There’s this a notion in political philosophy known as ‘the circulation of elites’. It comes, originally, from an economist/sociologist, Wilfredo Pareto. Simply put, this says that there are groups of elites in different walks of life, each of which represent heir own set of values and interests – politics, media, business, military, the professions and so on. From time to time power shifts among these groups as each’s fortunes wax and wane – in particular, as a balance between their adventurism and caution shifts. They jostle for power and influence – maybe something like medieval knights and barons. There are big stakes at play: money, power. One way of seeing the rise of Trump is as part of a global shift from the political elite to the business (not banking) elite. He and many of his appointments represent the values of private business – the ‘corporate state’. They are displacing the political elite – and in pretty real terms – “you are fired, Sally Yates!”.
Win other places we have seen evidence of a shift away from political elites to other elites. The close relationship between Tony Blair’s government and the financial elite – challenging the role of public sectors and even Parliament itself – and the enormous influence of the banking sector on the Bush and Obama administrations are obvious examples:
Real World Economics Blog
Another, more blatant, example is the government of Mario Monti in Italy (2011-2013) who assembled a cabinet of unelected ‘technocrats’ to pursue an austerity agenda with a minimum of public accountability – a wholesale displacement of the political elite by the scientific economic elite.
Of course, these are not usually complete take-overs. The massive power of the military in the USA was not matched in the UK even during the Second World War – Churchill kept tight political control. But even Dwight Eisenhower (WW2 army general and President of the United States, 1953-1961) was aware of tectonic shifts among elites when he warned “beware the military-industrial complex”. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists”.
Finally, there is the ever-increasing concern about media (and now ‘new media’) empires – championed by such as Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos – muscling in on public political space, buying influence, forcing political decisions – in just the corrosive way warned against by Eisenhower. Politics has become something like one of those theatrical wrestling rings in which multiple fighters jump in randomly to assert their brutish primacy.
In the UK the corporate elite incursion into public and political space has been more stealthy – exemplified as well as anything by Richard Branson’s appetite for buying chunks of the State from rail to health services and more. A more profound move has been the selling off to the corporate sector of chunks of cities and pavements:
There are occasional milestones where we can assess the dynamics of such shifts, and a recent one came with the attempts by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to persuade Apple to help it hack the telephone of a captured and alleged terrorist. Apple resisted, claiming custody of the citizen’s privacy; the FBI – already mistrusted – was seen to be using the case as a precedent for increased surveillance. There was a wave of public sympathy for Apple.
Now, the FBI is a flawed instrument of our democracy and is insufficiently under public accountability. But it is, nonetheless, a public body and technically subject to democratic controls – Apple…not so much. But were we really willing to entrust the wellbeing of our political citizenship to an aggressive corporate entity? Isn’t that surprising? But here lies a marker for the way manipulable public attitudes ease the way for shifts of elite influence. People were, clearly, impressed by Trump’s ‘we’ll-get-it-done-meet-the-bottom-line-no-caution-don’t-let-ethics-or-diplomacy-or-convention-get-in-the-way’ kind of approach such as is claimed by the business elite to be their skill-set and their special preserve. Hilary Clinton’s pleading to negotiate, be nuanced and sophisticated, to recognise complexity merely made those business values the more attractive.
The Trump/Clinton Presidential campaign was happening on a rhetorical level. It appeared to be about two potential leaders each with their distinctive style. But look beyond for the bigger picture. This was the apocalyptic (perhaps) clash between two elites – well, three, if you include the banks who may be squeezed between them, and four if you include the press who were ‘collateral damage’. Private business elites won. Eisenhower didn’t see that coming.