Who are the elites?
By Alberto Mingardi
In my blog post on Helen Dale’s article on liberalism and technocracy, I asked who is an expert – how can we see somebody qualifies as such? The same question can, and should be, asked about “establishments” and “elites”. This is hardly irrelevant now that so many of our political champions/advocates are vehemently “anti-establishment”, but it is sometimes difficult to understand what they mean by that. Is Trump “anti-establishment”, even though he has been in office for three years now? Are true “anti-elites” the many University professors who criticize both the political and the business elites, in spite of the fact they themselves live in neighboring circles?
Martin Gurri thinks that behind the current waves of the anti-establishment movement stands the way in which public opinion has been disrupted by digital innovation, which has somehow leveled down the public debate. The Internet killed arguments “ex authoritate”, perhaps forever. The legitimacy of a given opinion or view used to stem from the fact its holder belonged to a certain institution; now, such a link between an institution and the authority bestowed upon ideas is becoming weaker and weaker. This may not be all bad when one reflects on the nature of elites. The reason people are on top is often simply that they have been there before. Gurri maintains that elites
are herd animals, who graze contentedly on the upper reaches of the institutions that sustain modern life. They are political people, government people, media people – members of some established order that amplifies their reedy voices into thunder, and wreathes their coiffured heads with high status and prestige. The most remarkable thing about them is how unremarkable they are, once they step down from their lofty perches.
Elites are there because they were there, so to say, and they tend to “export” themselves one field to another. For Gurri, they share
Such confidence makes elites think they are best: sometimes, they are simply more organized, more compact, more homogeneous- and therefore capable to keep their grip on society. Yet from the great Italian “discoverers” of elites theory, from Mosca and Pareto onward, such grip is seen as dependent upon the rest of society recognizing elites are on top because they should be. Whatever form legitimacy takes (from the divine right of kings to liberal democracy to socialism), it defines why a certain group ought to be enjoying political power at the expense of the others. Vilfredo Pareto thought that elites were complex networks which, far from being monolithic, had constantly to renew themselves by co-opting—by whatever mechanism—new talents to avoid degeneration and decline. Yet if they closed themselves down that decline can accelerate sharply. I think it will be interesting to see how this broad scenario applies to the current crisis of elites- and in the face of almost endless talk about “diversity”. Is it that the more Western elites became obsessed by talking up diversity, the less diverse in truth they became? I suppose this would be the (arch)conservative view. But at the same time, at least prima facie, it is hard to deny that elites have been better to spot and acquire talents on the outskirts of society in recent years than they have ever been.
Elites and experts do not perfectly coincide, but, in our world, because of the long wave of the Platonic dream—and also, quite frankly, of the fact of the ever-growing complexities of government—breed a worldview in which competence and knowledge (or the appearance thereof) is a key factor of legitimacy, they do somehow. An interesting perspective, in the face of the crisis of expertise and elites, could be that of elites that want to keep to avoid decline. It seems to me that this recent piece by Arnold Kling, annotating a conversation between Linkedin’s Reid Hoffman and Stripe’s Patrick Collison, can be read as such. Arnold’s tips may be enough for a business, or a think tank, or a university department – but not sufficient as a tip for the upper strata of society as such. Still, there is plenty of good advice there for a persona of responsibility – to avoid, first and foremost, her own intellectual decline (which may mirror society’s one).