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Wednesday, February 24, 2016


It is raining here in North Carolina, and I must wait until the sun comes out before recording my next lecture, so this may be a good time to talk a bit about the term "establishment," which has figured lately in some vigorous back and forth between Clinton and Sanders. 

"Establishment," as it is currently used, derives from the practice of officially or governmentally assigning to one church a privileged position in a society.  This is not to be confused with theocracy such as exists, in an odd form, in Iran today .  Marx's father, for example, converted to Christianity even though he came from a long line or rabbis, in order to be able to practice his profession in Prussia, where it was the law that only Christians could argue before the Bench.  The Anglican Church is the Established Church of England, in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church or any of the dissenting sects [Methodism, Presbyterianism, etc.]  The privileged status of the Anglican Church is a matter of explicit law, not of custom or attitude or social standing.  [There was always resistance to this practice of an established church, and then resistance to that resistance, giving rise to what was said, when I was a boy, to be the longest word in the English language:  antidisestablishmentarianism.]

By a natural extension of usage, the term came to be used to describe or identify powerful, well-placed individuals who, as a group, exercised influence over law, politics, the economy, and the society vastly disproportionate to their numbers.  This power and influence was to some extent, but only to some extent, a consequence of their wealth. 

In a very large urban society like the United States, the people exercising this undue influence tend to be gathered in certain urban centers where one finds a confluence of wealth, political power, access to and control of mass media, and centers of decision-making of important organizations.  There is a dramatic contrast between the effect that ordinary individuals exercise on the public life of the nation and the effect exercised by members of these interlocking circles of well-placed individuals.  Even in organizations devoted to the interests and needs of ordinary men and women, those who lead the organizations have more immediate daily contact with other influential figures than they do with their own employees or clients.  These influential individuals, taken all together, are The Establishment, even though there is no law assigning them primacy of place or privileged access to centers of power.

Senators and members of the House are part of The Establishment.  Corporate executives are part of The Establishment.  Prominent academics, such as Paul Krugman, are part of the Establishment.  And so, quite often, are the leaders of national organizations that advocate for the needs and interests of ordinary people.  So when Bernie Sanders described the leadership of Planned Parenthood as part of The Establishment, he was stating a simple fact, even though Planned Parenthood was under vicious attack by one of the two major political parties.  Hillary Clinton's dramatic outrage at Sanders' characterization of the leadership of Planned Parenthood was either simple hypocrisy or an expression of a remarkable level of unselfawareness.  [Note that the current President of Planned Parenthood, an organization to which I have donated a great deal of money, is Cecile Richards, the daughter of the former Governor of Texas.]

Bernie is what we on the extreme left used to call a class traitor.  He is a member of The Establishment who has turned against it. Hillary Clinton is so thoroughly enmeshed in The Establishment that I doubt she is capable of realizing the fact.  It is in that fact, and not the naive notion of a quid pro quo, that lies the real significance of her lucrative speechifying on Wall Street.


Chris said...

I started a Mannheim reading group on campus, and we spent 2 hours at the bar discussing the ways in which Mannheim's analysis helps to highlight the medias conspicuous, albeit unconscious, effort to promote Hillary and denigrate Bernie. Much of the conversation revolved around this very blog, and your youtube lectures. Thanks!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Wow! No better place to discuss such matters. What was everyone drinking?

Chris said...

I always drink a stout, porter, or Irish Whiskey. So 'Left Handed Nitro Milk Stout' was the happy hour beer.

The other two people were probably drinking a pale ale (bleh!). And one was drinking just coffee.

Unknown said...

No one was drinking hemlock in anticipation of a Trump presidency?

Chris said...

We upgraded to large amounts of opium, Hemlock is so 400s BC.

David Auerbach said...

Ahh, that's a very nice stout. About time we got around to the important stuff.
(There's no landscape that couldn't be improved by an inn in the foreground.)

Karl Young said...

Astute piece, though I have to register my annoyance with Hilary for making me find a new epithet re. 'Da Man.

Charles Pigden said...

Just an additional observation.

One can talk about THE establishment (as in the one and only) but that is sometimes a bit misleading. Throughout the social world that are lot of little establishments, people & groups who exercise power and influence in virtue of their station, but only over restricted groups of people. Thus it might be perfectly sensible to talk about the establishment within a relatively small radical party or the 'theoretical establishment' in literary studies, which for a while, at least, was dominated by the high priests of high theory. This means that is possible for a member of one establishment to be a rebel against another. Another way of making the point is to say that 'X is member of the establishment' looks like a one-place predicate when it is in fact a two-place predicate with the second place contextually specified. To evaluate the claim that Chloe is a member of the establishment, you need to know which sector of the social domain we are talking about. Chloe may be a member of the establishment with respect to the London Socialist Front (I'm making this up as I am not trying to get at anyone in particular) but not a member with respect to the UK as a whole.

This is a point that has moral significance for the following reason. If you are a member of a mini-establishment you may rightly believe yourself to be relatively powerless and THEREFORE suppose that you cannot be guilty of the abuse of power., even when you are quite obviously abusing your powers as a member of that mini-establishment. This is all the more likely is you fancy yourself in the role of a rebel, so that the very thought that you are a member of SOME kind of establishment is psychological anathema to you. This is a partial explanation (though only, of course, a partial explanation) of l lot of the bad behaviour that one witnesses on the Left. (And I speak as one of who devoted much of his leisure for fourteen years of his life to left-wing activism.)

That said, I agree with most of Professor Wolff's remarks with the proviso that the establishment he is talking about is the overall establishment in the US. Given this proviso it is absurd to suppose that Clinton is anything other than an establishment candidate. She represents Reaganism with a less ugly face. This is not to say, of course, that she isn’t a hell of a lot better than the truly hideous faces of Reaganism to be met with in the Republican party.