Academy Online IV: The Elite – old and new

Saturday 13 November

The Academy is the boi charity’s annual, residential event where people from all walks of life gather together to cultivate themselves with lectures and seminars, based around good books, and in good company. While the regular, collegiate atmosphere of The Academy has not been possible over the past year or so, we’ve taken the spirit and intellectual rigour of the event online. Details of previous Academy Online events can be found here. This November, The Academy Online will return to understand who are the new elite, in another special online event via Zoom. 

TICKETS AND DONATE

This is a free event via Zoom, with a suggested donation of £25 to the boi charity. Register here for tickets and please visit our donations page to find out how to support us.

Politics has always been inseparable from the question: who has power? In previous eras, the answer to that question was to examine the issue of social class. Today, it is harder to offer such easy answers. Many speak of multiple ‘elites’, depending on the context. The business elite vie for power with an educational elite, a cultural elite and a media elite. Today, traditional elites everywhere seem in retreat, with mega-businesses and old family empires anxious to broadcast their support for a new set of ‘progressive’ values around race, sex and gender. Does this mean that the old elites, who drew power from ownership of businesses and control of capital, no longer play such a central role in the management of society? Is there a new elite, or a competing elite, who draw power less from material factors and more from their success with cultural issues such as symbols, ideas and causes? Or is this simply an age-old cycle of elites seeking to deny their elite status and mystify their social position? 

Many, nonetheless, insist that behind this shift lie traditional explanations of class and power. A vigorous debate carries on about the role of the so-called Professional Managerial Class, who may not own capital in the traditional sense but control it: they are the managers of big corporations who pledge allegiance to Black Lives Matter, the executives of tech companies who agitate for stricter rules around sexual conduct in the workplace, and the civil servants who set the direction of government policy in education. Yet questions abound about whether such a group even exists, and whether it has a definable ‘class interest’ – many dismiss it as yet another conspiracy theory. Similarly, the rhetoric around Brexit and Trumpism have thrown to the fore terms such as ‘globalist’ and ‘metropolitan elite’, suggesting a renewed understanding of how the global economic system creates a transnational elite with more ties to international finance than the nation-state. Does the glut of corporations, international bodies and national politicians all eagerly broadcasting their green credentials and signing up for stringent targets on climate change suggest that the power of traditional elites has been broken, or that fashionable new ecological causes now serve as a unifying ideology for the Davos set?

Political discourse revolves perhaps as never before around questions of ‘power relations’, yet defining who really has power over society seems harder than ever. How do we understand the elite? What gives them power and makes them a genuine elite? Has this elite changed its character, and if so how, and from when? How far does the elite’s anxious embrace of new values signal a change in the composition of the elite – or is it just the same old powerful forces finding a new, more modern justification of its power?

Suggested reading list

The books below will help prepare you to engage with the lectures, and may be referred to in the sessions, but there is no requirement to have read them. Use this list to whet your appetite for the day, or return to it afterwards to explore some of the themes raised.

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Books
Frank Furedi, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: Culture war over socialisation
Catherine Liu, Virtue Hoarders: The case against the professional managerial class
Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The hollowing of Western democracy
Christophe Guilluy, Twilight of the Elites: prosperity, the periphery, and the future of France
Phil Mullan, Beyond Confrontation: Globalists, Nationalists and Their Discontents

Optional:
Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology
Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elite and the Betrayal of the Democracy
Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class
C Wright Mills, The Power Elite

Articles
Frank Furedi, The tyranny of Woke Capitalism
Christopher Bickerton, The rise of the Technopopulists
Doug Henwood, Take me to your leader: The rot of the American ruling class
Barbara and John Ehrenreich, The Professional Managerial Class
Amber A’Lee Frost, The characterless opportunism of the Professional Managerial Class
Thomas Piketty, et. al. Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right: changing political cleavages in 21 Western democracies, 1948-2020 (Note: this is a 32 page summary of the above book by the same author)