How do ‘Flexians’ Weave their Net?

Ireneusz Sadowski (2010) How do ‘Flexians’ Weave their Net? (review of the Janine’s R. Wedel book: Shadow Elite. How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market), Polish Sociological Review, 2 (174), ss. 115-122


Questions about borders and the interlocking of the public and private are as old as discussions of the state. We are usually accustomed to easily distinguishing these spheres, although their overlapping is fairly common and takes quite diverse forms. One of the forms recognized best is corruption, i.e. the usage of public means for private purposes and the modern law systems developed ways to deal with it. Among legal forms we find private-public partnerships and lobbying. But there are still much less obvious cases that avoid easy recognition and judgment, like cronyism and the revolving door. In “Shadow Elite” Janine Wedel invites the reader to tour the cases from this “grey zone”, though from the beginning it is clear that she offers as much  guidance as she does monition.

Wedel is known to Polish readers mainly through her work “Private Poland”, which was written in the 1980s, and has recently been published in Polish. Her new book, though not directly dedicated to Poland, also has a twofold connection to its state and society. First of all – one of the chapters aims to describe the realm of Polish transformation and the unofficial rules that governed many areas of social and political life from the socialist times to today. These stories are presented to the reader as a “trial field”, which Wedel claims began to catch the nature of shadow maneuvers of skillful players in the game of public life. Her first encounter with the importance of resourcefulness in everyday life dates back to the Fullbright scholarship, which allowed her to spend some time studying Polish social life under martial law. This experience made such a big impression on Wedel that she now praises it in allowing her to discover similar strategies adapted by certain groups in totally different contexts. One can say that the perspective she gained here became “contagious”. While the Polish thread may be interesting, I will get back to it later in the review.


The argument that new kinds of shadow players emerged twenty years ago seems to have a rather frail basis, as even the author herself describes earlier events in similar terms (e.g. Iran-Contra affair). The warning is certainly valuable but described phenomena of unclear loyalty and intentions does not seem novel, and the same goes to the “truthiness”, which is only new as a catchy term. Indeed, questions of loyalty seems to have become more relaxed nowadays by changing the potential area of the “grey zone”, but not its very nature, (take the example of last year’s Russian spy affair in the US which was commented on mainly in terms of political “embarrassment”). The role of complex technologies is also ambiguous. Wedel claims for instance that new media, contrary to the widespread belief that they promote democracy and transparency, can serve as a means of obscuring facts, because they allow for new ways of manipulating public opinion. In a way this argument resembles the classic “magic bullet” hypothesis form the 1930s. In the face of recent developments, such as the Wikileaks affair and the use of social networking during massive anti-government mobilization of “Wet Season of Nations” (seen in the recent uprisings in North Africa and Middle East), and also with the advancement in investigative journalism (manifested in rising popularity of politically and socially engaged documentaries), it is easier to contend that in the long run these serve as a better means for citizens to control authority. Of course means of spreading conviction are less centralized, but it seems justified to say, that the most effective manipulation tool is still television and it can hardly be called a “new, complex technology”. Wedel’s observation seems valid only in the case of economy, where control measures obviously do not keep pace with the financial innovations, but this doesn’t support the arguments about the flourishing of “truthiness”. In this matter, McCarthism set the bar very high.

A possibly more important question is whether or not “flexians” are really a “distinctive breed”. The referred Rywingate affair, though full closure may not have been found, is obviously a case of attempted political corruption. Some aspects of Neocon and Chubais Clan histories can be described in terms of alleged cronyism and collusion and certainly in terms of interlocking directorate of nongovernmental and governmental organizations. As for the flexible switching of roles, in most cases they are connected with the so called revolving door. Hiring previously influential figures by companies and organizations is not uncommon (mostly for more efficient lobbying) and transfers are made also in the opposite direction as well. McCaffrey’s story is only specific because in addition to lobbying, he played the role of pundit in the media. However, as we have learned, in the end his multiple allegiance was disclosed. To describe a series of the role-swaps, another term is sometimes used: “institutional nomads”. It was originally proposed by Antoni Kaminski and Joanna Kurczewska and neatly expresses the consequences of having constant political backing, which allows to easily gain consecutive sinecures. If we carefully study all the described cases, there may not be much space for anything completely new. Wedel argues though, that the “juggling of flexians cannot be equated with the “revolving door”, in which people move serially between government and private sector (…) players can occupy more roles than in the past and more easily structure their overlap to create a coincidence of interests” (p. 17-18). So, as we see, the key difference seems to lay solely in the existence of the multiplicity of roles and ties and despite this, we find somewhat diverse phenomena (corruption, cronyism, collusion, revolving door etc.) serving as illustrations of something that it supposed to be coherent.


This part of the book can in fact be interpreted as a voice in the dispute over models of government, more precisely, its flexibility versus stable bureaucracy. Wedel is opposed to the first one, because it creates favorable conditions for “flexian strategy”. She underlines attached perils, although she does not discuss possible advantages. A good example is IDIQ – a kind of governmental contract that provides an indefinite amount of goods or services for a certain period.  Wedel criticizes it mainly for creating opportunities and for prolonging cooperation and partial decisions by favoring certain companies and being less viable for scrutiny. It is competitive only on the seed project stage but later commissions are non-competitive. What are not discussed are the advantages of IDIQ for the state, such as in lowering transactional costs. In many cases it is convenient for the governmental side as it does not pose a minimal volume of commission. In some cases this allows the government to exploit private companies who invest in getting contracts but later on do not have to receive expected commissions. There are at least some instances where IDIQ is praised, but “Shadow Elite” focuses on its downsides. As before, stress is laid on higher dependence on personal integrity of incumbents and harder monitoring of their conduct.