What the enlightened elites really think of you

Sunday, 15th March 2015

Opinion leaders love to use inclusive first person plural forms, like we, us and our, when addressing unenlightened plebs who fail to share their enthusiasm for all things post-modern and mistakenly reminisce about the positive aspects of our recent past, like greater social cohesion, more respect for age and experience, simpler rules of social etiquette and above all a lot less social anxiety.

Yet despite their matey rhetoric, the opinion leading intelligentsia look down on the masses, treating divergent perspectives, not as important contributions to a vibrant democratic debate, but as symptoms of nostalgia, stubborn conservatism, uninformed conjecture, pathological prejudice or simply a lack of enlightenment, i.e. a refusal to embrace the kind of change they see as an inescapable next step in our evolution to a higher form of humanity. To oppose the winds of change, in the eyes of the neoliberal elite, is to uphold everything that is bad about our past.

Some may look at other good things that seemed better just a generation or two ago, like an extensive railway network that connected most small towns, more countryside, higher home ownership and local shops within easy walking distance that sold everything ordinary people needed and not just booze and snacks. Instead we have motor cars, more roads, smaller houses, more out-of-town retail parks, cheap foreign holidays and a wealth of electronic gadgets unthinkable to most of us just half a century ago. In short we are increasingly disconnected from our immediate surroundings. Few of us truly understand all the complex industrial processes that underly our globally interconnected high-tech lives.

Nobody voted to close down the last television set factory in the UK or outsource the production of electric kettles to South East Asia. It just happened due to circumstances beyond the control of humble citizens. Some may have protested against factory closures or job losses, but politicians were powerless in the face of the global steamroller, a force set in motion 4 centuries ago by the then expanding Dutch, French and British mercantile empires.

Yet our liberal opinion leaders would like us to believe that everything good about our times has been won through a long democratic struggle of progressive forces against reactionary conservatism. Progressivism has come to embody the notion that all change towards a more globally interdependent world is good, and while conservative naysayers may win temporary reprieves, they will in the end be proven wrong, i.e. we may debate the pace of change, but never the need for it.

As all amateur etymologists know, democracy is just an anglicized form of the Greek δημοκρατία or people power. Most of us like to think of it as a good thing, but know deep down our politicians have their hands tied by various external forces such as the global economy, transnational organisations, banks and various other vested interests. However, true power does not come without responsibility and true responsibility is impossible without a clear, accurate and detailed understanding of the way the world works. The elites see democracy not so much as an ideal to which we should aspire, but an effective means of change management, i.e. by consent if we can, by force if we must (to paraphrase Madeleine Albright’s summary of US foreign policy). As long as popular desires can be placated through bread and circuses, the spectacle of democratic debate and elections gives people a sense of participation in the decision-making process. Indeed the global elites are sometimes quite happy for people to vote for policies at odds with their long-term plans. If a country or region happens to possess key resources, their local democratic institutions may be allowed to provide better services and defend traditional ways of life or customs at variance with the new global superculture. One may think of oil-rich countries like Norway or Saudi Arabia that in very different ways adapt the concept of global governance to meet very local needs. In Norway this means protecting the fishing and whaling communities while ensuring everyone enjoys a high minimum standard of living, while the same principle of subsidiarity in Saudi Arabia means keeping alive the semblance of a theocracy. The global elite can tolerate such diversity as long as it is manageable and its relative success or divergence can be attrbuted to local factors. However, like all ruling classes, the new global elite cannot tolerate any organised group of people powerful enough to challenge their hegemony. Thus the lucky inhabitants of Norway, Singapore or Sydney are afforded higher material lifestyles in exchange for loyalty with the New World order. However, concentrations of highly skilled and well-educated workers present a particular challenge to ruling elites. Mission-critical professionals need to be culturally separated from the masses through international professional networks and a more refined variant of global consumer culture.

Modern society depends more than ever on technology that requires a complex sequence of industrial processes. No modern urban settlement could function without electricity, a sanitised water supply, transportation links, telecommunications and raw materials extracted from mines, forests or oil wells thousands of miles away. Yet few of us have more than rudimentary grasp of the underlying sciences. We have all come to rely on technocrats, yet complain whenever technical hitch, such as a power cut, burst water pipe or congested transport network, causes widespread disruption. Our modern lives would be unimaginable without electricity, clean water and rapid transportation. In their absence we would be disconnected from the mediasphere (cinema, radio, TV and now the Internet), unable to operate most household appliances, unable to cook or wash and only have limited range of local food available in shops. City states like Singapore would become ghost towns, if the rest of the world imposed an embargo. This hyper-dependence infantilises us by both raising our material expectations and denying us the freedom to fend ourselves. Why should the labour of a Vietnamese production line worker be worth just a fraction of a London advertising executive? The latter merely promotes sales of goods manufactured by the former with technology neither fully comprehend.

The managerial classes like to ridicule the naive opinions of the masses, usually accusing their amateur naysayers of fruitcakery (applicable to all opinions outwith the range of permissible dissent), religious myopia (if someone opposes three-parent babies), racism (if they oppose extreme labour mobility), homophobia (if they oppose gay marriage) or conspiracy theorism (if someone suggests the Iraq War was really about oil) or simply ludditism (if someone opposes nuclear power or hydraulic fracturing). This marginalising technique is most effective if issues can be isolated and analysed in the context of mainstream assumptions about almost everything else. Nuclear power and hydraulic fracturing seem so much more necessary if we plan to continue our high-consumption happy-motoring lifestyle. If you challenge the very foundation of modern economics, continuous material growth, then you risk biting the hands that feed you. If retail sales decline as people stop buying superfluous consumer goods, then not only do many retail workers lose their jobs, but the banking, marketing and advertising industries suffer too.

Consider the concocted debate on unbalanced mass immigration, where the establishment poses on the internationalist left, but sometimes pretends to share the concerns of indigenous workers. Some believe public concern about extreme labour mobility is fuelled by irrational prejudice against foreigners, rather than job security and social cohesion. By dismissing opposition to mass immigration as xenophobic and reactionary, the business elites can dodge real issues caused by a massive oversupply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour, i.e. de-skilling of indigenous working classes, disappearance of stable jobs with easy hiring and firing of human resources and dwindling class solidarity. If you have a stable long-term job and are fully integrated in your local community, you may join trade union and care more about the welfare of other workers in your neighbourhood. By contrast, if you only have temporary work contract in another country your main concerns are your pay cheques and staying out of trouble. However, rational debate on the subject is often difficult because mainstream opinion leaders are committed to economic growth at all costs, which relies on a dynamic labour market and bigger profits.

+