If you like substance and things that matter, it’s not been a very good few months to be alive. Feudal-revivalist royal birthday celebrations. The eye-bulging jingoism of Euro 2016. An abyssal new low for establishment post-truth politics with the EU referendum. False-start leadership elections, grubby will-they-won’t-they political coups. And then the Olympics, where grotesque, mind-mangling amounts of money and resources get blown on a hyper-nationalist willy-waving competition.
But at very least, in its abundance of rubbishness, the summer has left us with some fairly big clues as to what’s gone wrong. We are, after all, hurtling towards a point-of-no-return ecological tipping point, having done more environmental damage in 150 years than any other species has managed in three billion – all to build a civilisation where the richest 10% own half the wealth, use 60% of the resources, and 20,000 people starve to death every day.
Why is the world so cataclysmically shit? I think the summer we’re having points towards one big contributing factor. In fact, all the recent events listed above, the Queen, the football, and so on, are arguably symptomatic of the same underlying phenomenon – a giant, normalised, and, as such, near-universally ignored problem afflicting civilisation as-is.
I’d say it was elitism. Not in the shallow, watery modern sense of the word – private schools being ‘elitist’ because they overwhelmingly educate the children of a rich, super-privileged minority and don’t let poor people in, etc. – but elitism in a much more profound and far-reaching sense.
Yes, in part, it’s politics, economics, and society in general being run by and for an insular, relentlessly self-serving elite – but it’s also a culture utterly fixated with elites in every field, a society of people completely unable to think beyond elitist, hierarchical power structures, and an all-encompassing worldview that divides humanity into a vast, faceless majority of passive observers, and an upper crust of Big People with money, influence and power.
Back in June, when people gathered in London to mark the continued existence of 90-year-old tea-cosy Elizabeth Windsor, the nation was treated to a wonderfully apt symbolic representation of the phenomenon I’m talking about. The Queen’s a profound nothingness in an acid green hat. She’s a walking out-of-office-email. For sixty years, she’s waved at things for a living. And yet on ‘national occasions’ such as these, she’s treated like she’s elderly female Jesus. Hundreds of thousands flock to London to hang around for hours in the rain to see her – to stand in the crowd and look up at the tiny old woman in her palace, surrounded by her fancy family, then turn round and go home again. And that’s us in a nutshell – the vast, vast majority, on the ground in one big faceless herd, gawping up at the Big People on their metaphorical balcony.
They’re not all as meagre and ineffectual as the Queen, of course – there’s sportspeople, entertainers, musicians, celebrities of all types, the elite media, big business, big finance, the Westminster-Whitehall political class. Some of them we love, some of them we love to hate, some of them we just hate – but whether we like them or not, their dominance seems inevitable and eternal, as does them getting ever richer and more powerful while life gets steadily harder and more miserable for everybody else.
Most people can’t even begin to imagine a situation where that wasn’t the case, and that’s hardly surprising. Elitism has been integral to how societies have been structured and governed for thousands of years. Before the modern-day power elite, there were centuries of monarchs and aristocracies and religious hierarchies, all ideologically buttressed by the widespread belief that elitism was just the way the world worked – how God wanted it, in fact.
Central to today’s status-quo-reinforcing mythology is the notion we’ve come an unfathomably long way since then – that twenty-first century statecraft is utterly unrecognisable compared to the grubby feudal politics of the past. In some ways, of course, things have shifted dramatically – been transformed beyond all recognition, in fact. But in many others, the fundamental power relationship has stayed the same. Despite hundreds of thousands of well-rewarded careers being made paying lip-service to it, democracy, in the full, radical meaning of the word, has never arrived. In 2016, behind all the false meritocracy, politics is still something we have done to us, rather than something we do ourselves. The vast majority of the population have no meaningful say whatsoever in the decisions that affect them and those around them, and the direction their town, village, region and/or society as a whole is travelling in.
It’s something the EU referendum demonstrated perfectly. The ‘campaign’ was really a squabble between different factions of a professionalised, self-interested, reality-insulated political and media class. One camp argued that leaving would be disastrous for ‘the economy’ – a grotesquely over-financialised, geographically concentrated, ecologically catastrophic one that enriches a tiny minority while leaving millions in poverty in the wreckage of industrial society – and another argued it would be good for it.
Yes, millions voted, but based on the presentation of events put forward by either of the elite camps. In the media, it played out like some dynastic feud between political notables. A potentially transformative political decision was boiled down to differing opinions in the upper echelons of the Tory Party – at very worst, a battle between Boris and Dave. Attempts to encourage ‘public participation’ just served to highlight the absurd, appalling lack of it – and produce even more revealing symbolism. This time, it was members of the public sitting in the audience at Question Time EU Specials – events that saw a single member of the political elite, representing one side of the argument or other, lecturing on their particular point of view, while the assembled plebs watched. A few of them were even allowed to speak, if spoken to, during the inevitable tokenistic Q and A bits. Vast majority of the population – passive audience. Numerically tiny power elite made up of politicians, big business figures, establishment house journos and others – centre-stage, as always.
The Tory leadership-election-that-wasn’t was the same – days of media fixation on about five people from an elite of an elite, demographically near-identical to one another, with political views millimetres from each other. Like last year’s general election, what should’ve been a vast, public-engaging, public-led discussion tackling the colossal problems facing humanity was reduced to which austerity fetishist in a suit looked most convincingly like an austerity fetishist in a suit – except this time they didn’t even pretend to care what the public thought. Meanwhile, Labour’s civil war is essentially a conflict between those who want it to remain part of the elite, and those who want to use it as a tool to finally try and prise the elite open and bring about genuine, radical democracy.
Elitism doesn’t stop at politics, of course. Our culture obsesses over sportspeople, entertainers, and celebrities in general too. The fixation with political elites is largely forced on people – the corporate media obsesses over it, the corporate media has a near-monopoly over what people see and hear, thus the population just has to begrudgingly go along with elite politics, or completely withdraw from it in disgust. That doesn’t stop the fact that if you asked people about it on the street, nine out of ten reactions would fit somewhere on the spectrum between deep-set apathy and violent loathing. But people are much more willing participants in the cult of celebrity. They almost literally worship footballers, Olympians and the like – something all too apparent at the moment, with Britain in the grip of nauseating Team GB-ism (they’re good at what they do, but what they do is utterly socially useless, and they’re treated like gods for obsessively pursuing glory for themselves).
We go through our lives looking up – at political ‘leaders’, at ‘job creators’, at actors, TV presenters, Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift. We look up to an extent that it jeopardises our own wellbeing, lets the objects of our worship stack society in their favour, and leaves us so fixated with our ‘betters’, and our ‘betters’ so fixated with themselves, that we’re oblivious to what’s right in front of us – something especially pertinent/crushingly terrible as we collectively step out in front of the climate change bus.
So where does elitism come from? I see it as a cultural tendency to narrowly focus on a small number of prominent individuals at the expense of everyone else, that emerged out of the very first hierarchical human societies – one that, in the thousands of years since, has become deeply ingrained in the way modern humans do civilisation, and has now been pushed to extremes by much more recent economic trends.
Elitism’s been a constant for thousands of years – but it’s evolved and developed in that time, giving birth to a succession of economic and social systems. They’ve all been different – but they’ve all been geared around sustaining elite dominance. Capitalism is just the latest manifestation of that – the modern way of perpetuating and intensifying that same underlying political, economic, cultural dictatorship by elites.
Elitism is written into capitalism’s DNA. It is, after all, a system run by and for rich elites – aiming to bring about the best possible conditions for 1) those elites to invest and manipulate their wealth to get even richer all the time, and 2) for economies to constantly grow to facilitate that.
An economy reliant on endless growth, and constantly expanding material consumption to keep that growth chugging along, has made elitism in culture inescapable. Corporate capitalism has gleefully seized on the cultural predisposition towards elite worship as a way of keeping the wheels of the consumer economy turning – paying celebrities, particularly sportspeople, to become walking clotheshorses for their products, and walking billboards for their brands. In turn, that practice intensifies our elite obsession – bombarding us with content that presents 1%-ers as glorious, dazzling, almost god-like figures, that everyone should want to be like.
Neoliberalism has represented a huge, catastrophic advance for elitism on all fronts. The neoliberal tsunami flattened post-war social democracy and replaced it with a harsh, borderline-sociopathic hyper-individualism. Creating vast, grotesque inequality, and catapulting the richest even further into the stratosphere, it glorifies the people who the economy’s been rigged to favour, while writing off millions living in the communities it’s destroyed. The elites get to be elites because they’re more talented and work harder – we’re all poor and powerless because we’re dumb and lazy and we deserve it, and the best thing we can do is sit quietly and watch them get on with it on the telly.
With all that stacked against it, isn’t it delusional to suggest a non-elitist society can ever be brought about? In advocating one, aren’t I and people like me calling for something that goes the grain of human nature itself?
No, in short – because while thousands of years sounds like an incomprehensibly long time by laughably short-sighted twenty-first century standards, in the history of the species it’s not much time at all.
Anatomically modern human beings first appeared about 200,000 years ago. The academic consensus seems to be that the hierarchical social structures that saw the beginning of the thing I’m calling elitism began with the discovery of agriculture about 20,000 years ago. But for 180,000 years, roughly 90% of the time the species has been around, in other words, our lives were completely different.
The hunter-gatherer phase of human existence was assuredly not some sort of lovely pacifist-anarchist-communist paradise, as some thinkers have tried to claim. But the lives hunter-gatherers led for nearly 200,000 years were still infinitely more social and egalitarian than the ones we live now. Homo sapiens lived in small, co-operative, non-hierarchical groups, usually with anywhere between twenty and fifty members.
Obviously, there was significant variation, and some were more egalitarian than others. But anthropologists who’ve studied the last remaining examples of this lifestyle have identified a list of core characteristics that unite virtually all of them, whether they’re in Africa, Asia, South America or elsewhere – consensual decision-making, cooperation, sharing, non-violence, playfulness, and, underpinning it all, a deep cultural commitment to both equality and individual autonomy.
Whether you were any good at hunting and/or gathering or not, you still got food. Even if you were the best hunter and/or gatherer on the team, you still had no right to boss anyone else around – and, in fact, there were a whole range of cultural practices to stop you getting too big for your boots, ranging from public ridicule to full-blown ostracism. And, as such, there was nothing approaching an institutionalised elite for the vast, vast majority of the time humans have been around.
This was a lifestyle humans painstakingly evolved to suit over millions of years. It’s what we were ‘made’ for (for want of a more atheistic way of expressing that idea). It fundamentally shaped who we are and what we need to be psychologically and emotionally healthy. The reason there’s so much loneliness, unhappiness and mental illness in twenty-first century society is in no small part because we’ve come about as far away from that essentially human way of living as we’ve ever been. And, come to think of it, the reason the past few thousand years have been such a horrifying mess – obscene, unfathomable loss of life through starvation and war, extreme poverty and powerlessness, racism, sexism, despicable wealth – is in no small part because that un-human aberration that emerged out of our first forays into agriculture, hierarchy, was allowed to fester until we had an institutionalised elite running society in its own interest.
We can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers – not without exterminating the vast majority of the human race, anyway, because hunting and gathering could only feed a species a fraction of the size ours has bloated to. But without the most radical social overhaul in human history, civilisation is sunk. In just a hundred years or so, one affluent, blinkered, stupid bit of humanity (us) has consumed the fragile ecosystem that sustains life to near-collapse. Far from showing any sign of slowing, the insanity is accelerating. The challenge facing us now, if we’re going to survive, at least, is making a new kind of society that’s sustainable, about producing what humans need to be healthy and comfortable and nothing more – and ensuring it’s distributed to every single person alive – rather than what serves the interests of a tiny but all-powerful elite.
And that means smashing elitism. Definitively bringing it down, once and for all. I think it’s perfectly within the realms of possibility that an elitist system could suddenly jerk out of its stupor and do something about impending ecological Armageddon – but it’s extremely unlikely, and even if it did, it wouldn’t go anywhere near far enough, because that would entail dismantling capitalism and so much else that’s secured and perpetuated elite privilege down the centuries. I also have a hunch – it’s that while it might be possible to bring about less bad forms of elitism for short periods every now and again, like the post-war welfare state era, while the fundamentals remain, they’ll never last, and eventually that narrow, elite-serving, greed-driven disposition will re-emerge.
I think if it happens – the emergence of a sane, non-elitist, ecologically viable society – it will take decades, if not centuries. In the immediate term, just to survive the next hundred years or so, we need to dump much of what we’ve come to take for granted from modern society – the cars, the clothes, the manic materialism, the hyper-individualism, the egotistical go-anywhere do-anything anytime-we-like attitude. Grotesquely bloated, environment-ravaging Western economies need to shrink, not grow, and as soon as humanly possible, 100% of our energy usage needs to be met renewably.
But to see the necessary environment-salvaging revolution through to a successful conclusion, we need to go further than that. Keeping the best bits of capitalist modernity (the advanced healthcare, the socially useful technologies, and so on) we need to drag ourselves back to the sort of communal, egalitarian, peaceful and cooperative existence we lived for 90% of the time we’ve been around, and that evolution tailored us for over hundreds of thousands of years – not a re-run of the past, but an entirely new, more humble, localised, healthy and sustainable way of living. And, in the process, finish off elitism once and for all.