Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Professional Society and Its Limits

Has the professional society reached its limits?

One way to see the development of western societies in the last hundred years, as Harold Perkin indeed did, is to see it in terms of the growth of the professional society. A society increasingly built on expert knowledge, independence and recognition of the professions, has emerged as an unique structure in the West, creating a 'viable' class structure, and providing a certain kind of legitimacy other than power and coercion. 

The key to the maintenance of such social structure was the underlying meritocracy, that everyone has a chance. Professional society was, and always will be, antithetical to the social structure where one is 'born' into privilege, rather than having to work for it. In an age when enlightenment and scientific inquiry undermined the claims of authority derived out of divine will, ability and expert knowledge as defined by 'professions' became the new claim for social leadership and progression. 
However, it seems that there are at least three social trends which are rapidly undermining the professional ideal, and indeed, exposing the limits of professional society.

The first is the undermining of the meritocratic ideal. In a society which is increasingly unequal, that everyone has a chance become an untenable claim. Increasingly, private education, better healthcare, etc., create an unassailable advantage that accrue to few of the well-endowed. That such inequality always existed is besides the point here: That such inequality deeply undermines the professional ideal is what we should worry about. Such privileges rob the legitimacy of the class society we have now taken for granted.

The second is the nature of expert knowledge. In one hand, knowledge is becoming ubiquitous and everyone can access it: But this also means that the nature of expert knowledge required to produce value is changing. It is no longer the access to knowledge that matters, but the means to produce the knowledge that matters. This is creating a few Information Elites tasked to curate, and advance knowledge, whereas the usage of knowledge is all but commoditised. This may be portrayed as professions reaching its idyll, but eventually the changing nature of knowledge hurts the professions, because such production of knowledge, under the current economic structure, means undermining the professional autonomy that was the basis of the creation of a professional society. The control of the means of production of knowledge (a self-consciously erroneous extension of a Marxian concept) lets us into a financier society, and undermines the professional ideal.

The third is the change of the underlying social contract, as manifested in political structures sustaining professional society: Democracy. In one way, a successful professional society rested very much upon a political meritocracy, structured around the ability to win and maintain popular support. However, the advent of broadcast media, which changes the game by making the medium the message, undermined the meritocracy in many ways, and winning elections for whoever has more money. The 'professional' political class conveys to us only the wrong idea of the 'profession'.

Professional Society may be at a point of historical decline, may be irreversibly. No one may be mourning it yet, obsessed as we are with our technological progress. This, however, shows our historical myopia at its worst, because our progress stands on history and not in spite of it. The professional ideal made the world we know possible, and its absence may mean a breakdown of the 'social contract' we have been thriving upon so far. Indeed, we are too intent upon tearing down the institutions that made the professional society possible, such as free universal education and healthcare. These areas are usually seen as newer areas of public services which can be privatised and money can be made there, but their foundational role in maintaining a professional society, creating wider perspectives on knowledge and maintaining democracies are intentionally overlooked. The more we take our progress for granted, the more likely we are to undo it.

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