Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Elitism

Ironically, populist movements in the US support the elite (creditor class, plutocrats, monopoly capitalists) and laws that increase their wealth and power, which are sold as contributing to greater individual freedom while increasing the class divide. Meanwhile the American Dream of individual freedom that began with the Age of Enlightenment has become a ridiculous caricature, as it is considered "elitist" to trust scientists and intellectuals, who are generally motivated by curiosity and concern for the public good more than self-interest.

It doesn't make sense to think of society or social institutions in terms of the original "social contract" among rational consenting individuals because, clearly, individuals maintain their identities in terms of their relationship to a real or idealized group, not by means of some inborn identity and a capacity for individual reasoning.  People are born into and conditioned into an existing culture, with its history, its images, and its language . Speech is always historically and culturally conditioned and most people welcome that conditioning, although they may tell you otherwise by way of some fantasy "lone cowboy" image of individualism or something along those lines, equally culturally conditioned.We are members of real or idealized tribes and in times of rapid change in technology, the precursor to a change in ideology, there is a culture lag. Today we see culture regression. In some years, this will pass, hopefully with less pain than in times past.

Politics is not about rational choices. It's about tribal allegiances and, in uncertain times, it's the ancient archetype of the alpha male tribal leader, perhaps updated to the archetype of a valiant king, that keeps the lines of power organized and most people aligned to the interests of the oligarchy that directs our economy, regardless of what government regulators may want to do about it. Although our contemporary stories still indicate some deformed attempts to escape some vestigial projection of feudalism, the instinct to submit to the "divine right of kings" across many domains of human endeavour doesn't seem to have abated much.

What is an economy? It is a combination of our technologies, how we are socially organized to make the best use of them (or not) to produce what we need (and much, much more) from nature, and the institutions and stories that sustain that arrangement, and the powers of those who dominate the economy, in whom our powers are vested. We, more often than not, work against our personal advantage (usually unwittingly) and instead maintain the structures that in turn maintain our investment in the powers that sanction the rules and rituals that organize our lives and public relationships. For example, mothers in certain countries make sure that their daughters are "circumcised" in order to ensure their marriageability.

Today though if you dare to dream that reason, morality, art and respect for evidence (science) will help see us through to a more just arrangement, you may be called "elitist". This label is vestige of the hatred of the privileges of the feudal lords. It has nothing to do with today's world. Populism is the vehicle that most acutely and continually sustains the elite today. The next question is, what does that mean for democracy, if the dream of the enlightenment has become something "elitist"?

Of course, it's much more complicated than dreamers of the enlightenment may care to think. There is a deep seated sense that enlightenment dreams represent a kind of hubris on the part of human beings, as if we could rationally organize ourselves or submit our wills to a rational economy (invisible hand, "free"enterprise) to best achieve our increasingly empty ends.  Of course we can't. The the complexity of the world would prevent our being able to do it - although frighteningly, the recent rediscovery of the complexity of nature doesn't prevent our ability to think it. 

What is the alternative? As many are voicing today, the solution is in being adaptive, in our responsiveness and resilience. Rather than fixed universal truths of "human nature" or visions of true science, the just beneficence of some "invisible hand" economics, or various ideological diseases that afflict us today, I think we should rediscover what it means to understand, in all its dimensions, with the proviso that human understanding is ever-provisional.

Today more than ever we need to understand our relationship to the world we burden with the polluting byproducts of our Promethean dreams and our unrelenting, culturally conditioned searches for a better life. We will never arrive at a perfect solution but we can find our way to a more harmonious one, I hope.


  1. I have a few questions. Are you denying or affirming that 'elitism' exists? You deny it explicitly on the ground that it doesn't apply to today's world, but you then say that populism sustains today's elites. If elites do exist, then what is the connection between their status and populism? Certainly the PEOPLE sustain elites, by voting them into office, buying their products, etc. But isn't populism anti-elite?

    Also, are you attacking or defending the Enlightenment? On the one hand you seem to praise people engaged in using reason to improve or reconstruct society (and to defend them against the charge of elitism); but on the other you say there's a "deep-seated sense that enlightenment dreams represent a kind of hubris on the part of human beings". Is this 'deep-seated sense' an opinion held by people ("deep-seated" usually applies to people's convictions or prejudices), or are YOU saying it's hubris to think we can rationally organize society? (As an aside, I don't think the "invisible hand" is an example of reason, since the point is that, UNCONSCIOUSLY, market forces bring it about that the goods most needed are most energetically produced, etc.)

    Another question I have is what you would consider your own political and social values, if they don't count as "ideology". You use the term and concept in a way that suggests only the WRONG ideas get put into ideologies; which provokes the question, How are the right ideas transmitted, if not by ideology? It seems to me that ideology is indifferent to whether its ideas "work" or not.

  2. The purpose of the blog was to help people to rethink what elitism means, so I was neither affirming or denying "it" exists. It should be clear from what I wrote that I do not think populism is anti-elite but unwittingly props up elites at every turn.

    I'm saying that the things valued by privileged thinkers of the enlightenment (free thinking, art, etc.) are taken to be elitist. This is mostly mistaken, but not entirely, as there is some cause for concern about our Promethean hubris, the idea we can master nature through reason and technology. The deep seated sense is the instinctive fear of enlightenment thinking amongst populists.

    With respect to market forces, if the people who most need something can't afford it it just won't be produced (e.g., enough drugs to combat the effects of AIDS in Africa.)

    The top of the post says all belief systems are culturally conditioned, yours and mine included. I would say that an ideological disease is the failure to see that an ideology is a product of cultural history and act as if it is some kind of eternal truth of the way of things. (I'm not a relativist, though... but that will take me a blog post or two to explain.)

  3. Can you explain how populism props up elites unwittingly? I'm not seeing that immediately. I assume you mean by 'populism' an ideology, not merely people being themselves living their lives, but a certain consciousness of the people being sovereign, etc.?

    I think of the Enlightenment as 'having run its course' in some sense. It did burn away superstition and ignorance; it did reveal an intelligible universe (in the sense that we can gain some idea what's going on); but it did not reveal man as capable of being guided by reason alone. I too have mixed feelings, I suppose.

  4. Populism is any ideological trend that champions everyman rather than the supposedly "elite" experts. But as I have tried to explain in the post, populism submits to the oligarchy, the "divine right of kings" to keep the social order, while each person maintains that s/he is thinking for him/herself. The "elite" experts dismissed by populism are a handy decoy.

    The oligarchs don't seem to care much about evidence any more than populists do, but about opportunities for exploiting public opinion. How many people thing it's a good quality to be "productive"?

  5. Hrm, I don't see it. What populist has ever referred to the "divine right of kings", except ironically? It seems to me populists rant against the elites, and you haven't suggested how that, unwittingly, maintains them in power. Unless you mean (and I think it unlikely) that, since populist parties are usually small, they take away from center-left parties and cause elections to be lost to parties representing the elites (e.g., Ralph Nader's presidential campaign is blamed for giving Bush a victory).

    In your last paragraph, did you mean that being productive is not a good thing, or that we only think it's a good thing because the oligarchs want us to think it's a good thing? Being productive is good for me because it leads to more and better work, more money. I couldn't possibly care less about how that helps the oligarchs, though I concede that I am enriching them by working. That seems like an extreme position to me, that productivity is a social value because of what it means to elites.

  6. They rant against pseudo-elites, not the actual people who have the material and political means of dissemination to dominate public opinion. Populists enamoured of said Public Opinion as steered by the moneyed elites (as opposed to the decoy ideological elites; i.e., intellectuals and artists, that populists rail against) don't realize they are not its authors.

    Being productive is not an end in itself. It can only be evaluated against the value of one's purpose. It can only be called good in itself if purpose is neither here nor there. For example, profitability (which the emphasis on productivity quite clearly supports) cares not a whit about what is produced, but only if it is profitable. Thus productivity becomes seen as an end.