Maurice Glasman has raised the question of why the Labour Party is currently so dominated by middle class Oxbridge elites. This piece outlines some worrying evidence of the narrowing of Britain's political classes. I argued in Renewal a few year's back [pdf], that New Labour appeared to have become dominated by not only 'professional politicians' (as Weber feared) but by a new cadre of experts.
Amongst the plethora of explanations for these trends, we should keep sight of one 'constructivist' element: the way in which institutions have been represented and justified by social scientists and policy-makers over the past forty years. I suspect that, due to the impact of rational choice ideas (theories of public choice, social capital, human capital, Law and Economics), policy-makers have come to misunderstand what makes an institution an institution. Philosophically, this involves repeatedly mistaking explicit measurement for tacit purpose.
This has been particularly disastrous for the Left, which has come to the entirely mistaken view that institutions are regressive and conservative, while 'progress' consists in gutting them through constant statistical audit or replacing them with more fluid forms of networks. A particular functionalist view of politics and civil society has sought to test the validity of institutions, by gauging their measured outcome, and ignoring their normative character. In the process, this turns institutions into a game to be played and won by those with the resources to play it best, rather than a ritual with at least the capacity (not always used) to ignore race, gender and class. This is the public and civic equivalent of what has gone on in company boardrooms over the same period, in which one particular measure of output (i.e. return on equity) has come to serve as the purpose of management, with disastrous long-term consequences for business and the economy, especially in the financial sector.
An institution is first and foremost a set of rules, which exists independently of any identifiable rule-giver. As Luc Boltanski argues in On Critique, institutions are "bodiless beings", the sources of rules that can be appealed to when we argue about the right or wrong way to act. Of course institutions have human (and non-human) representatives: uniforms signal the fact that a human being is actually the delegate of a some larger institution. But institutions cannot be reduced to their visible representatives or symbols, without missing what gives them their binding character. Were you to view spitting in a train carriage only in terms of its health risks and costs, then you would be missing an essential element of what makes it wrong.
Yet from Ronald Coase's 1960 paper, The Problem of Social Cost, onwards, that is exactly how particular rationalist strains of social and political science have viewed such actions. They deliberately ignore the normative element of rules, in favour of how they affect incentives and outcomes. Offensive, unfair or even violent activity could potentially be justified from this perspective, if its aggregate outcome were optimal, a measure which includes the pleasure it may give the 'offender'. Institutions - law, firms, voluntary groups, trade unions, professions - come to be judged in terms of inputs and outputs. Anything that goes on in between is dismissed, either as crypto-socialism or metaphysical nonsense.
The idea of 'social capital' that swept the Anglo-American policy world during the late 1990s was a symptom of this, analysing associations in terms of their measurable effects, with no regard for their intrinsic purpose. It was discovered [pdf] that Britain's social capital had fallen since the early 1980s, primarily due to the decline of working class institutions, and decline of trade union membership in particular. But what sort of problem is this? Is it a fundamental rebalancing of power in the economy and civil society? Or simply a decline of one resource, that can be compensated for with the addition of a new resource? It is the latter that predominates in a rational choice worldview.
The purpose of trade unions, by this account, are those effects which can be causally connected to individual trade union membership using econometrics. These may include effects on health, happiness, risk of crime, fear of crime, job prospects and family life. They are by no means negligible, but they necessarily miss the institutional character of the trade union itself, which is that it holds substantive value to its members, predates them and will outlive them. Institutions have an anti-economic quality, which offends 'modernisers' and rational choice theorists. When Blair attacked the 'forces of conservatism', he was preaching the utilitarian gospel of Jeremy Bentham.
Similar misunderstandings now surround university education. A degree becomes reduced to its economic effects, as if it is the function of a university to increase a student's salary by a certain amount. In the process, the intrinsic value and ritual of education gets overlooked, and potentially undermined. Once this normative character gets removed, it follows that education will become a game to be played, and typically won by the wealthy. Only where education's value is viewed as intrinsic do working class children and students get judged with a spirit of fairness, rather than just a rationalist audit to be cynically deconstructed and interpreted by teachers and parents.
In a sense this is about time horizons. The phoney institutionalism that followed from Coase evaluated institutions in terms of their short- or medium-term effects. It disregarded where they had come from or how long they'd been around (see Said Business School's anti-historical slogan, 'educating leaders for 800 years'), and treated their long-term 'effects' as mired in uncertainty. (In this, there are parallels to the way oil was perceived over the twentieth century, as Timothy Mitchell's analysis details.) But it had no way of understanding the value of endurance, other than as a psychological preference on the part of their present members.
Historically speaking, it is scarcely any surprise that working class representation in Westminster is so low, after the decline of trade unions and political parties. And that decline is little surprise, seeing as how trade unions and political parties have been stripped of political autonomy. To recognise as much is not necessarily to oppose the centralising tendencies of Thatcher and Blair or to romanticise social democracy; but real political power, built upon enduring "bodiless bodies", cannot simply be replaced by alternative forms of 'social capital', without serious consequences.
Meritocracy is a paradoxical thing, best pursued obliquely. Efforts to test 'talent' end up being rigged, while stuffy institutional rituals often have the side effect of acting as economic and political ladders. The reason for this is that tests and audits themselves become unwittingly institutionalised - 'rituals of verification' - and unseen, unwritten forms of power and cultural privilege are mobilised in order to ensure that the winners carry on winning. Tests, in contrast to institutions, have no reflexivity or self-knowledge; they are designed to discover the 'truth' about people, but unintentionally develop into rituals in their own right, whereby the middle classes slavishly practice techniques for gaining and holding on to power. Having no concept of what lies outside of the test, beyond the numbers, these anti-institutional institutions collapse into forms of cronyism. By contrast, self-desribed institutions, such as trade unions and universities, have at least the capacity to speak honestly about the immeasurable values that they are upholding and the political agendas they are pursuing, if only because they (unlike the positivists) see values and politics as part of social reality.
None of this is to say that British institutions haven't upheld norms of sexism, racism, snobbery and homophobia over the centuries, nor is it to entirely dismiss the Thatcherite and Blairite desire to shake up the seemingly sleepy British class system. It is simply that unless the ritualistic aspect of social life is acknowledged (which must partly rest in shared and not entirely articulated rules), then any effort to reform traditional elitism will produce something even worse. Unsuccessful modernisation involves tests and measurements, which reduce social reality to its 'effects', and are then played by cynical elites for private gain. Successful modernisation must therefore involve new rituals which mediate between the spoken and the unspoken, the measurable and the immeasurable, judging people on conformity to rules and the spirit of rules, not only on their output.