By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
There has been a lot of anger directed at “the elites” recently in numerous democracies. The Financial Times tells us “above all, they reject the elites that dominate the economic and cultural lives of their countries: those assembled last week in Davos.” The Weekly Standard categorizes them as “political elites, business elites, media elites, institutional elites.” The same voters that embraced Brexit also embraced Trump. In the last year or so a lot of discussion, and data, has been presented about this populist surge. But a lot of the discussion misunderstands one key aspect. Subconsciously those in the “revolt” understand something that is not always apparent. It isn’t so much a revolt against the “elite,” but a revolt against the feeling that the “elite” class has closed up its gates and walled itself off in a way that makes any social mobility or access to it impossible. This has created bifurcation, marginalization and alienation in society. The repercussions of this is the boiling anger among those less fortunate.
Speech patterns and class differences have always existed and have insulated one group from another. However, one promise of western democracy was that the walls between these groups would be broken down, that university education would aid social mobility. That one’s place of birth or class of birth was not a sentence to a certain kind of life. The changes in the Europe in the 19th and mid-20th centuries, including the social and genocidal turmoil that came with it, was an outgrowth of the uncertainty that was unleashed by attempting to erase class differences. In general that was a good thing in the long term.
But the real revolt has been one that has been carried out by the “elite” against those who would like to be part of the club. This is a kind of “reactionary” or “counter-revolution” of the ancien regime. What’s interesting is the case of the last twenty years, it is the one that has given birth to the new populism in the West.
Sometimes this view of the elites revolting against the masses is openly articulated. James Traub (I wonder to what privilege he was born in), writes at Foreign Policy in 2016; “it’s time for the Elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.” He argues “it’s not about left vs. right, it’s about the sane vs. the mindlessly angry.” He asserts that “elites were in disarray” and notes that it was “the bankers and economists and Western heads of state who warned voters” against Brexit. He mentions the “universal opinion of experts” and how the British leaders misjudged their own people. Like many other articles, the author claims that the “ignorant masses” are angry about globalization. “The issue, at bottom, is globalization. Brexit, Trump, the National Front, and so on show that political elites have misjudged the depth of the anger at global forces.” Then comes the dystopian future where he argues that on one side will be the “fist shakers” who include nationalists and “working class and middle class whites” and on the other the “beneficiaries of globalizations” and the “poor and non-white.” Lastly Traub (to what privilege he was born in) notes that “it is now elitist to believe in reason, expertise, and the lessons of history.” In short, he creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, if you are not a member of the “elite” then you are automatically ignorant.
This view is probably relatively representative of the way the “elite” see the “masses.” It’s very different than the way that the old communist activists would have seen the masses. Education was always a key aspect of progressive activists, but in general it meant higher levels of literacy and education for the working classes. Say what one will about socialism and communism, but even when its leaders looked down on the “masses,” at least they wanted to educate them. At least they paid lip-service to wanting to be among them, to want to improve their lives. Say what one will about the ravages of mass planning and the tragedies of brutalism, but at its heart it wanted a better world for most people, it just didn’t often succeed or it decayed over time. The current “elite” discards most of society as “uneducated” and non-experts who are angry and unreasonable.
What we have today is a western world that is often called “neo-liberal” and whatever it is, it is obviously post-communist and post-nationalist. At least it was supposed to be. But class divisions, and particularly education divisions, are not only large, but there is an attempt by a self-defined “elite” to make them permanent. A review of Brexit at The Independent notes that it was caused by low levels of education. Isn’t that a bit strange, considering that it has been slightly more than 100 years since Labor received its first ministerial appointment in the UK? We’ve had many decades of modern education. The people who voted for Trump and Brexit are products in many ways of not only a modern education system in the West, but one that is primarily run by the “experts” who are mostly left-leaning. Let’s go back to the Traub triangle of beneficiaries of globalization, the “bankers and economists and Western heads of state.” These are the “universal opinion of experts.”
Pause a second and consider this.
The bankers, western heads of state, economists, political elites and beneficiaries of globalization have been in charge in the West since the end of the Second World War at least. They created the education system that produced the people who voted for Trump, Le Pen and Brexit. Note that the people who are supposed “allies” of the elites, the “poor” and “immigrants” are not the beneficiaries of the post-war education system. Immigrants didn’t grow up in the West. Minorities often receive substandard education.
So what we really have here are “elites” who crafted a failed education system for the “ignorant masses” and then have decided that since the masses are “fist-shakers” and “angry” that the best way to continue forward is to call them ignorant and wall off one bit of society from them and ally itself with “immigrants and the poor.” That’s convenient to try to play off the “immigrants” against the “working class and middle class whites,” to make them fight over the scraps from the table, to distract them from the elites and “beneficiaries of globalization.” They are provided sub-standard education by the elites and then told they cannot join the elites because they have a sub-standard education.
What those who revolted against the elites subconsciously understand is that they have been subjected to this divide and conquer approach which has been put in place so that a relatively small but wealthy group can rule over them. Democracy has this one problem which Feudalism didn’t have. In the Feudal structure the workers or ignorant masses are simply expected, often at the point of the death penalty, to stay in their place. No stealing bread like in Les Misérables.
Let’s say you are a member of the despised “ignorant” and “white working class” and you become aware that you are basically restricted from joining the club of the “beneficiaries of globalization” and that beyond that you are scoffed at for being “uneducated.” At some point you must realize that your lack of education is not your fault. This is a state education, including often these days a university education as well. The state gave this to you and then the same “experts” who run the state, the ones who all apparently agree on certain things, tell you that you are too ignorant and “angry” to be part of their club.
But what have you done? What was your sin? Simply to have been born and not attended the “right” school, which means an elite school. So your having been born middle or lower class is a sentence. It’s not the same kind of sentence it was under Feudalism. It’s a different kind. You are provided a sub-standard education that leads to what elites call “ignorance.” The elites term you ignorant but they also made you ignorant because they write the textbooks, they run the schools and their experts decide how you are educated.
At some point it’s not a surprise that there was a revolt about this. You cannot at one and the same time be in charge of education and also slander the products of that education as ignorant. That’s like an architect building a building and then claiming that the building has a faulty plan and walking away as it collapses. The architects of western democracies built a failed structure and then, rather than admitting they are part of that structure, term themselves outside of it, part of the “globalized” group. Subconsciously and openly the populist rebellion understands this. They understand that they were subjected to decades of social engineering designed to turn them into ignorant masses to be kept outside the gates of gated communities and told that they are “racist” and “angry.” Because to be “racist” and “angry” is often a sign of class. It’s not really a question of race, since for the most part the elites in the West are a white’s only club.
Let’s take just a few examples. The “experts” are almost all white. Journalists are almost all white (88% of reporters are white in the US). Politicians are disproportionately white (80%). Political classes, such as civil servants, tend to be more white than the average population. Academics are often among the whitest of any profession (85% of professors). So is it about “racism”? In terms of being homogenous and exclusive, the “elite” club discriminates based on race far more than the middle class.
To reinforce the “elite” club and self-perpetuate it, there is a tendency among its members to only associate with their “own kind.” This begins at a young age inside the cloistered communities, at the private schools, and then later serving on the right charities, NGOs and volunteering at the right places. It graduates into the right careers and the right family connections to get in to those professions. It represents a decline in social mobility in western democracies. Social mobility has declined in the West, in the US and in the UK. Global inequality, especially in the West, is growing as well. This has more affects in places like the US and UK where people had higher expectations of a narrowing of gaps in society. It also affects other countries and has led to social upheaval in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In many ways the rise of Erdogan in Turkey is a classic example of the lower classes revolting against “deep state elites.” Unemployment and lack of economic opportunity were a cause of the Arab Spring.
What happens in a democracy when a generation sees inequality growing and sees social mobility decline? What happens when they kept being told by the “bankers, experts, and beneficiaries of globalizations” and political elites, that they are “racist” and “ignorant.” These are the watchtowers of the gated community.
It’s not just that they are poorer, have been provided less education and have less of a chance to enter another class, but they are also told that their language is a way to discriminate them. This isn’t just “racist” language, this is a whole elite sub-culture of being “offended” and “microaggression” and “mansplaining” and “safe space” and “cisgender” and “fight the patriarchy.” The self-described values of the beneficiaries of globalization are ones that are self-insulating and self-perpetuating. The fact is that the “ignorant masses” could surely comprehend what is a “microaggression” and learn not to “mansplain,” but they aren’t allowed to even enter into that world, because more and more specialized lingo is invented in order to other them and bifurcate them from “us,” where “us” is the elite. Just when they’ve internalized the need to support gay rights, which middle class whites have (a 2017 study found half of US Republicans support gay marriage, a major change from decades ago), they are told they are “racist” and “hateful” and “angry” for not accepting some new issue.
As with the issue of education, the inability to embrace all these terms and get on board with the new progressive enlightened path is not really their fault, because it has been designed in such a way as to exclude them. The concept of “white privilege” for instance is used as a brush and whip with which to drive away middle and lower class whites. This works in a unique way. Upper class whites who are “correctly” educated embrace the concept of white privilege. That means the most privileged whites will universally “check” their privilege. This becomes an in-group wink-wink because they all admit to privilege, while all being in an exclusive all-white “elite” environment. Let’s go back to the discussion above about how the “beneficiaries of globalization” partner with minorities and people of color. In this triangle who are the whites and the privilege? The elites are the whites. The people of color and immigrants are non-white, but they are at the bottom of the pyramid and they are “partners” only insofar as politics goes to get enough voters in the democracy to defeat the populist “ignorant masses.” This helps white privilege perpetuate and reinforce itself. So when we talk about privilege what we mean is a table of elitists, all admitting their privilege, and then when a middle class “angry” person shows up to join for a beer, and he questions a tenet of the ideology of privilege, he is obviously an other, a non-elite. This is the irony, the least privileges whites are accosted and excluded and accused of having the most privilege, where as the actual privileged group, the globalization-group, all admit their privilege and in-so-doing, are permitted to perpetuate it.
People that talk about “mansplaining” or “patriarchy” don’t really oppose it so much as they adopt these terms to exclude others. Since most of the elite group is white and its need to exclude is directed primarily at middle-class whites, it cannot exclude based on race. It cannot exclude based on religion. It also cannot openly exclude based on old social class norms. But it can exclude based on terminology and methods of speech. So the new feudalism, its gates and guard-posts, are primarily linguistic and verbal. A deaf mute white middle class person could pass more easily among the elites by simply keeping his or her mouth shut. When we talk about “ignorance” and “education” and “anger” this is what is meant. Make them speak and then we can decide who is “us” and who is “them.”
Curiously, the populist movements have come to understand this. They understand that the system is rigged. They understand that they have been provided with a worse education by the very people who call them uneducated, they understand that they have less social mobility than their parents and that they suffer inequality. They also know that it is the “experts” who have designed it this way in order to keep them out of the “elite” club. They have been handed a sentence, one almost as draconian as during the old period of Feudalism and the ancien regime.
The problem the elites face is that the chaos that is unleashed when an exclusive and isolated club have declared that most of their own country cannot enter their club eventually will come to the clubhouse door. Elite regimes have isolated themselves in many countries and often did not believe the social upheavels that would be unleashed would occur. The economically liberal regimes that dominated Europe from 1880 to 1920 did not see the clouds gathering. Neither did the nobility of various states. The program of thinking that the very poor, migrants and people of color can be used like a hammer or shield against the “ignorant masses” is only a racist stop-gap measure. The shock troops of the conflict between the elites and the populists will eventually demand, much as service in the Roman Army provided, citizenship in the club. You cannot wield “migrants” like a sword, because they have their own demands and culture. And eventually their culture will become common cause with the “masses” with whom they have more in common. When they are denied social mobility, and see increasing inequality, they too will revolt.
The old feudal elites felt they had noblesse oblige, a certain social responsibility to the wider society. They were walled off in some ways, but they also shouldered the burden of foreign wars, for instance. The new feudal aristocracy says openly “we dislike the rest of society” and has no loyalty or responsibility to that society. “We are globalized,” they say. When there is war to be made, they seek to wield the rest of society, the one they despise, as a bludgeon. This is an essential difference and one that makes the current feudalism even more precarious than the old and will lead to more of a breakdown in social solidarity and society. When the wealthiest 1% or 5% see themselves as having nothing in common with the rest of their country, it creates a toxic trend that leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less they have in common, the more they abandon society, the more brutal and divided society becomes, the more they say “that’s not my country I see,” and the cycle continues. One cannot simply discard the middle and lower classes and pretend like a society can function. One cannot disregard them as “ignorant” without expecting a blowback.
Western society is at a crossroads. This is fueled not only by its own failures, but external forces. The breakdown in the US and UK and elsewhere is a seed of worse to come. The lack of social solidarity, the new social media incitement and hatred, is being ignored at the peril of society as a whole. To disregard it and try to isolate one group form it has fueled it.
The new Old Boys Club has jettisoned social solidarity and risks creating a permanent cycle of harm and social rift.