Office Parties

Jose Harris

  • The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880 by Harold Perkin
    Routledge, 604 pp, £40.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 415 00890 5

The Victorians, who idealised work, nevertheless reserved the palm of social esteem for persons whose private means enabled them to lead lives of pleasurable idleness. We in the late 20th century make a fetish of leisure and pleasure: yet for most of us status, self-regard, identity and personal relationships are inextricably bound up with access to paid employment. The youthful rentiers of the Drones Club have not died out, but somnolent afternoons in billiard rooms have given way to frenetic action in the City; the Bertie Woosters of yesteryear are now dealers in bonds and traders in futures, clocking in from nine to five. Possession of a private income still carries cachet (it is, after all, money), but much more so if held in tandem with a recognised salaried profession. Work and play, brutally estranged from each other by the early stages of industrialisation, have now reconverged through the medium of rituals such as business lunches, office parties, professional conferences, and all the mundane conviviality of daily working life. Royal princes, married women and the very rich all increasingly reject the once-coveted option of remaining outside the labour market, and honourable idleness is now segregated into that stretch of life known as retirement. Even strenuous pursuit of intellectual truth, at which some at least of the leisured class once excelled, is now no longer trusted and admired unless practised on a salary with a research assistant in a seat of higher learning.

What does this paradoxical transformation signify, and how has it come about? Why do we reject the Victorian work ethic, and yet embrace a value system in which rewards and status are largely determined by the nature of one’s employment? Harold Perkin, formerly professor of social history at Lancaster and now a ‘white emigrant’ at Northwestern University, Illinois, sees the advance of ‘professionalisation’ as not just one among many cultural shifts, but as the clue to the overall character of British politics and society over the past two hundred years. He argues that in Victorian society the key organising principle was social class – in the form either of the class conflicts of the Early Victorian years or of the ‘viable class society’ (peaceful co-existence between the classes) that characterised the Mid-Victorian era. Within the class system, status and rewards were determined partly by historic privilege, but increasingly by capital and labour bargaining in the marketplace. The state held aloof from social relationships; its task being that merely of an impartial referee, holding the ring between the warring factions in civil society. Such a system was morally endorsed by political economy, atomistic sociology and administrative laissez-faire. It began to break up, however, towards the end of the 19th century. The ‘zenith of class society’ (1880-1914) also saw the tentative emergence of a rival ethic and alternative form of social organisation: the rule of the ‘expert’, organised into vocational associations, pursuing ‘public service’ rather than private profit and – unlike capitalists and workers – increasingly seeking ‘incorporation’ into the structures and decision-making procedures of the state. The early years of the 20th century brought a spectacular increase in the number of incorporated professional organisations, all claiming to define and regulate entry to specialist occupations (there were 27 such organisations in 1880, 75 in 1918, and their numbers have been growing ever since). The underlying forces propelling such change were many and various: the increasing divorce of capital from management, the growth of scientific knowledge of all kinds, the sheer scale of modern social organisation, the radical and idealist critiques of anomic capitalism, the functional pressures of total war. For a long time the new system co-existed with and was largely concealed by the old system of class antagonism; but the retreat from the General Strike in 1926 showed that class loyalty had ceased to be the crucial determinant of British politics. The leaders of both sides of industry tacitly perceived that their interests lay not in class-war but in co-operation with the state; and both capitalists and trade unions began to emulate the older professions in seeking privileged access to the counsels of government.

These trends increasingly penetrated British government and society over the next half-century. In all spheres of social and economic life, interest groups and vocational organisations no longer held aloof from government, but actively sought public patronage and support (a process that again was greatly reinforced and accelerated by a second world war). In all areas of policy professional groups began to define and predetermine the agenda for state action, either by their activity as pressure groups or as a result of their formal involvement in consultative procedures (the TUC, for example, was represented in 1958 on no less than 850 tripartite public committees). Government involvement in civil concerns increasingly created a new species of property-right: the ‘contingent property’ embodied in welfare claims, security of tenure, planning permission, redundancy payments and other artefacts of social policy. The indispensable mediators of this process of state patronage and ‘sub-infeudation’ were the old and new professions: lawyers, doctors, social workers, town planners and a host of local authority and public service employees, who acted as formal or informal government agents for the allocation of resources, the diagnosis of problems and the definition of need. At times the process went so far as to delegate the moral conscience of the nation to some supposedly competent professional group (witness the control of doctors over abortion and the mentally ill). By the 1970s professionalisation had taken on the character of a new form of feudalism. Not simply market economics and private ethics but the ideal of the impartial state had been subverted by deals with organised occupational groups – the most notorious example being the Labour-TUC ‘social contract’ of 1973, which reduced national economic policy to a sub-division of collective bargaining.

Reaction against such deals helped to pave the way for the revival of the New Right, with their demands for rolling back the state and for the dismantling of public and occupational monopolies. The success of Thatcherism in the Eighties appeared to call a halt to the century-long advance of professional rule and to herald a return to a society stratified horizontally by class, rather than vertically by occupation. But such an impression, Perkin claims, is in fact misleading, since the struggles of the Eighties really centred not on a revival of class conflict, but on competition between public-sector professionals, whose salaries, status and power depended on expanding social services, and private-sector professionals, whose interests lay in the restoration of free markets. The protagonists in this contest often invoked the well-honed imagery of war between capital and labour, but real capitalists and real labourers were conspicuous by their absence. Their place was taken by representatives of the organised professions, including the practitioners of what Max Weber would have called ‘politics as a vocation’. Such professionals, Perkin concludes, ‘have nearly driven out the manual workers and the industrial capitalists in whose name they so confidently speak. The main issue in politics is which version of the professional social ideal is to be applied to British society, the public-sector ideal of an egalitarian, caring and compassionate state run by well-paid professionals, or the private-sector ideal of equal opportunity for those able to climb the corporate ladder of success and compete in the struggle for survival of the fittest corporations.’

How successful is Professor Perkin’s attempt to substitute an analysis based on vertical professional antagonisms for the more traditional model of horizontal rivalries based on social class? And is he right to offer ‘professionalisation’ as the master-principle of modern society, to which all other trends and attitudes can be reduced? There is much in his account that is convincing and much that is of interest even when it fails to convince. I have already noted the cultural revolution that has taken place in attitudes to work, much of which is explained by the success of the professions in cornering the market in prestige and power, if not necessarily in remuneration. And there is surely much to be said for Perkin’s view that what passes for class conflict in modern societies really stems from competitive power-struggles between different fractions of the middle classes. (Marx made the same point in his most persuasive work, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.) There are many original and unexpected insights in Perkin’s empirical data: notably his finding, derived from an unpublished study for the ESRC, that the personal wealth of many prominent élite groups in Britain has been surprisingly small and continually diminishing over the course of the 20th century. The dramatic growth of occupational and professional groups in British society, in terms of numbers, power and corporate identity, is undeniable; and one cannot but admire Professor Perkin’s attempt to build around this fact a coherent and synoptic interpretation of the whole of 20th-century history.

Doubts must remain, however, about how far he is ultimately successful. Throughout the book I found myself uneasy about the equation made between the rise of the professions and the rise of the ‘corporate state’ – that convenient but chameleon-like concept, susceptible to so many, often mutually exclusive interpretations. (Perkin himself uses the term to imply sometimes the vocational usurpation of democratic powers, sometimes mere interest-group consultation – and sometimes to refer to the apparently quite different phenomenon of conferment of welfare benefits as a matter of citizen-right). That the post-Second World War British state was more ‘corporate’ than that of Gladstone is undeniable. But it was nevertheless much less corporate than many other comparable modern states; and the powerful residue of traditional libertarian ideas at all points on the political spectrum perhaps deserves more emphasis than is here allowed. And if the professional ideal has really been all-embracing, then it is hard to account for the widespread persistence of a stubborn culture of amateurism in public administration and industry, and for the extraordinarily low level of national provision for both vocational training and higher and further education. Moreover, the ambitious and all-embracing scope of Professor Perkin’s vision betrays him at times into inconsistency. The working classes appear sometimes as participants in the professionalising process, sometimes as its excluded victims. Professionals themselves appear at some points in the narrative as the pioneers of efficiency and enemies of waste, at other points as the true culprits (rather than the landed aristocracy) in the retreat into Arcadia that supposedly vanquished Britain’s ‘industrial spirit’. Throughout the book Professor Perkin appears to be torn between viewing his professionals as conspirators against the public and viewing them as the prophets of an ethic of disinterested service to the common good. So much is packed into his argument that one is left at times with a sense of being overwhelmed, not by detail per se, but by his desire to coerce that detail into a preconceived coherent pattern. The reductionist impulse occasionally gives rise to some rather odd judgments, such as the claim that the 1960s sexual revolution was the product of ‘the professional ideal of rational discourse’ and the characterisation of the principle that ‘parents should support their children’ as part of ‘the entrepreneurial ideal’. But such points merely demonstrate the almost insuperable difficulty of writing synoptic social history of a kind that combines attention to detail with overall explanatory perspective.