Welcome to a world ruled by managerialist elites (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

August 9, 2023   8 mins

A simple and easy narrative is often provided to explain our present moment: a new Cold War, we’re told, is dawning between the United States and China, complete with a global ideological “battle between democracy and autocracy”. The future of global governance will be determined by the winner — that is, unless a hot war settles the question early with a cataclysmic fight to the death, much as liberal democracy once fought off fascism.

In some ways, this picture is accurate: a geopolitical competition really is in the process of boiling over into open confrontation. But it’s also fundamentally shallow and misleading. When it comes to the most fundamental political questions, China and the United States are not diverging but becoming more alike, with both superpowers converging on the same not-yet-fully-realised system of technocratic-managerial governance.

This system, described by James Burnham and George Orwell as “managerialism”, is the product of a new class of professional managers bound together by a shared self-interest in the expansion of technical and mass organisations, the further proliferation of managers, and the drawing of society into the meddling embrace of managerial expertise. At its heart is a conviction that all things — even the complexity of society and Man himself — can be understood, managed and controlled like a machine with sufficient scientific technique.

It was managerialism that emerged as the true winner of the 20th century’s ideological battles. As Orwell prophesied in 1945: “Capitalism is disappearing, but Socialism is not replacing it. What is now arising is a new kind of planned, centralised society which will be neither capitalist nor, in any accepted sense of the word, democratic.” China is just a bit further down the path towards this same totalitarian future. The West is following.

To get a sense of but one aspect of this ongoing convergence, we should travel back to Fengqiao (“Maple Bridge”), once a picturesque little township in China’s Zhejiang province. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his officials like to muse wistfully about the pleasures of the “Fengqiao experience” (æž«æĄ„ç»éȘŒ), but I’m afraid it is not a tourism package. Rather, in the Sixties, Fengqiao distinguished itself as a model town in the eyes of Mao Zedong. While usually Communist Party thugs had to go around identifying and rounding up “reactionary elements”, in Fengqiao the people handled it themselves: “Not one person [had to be] rounded up, and still the vast majority of enemies were dealt with,” as a report from the town informed Mao.

Here at last was a true example of the “dictatorship of the masses” that Mao hoped to establish. Mao encouraged the party to learn from the experience of Fengqiao, and in doing so planted a seed that would take root in the hard soil of the CCP imagination: a dream of a population so thoroughly conditioned by Chinese socialism that someday it would practically manage itself.

Today, Xi has revitalised and modernised this idea by marrying it to newly available tools: those of the digital revolution. Traditional methods of Fengqiao-style social mass monitoring and control, also known as “social governance”, have been combined with internet-wide mobilisation and a vast digital surveillance apparatus.

The jewel in the crown of this approach is intended to be China’s blossoming social-credit system. The system intends to assign each person, company or organisation a unique aggregated “social credit” score. This is much like a financial credit score: based on observed behaviour and other “risk factors”, the score can be adjusted up or down to designate an individual or business as more or less “trustworthy” or “untrustworthy”. Those with higher scores are rewarded with escalating perks, such as priority access to travel, loans, housing, higher education or even healthcare. Those with lower scores face escalating punishments, such as losing access to the financial system, being prohibited from buying luxury goods or real estate, or having their children denied admission to certain schools and universities.

Importantly, the system is deliberately social in nature. Those with low scores are publicly listed and shamed online or on public billboards; even some dating apps have trialled incorporating social-credit scores. Most significantly, since having too many relationships with low-scoring people risks lowering one’s own ranking, people avoid associating with the “discredited” at all, accelerating their progressive unpersoning by society. The goal of this gamification of the mind is to create a “New Man” to fit into its managerial machine; this is always and everywhere the inexorable object of managerialism’s obsession with control.

Such social engineering has already been effective. I vividly recall, for example, how, when I visited China as late as the 2000s or mid-2010s, everyone used to jaywalk to cross the street. It was simply a fact of life, a cultural constant seemingly ingrained by who knew how many centuries of the Chinese peasantry’s wonderfully incorrigible pragmatism. Today, nobody jaywalks (at least in the city), because if you do, your identity is captured by a facial recognition camera, your face, name and ID number are plastered on a billboard of shame next to the intersection, and a fine is sent to your bank. All those centuries of evolved cultural attitudes have been successfully overwritten by only a few years of conditioning by the machine.

This is not a million miles away from what is happening in so-called Western liberal democracies. In June, the British bank Coutts closed the account of Nigel Farage without explanation. Farage was subsequently refused service by 10 other banks. Internal “reputational risk” documents obtained by Farage soon after showed Coutts’s reasoning for “exiting” him from his account: he had been found to no longer be “compatible with Coutts, given his publicly-stated views that were at odds with our position as an inclusive organisation”. The terrible sins listed on Farage’s rap sheet included: being friends with Donald Trump and unvaccinated tennis champion Novak Djokovic; campaigning for Brexit; being “anti-Net Zero”; being “seen as xenophobic and racist”; and having been a “fascist” when he was a schoolboy, according to some second-hand rumours.

In this case, caught red-handed “debanking” a prominent and savvy politician for political reasons, the bank was forced to apologise and some of its top officials to resign. Such consequences are an exception to the rule, however. Debanking has in recent years become increasingly routine practice across the West; in the US, mere days after the Farage scandal, JP Morgan Chase shuttered the accounts of anti-vaccine proponent Dr Joseph Mercola, as well as his business’s CEO, CFO, their spouses and all of their children. Farage says he has begun assembling a “very large database” of potentially thousands of similar cases from the UK alone.

Much debanking is politically motivated. Most memorably, Justin Trudeau’s Canadian government invoked emergency powers to freeze the bank accounts and seize the assets of the truckers protesting his destructive vaccine mandates and demagoguery. Yet banks are not the only ones involved; online payment platforms have joined in too. GoFundMe, for instance, seized money donated to the truckers through its platform. PayPal, meanwhile, in one of the more symbolic instances of its prolific debanking habit, cut off the Free Speech Union for promoting “intolerance”. PayPal also attempted to slip language into its user agreement allowing it to confiscate $2,500 from users each time they spread “misinformation” or said or did anything “harmful” or “objectionable” (all defined at PayPal’s “sole discretion”).

Why is this happening? Why would private banks and other businesses force out paying customers like this? Because it is in their interest to do so if they want to survive and thrive, and indeed they have little choice. These banks are not really fully “private actors” — they are part of the managerial economy in a budding managerial party-state much like China’s, where an oligarchic elite class seeks to preserve its rule. Critically, there can be no neutral institutions in a party-state. The party-state’s enemies are the institution’s enemies, or the institution is an enemy of the party-state (which is not a profitable position to be in). This is what “reputational risk” really means: the risk of appearing to be on the wrong side of the party line.

In a society as digitised as ours, control over digital transactions means surveillance and control over nearly everything. When someone is debanked — and then inevitably blacklisted from all other banks — they are cut off from participation in almost every aspect of modern life. They will have no easy way to receive pay from a job; they cannot buy property and may not even be able to rent. They will be unable to purchase almost any digital service and, increasingly, will be prevented from buying everyday goods offline as well. Once the ongoing war on cash is won, they will be well and truly screwed. Debanking therefore serves as an extremely effective means to isolate and silence a targeted person or group, quickly breaking any presence and influence they may have once had within society. Which is, of course, the point.

This appears to be a lesson taken directly from the Chinese method of dealing with dissidents. Indeed, the West’s managerial elite seem to have concluded that they now have the tools and latitude to begin implementing a Chinese-style social credit system here. Although not yet anywhere near as comprehensive, this nascent system shares the same fundamental characteristics: using public-private coordination and “social governance” to collapse any distinction between public and private life, thereby greatly raising the risks for public non-conformity and dissent from the narrative. Utopia is doubtless just around the corner.

In fact, we can see transparent steps towards the construction of something like a social credit system in the now widespread use of such innovations as ESG (environmental, social, and governance) scores. Major financial institutions wield them to vocally conform to specific social and ideological practices required to access capital. Similar NGO-led scoring schemes such as the Corporate Equality Index and UK-based Diversity Champions programme also threaten those businesses that fail to conform with “reputational risk” blackmail and de-platforming.

How far might this all go? While the powerful realm of financial flows is today’s focus, there is no reason to think that, on the current trajectory, the same dynamics won’t eventually be applied to every other sector of our economy and society. We shouldn’t be surprised if someday soon apartment leases come with ideological morality clauses, airlines unite to ban customers with the wrong beliefs from travelling, or people find themselves evicted from their insurance policies for speaking out of turn online. This will simply be the behaviour of a hardening managerialism seeking stability through mechanistic control over all the details of life.

New technologies such as AI and, especially, central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) will only continue to make this kind of granular control easier. A few months ago, an American man found himself completely shut out of his digitally controlled “smart home” by Amazon after a delivery driver accused his doorbell of saying something racist. Why would Amazon bother to do this? Because they can; and so, under a managerial regime, they must. As our managers find that every day it feels easier and easier to “solve” problematic people with the click of a button, they will not be able to resist hitting that button, hard and often.

Such is the very Weltanschauung — the whole way of seeing and believing — of the managerial mind. As more and more powerful technology comes within the grasp of the managerial machine, its grip will only continue to tighten. For, as C.S. Lewis understood, “each new power won by man is a power over man as well”.

Today, as Orwell predicted, the great super-states struggle for possession of the earth. But for all past speculation that the 21st century would be defined by a “clash of civilisations”, there is now only one, smothering form of modern civilisation that has stretched itself across the face of the globe, its multiple personalities vying for imperial supremacy. In the West, progressive managerialism softly strangled democracy to death over a century of manipulation, hollowed it out, and now wears its skin. In the East, the imported virus of communist managerialism wiped out a once-great civilisation in a river of blood, then crystalised into the cold, hard machine that now rules the lands of China.

This is the truth behind why China and the West, for all their proclaimed differences, share the same managerial hubris, are tempted by the same growing technological powers, and are sheltering the same elite insecurities and delusions. Even as they roil and clash, they are converging on the same destiny: the same socially engineered submission of everything human, real and free to technocratic nihilism and the false reality of an all-encompassing machine-government — to a total techno-state.


This essay is an extract from a longer piece on The Upheaval.

N.S. Lyons is the author of The Upheaval on Substack.