Core, indispensable ‘elites’ getting a bad rap—without expertise, it’s back to the caves

To counter decline in the works, we need a prominent, supported “elite” of artists and philosophers, hard scientists and social scientists, plus socially-minded business and political figures.

Image Credit: Nick Lowndes

Beware the craven who talk “freedom” yet scorn knowledge, competence, and expertise

Whatever your slant, “freedom” always means more than “just another word for nothing left to lose” (per Kris Kristofferson). Freedom means options and choice, thus convicts forego theirs. But real-world freedom, along with modern life, vanishes without reliable food, clothing, appliances, energy, and communications. Core commodities taken for granted depend on vast elitist expertise (and government overseers) to keep the complex machine going—and safe. “Freedom”—beholden to the technology/business managers (and supply chain) who deliver choices—becomes far more problematic than facile ideologues distort.

Nevertheless, right or left, the laziest name-calling is slinging “elite” at anyone you can’t abide, as if that signals righteousness, as if basic commodities fall from heaven. Buying any industrial product means we all support the entire “supply chain” package. No question the most predatory 1% elite has much too much money, too much influence and leverage—the only ones truly free. The least free suffer the most—the poor, uneducated, least healthy—for whom freedom is literally another word with nothing left to lose.

Okay, how about a workable definition? Elitism is the elevation of the best and brightest to provide superior leadership, whether in government, business, technology, universities, hospitals or countless non-profits? If elitism is not keyed to meritocracy, we’re talking an inherited, aristocratic oligarchy; if money and birth, not brains and skill-sets, decide what decisions get made and how, we will elect more Trump types. If pressure for social justice and compassion wane, even more inequality could well spur violent confrontations. Most modern countries fail not from invasion but condoning the worst people at the worst times and then, horror of horror, cannot axe them before catastrophe strikes and what binds a state disintegrates. Right now, a taxpayer pension funds a loudmouth, disruptive Florida retiree whose overt mission is to destroy the very democracy that allowed him to fail as our worst president. Irony, anyone.

Who doubts this world is run by science and technology as much as by money and power? Winners know how to ride the science/technology/business wave and “losers” defy the most obvious knowledge, even free, life-saving vaccines and precautions. In any system, talent rises to the top—and winners understand the values that cultures hold in highest esteem. In the medieval world, religion, a literate priesthood (and threats of hell) dominated a decentralized, hierarchical, pre-scientific west. Then came the Renaissance wherein science, corporatism and individualism emerged, the game became amassing profits. That, in turn elevated superior accounting and legal mastery as banking/debt/insurance and contracted deals served predictability.

Embrace digital or forego freedom?

Today, computers, hard drives and the Cloud define the currency of the realm (thus Bitcoin is the new digital dollar). But computers demand unforgiving precision, with complex models for statistics, advanced math, data management and transmission. Only a specialized, well-paid elite keeps this all-important interface from crashing, fighting off hacking. Is this not a necessary elite, models for ambitious, inclined youngsters to imitate? Are we to confuse this management elite with the predatory, infinitely richer owners’ elite? Unfortunately, digital specialization serves the bottom line, and modernity further divorces corporations from the imaginary public good once in their charters. When was making money about social justice? Yet, with climate change and greater mass awareness, international corporate behavior will test whether the future thrives or menaces.

In a degraded, unjust world, the talented demagogue rises, manipulating sufficient multitudes to transform government into crude modes of control and obedience, essential when obscuring the unjust distribution of spoils. If higher education, if not hi-tech, sets the path to success – and one’s upbringing scoffs at schooling, learning, and knowledge, if not modernity, then one’s “freedom quotient” withers away. In a healthy democracy representative leaders—merging informed pragmatists and visionary innovators along with empathic reformers—work together towards solutions, leveling the playing field, and responding rationally to massive challenges only government clout can impact. That ideal seems further away than ever.

Certainly, evil elites stand in the way, the worst being backward billionaires convinced that making money makes them experts on everything. That kills respect for expertise: no philosopher kings need apply. Self-satisfied, corporate CEOs insist on bagging 300 times what their average employee gets, anointed as irreplaceable (six geniuses out of 5000 may be). There are noxious celebrity elites—actors, politicians, reality T.V. stars, even academics—with outsized impacts on what gets talked about or deemed “realistic” options. Shared interests between ordinary folk and predatory elites overlap as often as Trump tells the truth.

Yet there are scores of legitimate “elites” who keep our society from crashing. Not every judge is a miserable sell-out, not every politician a crook, and inspired doctors, researchers and scientists fiercely defy anti-vax, anti-science yahoos. In our mercantile culture, leaders (admittedly many are white, male, often from means) with superior creativity or brainpower or people-skills garner high salaries (though less than infamous FOX shills). Let’s concede the necessary elite who efficiently oversee work operations (hiring, planning, management) and who don’t deserve the enmity heaped on the 1% or the public menaces in full view. Without this middle-management elite, the basics of life (and our real-world freedom) vanish from grocer’s shelves.

We know the problem – even workable solutions

Without creative, visionary solutions, America is a past tense world leader. To counter decline in the works, we need a prominent, supported “elite” of artists and philosophers, hard scientists and social scientists, plus socially-minded business and political figures who can transcend ego, career dreams and their latest donors. Tragically, America does not lack innovative thinkers and doers, but we must first overcome the well-heeled, right-wing minority elite eager to betray values that make America special, reifying or worsening the economic/ rigid class status quo. These who got theirs (and want more) refuse to share, inviting fairer taxation, tighter regulations, and closing loopholes. Is inequality a workable paradigm for a stable, less violent culture?

Trumpism is proof positive that degraded elitism—driven by money, status, inheritance or celebrity—assures a backward, even doomed oligarchy. The enemy is not a specialty elite but a wildly-presumptuous, thunderously ill-educated group of misfits. They won’t give up easily. America (and Biden Democrats) already feel like interim leaders, holding the fort until and if insurrectionist/secessionist renegades are turned back, jailed or rejected at the polls. Enough anti-vaxxers will in their delusional “freedom” enact their own curious departure. Enough grievance and hatred of government can apparently kill you. What Trump taught is that a flawed leader, picking equally dense advisers, will readily reject their bad advice for his even worse, even wackier nonsense. Appointing boobs is one way to make the head idiot seem less deranged.

No one now underestimates the power of unfeeling, greedy elites who think themselves masters of the universe because they miraculously turn fortunes into bigger ones. What geniuses. But rejecting such misfits should not blind us to the other, better grounded, more in touch elites without whom modern life grinds to a half. Elitism across a complex world is not the enemy; those out to destroy democracy and human freedoms for the many, not the few, who glorify profiteering that endangers the health of the planet—and who act as if the world owes them opulence—they are not merely a noxious elite but a cancer that must be identified and disarmed.


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For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.