Saturday, 13 February 2021

The new Jesuits

As an elite, the Jesuits have always been aloof and a mystery to outsiders.  Founded in 1534 by St Ignatius Loyola, the Society of Jesus was intended as a kind of spiritual SAS to help lead the fight against the heretical Protestants.  Soon the qualities of intelligence and ambition demanded of their members meant that they found themselves as confidants of kings and confessors to queens.  From these positions they were able to exercise an enormous influence by applying a tiny force to a mighty lever.  An intense dedication to their order was both their greatest strength and weakness: actions co-ordinated centrally by the Society gave them an unmatched global power; it also called into question their ultimate loyalties, and made them hated and despised by those whose influence they had eclipsed.

Now, the sites of authority have moved.  The baroque and classical palaces have become tourist attractions, while true power is wielded from the glistening post-modern castles of the giant multi-national corporations.  And there, just as in the state rooms of yore, you find latter-day Jesuits behind the ample leather thrones of the new royalty, the Managing Directors and Chief Executives.

They are the accountants.  Like the Jesuits, they are a breed apart from their peers, the other senior managers.  Usually brought in from outside rather than promoted internally, they follow their own track and destiny.  They are the company's father or mother confessor, but now it is economic rather spiritual rigour that they apply.  Where before they would insist that you bared your soul to them, confessing every last heinous sin, now they will probe every last budget, every invoice, every forecast.

Like the stern priests, they are unmoved by sentiment: figures alone speak to them just as they seem to speak only in figures, their personal cabbalistic language.  And the absolution they offer is through figures, to be won by painful repentance in the form of the cut-back budget's abnegation, and through the public recantation of a scaled-down forecast.

As the Jesuits were, the accountants too are figures of fear in their kingdoms, hated for their disproportionate power, their incorruptibility, for their ambiguous loyalties, for their sober-garbed otherness, and for their indifference to all this hate.

Today's Jesuits represent a movement from the spiritual to the material, mirroring society's own shift in pre-occupations.  We are beginning to enter a third epoch, that of the mental, where information becomes the primary resource, and where the world, its contents and every experience within it are reduced to data.  As this shift continues we might expect to see the evolution of a third Jesuit class, one whose power is predicated on the audit of that information.  Perhaps they will be descendants of the present data processing managers; perhaps they will be the attendants of the mighty, thinking computers that one day may seize power; perhaps they will work alongside third millennium data barons who will control the world's population through its addiction to synthetic, digital experience.  One thing is for sure: the Jesuits will be there.

(1989)

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