Academy Online IV: The Elite – old and new

Saturday 13 November

The Academy is the boi charity’s annual, residential event where people from all walks of life gather together to cultivate themselves with lectures and seminars, based around good books, and in good company. While the regular, collegiate atmosphere of The Academy has not been possible over the past year or so, we’ve taken the spirit and intellectual rigour of the event online. Details of previous Academy Online events can be found here. This November, The Academy Online will return to understand who are the new elite, in another special online event via Zoom. 


This is a free event via Zoom, with a suggested donation of £25 to the boi charity. Register here for tickets and please visit our donations page to find out how to support us.

Politics has always been inseparable from the question: who has power? In previous eras, the answer to that question was to examine the issue of social class. Today, it is harder to offer such easy answers. Many speak of multiple ‘elites’, depending on the context. The business elite vie for power with an educational elite, a cultural elite and a media elite. Today, traditional elites everywhere seem in retreat, with mega-businesses and old family empires anxious to broadcast their support for a new set of ‘progressive’ values around race, sex and gender. Does this mean that the old elites, who drew power from ownership of businesses and control of capital, no longer play such a central role in the management of society? Is there a new elite, or a competing elite, who draw power less from material factors and more from their success with cultural issues such as symbols, ideas and causes? Or is this simply an age-old cycle of elites seeking to deny their elite status and mystify their social position? 

Many, nonetheless, insist that behind this shift lie traditional explanations of class and power. A vigorous debate carries on about the role of the so-called ‘professional managerial class’, who may not own capital in the traditional sense but control it: they are the managers of big corporations who pledge allegiance to Black Lives Matter, the executives of tech companies who agitate for stricter rules around sexual conduct in the workplace, and the civil servants who set the direction of government policy in education. Yet questions abound about whether such a group even exists, and whether it has a definable ‘class interest’ – many dismiss it as yet another conspiracy theory. Similarly, the rhetoric around Brexit and Trumpism have thrown to the fore terms such as ‘globalist’ and ‘metropolitan elite’, suggesting a renewed understanding of how the global economic system creates a transnational elite with more ties to international finance than the nation-state. Does the glut of corporations, international bodies and national politicians all eagerly broadcasting their green credentials and signing up for stringent targets on climate change suggest that the power of traditional elites has been broken, or that fashionable new ecological causes now serve as a unifying ideology for the Davos set?

Political discourse revolves perhaps as never before around questions of ‘power relations’, yet defining who really has power over society seems harder than ever. How do we understand the elite? What gives them power and makes them a genuine elite? Has this elite changed its character, and if so how, and from when? How far does the elite’s anxious embrace of new values signal a change in the composition of the elite – or is it just the same old powerful forces finding a new, more modern justification of its power?


12.30 – 12:45

12:45 – 14.15
Lecture one: The insecurity of the ruling class and the rise of the cultural elite
Lecturer: Professor Frank Furedi, sociologist and social commentator; author, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: culture war over socialisation

This lecture will examine the way that culture has become a predominant mode of elite self-understanding and self-definition, particularly in the wake of growing threats to the traditional foundation of elite power. Throughout the twentieth century, the elite experienced a profound attack on its moral authority. In the wake of two world wars and revolutionary political events – which both shattered the moral foundations of the existing order – elites had to search for new bases for their authority. At the same time, questions were asked with increasing frequency about the economic foundations of the existing order, as defenders of capitalism found it harder and harder to justify a system widely thought to lead to disaster. This lecture will examine how culture became a key battleground in how elites responded to challenges to their authority.

14.45 – 16.15 Lecture options

Option A: The Stonewall Phenomenon: takeover of the institutions?
Lecturer: Claire Fox, director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords

From arguments in museums about the status of colonial-era collections to the proliferation of ever more expansive diversity policies in public service organisation, many commentators note that major institutions in society seem at the forefront of the new culture wars. Some insist that this reflects the results of a supposed ‘march through the institutions’ where progressives have carried the political battle into major organisations, becoming leaders and managers and changing them from within. While most commentators dismiss this as a conspiracy theory, it is clear that major institutions are responding to a new generation of employees and activists who want to ensure that they reflect and champion various kinds of diversity. What can controversies such as Stonewall’s involvement in institutions such as the BBC tell us about the changing face of major institutions? Is all talk of a ‘march through the institutions’ a thinly-veiled conspiracy theory? Or is understanding the changed agenda of such institutions essential for understanding how power operates today?

Option B: Globalism and the challenge to the international elite
Lecturer: Bruno Waterfield, Brussels correspondent, The Times

For much of the 20th Century, questioning the position of international businesses and global organisations – being anti-globalisation – was considered a left-wing or radical position. With the election of Donald Trump, and the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, such concerns again became a recognisable part of political debate, except now, under the guise of ‘against globalism’, this was associated with the political right. These, and other, populists drew attention to the increasingly global character of business – of supply chains, immigration, production, etc. – which seemed to go hand in hand with a series of supranational bodies who set policies and exercised power outside the control of national democratic boundaries. If populist movements revealed to this global elite that the outsourcing of production and removal of political control from national majorities generated real anger, the coronavirus pandemic suggested too that the global system was extremely fragile, unable to respond to crises that required national power and production. Yet, despite these shocks, the excitement surrounding COP26 suggests that supranational decision-making is as in vogue as ever. This lecture will examine the evolution of the ‘globalist’ elite and ask what its prospects are in a post-populist and post-pandemic world, and ask what agenda might serve to unify globalists in the years to come.

Option C: Brideshead Revisited: World wars and the end of the old elite
Lecturer: Helen Searls, chief operating officer, Feature Story News (FSN); founder, Washington Hyenas’ Book Club

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited has captured the imagination of generations of readers since its publication. Released in the weeks after VE day in 1945, just as British voters swept a new Labour Government into power, Brideshead was a surprise bestseller in both the UK and America. The story follows the life of Captain Charles Ryder and his fateful obsession with the aristocratic Flyte family as they slowly fall from grace and fortune during the interwar years. Brideshead Revisited is a nostalgic recollection of a period of lost innocence and a vanishing past. How does Waugh make sense of the decline of the British establishment? Is the destruction of the old order, as one character has it, ‘all on account of the war’? What drove Waugh’s attacks on modernism and attracted him to catholicism? What can the decline of the old elite tell us about the elite of today?

16:30 – 18.00
Lecture two: What’s wrong with the Professional Managerial Class?
Lecturer: Catherine Liu, professor of film and media studies, University of California Irvine; author, Virtue Hoarders: the case against the professional managerial class

The term ‘professional managerial class’ was coined in 1977 by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, but the phenomenon it describes has been the subject of furious debate for some time. Thinkers on both left and right have drawn attention to the rise (and rise) of a seemingly new group in society who neither labour in traditional occupations nor own significant amounts of capital. In other words, to use a slightly older description, they are neither ‘bourgeois’ or ‘proletarian’.

This group of salaried professionals – in the civil service, education, management, public relations, public health etc. – not only increasingly manage the key institutions of society, but also are said to shape them at the level of ideals and policy. They have, according to many critics, a clear economic interest as a class: to manage and control workers on the one hand and secure good pay and working conditions from business owners and governments on the other. But equally importantly, they have a social and ideological interest: they are at the forefront of ‘progressive’ campaigns around gender, sexual, racial, and other identity causes. For the most forthright critics, they do not just seek to control what people do at work (like traditional managers), but what people think outside of work too. They wield not just economic power but the power of determining ‘virtue’.

Who are this group? Who does it include? Can it really be said to be a ‘class’, or are they simply the useful idiots of more familiar elites?

Suggested reading list

The books below will help prepare you to engage with the lectures, and may be referred to in the sessions, but there is no requirement to have read them. Use this list to whet your appetite for the day, or return to it afterwards to explore some of the themes raised.

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Books and Chapters
Hannah Arendt, Truth and Politics, in Between Past and Future
Frank Furedi, 100 Years of Identity Crisis: Culture war over socialisation
Catherine Liu, Virtue Hoarders: the case against the professional managerial class
Peter Mair, Ruling the Void: The hollowing of Western democracy
Christophe Guilluy, Twilight of the Elites: prosperity, the periphery, and the future of France
Phil Mullan, Beyond Confrontation: Globalists, Nationalists and Their Discontents
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology
Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elite and the Betrayal of the Democracy
Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class
C Wright Mills, The Power Elite

Frank Furedi, The tyranny of Woke Capitalism
Christopher Bickerton, The rise of the Technopopulists
Doug Henwood, Take me to your leader: the rot of the American ruling class
Barbara and John Ehrenreich, The Professional Managerial Class
Amber A’Lee Frost, The characterless opportunism of the Professional Managerial Class
Thomas Piketty, et. al. Brahmin Left versus Merchant Right: changing political cleavages in 21 Western democracies, 1948-2020 (Note: this is a 32 page summary of the above book by the same author)

Nolan Investigates: Stonewall – BBC Sounds