Elite tribalism and the new ruling class

Via this great column of Ross Douthat, I came upon this really fine essay on The New Ruling Class. On Googling the author it turned out she is an American who lives in Sydney and works for the CIS.

The interview of the articles:

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25 Responses to Elite tribalism and the new ruling class

  1. Tyler says:

    Hmm i mean it’s nice to see a conservative acknowledge the profoundly aristocratic tendencies of our liberal/capitalist meritocracies in a way that the left doesn’t often really grapple with. I think i’ve seen you make posts questioning the assumption that arbitrarily defined social ‘merit’ is a particularly moral basis on which to justify social and economic distribution which reminds me of some of Jerry Cohen’s writings, I was curious if there are other theorists who’ve gone into this topic.

    • John walker says:

      Tyler had not heard of Jerry Cohen ,thanks.
      Rather fancy a Marxist that can write:
      “… I have for decades harboured strongly conservative, that is, strongly small-c conservative, opinions, on many matters that are not matters of justice, and I here mount an exposition and defence of what I believe to be my widely, although perhaps not universally, shared, conservative attitude. (I do not have conservative views about matters of justice because what conservatives like me want to conserve is that which has intrinsic value, and injustice lacks intrinsic value (and has, indeed, intrinsic disvalue)…”

  2. Suburbanite says:

    An entertaining read with a little bit of insight into the downsides of a homogenising globalism but ultimately not a very useful one because it incorrectly locates the ruling elite as some kind of tribe of young, clueless tertiary educated hipsters. The essay by Helen Andrews, full of anecdotes and light on evidence, also skilfully avoids dealing with the reality that we never reached this meritocratic nirvana in the west that her comical grandees feared. We have achieved more of it in Australia than either the US or the UK, but certainly not as meritocratic as a place like Singapore or Scandinavia. The reality is that the dominate political elite, made up mostly of privileged old white men, is busily dismantling the infrastructure of social mobility by funnelling resources away from accessible state provision of services to private schools, private medical care and converting our Universities into US style prestige finishing schools and shyster degree mills. There’s also no widespread democratic desire for this – otherwise the right would campaign for it during election campaigns instead of denying it and then trying to bring it in between election campaigns.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks Suburbanite,

      I think I agree with most of what you’ve written – I too was frustrated by the article I suspect in similar ways to the ways you were. In the initial draft of the blog post above, I added this final paragraph – and then felt that I wanted the post to be more open ended:

      Her work for the CIS is, at least as far as I could judge, seemed OK, but, in the light of the power of her essays, unworthily tendentious. Yes, there are all sorts of things wrong with government, just as there are all sorts of things wrong with markets. And civil society. I’m hoping that perhaps someone will discover some real weakness of character and get on with helping us work out where the hell we’re going and what we should do.

      However I don’t agree with the anger of your response. It’s as if there’s two sides to the debate and you hate her side. But the author clearly knows a lot about her subject – certainly a lot about the history of ‘meritocracy’ broadly considered and has delivered a lot of that knowledge to us in a compelling way.

      The subject the author is addressing is a very vexed one. In a practical sense, how should we should structure the affairs of the public service or any bureaucracy? And what are the ethics and pragmatics of this broadly considered. The author quotes a lot of people, and it’s people with whom she clearly shares some sympathy. It’s unclear how much of course, but you’re uncomfortable with her degree of sympathy for them.

      The article isn’t clear on her level of sympathy, so you’re inferring and ‘reading between the lines’. But I think I agree with you both as to your reading and your agreement with that sympathy.

      But ultimately it seems to me that’s a minor point – in some sense not of any real consequence – given that we’re not being asked to sign up to anything much. I think most of us can agree as to the pathologies of the situation in which we find ourselves. The author helps us know some important things about a very difficult subject. Helps us see another side of things. So I thought it was a great article about a very important subject which, when it is discussed is discussed far too ideologically – as if we can know the answer before learning about the problem and thinking and discussing it from many different perspectives.

      • Suburbanite says:

        I didn’t mean to be dismissive (well, perhaps a tad since the tone of the piece reminded me of Niall Ferguson) – Thanks for posting the article which I did find insightful and I agree it raises some difficult questions that need to be answered – one is the self-delusional “objectivity” in the screening processes used in hiring – one that was highlighted by the studies into surname bias, another is the creeping credentialism that de-values certain types of informal learning etc.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Thanks for your measured response Suburbanite,

          It’s funny you mention Niall Ferguson. I’ve found him increasingly ridiculous as he’s got ideas above his station in arguing economic policy with Paul Krugman (embarrassing) and in becoming the darling of the right. I don’t mind darlings of the right particularly – or left – but all the things I’ve seen of his in this mode have been fatuous.

          However here he is recently recirculating his advice to Tony Blair on going to war in Iraq and while it was an easy call to make, it’s a very good piece I think.

  3. paul frijters says:

    It is an ok essay in the sense that it doesn’t demand you buy into it and it does address an important phenomenon – the characteristics of the mobile international elites.

    I dislike it for very different reasons to ‘Suburbanite’ though. I find it very shallow and Anglo navel-gazing. Like so many of these societal stories aimed at the Anglo-market, it sets up a mythology whereby everything of interest originated with some named English-speaking person too long ago for anyone to remember or to falsify via a quick google search. A charming story of political intrigue in 19th century England that draws the readers in, makes them identify with this or that persona, and meanwhile intellectually cheats them.

    Why do I say ‘shallow’ and ‘cheat’? Well, let’s take the idea of meritocracy first. It is far older than anything 19th century related (though the term is relatively new!). It was already there as a practised ideology in the set-up of the Chinese bureaucracy 2000 years earlier, with civil servants appointed on the basis of exams. The French copied that basic idea long before the Brits adopted it. One might say Plato championed it via his suggestion that society should be ruled by those with the most education (ie himself). And of course meritocracy in the army and in industry was not unheard of either before the 19th century!

    What is described is then far more about the city apparatchiks taken over jobs and positions previously had by others, something unsurprising if you realise that in this period urbanisation went from 10% to 70% of the population, and that hence many of the major societal systems were city-oriented!

    The ‘cheat’ bit comes in via the somewhat disingenuous surprise that groups have ideologies about proper behaviour and opinions on who can join them. You can package that up as ‘tribal’ or you could just call them human and be done with it, as ‘tribal’ singles them out for something supposedly not innate to the rest. It is a false suggestion: compared to almost any other entity, one should note the inclusiveness and openness of the internationally mobile city dwellers. It is clear how one can join them, whilst joining the landed aristocracy (who btw also thought they had achieved their position through merit, including right of conquest, ie skills in battle) was far more difficult.

    There is also nothing really new here in terms of argument, merely old wine in new caskets. What happened to the terms ‘jet-set’ or the ‘global village’?

    In all, a bit of a whiney piece that doesn’t help in understanding anything, merely setting up new straw men and myths that obscure. Part of the fog.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      It’s a fair cop.

      Still, as I’ve said before, surely there are fairer ways to argue than simply deploying your superior education and knowledge. Here at Troppo we believe in the level playing field. Why shouldn’t a more ignorant and poorly thought through argument not have an equal chance to win?

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      the landed aristocracy (who btw also thought they had achieved their position through merit, including right of conquest, ie skills in battle)

      There’s a marvellous anarchist cartoon that highlights that. I’m posting just because I like it:


      “Get off this estate”
      “because it’s mine”
      “Where did you get it”
      “From my father”
      “Where did he get it”
      “From his father”
      “And where did his father get it”
      “He fought for it”
      “We’ll fight you for it”

    • PW1202 says:

      Paul, always like your writing. Full of good introspection and analysis. Keep it up !

    • John walker says:

      The essay does make too much of a correlation .

      However to me , one sentence in her essay really rings true: “[I]t’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven[ was]”

      When I was teaching the number of art students like that seemed to grow and grow. A painter mate and I used to ruminate over some beer about: ” they have done years of art at high school and beyond ,yet they don’t know who ‘Leonardo or Hokusai ‘ were” and ” really can’t work out what it was that they were actually taught in all those years, they seem to know virtually nothing”

  4. john Walker says:

    Oppositions of ‘merit vs inheritance’ tend to overlook that things like merit are a kind of tradition: a ‘clearing’, a theater of memory , that they are in themselves a tangled recursive skein of place, time and memory , where nothing is ever fully annulled.

    • john Walker says:

      Meant to say merit vs’ inherited position’

    • paul frijters says:

      sure, merit is a very complex term with a meaning that changes over time and place. One can think of inheritance as merit too, though that is a very unusual way of looking at it nowadays!
      What do you mean by ‘fully annulled’? you lost me on that one!

      • john Walker says:

        Merit dosnt grow on trees- merit does not ( at least in a simple one directional sense) define who or what has merit. the evolution of who or what has merit implies a system of contested authority that has memory.

        Re “annulled” I was thinking of something Paul Carter wrote in his environmental history of the Mallee , his word “annulled ” leaked into my words.

        Carter contrasted two approaches to story telling :

        “A Humean event is likened to a metalled crossroads”…[where] … “the past of the travelers who might meet at this crossing is annulled: all that counts (that will enter history) is the event…”

        He then contrasted that with a Moivrean event, where history is a tangled recursive skein of time, place and memory. ”

        “In this kind of history the whole ‘tree’ of ramifying might-have-beens is kept in play…”

        • john Walker says:

          Sorry heres the full quote :

          “In this kind of history the whole ‘tree’ of ramifying might-have-beens is kept in play.These other scenarios of imagined community, replenished bush, reconciled spirits and benevolent meteorologies, are what is marked in the scribble of the bush. They lie in its ground patterns, in the multiply-stemmed mallee trees, in the ‘crooked’ ways through the scrub, and in the strangely coherent eidetic grammar of the place – where bars of cirrus cloud, the impression of a hawk’s wing and the charcoaled traces of mallee twig on skin seem to be phrases from the same score.”

        • paul frijters says:

          thanks! I knew it would be something poetic, but I would never have worked it out without your help.

          ‘Never annulled’ as in always carrying the loads of the past hej!

      • john Walker says:

        Paul merit is itself intrinsically, a question of, authority.

  5. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    Maybe I’m too captured by the concept of meritocracy, but this comment in Suburbanites’s response really resonated with me:

    There’s also no widespread democratic desire for this – otherwise the right would campaign for it during election campaigns instead of denying it and then trying to bring it in between election campaigns.

    When the problem we have is capture of the political system by an apparently unreachable elite whose interests the democracy serves, twiddling with the bureaucracy seems irrelevant. You’re looking at bureaucrats appointed by politicians doing the bidding of plutocrats, and suggesting that the problem is the bureaucrazy? The fact that we might be able to affect it doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate target.

    On the one hand the original articles suggest that the problem with, say, Tim Wilson, is that he has to pass through the vestigal merit system, where if he’d been bred as an aristocrat he might be more willing to fight the power on behalf of the powerless? On the other hand, the notion that if he’d had to pass an exam he’d be a more small-l liberal Commissioner for Human Rights is also laughable.

    I’d argue that what we need is more meitocracy, rather than less. Instead of ranking people according to their ability to exploit bugs in the economic system, we should rank them according to the extent to which they produce the society that we want. To me, the entire point of a state is the improve the lot of those it is made up of. We necessarily can’t use a single fixed metric to evaluate state servants (Godel as well as Brooks), but that doesn’t mean we should settle for arbitrary appointments made by those who demonstrably do not have the best interests of the state in mind.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      Also, there’s something marvellously meta about the notion of meritocracy being replaced by something better.

  6. john Walker says:

    Paul as you and others have said the tertiary education system that to a large degree determines the pecking order of who can award distinctions ( i.e pretty fundamental to modern meritocracy) is itself somewhere between; feudal and mid 18thC.

    • paul frijters says:

      It was probably part of city life for thousands of years. Universities with their professors and their degrees go back a 1000 years in the case of Europe and arguably earlier in the Arab world. The guilds had apprenticeships and forms of accreditation. The ‘Meister’ system of training has old roots. Someone versed in Egyptology can probably point to education-accreditation systems in that civilisation way before anything in Europe.

      It’s an obvious idea to create a desirable brand of accreditation that youngsters have to chase and hence exchange some of their labour time for: a means for older learned people to make money from passing on their knowledge. As soon as we had long-term specialisation and groups so large that you needed public signals of competency, you probably started seeing some of this.

      Alan is usually keen on these kinds of historical issues. Time for him to pitch in!

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