The journal Scottish Review deserves an award for the “biggest bang for bucks” category of global journalism – and/or social comment. Its distinctive contribution is, in a few pithy clear and elegant paragraphs, to demolish the pretensions of the professional classes - whose comments and opinions (and exclusions) now reflect (if not shape) the power structures of modern societies. Forget the “filthy rich” corporate class! It’s the smooth talking of the “chattering clases” siding with (rationalising) the "power elite" which we should have been concerned about during all these decades… (Those interested can read a full version of the classic 1956 book by C Wright Mills here)
“Cui bono” is the basic question all of us should ask of the stances taken by those who have (somehow) achieved the status of “opinion makers” – whether as academic, journalist, economist, think-tanker, politician, senior professional (civil servant, police, medic) or "quangoist" – all paid by the public (in one form or another) but choosing to lick the arses of one or other of the elite which actually pays their salary. No place for the unwashed public – except perhaps those who have made it to retirement and can afford to shoot from the hip!
And it is indeed a retired academic which lets loose in the latest issue of Scottish Review – in a piece about corporatism
One of the striking features of social change in recent decades has been the way in which diverse institutions, ostensibly serving very different purposes, have come to operate in much the same way.In the past, differences in the aims and practices of the public and private sectors, and in the management styles of employers and organisations representing workers, were clearly visible.
However, since the ascendancy of the 'third way' championed under New Labour, western democracies have embraced a form of market 'progressivism' that has blurred the old ideological divide between capitalism and socialism. This has had some interesting consequences – for the operation of trade unions, the public sector and of NGOs, for example. Many union leaders continue to employ the socialist rhetoric of the past but their actions often fall well short of the principles which motivated the pioneers of the labour movement. In this sense it is no exaggeration to suggest that they have been assimilated into the ideology which they claim to oppose. They have become part of the corporate class, whose tentacles are now evident in places well beyond the boardrooms of multinational companies.
What is the evidence for this? Leaders of trade unions now have much in common with senior executives in major companies: both groups enjoy large salaries and various benefits in kind (cars, travel, expenses, etc.) and are well insulated from ordinary members, or customers, through the protection of personal assistants, departmental managers and procedural barriers. The corporate class rewards itself disproportionately compared with ordinary employees. This is seen clearly in the private sector where share options and bonuses are used to boost already generous salaries. But it is now evident in the public sector as well. Last week two Scottish examples of this were reported. Assistant chief constables were awarded a £10,000 a year pay rise at a time when some civilian staff in Police Scotland were being made redundant. This was described by Graeme Pearson, a Labour MSP and himself a former deputy chief constable, as 'lacking in sensitivity'. The rises followed substantial hikes to the salaries of the chief constable, Sir Stephen House, and his four deputies when the new single force was set up last year.
Even stronger criticism was attached to the news that university principals had been awarded an average increase of 4% at a time when staff are taking industrial action over a pay offer of 1%. Many university principals now earn over £200,000, substantially more than the UK prime minister and Scotland's first minister.
The manoeuvres of the corporate class within the public sector can be seen in many other areas: in the salaries and leaving packages of senior officials in local government and the health service; in the way in which complainants find themselves obstructed by bureaucratic rules and procedures, whose main function seems to be to protect the 'integrity' of the institution rather than lead to a just outcome; by the way in which organisations that are supposedly designed to facilitate proper scrutiny of public bodies (such as the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman) limit the scope of their inquiries.
In his book, 'The Corporation', Joel Bakan states that 'the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies'. Its mandate is to pursue its own self-interest, regardless of the harm it may cause to others. Those at the top of such institutions construct the rules to ensure that they are the prime beneficiaries (whether seen in terms of money, power or reputation).Bakan goes as far as suggesting that corporations are reshaping human nature so that self-interested materialism is not just a part of who we are, but the ultimate goal to which we should be striving.It's a scary prospect.
I’m reminded of the book - The Third Revolution - Professional Elites in the Modern World (Routledge 1996) by Harold Perkin, Professsor of History at Lancaster and North-Western Universities (until 1999) who, in previous books, studied the rise of professional society and looks in this one at Twentieth Century elites in the USA, England, France, Germany, Russia and Japan - finding their behaviour equally deficient and morally irresponsible.It’s a book which should be given to each individual when (s)he makes it into their country's "Who's Who" and is clearly part of the "system". It’s a story of greed - of the "haves", those who have access to the resources and prestige and how they try to retain it - with catastrophic results for the stability of their countries.
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."
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."
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.
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.