My notes on Davies, W. (2017). Elites without hierarchies: Intermediaries,‘agency’and the super-rich. In Cities and the super-rich (pp. 19-38). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Who are the super-rich, and what do they want? This is the question which a thought provoking paper by Will Davies begins with and it’s one which has preoccupied me in recent years. Our statistical understand of the super-rich has increased in recent years but this increased knowledge leaves a range of sociological questions which need to be addressed:

What do they want to do with all that money, other than protect it, grow it and pass it on to their children? Do they want political power, and if so, of what kind and to what end? Or do they employ it culturally, to achieve their own modes of Bourdieusian distinction from the other 99.9%? (pg 2)

For a Millsian approach to elites, the question is which political, cultural or military  institutions are they gravitating towards in pursuit of power? For the Marxist approach, it’s a question of shared interests, their collective consciousness of them and self-organisation in pursuit of them in relation to other classes, as well as the tools of exploitation leveraged in this process. Davies agrees with Mike Savage that these aren’t necessarily the right questions, summarising his argument that we need to take money seriously as money (rather than assume it is waiting to be converted into power, with the assumption elites are intrinsically political) and must adequately describe capital before we can theorise it (rather than apply pre-existing categories to incomplete or outdated descriptions of our object).

What is this object? Is it a class? Is it a group? To what extent is it open or closed? To these challenges Davies adds another one: “the need to avoid wholesale methodological individualism, while recognising the deeply personal and individualised nature of the relationships and strategies that appear to structure the lives of the super-rich” (pg 3). Piketty’s contribution is to reorientate analysis way from the labour market and towards the family. But this is difficult because knowledge is partial and the super-rich is secretive. In order to addresses these challenges, Davies suggests we study intermediaries: agents working on behalf of the super-rich who represent their interests. By focusing on agency, in the sense of one party being contracted to represent the interests of another, it is possible to response to Savage’s challenges and move the study of the super rich forward.

He draws on Simmel’s account of money as a teleological vacuum, a pure means which extends beyond every possible use to which it can be put, connecting this to the ambitions of the super-rich. Piketty’s insight about the increasing importance of unearned wealth in the economy, as well as Dorling’s recognition of the professional classes now being subsumed into the 99%, yield a sense of the super-rich as breaking away. As he puts it on pg 6, “To break free of the bounds of culture, politics or technological limits becomes a teleology in itself, the same anti-teleology that Simmel identified as the metaphysical nature of money”. This is tied to a phenomenology of valuing money as “a state of arbitrariness, where money can be experienced as perfect liquidity, without friction” and “extreme form of negative liberty that lacks all normative restraint and relationship only to the future” (pg 16).

The problem of agency is key if we wish to avoid taking this analysis too far, with their insulation depending on the capacity of agents to represent the interests of the super-rich to the wider world. He summarises this as a theoretical approach on pg 8:

In this spirit, I want to propose a theoretical device which may help to shape a sociological approach to the super-rich – principle-agent problems. In particular, I suggest that we can think of the relationship of the super-rich to domains of power, culture and production as a series of principle-agent problems, in which they seek a form of representation which absolves them of the need to become involved in matters of public concern or controversy.

Principle-agent problems rest on the “paranoid methodological individualism” associated with game theory, with the primary challenge being to ensure the agent does not use their position to pursue their own private interests rather than those of the principle they are representing. Interestingly, this is the rationale for stock options for executives, theoretically encouraging them to act in pursuit of shareholder interest by making them a shareholder. But as Davies notes, the fact executive renumeration has risen more quickly than the stock market suggests it actually makes the agency problem worse.

This ties to a broader ambiguity about their position, as “symptoms of the deep-lying ambiguity surrounding the corporate form generally, which is neither a piece of private property nor a political association, but flips from one to the other as it suits” (pg 9). Training as professionals has been one solution but managers lack the monopoly over a specific domain of knowledge typical of professionals and their connection to the public interest is tentative and contestable. Techniques such as edit and credit rating were introduced to address this ambiguity but this introduce their own problem of agency, at least if the rating agency is paid by the company it rates.

This sociological reframing of the principle-agent problem “is a particular way of
representing the interface of politics and economics” (pg 11). If I understand him correctly, economics is insulated from politics by outsourcing normative evaluation to agents; capital can float free of controversy because the evaluation, justification and debate takes place at a distance through the mediation of ratings agencies, auditors, central bankers and policy makers. It is a form of “moral under-writing – declaring that activities are transparent and trustworthy, sometimes when they are not” (pg 15). The same analysis can be applied to the growth of family offices whose purposes is to “save super-rich families from having to engage in public situations (getting a child into a school, handling tax, booking a restaurant table, managing property) which may involve any form of antagonism” (pg 11). Whereas professionals once anchored capital in the public sphere, now they facilitate its escape.

He uses this to make the fascinating argument that the super-rich may benefit from further neoliberalisation, but it’s unclear how actively they are supporting it. Agency in this sense allows them to avoid becoming a class-for-itself, highlighting a micro-social disjuncture between the economic and the political which prevailing concepts of ‘neoliberalism’ are unable to capture. As a project it “required considerable solidarity and reflexive self-understanding on the part of capitalists and ideologues themselves, through think tanks, lobbying bodies, political parties, philanthropic networks” (pg 14). But if I understand correctly, its success has eroded the conditions which made the is possible while also making it less necessary than was once the case. In its place, we have increasingly complex webs of “non-hierarchical, non-exploitative dyadic contractual relations” (pg 15) which often overlap within super-rich networks in which intermediaries have become full members over the preceding decades. It follows from this that the problem is not wealth corrupting politics, as much as “how wealth is kept entirely separate from politics and public life, through strategic acts of delegation, where the delegate is also a delegator” (pg 15).

In Zygmunt Bauman’s Legislators and Interpreters, he identifies two different contexts in which the role of the ‘intellectual’ is performed and two different strategies which develop in response to them:

  • The legislator makes “authoritative statements” which “arbitrate in controversies of opinions and which selects those opinions which, having been selected, become correct and binding”.
  • The interpreter work at “translation statements, made within one communally based tradition, so that they can be understood within the system of knowledge based on another tradition”.

Both inevitably rest on a conception of the intellectual’s authority in performing this role, with the legislator having universalistic ambitions which the interpreter has foresaken. This authority is grounded in access to “superior (objective) knowledge to which intellectuals have a better access than the non-intellectual part of society”. This epistemic privilege is ensured via “procedural rules which assure the attainment of truth, the arrival at valid moral judgement, and the selection of proper artistic taste”. The social place of the intellectual professions is ensured by the universal validity of these procedural rule. It grants the intellectuals a crucial role in the “maintenance and perfection of  the social order”, entailing a right and duty to intervene in society in protection of it. 

I’m going to write a lot more about this book at a later stage, but I wanted to record the key question it provoked in me: are we entering a new context in which the role of the intellectual is performed and what are the strategies developing in response to it? What Will Davies identifies as a declining efficacy of facts is a crucial part of this picture:

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

This over-production and weaponisation of facts, driven by the long term change in the intellectual marketplace represented by the emergence of the think tank system, would surely seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the legislator role. However as Susan Halford and Mike Savage point out in an upcoming paper, the most prominent public intellectuals at present are those whose work is profoundly and radically empirical. Are these a hold out of the legislator role? A mutation of it? Or something else entirely?

What Davies raises points to a broader problem facing the contemporary intellectual: in a fact-saturated environment, how can the authority of the facts offered by intellectuals be underwritten? Without facts, how can academic speech differentiate itself from conjecture, speculation or polemic? This question can be asked at a certain level of abstraction about ‘the intellectual’ as such, but it can also be asked much more mundanely about each and every instance of academic speech on societial matters made on social media. Should it be understood as a professional pronouncement? If so, is it authoritative and what is the basis for this authority?

I wonder if the prominence of Will’s own analysis of Brexit could be an interesting case study in addressing these questions. Its authority wasn’t grounded on facts but insight. A timely and well-articulated  intervention at a point where received wisdom had been overturned and there was a pervasive sense of “what just happened?”. Can speed, insight and articulacy provide a grounding for the intellectual role under contemporary conditions? 

What he says about the transition from facts to data is interesting:

The promise of facts is to settle arguments between warring perspectives and simplify the issues at stake. For instance, politicians might disagree over the right economic policy, but if they can agree that “the economy has grown by 2 percent” and “unemployment is 5 percent,” then there is at least a shared stable reality that they can argue over

The promise of data, by contrast, is to sense shifts in public sentiment. By analyzing Twitter using algorithms, for example, it is possible to get virtually real-time updates on how a given politician is perceived. This is what’s known as “sentiment analysis.”

But I find this most plausible as a statement about shifting epistemological  fashions amongst powerful groups. The endemic methodological limitations of these approaches will generate confusion, uncertainty and conflict as they come to be relied upon ever more. It is this resulting mess that provides an opening to intellectuals to, as it were, turn private confusion into public issues.

Will’s comment in response to this is really worth reading. I’ll blog more about this tomorrow:

Thanks for your generous comments, Mark. As far as my own Brexit writing was concerned (the wide citation/sharing of which was a shock to me), I think that a kind of interpretive pragmatism has its own useful role during times of upheaval. All I did in blogging about Brexit was to point out some things that were quite clearly the case, and had been clearly the case for some time before the crisis struck. I think part of what people valued about that was it offered reassurance that interpretation and understanding were possible, if we just remain reasonably calm. Obviously that’s not as politically energising as reports of emergency or conflict, but it’s no less so than the presentation of ‘facts’. In that respect it’s an ‘interpreter’ role, but one which partly seeks to remind people of things they already instinctively know, sense or can imagine. At times when the world seems to be changing very rapidly (engulfing methodology and epistemology with it), there is value in narrating the conditions of change, which themselves are likely to be quite long-standing and recognisable to many.

Advertising is no less important in producing and regulating the new spirit of capitalism. It too conducts a subtle game of instrumentalizing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with capitalism as a motivation for consumption. This was witnessed as early as the 1920s, when American marketers targeted a growing collective sense of ennui and alienation from urban-capitalist existence, a feeling that more innocent, dependable relations were being lost. The images used to sell products during the 1920s and 30s were specifically drawn from a social ideal of traditional family and community life that industrial capitalism appeared to be destroying. [15]By the 1960s, advertising was tapping into frustrations with bourgeois and bureaucratic routines, speaking to the counter-culture even as it was first emerging. [16] Advertising, like management theory, is fuelled by a critique of the dominant normative-economic regime within which it sits, facilitating safe acts of micro-rebellion against the macro-social order. It acts as capital’s own trusted moral and artistic critic in order to inspire additional psychological engagement on the part of ordinary worker-consumers. Dissatisfaction is reduced to a psychological tendency to be fed back into processes of production and consumption. As a result, understanding such psychological qualities as impulse, libido and frustration—often in the micro-social context of the ‘focus group’—has been key to the development of advertising since the 1920s.

– Will Davies, The Political Economy of Unhappiness 

To respond to this particular crisis of measure, economics and psychology are being forcibly re-married. Behavioural and experimental economics have their earliest origins in game theory in the 1940s, which allowed economists and psychologists to compare normative rational choice-making—that is, according to neo-classical economics—with empirical choice-making, as observed under laboratory conditions. The gap between economists’ prescriptions for how people should behave and what they actually do became subject to testing. Discovering patterns in such ‘anomalies’ became the preoccupation of behavioural economists, following Kahneman and Tversky’s landmark 1979 article on ‘prospect theory’, which later won them a Nobel Prize.

Thanks to the new empirical techniques and data sets, economists could start to spot anomalies—cases where human happiness does not rise and fall as neo-classical economics would predict. At the centre of happiness economics sits the psychological concept of ‘adaptation’, the extent to which individuals do or do not become psychologically attuned to changes in their circumstances. Where they do adapt to changed circumstances—for example, of increased monetary income or national wealth—their happiness ceases to correspond to changed objective conditions, at least after the transition has passed. Where they do not adapt to changed circumstances—as with unemployment—their happiness remains directly proportionate to their objective conditions, regardless of how long they have lived with them.

Happiness economics took off during the 1990s, drawing on data provided by a number of national household surveys, which had included questions on ‘subjective wellbeing’ from 1984 onwards. With it has come the rise of homo psycho-economicus, a form of economic subjectivity in which choice-making is occasionally misguided, emotional or subject to social and moral influences. If homo economicus was unhappy, that was merely because he had insufficient money or consumer choice. But homo psycho-economicus suffers from psychological afflictions as well. He makes mistakes because he follows others too instinctively; he consumes things which damage his health, relationships and environment; he sometimes becomes unhappy—or even happy—out of all proportion to his material circumstances.

– Will Davies, The Political Economy of Unhappiness 

This is an interesting parallel to an issue I’ve been considering a lot recently. The contingently drawn historical boundaries between psychology and sociology have tended to leave the individual precarious placed within both disciplines. Oscillations between recurrently under-socialised and over-socialised views of the individual have as much to do with this underlying division of labour as an historical artefact of disciplinary based inquiry as they do with the whole sequence of antinomies which emerge from the forms of knowledge production that take place within such institutional constraints. I’d argue that the difficulty, as far as sociology occurs, lies in the extent to which the independent variability of  the individual vis-a-vis social reproduction or transformation doesn’t fit neatly into either domain of inquiry. This is something I’m increasingly seeing in terms of social and intellectual history (must finish PhD first!) rather than simply being a matter of social theory. So it was fascinating to see the argument Will Davies makes here. It conveys a sense of disciplinary boundary work with renegotiation taking place more through local substantive skirmishes  than detached reflections upon disciplinary boundaries and scope.