In 1987 a book and a film appeared in America which seemed to signal a questioning of the greed culture which had received the imprint of approval from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The book was Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities which ended with the come-uppance of one of Wall Street’s “Masters of the universe”. The film was Wall Street; Money never sleeps - starring Michael Dougals as Gordon Gekko whose signature line was "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good".
Alas, the reflective mood was momentary – indeed the broader effect seemed to have been to persuade other professions to get into the act. A decade later, a distinguished historian, Harold Perkin, published The Third Revolution - Professional Elites in the Modern World(1996). In previous books Perkin had studied the rise of professional society. In this one he looked at Twentieth Century elites in the USA, England, France, Germany, Russia and Japan - and finds their behaviour equally deficient and morally irresponsible -
What all six countries, except Germany, are found to have in common are greed and corruption, from the wholesale fraud, embezzlement, and bribery practised by Soviet apparatchiks , through the systematic bribery of Japanese politicians by the big corporations, and the apparently general corruption in French local government contracts, to the more 'legitimate' but dubiously ethical machinations of junk bond merchants in the U. S. or take-over conmen in Britain. This is attributed to the professional elites who are 'good servants but bad masters', and when they have power are liable to abuse it, exploit the masses, and line their own pockets. At this point one cannot help concluding that there is nothing new under the sun, that ruling elites or cliques have always been tempted to enrich themselves, and that corruption, even blatant and very large- scale corruption, is not an invention of professional society.It is a book which should be given to each individual when (s)he makes it into their country's "Who's Who" and becomes part of the "system".
A few years earlier, a powerful but different critique of our elites had been launched by Christopher Lasch - The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. The book's title is a take-off on Jose Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, a reactionary work published in 1930 that ascribed the crisis of Western culture to the "political domination of the masses." Ortega believed that the rise of the masses threatened democracy by undermining the ideals of civic virtue that characterized the old ruling elites. But in late twentieth-century America it is not the masses so much as an emerging elite of professional and managerial types who constitute the greatest threat to democracy, according to Lasch -
The new cognitive elite is made up of what Robert Reich called "symbolic analysts" — lawyers, academics, journalists, systems analysts, brokers, bankers, etc. These professionals traffic in information and manipulate words and numbers for a living. They live in an abstract world in which information and expertise are the most valuable commodities. Since the market for these assets is international, the privileged class is more concerned with the global system than with regional, national, or local communities. In fact, members of the new elite tend to be estranged from their communities and their fellow citizens. "They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies ... and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence against them," Lasch writes. "In effect, they have removed themselves from the common life."Lasch proposes something else: a recovery of what he calls the “populist tradition,” and a fresh understanding of democracy, not as a set of procedural or institutional arrangements but as an ethos, one that the new elites have been doing their best to undermine.
The privileged classes, which, according to Lasch's "expansive" definition, now make up roughly a fifth of the population, are heavily invested in the notion of social mobility. The new meritocracy has made professional advancement and the freedom to make money "the overriding goal of social policy." "The reign of specialized expertise," he writes, "is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the 'last, best hope of earth'". Citizenship is grounded not in equal access to economic competition but in shared participation in a common life and a common political dialogue. The aim is not to hold out the promise of escape from the "labouring classes," Lasch contends, but to ground the values and institutions of democracy in the inventiveness, industry, self-reliance, and self-respect of working people.
The decline of democratic discourse has come about largely at the hands of the elites, or "talking classes," as Lasch refers to them. Intelligent debate about common concerns has been almost entirely supplanted by ideological quarrels, sour dogma, and name-calling. The growing insularity of what passes for public discourse today has been exacerbated, he says, by the loss of "third places" — beyond the home and workplace — which foster the sort of free-wheeling and spontaneous conversation among citizens on which democracy thrives. Without the civic institutions — ranging from political parties to public parks and informal meeting places — that "promote general conversation across class lines," social classes increasingly "speak to themselves in a dialect of their own, inaccessible to outsiders."
It has to be said that neither book made much impact – perhaps they were just seen as “moralizing”. Contrast that with the impact made in 1958 by JK Galbraith’s The Affluent Society. Has any recent book, I wonder, made the same impact? Perhaps the Spirit Level – why equality is better for everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009) comes closest. I would therefore have to nominate them for the Social Europe award mentioned recently - although I personally think that Danny Dorling's 2010 Injustice - why social inequality persists is a more powerful book since it doesn't just itemise the inequalities but identifies and explodes the various rationalisations which sustain them.