Flexians at Home and Abroad

In her astute and exhaustively documented book Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market (2009), social anthropologist and public policy scholar Janine R. Wedel describes her novel and insightful concept of “flexians” in this way:

“The new breed of players, who operate at the nexus of official and private power, cannot only co-opt public policy agendas, crafting policy with their own purposes in mind. They test the time-honored principles of both the canons of accountability of the modern state and the codes of competition of the free market. In so doing, they reorganize relations between bureaucracy and business to their advantage, and challenge the walls erected to separate them. As these walls erode, players are better able to use official power and resources without public oversight. (emphasis added)

“Flexians craft overlapping roles for themselves—coincidences of interest—to promote public policies (and sometimes their personal finances as well).” (pp 7-8)

…“Yet while parties to corrupt activities typically engage in them for profit, the same cannot be said of flexians, who seek influence and to promote their views at least as much as money. … The very people who engage in these activities continue to command public respect and influence, sometimes even garnering more. Moreover, national and international governments and organizations are often attracted to, and reward, flexians because they get things done.

“Journalists and public interest watchdogs have excavated and published details of activities by all these players [viz. in the arena of education reform: Mercedes Schneider, Anthony Cody, Susan O’Hanian, Diane Ravitch, and more], but to little consequence.” (p. 12)

Despite the fact that Wedel’s book was published in 2009 and does not consider the global or American agenda to corporatize/privatize public schooling, in my view the same analysis applies. The neoliberal agenda of privatization of the public schools and control of the individual student as eventual consumer/worker drone is being advanced in the 21st century by the collusion of a college-chums network of politicians and corporate elites who exemplify the “flexians” that Wedell describes. This agenda is now on steroids because of exponentially advancing technology, which is driving a surveillance state.


The individuals who are profiting financially from this technology (e.g. Gates at Microsoft and Zuckerberg at Facebook), who feel uber-entitled to foist their techno/data mindset on the global society, are in lock-step with other global corporations such as McKinsey and Pearson. The most inappropriate area that these flexians should be involved in is public education. Yet they are hell-bent on disrupting and transforming what needs to be a human interaction between teacher and students into a dystopian eco-system of digital anytime, anywhere learning mediated by artificial intelligence and unregulated algorithms that are inherently lacking in transparency. Their goal is workforce development in the interest of global corporations, rather than encouragement of the latent talent and creativity within each individual student, their co-option of the term “personalization” notwithstanding.


Here in RI, we have the First [Flexian] Couple—Governor Raimondo, whose plans for education include a heavy dose of computer-mediated instruction, and First Gentleman Andy Moffit, a once upon a time TFAer (Teach for America recruit) and now an employee of McKinsey and Company. He is the co-author with Sir Michael Barber (formerly partner and head of McKinsey’s Global Education Practice and now Chief Education Advisor at Pearson) of Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders. What has the British corporation Pearson brought to education in America? Invalid high stakes testing (PARCC), incessant test prep, and curriculum of the poorest quality, as well as data collection and analysis, with the potential for monumental harm, and of course greatest profit for Pearson.


In addition to her concept of flexians, Wedel also details how the misapplication of the financial audit to all areas of governmental life has negatively impacted the social sphere.

“… In the go-go 1980s, when Thatcher and Reagan were at the helm in the United Kingdom and the United States, the goal of refashioning the state in the image of the private sector motivated the migration of audits from their original association with financial management to other areas of working life. (p. 196)

“… [t]he idea of audits exploded throughout society and permeated organizational life as the chief method of controlling individuals. The tools and approaches of accountancy became the means through which ‘the values and practices of the private sector would be instilled in the public sector,’ as several anthropologists studying the subject have assessed.” (p. 197)

All of the ills of the corporate education deform movement seem to me to stem from this ill-considered audit/accountability approach that should never have been applied to any public good, particularly one that is responsible for the healthy upbringing of our nation’s children: incessant use of high stakes tests (produced and analyzed as cheaply as possible) to control students, teachers, schools, and neighborhoods; closing of neighborhood schools and creation of charter schools, many of which pursue wholly inappropriate teaching paradigms and enable the school-to-prison pipeline; standardization of curriculum (i.e. Common Core State (sic) (Stealth) Standards, which had virtually no input from those with extensive backgrounds in child development, language and literacy development, students learning English as a second language, and students with disabilities) and which denies dignity and respect to students of diverse backgrounds; ignoring the actual strengths and needs of students with IEPs under the guise of forcing high expectations as measured by the same inappropriate tests used for the general population of students; use of poorly trained TFA temps in primarily high poverty schools; and doing away with tenure and seniority protections with the aim of destroying teachers unions. Is this the America that people struggled, fought, and died to protect and preserve? Or is this the fulfillment of decades of a stealthily imagined dystopia, profiting the very few at the expense of the very many?

Wedel asks: “Who or what can slow the players down? The mechanisms to hold them accountable to either democratic or free-market principles that applied not long ago largely do not effect (sic) these players’ machinations.” (p. 109) So it’s up to those of us who have become aware of the stakes to expose the machinations and dismantle them.





7 thoughts on “Flexians at Home and Abroad”

  1. Sheila, thanks for the synopsis of Wedel’s book and especially for your astute use of her ideas to explain what’s been happening in public education, particularly here in Rhode Island. It fits like a glove!


  2. The most anxiety creating modern-day reality which I’ve experienced while watching the slow, painful destruction of low-income public EDUCATION can be summed up in that one insidious line: “The very people who engage in these activities continue to command public respect and influence, sometimes even garnering more.”


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