The New Humanities Reader

Janine R. Wedel, "Confidence Men and Their Flex Lives"

Janine R. Wedel is a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University. Typically, specialists in Public Policy receive their training in Political Science, Government, Law, or History, but Wedel received a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley. This unique background, the study of human behavior, has given her work an originality that have made her one of the most astute observers of the sweeping changes occasioned by the fall of the Soviet Union and the spread of globalization. Wedel’s first book, The Private Poland (1986), was an ethnography of the everyday lives of Poles living under Communist rule in the former Eastern Bloc. Where some commentators saw only evidence of crushing domination, Wedel describes a complex tableau in which networks of energetic citizens were able to create a functioning society, often with the active support of an inept communist regime. Her next book Collision and Collusion (2001) examined the transition of the Soviet Bloc from communism to something closer to democracy, a transition overseen by representative from the U.S. and Western Europe. Because the press and many government officials were unwilling to look behind the scenes, the story of progress they wanted to tell could not account for the disasters that ensued: instead of bringing wealth and honest government, the fall of the Soviet Union left many of its member states impoverished and paralyzed by corruption. Wedel lays the lion’s share of the blame at the feet of Western advisors—including a number of distinguished academics—who arrived on the scene hoping to rake in huge amounts of money. Out of public view, they could wheel and deal in ways that would have been illegal at home.

Wedel’s most recent book, The Shadow Elite, picks up where Collision and Collision left off. She argues that the wheeler-dealers who could operate with impunity in the old Soviet Bloc have become the model for a new kind of social actor: the flexian. Instead of playing any single role—diplomat, entrepreneur, journalist—flexians are in and out at the same time, using the respectability of public office to mask their self-aggrandizement, or leveraging their apparent neutrality in support for highly partisan policies. Wedel represents the flexian as the embodiment of an emerging social order in which the common good is increasingly sacrificed for private gain.

Wedel’s work is often controversial, but her meticulous research has earned the respect of a growing readership. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Nation, The National Interest, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Globe, and Salon.

Wedel, Janine R. Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government and the Free Market (New York: Basic Books, 2009) 1-21. Information on her biography and work drawn from Janine Wedel's Homepage,

Links to Explore:

Wall Street's Bailout Gives Me Deja Vu: an article by Wedel at

How the Shadow Elite is Shorting "Third World America": an article by Wedel at the Huffington Post.


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