Friday, December 05, 2008

The Problem with Our Elites

Sorry for the light blogging here since before Thanksgiving; the usual end-of-the-semester crunch is to blame. Hopefully I'll be up a running with some stuff over the weekend, or early next week.

I had to, however, take the time to note this wonderful and thoughtful post by Ross Douthat. Ross is almost always smart, but this post, on the pitfalls, mistakes, and vices of our current American economic elites, as compared with the elites of different eras and in different places, is simply brilliant. It’s filled with interesting ideas (such as the possibility that the elite which Tom Wolfe described 20 years ago has perhaps managed to both combine the worst and lose the best characteristics of American elites both past and present), and moreover, it’s not unwilling to indict its author as being a member of—and thus perhaps possessing some of the same flaws—that very cohort. All this, plus a Spider-Man reference. It’s great. There's something for everyone--liberal or communitarian or conservative or socialist or egalitarian or aristocrat--to chew on therein. Go and read it.

4 comments:

Hector said...

Russell,

Yes, I thought Mr. Douthat's post was very insightful. On a slightly different note, I think one of the fascinating things about 20th Century (and perhaps 21st?) Latin American history is how social conflict was aggravated by the fact that these were societies caught between the aristocratic and liberal-capitalist eras, experiencing in some ways the worst of both worlds. The elites in many of those societies managed to combine the blood-pride and sense of entitlement of the neo-feudal ancien regime with the greed and amorality of modern capitalism, and to display neither the virtues of feudalism (noblesse oblige, Christian piety, paternalism and the like) nor the virtues of capitalism (meritocracy, social mobility, etc.). I'm thinking, of course, especially of societies like Peru and Brazil where the old aristocratic ethos had lasted much longer than in some other parts of the hemisphere. So you wound up with pleasant fellows like the Yarur textile bosses of Chile, who would make their workers swear bloodcurdling oaths of personal fealty to the "patron", but at the same time felt free to fire them whenever the bottom line demanded it.

A constant theme in peasant revolts in the Andes is that they look to the past as much as to the future. And that's not surprising, since in many ways the plight of Andean peasants actually got worse over the centuries as the power of the Spanish monarchy and church was gradually replaced by the power of local landowners and businessmen. I'm not, of course, _defending_ aristocracy and clericalism, simply pointing out that the modern age has its share of problems as well.

Ironically, more than a few Latin Americans who had been ultraconservative Falangists in the 1930s shifted to being Christian socialists in the 1960s. I'm not sure why, but it's possible that they realized that their societies were caught in a truly abhorrent place, and that the situation could be ameliorated either by a radical jump forward or a radical jump backward, but not by trying to split the difference between the future and the past, and ending up with the worst aspects of both. There are some echoes of this even today, particularly in the Andean countries.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Sorry for this late response to your excellent and fascinating comment, Hector, but things have been hectic around here.

The elites in many of those societies managed to combine the blood-pride and sense of entitlement of the neo-feudal ancien regime with the greed and amorality of modern capitalism, and to display neither the virtues of feudalism (noblesse oblige, Christian piety, paternalism and the like) nor the virtues of capitalism (meritocracy, social mobility, etc.).

I've thought the same thing occasionally about Japan and the "New Dragons"--the East Asian (South Korea, Taiwan, etc.) states that rapidly and successfully industrialized and shifted to free market economies in the 20th century. Of course, the ideological and cultural infrastructure isn't at all the same as in Latin America, but some of the same broad trends were present: a maintenance of often exclusive and discriminatory family and regional and clan ties, but with the sense of familial or communal responsibility that went along with them often disappearing. Still, the elite Confucian sense of social responsibility did seem to whether the shift to rapacious capitalism somewhat better than aristocratic Christian noblesse oblige did (or at least such was the case until the bottom feel out of the East Asian boom in the 1990s and the IMF came to do their dirty work).

Hey, if you ever see this, send me your e-mail address, would you?

Hector said...

Russell,

Yes, that's a good point. I don't know too much about East Asian cultures and the transition to capitalism. One place I do worry about is modern China, where it looks like a new social and political culture is coming into being that blends the worst aspects of Marxist-Leninist authoritarianism, capitalist greed, and Confucian patriarchy, with the specific vices of each and the virtues of none. Such a state, I fear, will be highly efficient and highly amoral; perhaps the recent, and horrific melamine scandals, and China's cheerful ties with the genocidal Sudanese, is just a taste of the future.

Mao taught the Chinese nation, pretty effectively, that 'everything was permitted' in the name of the final goal, and that things like mercy, kindness and charity could and should be abandoned when they got in the way of constructing the perfect socialist future. Now the socialist future is gone, but I fear that the 'everything is permitted' ethos is there as much as it ever was, and it may prove to be Mao's most lasting legacy. A society may be arising where 'everything is permitted' in the name of....what? Individual advancement? Economic growth? National pride? Racial purity? Who knows? But it will be constrained by no ultimate moral vision- neither socialist nor liberal, neither Christian nor Confucian, and the results, when China has become the most powerful economy in the world and no longer needs to please world opinion, won't be pretty.

I use a pseudonym online, but are you on Facebook? I can get in touch with you that way.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Hector,

A society may be arising where 'everything is permitted' in the name of....what? Individual advancement? Economic growth? National pride? Racial purity? Who knows? But it will be constrained by no ultimate moral vision- neither socialist nor liberal, neither Christian nor Confucian, and the results, when China has become the most powerful economy in the world and no longer needs to please world opinion, won't be pretty.

You sum up the concerns that many of us have about the future of China very well. There has been some good work that has been done in recent years about the way nationalism, Confucianism, and modernization have played out in the Chinese consciousness over the past two decades; a lot of it is downright frightening. Not all of it; I love studying China, because there is still an important nonliberal core to their modernity that those of us dissatisfied with the liberal options available in the West can learn from. But it may very well be that said illiberalism, whatever its theoretical provenance, will end up basically just replicating and strengthening the same authoritarianism which we the world over. (Some suggest that the Olympics gave us a hint of this.)

I am on Facebook...just barely. Track me down using my regular name; I should be easy to find.