Passing the Baton – a guest post by Geoff Plant

‘Power concedes nothing without demand; it never did and it never will.’ Frederick Douglass, 1857

There has been much written about the controlling “elite” in western society; both America and the UK alike have similar structures of privilege.
Recent research by the Sutton Trust focused on where MPs were educated when compared to the general population who they are charged to represent; it is evident that there is still an imbalance in the power base within society.

If we consider the background of MPs, we find that more than 50% studied at a Russell Group University compared to 11% of the total student population. 24% of MPs studied at Oxford or Cambridge compared to just 1% of the general population. Conservative MPs come mainly from a background in finance and business, Labour MPs from charities, councils, education and trades unions. This Guardian article gives a much more detailed account of the breakdown of privilege and the elitist establishment structure operating in Britain.

Interesting facts, but where the power lies and how it was first identified can be traced back a few generations; Ivan Horrocks wrote this piece on where power lies for Progresive Pulse, it looks at the ‘true nature of power relations in a contemporary society’ and is a good companion for this article.

The American Sociologist Charles Wright Mills wrote his seminal book ‘The Power Elite’ in 1956. It was based on ‘Behemoth: The Structure and practice of National Socialism” by Franz Neuman written in 1942. It was an important work whose relevance to the modern world still exists. ‘The Power Elite’ was foremost in laying the ground work for all subsequent commentaries, books such as “The Establishment and how they get away with it” by Owen Jones 2014 are good examples of this.

Mills said of Behemoth that he gained ‘…..the tools to grasp and analyse the entire total structure as a warning of what could happen in a modern capitalist democracy.’

He identified the following markers of National Upper Class:
– own most of the country’s wealth
– run its banks and corporations
– in control of the universities and mass media
– staff the highest ranking positions within government and the courts.

Mills added that these people move fluidly between positions within three controlling realms of the most powerful institutions – military, economic and political of a dominant country, and their decisions have enormous consequences, not only for the US population but  ‘the underlying populations of the world.’  They tend to know each other, hold similar views on the economy and politics and  ‘are beyond the control of democracy.’  In the US they are also very likely to be enrolled in the  ‘Social Register’  established in 1880 (references 1, 2 & 3 below).

The Social Register is drawn up annually and is a mostly secret list of socially prestigious members of society from 13 selected American cities. Interviews are refused and members can be deselected if they become too prominent in the public eye, for what is considered the wrong kind of publicity. Membership is tightly controlled with numbers varying between 25,000 to 35,000 people. First established by Lois Keller and later acquired by Forbes as part of their portfolio, since 2014 it has been owned by Christopher Wolf. The Social Register was fondly known as WASP (white anglo-saxon Protestant) because of the background of those believed to be members. However, American Presidents are automatically entered so Obama was enrolled; as have been other African Americans. Trump has also been added since becoming President although his wealth and privilege were never previously considered to be enough. Mills showed power as being passed on like a baton from one generation to the next; although each generation reinvents itself the family power base remains intact and members of the family or dynasty benefit. For example, Hillary Clinton’s career shows a move from president’s wife to Senator to recent Presidential candidate.
Incidentally the Social Register is perhaps to be superceded by the ‘Fortune 500’ index.  ‘The Fortune 500 list is infinitely more valuable’ said Nan Kempner, the Park Avenue hostess and assembler of benefactors for the various charities in which she is active.  ‘The Social Register has never been on my mind’  (reference 3 below).

To return to the UK, 50% of the members of Conservative PM David Cameron’s cabinet were privately educated; 50% were educated at Oxbridge, and of those 28 went to Oxford. In Theresa May’s first cabinet she was praised for having the lowest number of privately educated Ministers in more than 70 years, although when you study which universities they attended 21 of them went to a Russell Group university and 12 went to either Oxford or Cambridge. To put journalistic reporting into this context it’s important to point out that according to the Sutton Trust 51% of journalists were privately educated and 54% attended Oxbridge.
Important as it is to have well educated people running and influencing our country, this might suggest the power base of the select few who gain entry to our best education facilities remains one of privilige. A study looking into schooling and the future chances and opportunities for the general student population might shine a light on how people from the general public are gaining entry to these institutions, as well as whether that picture is shifting since the fee structure was introduced. And further, whether the UK population is well served by those it elects to look after our public services, provide equal opportunity for all and to guard against discrimination or whether the current system continues to simply serve the status quo.

I think Mills made a huge and valuable contribution to our understanding of how capitalist systems work for the benefit and to the advantage of a few privileged people. Those who have the power to control and shape our evolving societal structures are as deeply embedded and privileged as they ever were, the system is out of balance for the majority of people and they have limited possibility to change that fact. What is of real value in society is always an interesting debate, perhaps it’s how that debate is framed which need further scrutiny and change, not the debate itself.



  1. Graham -

    The incestuous nature of power in the UK is highly undemocratic and may have contributed to many of the anti-egalitarian policies of successive governments, going back centuries.

    In my (jaundiced) view Public Schools are merely the means by which established power reproduces itself. But I am also suspicious of the stranglehold Oxbridge has on the production of power elites. These two institutions are applauded as beacons of academic excellence yet they seem to have little effect on the minds of those who go through their cloisters and on to high positions in politics, journalism, business, judiciary et al as so many seem to be caste from the same mould and are firmly members of their own class in thought, outlook and action.

    We seem to have so few radicals in the higher echelons these days.

    1. Ivan Horrocks -

      Graham, speaking as an academic, one reason why we may have ‘so few radicals in the higher echelons these days’ is that very few academics nowadays have the freedom and/or wherewithall to teach radical ideas and thinking. Most universities are now dominated by neoliberal management that consequently frowns on anything taught or done that doesn’t accord with that ‘vision’, and what can be taught is increasingly subservient to the ’employability’ agenda that this and the previous Tory (sorry, coalition) government endlessly pushes as the primary function of any form of higher education.

      Indeed, such is the extent of anti radicalism that it amazes me that anyone who attends university leaves with any form of radicalism or radical thought. That a good number still do is great credit to them. But overall, with a Tory government set to remain in power for a good few years yet, in policy terms, I don’t see the situation changing anytime soon. And to return to Geoff’s blog, if you were a member of a controlling elite why would you encourage anything that might suggest it should.

      1. Geoff -

        It’s a long time since I completed my higher education but I fear your comments can be evidenced without much trouble. In the 1970’s we were encouraged to think for ourselves and had to do long haul research, paper not computers. The curriculum was not prescribed to channel us in one direction of thinking, we were taught critical thinking and encouraged to become involved in the development of the curriculum itself so that the curriculum evolved. of course not all ideas were accepted but it was part of the learning for both staff and students. In my experience everyone’s views were valued because they were authentic.

      2. Andy Crow -

        I hear a lot of comments about the sclerotic state of education. It’s hard to see this as other than the commodification of ‘education’ as a process of selling qualifications to enter the mainstream of economic activity.

        The advent of student fees is another nail in the coffin of education. Education has now been financialised. Students get ‘educated’ for the benefit of the money lenders.

        A future generation will have to tear it down, if it doesn’t collapse of it’s own accord, and start again. I can’t see the current trend as being long-term sustainable.

        I think we’ll find that the idea of education as a public good rather than a marketable possession will have to be rediscovered.

  2. Andy Crow -

    “But I am also suspicious of the stranglehold Oxbridge has on the production of power elites. ”

    Quite so, but that is what Oxbridge is for.

    As the ‘Red Bricks’ were developed to train the drivers of the ‘White Heat of Technology’, and the technical colleges to provide the technicians, ‘education’, as we call it is designed to consolidate received wisdom.

    Oxbridge (and the public schools which are the feeder schools) does that for the ruling class. Perhaps slightly more so, or less, from time to time.

    Education, as we practise it, is inherently conservative (small ‘c’). It is the mavericks who change direction, and they hoe a hard row.

    1. Peter May -

      “Education, as we practise it, is inherently conservative (small ‘c’). It is the mavericks who change direction, and they hoe a hard row.”
      Very much agree. My education was often ineffective disagreement so I never understood how to pass exams. And that really is what education is now. Wish I’d known that as a teenager.
      The scandal is that now education is financialised….
      I feel an Andy Crow blog coming…

      1. Geoff -

        When I was at college passing exams was a hot topic, like you say Peter many students find the process too difficult.
        On the post grad diploma course I was referring to above, we engaged with the college and it’s structures mainly through a democratic discussion fed by the students, relayed to the lecturers for joint debate. Once agreement was reached they then brought about the necessary changes to introduce a continuous assessment process. Our year didn’t benefit but those who followed on did. Andy is right it’s a difficult task and possibly much more difficult now than it was in the late 70’s/ early 80’s.

      2. Geoff -

        I should add that I do realise it’s not always possible to have continuous assessment. But for professional qualifications rather than pure academic courses I think it’s generally the better option.

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