From Power Elite to Governing Oligarchy

From Power Elite to Governing Oligarchy

Graham Scambler, University College London                  [pdf]

The American historian David Landes once observed that men of wealth buy men of power. In this post-1970s era of financial capitalism, the ‘super-rich’ or ‘plutocrats’, a new nomadic species that has outgrown the nation state, now possess wealth almost inconceivable a generation ago. In his Does the Richness of the Few Benefit us All? Bauman tells us that by 2000 the richest 1% of adults owned 40% of global assets, and the richest 10% owned 85%.

Within the UK the top 10% of the population is now 100 times as wealthy as the bottom 10%. As far as income is concerned, in 2010 FTSE 100 CEO pay was 145 times the average salary for workers, and it is on track to be 214 times the average salary by 2020 (Scambler, 2012).

And yet sociologists have been slow to go beyond journalistic or descriptive analysis of this remarkable phenomenon. Journeying back past some rather arcane late twentieth-century debates about the salience of class in post-industrial societies, C Wright Mills’ classic analysis of America in the 1950s, The Power Elite, strikes as more brave and compelling than polemical. His documentation of the clustering of power in the hands of very small, interconnected minorities of military, corporate and political elites still resonates. But the world has of course changed and the Britain of 2013 differs from the USA of the 1950s. But he has much to teach us.

There has been a reluctance to return to classical structural notions like class. Class, the new orthodoxy now has it, may have been the dominant aspect of stratification in industrial society in the past. But now class is one form of social division among many, and one rivalled by age, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on. Moreover, structure has ceded territory to culture: post-industrial or consumer society is characterised by pressing matters of identity-formation and recognition. Who we are is no longer a simple business, more or less predetermined by the class location of our parents.

But class, I suggest, is a more important driver of circumstance and opportunity in financial capitalism than it was in the postwar years; that is, class relations have re-asserted themselves objectively. I accept however that class is less important for who we think we are, or less salient subjectively. The failure to make this distinction has bedevilled recent debates about class.

When class is factored into sociological reflection or research it is often via socio-economic classification systems like NS-SEC or, in 2013, the much more culturally oriented Great British Class Survey (GBCS). There is no need here to rehearse the pros and cons of NS-SEC and the GBCS. What they both lack is any way of capturing the less than 1% of the population with true wealth and/or power. The privileged citizenry I have in mind are under-researched, in part because they can hide in large data sets.

This fraction of the 1% that the Occupy Movement contrasts with the rest of us, the 99%, is the key to understanding and explaining what is happening in the current phase of financial capitalism. One way to grasp this is through the concept a new dynamic of class/command. Back to Landes: if the wealthy have always purchased power, they can now get more for their money than has been the case for a generation or three. We can track this transition to the present #grotesque maldistribution of wealth – and income too – but sociology should aspire to more than the explication of on-the-surface trends.

The class/command dynamic points beneath the surface to a new structural asymmetry between class and state. More precisely, a small hard-core of capitalists – rentiers, FTSE100 CEOs and Directors and, most conspicuously, financiers – have gained more leverage over the power elite of the state. Together, this privileged cabal of capitalists plus power elite now comprises a ruling oligarchy.

A very predictable consequence is growing inequality and creeping social disintegration and fragmentation. These are accomplished via market de-regulation, in general, and the associated growth of more part-time and transitory work, weakening health and safety regulation, loss of work autonomy, outsourcing, zero contracts, the termination of final salary pension schemes and benefit cuts in particular.  While the ruling oligarchy enters a stratosphere of privilege, tugging its think tank and new middle class allies in its wake, the squeezed middle/precariat and, far worse, a more-or-less abandoned segment of the old working class fall further and further behind.

The reverse side of the prevailing neo-liberal ideology that underpins the ruling oligarchies in Britain and elsewhere is disconnected fatalism (Scambler, 2013). The riots of August 2011 perhaps best articulate this mind-set: a sometimes inchoate, sometimes articulate, rage of isolation and hopelessness on the part of the disproportionately young and black marginalised.

Adam Smith alerted us to the risks when wealth purchases too much power, although it was Marx of course who added a subverting theory of exploitation.  

These assertions of a revised class/command dynamic and emergence of a ruling oligarchy from the early to mid-1970s are, I suggest, sociologically unobjectionable and entirely consonant with the data. And yet the silence is, if not deafening, disconcerting. This is itself a matter of sociological interest and concern in its own right. Two challenges might be proffered.

The first arises out of a straightforward professional obligation. Implicit in all I have said is the need to research the recruitment, connections and day-to-day acts of those comprising the ruling oligarchy in order to more fully understand and explain the lot of the newly disadvantaged. Investigating the changing circumstances of the disadvantaged remains important, but the secret of their plight lies in the ruthlessly strategic behaviours of our ruling oligarchs. C Wright Mills’ analysis of the power elite of 1950s America is our model here. Where are the analyses – beyond journalism, that is – of the collateral damage occasioned by wealth’s newly acquired leverage over power?

To what extent and across which domains is class the principal driver? How comprehensively are the landowning, business, financial and political elites inter-connected? If they rarely have to conspire, how do they yet accomplish what Mills called ‘tacit understanding’? Critically, what are the mechanisms that have permitted the ruling oligarchy’s undemocratic usurpation of influence, and how might these be exposed and countered? And, topically, how readily available to the governing oligarchy are forces of repression – the police and the military – should publics evade increasingly pervasive forms of surveillance. Such interrogations used to be the bread and butter of classical sociology.

Finally, sociology must extend its compass, reach and engagement in at least two respects. First, picking up on Giddens’ (1990) idea of ‘utopian realism’, there is surely a requirement for the positing of ‘credible alternatives’, for foresight sociology. I do not mean by this an offering up of utopian blueprints for a better society, with all their totalitarian connotations. Rather it is an invitation to explore in detail how our institutions might more optimally deliver goods and services. If the Health and Social Care Act is demonstrably regressive – and it is – then what kind of system would most likely meet the criteria for providing good quality health care justly and efficiently? And there are equivalent questions in relation to the economy, housing, education and so on. Sociologists interested in ecological matters, energy conservation and sustainability have pointed us in this direction.

And second, there is a need too for public engagement beyond making research findings accessible and proffering policy advice, for action sociology. It is not enough to shrug shoulders when policy-based evidence is politically gift-wrapped as evidence-based policy. Logically and morally, the sociological project continues: ‘speaking truth to power’, to coin a phrase.

So in my view there is urgent need for foresight sociology as well as action sociology, neatly rounding up Burawoy’s four types of sociology to six. Plenty to do then.

References:

Bauman, Z (2013) Does the Richness of the Few Benefit us All? Cambridge; Polity.

Giddens, A (1990) Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge; Polity.

Scambler, G (1996) The ‘project of modernity’ and the parameters for a critical sociology: an argument with illustrations from medical sociology. Sociology 30 567-581.

Scambler, G (2012) Resistance in unjust times: Archer, structured agency and the sociology of health inequalities. Sociology 47 142-156.

Scambler, G (2013) Archer and ‘vulnerable fractured reflexivity’: a neglected social determinant of health? Social Theory and Health 11 302-315.

Wright Mills, C (1956) The Power Elite. Oxford; Oxford University Press.

 

Graham Scambler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, UCL, and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences, UK. He co-edits the journal Social Theory and Health and has published extensively on class and health inequality.

13 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    December 04, 2013

    Fantastic piece Graham, I think the link back to Mills and the Power Elite is spot on. Made me think about the TV programme on Machiavelli last night. Very thoughtful and interesting article. Thanks.

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  2. Avatar
    December 04, 2013

    Stimulating as ever, Graham. Just one small point. Classifications like the NS-SEC are not designed for the study of elites but for entirely other purposes related to the dynamics of class. However, recent claims that the GBCS has rediscovered the elite are also overblown. NS-SEC Class 1.1 identifies a smaller ‘elite’ (just over 3%) than that of the GBCS (6%). Of course, even Class 1.1 isn’t the real elite, as you infer; but then no class classification designed for use with population samples ever could identify sufficient numbers of the true elite to be analytically useful in that respect. Other methods are required, as you indicate. Hence my puzzlement at some of the claims being made for the GBCS. From what I have seen so far of the discussion of the GBCS ‘elite’, it tells us no more – and possibly less- than what could be gleaned from an analysis of individuals in NS-SEC Class 1.1.

    In the case of the NS-SEC, it’s somewhat unfair to criticise it for lacking the ability to analyse aspects of class it was not designed to deal with. This point was made long ago by John Goldthorpe in his exchange with Roger Penn in Sociology.

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    • Avatar
      December 08, 2013

      Brilliant paper and an enjoyable read.
      One thing that is concerning me about our contemporary society is the lack of empathy and ethics that the capitalist way of life brings. Every year of its modern existence it chips off a tiny bit of the gratitude it shows its workers. Self interest is needed for profit and economic growth, but today its been taken to the extreme. Gone are the days of a well looked after ‘job secure’ employee, seen as an asset with sick pay and other benefits like a living wage. They seem to have been replaced with disposable employees from the working class cattle-pen of labor. On a domestic level, this must be self-defeating and toxic as they are taking -through a poverty wage and uncertainty of work tomorrow- the power to consume in a consumer society.

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  3. Avatar
    December 04, 2013

    Thanks Les. Maybe we could form a group to collaborate on the research agenda? Graham.

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    • Avatar
      December 04, 2013

      Hi David, thanks for replying. I accept your points of course. What I would say is that schema like NS-SEC & GBCS (and I share your concerns with the latter as you know) have the unintended consequence of inhibiting research on the class input into to what I call the governing oligarchy. Certainly I can think of little innovative quantitative studies. Best, Graham.

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      • Avatar
        December 09, 2013

        There was nothing stopping sociologists attempting to study elites and some did.

        I’m told, but I don’t know whether this is just apocryphal, that when Tony Giddens moved from Leicester to Cambridge one of the hopes was that he would carry on the Cambridge tradition of empirical sociology by building up precisely a programme of research on elites. What came out of it was the edited book with Stanworth and for various reasons not much else and the whole idea faded away. I don’t see that this has much to do with the existence of a bunch of people working on other aspects of social inequality and attempting to address different questions. What is more likely is that the people involved got a taste of how difficult it is to do serious research on elites that requires the collection of primary empirical data, took a deep gulp, and decided that it would be more profitable to go after low hanging fruit elsewhere.

        It requires considerable chutzpah by the authors of the GBCS to maintain that the 6% of the population they classify as the elite are actually an elite in anything like the terms that CWM would understand, let alone Guttsman or John Scott. Some numbers help to get things in perspective. In 2008 the 94th percentile of the individual earnings distribution in the UK was approximately £57,000, so according to the GBCS logic this is roughly where the elite starts (I know it is not quite as simple as this). But if this was true, then at least half the adults living in my street would be part of the elite a proposition I find hard to swallow.

        In absolute terms they are hardly down on their uppers and doing comparatively well, but I don’t know that any have private helicopters, ski at Gstad, have the ear of a cabinet minister or even of a permanent secretary. Many are humble middle-aged academic wage-labourers with about as much power and influence as the blokes that take away their ecological refuse once every two-weeks.

        So by all means let’s have studies of elites (though perhaps we need to think carefully about what we want to know about them) but let’s not have fake research that starts from the ridiculous premise that middle aged academics paying off crippling mortgages for crumbling Edwardian terraces designed for railway workers are part of it

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        • Avatar
          December 19, 2013

          Agree with Colin. Unwise to mix up concepts of class and elite. Designed for different purposes.

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  4. Avatar
    December 04, 2013

    great stuff. desperate need to understand how minute % can rip off whole population!!!

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  5. Avatar
    August 14, 2014

    It’s a good article, and I agree with most of it, but on the other hand it pulls up sharply on the border of politics. Will visions of a better world and the politics we need to manifest it automatically lead to totalitarianism? Isn’t this the motif that conflates left-liberalism with wet conservatism, the symbol of absolute evil that marks the boundary of our thought? Didn’t Attlee and Bevan – even Roosevelt – have a vision of a better world? Hardly Stalin and Pol Pot, were they? The lofty promise of improved service delivery, with its echoes of dead municipal socialism, will hardly stir the blood of the atomised proletariat and inspire it to rediscover its collective power, will it? Nor will the threat of yet another sociological study group scare the bejesus out of the oligarchs and their pocket-size political fixers; in fact one of them – Soros for instance – might even fund it, safe in the knowledge that he will, in one way or another, be exonerated by our predictably ambivalent conclusion. If the left have no vision and nothing to inspire the population with, the nationalist right will flow into the vacuum. Hopefully they will be held off, which means that for the foreseeable future nothing will happen at all apart from the further consolidation of neoliberalism and its myriad harms. Ho-hum.

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    • Avatar
      August 19, 2014

      Hi Steve. Thanks for this. I was trying to articulate the view that utopianism – that is, the writing of a blueprint for others to implement – can smack of totalitarianism. This is not to decry the need for either vision or plans. I prefer to set these within a frame of permanent reform, which allows for the constant and dialectical modification of visions of a better future in line with changing circumstances and input. I do not of course expect foresight or action sociology to cause a panic: I was merely suggesting that the discipline have a more ambitious and engaged role than at present. Graham.

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      • Avatar
        August 20, 2014

        Hi Graham. Thanks for taking the time to reply. I totally – but not in a totalitarian sense, of course 😉 – agree with your claim that sociology must be more ambitious, not just politically but intellectually. In its current form it is philosophically moribund and – as Aditya Chakrabortty reminded us rather painfully a couple of years ago – economically illiterate. Since Giddens we have been served badly by a group of elite theorists who, elevated to their lofty perches by services rendered to Blairism and other lost causes, are mediocre at best. Simon and I have written about that elsewhere http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book234101?subject=900&sortBy=defaultPubDate%20desc&fs=1 http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/14401

        However, I’m not sure that utopianism is restricted to the idea of a blueprint, or indeed that that is its main political role. There’s a powerful argument that without some degree of utopian energy – which at its root is of course libidinal, the opposite of a rational blueprint – and utopian discourse, even reforms will be impossible. There will simply not be enough commitment or energy to drive them forward. Instead of a long post, Russell Jacoby puts the argument very well in this book http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-12894-0/picture-imperfect In one of my books I also reveal how the constant fear of totalitarianism, cautionary tales about which seem to appear in the first chapter of almost every sociology book, has served to drain energy out of the left and turn it into what it is today, the organiser of the queues at the Intersectionality Complaints Office. http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book233792/reviews

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  6. Avatar
    August 15, 2014

    Why on earth must we stick to the ridiculous liberal democratic assumption that everything that isn’t parliamentary capitalism is totalitarianism? On this point you are wedded to the ruling ideology rather than a critic of it

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    • Avatar
      August 19, 2014

      Hi Simon. Have another read. I argue (1) ‘for’ action beyond parliamentary socialism, and (2) ‘against’ utopian blueprints that smack of totalitarianism. I would suggest that a strategy of permanent reform might best facilitate effective collective action against the governing oligarchy and its allies. Graham.

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