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Janine R. Wedel, Shadow Elite

Shadow Elite -- subtitle: "How the world's new power brokers undermine democracy, government, and the free market" -- comes highly recommended; you might summarize it as "The Theory of Bob Rubins"; who the Bob Rubins of this world are, how they get and keep their power, and what their social relationships are. (Wedel is a sociologist.) Wedel's two key concepts are "flex nets" and "flexians" (I like "flexian" because it sounds like a breed of alien reptiles that I, for one, welcome, except not). I think the strength of the book will come in the examples of actual flex nets, but since I'm not all the way through it, I'll just quote the introduction on the concepts. Page 15 and following.

Beyond old boys
Like interest groups and lobbies, flex nets serve a long-established function in the modern state--negotiating between official and private. But while flex nets incorporate aspects of these and other such groupings, they also differ from them in crucial ways--and those ways are precisely what make flex net less visible and more accountable.

Four key features define both flexians as individuals and those influencers who work together as a flex net. Flexians functioning on their own exhibit the modus operandi embodied in all four features discussed below, as does a flex net as a whole. Because members of a flex net benefit from the actions of the collective, pooling resources and dividing labor, not all members of the flex net must exhibit these features individually.

Before getting to the four features (below), a pause to note that Flex Nets/Flexians arguably subsume/supersede notions like corruption, "money in politics," "the revolving door," and so forth. (Nancy DiParle is, I think, the candidate for Flexianhood we might be most familiar with: Wellstone VP -> Baucus CoS -> White House -> Big Pharma, leaving a trail of ruin and destruction, if you're a citizen or a patient, that is. We'd need to know more about her network, though).


(Confusingly, Wedel's four bold subheads don't correspond to the four features. So I've underlined and numbered the features.

One, personalizing bureaucracy. Flexians operate through personalized relations within and across official structures, and act primarily based on loyalty to people, not organizations, to realize their goals. They use the formal organizations with which they are affiliated -- governmental, corporate, national, or international -- but their chief allegiance is to themselves and their networks. Flexians work bureaucracy to suit their advantage, preferring to operate by means anethema to official, legal, and procedural objectivity -- the hallmark of the modern state that harks back to the classic model elucidated by Max Weber....

[#1] Member of a flex net... form an exclusive informal network that serves as an intricate spine -- the corresponding (first) feature of flex nets. Flex nets draw their membership from a limited circle of player who interact with each other in multiple roles over time, both inside and outside government, to achieve mutual goals. While their roles and environments change, the group provides continuity. .... Members of what I call the Neocon core, an informal group of a dozen or so members and a successful flex net, have worked with each other in various incarnations for some thirty years to realize their golas for American foreign policy via the assertion of military power... [M]embers of flex nets are united by shared activities and interpersonal histories. "Interest groups" and "lobbies" so not convey the ambiguous state-private nature of flex nets, which coordinate power and influence from multiple vantage points -- often far removed from public input, knowledge, or potential sanction.

Two, privatizing information while branding conviction

Let me pause to point out that this is the indictment made of Greenwald.

Flexians believe -- in any event, convincingly assert [Ouch!] -- that they have complete understanding of the cause that impels them into action. [This claim is, necessarily, bullshit. It follows that Flexians are, by definition, bullshit artists.] They have a theory. And theory that serves as a organizing catalyst is crucial in times of rapid and intense social changes [see under Shock Doctrine], as Vladimir Lenin famously pointed out. More thanthe opportunists who have benefitted from blurred boundaries and disorder throughout history, Flexians operate in today's environment of perpetual change. [Wall Street people call this "churn."] ...

When such influencers work together in a flex net, they [#2] exhibit shared conviction and action -- the corresponding second feature of flex nets. ... Members of a flex net act as a continuous, self-propelling unit to achieve objectives that are grounded in their common worldview, and to brand that view to the public.

As self-sustaining teams with their own agendas, flex nets cut through bureaucracies, connect entities, and streamline decision-making. This efficiency can make them attractive to administrations and the public... And while members of a flex net serve "at the pleasure of the president," as does anyone else, they go on and on [and on [and on]] trying to achieve their goals.

Three, juggling role and representations Flexians perform interacting or ambiguous roles to maximize their influence and amass resources. [We might look at John LeCarré's George Smiley series as the classic example of this, as Smiley, who is all about ambiguous interaction, moves between public and private roles. C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series would be a second example.*] Their repertoire of roles, each with something to offer, affords them more flexibility to wield influence in and across organizations than they would have if they were confined to one role. The juggling of flexians cannot be equated with "the revolving door," in which people move serially between the government and the private sector. The revolving door acquired its meaning in an age when the lobbyist and the power broker were the brick and mortar of the influence game. Their role were defined and confined. The new breed of players is more elastic in its engagement. ... Ambiguity is not a mere by-product; it is a defense. It enables flexians to play different sets of constraints off each other, skirting accountability in one venue by claiming they were operating in another... In this way, flexians defy scrutiny and public accountability while advancing their own agendas.

The corollary to flexians' juggling roles and representations is that [#3] members of a flex next form a resource pool -- the corresponding third feature of a flex net. The influence of a flex net derives in part from its members' effort to amass and coordinate both material and interpersonal resources. ... The Neocon core, for instance, is an example of how a ready-made network of players with its own private agendas can straddle a state-private seesaw to: prescribe and help coordinate government policies of monumental import and impact; sell them to government officials, legislators, the media, and the public; help implement them; and continue this strategy, both to justify what they have done and to influence policies that follow from the course taken. While highly effective, such a group is elusive and more difficult to hold to account than lobbyists, interest groups, and the like.

Four, relaxing rules at the interstices of official and private institutions. As flexians inhabit and shift among overlapping roles, they relax rules. They achieve their goals in part by finessing, circumventing, or rewriting both bureacracy's rules of accountabilty and business's codes of competition [if any], thus helping to create many of the choices and structural positions available to them.....

Collectively, [#4] members of a flex net help create a hybrid habitat --- their corresponding fourth feature. A flex net's strength lies in it coordinated ability to reorganize governing processes and bureaucracies to suit the group's purposes.... As flex nets infuse governing with their supple, personalized, private-official networks, they transmogrify their environment, whether temporarily or more lastingly. While these groups might call to mind old notions such as conflict of interest, they illustrate why such labels no longer suffice. As a Washington observer sympathetic to the neo-conservatives aims told me, "There is no conflict of interest, because they define the interest." ....

In trying to capture the essence of the new breed [of flexian, Jack Blum] told me one day: "If you're in the academic world, or you're a legal-type focused investigator, you want everything to fit into neat boxes, and none of this stuff fits into neat boxes. It's these multiple roles that these people have. None of these people are neat."

So I feel like I've been waiting for this book a long time. We've needed an adequate way to model the political class, and sheer class interest is not nearly granular enough. I'd like to test out Flex Nets and Flexians as analytical tools.

Now we can play Spot the Flexnet! Mix 'em, match 'em! Share 'em with your friends! Gawd knows those of use who have been blogging since 2003 have enough history to look back on, and enough stories to (re)tell.

So, readers: Do the Flexian and Flex Net concept ring true to you, and can you spot any examples in the wild? We already know about the Neo-cons, so that's cheating!

NOTE * Why series? Why Brits? I dunno.

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Rainbow Girl's picture
Submitted by Rainbow Girl on

Mary Jo White's ability to get Linda Thomasen on the phone on behalf of Debevoise Plimpton client Pequot Capital (and John Mack, Wall Street top executive), after SEC (ex) counsel Gary Aguirre discovered evidence of securities wrongdoing against the hedge fund and its main players.

Excerpt:

In July 2004, Gary Aguirre, former senior counsel at the S.E.C., discovered a case of insider trading involving Arthur Samberg, CEO of hedge fund Pequot Capital Management, and John Mack, Wall Street top executive.

A year later, the head of regulatory compliance at Morgan Stanley phoned Aguirre asking any proceedings were to be made against Mack, who was under serious consideration by the bank to become its CEO.

Within days, Mary Jo White, then working at Debevoise & Plimpton, phoned Linda Chatman Thomsen, then head enforcer at the S.E.C., to inquire about Mack’s investigation. Thomsen allegedly replied that Mack was not in serious jeopardy (“there is smoke but surely not fire”). The case was filed without a single charge, and Aguirre, a model employee, was dismissed. Correlation is not causation, and there is no evidence that the S.E.C. responded to pressures from Wall Street circles. Nonetheless, the intricacy of the relations between regulator and regulated is unsettling.

(*)

Mary Jo White's ability to get Thomasen on the phone, just like that, going over the line attorney who was investigating her client's insider trading, is surely an example of the "streamlining" and "shortcuts" that Flexian Network Participants are able to offer their clients.

Intricacy of the relations between regulator (SEC) and regulated (John Mack et al) via regulated's lawyers (Mary Jo White and Debevoise & Plimpton). This fits Wedel's model perfectly. And this is not even including the next chapter in this particular flex-network wherein Mary Jo Revolving Door White swings back from Debevoise to regulating/prosecuting Wall Street for at least the third time.

This case also illustrates that the Flexian Network must eliminate any threats to itself (and its members, of course) even if the threats come from individuals who are not bending rules and laws as written, but actually enforcing them -- a person who would be considered an exemplary public servant. Gary Aguirre, the man whose good work might have ripped the flexian net that includes Mary Jo White and John Mack and Debevoise and the SEC and Pequot Capital -- was fired and eliminated..

danps's picture
Submitted by danps on

It's an interesting concept, but I'd like to see some of these nets mapped out. Who are members of the neoconservative net? Etc. I'm sure that would be a tedious (and contentious) process, but seeing the author's idea of the names and groups behind the theory would make it easier to get a grip on it.

Submitted by lambert on

... the Fall of Communism but I haven't gotten to it yet.

Yes, I'd like to see the maps. But the features listed sure do chime with intuition, mine at least.

fogspider's picture
Submitted by fogspider on

late to this post but my god it's like an amorphous transmutating jellyfish-like monster with a gazillion tentacles spreading out and into every little crevice of society to feed its insatiable maw, yet all hidden below the surface of awareness, invisible, insidious, evil!
I just want the public to kill the beast! Kill it! chop off its head!

Anyway, thanks for introducing this book -much needed and, I hope will be read widely- and for the notes thus far. A couple other thoughts:
I do think "Flexians" and "flex net" sound rather too benign too me... but then maybe that's part of the point about the way they/it works, the culture of which they're a part and which they help create, flexating (I know, not a real word but fits, to me) all through society...

And I guess the MSM plays a part in/of the flex net?

(oh, and Smiley as an example seems rather small potatoes and utterly benign comparatively...)

Submitted by lambert on

... rather like Triffid. Sounds like an alien being. That's good.

The MSM is full of Flexians, probably not so much reporters, but 100% whoever appears on the Op-Ed pages, and the Editors as well.