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The long read: Times of upheaval are always times of radical change. Some believe the pandemic is a once-in-a-generation chance to remake society and build a better future. Others fear it may only make existing injustices worse

Everything feels new, unbelievable, overwhelming. At the same time, it feels as if weve walked into an old recurring dream. In a way, we have. Weve seen it before, on TV and in blockbusters. We knew roughly what it would be like, and somehow this makes the encounter not less strange, but more so.

Every day brings news of developments that, as recently as February, would have felt impossible the work of years, not mere days. We refresh the news not because of a civic sense that following the news is important, but because so much may have happened since the last refresh. These developments are coming so fast that its hard to remember just how radical they are.

Cast your mind back a few weeks and imagine someone telling you the following: within a month, schools will be closed. Almost all public gatherings will be cancelled. Hundreds of millions of people around the world will be out of work. Governments will be throwing together some of the largest economic stimulus packages in history. In certain places, landlords will not be collecting rent, or banks collecting mortgage payments, and the homeless will be allowed to stay in hotels free of charge. Experiments will be underway in the direct government provision of basic income. Large swathes of the world will be collaborating with various degrees of coercion and nudging on a shared project of keeping at least two metres between each other whenever possible. Would you have believed what you were hearing?

Its not just the size and speed of what is happening thats dizzying. Its the fact that we have grown accustomed to hearing that democracies are incapable of making big moves like this quickly, or at all. But here we are. Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better. The global flu epidemic of 1918 helped create national health services in many European countries. The twinned crises of the Great Depression and the second world war set the stage for the modern welfare state.

But crises can also send societies down darker paths. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, government surveillance of citizens exploded, while George W Bush launched new wars that stretched into indefinite occupations. (As I write this, the US militarys current attempt at reducing its troop presence in Afghanistan, 19 years after the invasion, is being slowed by coronavirus-related complications.) Another recent crisis, the 2008 financial crash, was resolved in a way that meant banks and financial institutions were restored to pre-crash normality, at great public cost, while government spending on public services across the world was slashed.

Because crises shape history, there are hundreds of thinkers who have devoted their lives to studying how they unfold. This work what we might call the field of crisis studies charts how, whenever crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear. In such moments, whatever is broken in society gets revealed for just how broken it is, often in the form of haunting little images or stories. In recent weeks, the news has furnished us with countless examples. Airlines are flying large numbers of empty or near-empty flights for the sole purpose of protecting their slots on prime sky routes. There have been reports of French police fining homeless people for being outside during the lockdown. Prisoners in New York state are getting paid less than a dollar hour to bottle hand sanitiser that they themselves are not allowed to use (because it contains alcohol), in a prison where they are not given free soap, but must buy it in an on-site shop.

But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and its never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world were entering become clear.

The pessimistic view is that a crisis makes bad things worse. People who study disasters and especially pandemics know all too well their tendency to inflame xenophobia and racial scapegoating. When the Black Death came to Europe in the 14th century, cities and towns shut themselves to outsiders and assaulted, banished and killed undesirable community members, most often Jews. In 1858, a mob in New York City broke into a quarantine hospital for immigrants on Staten Island, demanded that everyone leave and then burned the hospital down, fearful that it was putting people outside at risk of yellow fever. Wikipedia now has a page collating examples from more than 35 countries of xenophobia and racism related to the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic: they range from taunts to outright assault.

In a totally rational world, you might assume that an international pandemic would lead to greater internationalism, says the historian Mike Davis, a renowned American chronicler of the disasters incubated by globalisation. For Davis, who wrote a book about the threat of avian flu in 2005, pandemics are a perfect example of the kind of crises to which global capitalism (with its constant movement of people and goods) is particularly vulnerable, but that the capitalist mindset (with its inability to think in terms beyond profit) cannot address. In a rational world, we would be ramping up production of basic essential supplies test kits, masks, respirators not only for our own use, but for poorer countries, too. Because its all one battle. But its not necessarily a rational world. So there could be a lot of demonisation and calls for isolation. Which will mean more deaths and more suffering worldwide.

In the US, President Trump has tried hard to brand the new coronavirus as inherently Chinese, and to use the pandemic as a pretext for tightening borders and accepting fewer asylum seekers. Republican officials, thinktanks and media outlets have claimed or implied that Covid-19 is a man-made Chinese bioweapon. Some Chinese officials, in turn, have pushed the conspiracy theory that the outbreak came to China by way of American soldiers. In Europe, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbn, recently announced: We are fighting a two-front war: one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement.

Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

When youre fighting a war, you want to know as much about the enemy as possible. But its easy, in the rush of crisis, to put in place surveillance tools without thinking about the long-term harm they might do. The scholar Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, reminded me that, prior to 9/11, the US government had been in the process of developing serious regulations designed to give web users real choice about how their personal information was and wasnt used. In the course of a few days, Zuboff says, the concern shifted from How do we regulate these companies that are violating privacy norms and rights to How do we nurture and protect these companies so they can collect data for us?

For governments looking to monitor their citizens even more closely, and companies looking to get rich by doing the same, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect crisis than a global pandemic. In China today, drones search for people without facemasks; when they are found, the drones built-in speakers broadcast scoldings from police. Germany, Austria, Italy and Belgium are all using data anonymised, for now from major telecommunications companies to track peoples movement. In Israel, the national security agency is now allowed to access infected individuals phone records. South Korea sends texts to the public identifying potentially infected individuals and sharing information about where theyve been.

Not all surveillance is inherently malign, and new tech tools very well might end up playing a role in fighting the virus, but Zuboff worries that these emergency measures will become permanent, so enmeshed in daily life that we forget their original purpose. Lockdowns have made many of us, sitting at home glued to our computers and phones, more dependent than ever on big tech companies. Many of these same companies are actively pitching themselves to government as a vital part of the solution. It is worth asking what they stand to gain. People have a hard time remembering privacy rights when theyre trying to deal with something like a pandemic, says Vasuki Shastry, a Chatham House fellow who studies the interplay of technology and democracy. Once a system gets scaled up, it can be very difficult to scale it back down. And then maybe it takes on other uses.

The prime ministers of both Israel and Hungary have effectively been given the power to rule by decree, without interference from courts or legislature. The UKs recently rolled-out coronavirus bill gives police and immigration officers the authority in place for the next two years to arrest and detain people suspected of carrying the virus, so that they can be tested. The US Department of Justice has, since the outbreak began, filed a request with Congress for a new rule that would allow judges to suspend courtroom proceedings in emergencies, creating the possibility of people being jailed without ever being able to formally object. Those of us who follow the police know how this goes, said Kevin Blowe of Netpol, a UK group focused on protest rights. These powers get put in place, and it sounds reasonable enough at the time and then very quickly theyre applied for other purposes that have nothing to do with democracy and nothing to do with public safety.

In a 2008 report on the legal aspects of pandemic response, prompted by the increase in pandemic flu outbreaks, a team of historians and medical ethicists assembled by the American Civil Liberties Union bemoaned a common tendency resurgent, in their view, since 9/11 for government to address public health problems using mindsets more appropriate to tracking down criminals. This suspicious mindset, they argued, ended up most affecting racial minorities and the poor. Tactics like these can make fighting the disease harder, by driving a hard wedge of distrust between government and citizens. As the report put it: People, rather than the disease, become the enemy.

Theres another school of thought that looks at crisis and sees glimmers of possibility. For thinkers in this camp, the example of the 2008 financial crash looms large. But where, from their view, 2008 led to defeat with the broad public giving up a great deal while a small few profited Covid-19 might open the door to political progress.

I think were just so different to how we were before we saw the aftermath of the 2008 crash, said the American writer Rebecca Solnit, one of todays most eloquent investigators of crises and their implications. Ideas that used to be seen as leftwing seem more reasonable to more people. Theres room for change that there wasnt beforehand. Its an opening.

The argument, in its simplest form, is this: Covid-19 has revealed the political status quo to be broken. Long before anyone had heard of the new coronavirus, people died of diseases we knew how to prevent and treat. People lived precarious lives in societies awash with wealth. Experts told us about catastrophic threats on the horizon, including pandemics, and we did next to nothing to prepare for them. At the same time, the drastic measures governments have taken in recent weeks testify to just how much power the state does have the extent of what government can accomplish (and quickly!) when it realises it must act boldly or risk being seen as fundamentally illegitimate. As Pankaj Mishra recently wrote: It has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens.

For years, in mainstream politics the conventional line on everything from healthcare to basic living expenses such as housing has been that even if the world has its problems, expansive government intervention is not a feasible solution. Instead, we have been told that what works best are marketplace solutions, which give large roles to corporations motivated not by outdated notions like the public good but by a desire to make a profit. But then the virus started spreading, governments spent trillions in days even going so far as to write cheques directly to citizens and suddenly the question of what was feasible felt different.

From this perspective, the task today is not to fight the virus in order to return to business as usual, because business as usual was already a disaster. The goal, instead, is to fight the virus and in doing so transform business as usual into something more humane and secure.

In her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit used case studies of disasters including the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the 2001 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina to argue that emergencies arent just moments when bad things get worse, or when people inevitably become more scared, suspicious and self-centred. Instead she foregrounded the ways in which disasters opened up human reserves of improvisation, solidarity and resolve, pockets of purpose and joy, even in the midst of loss and pain. The book was not a call to celebrate disaster but to pay attention to the possibilities it might contain, and how it might shake us loose from old ways. In Solnits telling, official disaster responses had a tendency to muck things up by treating people as part of the problem to be managed, not an invaluable part of the solution.

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Sometimes this mismanagement is a result of mere incompetence other times it is more sinister. In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, the Canadian writer Naomi Klein laid out a dark account of crisis politics. In Kleins view, there is always Disaster 1 the earthquake, the storm, the military conflict, the economic slump and Disaster 2 the bad things that people with power subsequently get up to, such as ramming through extreme economic reforms or gobbling up post-crisis opportunities for self-enrichment, while the rest of us are too dazed to notice. (In fact, Klein argued, these people sometimes engineer Disaster 1 to get the process started.)

Unlike Solnits book, The Shock Doctrine doesnt have much to say about the resilience of everyday people when everything goes horribly wrong. (Indeed, Solnit directly criticised Klein for this omission.) But the two books fit together like puzzle pieces. Both address crisis not in terms of what inevitably or naturally happens as they unfold, but in terms of choices that people make along the way. And both were well-timed to contribute to the political conversations taking shape in the rubble of the financial crash.

In 2008, days after Barack Obamas election, his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, famously said: You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Todays leftists, for whom Obama mostly represents disappointment, are prone to agree. They feel that, in the wake of recent crises, they lost, and now is the time to make amends. If, facing a pandemic, we can change this much in a few weeks, then how much might we change in a year?

For anyone making this argument, the contrast between 2008 and the present crisis is striking. Compared to the opaque financial crisis, with its credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations, the coronavirus is relatively easy to understand. It is a dozen crises tangled into one, and theyre all unfolding immediately, in ways that cannot be missed. Politicians are getting infected. Wealthy celebrities are getting infected. Your friends and relatives are getting infected. We may not quite all be in it together as always, the poor are hit worse but there is more truth to the idea than there ever was in the wake of 2008.

In this, the optimists believe, there is hope that we might begin to see the world differently. Maybe we can view our problems as shared, and society as more than just a mass of individuals competing against each other for wealth and standing. Maybe, in short, we can understand that the logic of the market should not dominate as many spheres of human existence as we currently allow it to.

More people are in a position to connect the dots, Klein said. It has to do with peoples experiences; for people of a certain age, their only experience of capitalism has been one of crisis. And they want things to be different.

That screaming buzzsaw noise in the background of this conversation is the sound of the climate crisis. If 2008 is the disaster that Klein and like-minded thinkers want to avoid repeating, climate change is the much bigger disaster they see coming that they know is already here and that they want to fight off. Indeed, in the years since publishing The Shock Doctrine, Klein has made climate change her central focus, framing it as the paradigmatic emergency that must be wrenched from the clutches of fossil-fuel profiteers and their enablers in government.

Although Covid-19 is likely the biggest global crisis since the second world war, it is still dwarfed in the long term by climate change. Yet the two problems have suggestive similarities. Both will require unusual levels of global cooperation. Both demand changes in behaviour today in the name of reducing suffering tomorrow. Both problems were long predicted with great certainty by scientists, and have been neglected by governments unable to see beyond the next fiscal quarters growth statistics. Accordingly, both will require governments to take drastic action and banish the logic of the marketplace from certain realms of human activity, while simultaneously embracing public investment. In other words, to think of this new level of state intervention as a temporary requirement is to ensure that we continue barrelling down the path to climate disaster.

Weve been trying for years to get people out of normal mode and into emergency mode, said Margaret Klein Salamon, a former psychologist who now heads the advocacy group The Climate Mobilization. What is possible politically is fundamentally different when lots of people get into emergency mode when they fundamentally accept that theres danger, and that if we want to be safe we need to do everything we can. And its been interesting to see that theory validated by the response to the coronavirus. Now the challenge is to keep emergency mode activated about climate, where the dangers are orders of magnitude greater. We cant think were going to go back to normal, because things werent normal.

The analogy between the two crises only goes so far. There is no getting around the fact that the impacts of climate change are more gradual than those of Covid-19. Most people do not feel they or their loved ones could die from the climate crisis this month, and so emergency mode is harder to activate and sustain. As Salamon pointed out to me, if we truly accepted we were in a climate emergency, then every day the news would lead with updates about which countries were reducing their emissions the fastest, and people would be clamouring to make sure their leaders were adopting the policies that worked.

Illustration: Nathalie Lees/The Guardian

But it is not unimaginable that the experience of Covid-19 could help us understand climate change differently. As the virus has reduced industrial activity and road traffic, air pollution has plummeted. In early March, the Stanford University scientist Marshall Burke used pollution data from four Chinese cities to measure changes in the level of PM2.5, a particularly harmful pollutant that attacks the heart and lungs. He estimated that, in China alone, emission reductions since the start of the pandemic had in effect saved the lives of at least 1,400 children under five and 51,700 adults over 70. Meanwhile, people around the world have been sharing their own anecdotal findings online stories of sweet-smelling breezes, expanded bike lanes and birdsong returning to neighbourhoods in a way that almost resembles a digitally distributed Rebecca Solnit project: people catching glimpses, in the midst of a disaster, of a future they know they want and need.

Alongside these hopeful signs, a far less heartening story is unfolding, which fits Kleins shock doctrine framework. Disaster 1: Covid-19. Disaster 2: the dismantling of even the meagre existing rules designed to protect the environment. On 26 March, following lobbying from the energy industry, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that, in recognition of the pandemics effects on the workforce, it will not punish violations of pollution regulations so long as companies can link those violations to the pandemic. Chinas environmental ministry has started waiving inspections that assess the environmental impact of industrial facilities. And advocacy groups funded by the plastics industry have launched a public relations blitz on behalf of single-use plastic bags, spreading the unproven claim that the virus is less likely to stick plastic than to the cloth fabric of reusable bags. Looking back at the crisis of 2008, we can see that emissions dropped then, too only to rebound drastically in 2010 and 2011.

Salamon believes that one lesson of the coronavirus crisis is the power of shared emotion, which has helped make possible radical action to slow the pandemic. Im not talking about people giving each other medical expertise. Im talking about people calling each other up and saying: How are you doing? Are you scared? Im scared. I want you to be OK, I want us to be OK. And thats what we want for climate, too. We need to learn to be scared together, to agree on what were terrified about. Only then, she said, would governments be forced to act. Its good that were entering emergency mode about the pandemic, she said. But unless we also do it for climate She didnt finish the sentence.

What kind of actions would it take for the optimists vision to materialise? The historian Philip Mirowski, author of Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, warns against complacency. The left thought it was so obvious to everyone that the crisis revealed the utter bankruptcy of a certain way of looking at the economy, he told me. And it wasnt obvious to everyone, and the left lost. How do we prevent the world from going back to a version of the way it was before Covid-19, with the virus vanquished but all of the old ongoing disasters still unfolding?

The political outcome of the epidemic, said Mike Davis, will, like all political outcomes, be decided by struggle, by battles over interpretation, by pointing out what causes problems and what solves them. And we need to get that analysis out in the world any way we can. One major obstacle, of course, is social distancing, which certainly hinders many time-tested methods of waging such struggles, such as political canvassing and street protest. The biggest risk for all of us, said Klein, is going to be frittering away this time sitting at home on our social media feeds, living the extremely limited forms of politics that get enabled there.

Davis hoped protesters would find their way into the streets sooner rather than later, and speculated that a street action with all the sign-holding participants spaced 10 or 15 feet apart would make a dramatic media image. He lives in Ppaaloa, a small community in Hawaii, and as our conversation wrapped up, he mentioned that he was planning to spend part of the afternoon doing his part by standing by himself on a street corner, holding a sign. He hadnt decided what to write on it yet, but was thinking about SUPPORT THE NURSES UNION or DEMAND PAID SICK LEAVE.

Solnit told me she was taking heart from all the new ways people were finding to connect and help each other around the world, ranging from the neighbourhood delivery networks that had sprung up to bring groceries to people who couldnt get out, to more symbolic interventions, such as kids playing music on an older neighbours porch. The Italian political scientist Alessandro Delfanti said he was finding hope from a post-outbreak wave of strikes roiling Amazon warehouses in the US and Europe, and also the steps that workers across different sectors of the Italian economy were taking to help each other secure equipment they needed to stay safe.

What happens next might depend on the optimists ability to transport such moments of solidarity into the broader political sphere, arguing that it makes no sense to address Covid-19 without at least trying to fix everything else, too, creating a world where our shared resources do more for more people. We dont even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological, Solnit wrote in A Paradise Built in Hell.

The world feels awfully strange right now, but not because or not just because it is changing so fast and any one of us could fall ill at any time, or could already be carrying the virus and not know it. It feels strange because the past few weeks have exposed the fact that the biggest things can always change, at any minute. This simple truth, both destabilising and liberating, is easy to forget. Were not watching a movie: were writing one, together, until the end.

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The long read: Aeron Davis has spent 20 years researching Britains elite, interviewing more than 350 leaders in business and politics. His conclusion? Their failings are not only damaging society, but undermining the foundations of the establishment itself

In his 2014 book The Establishment, Owen Jones explained how and why Britains unequal, class-ridden system would always prevail. It was written at a time when the elite seemed to be thriving, despite having recently helped to trash the global economy. After a few lean years for Davos man, bank debt had effectively been nationalised. No one in power had gone to jail, while most of them seemed to be getting richer and richer. As Jones explained, the establishment was as dominant as ever.

Developments since then have sorely tested that view. After the vote for Brexit, David Cameron and George Osborne were suddenly cast adrift, while the Bank of England and captains of industry found themselves wondering who to support. The Conservative party their political party, the only one they had ever supported was following a course of action they thought would wreck the economy. Sterling and the FTSE 100 index plummeted. Shareholders began revolting and bankers relocating.

A year later, the establishment seemed to be recovering once again. And then came the snap June 2017 election. The Conservatives, with all their resources and an initial 20-point poll lead, lost their majority. Theresa May was outperformed by a badly dressed, pacifist republican with no money, no media support and a shadow cabinet that could fit in a phone box. The Tory party was left negotiating a Brexit deal with a dead duck leader, a hung parliament, and no idea of what outcomes the establishment wanted.

All of which suggests that it might be time to question whether the British establishment still functions as it once did. Yes, some members of the elite have become very rich. They are still united in their fear and loathing of leftwing ideas and ordinary people. They are still highly skilled when it comes to pursuing their self-interest. Their decisions still have powerful consequences that are widely felt. But they seem to be less able to exert control or predict what those consequences will be.

As an academic studying how power operates, I have spent the past 20 years researching elite figures in five areas associated with the modern establishment: the media, the City, large corporations, the Whitehall civil service and the major political parties at Westminster. After interviewing and observing more than 350 people working in or close to the top during that time, my sense of this evolving long-term crisis has become clearer. I have come to believe that the establishment is no longer coherent or collective or competent. Its failings are not only causing larger schisms, inequalities and precariousness in Britain; they also threaten the very foundations of establishment rule itself.

The idea of the establishment was popularised in the 1950s and early 60s. According to its key chroniclers, such as the historian Hugh Thomas and the journalist Anthony Sampson, most members of this elite network went to one of seven Clarendon boarding schools such as Eton, Rugby or Harrow. From there, they moved on to Sandhurst military academy or Oxbridge. They then glided effortlessly into a variety of powerful positions in private or public organisations. Political control operated through the great state institutions of the Church of England, Westminster, Whitehall and the armed forces. The economy was a stitch-up, coordinated through a public-private partnership of the Treasury, the Bank of England, the City and business leaders. The BBC and national press ensured that the common people accepted this state of affairs.

These elites reproduced and maintained their collective identity via exclusive social circuits. These included membership of expensive London clubs such as the Garrick and the Athenaeum. If they hadnt already inherited a title, they would get one soon enough, ending their days in that gilded care home (or finishing school) known as the House of Lords.

Over the decades, the shape of the establishment changed. In accounts written in the 1990s by Jeremy Paxman, Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard, the power and influence of the Church, monarchy, aristocracy and army had clearly waned. Anthony Sampson wrote several surveys of the British establishment over five decades; in 2004, his final one recorded the stark decline of many Victorian-era institutions, and the power grabs made by new, abrasive business types and unassimilated foreigners. But despite these changes, other things remained the same the prevalence of the Clarendon-Oxbridge conveyor belt, that same sense of shared elite interests, and so on.

What these authors did not notice was that beneath the surface, the social foundations and institutions of power were slowly weakening. Many of the traditional elements that once held the establishment together are degenerating, with little to replace them. This isnt just a matter of a new establishment replacing an old one. It may be the end of the establishment as we have known it. (This, of course, will not mean the end of elites.)

This started to become clear to me when researching the civil service and business world in the later years of David Camerons coalition government. Interviews with former career mandarins revealed just how much Whitehall had changed. The service they had joined in the 1960s and 70s was the preserve of the establishment amateur. The vast majority had come from Oxbridge, having previously studied history, classics or something else that failed to equip them for managing an archaic state bureaucracy. Generalists ruled and specialists occupied the lower rungs.

City workers in London, 1954. Photograph: Alex Dellow/Getty Images

As Sir Alan Budd, a former economic advisor to the Treasury from 1970 onwards, explained, the department was not run by professional economists. Instead, those in charge deferred to the Brown Book, a government tome explaining how to use certain technical levers to respond to shifts in employment, inflation, etc. It was sort of a Dummies Guide to managing the British economy. If you wanted to, say, reduce unemployment by 100,000, there were various ways of doing this, Budd told me. It was very like any textbook at university. The chapter on macroeconomics this explained how you did things.

Andrew Turnbull, a former head of the civil service, recalled how the economic shocks of the 1970s and the political ones of the 80s set in motion real change: even the British establishment began to realise it could no longer afford to be managed by privileged amateurs. Meritocracy and expertise represented by grammar school education, the professions and PhDs began dictating the new recruitment policy. Gradually the classics and humanities people got replaced, said Turnbull. When I arrived we used to have people who were experts on Byron and musicians rather refined people. Then, rather hard-nosed economists gradually took over, and the dominant culture became football and golf, rather than music.

Sir John Gieve, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England, reflected on the culls that took place between the 1976 financial crisis and the early years of Margaret Thatchers first term as prime minister: When I arrived at the Treasury, everyone was called Douglas, I seem to remember and most of them left. Around this time, the two top layers of the Treasury were removed, and a relatively junior member, who was willing to challenge the orthodoxy and wasnt a typical smoothy, was elevated to the top of the department.

But it wasnt just the civil service a similar shift seems to have occurred across establishment strongholds from the 1980s onwards. Nothing better exemplified the declining power of the old establishment than Granada Medias 1995 takeover of the exclusive Trusthouse Forte hotel chain. The leader of the hotel group, Sir Rocco Forte, was the son of Lord Forte, donated regularly to the Conservative party, and entertained the elite at his country estate. He had been out shooting grouse on the moors when the takeover bid was announced.

Gerry Robinson, who drove home the hostile bid, came from a poor Irish family and had become a dynamic new force in the corporate world. When he had earlier managed to capture Granada, John Cleese had called him an upstart caterer. That had only improved his standing in the City. Soon, a narrative formed about the takeover: flabby, inefficient old money was being run out of town by a new energetic breed succeeding on merit.

Chris Hopson, who headed up the Granada communications team, explained the symbolism of it all: The shooting thing was a perfect analogy for our claims about how Forte was running the business it summed up a company that was being run as a series of trophy hotels, that was an archaic family business, that wasted time on pomp and ceremony. It was too good to resist.

The extent to which the traditional establishment had been replaced by people from different backgrounds was all the more pronounced when talking to 30 of the UKs top business leaders nearly two decades later. Only a third of those I interviewed 20 CEOS of FTSE 100 companies, and 10 CEOs from the top 100 private companies came from a wealthy, upper-class background or had attended a public school. None had gone to one of the elite Clarendon schools. Only three had both a private school education and an Oxbridge degree. Several came from poor immigrant families.

Hardly any of them liked to draw attention to elements of privilege in their education or upbringing, and some proudly brandished their outsider status. One such was Andrew Owens, the co-founder and CEO of Greenergy, a fuel distribution business. Most people have never heard of it, but it has been listed as one of the UKs top two largest private companies by turnover for several years. Owenss father was a school caretaker and his mother a school cook. He told me his own school was one of the worst in Britain: They set the bar low and they fell over it drunk on a Friday night. All they really cared about was beating Cardiff High in rugby.

Asked about the reasons for his success, Owens says he is fiercely tribal when it comes to his own people and employees, but to no one and nothing else. He puts his achievements down to being quicker, more ruthless and more hard-headed than the big FTSE companies and the soft management that runs them. Who knows what John Cleese would have called him?

One word that came up several times was disruptive. I dont give a damn about losing, Owens told me. I do not associate anything I do with my personal self-image. For that reason, he said, he finds it very simple to take decisions that other people cant take so, weve been a disruptive technology in an area where people think you cant be disruptive.

Owens is ready to condemn slow, privileged types everywhere in big business, in the financial sector, in politics and in government. But his most scathing comments are reserved for the civil service: Whitehall is full of absolute idiots. Its become a self-fulfilling black hole of hope, he said. This idea that you can get civil servants who are paid a fraction of the money that you could earn in industry, somehow making better judgments than industry. Its nonsense.

These interviews, together withlonger-term survey data, reveal a couple of important trends. First, there has been a shift in elite power from the public sector to the private sector since the 1950s. This is a key theme in writings about the establishment since the Thatcher era. For Jeremy Paxman, the new radical Toryism was nearly as brutal towards the old establishment as it was to industrialised labour. In so doing, it had created another elite, a new monied caste.

Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard noted the emergence of a new super class of highly paid professionals in law, accountancy and other sectors. This produced a new closely interlocked cadre, separating itself from the rest. Adonis and Pollard along with Robert Peston, writing in the wake of the 2007-8 financial crisis have no doubt where real wealth and power have gravitated: the City of London and its networks, stretching out across the global financial system. These days, between a third and a half of FTSE 100 companies are led by non-British CEOs. The majority of shares are no longer owned by UK individuals or their pension funds, but are traded by large, unattached international investors.

Second, the automatic links between exclusive education, tradition, status, power and money, which once typified the establishment, have been broken. A far smaller percentage of those in power have taken the Clarendon-Oxbridge conveyor belt to the top. Exclusive London clubs lie empty or worse still for elites now allow women, foreigners and lower-class members to join. The members of the aristocracy, once liberally sprinkled across the boards of public institutions and corporations alike, have vanished from sight.

Many of those in the corporate and financial worlds do not have an elite education or a privileged past, but have amassed a great deal of money and influence. Those working at the top of state institutions are more likely to be of good establishment stock, and to receive honours but also have less income and questionable influence.

This has left the various parts of the current establishment more disparate and more antagonistic towards each other. Dame Margaret Beckett witnessed this growing fragmentation while serving in Labours shadow cabinet the 1990s, and again in Tony Blairs cabinet after 1997: I remember John Smith [the Labour leader from 1992-94] gave a talk in the City at one point, and it was almost like the brides side and grooms side the people from the financial world, and the people from the industrial world, and they almost werent talking to each other. Civil servants, on the whole, hated you taking advice from people outside. One of my colleagues almost refused to see anybody from industry in case he was thought to have compromised himself in any way.

With the educational and cultural links eroded, so too the shared values associated with the old establishment are disappearing. Earlier accounts observed that public service was a noble aspiration of the elite. As George Orwell noted in 1941, however useless the upper classes were, they believed in service to the nation: One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class are morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.

Such a sense of duty and self-sacrifice is decidedly absent in the new elite. Instead, the values of those at the top are all about personal enrichment, individualism, enlightened self-interest and a reverence for the wealth creators. But such norms are antithetical to any sense of shared, collective interests. Selfish individualism and survival of the fittest are not a good basis for holding any group together including the elite.

If the current manifestation of the establishment is no longer tied together by either shared class or collective interests, how does it maintain coherence? One answer is to be located in the ideas of neoliberalism: promoting the small state, the free-market system, low taxes and low regulation, globalisation and so on. Disparate modern elites now share an ideology that both justifies and maintains their wealth and positions of power.

But despite almost four decades of dominance over the political and economic system, neoliberalism no longer seems to provide such a stable basis for maintaining elite power and profit. All the clues are to be found in the City of London, now at the heart of British establishment power. It is in the capitals financial sector that neoliberalism and self-interest have been dominant driving principles for far longer than anywhere else in UK. It is here that the establishment almost wiped itself out, and where it is most likely to finish the job in future.

Anyone who spends time researching the City can see the potential for things to collapse at short notice. It is a strange mix of old oak-lined establishment and shiny new steel-and-glass anarchy. No one there seems to trust anything or anyone else. Authors such as Philip Augar have documented how the death of gentlemanly capitalism followed the Big Bang of City deregulation in 1986. More recently, Joris Luyendijk, in his 2015 book about the world of banking, has shown how destructive an extended period of venal self-interest has proved to be for those who work there.

The City of London skyline. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

I have witnessed something similar while investigating of the City over the course of two decades. The most unnerving example was in 2004, while speaking to more than 30 top fund managers and financiers about their operations and the dot-com crash of 2000. What was so disturbing was realising that not much had changed since 2000, and that many could still see the potential for greater crashes ahead.

One of these was David Bailey, then a company chairman who had been in the City for 35 years. In that time, he had been a successful stockbroker, helped to set up Londons options market, advised on the technologies introduced during the Big Bang, and gone on to be a non-executive director in several big City firms. He was welcoming, friendly and blokey. He knew everyone and was happy to namedrop and gossip. He didnt stop talking for two hours.

Prior to the Big Bang, Bailey said, the City was run by networks of old boys clubs, where trust and my word is my bond made things work. Competition was limited, slow and parochial. Collective interests were clear. The big boys set aside their differences and would chip in when a crisis threatened one of their local oligopolies. During the economic crises of the 1970s, the big institutions had come together, facilitated by the Bank of England, to save the larger banks and stabilise the London stock market. But this had all fallen apart since the 1980s. The old boys networks had been broken up. The banks were too big, too powerful and too foreign to play by the old rules.

In the old days, said Bailey, every bank used to go and have tea with the governor of the Bank of England, probably on a monthly or quarterly basis. Well, do you think the boss of UBS or Dresdner Bank actually comes across and has tea with the governor of the Bank of England now? Bollocks. The Bank no longer has control of the banking structures, because it used to be done by a nudge and a wink, in the way that Britain has historically run the Commonwealth. But they dont have the power anymore to say, We collectively are going to save that business over there, and its the same way in the London Stock Exchange.

Another theme was the ignorance of those now in charge. Everything had become more complex and fast-moving. The maths deployed was becoming more advanced, but the base assumptions behind the financial models were becoming more simplistic and uncertain. Governments and regulators could not keep up. Investment banks did not know what their employees were up to, or how to manage the risks they were building up. Non-executive directors and fund managers knew nothing about the businesses they controlled: The investment bankers dont know how to manage these people, Bailey told me. And it has leached out into the wider society of all major companies. Putting the non-executives in charge of the business is a bit like taking me to the Olympics and saying: Well, its a choice between David Bailey, who occasionally runs for the bus, and Darren Campbell, who trains seven days a week and well stick David Bailey in the 200 meters. Madness. The fund managers are in charge, but none of them know how to run a business.

But, most of all, Bailey was concerned with the fact that no one seemed to be in control, or to be taking responsibility for what was happening: Nobody is an owner. Everybody is a bloody employee. Theyve all got an incentive to pay each other more. This was made worse by the fact that deregulation had left the City riven with conflicts of interest, enabling insiders to play all sides. The individual rewards could be astronomical, but the penalties for failure were relatively modest. And no one ever got caught.

Ultimately, the City was driven by greed and ruthless self-interest, but without personal responsibility. That meant the whole system was under threat. Bailey maintained a jolly, friendly manner, but also spoke in apocalyptic terms. Terrifying, the end of capitalism and hugely vulnerable were the phrases he used. The City was peopled by predators, bandits and rabid dogs, who rewarded themselves with huge salaries, bonuses and options, regardless of success or failure.

Remarkably, Bailey even predicted the likely causes of the financial crash and how it might play out, three years before it actually did: spiralling property prices and lending, derivatives, banks too big to fail and a Federal Reserve bailout. He was not the only one: a handful of economists and financiers such as Nouriel Roubini, Ann Pettifor and Raghuram Rajan went public with dire warnings of what they thought was to come. There were a lot more insiders who had their suspicions, but who chose to keep quiet. A lot of people insiders and outsiders still see more of the same ahead. But venal self-interest means most of them dont care.

Yet the logic of neoliberalism and unbounded self-interest is as potentially destructive to the establishment as it is to the rest of society. After decades, its flaws and contradictions are becoming too large to deal with.

It is also the cause of another contradictory flaw that threatens the establishment. As both Robert Peston and Owen Jones have argued, the new regime for all its individualist and anti-state rhetoric still depends on the state. Elites require a rule of law, security, a transport infrastructure, an able workforce and social stability to function. But neoliberalism promotes an ever-smaller state and a poorer, less able employee pool, and nods through corporate and super-rich tax evasion on an industrial scale.

The international transiency of the new elite means they care little about the spaces, communities or workforces that are essential for servicing big corporations, as well as their personal needs. All of which suggests that the current manifestation of the establishment, if we can still call it that, has an extremely limited future.

Adapted from Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the End of the Establishment by Aeron Davis, which will be published by Manchester University Press on 12 March. Buy it for 9.99 at

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