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November 20, 2010


Dick Pountain

Wow, that's a *lot* to think about. I assume that you're using the term "inequalities" here in a non-moralised sense - any situation where people possess different quantities of some good/substance and may wish to exchange?

Will Davies

I mean that 'goods' (intellectual, monetary, social capital etc) are inevitably distributed unevenly. In the intellectual sphere, nobody would wish to have recognition and reputation to be distributed equally. The important thing, in academia, is that you cannot (most of the time) buy recognition and reputation.

So, yes, I'm referring to inequality in an empirical sociological sense, as something that characterises specific human qualities and quantities. There is no single 'inequality' (moral) but multiple 'inequalities'.

So even in the court of law, one side wins and the other loses. What we need to avoid is allowing this inequality to be determined by some other form (such as social capital or money). The rolling back of legal aid shows how little the Tories care for Walzerian justice.

Ian Christie

I agree with so much of this I nearly stood up and cheered.

But the question arises: just why have many diverse British elites, who would bridle at the suggestion that they have caved into neoliberal values or only care about money, in practice sold the pass? What was more robust in Germany, say, in the wake of the US-led neoliberal counter-revolution from 1980 ?
On the few occasions I come into extended contact with members of UK cultural elites, what is striking is the extent of doublethink: the self-image as liberal-left and 'edgy', and the reality of the enormous salary secured through surrender to the logic of the neoliberal market.

One interesting corner of intellectual life is the remnant of old-Tory true-conservative resistance to the march of the neoliberals in the Conservative Party and wider culture. I expected little when I picked up Peregrine Worsthorne's slim volume 'Democracy Needs Aristocracy', but in effect he makes the same case as you have for cultural checks and balances, and does it very well from an old Burkean perspective.

Francis Barton

Thanks for this Will, it all rings true, and makes me want to go and read Walzer.

I found your point about the way in which US universities resisted Chicago School values particularly interesting. Ian's comment on this is much more constructive than I can offer, I'm afraid. Thanks Will and Ian.

Also, it seems to me we (UK) are pretty close to your 'Gary Becker fantasy' already.

Final point, may be of interest... not a criticism at all... but I for some reason read 'papers' in your first sentence as a noun instead of a verb and couldn't work out why the sentence ended so abruptly!

Will Davies

Ian: the obvious answer would be that, helped on by forces of consumerism, the post-68 attacks on 'traditional' forms of authority belatedly caught up with Britain's elites.

In Germany, the 68ers were pitched against their parents' generation who they held culpable for serious crimes against humanity (or ignoring those crimes) and a genuine crisis of authority transpired. Britain's elites had long been too moderate, perceived to have been on the right side of many of the 20th century's battles, never explicitly oppressing their own people. So the pre-68 generation survived in power, right up until they were effectively forced out by the aftermath of Thatcherism (i.e. Blairism). The contradiction of conservative elites unleashing Thatcherite reforms have been well explored, by John Gray's False Dawn and elsewhere.

So maybe the argument would be that nations such as Germany had time (between 1968 and circa 1990) to reconstruct their elites, prior to the unleashing of global market forces. Meanwhile, the idea of ageing duffers standing up to Blairism was never very coherent, and we ended up only with lovable anachronistic rogues such as Tony Benn, making quite reasonable but politically implausible criticisms of the status quo.

I'm not sure quite how historically accurate the above is, but it might be pointing at something.

Francis: glad this chimes with your impressions as well.

Ian Christie

Thanks Will.

I also wonder whether there are other aspects to the overpowering of many of the elites by neoliberalism in USA and UK. One factor could be the brute fact of winner-take-all political institutions, especially in the UK. In the USA there remain enough checks and balances to keep neoliberalism from surging through every institutional channel. In the UK there simply were very few barriers to a determined ideological minority who'd managed to win the general election in 1979 and 1983 with absolute majorities and broke the only available countervailing force by the mid-80s. There just was not enough autonomy elsewhere in the constitutional set-up to allow for and demand compromise, as is found in much of the USA and certainly in continental EU coalition culture.

Another aspect is the loss of energy and self-confidence of elites who'd come out on top in World War 2 and not undergone trauma (military defeat, occupation, need for total reconstruction) and had presided over a long post-1945 period of influence if not always dominance in political office. The failures of social democracy/welfare-state consensus were therefore fully owned and experienced by these elites, in politics and the professions. There was not anything like enough confidence or energy with which to fight back against the neoliberal insurgency in the late 70s and 80s.

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