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…

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