Battle in Print: Should art change the world?

Andrew Brighton


Should art change the world? I take this to mean, should art improve society? If that is its meaning, the question shows we all have the managerial state in our bones like syphilis. A great prophet of political managerialism wrote, ‘philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. But Marx was wrong. The interpretations of philosophers and artists have and do change the world.

For Marx, ‘change the world’ meant an ontological transformation, the end of history. Change would no longer be driven by the blind engine of class conflict; humankind united would manage its future. Bakunin predicted the rise of managerialism when he said of Marx’s end of history that it would bring ‘the reign of systematic intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and contemptuous of all regimes’.

Marx’s totalising vision is now usurped by a totalising technical discourse. In universities and hospitals, in social service departments, art galleries and many other institutions managerial discourse and surveillance is a source of mangled feelings and broken careers, of enraged stories of cynicism and obfuscation, of jokes about the empowered incompetent. It is the subject of shelves of books and hours of training sessions. It has gone far beyond for-profit corporations. It claims authority beyond the financial. Like Marxist-Leninism, managerialism is used as an omni-competent discourse, a utilitarian rationality that can ‘progress’ any practice. It never fails; it only has ‘challenges’.

With the death of socialism even the Left in power does not just leave capitalism to do its thing: the political elite merges with the economic elite, they have conjoined in management discourse. With methods of control and persuasion taken away from corporate power, the political elite sets out to change culture and society. In this vision of change all others are either subservient or else they are trivial or illegitimate.

Yes, the state needs methods of administration like cities need drains, but who now thinks that civil engineers should lead, motivate and make decisions for art and science, the law, medicine, academe and all other elites and their practices? Saint-Simon and the Saint-Simonists did at the beginning of the nineteenth century and Brezhnev and many of the Central Committee of the CPUSSR were trained as engineers, but you only have to look at the dead ends of history to see what happened to them.

New Labour is an acute attack of the managerial clap. In practice, the Third Way owes more to Management By Objective (MBO) than to either Marxism or Methodism. MBO was one of the dominant management techniques of the twentieth century and was given centrality in Peter Drucker’s influential book The Practice of Management published in 1954. However, Drucker warned:

To assert authority for management over the citizen and his affairs beyond that growing out of management’s responsibility for business performance is usurpation of authority ... Should management claim to be the leading group it will either be rebuffed or it will help into power a dictatorship that will deprive management as well as all other groups in a free society of their authority and standing.

New Labour promises more than can be achieved by political competence, ‘A Better Tomorrow’, ‘Fulfilling Britain’s great potential’, ‘Excellence for all’, to quote their manifestoes. This is political hubris, the idea that armed with a ‘moral compass’ politicians can apply managerial techniques of control and persuasion to usher in the good life for all. This not only ignores that we live in a multicultural society, which means, if it means anything, different ideas of the good life. It also fails to realise that we live in multiple ecologies of reason. There is no transcendent or omni-competent reason. There are only forms of reason elaborated in particular practices and forms of life.

Because it overrides the ecologies of different practices, New Labour’s managerialism is known best by its incompetence. It has led to policemen arresting kids over playground fights to keep their quotas up, spending more time filling in forms than preventing crime. It has children schooled in test-passing rather than educated, and encourages teaching soft subjects to improve the school’s ‘attainment data’. It has doctors doing surgery on the about to be ‘timed out’ rather than on the acutely ill; psychiatrists are criticised for ‘insufficient creativity in risk management’ and for slowing bed ‘through-put’ by not sending suicidal ‘episodes of care’ out into the ‘community’. It incites arts institutions to become Potemkin villages, faades to impress their funders. It pressures curators to make judgements not on the basis of their knowledge and experience but on the basis of demonstrable demographic ‘outcomes’.

A subtler objection to managerialism is with what it does not just to professionals but to anyone whose work requires them to make judgements. Managerialism empties work of ethical life. It robs workers of responsibility, it disallows them trust. (Trust is a two way street and many people have reciprocated by removing trust from the political elite.) It denies them a role in changing the world. The more fine-tuned the apparatus of management direction and surveillance, the more it denies work as a source of identity any other than the internalisation of the corporation’s objectives. Winning the hearts and minds of workers has been on the agenda since Douglas McGregor pioneered psychology-based human relations management in the late 1950s. For McGregor’s Y Theory and its epigones, the function of team building, consultation, listening, bottom-up planning and other such devices is to enlist the personal commitment and collaboration of the workforce while the corporation remains an un-democratic command institution.

New Labour’s managerialism includes cultural management, the engineering of news and information to win hearts and minds, to manufacture a culture of consent. But the state is most properly a legal entity and not a moral one, it gets and loses moral loyalty by its actions and not simply by right. Yet New Labour has a compulsion to attach moral loyalty to itself and the state. For instance, consider the state-sponsored search for an identity called ‘Britishness’. It is to be defined by ‘us rediscovering from our history the shared values that bind us together’ says Gordon Brown, as if we all had one history and it supplied us with unambiguous ideas of the good. One of the defining values of ‘Britishness’ is tolerance, but that means the coexistence of conflicting values under the law, the right to be unbound by the values of the state. Uncritical loyalty to the state’s vision of nationhood is bad faith for intellectuals and artists, an invitation to banality. Serious culture is a dialogue about values; premising ‘Britishness’ forecloses discussion by proposing definitive answers. In New Labour parlance, intellectuals and artists are ‘elitist’ in their nonconformity.

In the developed stages of managerialism narcissistic delusions set in. The political elite and their apparatchiks hold up to themselves a mirror of their own devising. It tells them that they have changed the world and what they have done is beautiful. The chair of Arts Council England, Sir Christopher Frayling, has trumpeted the period of New Labour as ‘a golden age for the arts’. Tony Blair repeated the phrase in a self-valedictory speech given to the arts establishment in the months before his departure.

In this golden age New Labour declared its most direct and expensive totalising vision, its idea of art, culture and society. It set out to change the world. Christopher Frayling was one of its organisers. He said a few months before the Millennium Experience opened: ‘So there’s a kind of redefinition of Britain going on ... [The Dome is] modern, multicultural, cultural industries Britain; in a sense it’s New Labour Britain. Or Demos Britain.’

The reason why the failure of the Dome was the most important event in British culture since the Beatles is that it humiliated political hubris; it was a farcical rout of New Labour’s cultural vision, its attempt to change the world.

Art is not a penicillin G. to managerial syphilis, but it is an antibody because it changes the world in ways other than those prescribed by the managerial state.

Andrew Brighton is a freelance writer on arts and culture.

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