[ed. just correcting some typos. 5/2/2010]
I think that the notion of a power elite still has some validity, but in our post-democratic Western societies, it’s of a much different nature than people think when they think of terms like “The Establishment” or “the Elite”
Establishments exist, Europeans typically have a more realistic understanding of this, the English used to be very sensitive to this, more than we Americans are. Because we bought the lie of a classless and leveled society. Present day elites are of a more diffused nature than in the past. and most of those whom we typically regard as part of an elite, really are not. What we sometimes think of as “elites” are often just functionaries and auxiliaries of real financial and social elites. They are errand boys and errand girls, in essence. Albeit errand boys of higher status than we typically are. Sub-elites could be a more appropriate term, but this also has problems.
“Blah blah blah Kamal, get to the point”
Society today is a pyramid, it is leveled with tiers, the slope of ascent is gradual so we don’t notice it unless we are careful. Each layer is smaller than the one before, and each layer depends on the one before as its base, it’s support. Without a base it cannot manifest and affect change.
Like all things on this ‘lil ‘ol mortal coil, such things are of relativity, matters of degree; hierarchy, power and influence included.
One of today’s realities is that the potential for influence and a sort of soft exercise of power has spread widely. These have become more disintermediated. Depth is sacrificed for broad exposure, but a clever person can achieve some depth of influence – still – by realizing that the ability to inform others, affect others, to motivate, or de-motivate, to persuade, to or be persuaded, to be informed, to be motivated by others, on a large scale, has become more direct.
There is benefit in this, and there is loss.
What it does mean is that the degree of deep influence that was once the prerogative of cultural elites is now attainable, for many. Few of course take this and seize it. But the potential is there. It would be a mistake to think that this will always be the case, or that deep reach and influence is married to broad reach and influence, sometimes they exclude each other, sometimes both may be possible to a degree. It is a mistake to think that either will last once achieved.
Dig around in old books magazines or movies, or better yet just talk to older people (something few people actually do today) and pay attention, close attention to the people who were once the rage, who were influential, who had a huge impact in the past, and how quickly this impact fades. Some very clever and very smart and very creative people once were very influential but you will not find their names in Google, except on literally one or two sites. But dig around in a used book store and you will see a different picture.
Power and Money.
Financial power is more of a means than an end, money is not power, it is a tool and a means. Many people misunderstand this, including a few people with a lot of money, but who typically gained this money recently. People who have had money for a long time are more realistic about these matters. Money is not value, it is a temporary store and means by which value is exchanged. There are some things more valuable than cash money and mistaking money for influence, power, and elite status is a classic mistake.
Apart from absurd concentrations of money and wealth, the overall affluence of Western societies lessens the leverage that relative wealth has on others. We have to distinguish money and wealth from each other, because they are two separate things. One is a means by which the other can be acquired or transferred. But it is not it, in itself.
If a society is solidly middle class in its consumption and earnings even extreme concentrations of wealth on the part of a financial elite will be less noticed. When the poor are effectively rich by past standards – in that they have access to food, shelter, heat, and a surplus of consumption products, obviously both their wealth “Hood Rich” and their poverty, both, are somewhat of an illusion.
Just about no one starves in most Western nations, make no mistake about it, poverty even in the early 20th century could literally mean starvation. There are people who are desperately poor in America, of course. Millions. There are people who have fallen through the cracks. Go through small town America, Appalachia, many rural parts of the country, and you will see people who are struggling and desperately poor, trying to get by. This doesn’t contradict what I said. It adds a nuance, you see the trick here is that poverty is managed in a way to keep people in debt and in a structure that they simply will not rebel against.
“Blah blah blah Kamal, get to the point”
Post-democratic Western societies like American and Britain are typically run by an intelligentsia class, on behalf of – but not part of – an elite. Hollywood actors are not part of an elite no matter how well paid, they are entertainers keeping the masses in line. Academic elites are functionaries kept in line by a system of privileges, grant money, and prestige who typically parrot from a general consensus and indoctrinate the next generation of middle management. Looking at the indoctrination as left wing or right is a mistake. The academia class of intelligentsia are an expert class whose political views and inclinations are irrelevant. Conservative or liberal, Right wing or left wing, there is typically a basic set of axioms that everyone subscribes to except he most radical on the edges.
Our expert classes, while ostensibly enlightened, in reality are just as mediocre as you or I, and sometimes quite worse.
It is utterly surprising that people, well educated and intelligent, or not so well educated and more intelligent (some of the most intelligent people I’ve met have had the least formal schooling) actually believe and trust these people.
When you have a system whose natural result is to produce cliques of narrowly specialized pseudo-experts who lack any greater type of erudition, and hence who lack a cognitive database floating around in their pretty little heads that is wide enough to give them wider context to fit things in, then you have a system that is set up to inexorably produce people who are incapable of dealing with the larger world in a more nuanced way.
Multilingualism and literacy has something to do with this. Realize this, like it or not, if we only know one language, then we are handicapped no matter how intelligent we may be. Many people find their minds broadening when they learn another language in greater depth. You begin to see to a small degree how different rubrics, little parts of speech, words and how they are used, molds our thoughts. But it really takes exposure to a wide number of languages to see this deeply.
Experts and Governance.
Expert class governance in post-democratic Western societies is typically performed by narrow minded people incapable of seeing outside their narrow fields. What people call an interdisciplinary approach is what was once taken for granted, the ability to bring facts and knowledge from multiple fields to synthesize a greater view of things. Our experts are not part of any elite, they simply wash elite dishes and iron their socks. metaphorically speaking, of course. And they are more like us in spite of degrees, credentials, or learned cant.
None of this is to insult them, I deeply respect experts, real experts. Masters at their field or art or science. And I deeply respect knowledge. But this is just to put things in perspective and to discourage paternalism. You have to cultivate yourself, learn, read widely, and question your own bloody cherished “truths” because if you don’t put in this work you are agreeing to be someone else’s bitch and slave. I won’t mince words about this, you put in the effort – to whatever degree you are capable of – or you remain a schmuck who is spoken down to by people who, in reality, are almost just as banal as you are.
There’s no way around it really.
Experts. You trust them? Why?
It’s a mistake to take an absolute attitude towards these things, being petulant and rejecting expert advice is stupid. Worshiping experts is equally stupid and pernicious. Balance, in all things. And as Hagbard Celine, (the protagonist in Illuminatus ) once said
“Think for yourself, schmuck !”