Since the quadrupling of oil prices in the early 1970s we have witnessed a change in the class/command dynamic; namely, an intensification of class power relative to that of the increasingly privatised yet regulatory state. In recognition of this I formulated my deliberately provocative greedy bastards hypothesis (GBH), an hypothesis many will find even less extravagant after than before the global financial crisis of 2008-2009. The GBH asserts that Britain’s widening social and health inequalities can be seen as the largely unintended consequences of the voracious, strategic appetites of a hard core or ‘cabal’ in its strongly globalized capitalist-executive (CCE), aided and abetted by its more weakly globalized power elite (PE). If men of money have always bought men of power, to paraphrase American historian David Landes, they have got considerably more for their money since the mid-1970s than they did in the postwar years of consensual welfare statism. Recently I have deployed the formula: CCE + PE = OLIGARCHY. Britain is now, I suggest, run by a ruling oligarchy. If this oligarchy rarely needs to conspire, it is certainly characterized by what C Wright Mills in ‘The Power Elite’ shrewdly called tacit coordination.
Underpinning the GBH is the claim that the new flexible (a misleadingly positive word) or de-standardized work patterns, the rapid growth of income inequality, welfare cuts (now acute under the post-2010 ‘Con-Dem’ Coalition), and largely derivative processes like the ‘postmodernisation’ or relativisation of culture and novel and divisive forms of individualism, have their origins in the strategic behaviour of the GBs. When, for example, the CEOs and directors of large transnational companies, along with financiers and rentiers, pocket huge pay packages, pension pots and ‘honours’ for downsizing workforces, substituting transitory or part-time for full-time workers, introducing zero hours contracts, reducing work autonomy in favour of micro-managerial control, outsourcing, and ending final salary pension schemes, they adversely affect the health and life expectancy of their (ex-)employees; and by doing so they contribute positively to health inequalities.
There are discernible media, I believe, through which class and other structural relations realize their influence on health and longevity. They comprise a well-attested list of capital or ‘asset flows’: biological, psychological, social, cultural, spatial, symbolic and, above all, material. These asset flows vary temporally and so are rarely either possessed or not, it almost invariably being a matter of degree or strength of flow. Moreover there is frequently interaction or compensation between flows. A reduced biological asset flow might be compensated for by a strong flow of psychological assets for example, or an arrest in the flow of material assets by strong flows of social or cultural assets. As epidemiological research on the clustering of risk factors for health indicates, however, there is a tendency for flows to be weak or strong across assets.
I have drawn on Archer’s exploration of internal conversations and of reflexivity, which I summarized in my first blog of this series, to show how a sociology of the structuring of agency is required for a credible sociology of health inequalities. This phrase – the structuring of agency – is intended to imply that agency is always structured, but never structurally determined; the causal power of the invariably self survives. Those eminent (and eminently substitutable) individuals who comprise the CCE/PE axis or ruling oligarchy, the GBs, ‘surf’ social structures to their advantage. They also, I contend, illustrate a discernible profile.
I have constructed an ideal-typical sub-type of her autonomous reflexive called the focused autonomous reflexive. The principal characteristics of this sub-type are summarized below. Those who make up the CCE/PE, the ruling oligarchy, or the ‘greedy bastards’ of the GBH, can reasonably be characterized as focused autonomous reflexives (although they by no means exhaust its membership). The focused autonomous reflexive can be said to have the following characteristics:
The focused autonomous reflexive exhibits an overriding engagement with accumulating capital and personal wealth/income (personified by the CCE and serviced by the PE). Nothing less will suffice: that is, any deficit in commitment will result in absolute or relative failure.
Born of a Hobbesian notion of the natural human state, the commitment of the CCE/PE betrays a ruthless determination to cut whatever corners are necessary to gain an advantage over rivals.
The commitment of the CCE/PE is not only total and Nietzschian but fundamentalist: it does not admit of compromise. It is an ideology – that is, a standpoint emerging from a coherent set of vested interests – that brooks no alternative.
While cognitive dissonance is a state to which none of us is immune, the CCE/PE is able to take out sufficient insurance to draw its sting. Thus accusations of greed and responsibility for others’ suffering are rarely internalized. Such epistemological and ontological security is the exception rather than the rule in this era of financial capitalism.
A concomitant of a total, Nietzschian and fundamentalist commitment is the sidelining of other matters and a reflex and frequently gendered delegation of these to others.
The colonizer is colonized: there is simply no time for the ordinary business of day-to-day decision-making. In this way members of the CCE/PE rely on and reproduce structures not only of gender but of class, ethnicity, ageing and so on. Lifeworld detachment presupposes others’ non-detachment.
So this is my initial illustration of the way Archer’s deeply theoretical and dense analysis might profit a particular substantive area of enquiry. In the next two blogs I will build on this, sticking with the sociology of health inequalities. The pertinent publications are listed at the end of the previous blog (‘Archer, Morphogenesis and Reflexivity’).