Friday, 28 July 2017

Trump's Court

Almost a quarter of a century ago I published my first ever academic journal paper, an analysis of the career projects of accounting professionals (Grey, 1994). It enjoyed a brief degree of popularity - these terms are relative, but within a context of the miniscule citation counts of most papers in the organization studies field I think that can be said – possibly because it exemplified the then still emergent Foucauldian tendency in British organization theory.

Because I was a young, bumptious fellow, and unused to seeing my work discussed in print by others, I was chagrined when another paper appeared in which my article was pulled apart (Newton, 1996). I would not nowadays be so disconcerted, partly because my work has now been pulled apart so often, partly because I now recognize that it is impossible to control how one’s work is received, but mainly because I now think it’s something to be thankful for if my work is read and engaged with at all. All publicity is good publicity.

But I’m thinking of Newton’s critique of my paper now because one part of it was to re-interpret my analysis of the accounting firm via Norbert Elias’s (1983) discussion of how courtly societies operate with, for example, complex codes of courtly behaviour, courtiers jostling for position, and the ability of the monarch to dispense or withhold patronage.

That does capture something (though by no means all) of the firm I studied, but I’m reminded of it now because it most certainly captures the ever more bizarre ways that Trump administration is conducting itself. Presumably following the same practices as he used to run his business Trump does indeed seek to govern like a mediaeval monarch. So we have a nepotistic intermingling of family and government (exemplified by Ivanka Trump briefly taking her father’s seat at the Hamburg G20 meeting and by the roles in his administration played by his son and son-in-law); fighting amongst courtiers (currently exemplified by Anthony Scaramucci’s attack on Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon); demands for personal fealty from public officials (exemplified by Trump asking James Comey for a promise of loyalty); and sudden falls from grace (exemplified by the subsequent sacking of James Comey, the recent resignation of Sean Spicer and the current spat between Trump and Jeff Sessions).

There’s probably something of a royal court in any political (or big business) administration, but the way in which Trump’s resembles such a court is unprecedented in the modern history of liberal democracies. The reason for that is that liberal democracies emerged at least in part because of the manifold deficiencies and dysfunctions of courtly governance; deficiencies and dysfunctions that the Trump administration exhibits only too clearly. At the most basic level, such governance doesn’t get much done, and tends towards corruption at best and evil at worst. In fact one could say that the crucial achievement of rational-legal organization of the state – as analysed in Weber’s bedrock work in organization studies – is the displacement of personalised forms of rule based on nepotism and patronage by due process and rule through public office.

That this is so is illustrated by the fact that although the White House may operate in ways that look like a mediaeval royal court, the US polity is not in general describable in that way. That is to say, the systems of political and legal due process are – just about – holding Trump in check. It’s worth making the comparison with Hitler’s administration. That is not to make a lazy accusation of fascism – Trump and Hitler are very different people, with different politics, in different situations – but just to make the point that Hitler also presided over an administrative chaos of warring factions competing for patronage (Kershaw, 2008) at least at the level of the state. But the Hitler regime had also swept away or suborned all of the structures of civil society and due process that might otherwise have contained it. We can be grateful that the United States is proving more robust.

As for the accounting firm I studied, it has long since disappeared, mired in scandal, something in part attributable to the fact that for all that it may have in some ways resembled as court it was also subject to and ultimately subservient to the rule of law.

Grey, C. (1994) ‘Career as a Project of the Self and Labour Process Discipline’ Sociology 28, 2: 479-497.

Elias, N. (1983) The Court Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kershaw, I. (2008) Hitler. New York: W.W. Norton & Co

Newton, T. (1996) ‘Resocialising the subject: A re-reading of Grey’s ‘Career as a Project of the Self’, Sociology 30, 1: 137-144