I’m not surprised that people are creating ideological justifications for the New Gilded Age. I am surprised however that one of them is Eric Hobsbawm’s daughter.
Julia Hobsbawm is on a mission to make us rethink everything we believe about work and success. She draws on systems theory and British class formation and disruptive innovation—all to sell an idea lots of us find ugly, distasteful, even dangerous.
Here it is: She believes in the power of networking. And she doesn’t just think it’s effective; most people already know and begrudgingly accept that fact. She’s also set on convincing us that networking is great.
Hobsbawm, a visiting professor at London’s Cass Business School, calls herself “the world’s first professor of networking.” She’s the author of several books on the subject, and runs a series of conferences and workshops that help professionals become more culturally literate and better able to navigate a diverse, cosmopolitan world. She talks about a “new salon culture” and a “more meritocratic approach to networking,” and says that once-exclusive gatherings should allot space for members of marginalized groups.
Citing both her own stateside experience and academic literature, Hobsbawm tells me that “Americans’ attitude toward networking has been fundamentally transactional for 50 years. It’s just a lot more sophisticated…than that. It’s what you know and who you know.” Far from using the clinical language of business, she is fond of comparing herself to a Yiddish matchmaker. The kind of personal, intimate connections made in small-group settings—in a Guardian interview, Hobsbawm called it “the minute someone looks you in the eye and engages you and your cortisol levels drop, and you feel OK”—are, she says, the root of all successful networks.
Hobsbawm calls her vision “open-sourced elitism.” She is steadfast on the notion that the professional world can’t become a pure meritocracy. “We are all naturally inclined to love an upgrade,” she says. If that’s true, the best way to guard against nepotism and patronage is to keep holding the same kind of elite gatherings we’ve always had, but with more people, especially people who are usually left out. Hobsbawm’s ideal world is one in which “every elitist gathering of individuals…has a quota that is available to people that come from outside the catchment.”
Oh brother. Everyone knows that networking is in fact how people get jobs and how class distinctions get reinforced. It’s a major reason why people join fraternities, for instance. The problem is that rising in life because of who you know is pretty objectively a bad thing, despite all the elites today repackaging it as something great. Selling the idea that networking is awesome and should be embraced is deeply problematic on a number of levels. Hobsbawm pushes the idea that elite spaces should become less tied to the old class elite and offer more opportunity for the current non-elites and then everything would actually be more meritocratic than it is now. But I’m trying to think of why elite spaces would ever do that and I can’t think of one good reason at all, outside of lawsuits about racial and gender discrimination. Even she can’t come up with anything outside of a vague quota system of non-elites in elite gatherings.
Another major problem here is how this reinforces how much of our discourse today is focused on breaking into the elite. With the decline of the middle class, like during the Gilded Age we are again centering our national conversations on life in the upper class and how to achieve it. If it comes packaged in a British accent, well all the better for reinforcing the elite life.
It gets more ridiculous.
This may seem counterintuitive; widening the upper echelon would seem to produce an elite that’s less, well, elite. But Hobsbawm is an optimist. She believes that as talented people from excluded groups break into the elite, they’ll outperform their peers who made it on social connections alone—and eventually replace them.
This is basically repackaged bootstrapism. The finest will rise and the less competent of the elite will fall. I mean, that’s clearly been shown to be true if we examine U.S. presidents for instance so what do I know. Why this current class privilege would not continued to be replicated, I don’t know.
And yet, it’s all about elite, elite, elite in this article. What about those who aren’t elite? What about the average graduate of the University of Rhode Island or University of Oregon who simply lacks the social and cultural capital, the work ethic, the family support, etc., to rise into this elite? What if they are merely competent at their jobs? Does any of this matter anymore? Not to Hobsbawm at least.
When I ask how introverts fit in, she says they’re natural networkers because “in order to connect with another individual, you have to have a degree of intimacy.” As far as she’s concerned, a clear, genuine interest in other people works better than mere glad-handing. This is also why Hobsbawm believes the British are poised to become the world’s best networkers: They are better at curating both a public and private self, she says, and because of Great Britain’s long history of class stratification, they’re not under the illusion that they live in a pure meritocracy.
Now we’ve entered the realm of complete bullshit. As an introvert, this is totally ridiculous. My entire graduate career, I was basically petrified of talking to respected faculty I did not know. So I simply didn’t do it. I did essentially no networking at all. It worked out for me, but then I’ve always been lucky when it comes to employment. But introverts do not want to have a degree of intimacy with people they are meeting at conferences or whatever elite social gatherings Hobsbawm believes will let them in. They want to go home. Or they want someone to pay attention to them and don’t know how to start that conversation. And what if you actually don’t have a clear, genuine interest in other people? Because higher power of your choice knows that the elite don’t have a clear, genuine interest in my life and I probably don’t in their’s either. I might be able to wing it, but that’s not the same thing. As for the British being unusually prepared for this future, well color me shocked that some of the world’s richest people would say they have unique characteristics that prepare them for world domination. But hey, Niall Ferguson provides one of the testimonials on her website so….
And now for the winner:
Ironically, there’s a bootstrapping, almost American aspect to how Hobsbawm got here. Her father, Eric Hobsbawm, was a Marxist historian and one of the most renowned scholars of the 20th century, but young Julia didn’t excel in school. She credits her success to working harder than her more academically-gifted peers, taking on tasks they wouldn’t do, and refusing to coast on her last name. Some people think “there is a shortcut and you just ring the most powerful person on that Rolodex,” she says, but it’s not that simple, “and that’s a good thing.”
Ha ha ha ha ha. Yeah, Julia Hobsbawm totally became a member of the elite because of her good social skills and hard work. She definitely did not gain any advantage from her father’s name and her being able to succeed had nothing to do her father at all. As we were just told, the British understand how to succeed because of their class system so now let me, scion of one of the most famous intellectuals in the world during the second half of the twentieth century, tell you, Oregon mill worker’s son, how to succeed in life through hard work and networking. Well, somehow I’m not buying any of this. This is one tonic of capitalist success that I am not tasting.
Now to be fair, Jordan Fraade, who wrote the linked article, is also quite skeptical and so maybe Hobsbawm really believes she is creating a more inclusive capitalism through her ideas. I see absolutely nothing that suggests her ideas would ever do that. Instead, I see a justification for the successful to tell themselves why they’ve succeeded and more barriers, not less, being placed between the average individual and the plutocrats who run the New Gilded Age.