Unforgivable Opinions 2 - In Defense of Elitism

Last week I posted a diatribe depicting all forms of helping, aid, and assistance as a form of insult to individual dignity. Reflecting more on the subject I have decided to begin writing a series of essays positing or defending seemingly indefensible and likely unpardonable positions on very touchy topics. I am calling the series Unforgivable Opinions, of which I am classifying this essay as the second entry.

This essay is in defense of elitism, a lightning rod of a term that has been used at wanton in American political and social discourse. Elitism and the label of “the elites” has devolved into a dirty word, the genealogy of which I will trace out later. But a very surface level analysis is due here: why is the thought of being elite or attempting to be an elite vilified?

I grew up in the Philadelphia basketball scene, I went to high school in Lower Merion, and played for Kobe Bryant’s travel basketball team – Kobe’s father Joe was a close family friend of my father growing up. Needless to say, Kobe Bryant had a tremendous amount of inspiration and influence over me growing up. Paraphrasing one of my favorite Kobe quotes is the question: “Why would you ever want to do something if you did not want to be the best to ever do it?”

I bring this up because an anti-elite position on its face goes against any natural instinct to desire growth, health, personal progress, and success. If as a society we decry simply that people have been successful or have been elite at what they do this retards the growth of the strongest and most able among us and promotes impotence, incompetence, and weakness. If a gardener were to prune away the healthiest leaves and stalks of a plant, only leaving the most withered, then the survival of the plant would be in severe jeopardy. What type of society are we building by doing the equivalent with people?

The derogatory use of the words “elites” and “elitism” has been so overused that its currency in language is almost completely devalued. In the political sphere, you will hear both Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Steve Bannon call their political opponents elitists. It is lazy, thought-terminating language used as a catch-all term to demark opponents as boogeymen.

The notion of elites is effectively a strawman that aims to win over the hearts and minds of people by appealing to clichéd tropes better left in action movies. Hierarchy is a natural phenomenon – but the image of fighting against elites has become extremely romanticized and cartoonish to the point of no longer focusing on fighting injustices but rather combatting the mere thought of higher and lower classes. A class of nobility has existed de facto or de jure in every society that has manifested on the face of this earth. It is ridiculous to think that anything above the scale of perhaps a dozen (maybe even less) people could have any semblance of social flatness or homogeny without any notion of rank.

How could a family unit exist if a young child, or toddler had equal footing and say into affairs as the parents? Could any business run by being blind to or not organizing around the degree of skill that the people have?

Being against hierarchy is an unnatural tendency and works against core structures of society – being against success, vigor, and promotion is a perversion seeded with ressentiment and pettiness.

I will admit, the above analysis is perhaps too simplistic and ignores deeply needed nuance and historical context. But I draw it out to emphasize the deep tendency towards degeneration and unnaturalness that is harbored within anti-elite stances.

Taking a more contextual view we will see that historically elites in pastimes received their titles with certain societal duties; mostly protection of the land or region in which they had status in and the people on and about the land. This seems to have been present globally and across all cultures, and at least for societies that sustained themselves for any meaningful amount of time. Monarchs and nobles were responsible for the people they ruled over, even our President today is Commander-in-Chief of our national defenses. This social responsibility was key, as there was a negative feedback mechanism for the power they subsumed: their power over people rested directly on the well-being of those people.[1]

Later in the early stages of the industrial revolution in the West, elite status shifted from landed gentry to the merchant class – a much more amorphous group not defined by birth or proper title – yet these people still provided a good – economic means and production in exchange for their own sacrifice – personal economic risk and their labor. The status (and inherent power and influence) they assumed within society still contained a direct feedback mechanism there and a relationship of responsibility where their power came tied to an authentic benefit for those they received power from.

The later advent of corporatism – that is the shielding of the individual from liability and risk in economic pursuits began to remove the possibility for negative feedback from those who rose and prospered in society. They no longer had direct liability for their actions nor shared in the downside of harm to society. This was catalyzed by scale – as corporatism grew the protections from negative feedback grew with it. As corporations swelled with bureaucracy then they began to turn more from representing individuals to their own entities in themselves. Think of how Jack Dorsey discusses how his hands are tied on fighting extreme censorship on Twitter’s platform, or how finance executives are removed from blame on the bad behavior of their banks and insurance companies. However, these corporatist bureaucrats still reap many (if not more) of the gains in wealth and social influence.

As the size, wealth, and reach of corporations scaled the malignant influence of people without downside risk became widespread within society. At behemoth sizes there began to be an interplay of government and corporatism that through revolving door movement of individuals lead to regulatory capture and ultimately a level of protectionism from the government to corporations and those “elites” within them. This again helped further proliferate individuals with power and wealth but no skin in the game to societal downsides.[2]

While I was still a teenager, my parents lost their house in the Global Financial Crisis while large corporate predatory lenders were bailed out and their executives given record bonuses. Is this elitism or a symptom of an effective social net for people sitting atop a thicket of overlapping corporate and government bureaucracy and lacking skin-in the game for the society from which they reap their benefits?

Though these people in this detestable position surely fit the title of “elite” in society they are not the only ones who would fit that description. There are still legitimate individuals who have the right feedback loop, are well incentivized to be aligned with society, and who have not accumulated wealth and status through climbing protected corporate ladders.

Unfortunately, these individuals have shrunk in size compared to the proliferation of the aforementioned shielded elites. As more social elites in American society became removed from direct social sacrifice via corporatism and the general corruption and collusion between large corporate interests and government bureaucracy there naturally grew to be a disdain for those who prospered in society, and an anti-elite zeitgeist became au courant, regardless of whether its targets were those who scaled the corporate-bureaucratic ladder or through their own ability and risk taking.

Furthermore, not only has there been a proliferation of these corporatist elites but also it has systematically become more difficult to “make it” in America (and across the world) outside of scaling the corporatist ladder. I do not want to dwell on it here as I have written more extensively about it elsewhere. But the opportunity to be able to find financial success, and thus social pull and influence without submitting oneself to engagement in the corporatist sphere is dwindling. Continual and ever expansive obstacles of regulation and red tape are being put in place that provide a scalable hurdle to corporations but a halting stop to entrepreneurs and small business.

Quick examples that come to mind include California’s most recent legislation that looks to try to confer higher benefits to gig economy workers, but in fact makes individuals who are freelancers and independent contractors more expensive to hire. It coerces people into employment in the same corporatist sphere I described above rather than allowing avenues for them to obtain wealth under their own guises as independent contractors. The department of Labor is looking to enact similar legislation across the country.[3] In another example, following the legalization of weed in California plenty of crunchy hippie local growers who had grown marijuana for decades were upended by having to now go by strict zoning codes, specs and regulations. Given these heightened barriers the growers found themselves outcompeted as corporate interests flooded the market. I give pause to the urge to both legalize and heavily tax and regulate drugs and narcotics, as it will squeeze a current class of entrepreneur away from a viable manner (legal or otherwise) of making money and providing for themselves.

Government works hand in hand with corporate interests and the end result is that the individual’s ability to have any meaningful degrees of freedom in their lives is decimated. There is no more frontier – no more ability for a person to blaze his or her own path in this world, let alone the dignity to provide for themselves in any meaningful way. People feel this - they feel the deep injustice of a world stacked against their individual ability and the heat of this tension is palpable to anyone and everyone. We just came out of a year of riots and violence breaking out from groups on all sides of the political spectrum. A year where people’s individual small businesses were deemed non-essential, their doors shuttered, and their workers pushed to unemployment while the big box stores and franchises of corporate industry remained open and in fact thrived. The government then forced extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks down the throats of people in a manner akin to a parent forcing a pacifier into a baby’s mouth to stop their wailing. I strain to think of a more insidious act than kneecapping an entire national class of independent entrepreneur and risk taker and then forcing them into a role of dependency on the state. It is only fitting that the front runner for mayor in the largest and most prosperous city in America made notoriety by proselytizing Universal Basic Income in his failed presidential campaign which is simply a way to ensure that every US citizen becomes at least in some part a dependent on the state with the implication they are incapable of providing for themselves on a basic level.

When the anger that brews up from being subjugated from such indignity is not pacified by bread and circuses it is instead diverted into numerous forms of chimeric political and moral grandstanding of which anti-elitism stands amongst. Anti-elitism perhaps is the most well-tuned of the diversionary anger tactics but it is also certainly painting with far too broad a brush. It decries all forms of success because societal infrastructure has removed the possibility of success outside of a very few narrow avenues.

At base what I am calling for is a bit of nuance in the discussion of elitism, there needs to be change to allow for more people the freedom to make it on their own – and likely this will come at the costs of the elites who simply made it by scaling corporate bureaucracy – but why should we sacrifice those who still made it to the top out of their own ability? Further why should we sacrifice our own future ability to rise once our current shackles are lifted? Being anti-elitist seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and courting a more sinister form of pessimistic and resentful psychology. How else would you classify the belief that Billionaires simply existing is morally objectionable, as is Bernie Sander’s stance? Or the calls to eat the rich?[4] I remind again that politicians commonly use the term elitism because it raises an incredibly emotional response and can be used to place the mark of Ham on their opponents – whether deserved or otherwise.

Elitism is far too blunt of a term to use to describe the complexities of the issues we face that allow for parasitical individuals at the top of bureaucracies to leech off of the rest of society. It is as intellectually lazy as “hate all men” or “believe all women” and painting with such a broad brush is self-sabotaging. Furthermore, by appealing to unhealthy and unnatural instincts that look to undercut vigor and ability, anti-elitism shelters within it an ethos that is ruinous and destructive to a functioning society.

This past year we saw people cheer and support from the sidelines agents of the state further suffocating their fellow countrymen because of political differences – either through a literal knee on the neck or via the expansion of an internal dragnet and police state. What have we become?

As repugnant as it is that there exists a prestigious social class fully lacking skin in the game – we cannot allow that to blind us to the manner in which the term elite has been used to hoodwink people into a further deleterious and damaging ideology. It is okay to both hate the leeching corporate class and also decry the wanton use of the “elite” slur. The parasites are not the only ones at the top.

Even beyond nuance I may even go so far as to call my position optimism – a belief that though our society has moved farther away from an egalitarian and merit based one to – if we correct it and ourselves, we can all buy into a system where people are more than capable to make their lives their own. John Taylor Gatto described hope as “the boundary phenomenon separating free men and women from drones.”[5] What society are we building if we simply see our choices being a binary between the status-quo assembly lining of people into the corporate behemoth and the leading of successful individuals to the guillotine?

I promised my fiancé when I described my plans to begin a series of essays defending commonly abhorred positions that I would not digress into a downward spiral of bitching and moaning without offering anything productive.[6] I do hope that even with my emphatic griping aside that I have pointed out some deep structural issues in our communities that need to be resolved. It is indeed my understanding of these issues that make me sympathetic to the genesis of anti-elitist thought but also lead me to be ardently against it. The only further piece of productive advice I can provide is the urging of a renaissance of individual’s fierce protection of personal dignity, responsibility, and autonomy – the want to be in the active driver’s seat of one’s own life including all of the negative and positive implications that come along with that role – which, as a set of values, has all but disappeared in our society. On an individual level we should hold ourselves and each other accountable for our own wellbeing and must look to foster a sharp revulsion and nausea at the thought of loss of volition in ALL forms – including the ill-formed psychology that demands punishment for success.

[1] This negative feedback mechanism of skin-in-the game aspect has been expounded upon greatly by many thinkers most notably and recently by Nassim Taleb. Of which the following section draws heavily from. [2] Unfortunately, lack of this negative feedback mechanism and skin in the game is not only in business but also has bled into other areas. Think of warmongering politicians who do not serve on the frontlines personally or lack family who do so as well. Even on smaller scales – we have drone warfare and effective bubbles shielding the American population from the fact that they have been in unceasing wartime for the previous two decades. What analogous ends could the use of drones and robots that are creeping into policing bring about?   [3] https://www.reuters.com/world/us/exclusive-us-labor-secretary-says-most-gig-workers-should-be-classified-2021-04-29/ [4] Maybe more generally any slogan that can be put on a T-Shirt is too lacking in nuance to defend itself from being co-opted by nefarious individuals and ideologies. (I should put this on a shirt)   [5] https://www.life.ca/lifelearning/0204/schools-do-violence.htm [6] She certainly has heard enough of this.