Sean Forner

Imaginary Intellectual History: 'Managerialism' in 1950s Western Europe


In the early 1950s, West Germany’s new trade union federation, the DGB, hosted a series of public discussions as part of an annual theater and arts festival, the Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen. These so-called Europäische Gespräche featured intellectuals from across Western Europe (and occasionally the United States). They began with the question of “workers and culture” but quickly grappled with changing configurations of work and of economic and political power in what was beginning to be called "managerial society" -- thus with one dimension of what would soon be known as the problem of "technocracy." Moreover, the first several of these conversations unfolded amid DGB-led struggles over the scope and nature of codetermination and organized labor’s place in the West German polity, conflicts that were then taken up at the Europäische Gespräche. Labor activists and sympathetic intellectuals perceived similar challenges confronting European societies in the 1950s, to which they gave, each in their own domain, parallel responses: against expanding managerial control, both affirmed ordinary people’s participation in shaping all spheres of their lives, also in the workplace, and they envisioned unions as indispensible vehicles for claiming social and political citizenship, expanding the bounds of democracy, and carving out space for citizens' collective self-determination under the changing circumstances of the present. This paper attempts to account for their collaboration in the frame of an "imaginary intellectual history" (Samuel Moyn). It addresses the Europäische Gespräche and codetermination campaigns as different yet parallel responses to the rise of welfare-capitalist, Fordist, "high modernist" postwar societies, a large-scale historical process that posed "managerialism" as a problem to a range of historical actors, including intellectuals, workers, and their representatives. It links these responses via the notion of the "social imaginary" (Cornelius Castoriadis), which stresses the co-constitution of symbolic representations and social order in and through social practice at all levels. More broadly, it advocates exploring approaches "beyond the cultural turn" in writing intellectual history, ones that seek to explain the development of ideas about society with reference to transformations of societal context.