Elite Maintenance Work across the Covid-19 Crisis:
A Critical View on Power and Language
Associate Professor of Management
Telfer School of Management
University of Ottawa
55 Laurier Avenue East, Ottawa, Ontario K1N 6N5 Canada
Assistant Professor of Management
Asper School of Business
University of Manitoba
181 Freedman Crescent, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 5V4 Canada
Critical Perspectives on International Business
Special Issue on “Accelerating research on the contemporary crisis (Covid-19)”
Received: 7 May 2020
Revised 5 July 2020; 4 October 2020
Accepted: 4 December 2020
Acknowledgements: We would like to thank the editor Christoph Dörrenbächer along with the
other editors of the special issue, our reviewers for very helpful suggestions during the review
process, our collaborators on multiple projects in related streams of research, and Tom Lawrence
for early encouraging comments.
Elite Maintenance Work across the Covid-19 Crisis:
A Critical View on Power and Language
The paper presents a critical interpretation of unfolding events related to corporate and policy
making elites during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis to serve as a point of contrast to mainstream
Drawing upon literature on elite maintenance and power, learning from recent previous crises, and
emerging evidence during the Covid-19 pandemic crisis, we develop arguments to question and
problematize the exercise of power by elites towards maintenance of existing systems across the
Critical examination points attention to three related but analytically distinct strategies in the
exercise of elite power: reinforcing myths, redirecting blame, and reclaiming positions, all
directed to maintain the system and preserve power. The potential effects of this ongoing elite
maintenance are highlighted, revealing the old and new forms of power likely to emerge at the
corporate, national, and global levels across the pandemic crisis and endure beyond it.
The main originality of the paper lies in its attempt to tie together the various types of elite
maintenance works and their potential effects into an overarching narrative. Making these
connections and interpreting them from a critical perspective provides a rare large-canvas picture
of elite power and system maintenance, particularly across a global crisis.
• Social implications
It is hoped that the critical examination here may build more awareness about the deep and
complex nature of elite power and systems across the globe that preclude meaningful system
change to address societal challenges. It may thereby provide more informed engagement towards
Keywords: Power, Inequality, Rhetoric, Elites, Institutions, Financialization
Paper type: Viewpoint
Though the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented in many ways, what it shares with other
crises is the expectation by some that it may fundamentally disrupt the institutional status quo. In
crises of this nature, elites—those actors that fundamentally benefit from existing institutional
arrangements—engage in maintenance efforts that aim to preserve their status and interests.
Accordingly, even as some may see the potential for system change in response to the Covid-19
crisis, elite maintenance work is well underway with far reaching but somewhat familiar effects
for corporate, national and global levels. In this viewpoint article, we draw from existing work
on elites and crises (e.g. Morgan, Hirsch, and Quack, 2015; Riaz, Buchanan, & Ruebottom,
2016) to offer new insights into how elite actors are working to preserve the institutional status
quo in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are likely to be multiple perspectives on the role of elites during this crisis,
ranging from applause to critique. As an example, consider the contrasts that the crisis has
revealed and how these may be interpreted. Reports reveal that billionaire wealth in the United
States increased by $637 billion even as 44.1 million people became unemployed during the
pandemic going into June 2020 (Collins, Ocampo and Paslaski, 2020). Although there may be
minor fluctuations in individual billionaire fortunes, broadly similar evidence is forthcoming
from other parts of the world (Wealth-X, 2020; Sasi, 2020). One way to interpret such contrasts
is to applaud the ‘resilience’ of those who appear to succeed even through the worst of times.
However, another approach is to question and problematize such contrasts and dig deeper to
understand how these may be rooted in elite power and systems maintained by the exercise of
such power. Here, we undertake such a critical interpretation to serve as a point of contrast to
orthodox views (Roberts and Dörrenbächer, 2016) in the context of the pandemic.
Grounding our work in scholarship on elites in various command posts that shape
economic, social, and political spheres (Zald and Lounsbury, 2010), we specifically explore how
these actors use language—particularly strategic communication such as rhetoric (Brown,
Ainsworth and Grant, 2012; Harmon, Green and Goodnight, 2015; Riaz et al., 2016; Suddaby
and Greenwood, 2005) —as a form of power to maintain existing institutional arrangements. We
thus focus on how elites engage in “the rhetoric of public relations” (p. 6, Mills, 1956) to
leverage and consolidate power. In this respect, our focus on the “the classic Millsian power to
control agendas and impose definitions of reality” (p. 313, Bowman et al., 2015) finds ready
resonance in an expanding body of research on institutional work that explores how institutions
are maintained through purposive action (Hampel, Lawrence & Tracy, 2017). This literature,
with a focus on the agency of individual and collective actors and an attempt to bridge critical
views with institutional studies (Lawrence, Suddaby, and Leca, 2009), provides an entry point
for understanding the work performed by elite actors through exercising their power. Recent
expansions of this line of research elaborate how such social-symbolic work rooted in the use of
language to shape social reality may involve selves, organizations, and institutions (Lawrence
and Phillips, 2019), and is therefore apt in understanding the wide scope of the exercise of elite
power as we discuss in this paper. Elite roles in this social construction are generally less
discussed, and much needed for analyses of crises and their aftermath.
Crises are opportunities for observing the role of elites in system maintenance, including
language-based work (Morgan et al., 2015). We therefore examine the Covid-19 crisis context to
contribute to the literature on the connection between elites, language-based institutional work,
and power. The Covid-19 crisis is much broader in terms of the scale and scope of impact than
previous crises. Many more people, industries, and sectors are impacted, and all this is occurring
across the globe simultaneously in many countries. In terms of elite work, this could mean that
elites across various sectors are simultaneously called to action to engage in maintenance given
the wide scale and scope of impact. As such, our consideration of maintenance work is broader
than it would be, for example, in the case of a particular time-frame in the global financial crisis
when the maintenance work by elite bankers was most pertinent. The pattern may have
similarities but the defense mounted in the current crisis is not of a particular industry or sector,
but rather of wider institutional arrangements. Thus, our identification of three forms of
maintenance work is sufficiently broader and reflects this reality.
Although prior research has much to say about previous crises, the forms of elite
maintenance work we present here through our integrative analysis of the learning from previous
crises and emerging evidence from the current crisis have not been identified and elaborated. As
such, we provide a more complete critical examination of elite maintenance work across the
Covid-19 crisis, while drawing broader implications for elites and crises in general. Specifically,
we describe two forms of language-based elite maintenance work that have already been
underway during the ongoing crisis, and a third form that would extend to the aftermath of the
crisis. We then discuss the effects of this maintenance work on corporate power and the
dynamics of national and global power, broad patterns of which are emerging at the time of this
Power, Language, and Elites
Power and Language
To problematize and critically examine several unfolding developments in the times of
the Covid-19 pandemic, our analysis can be informed by theoretical insights from studies of
power and language. Power and related concepts have been analyzed by a wide range of scholars
within the social sciences. Following this, organizational scholars have brought attention to
power in their own research areas, particularly drawing upon the works by Foucault (Raffnsøe,
Mennicken, & Miller, 2019), Bourdieu (Sieweke, 2014), and Lukes (Fleming and Spicer, 2014).
The broad yet precise definition of power by Lukes has been found helpful by organizational
scholars probing multiple sources of power both in organizations (Ocasio et al., 2019) and
around organizations, with the view that power is about influencing others with “political
interests in mind” and is “a resource to get things done through other people, to achieve certain
goals that may be shared or contested” (p. 239, Fleming and Spicer, 2014).
The role of language in “the production, maintenance, and change of social relations of
power” has been recognized in recent times but remains underappreciated (p. 1, Fairclough,
2001). The attention to language and power in social sciences has also found its place in
management and organization studies (Hardy and Phillips, 2004). As organization scholars
argued early on, power may be located beyond obvious decision-making and found “in the play
of the discourse itself” (p. 68, Clegg, 1987). Thus, discourses may “empower particular parties
and disempower others” and importantly, discourses may have “power over people in ways that
are not obvious in everyday social interaction” (p. 597, Vaara et al., 2005).
The connection between language and power may be two-fold. Language in the public
domain may be the “site of power struggles” in that it is deployed to gain and maintain power; at
the same time, language in the public domain may be “the stake in power struggles” such that
gaining control over it would effectively be a means to sustain power (p. 74, Fairclough, 2001).
In a crisis, as we elaborate later, elites embody both of these connections between language and
power, in that they deploy language in the public domain to maintain systems of power that
privilege their existing positions, and simultaneously use these positions to more easily shape
and control language in the public domain in comparison to non-elites. Thus, attention to the role
of language – strategic communication such as rhetoric in particular – may help us illuminate the
ways in which elites manage a crisis such as Covid-19.
In focusing on the connection between language and power across a crisis, our analysis is
informed by Lukes’ ideas on power. Lukes’ classifies power into three dimensions. The first
dimension refers to the easily observable use of power in conflicts over decision-making; the
second dimension goes somewhat further and relates to the use of power in conflicts of interest,
which would mean that the agenda of those lacking power is excluded from decision-making
(McAnulla, 2011). Beyond these and of particular relevance here is Lukes’ third dimension of
power, which has been considered the most important and insidious (Dowding, 2006). This
refers to the invisible aspects of elite power when non-elites believe in myths that perpetuate
elite power, or when non-elites remain resigned to elite power as a natural course of the world
(Lukes, 2005). This is particularly relevant for our analysis because we highlight the language-
based elite work that tends to be more insidious and taken-for-granted in the perpetuation of
power. Accordingly, in our discussion below on elite maintenance work, we attempt to push our
thinking towards the third dimension of power in the current context, although it is given that
power in its more readily visible and comprehensible forms of the first and second dimensions is
also part of the picture.
Elites and Command Posts
For Lukes, power is a capacity and the exercise of that capacity may or may not occur
(Lukes, 2005). In analyzing power in the context of the pandemic, we need to consider which
actors may have this capacity and alongside elaborate on how they may exercise it. Research in
organization studies rarely puts together analysis of power with those “who exercise power or
who are gatekeepers to power resources” (p. 2, Morgan et al., 2015). Early work by Mills puts
the two together, following which we focus attention on elites that occupy “pivotal positions” or
“strategic command posts” where the decisions made or not made equally have major
consequences for society (p. 5, Mills, 1956). In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, studying the
work of those “who are in particularly privileged positions of wealth and income and associated
social class and power…and may have disproportionate influence” in the public domain (p.7,
Riaz, 2015) would be one way to proceed. Of particular relevance would be the exercise of
power by such elites that is directed towards maintaining the systems of power during and
beyond the crisis.
The elites we call attention to do not belong to any one easily classifiable group or
category of people. Importantly, they are not confined to the formal political field. Particularly in
democratic systems where there may be an inherent tension between elites and egalitarian
democratic citizenship, elites may work from command posts beyond politics such that “the
organization of power and leadership in these public but not formally political fields has the
potential to undercut the authority of democratic representation as well as commitments to
equality” (p. 227, Clemens, 2015). Accordingly, our illustrations draw upon such power across
sectors, typically going beyond policy making to key industries.
Going beyond the political field, our consideration of elite professionals and key industry
players is broadly in line with recent research that has highlighted how professional
organizations such as professional service firms deploy power through strategies such as
lobbying and leveraging expertise to “establish their preferred institutional arrangements as
‘common’ and ‘universal’” and achieve hegemonic positions across the globe (p. 86, Boussebaa
and Faulconbridge, 2019). Parmar (2019) points out how global systems today may be
understood as benefiting elites not just in the leading economy, the United States, but also across
the world through the accommodation of non-US elites into the same systems. He points to the
power of elite networks that comprise flows of “people, money, and ideas” (p. 537, Parmar,
2019) deployed to “defend established order against counter-hegemonic forces” (p. 541, Parmar,
2019). In the post WWII decades, the most dominant elite networks in this respect have been
US-based but have also often accommodated elites from other domains, such as from countries
in the global south or minorities within Western countries, to construct an intellectual hegemony
(Parmar, 2002). In line with this, we focus mostly on how elite power is exercised via key
positions within the United States context, and extend to brief examples from other countries to
demonstrate the global implications of our arguments.
In focusing upon the intersection of such elites with power, we follow Mills on the need
“for a descriptive turn and a renewed concern with elite effects” to go beyond traditional elite
studies that are often “methods-bound” or studies that make “elite groups disappear” by being
entirely dependent on large sample surveys (p. 309, Bowman et al., 2015). Our approach is
therefore one that balances “description with an analytic turn towards analyzing elite effects on
political agendas and accepted definitions of reality” (p. 312, Bowman et al., 2015).
Accordingly, in the next section we provide a description of the relevant forms of elite
maintenance work along with an analysis of how this language-based work shapes social reality,
and we follow this up in the power redux section with a discussion of the implications for power
at corporate, national, and global levels.
Language and Elite Maintenance Work across the Covid-19 Crisis
In this section, we integrate learning from prior research on elites during crises with our
analysis of emerging evidence from the Covid-19 crisis to formulate three forms of language-
based elite maintenance work. The first form of maintenance work takes on a direct approach in
that it involves strengthening of long-standing and widely-shared economic beliefs or myths. The
second form takes on a more diversionary approach, and particularly relies on deploying and
shaping of post-truth rhetoric through new media platforms which have become a major tool in
recent times. In addition to these two forms during the crisis, we identify a third form of work
that involves the use of language in developing a post-hoc narrative to bracket the crisis as an
outlier and exogenous shock, and thereby set the grounds for reclaiming positions conceded with
respect to changes in the system and the command posts occupied by elites.
The exercise of power by elites in the current crisis is discernible when there is a large
gap between what is projected as success of the system versus the actual impact the system has
on non-elite lives. The existence of such gaps of awareness about the purported success of a
system versus its actual impact on non-elite lives points us to the role of institutionalized myths
(Meyer and Rowan, 1977), which have recently been highlighted as crucial in perpetuating
various societal inequalities (Amis, Mair and Munir, 2019).
One of the most striking examples of this in the pandemic relates to upholding myths
around the societal importance of the stock market as a measure of economic well-being. In the
context of financialized socioeconomic systems that increasingly characterize major economies
(Davis, 2009; Van der Zwan, 2014), one key point of evidence for this gap is the obsession with
stock market performance to the neglect of the impact on real lives of non-elites. Consider for
example that in the US (and to varying extent elsewhere), the stock market rebound coincided
with news that about 10% of US labor force was unemployed (around April 9 2020). In the midst
of continuing large-scale suffering during the pandemic, stock markets recorded their best
quarter in two decades by July 1, 2020 (Elder et al., 2020). Ignored in the celebration of these
stock prices is the reality that stock ownership is highly skewed with around 80% owned by just
10% of the population in the US (Clarke, 2017; Wolff, 2012).
Extending these insights to the current pandemic context, long-standing beliefs and
values will be put into service towards strengthening the existing system and moderating calls for
fundamental change. In the case of the stock market, policy makers in charge continued to
project and act in line with the view that the stock market is the economy (Romans, 2020). Such
elite rhetoric about the financialized economy is ongoing and persisted even across the global
financial crisis (Riaz, Buchanan and Ruebottom, 2016; Riaz, Buchanan and Bapuji, 2011), and is
thus quite unlikely to suddenly change across the Covid-19 crisis. We can expect that “financial
industry leadership may well see it as their task to defend the institutional framework in which
the current version of their industry thrives; and accordingly work to ‘socialize’ the rest of us –
all stakeholders – to accept their view of finance and its role in society” (Riaz, 2016b). Such
social-symbolic work would maintain the dominance of financial markets and financial industry
in the economy, ensuring that economic support from the state takes on forms that
disproportionately lead to gains for the powerful while few benefits are available for the most
marginalized (Riaz, 2019). Thus, even in the midst of the pandemic, financial analysts for large
banks can tout expected increases in stock prices to their clients mentioning in such
communications that these gains are made possible by monetary interventions by the US Federal
Reserve (Taibbi, 2020), whereas in the public domain such interventions were projected to be for
the benefit of non-elites. On the flip side, the financialization of corporations through practices
based on stock price prioritization such as share buybacks has left many workers in precarious
positions. The pandemic is likely to add further woes to these workers, some of whom already
faced increased exposure to downward socioeconomic mobility such as the previously emerging
black middle class in the US (Lazonick, Moss, Weitz, 2020). In essence, upholding the myth of
rising stock prices serving all helps obscure the inequalities perpetuated by practices based on it.
A second example of this relates to the valorization of debt-based consumption as an
essential part of the economy (Buchanan, Toubiana and Riaz, 2017). Scholars suggest one of the
key ways to analytically separate the haves from have-nots in today’s economies is based on
their role in debt – on one side are the rich savers and on the other are those who end up in
increasing levels of household debt (Mian, Straub & Sufi, 2020). The previous crisis has already
shown the morally untenable impact of current systems of debt on the most vulnerable (Riaz,
2016a) and the pandemic is likely to widen this debt-based inequality in the face of tapering off
government support, stalled employment, and inaccessible health services. Regardless of these
differential effects, the myth of a consumer debt propelled economy, or more widely a
financialized economy, as good for all is propagated and serves to maintain the existing system.
Extending beyond the myths of the financialized economy such as short-term stock prices
or current debt practices being good for all, there are wider myths about the kind of society that
people live in. These include the myths that the current system is one that upholds ‘freedom’ or
‘equal opportunity’ and such myths persist despite evidence to the contrary (McNamee and
Miller, 2009). We have reports from the US on how potential effective steps to address the crisis
are being denied by justifications of preserving the ‘free market’, thus privileging the running of
the economic system over health and other risks faced by non-elites during the pandemic. Over
time, social-symbolic work by elites ensures these myths are interwoven into people’s identities
and to challenge them means asking people to give up what makes them and their nation ‘great’
in the first place. Thus, in serving these myths people believe they are defending and
strengthening their own identity. In other words, elite maintenance work during the pandemic
ensures the upholding of myths by non-elites and thus confirms acquiescence by non-elites in
systems of their own domination (Lukes, 2005).
The perpetuation of such myths requires that certain perspectives be privileged more than
others and thus shape public discourse that serves to strengthen the system. Accordingly, during
and post-crisis, a lot depends on who will claim authority to speak on and interpret the crisis
events. Prior experience does not bode well for a critical turn or a prioritization of non-elite
actors in this respect. Instead, those in elite command posts will find ways to reinforce their
authority, through a mix of claiming key positions through ‘revolving doors’ (retaining
command posts by moving across major corporate and policy making roles) and claims of
expertise and trustworthiness on the issue to ensure their own epistemic authority (Riaz et al.,
2016). Epistemic authority provides key actors with the privilege to speak on complex issues,
interpreting and explaining them in ways that serve their own interests and ultimately reinforce
the existing system. The key actors during the pandemic look a lot like the actors seen during the
previous crisis. Prior research has noted that the shift to neoliberal policy not just in US but
globally “in which finance and financial markets have become crucial has fundamentally altered
the terrain on which elites act” (p.18, Morgan et al., 2015). Emerging reports suggest the
extending influence of financial industry firm BlackRock, which has led some to compare it to
investment bank Goldman Sachs, which was referred to as a “vampire squid” during the previous
crisis (Jenkins, 2020). BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s claims include caring for long-term
shareholder value and climate risks (Fink, 2020). Such projection of expertise and
trustworthiness may be seen as an attempt to gain epistemic authority to speak on a wider range
of social, economic and political matters. While some may argue such authority could be used
towards meaningful reform, some currently reported patterns fit more in line with those of key
financial industry players during the previous crisis. There is already evidence of BlackRock’s
key role in lobbying, revolving doors (its alumni and government policy makers have several
overlaps), and substantive access to resources during the pandemic; most strikingly, this includes
BlackRock’s exclusive role in US Federal Reserve plans for pandemic relief (Jenkins, 2020).
More subtle are the savings made when BlackRock’s major funds that were headed into losses
were buoyed back to their levels within days of announcements from the Federal Reserve about
its new purchasing programs (Taibbi, 2020). It appears therefore that such elite actors may
continue prior patterns of leveraging command posts to help them shape the social world in ways
that privilege their own interests. In contrast to the dominant roles of such elite actors, those who
are systemically oppressed will continue to be blamed and marginalized, with minimal roles in
shaping the overall discourse either about the system or even about themselves (Buchanan,
Ruebottom and Riaz, 2018). By upholding and strengthening such economic myths, elites may
be thought of as engaged in an “undemocracy” project in which “powers of debate, decision and
action in complex capitalist societies can be frustrated or hijacked by small groups with agendas”
(p. 307, Bowman et al., 2015) such that the interests of non-elites in economy are subverted to
those of elites.
Along with the direct reinforcing discussed above, elite maintenance work takes on
another form to deal with non-elite grievances that are not easily suppressed. As before, the
strategy here involves social-symbolic work based on language to construct a social reality
(Lawrence and Phillips, 2019), but one where such concerns are not addressed simply by
reinforcing myths and instead have to be channeled in directions that serve elite interests.
One major tool in this endeavor is the expansion of ‘post-truth’ rhetoric, i.e. persuasion
built on fake news and misleading information, which has become important in the political
arena (Lee and Hosam, 2020). Populist politicians and their supporters have put it to use to
counter critical positions that are supportive of non-elite interests, bringing an equivalence
between their own post-truth rhetoric and the questioning of objective realities in critical thought
(Prasad, 2019). In general, such post-truth rhetoric follows some expected patterns. Existing
discontent that stems from a perception about lack of power and voice vis-a-vis the government,
large corporations or any other aspect of the system is not directly opposed or suppressed, but
rather cultivated and channeled into a direction that serves the maintenance of that very system.
This provides individuals with a perception of resistance, agency, and freedom while actually
ensuring real change is stalled.
Towards this aim, maintenance work that is already common in our post-truth world will
hold sway on issues related to the pandemic. This involves “tactics of questioning scientific truth
[to] add complexity and refocus attention” (p. 456, Parker and Racz, 2020) such as by “sowing
seeds of doubt” to keep “controversy alive” (p. 455, ibid). Further, this pandemic crisis comes at
a time when what may be called ‘information fault lines’ are already entrenched in the United
States and in many other parts of the globe and would play a major role in the interpretation of
information. Such fault lines separate audiences into polarized groups, thriving on selective
partaking of information only from sources that confirm one’s views (e.g. Stroud, 2010). While
human deaths are hard to ignore as a point of information, the facts that cross the information
fault lines would be so twisted by rhetorical strategies that they will be made to mean whatever
one wants. Herein lies the opportunity for elite maintenance work by generating doubt and
confusion to deflect blame and responsibility. Difficult in the best of times, who is responsible
for dysfunctional systems will not be so easy to determine or to develop universal consensus on
when pre-determined positions exist and information sources diverge.
We can see how this is emerging in the Covid-19 crisis and beyond. Already, reports
suggest the rhetoric of challenging authority and creating doubt about the establishment is being
deployed in a perverse way to defy the physical distancing directions in place. A connection is
created here between the already existing suspicions about knowledge and experts, and
channeled into a direction that serves the maintenance of the system. For example, in the United
States there have been protests against anti-quarantine measures during the pandemic that also
tied into other ongoing polarizing issues such as support for gun rights, fear of any policies that
may be labeled socialist, rising ethno-nationalism, and so on (Ellis, 2020). Not surprisingly, in
some cases wealthy funders supported such protests continuing a long line of elite maintenance
work that seeks to direct apparently spontaneous protests or movements into a political position
that benefits elites (Barley, 2010). Thus, while deploying “rhetorical, racialized, and
Islamophobic flourishes” in an “against the establishment” narrative as exemplified in the US,
the “established status quo” may continue in key respects (p. 559, Parmar, 2019) such that the
non-privileged make few real gains. In other places across the globe, there is emerging evidence
of how populist politicians are exploiting the pandemic to divert people’s anxieties and
frustrations towards familiar targets such as marginalized minorities (Prasad, 2020). Political
elites and their supporting corporate media that thrive on polarization have exercised their power
through social-symbolic work to continue the construction of an “other” to blame (Poruthiyil,
2019). In other words, post-truth rhetoric is deployed to divert blame away from those who hold
power and instead play into identity polarizations that keep those very elites in power.
Such elite maintenance work within countries also ties into across-country identity
anxieties and polarizations. For example, rhetoric is deployed to constantly frame problems as
‘us versus them’ to inflame identity anxieties in order to channel fears and the need for voice and
power towards external ‘enemies’. At the global level, such as in the rhetoric on Covid-19
origins and responsibilities, this is developing into United States versus China or West versus
China dimensions. Recent reports indicate that paid political advertisements in the United States
have been blaming China, even as media from China do the reverse (Peterson and Mesley,
2020). In other words, if attention is refocused on an external party to blame, which could be
organizations such as World Health Organization or external governments, attention may be
diverted from the dysfunctions of one’s own institutional system that has resulted in large scale
societal problems such as lack of effective health care for many, increasing inequalities, lack of
socioeconomic mobility, etc. Thus, by redirecting the energies around change in dysfunctional
systems to more intuitive and biased channels around identity, an us versus them socio-political
polarization is set into motion which entirely misses the core challenges of the crisis and the
associated corrections needed.
Overall, these ongoing actions by elites will contribute to ongoing systemic power
(Lukes, 2004) wherein many people may continue to support systems and elites in command
posts of those systems that actually work against their very interests. As earlier scholars of
system justification and maintenance have noted, “‘top-down’ processes of elite communication
(the ‘discursive superstructure’) necessarily meet up – or interact – with ‘bottom-up’
psychological needs and interests (the ‘motivational substructure’), so that system-justifying
messages find their audiences and vice versa” (p. 3, Jost, 2018). In current times, these processes
are extended to new and unique social-symbolic work (Lawrence and Phillips, 2019) by elites to
maintain their own power as elaborated here. An interesting extension of this is also likely
beyond the immediate crisis, to which we turn next.
Reclaiming positions: From maintenance during the crisis to post-crisis
During a crisis, minor symbolic or substantive concessions are often necessitated based
on increased awareness among non-elite members of society that key parts of the system need
fixing. Towards the later parts of the crisis and post-crisis, the efforts at maintenance of the
system will attempt to reclaim such concessions that may have been made during the crisis.
The key elite maintenance strategy here in post-crisis times is language-based framing to
confine any questions or issues that arise to a specific time and scope, and thus overcome any
threats to elite power or to the system. This would involve bracketing the Covid-19 crisis in time
and scope by building the case on how the unprecedented nature of the event should be the focus,
rather than questioning dysfunction of the system and elite roles therein that lead to large scale
suffering of various types when an external shock appears. Such an approach would help to
cover up the long-term problematic direction that national and global institutions have taken over
time, and confine the issues to a ‘one time’ problem. This would build the ground for reclaiming
elite roles and any symbolic concessions made in the system.
During the pandemic, a few symbolic and substantive changes are evident. CEOs
announced cuts to their salaries to balance out the news of layoffs; some also announced a hold
on share buybacks and dividends, signaling a departure from financialization logic towards a
focus on the average employee and long-term organizational development (Shoulberg, 2020).
Some of these cuts, particularly those leading to $0 salary for certain CEOs appear highly visible
in pandemic times (Brandt, 2020). Less noticed in this news is that these voluntary measures do
not limit other forms of CEO compensation, and do not have a long-term commitment. Even
regulatory measures proposed to cap CEO pay for firms taking bailouts during the crisis may not
last long. As in the previous crisis, these are open to about-turns in a post-crisis environment by
bracketing the changes in time and scope, and reclaiming lost ground. There is already news that
attempts to reclaim pre-Covid CEO pay levels has started, perhaps sooner than expected
(Editorial Board FT, 2020). Other interesting examples are also likely to emerge. During the
pandemic, while Uber lobbied for government support for its drivers it maintained the
‘independent worker’ category for them (Lee, 2020). This ensures that the bracketing of scope is
easily done post-crisis, where the categorization of drivers as independent workers will continue
to limit Uber’s responsibility towards them. In other words, just like the previous crisis, gestures
needed to placate audiences or to access state support will be followed by push back towards the
earlier positions, dismissing the changes as emergency measures that were needed at the time.
The pattern of prior crises, such as the global financial crisis, corroborates these new
patterns emerging in the Covid-19 context and indicates what is to come. For example, during
the previous crisis financial industry players accepted major government support, made a few
concessions on regulatory changes, and took a few highly visible steps such as constraints on top
executive bonuses. However, post-crisis elite work started to push back. Richard Fuld, who had
presided over Lehman’s buildup to bankruptcy in 2008 turned around post-crisis to lay blame on
the government, stating that the crisis “was a perfect storm…but it starts with the government”
(Braithwaite, 2015). Regulations passed following the crisis such as the Dodd-Frank act became
a target of the financial industry post-crisis. The rollback of the Volcker Rule ban on proprietary
trading constituted a key win for banks in this respect (Schroeder, 2019). The US Consumer
Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) created in response to the crisis later faced a lawsuit
challenging its constitutionality and also underwent a change in its leadership, all attempts to
tone down its role in regulating industry and protecting non-elite consumer interests.
Elite actors whose roles in maintenance of the system across the global financial crisis
may have evoked questions, went on to reclaim command posts of authority in the public
domain. Some years after the crisis, Richard Fuld went on to run a private capital firm offering
advice to high net-worth clients. Regulators and policy makers who oversaw bailouts without
ensuring adequate system changes to protect non-elite interests and without putting in measures
that would stop post-crisis rollbacks for industry players were back in business, sometimes quite
literally. Ben Bernanke passed through the classic revolving door moving from chairman of US
Federal Reserve to advisor at investment firm Pimco, similarly Tim Geithner went from
president of NY Federal Reserve to president of private equity firm Warburg Pincus, and Hank
Paulson moved from US Treasury Secretary to chairman of Paulson Institute at University of
Chicago. As other examples to illustrate the pattern, in the U.K., Mervyn King moved on from
Bank of England governor to become adviser to Citigroup, and Alistair Darling went from
chancellor of the exchequer to become director at Morgan Stanley (Farrell, 2018). On a related
broader note, global elites in such “gold-collar executive” networks regained or surpassed pre-
crisis levels of wealth after the crisis while non-elites continued to lag behind (Metcalf and
Kennedy, 2019). This pattern illustrates that even if we consider that such a crisis put elites on
trial, “it was a trial from which as individuals they generally escaped relatively unscathed” (p.
20, Morgan et al., 2015), pointing to elite maintenance work during the current crisis that will
ensure a similar pattern emerges post-crisis.
Overall, the patterns from the prior crisis and emerging evidence from the current
pandemic crisis suggest that post-crisis elite efforts will be directed towards reclaiming their own
power and bringing back key aspects of the pre-Covid system. Ultimately, elite maintenance
efforts towards time and scope bracketing would seek to socially construct the pandemic as a
unique outlier event in the public imagination and reclaim non-elite support for key aspects of
the pre-Covid system, continuing the systemic form of power into which non-elites are bound
In this discussion section, we reflect on some points of distinction between the current
crisis and previous crises and implications of these going forward. In previous crises, such as the
global financial crisis, there was a core industry around which critiques emerged and thus
maintenance efforts had to be more focused. For example, defense of banking industry was key
in the previous crisis (Riaz et al., 2016). However, a key form of work we identify during the
current crisis is about “Reinforcing myths” that pertain to the impact on the wider economy, not
just a particular industry or sector because the wider institutional system is at stake in this crisis.
We expect that such wider scale and scope of maintenance work of preserving multiple myths
will continue to be needed, and in fact reinforcing myths may go well beyond those of the
financialized economy that we have focused upon and would involve reinforcing deeper social
and cultural beliefs of “opportunity” “freedom”, “liberty”, etc. in a way that ties these beliefs to
the existing institutional system, and hence such reinforcement of myths would serve to support
Further, the Covid-19 crisis takes place at a time when the global reach of digital media,
particularly social media, is at a new high. This opens new fronts in the deployment of language
and thereby new forms of maintenance work. In particular, as some have started to note, this
time has come to be known for a rising influence of ‘post-truth’ rhetoric. We give due attention
to this aspect and indeed the second form of maintenance work we identify “redirecting blame”
discusses this in detail. We expect that analyses of social-symbolic work and language work
need to engage with this ‘post-truth’ digital world to disentangle how the social construction of
reality takes place and the kinds of extreme polarizations that it would ensue. Crises of any kind
that generate polemics and engage large sections of the population in emotional exchanges are
particularly germane to such polarizations and associated societal dysfunctions such as the
disruption of democratic processes.
In previous crises, “blame games” of who is responsible for the crisis and its aftermath
typically targeted an industry such as banking or a set of actors, such as bankers, or policy
makers, or elites in general (Morgan et al., 2015). In the Covid-19 crisis, there is no specific
‘sector’ or specific ‘set’ of elites on trial. Instead, the “blame game” has opened up a country-
versus-country angle tying into existing insecurities around global trade along with economic
and political power, such as in the case of United States versus China. Accordingly, we gave
attention to this in our second form of work, building the ‘post-truth’ rhetoric idea further and
mentioning how it would play a role in such blame games. We expect that driven by a continued
and increasing global fracturing of sources of information and associated increasing polarization,
such country-level or regional-level issues will take on more importance in future crises in
comparison to recent previous crises.
Additionally, our third form of work also speaks to this unique aspect of this crisis
wherein there is no specific sector on trial and the crisis arguably has a “natural” cause. This
would make it easier for elites in any specific sector to evade “trial” for system dysfunction.
Furthermore, such evasion of responsibility would be made easier in the current crisis due to the
increased reach of platforms where high levels of post-truth rhetoric can thrive as compared to
previous crises. Taken together, these factors will aid in social construction of crisis-related
issues well beyond the crisis timeframe, such that in the post-crisis scenario the crisis comes to
be seen as an exceptional event rather than a wider problem with socioeconomic and political
system. Instead of existing systems being adequately problematized, the crafting of a one-time
exogenous shock perspective would prevail in the public imagination, effectively nullifying calls
for change and ensuring key elements of the pre-crisis system – particularly the power
distribution of elites versus non-elites – are not disrupted.
Power redux: Implications for corporate, national and global power dynamics
The maintenance work of elite actors, including corporate leaders and policymakers,
would have effects at the corporate, national, and global levels. It would be important to
analytically consider these to understand the old and new forms of power that are likely to
emerge across the pandemic crisis and may endure beyond it.
Corporate power across the pandemic
As even The Economist noted, there will be winners and losers in this crisis (Economist,
2020). Several organizations may indeed have performed a positive role during the pandemic.
However, in certain cases what is presented as “corporate resilience” during the pandemic may
be open to a more critical interpretation. In this view, the ongoing elite maintenance efforts
discussed earlier in this paper would manifest in substantive increases in future power of key
actors across the globe. We illustrate this with two prominent examples – key financial industry
players and big tech industry players.
The problems of financialization and its associated practices that became most evident in
2008-09 as the global financial crisis have not really gone away. As discussed above, elite
maintenance efforts will uphold this system for the most part across and beyond the pandemic
crisis. This suggests that some familiar trends will emerge in terms of winners and losers. In
other words, key players in the global financial industry that underlies increasingly financialized
economies across the globe will continue in powerful roles. Although retail related financial
businesses may show some contraction during the pandemic, the industry as whole is likely to
continue its domination. As evident from the above discussion on the extended role of
BlackRock that has led some to drawn comparisons with Goldman Sachs in the previous crisis,
the actual actors may appear to change but the broad power patterns that are emerging show
similarity with earlier times. The New York Federal Reserve referred to BlackRock’s “expertise”
and “capabilities” in increasingly glowing terms, which may be interpreted as an indication that
its power is here to stay across many domains in the future. Among the new globally expanding
power positions of BlackRock is becoming key advisor to the European Union for the integration
of sustainability into EU banking regulations. In the US, it has become the Federal Reserve’s
chosen investment manager for billions of dollars as part of the pandemic response, without
going through a tender process. This rising power was already evident during the global financial
crisis when BlackRock was picked without a tender process to manage the assets of troubled
players such as Bear Stearns and American International Group (Ablan, Greeley & Henderson,
2020). BlackRock has also recently expanded its private equity business, which is another area
where financial industry players continue to rise in power even across the pandemic.
Emerging evidence suggests a pattern of a select few private equity players from the
United States expanding their stakes and control on advantageous terms in companies across the
world that are distressed due to the pandemic. For example, in the period from March to June
2020, KKR completed 26 deals while Bain and Warburg Pincus did 17 each; Silver Lake
invested in companies such as Airbnb and Expedia that suffered during the pandemic (Wiggins,
2020). Recent research refers to private equity as “the billionaire factory” because its fees-based
gains amounting to billions of dollars typically go to a few individuals (Phalippou, 2020). The
full consequences of this global increase in power of a handful of private equity players remains
to be seen. Meanwhile on another front Wall Street investment banks made record fees on debt
deals as companies borrowed money to survive the pandemic (Platt and Henderson, 2020). In the
policy arena, despite electoral rhetoric in the United States in recent years that elite influence
would be reduced, “the sheer weight of senior appointees from the world of international
finance” among other industries “suggests that the likely policy effects will recalibrate
international relationships rather than overturn” them (p. 557, Parmar, 2019), thus continuing a
United States-centered global finance industry influence on the global economy. These points
illustrate how the power of certain financial players is strengthened globally going into post-
pandemic times, and financialization of economic, social, and political life is likely to continue
in new and old forms thus binding non-elites into systems of domination as discussed earlier.
A second key industry example would be the tech industry, with an increasingly larger
global footprint of the Big Tech companies. Big Tech’s power as online gatekeepers of both
public discourse and ecommerce has already been evident pre-pandemic (Foroohar, 2019). This
ongoing power would not only help it overcome the crisis but also to use its resources and
opportunities to emerge more powerful after the crisis. Indeed, even as the crisis unfolded there
was news of emerging recovery among the tech giants (Waters, 2020) and reports suggest some
of them could get even bigger than they were prior to the Covid-19 crisis (Wigglesworth, 2020).
In communication or public discourse, big tech companies such as Google and Facebook
are often the gatekeepers of our news and interactions; for example, in the United States around
47% of the population gets news via social media with Facebook as the most dominant (Lazer et
al., 2018). In certain cases, such media have become one of the sources of post-truth rhetoric and
hate. Undeterred by controversy, Facebook emerged as one of the winners during the pandemic
in terms of increased time spent by users on the platform and strengthening of its advertising-
based model (Financial Times, 2020). There have been increasing concerns that it has not done
enough to limit fake news and hate, with a few clients feeling pressured enough to make
symbolic gestures of temporarily halting advertisements (Murphy, 2020). However, the problem
is unlikely to be solved by such limited pressure on just one company or by mild modifications
that it may make to stall criticism. First, any pressure for serious change is likely to be resisted
by counter-pressure from elite sources that thrive on such polarizations. For example, Twitter’s
recent attempt to contextualize certain tweets was immediately met with threats, as would be
expected from those who rely on post-truth rhetoric to fuel identity-based polarizations and
maintain their own power (Ferguson, 2020). Second, the reality that such businesses thrive on
polarizing engagement and the people themselves are locked into the system of their own
domination via identity and polarization (as discussed above in elite maintenance work) is
unlikely to go away and may find other amplification platforms, enabling elite power and system
maintenance to continue. As just one example of alternatives, Whatsapp, though owned by
Facebook, works on a different model using direct person-to-person messages; and yet at times it
has become a key tool in the propagation of misinformation, hate, and incitement to violence in
places like India (Arun, 2019).
Among other winners is Alphabet, which added to its already controversial power in
information and entertainment domains during the work-from-home pandemic times; similarly,
China based Tencent continues to gain power with the pandemic helping it expand gaming
revenues, video and music reach, and social media plus ecommerce application WeChat
(Financial Times, 2020). Expectedly, ecommerce giant Amazon, whose power was already a
source of concern now heads the list of companies that are prospering across the pandemic. The
increased need for online shopping and its cloud platform for business pushed stock to all-time
highs; record revenues, despite some rise in costs (Financial Times, 2020), signaled more power
in years to come.
Other familiar powerful firms also made the top list. Microsoft saw increased users for its
remote work Teams application, cloud platform for business, and gaming platform. Apple
continued making gains from its widening set of interlocked products even through the closure of
retail stores during the pandemic. The power concentration in the industry continued across the
pandemic as Big Tech expanded through acquisitions and mergers at a rate not seen since 2015
(Kruppa and Fontanella-Khan, 2020). Overall, the pandemic reveals a striking picture of the
durability of Big Tech power over smaller competitors (if at all there are any significant ones
left) and the public, as they sail through and even make further gains during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, these firms have also been preparing along expected lines for the one possible threat
– scrutiny of global regulators. Elite maintenance efforts here include the use of classic revolving
doors through the hiring of prior antitrust regulation officials (Stacey, 2018), who could provide
a means to counter potential new regulation. In sum, Big Tech’s power and associated elite
maintenance efforts continue in a way that places non-elites with little choice, likely resignation,
and even acquiescence in systems of their own domination, as elaborated earlier in the paper.
These aspects call for more investigation across and beyond the pandemic.
National and global effects across the pandemic
Beyond the corporate level, in line with how national and global markets often failed in
large scale coordination to address the Covid-19 crisis, the question of macro-level governance is
becoming more prominent. During the global financial crisis, there was new space created for a
wider range of voices on both sides of the then prevalent welfare-capitalism models, with some
calls for less government involvement and other calls for more (Riaz, 2009b). Across this
pandemic crisis there may initially be a surge of voices mostly towards the need for more, not
less governance, given the evident failures of the current structure of several markets. An ideal
view here may suggest that the problem of coordination at macro scales – including national and
global scales – could be addressed effectively via participative, democratic and well-coordinated
governance. However, this ‘more governance’ idea will be open to interpretation and
manipulation to serve prior positions of power and maintain status quo. Over time, in some
locations it may increase support for and acceptance of authoritarian governments, without
recognizing the long-term dangers of such regimes. Already, reports suggest that the pandemic is
serving as an excuse to stifle voices against authority such as in the case of China’s clamp down
in Hong Kong (Davidson, 2020). In India, a rising trend towards authoritarianism based on a
nexus of state and corporate power (Poruthiyil, 2019) continued with more polarizing rhetoric to
demonize minorities (blaming them for spreading the virus) and imposition of lockdowns
without adequate plans to support the most vulnerable such as poor migrant workers
(Ramasubramanyam, 2020). In another case, already rising populist authoritarianism in Brazil
saw new levels with policy makers wiping out data on the pandemic toll and censoring new data
In cases such as the ones above, the rhetoric of nationalism may serve to silence
opponents. Based on identity polarization, such rhetoric would appeal to within-country
audiences, for whom it is primarily meant. However, the repercussions of such rhetoric for
global effects may be interrelated but different from the national effects. Two aspects here need
continued attention. First, early evidence suggests how blame-game rhetoric is fueling further
antagonism. While most prominent in the case of large economies such as United States versus
China (Jack, 2020), other countries are also likely to face similar challenges as exemplified by
the United States asking 3M to stop supplying masks to Canada and Latin America countries
(Abedi, 2020). Second, within-country polarizations will not always work for outside country
audiences. This is one crisis which is truly global, and to those who really seek it there will
ultimately be evidence to observe the handling or mishandling of it across countries. Although
political elites in each country will still attempt to build narratives that show them in positive
light, the failures of national institutions may not be fully covered up for all global audiences.
Accordingly, one space for some change could be in global perceptions of country status, and
thus in global power configurations.
One question of interest here is whether the United States may continue to command the
soft power it has for many decades. The halo of soft power depends much on the perception of
success in substantive terms. As evident leading up to the global financial crisis, substantive
success “reverse-legitimates” institutions, i.e. creates a halo effect over the institutions that are
perceived to have given rise to the successful substantive performance of players in that
institutional system (Riaz, 2009a). However, substantive performance failures could lead to some
problematizing or moral evaluation of the associated institutions (Cloutier & Langley, 2013;
Riaz & Qureshi, 2017). Thus, the one change that may be expected is in global prestige, or soft
power. However, because this will be limited to soft power issues with limited impact on hard
power (such as in the military-industrial complex), negotiations of cross-national agreements and
treaties may be impacted but in a limited manner – bounded by the hard realities of hard power.
Furthermore, fallouts of this on corporations in the global economy may still be
somewhat limited. While the power of corporations has increased, their connections to any
specific country including their ‘headquarter’ countries in terms of providing large scale
employment or long-term investment are less binding (Davis, 2016). Instead, many industries are
now based on the prestige and power of large corporations over networks or value chains that
may be dispersed across the globe (Levy, 2008). In the face of ongoing lack of coordination
among non-elite stakeholders across the globe, large corporations would continue taking
advantage of and contributing to both across- and within-country inequalities (Narula & van der
Straaten, 2020). Thus, though some large corporations may face a bit of spillover effect of lower
prestige from the failure of national institutions, they may also be able to find ways around these
given their global spread and arbitrage networks, and the lack of any meaningful countervailing
power. As such, large multinational corporations would continue to fill any emerging power
voids and would be able to transcend national institutions to an extent that the impact on the
power of most of them may be lower than expected. In some cases, the crisis may even provide a
shot in the arm to increase their power as evident from the examples of financial industry and
tech industry discussed above.
In this paper, we have argued that most elites in command posts are likely to exercise
power across the Covid-19 pandemic crisis and beyond through language-based work that would
involve reinforcing myths, redirecting blame, and reclaiming positions to protect their own
power and maintain existing systems. In terms of the implications of our analysis of elite
maintenance work during the Covid-19 crisis, we suggest that it is unlikely that the private and
public sector responses to the crisis would adequately pay attention to and address the problems
of the non-elite across the globe. The fronts for the deployment of language and the forms of
social-symbolic work may vary compared to previous crises as we elaborated in our discussion,
but the broad pattern of elite work to maintain the existing system will prevail.
The critical interpretations here certainly paint a gloomy picture, but are presented to
contrast with and to potentially influence mainstream views on the topic (Dörrenbächer and
Gammelgaard, 2019). While this article focused on questioning and problematizing, there are
likely many among both elite and non-elite positions who may be on the side of change efforts
and engaged in addressing societal challenges during and beyond the pandemic. It is hoped that
the critical examination here may build more awareness about the deep and complex nature of
the challenges and thereby provide more informed engagement towards change in the context of
the Covid-19 crisis and its aftermath, and also beyond this context to future crises.
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Suhaib Riaz can be contacted at: email@example.com
About the authors:
Suhaib Riaz (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of management at Telfer School of Business,
University of Ottawa. His research is focused on grand societal challenges and organizational initiatives
to address them.
Sean Buchanan (email@example.com) is an assistant professor of business administration at
the University of Manitoba. His research focuses on the dynamics of organizational fields formed around
social and environmental issues. He obtained his PhD from York University.