Kenneth Burke, “Methodology of the Scramble”

Kenneth Burke, “Methodology of the Scramble,” review of Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How?, by Harold D. Lasswell, New Republic 87 (23 Dec 1936): 250.

Imagine a country where men rose to preeminence with their skill in a peanut race. That is, the men who could push a peanut with the nose over an official course in the shortest length of time became the country's heroes and leaders. Obviously, such a revolution in values and practices would make for a wholly new kind of selectivity. There must be at present, scattered throughout the nation, potential peanut-pushers who are condemned to rot as mute, inglorious Miltons because the present rules of eminence are not their rules. But given the appropriate they would rise to form a new "élite."

Some, it is true, might gain their national prominence by sheer fraud. They might bribe the judges, or contrive other manipulations, whereby they passed as great peanut-pushers and enjoyed the honors and privileges accorded such talent when they were not bona fide goober athletes at all. Or they might contrive to keep new candidates from entering the race, shunting them into lowly occupations (science, industry, art and the like) that did not permit them to perfect and express their peanut capacities to the fullest. But in the main, the tests of selection would make for a reshuffle whereby a class superior at peanut-pushing came to the fore and molded the policies of the state to their liking. And this class would so guide the educative, legislative and constabulary functions as to perpetuate their privileges.

Lasswell is a specialist in the study of selectivity. His thinking, which would fall roughly in the Pareto category, is concerned with the historical shifts in popular allegiance whereby a peanut race takes the place of a potato race, or some such, and the group best fitted in one way or another to profit by the new rules rises to authority. His book is a "study of influence and the influential." It pleads for no particular kind of race (or, to decode our trope, he does not propose to justify a preference for one economic system rather than another). "This book, restricted to political analysis, declares no preferences. It states conditions."

"Conditions" are purely and simply the Scramble, the reshuffling process whereby, as people shift their allegiance from one symbol of authority to another, a new group arises to profit by the change. The profits are not necessarily material ones--they may even be largely confined to the categories of honor and prestige. But whatever the legal tender of the given social norms may be, a new set of bankers arises to manipulate this subtle medium of exchange. They are the "influential"--and

The influential are those who get the most of what there is to get. Available values may be classified as deference, income, safety. Those who get the most are élite; the rest are mass.

His first chapter amplifies this definition. He next proceeds to a discussion of "methods." We are shown how “any élite defends and asserts itself in the name of symbols of the common destiny"; how such defense involves the use of force; how the use of goods in alight attack takes the form of destroying, withholding, apportioning--and, finally, we are permitted to examine the procedures by which élites are recruited and trained by tactics in policy-making and administration.

In another section he examines matters of "skill," "class," “personality" and "attitude" as they figure in deciding "who gets what, when, how." We are shown, for instance, how the rules of selectivity may sometimes be such that even highly pathological types can be the best candidates for the élite. And though his book is very easy to follow, he clinches matters with a final chapter of recapitulation. The admonitory value of his book is considerable, particularly for those who would employ it as an intellectual weapon against fascism. Its swift manner, with its wealth of concrete examples, should earn it an important place in our better popular literature of the debunking sort. One may question, however, whether his approach to the subject is as "impartially scientific" as the author apparently assumes. One may even doubt whether his terminology is as broad as required by the situation it would chart. His analysis of human relations seems too strongly motivated by the typically commercialist view of human psychology, with its overemphasis upon the get-ahead, foot-on-the-neck notions of "success" in living. There are important aspects of communion and appeal that are perhaps not given their accurate location when handled in a vocabulary so exclusively of the debunking sort. The "genius" of his subtitle tends to obliterate vitally important qualifications; a Lenin becomes practically the same as a Mussolini or a Hitler.

Like all works of the purely debunking sort, the book should be serviceable for the purposes of negativistic, disintegrative criticism. In fact, its essentially disintegrative character is manifest in its very form, as it is pieced together from many disparate sources, and suggests a shell without a core. If science is to serve its complete social purpose (analyzing human conduct in an integrative vocabulary, whereby people may actively coöperate instead of becoming merely shrewd spies upon one another), Lasswell's science might be called backward and incomplete. It would be excellent for disclosing the misuse of symbols like "liberty" or "solidarity," but its very efficiency would interfere with our allegiance to such symbols when they are properly used. It might lead us to say "thumbs down" even when we should say "thumbs up."