Corporate elite dynamics and the concept of power

1. Mechanisms of elite formation

Scholars grappling with the conceptual dynamics of the notion of power need to investigate the contemporary dynamics of elite production and its relationship with the meaning of elitism and pluralism in organizations (and more broadly in Western societies, with all their institutional specificities). Given that holders of key positions in power relations are today generated by different mechanisms than two or three (or more) decades ago, we might infer that this evolution sheds a different light on the basic concept of power. We think two major dimensions of the under- lying idea of power are directly affected by the idea that we developed above of a relatively homogeneous pluralist corporate elite, one that is confusedly intermin- gling global and parochial dimensions in the ‘profession’ of leader.

The first dimension is legitimacy. Suchman (1995) suggests legitimacy is a generalized phenomenon involving the role of a social audience; according to Suchman, legitimacy is a ‘generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions’ (1995: 574). Legitimacy is socially constructed, as the long-lasting Weberian tradition puts it, because it mirrors the congruence between the behaviors of an entity and the beliefs of those it targets. With respect to this simple definition of legitimacy, our argument is that the evo- lution of the production patterns of corporate elites tends to generate institutional forms of legitimization. In other words, organizations are deeply affected by their interpenetration with external factors (such as elite networks, the role of external educational systems and credentials, and the role of social criteria such as gender). The reciprocal effects of external and internal mechanisms are particularly appar- ent in elite production, and it is clearly difficult to disentangle what pertains to organizational and what to external institutional dynamics. Elite production and, therefore, power structures are produced by the collective simultaneous structura- tion of networks and of a substantive set of shared professional obligations (poten- tially constituting a profession). Thus, power structures appear to be the result of the institutionalization of the reciprocal influences of individual experiences and life histories (paths to circles of power), and of established cultural frameworks shaping an approximately acceptable definition of what it means to be and not be part of elite groups. Singular intimacies are merging together with cultural standards and assumptions in the fabric of power structures.

The concept of power useful for explanation of corporate elite dynamics can make use of more refined managerial and resource-dependency explanations (a resource to manipulate in the course of life), as long as these are refined through contact with theories of an institutional and ‘three-dimensional’ type, to connect with Lukes’ (1974) thoughts (something that their progenitors seem unable to do). A taken-for-granted belief system prevails but it suffers anomie as uncertain dis- courses come from people and issues of uncertain origins. The best case example is that of gender. The gender critique is now recognized by elite men and defensive strategies are in place to deal with it on the part of the corporate and other elites who strive now for legitimacy in this new arena of contest. It is for this reason that what has come to be known as the Summers Affair at Harvard was so shocking for the liberal intelligentsia. There was a sense that the battles about equity and gender had been won discursively, even if the practices that might reflect those discourses were slower developing than might fondly be hoped for. The rumination, in public, by Harvard Dean Larry Summers that there might be genetic variations between men and women in quantitative capacity thus unleashed a storm of controversy because it was seen and widely interpreted as an attempt to put the feminist genie back in the masculinist bottle. If Harvard deans can justify a lack of equity on genetic grounds then the other corporate elites could breathe more easily about their own failure to have addressed this issue adequately, if the issue was due to recede in importance. Of course, the fact that Summers (a neoclassical economist) knows little about genetics or sociology hardly equips him to contribute much of scientific worth on the matter, but that is not the issue. Just as it appeared that a fun- damental legitimacy in discourse about the nature of gender had been established, his contribution short-circuited it. The obligatory passage points were uncoupling.7 Contemporary dynamics of legitimization rest upon a curious mixture of prag- matism (the instrumental part of political performance: see Chapter 11) and of morality (do they do the right things?), as Suchman (1995: 578–80) proposes. The Summers case thus created new opportunities for legitimization as Harvard hosed things down through the classic bureaucratic strategies of setting up subcommit-tees enquiring into the participation rates of females in select disciplines.

A further dimension of corporate elite dynamics relates to the current hybridiza- tion of different forms of subordination in the employment relationship. By and large, Simmel (1950) is valuable in the attempt to describe the circular nature of the dynamics involving elite production and forms of power for at least two major reasons. First, there is his idea of domination as a form of interaction, in which the desire of domination is more ‘the mere consciousness of this possibility’ than ‘exploitation of the other’ (1950: 181). The peculiar pluralism of the emerging cor- porate elite relates to the complex mixture between three kinds of subordination that Simmel perspicaciously delineated as follows.

2. Subordination under an individual

Subordination under an individual implies two different natures of power rela- tionships. First, superordination means only ‘that the will of the group has found a unitary expression or body’ (Simmel 1950: 190). In that case, elites are in charge of the close unit, but it is the very identity of the elite that serves as the basis of the unity. Political asymmetry between the ruler and the ruled is the pillar of the effi- ciency and strength of the subsequent political form. Second, in case of opposition to the leader, the principle of superordination is not modified. ‘Discord, in fact, perhaps even more stringently than harmony, forces the group to “pull itself together”. In general, common enmity is one of the most powerful means for moti- vating a number of individuals or groups to cling together’ (1950: 193). Simmel suggests merely that the ruler is always an adversary. Leading an entity means using the dual relation of people to the principle of subordination. Men cannot exist without leadership, without being led, an idea we find also in Tocqueville, because they ‘seek the higher power which relieves them from responsibility’ (1950: 193) and, simultaneously, they need to oppose the leading power in order to feel that they do more than merely exist but are free. Simmel reminds us that obedience and opposition are two sides of one consistent human attitude. In that perspective, power is a means of creating a common arena for the fight between rulers and the ruled, those who are for and those who are against the ruler, a struggle at the basis of the vitality of organizations and societies. Connecting elite production patterns with the concept of power implies analyzing the political consequences of endur- ing restrictions in the access to power circles, while the number of capable individ- uals who could claim to be potentially part of the elite body is growing. One of the most likely consequences is a naturally growing segmentation of elites, and the stratification of elites inside organizations, well illustrated by the pervasiveness of professionalization tendencies.

3. Subordination under a plurality

Essentially, subordination under a plurality creates a difference through its pre- sumed objectivity, such that the collective behavior of the subjects is rid of ‘certain feelings, leanings and impulses’ (Simmel 1950: 225). The power of the ruler resides principally in the fact that this type of subordination enables ‘every single individ- ual who participates in a given decision [to] hide himself behind the fact, precisely, that it was a decision by the whole group’ (1950: 226). We have already discussed this matter in relation to total institutions in Chapter 6. With respect to elites, Simmel thinks, this perspective suggests a solution for the misuse of power. Power holders are more collective than personally accountable individuals. As a result, increasing the power of certain elites might help to prevent misuses and abuses of power (1950: 227).8 To go further, Simmel argues that subordination under a het- erogeneous plurality has different implications to subordination under homoge- neous elite rule. Being subjected to opposed superiors, as the child standing between conflicting parents, or employees being ‘servants of two masters’ (1950: 230), is the fate of modern individuals who are more and more dependent on a manifold of external ‘power holders’, while keeping a certain amount of freedom by not being entirely subject to any of them. In that respect, power derives from the interwoven mechanisms of differentiation operated, on one side, by the rulers among their subordinates and, on the other side, by the ruled among their different superiors. Power is at the crossroads of these two segmenting and stratifying prac- tices. In a way, the ruled contribute to establishing and confirming a certain caste at the top from the moment a majority of the polity chooses certain power circles to gain relational positions of power; in exchange, the elite contributes by giving certain segments of the polity the capacity to make choices of that type, what Tocqueville called ‘intermediate powers’. Hence the circular9 nature of elitism and power contribute, paradoxically, to the reinforcement of elite structures. Power rela- tions are the general consequence of the stability of certain elite groups, compared to the short-lived duration of other groups.

4. Subordination under a principle

Such subordination occurs especially under an objective law or set of rules, and means being accountable to the most ‘uninfluenceable powers’ (Simmel 1950: 250). Compared with personal forms of power relationships, the substance of the rule and of the emanating orders determines the legitimacy of power holders. Put dif- ferently, this type of subordination refers to the power of objectivity, i.e. the power of obligation stemming from the objective idealized validity of uninterrupted sources of rules generated by elite experts. The question of the corporate elite arises in a different manner. The confrontation of elite and non-elite is somewhat filtered by a flow of intermediate powers which become norm giving. Objectivity is defined by Simmel, that close colleague of Weber (1978), as ‘the unquestionably valid law which is enthroned in an ideal realm above society and the individual’ (1950: 256). But more importantly, subordination under objectivity supposes that the elite itself is subordinated to overwhelming principle; elites can give orders to non-elites and shape specific power regimes only in the name of the unit constituted by the objec- tive principle, where ‘the very commander subordinates himself to the law which he has made’ (1950: 262).

The permanent mingling of objective and ultra-personal forms of power is one of the major ingredients of the social resilience of corporate elites. What we mean is that the remoteness of elite circles from the grassroots levels of organizations is a condition enabling the objectification of elite circles, who are represented as faraway uncontrollable worlds, as somewhat like the Greek gods of antiquity, enjoy- ing a wealth, celebrity and life that few can ape and nearly all might envy. Their doings are fabled and the stuff of contemporary legend in MBA classrooms all over the world. At the same time, the individual qualities of leaders prove to be a sort of compensation of subjective arbitrariness. The power of leaders derives both from exemplar values and behaviors supposedly controllable and assessable by the polity, and from remote systems and networks hardly controllable by the latter. A shrewd mix of distant uncertainty and of permanently connected behaviors and decisions ensues. At its most potent it assumes characteristics of celebrity circuits of power, so that a star system ensues. The business of Hollywood and the Hollywood of business become ever more intermingled.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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