by Robert Henderson
QUIETLY AND almost unobserved, a new aristocracy has been evolving for the past two centuries. This evolution has reached the stage where this elite, like the mediaeval nobility, have sympathy for their own class anywhere and contempt and unconcern for the mass of people everywhere. Their power is increasing by bounds. They seek to extend it ever more across national boundaries. Their loyalty is to their class, not their country.
Who are the members of this new nobility? They fall into two groups. The dominant group is drawn from the upper reaches of ruling elites of the ostensibly democratic states of the West. The subordinate group is formed by the super rich in the Second and Third worlds. The latter are to a degree the clients of the Western elites.
This new elite is profoundly dangerous, for after a century and a half of the nation-state standing dominant in the West, political fashion is hot footing it towards the supranational. This is of fundamental importance because the weak have only ever exercised significant control over the powerful where a coherent sense of community has existed together with a sharply defined political authority. Empires and federations containing diverse racial and cultural identities are the enemy of popular control, because their heterogeneity ensures that there is no single national focus of popular dissent and provides ruling elites with the opportunity to exercise power through a policy of divide and rule. It is a sovereign fact that representative government elected on a broad franchise only occurred after the rise of the nation-state.
In Britain we see the consequences of supranationalism most obviously in the ever more public impotence of our government in the face of Brussels. But that impotence is just the tip of a very dirty political iceberg. Throughout the West, such meaningful popular political control as has been developed in the past two hundred years is being steadily removed from electorates. Why is this happening?
The general answer is that ruling elites are immensely durable. Individuals may fall from grace, but ruling elites as a class mostly do not; rather they evolve. Thus in our own time we see the rulers of the Communist bloc effortlessly transmuted into the controllers of supposed new democracies.
Modern ostensible democracies are in fact elective oligarchies; that is, the mass of the people are offered the chance to vote for representatives drawn from a very restricted group of people. That restriction applies regardless of the type of voting system or the strength of party. In Britain with its strong party system and constituency-based representation, the elector is offered the choice of two parties. In Germany the electorate may effectively vote only for a coalition. In the USA the enfranchised choose only from those able to command the considerable amounts of money needed to conduct campaigns. In every case a small elite controls elections by controlling access to the media and the electoral process and, most importantly, by controlling the selection of candidates to stand under mainstream political banners. The practical result is that those standing with any hope of success are those with a big party label or, where party is weak, the backing of political coalitions. The past two centuries have seen the power of Western elites mitigated, but the elites have never lost control.
To understand exactly how successful elites have been in retaining control let us take England as an example. The historian, Lewis Namier, calculated that eighteenth century England was controlled by roughly 200 families. I suspect that even today the figure is no more than 1000 families. Consider who actually makes the decisions and engages in the executive actions which dramatically affect our lives. There is the PM who is effectively a monarch whilst in power. There is the cabinet. There are a couple of dozen senior civil servants. A few dozen men control our media. There are the leaders of the armed forces and senior policemen. There are perhaps two hundred nationally significant businessmen. There are the very rich. And that is it.
The elites have been able to retain control for two reasons. The first is the fact that money, political power, the experience of exercising authority, superior education and social status go a long way to preserving the position of elites as a class under most circumstances. The exceptions — which are only partial because of the ability of elites to move themselves and their capital abroad — are instances such as the treatment of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie in Soviet Russia and the French aristocracy after the revolution.
The second reason is the corruption of democratic aspirations from within. Early in this century, the German sociologist Robert Michels described a social phenomenon which he named the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Michels saw that institutions ostensibly dedicated to furthering the interests of the masses, such as trade unions and political parties with democratic aims, rapidly degenerated into self-serving oligarchies. This occurred because the elected leaders and officers of the institutions were invariably driven by self-interest to develop ends which were antagonistic towards the interests of the grassroots members, while the bureaucratisation of the institution rendered grassroots members increasingly powerless to prevent the betrayal of the institution’s ostensible ends. The extent of the betrayal in each instance is debatable: the fact that it has invariably occurred is not. A classic example of Michels’ law in our own time is “New Labour.”
The world-weary cynic might ask “Does it matter?” After all, he will argue, the Western elites have not actively oppressed the masses for the past half century. The answer to that is that Western elites have been constrained during that period by a unique set of circumstances which no longer obtain and are unlikely to be repeated. These circumstances include the democratic climate created by the last world war, a comparative scarcity of labour, the widespread availability of low-skill employment and the legal and moral legacy of the previous century, namely a mass of legislation designed to protect the working man and a political climate favourable to the idea of social obligation towards the less fortunate or competent members of society.
Already the portents of a harsher ruling elite ideology are there. The Welfare State is increasingly presented by politicians of supposedly widely different political colours as a grotesque liability rather than a boon. Employees in Britain have less legal protection now than they enjoyed in the early years of this century. The poor are treated as an embarrassment rather than an indictment of the society which fails them. Those in power have lost their social conscience. The old platitudes may be chanted about the need to protect the weak — but that is all they are, platitudes.
What has caused this change of ruling elite mentality? To understand that, one must delve into the political sociology of the past two centuries. With the advent of broad electoral franchises, traditional elites had to adapt if they were to retain political power. Over time the old elite mutated. Formal social rank became largely unimportant. Wealth became God. Plutocracy replaced the old aristocracy. But if the elite evolved it remained an elite. It thwarted democracy by controlling entry into the elite and by manipulating the mass media.
With a mutation of elite personnel came a changed ideology. The 19th century saw both the development of a politically expressed social conscience and imperial expansion. The former event resulted in increasing state involvement to assist the poor. The responsibilities of empires, both formally acknowledged (European) and unacknowledged (American) produced Western ruling elites accustomed to thinking internationally and paternally. The growth of international trade and movement after the advent of the steamship strengthened the internationalist tendency.
The result was that Western ruling elites developed a paternalism which first embraced their own “masses” and eventually evolved into a concern for the whole of Mankind. After two world wars, political power and leadership in the West passed from Europe to America. The USA transformed the paternalistic ideals of the late imperial period into a global paternalism mediated through the UN and its agencies.
This global paternalism was a dangerous game to play under any circumstances, because the ideals and political systems of the West were simply impractical in most of the world. However, for forty-odd years the system creaked along without causing mortal damage largely because the West engaged in political, not economic, action. Then in the 1980s came the exponents of laissez-faire and international free trade. Both policies thoroughly undermined the idea of society in the form of the state being ultimately responsible for its citizens’ welfare, a social lender of the last resort. When the parties ostensibly committed to social welfare adopted out of desperation the policies of free trade and laissez-faire, the consequence was that Western electorates were left with no meaningful choice.
By the 1990 the old dramatic political lines between right and left were largely gone. An intense community of interest and ideas had developed within the Western elite as a whole, a uniformity best illustrated in Britain by our elite’s public responses to the two greatest political issues of the day, namely our membership in the EU and the consequences of mass immigration.
There is not a single MP who is willing to publicly oppose our membership in the EU. There is not a single newspaper which has as its editorial policy our withdrawal from the EU. Broadcasters and journalists overwhelmingly support not only our membership but wish us to enter the European Monetary Union. As for mass immigration and its consequences, we have the salutary fact that no politician has seriously addressed the question since Enoch Powell in the 1970 election.
The new aristocracy know in their heart of hearts that the policies generated by their ideology are impractical. But they dare not say it. So, just as the benighted ideologues of the Soviet Empire outwardly kept to the dictates of Marxist-Leninism right to the end, so the new nobility blindly follow their secular religious beliefs of “anti-racism,” “nondiscrimination,” “free trade,” “free markets,” “globalisation,” and so forth regardless of the damage being done. The result of this irresponsibility is likely to be international economic dislocation on a massive scale.
The outlook for most people in the West is bleak. The new aristocracy, through their wealth and control of institutions such as the police and the armed forces, will be able to protect themselves from the economic and political blizzards ahead. When shove comes to push they will not give a damn about the fate of those unable to fend for themselves. Rather they will oppress the masses to preserve their own status. The masses, robbed of any meaningful political control, will be powerless. Unless the power of the new aristocracy is controlled, the past two centuries may be viewed in retrospect as an anomaly in human history, the sole brief period when a mixture of technological and political circumstances permitted meaningful control of the powerful by the weak.
How is the power of the new aristocracy to be restricted? Space dictates that that is a subject for another time.
Robert Henderson is the author of Leviathan Politics.