Tame the persistent elites
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 The Bendoro’s worldview has been superseded by that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which takes it as self-evident that, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.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.