Elements Towards a Sociology of the Present

‘Modern government could be interpreted as a device for projecting corporate power. Since the 1980s, In Britain, the US and other nations, the primary mission of governments has been to grant their sponsors in the private sector ever greater access to public money and public life. There are several means by which they do so: the privatization and out-sourcing of public services; the stuffing of public committees with corporate executives; and the reshaping of laws and regulations to favour big business’ (Monbiot, 2012).

The hastily negotiated settlement of a ‘Con-Dem’, Cameron-Clegg coalition government in the United Kingdom in 2010 coincided with the fall-out from a major global financial crisis in 2008-9, an incipient crisis within the ‘eurozone’, and a spate of regime-threatening insurrections in the Middle-East emanating from the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010. Hard on the heels of the Con-Dem parliamentary deal came a loosely coordinated series of protests at a tranche of early coalition policies targeting, above and beyond all else, deficit reduction (e.g. to hike student fees, abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance, constrain and shrink the public sector via salary freezes, pension curtailments and redundancies, and privatize the NHS). Somehow in the mix too were the London ‘riots’ of August 2011.

In this blog I gather together some of the key ingredients for a credible sociological analysis of our contested and unpredictable present. These six would surely make it into any recipe:

  • Financial capitalism and growing inequality

The quadrupling of oil prices in the early 1970s ‘marked’ (but did not ‘cause’) a significant transition in the UK and globally, the complex character of which has become clearer over time. Sociologists have referred to a transition from one phase of capitalism to another, for example, from industrial to post-industrial, from Fordist to post-Fordist, or from organized to disorganized. Others have written more grandly of a switche from first to second modernity or from modernity to post-modernity. We prefer here to write with circumspection of a new phase of financial capitalism. Financial capitalism has witnessed the privileging of financial over productive capital. The speed, volatility and impact of hugely accelerated rates of flow of capital are a defining feature of financial capitalism.

One unambiguous concomitant of the transition to financial capitalism has been an increasing rate of inequality of wealth and income. The data are compelling. Responding to the ‘Sunday Times’ Rich List for 2012, leftist MP Michael Meacher offered four observations relevant to the ‘governance of the UK:

  1. The richest 1000 people (0.003% of the adult population) increased their wealth over the past three years by £155bn. That is sufficient, he notes, for them alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit while still retaining £30bn to shop.
  2. This ‘mega-rich elite’, comprising many of the bankers and hedge fund and private equity operators causally implicated in the financial crash of 2008-9, has not been subject to any ‘tax payback’. In fact, 77% of the budget deficit is being recouped by public expenditure and benefit cuts, and only 23% is being repaid by tax increases (and more than half of the tax increases is accounted for by the VAT rise which hits the poor hardest); none of the tax increases specifically target the rich. (Moreover, the recent G20 global push to tackle tax evasion has clearly failed: deposit data from the Bank of International Settlements shows bank accounts in tax havens held £1.7tn last year, about the same as in 2007.
  3. Despite the biggest slump for almost a century, the 1000 richest are currently ‘sitting on’ wealth exceeding that held prior to the crash: their wealth now amounts to £414bn, equivalent to more than a third of Britain’s GDP. This mega-rich elite includes 77 billionaires and 23 others, each possessing more than £750m.
  4.  The increase in wealth of the richest 1000 has been £315bn over the last 15 years.

According to the 2010 Report of the National Equality Panel, ‘An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK’, the top decile of the UK population is now 100 times as wealthy as the bottom decile. The 2011 Interim Report of the High Pay Commission reveals that dominant among Britain’s top 1% of income ‘earners’ are finance and business workers and company directors. FTSE 100 chief executive officers (CEOs) enjoyed average total remuneration of over £4.2m in 2009/10. 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.

  • New class/command dynamic

The concentration of wealth into fewer hands with tighter grips is a function of a new ‘class/command dynamic’. The directors and CEOs of the FTSE 100, rentiers and, most notably, financiers, now comprise a cabal within an increasingly globalized hard core of what I call the UK’s ‘capitalist executive’ (CE). Despite fierce competition and tensions within this cabal, the interests and (neo-liberal) ideology its members share mean that conspiratorial action is rarely required (although it would be naïve to take one’s eyes of this particular ball). In the period of financial capitalism this newly honed cabal has extended its influence over the ‘power elite’ (PE) at the apex of a state apparatus extending well beyond prime ministers (and their cronies) and cabinets and characterized by horizontal rather than vertical power relations.

  • CE + PE = Oligarchy

Some sociologists have suggested that we already have a ‘nomadic’ global or transnational capitalist/ruling class in what is in many respects a post-nation-statist era. In 2011 Coghlan and MacKenzie identified 147 ‘superconnected’ transnational companies (mostly banks) that in their view comprise ‘the capitalist network that runs the world’. Many more sociologists have accepted that a transnational capitalist/ruling class exists in embryo. A case can certainly be made that the UK’s Westminster-based parliamentary democracy has been displaced by government by oligarchy (CE+PE). In their differentiation of types of government, Plato and Aristotle defined oligarchy vis-à-vis the Greek polis or city-state as rule by the few (oligos, few + archia, rule). In 2012 Mount, a commentator long inclined to think outside the box, if rarely to the left of it, has contended that we already have government by oligarchy in the UK. He writes:

‘… what oligarchy requires to become effective is a symbiosis between money and power, a daily interweaving of business and politics. The two sets of oligarchs must feed off each other to live and breath’.

I favour a focus on the class/command dynamic, but the trend away from ‘formal’ parliamentary, let alone ‘substantive’, democracy is indisputable.

  • Party political cynicism

Complementing the ingredients already listed, journalist Charles Oborne has shown how UK party-based politicians have become more ‘careerist’ and interchangeable. Opinion polling bears testimony to growing public disaffection, discontent and disengagement. ‘Cynicism’, fortified by the Blairite usurpation of the Labour Party between 1997 and 2010, the in-your-face abuse of a cosy in-house expenses system, and a bending of knees to the likes of Murdoch by the Cameron-led ConDems post-Leveson, all of which have been facilitated by oligarchical tendencies, remains the norm.

  • Cultural relativism/individualism

One concomitant of the transition to financial capitalism has been a cultural shift. In terms deployed by Lyotard in ‘The Postmodern Condition’, ‘grand’ narratives have been transmuted into ‘petit’ narratives. The discourses or ways of viewing the world available to the populace prior to financial capitalism – grand narratives aspiring to rational/universal support – have ‘shrunk’ in significance even as they have multiplied in number, becoming in the process petit narratives aspiring to the pick-and-mix options of a cultural relativism. Cultural relativism self-evidently fuels more virulent forms of individualism. Launching a philosophical broadside against this ‘postmodern fad’ of cultural relativism, Habermas rightly insisted that this new form of cultural relativism/individualism constitutes ‘a new conservatism’. Any move that inhibits the rationally/universally compelling construction and pursuit of an agenda for change must necessarily favour the status quo, in other words the continued rule of the CE + PE oligarchy.

The ‘postmodern experiment’ is, or has been, more often disinhibiting (like alcohol) than emancipatory.

  • Impotence, despair and anger

(1) Public cynicism, (2) a no less pervasive sense of impotence, despair and anger, and (3) cultural relativism/individualism are not the inevitable (or determined) progeny of (4) the emergent class/command dynamic associated with financial capitalism. The argument in this blog and elsewhere is not determinist: (1), (2) and (3) do not reduce to (4); but they are nevertheless functional for (4). (1), (2) and (3) have the effect of undermining resistance to oligarchal vested interests. This is important for any credible sociological explanation of the ubiquitous post-1970s supremacy of neo-liberal ideology and the failure to date to mount an effective oppositional politics. As Mount shows, centralized control has gathered pace since the 1980s, impacting negatively on the conduct of government itself, the Houses of Parliament, party political and local authority democracy, and resulting in ubiquitous quangocrats and generalized public disengagement. Not only has political party membership plummeted, the proportion turning out to vote even in general elections has fallen to around 60% (never mind the ‘election’ of police commissioners). Insofar as shifts in ‘public opinion’ in financial capitalism – as opposed to impotence, despair and anger – have been measured, they have indicated a more self-centred hardening of attitudes towards/against those in poverty or living with disabilities.

These are of course mere ingredients, but they also set parameters for a sociology of a changeable present.

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