How one anti-elitism leads to the next
What do we mean by ‘elite’? In a populist age – or perhaps a post-populist one – the term has become increasingly slippery and laden. This is exemplified by Matthew Goodwin’s recent spate of articles on ‘the new elite’ (used to trail his book), and by the hostile online responses to them.
To begin with, below are four ways in which the word ‘elite’ can be used. These are sequential, each one blurring into the next. And they are, with the exception of the first, pejorative, each one more so than the last.
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Elitism as specialism. When we talk about elite sportsman or even elite scientists, it is not usually negative. ‘Elitism as specialism’ describes people who have mastered a skill, often in an environment which lets them hone their craft. The more a profession relies on representing or understanding the public (MPs, journalists, novelists etc), the less this type of elitism is legitimate, hence the dislike of SpADs and ‘professional politicians’. But society, in some sense at least, needs people who have specialised and excelled – including in policy-making and governance.
Elitism as privilege. The next definition describes those with a privilege they do not deserve. Eton is referred to as an ‘elite school’, usually as an insult; those attending are correctly thought to not be there on merit. Being elite in this sense involves occupying a lucky or cosseted bubble, separate from the realities of life. This can be economic (e.g. those in the 1%), or intellectual (e.g. those in an academic ivory tower). This sort of elite is high-handed and inaccessible to outsiders, not because it is intentionally malicious but because it is unrepresentative and insulated from real life. The more unequal a society is, the more prone it is to an elite of this type forming.
Elitism as membership of a clique. The third version of elitism is based on networks. This is partly an extension of the second definition – except in this case it transfers its privileges to others. This can be done accidentally or deliberately – via the ‘old school tie network’ or through the ‘weak ties’ available to the children of those in the arts and the media. The cronyism of the Conservatives in the pandemic is an example of the bad place it leads to. But it also happens fairly naturally in most walks of life, and is difficult to stop.
Elitism as power. The fourth and most pejorative meaning refers to a group which undemocratically wields power. Elitism here is a conscious act; a powerful few take steps to manage a powerless public, whether to stifle egalitarian impulses or to trample socially conservative views. The elites identified are more competent and self-serving than the rest of us, and evidence of their work is everywhere to be seen. Often, those referring to this definition of ‘elite’ come from the ideological fringes. Elites, they believe, stifle political views they hold, which would otherwise be more popular. Indeed, the populism of the 2010s was built upon hostility to the fourth version of elitism – be it Corbynism’s account of a system deliberately rigged against the poor, or Farage’s call-to-arms against one allegedly stacked against British culture.
There are differences of degree, within this fourth definition. And, at its far end, is the jump-off point to full fat, tinfoil-hat lunacy. (Hence why Corbyn, Farage and many others besides tended to attract cranks). When a sincere conviction that we’re subject to Type 4 elitism comes up against the bald reality that we live in a democracy, it must either reassess the extent of its diagnosis, or find a way to conclude that the true extent of elite power is hidden.
One interesting difference between the four definitions is about how many elites each one allows to exist. Type 1 involves hundreds, in different fields of specialism – from football to epidemiology to human rights. These do not necessarily interact.
With Types 2 and 3 there are fewer elites, but there is still the possibility of more than one. These are built around different planes of privilege, which again do not necessarily overlap. Thomas Piketty’s analysis has traced out the emergence of two major elites – one economic, one cultural – and an excellent recent piece by James Marriot discussed the “diffusion” of the 1950s establishment into smaller tribes.
The connotation of Type 4 elitism, lastly, is singular, with one group ruling all that it surveys.
These variations stem from the level of power that each definition imagines its respective elites to have. The more powerful they are, the less they will permit rival elites. The four tiers therefore operate like the tributaries of a river basin, as people move from believing in one type to believing in the next; converging at a single point before disappearing into the deep blue sea of explicit conspiracy theory, where ideology comes barely to matter.
Only thin membranes separate these four, sequential elites from each other. Hence, we frequently slip between them. Colloquially, for example, we often throw together ‘privilege and power’ – i.e. Type 2 and Type 4 elitism – as though they were the same things, whereas the overlay is in fact far from perfect.
Indeed, because most of us do not consider ourselves elite, it is easy for us to imagine that one form of elitism is another, more overt kind. If you look at the political journey of someone like Russell Brand, you see an individual going up through these gears very fast. Many on the left who joined Brand in bemoaning Type 2, 3 or 4 elitism have come to look with despair at his susceptibility to the most extreme and pernicious anti-elite narratives. He is now out in open water, from where he may never return, and spends his time telling others to join him.
Not all populists think like Russell Brand, of course, or will take it as far as him. But a primary effect of the populist continuum is to usher people from believing in one type of elitism to believing in the next. Michael Gove’s infamous dismissal of expert opinion is a good example. It implied that Type 1 elites – those with a technical or economic understanding of the implications for Brexit – were in fact Type 2 elites, lecturing us from a place of unearned privilege.
A book like The Establishment by Owen Jones, meanwhile, is full of selectively chosen examples of Type 3 behaviours, from naked nepotism to professional backscratching. But the book’s thesis encourages readers to believe these are instances of Type 4 elitism – proof of a wider plot to “manage democracy” so that popular socialist views are suppressed.
And Donald Trump, who believes unapologetically that a Type 4 elite is conniving against him, ushers his followers to go further still – to plunge into the wild waters of violent conspiracism.
Believing that Type 1 elitism dominates our society is obviously naïve. But attributing everything to Type 4 is credulous in its own way. So how do any of us get the balance right and avoid being sucked out to sea? Given that different nations are run differently in different time periods, only empirical analysis can capture the true state of affairs, when it comes to how coerced, manipulated or oppressed we are as a society. And only very precise language can stop the four definitions of elitism from merging.
These are the traits we look to academics for, which brings us back to the strange case of Professor Matthew Goodwin. As it happens, I have a little time for the idea, touched upon by Goodwin, that the discourse on the liberal left risks its own form of elitism – according to a strictly Type 2 definition. Much of its language and expectations come most naturally to those who start out with significant educational advantages and high cultural capital. And there are various unspoken assumptions and conversational elephant traps that this creates for the uninitiated. The phrase ‘Go away and educate yourself’, occasionally featured on placards, incapsulates the worst element of this. At a more mundane level, I can imagine that someone who had voted Leave might feel a need to hide this fact on their first day of a publishing internship.
Yet Goodwin, at least in the articles I have read, seems to encourage people towards the idea of an insidious and singular elite (Type 4) – a group wielding major anti-democratic influence, rather than just inhabiting one bubble among several. Over the past decade he appears to have gone on a journey to believing this himself. And he now, like other populists cited above, invites others to chase waterfalls as he has.
Goodwin’s role here is a dangerous one, especially when egged on by the tabloid press. Whether or not fear of Type 4 elites is justified, it is clearly gaining traction. An Unherd MRP poll from before Christmas suggested that large numbers believe ‘the world is controlled by a secretive elite’, across constituencies as different as Blaenau Gwent, Rochdale, Peterborough and Brighton Pavilion. Whilst I would wager that the elites these voters have in mind are often not the same as each other, the finding nevertheless points to low trust and widespread disillusionment.
Such concerns about democracy and power cannot and should not be ignored. They come from somewhere, and are notably more pronounced in deprived areas. But addressing the reasons for anti-elite grievances in these places will require a much more precise and serious conversation than Goodwin’s caricature permits.
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