Friday, August 23, 2019
‘Elite’ is a phantom concept. It appeals to the imagination and haunts political debate. It is a ghost, difficult to grasp and pin down, because it has several different connotations,
One connotation is that of excellent achievement. This can apply to armed forces (Elite troops), sports, or science. And, why not, to top chefs, bakers and plumbers. Those elites serve as role models to be imitated, or as substitutes for fame that more pedestrian people lack, adopted by proxy, in reflection from the stars.
A different connotation of ‘elite’ entails leadership, authority and responsibility, a ruling elite. That is the connotation that drives present political discourse. It can apply to political, legal, business or scientific elites.
The present complaint, in particular concerning political leaders, is that they do not in fact have the competence they claim, and shirk the responsibility they have for representing and governing the people.
The prestige of scientific leaders, such as university professors, has eroded due to scandals of cheating with data and conclusions in experiments, and engaging in plagiarism.
The judiciary have lost prestige due to a suspicion of lack of competence, and for closing themselves off from public scrutiny with formal language, and even of exercising class justice.
Business elites are castigated for their obsession with profits, salary and bonuses, to the neglect of employees and protection of the environment, and for muscling governments into concessions, on tax, environmental regulation, energy prices and labour regulations, on the threat of taking their employment elsewhere.
The political elites are most under fire, particularly concerning their ethics, or lack of it. They are seen to pursue their own careers rather than honouring their dedication to voters, circulating jobs between them, in a carousel of careers. They are accused of making promises during elections which they subsequently do not fulfil, and knew they would not be able to fulfil.
But the shoe also pinches on the other foot, of the people themselves. It is too easy to blame only the elites, however much they may deserve it. How legitimate is the blame?
There is no doubt a measure of envy of elites that raises resentment, and this is not new. But that is now enhanced by other forces. People have been told by postmodern philosophy that truth does not exist, that it is relative, and everyone has a right to his/her own truth. So how can scholars, and specialists of many kinds, or political representatives, claim to harbour a superior truth? Who do they think they are?
Under neo-liberal ideology of markets, with its drive towards privatisation or other market dynamics of public services, in that ideology voters have been told that they are customers, and in markets they have learned that ‘the customer is king’ and the ‘customer is always right’. So now they treat politicians, and doctors and teachers, as they have learned to treat hairdressers and pizza delivery. Doctors have to provide the cure that internet says is the best. Teachers have to deliver the certificate or degree that pupils or students deserve and it is the teachers’ task to supply. Or else ….
Cowed and pushed by the rise of populism, politicians are now driven to give citizens what they want, satisfy their wishes and prejudices. And here also they shirk their responsibility to be honest, open, and commit themselves to the good of society, even when that is not popular, and they have lost the trust needed for that. Electoral pressures force them to howl with wolves in the forest, against European integration, refugees and the Islam.
Societies need elites, since not everyone has the talent, capability, dedication and stamina for public service. But they require the classic virtues to achieve it: the virtues of reasonability/prudence, courage, moderation and justice, and those are largely lacking. Appointments should be open to outsiders. The bell should ring for the carousel to stop.
And citizens should appreciate anew that they are not consumers but constituents of civil society, sharing the responsibility for it.