"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Ruling Class

George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian (1.29.13) about the insularity of the world’s elites and how their hermetic existence encourages uninformed, self-serving decisions.  There is nothing new in this. Kings and their courts were always privileged enclaves, and decisions about taxes, wars, infrastructure, and economy were made to preserve, protect, and defend the monarchy.  Of course, some balance between kings and commoners had to exist.  Kings could not continue to tax monasteries to finance foreign wars without eventual revolt, and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette came to a very unceremonious end when their court became a Baroque imitation of itself and they were utterly dismissive of the people; but until 1787 the monarchy, the court, and the Church maintained a symbiotic, although testy relationship which excluded the masses.

Image result for images marie antoinette

In 'he Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explains that the nobles of pre-revolutionary France "did not regard themselves as representative of the nation, but as a separate ruling caste which might have much more in common with a foreign people of the same society and condition than with its compatriots".
Each of the power centers maintained their own elite position.  The Church was wealthy and powerful as the kings of Europe and the Pope wielded influence and commanded allegiance through the dispensation of economic and plenary indulgences and the threat of excommunication. Military allegiances to the king or his usurpers shifted easily and internal strife and dissidence were not unknown; but the corps retained its integrity and its elitism and kept far from the common man except to commandeer him and send him into battle.

The ‘democratic’ dynamics that we now associate with modern society existed within the courts of Europe, not within the people, and especially not between the court and the ruled. Oliver Cromwell was the exception to the rule and for a while an embryonic democracy was the law in England.  However, it did not take long for the elite to realize that this was definitely not a good thing, and the Restoration of the crown followed soon after.

Image result for images oliver cromwell

In every society from the most primitive tribe in the Amazon to the historical courts of Europe, India, and China to the present-day global powers there is a natural tendency to want to acquire wealth, position, and power; and an equally natural tendency of elites to defend privilege against all comers. Louis XVI is long interred, and the French aristocracy a faded version of its former elegant self; but the elites still rule the land.  The Élysée is now the redoubt of énarques – graduates of the prestigious, elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration just as Oxbridge, Harvard, and Yale rule the Anglo-Saxon world.  The word ‘meritocracy’ is often used to describe these new elites, suggesting that they have worked hard to get to rule as opposed to being born into privilege; but the fact remains that today's ruling class share many of the same attributes of education and background.

Monbiot describes his experience in an English ‘public’ school, one of many whose goal was to education and train the future leaders of the country.  According to the author, these schools shared much in common with the military – they were designed to break immature allegiances to family and replace them with more robust and patriotic ties to country.
The role of such schools was clear: they broke boys' attachment to their families and re-attached them to the institutions – the colonial service, the government, the armed forces – through which the British ruling class projected its power. Every year they released into the world a cadre of kamikazes, young men fanatically devoted to their caste and culture.
Ancient Rome was no different.  The schools for the elite studied according to the principles of Cato the Elder – a respect for fairness, justice, courage, fortitude, patriotism, eloquence, intellect, and honor – for he knew that with this comprehensive range of attributes, young Roman aristocrats would know how to rule and to remain in power. 

Image result for images statues ancient rome

Little has changed since then, and elites are still in power, still insulated from the masses, still making self-serving decisions, still perpetuating themselves and fighting external influence.  Although the political parties in America have become democratized – i.e. candidates are chosen through popular primary voting and not by party regulars – there is little doubt that they remain elite institutions with claques of lobbyists helping them to conclude deals with business.  Insularity is assured.  Politicians ally themselves with moneyed interests (large corporations, Wall Street) who keep them in power, gerrymander electoral districts to assure longevity and incumbency, and easily manipulate the media and their constituents with inflamed rhetoric, inflated promises, and little substance.  People may feel that they are part of a horizontal, equalized, democratic system, but they are not.

Monbiot suggests that elites, who depend only on themselves to define worldviews, create their own versions of reality. “If the world does not fit your worldview, you either shore it up with selectivity and denial, or (if you have power) you try to bend the world to fit the shape it takes in your mind.”  Certainly the Neo-Cons who were the architects of the war in Iraq believed beyond all credibility that not only did the United States have a mission to civilize the Middle East with democracy, but that it could – despite all historical evidence to the contrary - complete the mission.

The hawks who surrounded LBJ during the Vietnam War were equally convinced of America’s moral superiority and mission to spread its way of life.  Only until LBJ was brought down by America’s version of the French Revolution, did the mob rule.
Last year the former Republican staffer Mike Lofgren wrote something similar about the dominant classes of the US: "the rich elites of this country have far more in common with their counterparts in London, Paris, and Tokyo than with their fellow American citizens … the rich disconnect themselves from the civic life of the nation and from any concern about its well being except as a place to extract loot. Our plutocracy now lives like the British in colonial India: in the place and ruling it, but not of it."
Monbiot writes as though this is some kind of celestial revelation; but it is nothing of the sort.  It is business as usual. Why should anyone expect society to change its patterns and ways expressed for 200,000 years?  There is no doubt that today’s societies are more democratic.  There are far more checks and balances to reign in elite power than there were in the time of  Louis XIV or Henry VIII; but elites continue nonetheless, operating according to the same rules of self-interest and –preservation.

Monbiot laments the depredations of his people – those who were educated, trained, and molded to rule in a benign, caring way.  Although he self-deprecatingly calls his aristocracy only ‘third tier’, there is a lot of exculpatory confession here.
So if you have wondered how the current [British] government can blithely engage in the wholesale transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, how its frontbench can rock with laughter as it truncates the livelihoods of the poorest people of this country, why it commits troops to ever more pointless post-colonial wars, here, I think, is part of the answer. Many of those who govern us do not in their hearts belong here. They belong to a different culture, a different world, which knows as little of its own acts as it knows of those who suffer them.
Of course, Mr. Monbiot.  Of course.

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