An old chestnut of the Marxist left had it that captains of industry were the central committee of the ruling class in capitalist societies. The mythic stereotype persists in progressive circles that what is wrong with society flows from the selfish proclivities of its ruling elite – an elite that, in capitalist societies, grows out of business as lichens on a rock.
Remove the elite, this theory goes, and all will be well, or at least much better.
This month’s Vanity Fair magazine in the United States offers an opportunity to reflect a bit on this thesis about capitalist elites.
The magazine identifies the 100 members of the New American establishment. Where do they come from?
Thirty one made their money in or through Hollywood.
Fifteen come from the world of fashion (Gucci, Revlon, etc.).
Nineteen from the media.
Eighteen from Wall Street or other finance and investment houses.
Nine from business – but consumer businesses like computers, Google, Walmart, Sony, Amazon.com, Starbucks.
Three held political office, but those one was from media and another from Hollywood before they reached elected office.
Then there were five outliers – an architect, a casino owner, a philanthropist, an advertising mogul, and a Russian Oligarch.
This list hardly looks like the traditional capitalist conspiracy to squeeze out the surplus from the sweat of peasants and proletarians.
The themes of success here are: consumer self-indulgence, celebrity, low-brow entertainment, and easy money taken from all those tempted to speculate in securities. Kind of a disparagement of American values and standards if you ask me.
Of course, Vanity Fair does not represent your top of the line Marxist sociology or even very good class stratification analysis. But it does reflect well its own cultural biases.
It reveals the commanding heights (again to use old Marxist terms) of the post-industrial society.
I am not sure what systematic role there might be within this elite for business ethics or corporate social responsibility. Warren Buffet and Bill and Melinda Gates, however, were included in the group and they are major philanthropic donors now. So all is not lost.