Are Managers the New Barbarians Destroying Local and National Societies?

Are Managers the New Barbarians Destroying Local and National Societies?

Alberta Andreotti (University of Milan-Bicocca), Patrick Le Galès, (CNRS-Sciences-Po Paris) and Francisco Javier Moreno-Fuentes (IPP-CSIC)


Amused by his former students at the London Business School, Ian Angell wrote the The New Barbarian Manifesto in the early 2000s, identifying an emerging class of transnational mobile rational actors taking advantage of collective goods and services in the places where they lived. They did not invest resources or commit themselves to local places, going private and temporary for as many services as possible. Angell encouraged them to free-ride, make money, and organize their interests at a global scale, undermining existing social structures, States, taxation systems, and old national elites.

Mobility is clearly a feature of contemporary societies and a major driver of social change, creating new cleavages within national societies. Understanding those processes requires seriously considering the specificities of each society, for not everybody is mobile all the time. Individuals do not float in the world maximising their personal interests. Groups, values, social structures matter and clearly vary between societies. Territorialisation remains central despite the rise of transnational mobilities. The impact of mobility in European societies can only be explained in close relation to rootedness: the inscription of individuals within families, social groups, cities, welfare regimes and national societies. Mobility and mobile lives only make sense in relation to local lives and neighbourhoods, and it is the combination of the two that prevents us from falling into the trap of perceiving radical change where there is not much of it.

The hypothetical link between mobility(ies), the making of a globalised society, and the disappearance of existing social structures is, in fact, questionable. The empirical evidence analysed in our book, Globalised Minds, Roots in the City: Urban Upper Middle Classes in European Cities, provides interesting elements to reflect on the fact that, whatever the level of transnational mobility, it is quite likely that people may remain firmly rooted in their city and national context. Mobility adds a new level of complexity, and acts as a powerful driver for individualisation, but it is articulated in combination with previously existing social structures.

 People are more mobile today, and the ones with more resources can choose to ‘exit’ their country of origin with the objective of improving their living conditions, to pursue their personal and collective (family/community) goals and objectives. In practice, the ‘exit’ option (moving to another country) remains relatively rare in Europe: only 1.5 to 2% of Europeans from the EU-15 countries move each year to another country, a relatively low (and only slowly increasing) figure. Europeans seem to be born to stay rather than running.

Faced with the complexity and relatively high costs associated with ‘exit’, individuals may choose to develop ‘partial exit’ strategies (ie. to exit in order to come back, or to ‘exit’ in some domains but not others). This ‘partial exit’ may take the form of a period of residence in a foreign country to accumulate experience, skills and/or resources (foreign languages, degrees, professional experience or qualifications, etc.) before going back to their home country. It may also include regular trips abroad for professional or personal reasons to strengthen networks abroad. ‘Partial exit’ may indicate that some dimensions of personal or social life are transnationalised: owning real estate in a foreign country, sending children to international schools or universities, or avoiding public services (ie: health services).

In terms of consumption, friendships, job strategies, media exposure or financial investments, ‘partial exit’ is, therefore, not a definitive or complete form of retreat from a national society, but rather a way of diversifying networks and spheres of interaction with the objective of maximizing interests and objectives. In return, the aggregation of individual ‘partial exit’ strategies may certainly have significant consequences for national societies.

The opportunity for ‘partial exit’ allows individuals to (re)negotiate their own position within the national social structure, for example, to protest against or escape high levels of taxation, place personal wealth outside the nation-state, and actively campaign for reforms in the educational or health systems. Individuals can also choose to ‘exit’ from a certain dimension but not from another, creating a complex mix of choices which has to be analysed at different scales: local, national, European, or transnational/global.

Managers from the private and public sectors are the focus of our book (not the ‘1% of super rich’, or the CEOs of large multinational corporations). This fraction of the upper-middle classes experienced a rapid growth over the last few decades, occupying an interesting position between capital and labour, having enough economic and social assets to gain from changing scales, yet at the same time not being the leading agents of this change (elite).

Based upon the empirical evidence we generated (after interviewing 480 managers in Paris, Lyon, Madrid and Milan), we argue that these managers are sharing pro-market liberal views of the world, although they are not neo-liberal zealots. They tend to support the welfare state, and ask for more effective and efficient public services, providing that those services match their needs. They also invest resources in the cities and neighbourhoods where they live: they are deeply rooted, settled, territorialised. Their rootedness is visible through different combinations of practices, notably their choice of neighbourhood (largely explained by the existence of family and friends), and their social interaction in those areas. Managers in European cities have a solid core of local long lasting relations they regularly mobilize, and which make them well rooted in their territory. This core is mainly made up of primary family members and friends living in the same city or neighbourhood, in several cases in the original town where they come from. Half our managers never moved out of the urban area where they grew up despite all rhetoric on mobility and travelling around the world! The other half have moved to a different country, but came back, very often to the same place they left.

Although managers do not tend to segregate or isolate themselves from the social fabric (with some rare exceptions), this does not mean that they are nice bobos (bourgeois-bohemian) mixing with everyone in their neighbourhoods, irrespective of social or ethnic background. As the middle or upper-middle classes usually do, they promote their interest by controlling their environment, playing a skilful game of distance-proximity. They remain in control of the social and spatial distance they keep with diverse social and ethnic groups living in their areas. They accept some degree of encounters in public spaces, some mixing in public services (even at school), but within limits they choose. The more familiar they are with a mixed area, the higher their use of public services, since they may more skilfully limit and control the types of interactions they are exposed to. Power relations are always there, and managers are very aware of their capacity to be part of, to benefit, and shape their urban environment and the services they use.

Territory is not as a source of social solidarity, or local engagement per se, nor does it bind managers through undifferentiated dependencies and loyalties. Certainly, it is not the only social circle managers belong to. Within their territory, managers have a dense social life made of people like themselves, and they selectively socialize with neighbours. They adopt ‘partial exit’ strategies that they deploy and enact at different scale levels.

Most of our managers have friends abroad (mostly in Europe). They take Europe for granted and feel part of it, even though they also criticize it and its institutions. They are all looking beyond Europe too. European societies are slowly on the move, with networks, interactions, and values stretching beyond national and even European boundaries, even if they remain firmly rooted in their home societies.

Our findings show little willingness for urban secession among our managers. To them, the world is not an undifferentiated urban space: elites may already be disembedded, and high tech managers and professionals trained at the London Business School may be floating around, but this image does not reflect by any means the life of the managers of our sample.

The politics of austerity currently applied in Europe are leading to structural long-term unemployment, less State capacity for redistribution, and to increasing inequalities. These conditions may accelerate processes of social differentiation while scores of young Southern Europeans leave their countries in search of professional opportunities abroad. Will they go back? Will the ‘partial exit’ rationale survive in depressed labour markets? European societies were robust, and welfare states protected their citizens, but tensions are accumulating, and the crisis has deepened old cleavages. Our managers have expressed strong views in the direction they expect change to take place (more liberalization), and this may bring about more tensions. The days of slow incremental Europeanisation may be gone. If austerity policies, increased marketization and inequalities lead the elites and upper-middle classes to go global while the rest of social groups feel the temptation to retreat and shelter within their nation-states, what will be left of urban Europe?


Alberta Andreotti is a member of the Department of Sociology and Social Research, Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca; Patrick Le Galès is Director of Research at Sciences Po’s Centre d’Etudes Européennes and professor at Sciences Po; Francisco Javier Moreno-Fuentes  is of the Spanish National Research Council, Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP-CSIC)