Chomsky and the New Mandarins?
September 26, 2012 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Noam Chomsky wrote a book decades ago called American Power and the New Mandarins and I was wondering why he chose the word "Mandarin."

Chomsky says "Quite generally, what grounds are there for supposing that those whose claim to power is based on knowledge and technique will be more benign in their exercise of power than those whose claim is based on wealth or aristocratic origin? On the contrary, one might expect the new mandarin to be dangerously arrogant, aggressive and incapable of adjusting to failure, as compared with his predecessor, whose claim to power was not diminished by honesty as to the limitations of his knowledge, lack of work to do or demonstrable mistakes."

Aside from being a dialect, Mandarin is also (in the Chinese Empire) a member of any of the nine senior grades of the bureaucracy, entered by examinations, according to I just want to know why, when referring to American intelligentsia, technocrats, etc., Chomsky chose to refer to them as Mandarins.
posted by ReWayne to Writing & Language (14 answers total)
It sounds like you answered your own question there:

a member of any of the nine senior grades of the bureaucracy, entered by examinations

I'd say the term is apt when used to describe the modern sort of technocrat that runs a cabinet department
posted by Oktober at 9:19 AM on September 26, 2012

I think your Chomsky quote has it in there: "whose claim to power is based on knowledge and technique"; the imperial examinations in China that selected the Mandarins selected based on knowledge.

Not to mention that the choice of a distinctly Chinese word comes freighted with distrust to most of America in the '60's, subliminally beginning to make his argument...
posted by Zed at 9:21 AM on September 26, 2012

Even when Chomsky was writing, I think the word mandarin had long since floated free of any literal connection with China, just as people rarely use the word hierarchy to refer to orders of angels.

There are a number of connotations to being a mandarin (seniority, facelessness, opacity, complexity), and while most of those are the same as for bureaucrat the seniority is probably important here (you can talk of lowly bureaucrats, you wouldn't say lowly mandarin).
posted by Hartster at 9:22 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just as you used "intellegentsia" (a word of Russian origin), or just as you might say "Brahmin" (a word of Sanskrit origin) to refer to the same people, Chomsky used "Mandarin." It sounds more notable, given that Mandarin has largely fallen out of use in this context (or at least, I don't hear it), I don't think he was making a specific point about China (other than to gesture to the context of the word).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:24 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think it's simply a good phrase with historical resonance to describe what was being seen at the time as an emergent class - Dilas' new class, the co-ordinator class, the professional-managerial class and so on.

It doesn't seem to be used as much, but here in the UK senior civil servants were often referred to as Whitehall Mandarins from probably the same era.
posted by spectrevsrector at 9:24 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

French intellectuals used the term mandarin.
posted by mareli at 9:26 AM on September 26, 2012

There is a long history of using the term "mandarin" metaphorically to refer to the college-educated class of civil servants in the West. I believe Max Weber's work on cultures of bureaucracy either launched or formalized this usage.
posted by drlith at 9:26 AM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Based on the literalist attachment to the Chinese definition in the question it seems like maybe you don't know or aren't thinking about the other sense of the word "mandarin," which is the applicable one (it's not like Chomsky meant to imply that Kissinger was secretly Chinese). And note that it's uncapitalized in the quotation you gave — it's not being used as a title, but as a descriptive word. Here is the relevant sense from the OED:
c. A person (esp. an official) who commands considerable power or importance (freq. one perceived as reactionary and secretive); (spec. in the United Kingdom) a leading civil servant.
posted by RogerB at 9:26 AM on September 26, 2012

What others have said. A mandarin is someone who is: a) in charge, b) knows what's good for society (with all that implies). Think of a government bureaucrat, with extensive education and training, who decides public policy at a level where public criticism does not directly affect their thinking.
posted by zippy at 9:34 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a somewhat arcane word for bureaucrat or government functionary, with exactly the connotations others have mentioned. You don't hear it used a lot, because it's such a highly specific term.

See also The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir.
posted by Sara C. at 9:36 AM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's still a common shorthand in British political journalism (semi-interchangeable with 'Sir Humphreys') for the upper echelons of the Civil Service: a quick search of the Guardian includes a handful from the past week, including this wire service piece.

Chomsky's 'new mandarins' aren't really of that ilk: his focus is on technocrats trained in systems analysis, psychology and sociology -- the RAND Corporation / CFR strand of post-WW2 think tankery -- and he includes people like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel Huntington in his list, not just Kissinger.
posted by holgate at 10:09 AM on September 26, 2012

Because Tsar was already taken to describe who the Mandarins worked under?
posted by srboisvert at 10:30 AM on September 26, 2012

Chiming in to confirm that at least in the Australian English context, this is perfectly cromulent and well-understood to men what other people have already said it means. Not archaic, not particularly arcane.
posted by wilful at 9:21 PM on September 26, 2012

I think 'mandarin', in its civil service context, first came into use around the time of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms, which introduced a system of competitive examination. John Stuart Mill uses the term in On Liberty (1859), where, with reference to the Northcote-Trevelyan proposals, he highlights the risk that a successful bureaucracy may become too powerful for its own good: 'For the governors are as much the slaves of their organization and discipline, as the governed are of the governors. A Chinese mandarin is as much the tool and creature of a despotism as the humblest cultivator.'

'Mandarin', like 'intellectual', can be a compliment as well as a criticism (though 'Whitehall mandarin', like 'Hampstead intellectual', is almost invariably derogatory). This week's TLS has a review by Robert Skidelsky of a new book by Adair Turner, describing him as 'the jewel in the crown of British public servants' and concluding: 'At heart, Adair Turner is a Mandarin, who believes that intelligence can tame power.' Here, 'mandarin' is clearly being used as a term of high praise. On the other hand, an opinion piece in today's Evening Standard complains that 'all six Treasury ministers are men .. And according to former senior civil servants, the atmosphere is equally macho among the mandarins'. As this example suggests, the term is very commonly used in British journalism, to the point of near-cliché.
posted by verstegan at 3:02 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

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