Ribbonfarm Studio
Ribbonfarm Studio
The Next Experiments in Elitism

The Next Experiments in Elitism


In today’s episode, in honor of Bastille Day next week, and Fourth of July last week, I want to talk about the ongoing evolution in elitism, and the problem of how the emerging new elites can be better than the old ones being toppled.

1/ Elites are a constant and arguably necessary presence in history. Political revolutions that try to do away with elites invariably seem to either fail quickly, or install new elites without meaning to. So the question for me is not how to get rid of elites, but how to try and ensure the ones we end up with are better than the last lot.

2/ I’m going to sketch out a rough theory of elitism and its dynamics, and then get to posing the question itself, and then propose an answer, from the perspective of both the new TBD elites, and the masses they define, so let’s get started.

3/ First, the concept of an elite is not dependent on a particular structure of society. Elites might be kings, nobles, elected leaders, bureaucrats, scholars, scientists, priests, cult leaders, media leaders, business executives, or subcultural inner circles. The prevailing idea of masses is induced by the prevailing idea of elites as a complement.

4/ So there’s always a subset that regards itself, and is regarded as, entitled to a sustainably better than average human condition, with attendant privileges. And importantly, it is a stable equilibrium. Those who are worse off, the non-elites, and think the elites don’t deserve their better conditions, still live with it. The masses rarely disturb the peace unless they are under extreme stress.

5/ Elitism and privilege go together of course. The word privilege literally means private law. Elites are a group for whom laws apply differently, or a different set of laws apply. In the most extreme case, they are formally above the law entirely. That’s the usual definition of a monarch and the dividing line between monarchs and ordinary nobles.

6/ The nobility might have a privileged code of law, but they are still governed by a rule of law, even if it’s not the same one as applies to non-elites. This special treatment has to be pretty special though, so I don’t use privilege in the broad social justice sense of the term, as in white privilege. That’s a different, more diffuse sense of privilege as a structural advantage. I’m talking narrow privilege where you can get exceptional, personalized treatment under whatever rule of law applies to you.

7/ For example, in medieval Europe, the nobility had hereditary property rights, governed by Church law, and the commoners mostly didn’t have the same sorts of property rights, only duties. But what made the law for the nobility special was that it was personally administered, with exceptions being more important. Laws honored in the breach rather than observance, as Shakespeare put it.

8/ So for example, there were laws against consanguinous marriages, but the Church did brisk business in allowing exceptions. Or you have indulgences absolving you of sins that are more easily available to nobility. Or in more modern times, draft exemptions. That’s what privilege looks like.

9/ So one way or the other, some subset of humans will create not only better than average conditions for themselves through private laws, they will even get exceptional treatment under that private law. Or a position above the law entirely.

10/ A big part of the stability of this condition is personal social capital: knowing the right people, with the right level of trust, to get rules bent or interpreted in your favor. Or being treated as an exception. Or in the extreme case, laws simply made to your specifications to benefit you and disadvantage others. In the most extreme case, they simply don’t apply to you.

11/ If you ignore human fallibility and corruption, and look at this as a systems design, it is actually kinda smart to divide the world into 3 zones this way: a zone where the rules apply absolutely, a zone where they can be bent and exceptions are possible, and a zone outside the laws. It gives you a broad ability to evolve the system.

12/ It’s like how, in The Matrix, the architect declared that the city of Zion, Neo, and the Oracle were as much part of the design of the system as Agent Smith. You could even argue that though the architect was God, Neo was the emperor, the citizens of Zion, both red-pilled and native-born, were the nobility, the Oracle was the chief priestess, and the bots like Agent Smith and the blue-pilled people in the Matrix were the non-elites.

13/ But back in our world, I asked my Twitter followers whether they consider themselves part of the current elites. Out of 468 respondents, 34% said yes, and 66% said no. Which seems about right since I write for a pretty privileged class of readers.

14/ Okay, so with this definition, if you look back at history, it looks like a series of experiments in elitism rather than a series of experiments in governance. Some of them end well, some end badly. But all of them end. The conceptualization of an elite class is not stable.

15/ Definitions of elites shift pretty slowly, and typically only move significantly when the technology of trust changes. It used to be about provably noble blood-lines. Then it was about visibly living by a particular code, noblesse oblige. Then it was about money, then it was about education. Maybe in the far future, it will be about being red-pilled out of an AI simulation, so the rules don’t apply to you.

16/ Now, while a notion of elite is stable, there is what Vilfredo Pareto called circulation of elites. He traced how two kinds of elites, which he called lions and foxes based on earlier terminology from Machiavelli, tend to simply take turns being the elites. Foxes rule by the power of the pen, lions through the power of the sword.

17/ As I have said, the economy of elitism is sort of system independent, and is based on personal trust and social-capital based computing within a calculus of privileges — exemptions from the law.

18/ A good model of this calculus is Selectorate Theory, which is described in The Dictator’s Handbook, compares all kinds of political systems in terms of 3 groups: influentials, essentials, and interchangeables. Influentials are always elites, interchangeables are never elites, and some essentials are elites. It doesn’t matter whether it is a dictatorship or democracy. This is how governance by elites happens.

19/ My final theoretical point is about knowledge. The relation among elites and masses is one usually based on what are called noble lies, where elites exploit their privileged access to ideas, information, and education, to craft false consciousnesses for the masses to inhabit. Think of them as blue pills. How you feel about these noble lies, or blue pills, is a big part of your philosophy of elitism.

20/ You can distinguish two basic approaches of elitism. There is what is sometimes called Straussian elitism, which is generally conservative, but not always, and is based on the paternalistic belief that elites lying to the masses for their own good is a good thing. So you get a distinction between esoteric elite red-pill knowledge and exoteric, non-elite blue-pill knowledge meant for the general public.

21/ The other approach, which you could broadly call pluralism, is more democratic in spirit, and eschews noble lying, at least conscious noble lying, based on the principle that even if it gets noisy, messy, uninformed, and ignorant, it’s a good thing to level the epistemic playing field, and not privilege some flavors of knowledge structurally. I’m pretty strongly in this camp. There is no blue versus red pill. Everything is available for anyone to learn.

22/ Okay, now that we have this basic historical sense of what elitism is, and how it works, we can ask, what makes for good elites versus bad elites? It is important to keep a sense of the real history of elitism when you talk about this question, because it is easy to get caught up in theories. In the collage image accompanying this podcast, I’ve included several famous historical examples.

23/ The storming of the Bastille, the American Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, and Lee Kuan Yew, Nehru, and Jomo Kenyatta giving their famous speeches. I also included a picture of Muammar Qadaffi’s corpse after he was killed by a mob — it is important to remember that elitism can end like that. So this is the gestalt of what elitism as a historical practice is. Or to use an esoteric word, the praxis of elitism as a consciously held philosophy.

24/ But we shouldn’t anchor too much on these iconic moments when one set of elites takes over from another, or when non-elites temporarily bring down elites altogether, creating a vacuum. The essence of elitism isn’t in these moments of creative destruction of elite power, but in quieter unaccountable workings away from public scrutiny.

25/ So think of closed-door board meetings, experts in a committee meeting setting health standards, Congressional committees hashing out the details of a bill, lobbyists waiting to meet a senator to push some agenda, unaccountable editors in a press room deciding which public figure to attack. Unaccountable tech leaders deciding how an algorithm should work. That’s day-to-day elitism.

26/ This unaccountability by the way, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is what it is. To the extent the elites are agents of the will of society at large, there is just so much detail involved in the exercise of actual power that there is no possible way all of it could be made transparent to everybody. At best you can be slightly less opaque and unaccountable than the last crowd.

27/ There’s also a middle-class, provincial version I don’t want to discount too much, like a local city leader calling in a favor with the local police chief, or a powerful business person talking to a school principal about their child. Any behavior that exercises privilege is elite behavior. The defining bit is not amount or scale of power, but the fact that it is exercised in privileged ways — private law, with a degree of unaccountability and exceptionalism.

28/ Now that I’ve painted a portrait, there’s a fork in the road. You can either accept that this is the way the world works and always will, or you can imagine some sort of utopia where there are no elites and no zone of society that operates on the basis of privilege.

29/ Whether you are a commune anarchist who believes direct democracy or consensus will get rid of elites, or a blockchain libertarian who thinks code-is-law will get rid of elites, down that road I think is mainly delusion. I’ll just point to a famous article, the Tyranny of Structurelessness and leave it at that. Getting rid of elites does not work.

30/ One reason is of course that elites have power and they use that power to keep themselves in power even as structural definitions and models of elitism change, become more or less informal, and ideologically different and so on. Angry masses understand this aspect of the persistence of elites. But this is not the biggest reason.

31/ The biggest reason, which revolutionaries routinely discount, is that humans seem to desperately want elites of some sort. Maybe not the current sort, or the current model, and definitely not the current specific people, but some elites. Maybe you want black instead of white, women instead of men, techies instead of lawyers, or trans instead of cis, the point is, you want elites.

32/ There may be strong preferences for a system of choosing elites. That’s kinda what ideology is. Or looser preferences. For example, I tend to prefer fox elites over lion elites, a large selectorate to a small one, and pluralism over noble lies. I also prefer strong mid-level mini-oligarchic patterns of power to either imperially centralized patterns or extremely fragmented, decentralized patterns.

33/ The psychological function of elites appears to be to model how life can and ought to be lived. But this is a pretty loose specification. Christians think in terms of What Would Jesus Do. Confucians in ancient China thought in terms of how to codify the will of the Emperor into law. Woke elites think in term of how to turn intersectional theory into prescription, and anti-Woke elites think in terms of making classical liberalism great again.

34/ It’s important to keep your definition of elites broad. For example, many people pretend that people like court jesters (and people often classify me as one) are among the non-elite. Maybe formally, but informally, they wield power and privilege — in my sense of access to exceptional treatment — in ways that makes them elite. So today in the US, the cast of Saturday Night Live, stand-up comics, and people like Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah are definitely elites.

35/ Anti-elite philosophy and philosophers are also necessarily elite simply by virtue of how their influence operates. So whether you’re taking about the Taoist sage Zhuangzi in ancient China or important figures like Robert Anton Wilson in the Discordian subculture of modern America, they’re all elites. Just because you laugh at other elites with sticks up their asses doesn’t make you not elite.

36/ There’s many theories of this psychological function. There is a basic ethics theory of people just wanting guidance on how to have a good life, and looking for teachers. There is the theory of elites as surrogate parental figures. There is the Girardian theory of mimetic envy. Each theory explains some aspects and some situations well, and others poorly, but the point is, that psychological function exists. Elites are models of how to live life.

37/ Okay, so now that we know what elites are, who counts as elites, how elitism and privilege work, and why they are both psychologically necessary for societies and structurally hard to eliminate, you can finally ask, what makes for good elites.

38/ It’s an important question to ask right now, because the current regime of elites is definitely nearing its end. Chris Hayes wrote a good book about this back in 2012, called Twilight of the Elites, and there’s been a lot of other writing about it, like Moses Naim’s End of Power, and Martin Gurri’s Revolt of the Public.

39/ The elites are of course not going quietly. My friend Nils Gilman wrote a great article about the reaction, called The Twin Insurgency, and there is in general a lot of attention on how the current elites are rapidly trying to secure what they have, and sort of batten down the hatches.

41/ But I think the old elites are kinda done for in the next decade. My hypothesis about this is a simple one about how elites fail. In general, elites fail when their relationships with each other become more important than their relationships with the world. Not just masses, the world. The inner reality of the elites absorbs all their attention: whether it is court intrigues, scholarly debates in journals, boardroom battles, product architecture arguments, rivalries among schools of economists, or media wars.

42/ Once an elite class has turned into this kind of inward-focused blackhole unmoored from the larger universe, it’s only a matter of time before it self-destructs. With or without help from the revolting masses. It doesn’t really matter how much power they have. Their hold on that power is a function of the strength of their connection to the world.

43/ This is one reason the function of policing is in the spotlight, because the job of the police is to enforce a particular relationship between elites and masses. When this enforcement gets particularly one-sided, they turn into a Praetorian Guard like in ancient Rome. So calls to defund, deunionize, or demilitarize the police, and theories of how policing itself can be ended as a function, are also part of new experiments in elitism.

44/ Whether it goes down in flames or more peacefully, change of some sort is coming. If my theories are correct, any non-elite period will be short-lived. The shorter, the bloodier. The current idea of power may be ending, but the role of elite power and privilege will not end. Policing as we know it may end, but some enforcement of elite-mass relationships will remain. It will simply take on a new form in the new medium.

45/ Already you see weird kinds of new elites, like online personalities, offline protest coordinators, skilled hackers, and people who are good at crafting spectacles like videos of bad “Karen” behavior. Much of this gets labeled populism, but it’s important to note that each of these manifestations of so-called populism comes with its own breed of new elites, mostly descended from old elites.

46/ I think the populist phase of the culture wars might even be over. The actual commoners are exhausted from decades of violence, both physical and cultural. They can at most come out to riot online and offline occasionally. The real battle now is between old and new elites, and within old and new group. And of course, it’s confused by lots of overlapping membership.

47/ For example, in the last few weeks, an open battle has broken out between tech industry thought leaders and media leaders. And right now there’s a weird letter doing the rounds on Harpers magazine, signed by a bunch of old elites denouncing a bunch of the new elites.

48/ The elite wars have really gotten going now, because everybody senses old institutions are dying, and emerging ones are at the point in their evolution where they are ripe for capture by one faction of wannabe elites or another.

49/ Basically, you could say a new era of experiments in elitism is about to get underway, with more or less blood on the streets around the world. The question again is, what experiments should you support? How can you minimize the bloodshed? How can you try and ensure the new elites are good. If you’re a candidate elite, how do you plan to be good?

50/ I don’t know the general answers to these questions, but I suspect I have an approximately equal claim to being a D-list member of the elite in both the old and new worlds. So I can only share my answer. I think the key to being a good elite is to take your function — serving as a model of how life should be lived — seriously. This means thinking more about your connection to the world than your connection with other elites.

51/ If you want to define this function more precisely, I think it has to do with the idea that humans are ideally the measure of the world, not the other way around, and privilege is about being among those who get to measure the world rather than being measured by it, and in doing so, create ways to measure non-elites. So if you voted to self-identify as an elite in my Twitter poll, ask yourself: how do I measure the world with my life.

52/ The price of your privilege — which, remember, is special, personalized treatment under private law via access to social capital — is that you are expected to be at the forefront of relating to the wider world, and taking its measure on behalf of all humans. Which means facing uncertainty, and taking on risks, physical, intellectual, and psychological. This is why there is a natural relationship between being a member of the elite, and being expected to lead in the fullest sense of the word.

53/ To lead is to ultimately function as a model to non-elites on how to live, and not just live, but live with, for want of a better word, courage. Since that’s what it means to be the measure of the world, take risks, and deal with uncertainty. Otherwise you’re just a parasite pretending to be a lordly predator. And there’s no real way to fake this. People can tell when you are living courageously.

54/ To be non-elite in 2020, on the other hand, is to be measured in a hundred different industrial-bureaucratic ways. The world measures you. Height, weight, gender, wealth, skin color, zip code, credit score, criminal record, degrees, job titles, parentage, and so on. This is what makes you part of the industrial-age masses. This idea didn’t come from nowhere, and is only a century or so old. It’s the complement of the industrial age definition of elites.

55/ Being utterly unique and specialized with your 100-dimensional address in society is pretty new. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset studied how this industrial non-elite human differed from the peasants of the past. My gloss on his theory is that the masses were measured the way they were because the elites were measuring the world in a specific way: through science and rationality.

56/ One of the main proposals for new elites on the table right now looks like an extreme form of industrial bureaucratism, namely intersectional bureaucratism. The other one looks like a throwback to agrarian feudal elitism, with nobility and peasantry. Both are of course lazy and lousy, and you can tell because neither is in the least bit courageous, and both involve an existing set of elites primarily dealing with each other rather than with the world.

57/ If you think you aren’t elite now, or won’t be elite in the future, your part of the equation is to ask, first, whether you think elites are necessary, and if so what kind you want. A way to restate that question is to ask: how do you want to measure yourself against the world? The elites you want are the ones measuring the world itself in a complementary way.

58/ Whatever it is, it is a particular model of courage that inspires you enough to follow. Your main challenge is spotting real courage facing the world, which does not lie in facing competing elites. If your chosen elites are elites primarily by virtue of battling or beefing with the elites you don’t choose, they are not good elites, and you are not choosing particularly good elites to define who you are. Both of you are going to be miserable.

59/ The good news is, there’s never been such a culture of widespread experimentation in new modes of being elite, so you have a lot of choices. The bad news is, it’s going to get really ugly while it plays out. The future elites are going to be playing Game of Thrones for a while, and the future masses are going to be playing Hunger Games for a while.

60/ So all I can say is, may the best elites win, and may the best measure of the masses prevail.