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The New Aristocracy

Death of the Guilds: Professions, States, and the Advance of Capitalism, 1930 to the Present

by Elliott A. Krause
Yale University Press, 305 pp., $40.00


The bloody contest between capitalism and socialism unexpectedly came to an end in 1989 after a struggle that gripped the world for a century and a half. Of course appearances may prove deceiving; movements and institutions have been known to survive defeat and prosper under new names. Still, the tides of geopolitical fortune have undeniably shifted, giving us good reason to wonder where capitalism, giddy with self-congratulation and unchecked by any formidable opposition, is taking us.

Elliott A. Krause, a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, suggests that we have misjudged both the stakes and the duration of the contest that capitalism is winning. Casting his eyes back over a historical panorama so sweeping that 1848 and the Communist Manifesto recede into minor significance, Krause takes the recent triumphs of capitalism to mark the end of an era of guild power that began in the Middle Ages. In Death of the Guilds: Professions, States, and the Advance of Capitalism, 1930 to the Present, he identifies professions such as law, medicine, and the various academic disciplines as authentic descendants of the medieval guilds; he worries that their power to control the conditions under which their members work is fading, to the detriment of us all.

From this perspective, control over the workplace becomes the great pivot on which history turns. The professions become simply those occupations in which practitioners have managed to establish control and hold on to it most tenaciously. Capitalism and the state, each with its own distinct, if overlapping, interests, become the two most likely antagonists that members of a profession must hold at bay if they are to control their destinies. The traditional guilds lost control centuries ago, but it is only now, at the end of the twentieth century, Krause believes, that control is finally slipping out of the hands of lawyers, doctors, and professors as well. What happened to skilled artisans in the nineteenth century, as factory owners increased profits by de-skilling jobs and routinizing manufacturing processes, is analogous to what he believes is happening to the learned professions today. Posing his thesis as a rhetorical question, Krause asks: “Have capitalism and the state finally caught up with the last guilds?”

By arguing that the modern professions are the “last guilds,” Krause boldly revises the prevailing history of the professions. No one doubts that divinity, medicine, law, and other professions have long histories, but the relevance of events in the eighteenth century and earlier to their current practices seems slight because so much changed in the nineteenth century. New professions emerged, such as electrical engineering; old ones took a new shape as they adapted to an increasingly interdependent world of cities, factories, and cheap transportation, a world of rising per capita income and proliferating expertise. There are good reasons to think of the professions today as offshoots of the modernizing and nationalizing processes of the urban industrial era, rather than as survivals of medieval corporatism. With few exceptions, historians as well as sociologists have taken it for granted that little is to be gained by dwelling on the antiquity of professional pedigree; it risks mistaking resemblances of form for continuities of substance.

Krause’s challenge to received wisdom will be controversial, but there is some plausibility to his account. His story about the growing precariousness of professional control of the workplace in an era of capitalist triumphalism will ring true for many readers because it squares with their personal experience. Budget cutbacks and attacks on tenure give ample evidence that the longstanding public prestige of the university is not what it was. More than a few politicians in the United States are finding it politically advantageous to present themselves as stern critics of the institution that houses the academic disciplines and acts as gatekeeper and educator for all the authentic professions.

Since everyone relies on doctors, an even more conspicuous example of decline in professional power in the United States is the diminished autonomy of the medical profession in recent decades. As recently as twenty years ago the authority of physicians and surgeons to dictate the conditions of their work seemed immune to challenge. The question asked about doctors in the 1970s was not whether they needed greater autonomy, in order to maintain control of the medical workplace and uphold high ethical and therapeutic standards. It was how the autonomy they already had could possibly be justified in a society that aspired to be democratic.

Today, in contrast, doctors working in the major cities have with few exceptions become well-paid functionaries in bureaucracies driven as much by the profit motive as by therapeutic considerations. Fear that doctors control too much has been displaced by fear that they control too little. Increasingly it is the entrepreneurs of the medical care industry who determine who will be treated and how long treatment will continue. Those who now hire and fire doctors have even tried to dictate which of several alternative treatments their employees may or may not mention to patients. In reaction, sixteen state legislatures passed laws last year prohibiting “gag rules” and reaffirming the right of doctors to unrestricted communication with their patients; the federal government followed suit with an order to the same effect. 1

A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine alleged that managed care plans suffer from “an inherent conflict of interest. On the one hand they pledge to take care of their enrollees, but on the other their financial success depends on doing as little for them as possible.” The editorial warned that “the quality of health care is now seriously threatened by our rapid shift to managed care as the way to contain costs.” In late December the federal government stepped in between feuding doctors and HMO managers to set limits on the types of bonuses that doctors can be offered for containing the cost of services for Medicare and Medicaid patients.2 Yet another sign of growing conflict between professional and capitalist priorities can be seen in the fact that in 1994, the latest year for which data are available, the average income of physicians stopped rising and, in fact, declined for the first time in recent memory.3

If medicine, the most powerful and prestigious of all the professions, can be made to scramble for control over its own workplace, what can the future hold for other self-governing professions? We get a clue when we read that giant corporations such as Lockheed, Electronic Data Systems, and Andersen Consulting are competing for the opportunity to administer the entire welfare operation of the state of Texas, with an annual budget of $563 million.4 Squeezing profits from running state welfare systems once seemed an unlikely prospect, to say the least. If welfare can be made to pay, there would seem nothing to prevent capitalists from turning universities—where tuitions have long risen faster than inflation and patentable ideas create occasional windfalls—into profitable enterprises. Viewed as a commodity, a college education for one’s children is arguably the choicest object of consumer desire.

That today’s capitalists see monetary incentives for converting hitherto professional, governmental, and non-profit activities into competitive businesses gives a jolt of credibility to Krause’s warning that the “guild power” of the professions is eroding.


Another reason for taking Krause seriously (even though he is silent on the subject) is that there exists a long tradition of cultural rivalry between professional people and businessmen. Fear that open warfare would break out between capital and labor has always made the subtle but persistent antagonism between capitalists and the professions seem mild by comparison. As early as 1825 Blackwood’s magazine complained that “the Philosophers… are getting up what they are pleased to call a New Aristocracy—an Aristocracy of Science [which] is to be the enemy and ruler of the old one.”5 Building on Coleridge’s “Clerisy” and Carlyle’s “Aristocracy of Talent,” Matthew Arnold spoke in 1868 of a major split within the British middle class. In addition to businessmen, there was another rising social category that included intellectuals but was made up mainly of professional people. Its members scorned everything associated with the marketplace, identifying themselves instead with values drawn from the aristocracy and the teachings of the Church.

When Ruskin wanted to criticize businessmen, it was the professions he held up as a model. The proper role of the merchant or manufacturer, he contended, was unselfishly “to provide for the nation.”

It is no more his function to get profit for himself out of that provision than it is a clergyman’s function to get his stipend. This stipend is a due and necessary adjunct, but not the object of his life, if he be a true clergyman, any more than his fee (or honorarium) is the object of life to a true physician.6

The professional person’s claim to moral superiority can be seen as a rhetorical weapon in a complex rivalry of classes. This was a contest in which professionals initially spoke for other interests—as lawyers did for rich clients—but by the end of the nineteenth century, they asserted with mounting confidence a social ideal of their own. “Their ideal society,” as the historian Harold Perkin observes, “was a functional one based on expertise and selection by merit.”7 The ideology of of disinterested devotion to functional efficacy that Perkin identifies with the professions is best epitomized by the words of the eminent historian and Fabian socialist, R.H. Tawney. Tawney’s influential 1920 book, The Acquisitive Society, deplored the inability of market culture to sustain any sense of purpose capable of transcending the selfish interests of individuals. The cure he prescribed was wondrously simple: professionalize all occupations.

The application to industry of the principle of purpose is simple, however difficult it may be to give effect to it. It is to turn it into a Profession. A Profession may be defined most simply as a trade which is organized, incompletely no doubt, but genuinely, for the performance of function. It is not simply a collection of individuals who get a living for themselves by the same kind of work. Nor is it merely a group which is organized exclusively for the economic protection of its members, though that is normally among its purposes. It is a body of men who carry on their work in accordance with rules designed to enforce certain standards both for the better protection of its members and for the better service of the public.8

Professionalizing work as an anti-capitalist cultural reform was a more influential force in Britain than elsewhere, but the British experience was not unique. Throughout the West, from the 1870s through the 1930s and beyond, it was commonly assumed among educated people that the professions had claims to a sense of honor and disinterestedness not to be expected from those who merely competed and traded in the marketplace. Not until the 1960s would that assumption come under attack, particularly from critics on the left who saw professionals as wolves in sheep’s clothing, who lived by caveat emptor but lacked the candor to admit it.

  1. 1

    The New York Times, September 17, 1996, p. D12.

  2. 2

    The New York Times, December 25, 1996, p. A1.

  3. 3

    The New York Times, September 3, 1996, p. D9.

  4. 4

    Giant Companies Entering Race to Run State Welfare Programs,” The New York Times, September 15, 1996, p. 1.

  5. 5

    Quoted in Harold Perkin, Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880 (1969; reprinted by University of Toronto Press, 1972), pp. 265-266.

  6. 6

    Quoted in Martin J. Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 (Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 38.

  7. 7

    Perkin, Origins of Modern English Society, p. 258.

  8. 8

    R.H. Tawney, The Acquisitive Society (Harcourt Brace, 1920), p. 92.

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