The Failure of Elites

Jason Crowley of The New Statesman has an interview with political philosopher Michael Sandel that is all sorts of interesting:

There is a widespread frustration with politics, with politicians and with established political parties. This is for a couple of reasons; one of them is that citizens are rightly frustrated with the empty terms of public discourse in most democracies. Politics for the most part fails to address the big questions that matter most and that citizens care about: what makes for a just society, questions about the common good, questions about the role of markets, and about what it means to be a citizen. A second source of the frustration is the sense that people feel less and less in control of the forces that govern their lives. And the project of democratic self-government seems to be slipping from our grasp. This accounts for the rise of anti-establishment political movements and parties throughout Europe and in the US.

And this:

One of the biggest failures of the last generation of mainstream parties has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives. And this is partly a question of democracy: what does democracy actually mean in practice? It’s also closely related to a question of culture and identity. Because a sense of disempowerment is partly a sense that the project of self-government has failed. When it’s connected to borders, the desire to reassert control over borders, it also shows the close connection between a sense of disempowerment and a sense that people’s identities are under siege.

A large constituency of working-class voters feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labour, have been eroded and mocked by developments with globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties. I think we’ve seen this tendency unfold over the last generation. Much of the energy animating the Brexit sentiment is born of this failure of elites, this failure of established political parties.

In this, I think movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Tea Party, Brexit, Bernie Sanders, and the success of Donald J. Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president all reflect a similar anger and frustration that social democratic politics, in becoming technocratic and managerial tools of finance capital, have betrayed the promise of democratic self-government — freedom, social equality, and some basic measure of security (economic and otherwise). It isn’t just that the tools of government aren’t used well, but that the very design of systems — from policing to trade deals — are actively used by a small group of elites to their benefit and to the detriment of everyone else.

It has also meant an end to whatever shared sense of national purpose has exited in Western states since the end of WWII. So, people struggle — to gain, or regain, a sense of control, dignity, and meaning in their lives. Against the sense that the risks are all socialized but the benefits have all been privatized, handed over to a few. Against the fact that politics anymore seems to only exist to bolster Goldman Sachs’ profitability at the expense of so many who have lost hope, who aren’t sure they have a future anymore.

The elites in the West have failed. Not only are they incapable of governing, I suspect western elites are increasingly incapable of thinking straight. Of understanding what it is they are facing, and of responding to it in a meaningful way. In the US, Trump and Sanders reflect a people searching for a unified and dignified purpose in politics, and while that might be the thing that led to dictatorship following the First World War, it also reflects a desire to live in a nation that is more than a resource for Wall Street (of The City) to strip mine and imprison. I don’t have any faith in this political aspiration — national greatness usually gets people killed — I see its point.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

One thought on “The Failure of Elites

  1. The current situation reminds me of England in the early 18th century — governed by a plutocracy which had been triumphant (and increasingly corrupt) since the ‘Glorious Revolution’; meanwhile, the lower classes (they were hardly a working class yet) suffered expulsion from the land and ghastly conditions in the cities (not that the farms had been all that great for the poor) and fell victim to the gin mills. Over the next two centuries, the non-conformist churches, energized by Methodism and other movements (which grew spontaneously and out of the control of their creators) provided a haven and the means for the people of the industrial towns to transform themselves and build a culture and a social consensus which the elites could not ignore. Not much is left of that culture, and no one could recreate it by an effort of will. But things happen. Maybe something unimagined will happen. I think it is a Zen saying that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Something like that.

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