Lately, we’ve heard an enormous amount about elites, (aka latte sippers). A project for the future might be a post to put to rest this tenacious fallacy forever (I live in hope generally…). Often these dreaded elites are associated with universities. As the news breaks that Dr Brendan Nelson has knocked back some Australian Research Council recommendations for grants, all those lefty academics in their ivory towers are no doubt cowed into submission. What’s academic freedom, after all, when national priorities and political correctness are at stake?
A much more interesting way of looking at the elites vs. battlers debate is to accept the premise that there are competing elites, and competing visions of the good society. This is something done very well by ANU sociologist and political theorist, Professor Barry Hindess, in his chapter in Us and Them: Anti-Elitism in Australia. An edited version is in the Higher Ed supplement of The Australian today, but it’s not available online.
Hindess points out that the version of elitism often attacked in the public domain is one with a long history – the production of reflective citizens through a humanistic education. This is not an innocent programme, and in the past it’s been closely linked to broader ideas of governing the state. In neo-liberal governmentality, Hindess suggests, a different elite is interested in producing a different sort of citizen – self-disciplining, responsible and self-interested.
If this is the case, then the future for the modern idea of the university and its associated elitism looks bleak. The neo-liberal focus on the governmental uses of individual self-interest suggests that we should be suspicious of those who claim to act on non self-interested motives and of the elitism that claim entails. But it also calls on the specialised expertise of those who have been trained to understand the workings of self-interest and how it can be used in the regulation of conduct. In place of the cultivated intellect, it favours the specialised skills of the economist. It thereby displaces the role of one kind of intellectual elite by the very different role of another.
The book looks interesting, and it might be a good starting off point for some broader reflections on elites, anti-elitism and contemporary politics and public life.