The New Aristocracy image

The New Aristocracy

Animal Farm is about communism; everybody knows that. A popular uprising against a self-serving elite, that ends up turning into a self-serving elite itself: the parable is clear, the irony palpable. Every schoolboy knows it.

In many ways, though, Orwell has written a parable of modern, meritocratic, cosmopolitan liberalism, whether he intended to or not. We got rid of the bigwigs in power, and took power ourselves. The ancien régime is dead; long live the nouveau régime. Two fascinating articles this week point this out in fascinatingly different ways.

The first is from Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Douthat argues that the apparent and vaunted cosmopolitanism of the new global elites is nothing of the kind; those who despise tribalism are themselves the most tribal of all, albeit in an inclusive disguise. In opposing homogeneity, they have become more homogenous than the wooden-shoed bumpkins they despise:

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.” This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home ...

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools. They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

The second is from The Hedgehog Review, with its comparable claim that meritocracy has become the new aristocracy. I’ve posted here before on the way in which intelligence gradually creates an elite, no matter how hard it tries not to, and in this article Helen Andrews contends that we should just accept that, and urge the new aristocracy to take on responsibilities commensurate with its privileges:

Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. Nearly every book in the American anti-meritocracy literature makes this charge, in what is usually its most empirically reinforced chapter. Statistics on the decline of social mobility are not lacking. In 1985, less than half of students at selective colleges came from families in the top income quartile; in 2010, 67 percent did. For those authors brave enough to cite Charles Murray (as Robert Putnam, for one, was not), Coming Apart documents quantitatively the growing tendency of the members of America’s cognitive elite to marry each other, live near each other in “Super Zips,” and launch their children into the same schools, and thence onto the same path to worldly success. Deresiewicz puts this betrayal of the democratic impulse neatly: “Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.”

My solution is quite different. The meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable? Allow the social forces that created this aristocracy to continue their work, and embrace the label. By all means this caste should admit as many worthy newcomers as is compatible with their sense of continuity. New brains, like new money, have been necessary to every ruling class, meritocratic or not. If ethnic balance is important to meritocrats, they should engineer it into the system. If geographic diversity strikes them as important, they should ensure that it exists, ideally while keeping an eye on the danger of hoovering up all of the native talent from regional America. But they must give up any illusion that such tinkering will make them representative of the country over which they preside. They are separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities. That is what makes them aristocratic.

A tough sell, I realize. Not since the Society of the Cincinnati has a ruling elite so vehemently disclaimed any resemblance to an aristocracy. The structure of the economy abets the elite in its delusion, since even the very rich are now more likely to earn their money from employment than from capital, and thus find it easier to think of themselves basically as working stiffs. As cultural consumers they are careful to look down their noses at nothing except country music. All manner of low-class fare—rap, telenovelas, Waffle House—is embraced by what Shamus Rahman Khan calls the “omnivorous pluralism” of our elite. “It is as if the new elite are saying, ‘Look! We are not some exclusive club. If anything, we are the most democratized of all groups.’”

The creatures outside looked from opinion-former to landowner, and from landowner to opinion-former, and from opinion-former to landowner again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

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