Sense and Flexibility

ff252_00“There is no conflict of interest, because we define the interest”

Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic) is a fictional superhero, founding member of the Fantastic Four. Mr. Richards gained the power of elasticity from irradiation by cosmic rays, and he has a highly malleable body which he can stretch, deform, and reform into virtually any shape. He is able to utilize his stretching form in a variety of offensive and defensive manners, such as compressing himself into a ball and ricocheting into enemies or flattening himself into a trampoline or a parachute to rescue a team-mate. He is also able to shape his hands into hammer and mace style weapons, and concentrate his mass into his fist.

The only son of wealthy physicist Nathaniel Richards and his wife Evelyn, Reed Richards was a child prodigy with special aptitude in mathematics, physics, and mechanics. He is a visionary theoretician and inspired machine smith and he has been depicted as the most intelligent human in the Marvel Universe. BusinessWeek listed him as one of the top ten most intelligent fictional characters in American comics.

Fictional character? Well, certainly nobody has ever been found with such bodily powers, but Jannine Wedel, anthropologist and Professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, has identified a new class of super-flexible people with similar intellectual and social powers: the flexians. They are everywhere, once you start looking.

“Flexians” are ultra-nimble players moving seamlessly among roles in government, business, think tanks, and media, advancing their own personal agendas and those of their associates, not the organizations, state, corporate, and otherwise they are paid to serve. (Janine R. Wedel, Rethinking Corruption in an Age of Ambiguity”)

A mover and shaker who serves multiple, overlapping roles with smiling finesse—business consultant, think tank fellow, government adviser (Lisa Margonelli, “Meet the Flexians”, Pacific Standard)

It is not just his time that is divided. His loyalties, too, are often flexible. Even the short-term consultant doing one project at a time cannot afford to owe too much allegiance to the company or government agency. Such individuals are in these organizations (some of the time anyway), but they are seldom of them. (Janine R. Wedel, “Shadow Elite”)

Flexians usually work together in close-knit flex nets that guard and share information. Wedel explains that Flexians cannot be reduced to mere lobbyists, neither can flex nets be reduced to interest groups, lobbies, old boy networks or mafias. Like interest groups and lobbies, flex nets serve a long-established function in the modern state, mediating between official and private. And, like the mafia networks, flex nets have their tentacles in all manner of state and private organizations. But, unlike mafias, many of their activities are not secret but widely open, as members of flex nets fill the airwaves making their cases.

Flex nets incorporate important aspects of other such groupings, but they also differ from them in crucial ways—and those ways are precisely what make flex nets less visible and less accountable. Five key features define both flexians and flex nets:

  • Flexians operate through personalized relations within and across official structures and act primarily based on loyalty to people, not organizations, to realize their goals.
  • They have access to should-be-official information and use it for their own purposes (working, say, as consultants for governments) and eluding monitoring.
  • They are highly skilled at branding and at using the media to sell themselves and their solutions to economic, political, and social ills.
  • They juggle roles and representations, performing interacting or ambiguous roles to maximize their influence and amass resources.
  • They relax the rules at the interstices of official and private institutions. They achieve their goals in part by finessing, circumventing, or rewriting both bureaucracy’s rules of accountability and businesses’ codes of competition

Flexians are creatures peculiar to our moment in history. They acquired their super-powers as a result of four transformation developments, the equivalent of Mr. Fantastic’s radiation:

  • The privatization and restructuring of government which gained two major impetus in the Reagan and Thatcher eras with a massive intensification of contracting out.
  • The end of the cold war which opened up new spaces for private players to play major roles in public policy
  • Information technologies which enabled new unregulated financial transactions and restructured the media
  • They embrace truthiness. The appearance of truth is what matters, not truth or falsehood themselves. Truthiness enables people to play with their identities and change their appearances.

Flexians aren’t people furtively violating the law by stuffing cash into a freezer or promoting their cousins. They are a professional class obeying a new, shadow elite social code that practically requires bending old rules. However, they violate both the rules of the state (those of accountability) and the codes of the free market (those of competition). Although some of their activities are public, the full array of their operations is almost always difficult to detect.

Flex nets might call to mind notions such as conflict of interest, but they illustrate why such labels no longer suffice.

As a Washington observer sympathetic to the neoconservatives’ aims told me, “There is no conflict of interest, because they define the interest” (Janine R. Wedel, “Rethinking Corruption in an Age of Ambiguity”)

It sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, more than Mr. Fantastic.


Fantastic Four Vol 1 #252 “Cityscape”, March 1983;  Writer/Artist: John Byrne


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.