectuals trained in social criticism have been prepared for. Maybe we talk about how things are “totally awesome!” and totally bad because nothing really is that good or that bad and so our field of attention has contracted to the minute, amplifying even the faintest signal into something significant. Case in point, Alex from Target. Under well-tuned managerialism, the only thing worth getting worked up about is that people are worked up about something. Even if it’s nothing. That’s the news!

So if there’s a critique of managerialism, it’s that it renders the managed stupid. This is a problem.