- 06 Mar 17
Railing against “elites” has become a big trend amongst extremists on both the right and left. However, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
A notion has embedded itself in global and local politics over the last couple of years. That notion is compressed into the word “elite”. It has equal purchase across the political spectrum from the far right to the far left, from the mainstream to the fringe. Everyone is against the elite: activists, union leaders, bloggers, journalists and, of course, the commentariat in mainstream and social media.
However it came about, “elite” is now a term of abuse, shorthand for whoever is responsible for whatever has gone wrong over the past decade – social, financial, political, environmental, medical and whatever you’re having yourself. And all political upheavals, including Brexit and Trump, are explained as a global revolt against the arrogant and out-of-touch elite.
But there are many revolts against many elites! Which one is anyone revolting against? Surely not all! Don’t we want our sportspeople to be elite?
And aren’t some of those who are in revolt members of one elite or another themselves? Are they up in arms because of the failure of an elite to which they belong, or because they themselves have been frustrated in their own elite ambitions?
For example, aren’t those who attend our prestigious universities part of an elite at home and abroad? Indeed, notwithstanding our self-identification as global underdogs, when measured against much of the world, the Irish are themselves members of a first world elite. Journalists and commentators are an elite too and it’s ironic that so many of them appear unaware of their privileged status.
Shallowness Is Easy
Of course, a word’s meaning can mutate if it gathers additional connotations and associations. According to the online Oxford dictionary, “elite” derives from the French word élite, which means selection or choice, from élire ‘to elect’. That dictionary defines an elite as, “A select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.”
But crucially it adds a subsidiary definition: “A group or class of people seen as having the most power and influence in a society, especially on account of their wealth or privilege”, and gives as an example of this usage: ‘the silent majority were looked down upon by the liberal elite’.
Isn’t this latter how we use the term now? But it wasn’t always thus – and its application, and the view of elites, varies. A guest here on Hog Heights once met a senior Government official from Croatia, not long after the last Balkan war ended. According to the Croatian, the biggest problem they faced in establishing their new state was the lack of expertise in government, economics and administration. She said their priority was the creation of an elite to lead and manage the country towards maturity.
Our Irish friend protested that elites were not a good idea and that they should proceed with caution. But the Croatian woman looked at her as though she had two heads. Without an expert elite, she replied, they were doomed to failure.
The kind of elite she had in mind is not unlike our own public service. It encompasses experience, knowledge, relationships, insight, special skills, continuity and so on. Are these bad attributes? Surely it’s only when they malfunction that they should be opposed. And yes, that happens. Look at the chaos of our health system or the past and present dysfunctional issues in An Garda Síochána.
Or is it that we think, as many in the USA seem to, that we should keep going back to zero, deleting all institutional and corporate knowledge? Hard right and libertarian ideologists in the USA talk of the “deep state”, the nameless bureaucrats and security services who, they say, constitute a separate and unaccountable government divorced from the wishes of elected public officials or the electorate. But, as David Rothkopf argues in the online journal Foreign Policy, while this may be problematic, and certain Dublin City Council officials are certainly a case in point, it pales into insignificance beside the growth of its antithesis, what he calls the “shallow state”.
Its influence is growing and is, he says, “scarier still because it not only actively eschews experience, knowledge, relationships, insight, craft, special skills, tradition and shared values but (also) celebrates its ignorance of and disdain for those things.”
Its proponents skim the media for anything that makes them feel better about themselves. To many of them, knowledge is not a useful tool but a cunning barrier elites have created to keep power from the average man and woman. The same is true for experience, skills and know-how. These things require time and work and study and often challenge our systems of belief. Truth is hard; shallowness is easy.
Ultra Rich Elite
It’s immediately recognisable and the risk of our own shallow state is very real. Nowadays most people get their news from the internet or social media. Everyone cherry-picks. The average visit to a news website is a few minutes. We need to dig deeper. We must be more discriminating. You know, there’s a super yacht named Quintessentially 1 being built by a consortium. The co-founder and chairman decided to do it after finding it difficult to cater to rich clients when they all congregated at glamour events like the Monaco Grand Prix. It will travel the world, he says, to where the wealthy want to go and be seen. A room will cost £2,000 a night.
Or there are the Candy brothers, Nick and Christian, two British billionaires, who moved their business offshore because they were “not prepared to pay any tax”, according to their former colleague Mark Holyoake. Penthouses in one of their schemes in London cost up to £140m each.
And Indonesia’s four richest men own as much wealth as the country’s poorest 100 million citizens.
That sounds like the worst kind of elite to me. And the horrible irony is that the anti-elitist right is refashioning the world in a way that further enriches and insulates this boorish ultra-rich elite, while at the same time corroding and dismantling the necessary elites of public service. Worse still, their grand project is being helped by cynical manoeuvres on the left.
As I say, we need to dig deeper.