Tame the persistent elites

By Edward Hadas
August 8, 2012

It is circa 1900. A young girl from a simple fishing village has been sold as a ’practice wife’ to the Bendoro, or local lord. When the Bendoro tires of her and expels her from his house, the girl retires from his presence the way peasants are supposed to: backwards, and on her knees.

The scene is from the novel “The Girl from the Coast”, and is based on the life of the grandmother of the Indonesian author, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The girl suffered because the absolute authority of a petty local ruler and the accompanying indignities were considered normal. And this in a land which, by the standards of the age, was relatively refined. The Bendoro’s rules did not hold in the Netherlands, which ruled the land, but many Europeans would have shared his belief that sharp social stratification was part of the natural order of things. The Victorian author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, the childrens-favourite hymn, expressed the same sentiment a few decades earlier: “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate.”

Times have changed. Pramoedya’s story comes from a vanished world, one in which the privileged elites were considered superior beings to the masses of ’ordinary people’. To the modern reader, the Javanese peasant bride’s humility looks demeaning and disgusting, not pre-ordained. The Bendoro’s worldview has been superseded by that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which takes it as self-evident that, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. And the verse about “the rich man in his castle” is usually excluded from editions of modern hymnals.

Still, elitism is far from dead. Almost everywhere, a handful of people, or families, hold significant influence over politics, economics, and society. The yearning for equality that has brought about so much social and political change has put an end to the sort of bowing and scraping that Pramoedya described, but it has not prevented the rise of new ruling classes – albeit ones defined by class and profession rather than bloodlines.

Indeed, today’s elites are unlikely to have inherited a title such as Bendoro, king or prince. In Indonesia, the royal families have vestigial prestige but little political and economic influence. In their stead, a few current and former military leaders and a small group of business families – the latter almost all of Chinese origin (nine of the 10 richest, according to Forbes) – are in control. The wealth of this ruling caste is enhanced by the sort of state-granted monopolies and tribute payments that were once considered the normal privilege of aristocrats but are now often deemed corrupt.

For those who think that the desire for equality is inscribed in human nature, the new elite of China must be particularly depressing. Mao Zedong’s promise that his Chinese Communist Party would “abolish classes and enter a world of Great Harmony” is unfulfilled. The CCP has become the centre of privilege and a generator of self-enrichment. Worse, at least from an egalitarian perspective, is the exalted position of the so-called princelings, the descendents of revolutionary heroes, who hold postions of significant influence across the Middle Kingdom.

Even in the United States, the first country to be founded on egalitarian principles (slaves, women and Native Americans excluded, of course), there has always been an economic and cultural elite. Over the last few decades, it has become more powerful and grown more distant. Corruption is rare, but the law, the financial system and the accepted practices of corporate pay are all tilted in favour of the fortunate few. As in China, privilege is increasingly passed on from parents to children.

To a greater or lesser extent, elites continue to thrive. Is this persistence bad? The simple answer to that question is “yes”, since the fortunate few of the elite almost inevitably enjoy unjustly excessive privileges – more power, wealth and respect than their contributions merit. The Bendoro and other holders of inherited titles could once claim some sort of birthright, but such assertions now seem ludicrous.

Still, the elites’ persistence inspires caution. It clearly takes more than universal education in egalitarian ideology to keep them away. Excessive anti-elitism can be counterproductive. Indonesia’s post-independence regimes are far from the only examples of enforcers of rigorous egalitarianism which soon turned into new elites.

Perhaps the best hope is to tame the elites. Law and custom can be used to limit their power. Also, they can be expected to use their privileges for the benefit of all, through philanthropy, patronage of the arts and voluntary service. It might even be fair to ask the elite to find something like a common touch.

21 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“Corruption is rare”? Where do you live, Mr. Hadas? At the federal level at least, the enitre system is structurally corrupt.

The elite only ever share power and wealth when they are either physically coerced or afraid of same. The New Deal can be viewed as a grand bargain in which the elite got to keep their power in exchange for sharing their wealth. They had the example of the USSR and strong domestic Socialist and Communist Parties to motivate them then. But who or what would they fear today? Even the Arab Spring is looking more and more like just so much window dressing over the same old system.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

I can only assume you are talking about politicians, bureaucrats, government officials, trade union leaders, NGO’s, municipal officials, politburo members etc, etc.

These are the new elite you refer to in this glorious new age, where creating big businesses and making money are the worst of all evils.

The new currency of the elite is political patronage, correctness, supervisory powers, public office of any form and of course legislative power. Forget fiat Currencies, forget competition, everyone will be equal. And on the seventh day, government will rest.

Posted by EXess | Report as abusive

There will always be elites and the world needs elites. If everybody is the same, then the world has no geniuses, no super-talents, no creators of new ideas. Then the world is dead.

So, bring on more elites. As so go the elites, so goes the world.

No matter what the stupid may think, the best and brightest will never work for less than a super paycheck.

Thus, one must conclude the author is evil, stupid and/or deluded.

The facts no one wants to read.

Learn to think for yourself.

Censorship is evil.

Posted by ALLSOLUTIONS | Report as abusive

As a child of wealth and privilege yourself — or you would not have had the career mentioned above, nor would you be writing this article for Reuters — you can’t possibly understand what it means to be born poor even in the US and have to struggle your entire life for that which others are simply given as their birthright.

The “elite”, particularly in the US, have been resuming the power they once had prior to WWII, but lost because of their own greed and stupidity.

We are about to see a repeat performance of their arrogance and supposed superiority quite soon. When that happens you may not feel quite as smug as you do now.

You say there has been a paradigm shift in the world towards the wealthy, which may be true, but the wealthy are too ignorant to realize what it means to them.

Ultimately, the only “real” solution to the problem of the 1% is that applied by the French and Russians. Granted it doesn’t permanently fix the problem, but if repeated often enough it keeps the damage to society down to a minimum.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

@allsolutions

“No matter what the stupid may think, the best and brightest will never work for less than a super paycheck.”

Yes, this is the argument the banksters use as well. Boy their paychecks were really worth it. All those financial innovations!

A ‘super paycheck’ is now the driving force of progress?
Maybe in your twisted world, not in most. What good is progress if it’s only for the few?

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

How does one tame the elites? The question itself is founded on a misguided premise. The more interesting question is WHO?
And lets assume that a person, who in society’s eyes, becomes an elite by viture of his/her superior intellect, ability, values etc,then who are we to say that this person needs to be tamed? Why? Because this person highlights our own inadequecies or inability to rise to their same level of ability or excellence? Nonsense. This is shrouded jealously.. nothing more.

Let’s put aside royal families and inherited wealth for the moment, and focus on those people who by the very nature of their ability, rise to the top of their world.
Can you not see how incredibly destructive it would be to humanity if we even dreamt of taming such people. And realise that ultimately that you are asking people of lesser ability to impose their will and beliefs on those who are clearly superior to them in every way.
This goes to the very heart of collectivism, and I see a deep streak of red in the story above, which disturbs me immensely.
Think of it.. imagine a world where men/women of average ability try to curtail the intellectual, artistic,muscial, economic elites of history. We would have no Einstein, no Shakespeare, no Da Vinci, no Edisons etc. That is essentially what you are saying. Curb ability.. curb excellence.. curb the strive for human greatness. Because you show more ability and are superior to me, I will bring you down becuase heaven forbid, you don’t want people to feel inadequate.

ALLSOLUTIONS.. I agree with you.. well written.

Posted by GKJ1 | Report as abusive

@nosolution

The elites have never been elite except in monopoly and rentier exploitation. In a true meritocracy, income is earned through production, not extortion. With increased global transparency and participation, former traditional and anachronistic forms of elitism will fall to the wayside while a better informed and talented population will create alternatives that provide a greater benefit to humanity other than @nosolution’s version of an elitist, supreme self serving paycheck.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

Posted by Gordon2352: Well spoken!

Posted by IGOKORJI | Report as abusive

One of the great lies perpetuated here in Ireland was that unique talent in business had to be rewarded with uniquely high remuneration. Nowhere was this lie more peddled more enthusiastically than in the higher echelons of banking, and multi-million Euro salaries and bonuses were the norm. Of course we’ve since had our suspicions confirmed by the revelations that what we were listening to was naked greed masquerading as something else, and now the bill for fixing the wasteland created by ‘talented elites’ has been handed to the majority who still work an honest day’s work.

Such injustices are part of the struggle within our flawed human nature. But it doesn’t mean we have to be complacent or complicit in the face of it.

Posted by Hewson | Report as abusive

Gordon2352 -

All well and good to postulate that the elite have never shown any evidence of knowing the solution to the plight of the poor, but it is not alright to omit that the poor have never shown any evidence of knowing the solution to their own plight. Here are three factors that may account for this state of affairs:

1. Humans, from the glorious proletariat on down through the discreetly charming bourgeoisie to the deep depths of the idle rich, may not be intellectually capable of understanding, or even identifying, the underlying problem;

2. The underlying problem, even if it could be identified and understood, may not be solvable in any real sense, as it may not have a technical solution of the sort defined by Hardin*; and

3. The underlying problem, even if it could be identified and understood, and even if it were solvable in any real sense, would not be solved, because humans, by their nature, would be strongly disinclined to apply any available solution.

*”The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin, Science 13 December 1968, Vol. 162 no. 3859 pp. 1243-1248, http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/38 59/1243.full.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

There is nothing wrong with elites so long as they are not selected based on how much money daddy inherited.

Posted by vinlander | Report as abusive

That’s funny, I always assumed that the author of All Things Bright and Beautiful was merely referring to the well-known parable of Dives and Lazarus, and not a political statement!

Elites are inevitable. Tax industrialists to subsidise farmers and the farmers become the new elite. Kill the Kulaks and the people who killed them become the new elite. Anyone in receipt of a subsidy always wields excessive political power (else they’d not have got the subsidy in the first place) and always thinks they need more, so any attempt to level the playing field by non-violent means just makes things worse than they were to begin with.

And by forcceful means? Read the classic science-fiction short story “Harrison Bergeron” and ask yourself if you’d like to live in such a world.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

…so Edward…should we pull down / “tame” all who succeed? Tall poppy-cutting? When a poor man succeeds, we need to “tame” him? Human performance (academic, athletic, etc…) follows a bell curve. Your solution is that we tame the gifted jerks and make sure their offspring are brought back down to the ground floor… We put a weight belt on Michael Phelps future son?…the damn gifted guy?? I don’t know where you’re from Edward Hadas, but I hope it isn’t the United States…and if it is, what a dark day it is for our country to have produced someone with your opinion.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

For those of you worried about the rich getting richer, fear not. We are nearing the end of the world wide sovereign debt bubble. When the bubble breaks we will experience the greatest destruction of personal wealth in history. The only elitists left will be the political class and we will likely target them as responsible for the crisis. Who knows what will emerge from the ashes, but for a time we will all be poor bastards.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive

Most of the Irish sent to found Australia were Irish dissidents who disagreed with English monarchy rule.

Wonder if the percentage of population in our jail system correlates to the elitist factors. Are they really criminals then – or just loosing the battle with our unfair judicial system.

If you look in their closet or review their morale compass – most any elitist would be in jail without the protection of our judicial system.

Our judicial system is the mostly highly protected area of the elites, however it does have Achilles Heels.

A concentrated focus on our judicial system would provide the biggest return on energy for making this a better place to live.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

Regarding high pay for financial innovators:

Physics is a difficult discipline to master, in general requiring many years of arduous university training. The chief motivation is curiosity, a desire to understand how the universe works, and often to contribute to human knowledge. A physicist can expect to make a good living, but nothing that would qualify him for the financial elite.

Some physicists have been corrupted from their high ideals of curiosity driven research and contributions to human understanding, and have applied their methods in the mundane financial business of making money and playing the markets. The financial industry managed to divert the physicists to their largely corrupt ways, seeking ever greater ways to remove the wealth of the nations to the hands of the few. How sad, a waste of human potential, and a destructive force within the world. I can see why such physicists would need to trade huge sums of money for the corruption of their youthful ideals.

In their defense, of course, many people are corrupted into largely unproductive enterprises such as junk food and junk medicine, false advertising, propaganda, spying on your neighbors, financial manipulations, and war making. It is hard to avoid, particularly in the US.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive

I would be interested to know exactly what political / social system the author thinks would provide the “just” world he seems to want. I suspect that he has no coherent theory, but just wants those with wealth to be poor. In other words, class envy.

To date, capitalism is better than anything else that has come along. Inevitably, a successful capitalist will gain wealth.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

@TobyONottoby

That piece has to do with population growth/control.

If anything, that piece somewhat supports what Gordon2352 was stating:

“With increased global transparency and participation, former traditional and anachronistic forms of elitism will fall to the wayside while a better informed and talented population will create alternatives that provide a greater benefit to humanity other than @nosolution’s version of an elitist, supreme self serving paycheck.”

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

“To date, capitalism is better than anything else that has come along. Inevitably, a successful capitalist will gain wealth.”

Capitalism has also shown its destructive side and vast inequity (globally).

Unfettered capitalism has shown itself to be morally depraved. Simply doubling down on it and treating it as an ideological absolute instead of questioning and adjusting is irresponsible to say the least. Unsustainable.

Posted by TheUSofA | Report as abusive

the fight to redistribute the wealth in a more equitable fashion is not something that has come up in the last hundred or the last thousand years. it is an issue as old as earth itself – survival of the fittest.
any fair system in my opinion should provide the following – a uniform eduaction to the entire society and equality of opportunity. beyond that it all depends on hard work and skill.
this hatred of the top 1% seems to be very irrational. if people put in effort and time to achieve their goals why should it be looked down upon?

Posted by mrpr | Report as abusive

@Gordon2352
French result – Napoleon – 20 years of war and destabilization of continental Europe through the 19th century.
Russian result – Stalin – 5-year plans, pogroms, estimated 20-30million non-war related deaths.

Results from elitism: Einstein, Voltaire, Newton, post-WWII growth, 600M people raised out of poverty in 20 years (China growth), Computers, and that fancy writing style you seem to enjoy based on unprecedented availability of education, electricity, and resources.

Hope you enjoy that warm meal you have and remember all those people who worked hard for you to get it, to include the brilliant inventors who are part of the elite class.

Posted by CtzCain | Report as abusive