The elitism which I defend in this essay is not the sneering sort. I don’t hold the belief that because someone is born to wealth or privilege they are ‘better’, nor do I think any race, gender or sexuality is superior to another. The elitism I believe in is meritocratic. In the words of Susan Sontag, I consider “the only difference between human beings is intelligence”. Individual exceptionalism and achievement is not a corrosive agent acting on society. It might generate discord, even hostility, but it is not wrong.
The distinction between defending elitism and defending elites will be central to your understanding of my argument. Western liberal democracies have in recent years, in the most demos vernacular, given traditional elites a right old kicking. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s rise to the Presidency of the United States, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Syriza in Greece, and even Jeremy Corbyn’s hold over the British Labour party stand testament to the collective feeling that our ubiquitous ‘system’ is rigged against the many in favour of the few.
Yet elites, in and of themselves, are not inherently wicked. We benefit from them in all sorts of ways, from the enjoyment of watching a favoured sporting team to our education system which sees knowledge and outlook shared between the minority elite teachers and majority population pupils. Even the maligned European landed leisure class of the 17th and 18th centuries conducted diplomacy and created cultural and economic ties between nations from which we still benefit to this day. Throughout history elites performed functions of general benefit to the mass populace, whether via arts, culture, infrastructure or defence of the realm. They function well when their actions are connected to the betterment of society’s lot as a whole. Conversely when they become detached from the concerns of ordinary people they appear decadent, aloof and arrogant.
Today elitism, even as a belief in exceptionalism, individual achievement and reward, has become a dirty word. Depressingly we seem to have forgotten that elitism, in its most noble form, is our insurance against mob tyranny and a guarantee that a minority voice will be heard. Burke saw this tension in the French revolution, Mill later shared a similar sentiment, via De Tocqueville, in his work On Liberty.
Damningly, many liberals, have surrendered elitism in favour of socially inoffensive egalitarianism. William A. Henry’s 1994 polemic, of the same title as this essay, put it succinctly when arguing such inoffensiveness robs us of the confidence to objectively rank cultures and ideas. There is a difference between a society where men and women are treated equally versus one which treats women like chattel with which to barter. I have no problem in calling the former, ostensibly our liberal democratic culture, objectively superior to the medieval Islamist fantasy being imposed on much of the Middle East, for example. Nor do I feel compelled to ‘respect’ the views of those who advocate on behalf of despotic murderous creeds or regimes in the name of understanding or balance. I have no problem saying these things because I have not lost sight of the fact dialectic is a positive force. A tolerant society doesn’t mean all views are equal, just that all views get an equal enough hearing to determine whether they’re worth tolerating.
The rise of anti-establishment politics, noticeably often led by members of the establishment, is not anti-elitist. This may strike some as jarring but take a moment to reflect. Can anyone credibly claim that Donald Trump is not a member of an elite? Or even Jeremy Corbyn for that matter? It is precisely because they are members of an elite they have been successful. They both pass Bertrand Russell’s evidence against interest by virtue of being nominally contrarian. Anti-establishment politics is as much anti-egalitarian, with its concern over a lack prevalence, hierarchy and status in society, as it is any judgement on elitism. Intuitively people know they are not all equal: To be told otherwise is tedious, to be told truthfully is liberating.
The question of who tells such truths similarly induces a palsy of candour. Naturally our political elite should follow Kafka’s advice and bare the intense obsessions of their soul. After all, many get elected on the pretence of possessing this agenbite of inwit, but given the opportunity to express it show remarkable caprice. Preferring instead to designate increasing numbers of problems as ‘local’ or for the ‘community’ and better dealt with ‘on that level’. This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact we’re the most centralised country in Europe.
As a result geography discriminates. Our divides can be cartographised as well classified. The notion of ‘local’, expressed as a pride of or connection to ‘where you’re from’, is a kick against the shins of all elites (political, financial and cultural). That ‘elite’ is often prefaced with ‘London’ suggests as much. The capital enjoys natural advantages, we should encourage its success, but denying the rest of England the powers and freedoms it enjoys is anti-meritocratic. In this instance, given how far apart London is culturally and economically from the rest of England, our political elite has lashed its own back.
Thus I present the central tension; one cannot have a meritocracy without elitism, and one cannot have elitism without elites. But when they function poorly it corrodes the very meritocracy necessary for a fair and rewarding society to exist. The answer, therefore, is not to bash elites, but make them work more effectively. A society which more visibly reflects the efforts and endeavours of its people is one few would argue with, that it is essentially an elitist vision would no doubt strike some as surprising. We liberals need to rediscover our confidence in such matters and say so.
Liam Booth Smith is Chief Executive at Localis. This is an article from Bright Blue’s magazine The End of the Establishment?