Everywhere we look, we keep hearing that the wealthiest 1% keeps getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. While this is not exactly true and certainly not in Europe, as I demonstrated in my latest book, ‘Fear of the Future‘, it is certainly true that ‘the elite’ are a small minority.
This is also changing somewhat, depending on one’s definition of elites. For example, there are more and more millionaires out there, but is that what makes someone a part of the elite? Or is it your level of education? In which case, there are more and more university graduates.
Try as we may to create access to equal opportunities and allow people to traverse the social strata (and classes), we will never be able to change the dichotomy between the low, middle and high classes. George Orwell put it best in his dystopian novel 1984. After every successful revolution, the previously suppressed class takes control and establishes itself as the new elite, suppressing its own opposing low class. After all, we all fear to lose what we have and secretly we all strive to be a part of the elite. That is why superheroes and films of people who take the law into their own hands, or operate above it are incredibly popular.
Shifting identities and modern-day witch hunts
Or take Downtown Abbey as another example. We enjoy the Libertarian fantasy of someone, who lives in an established society with all its perks, but is free to do what they choose, with little to no consequences. And if we were to ever achieve that status, we would never be able to give it up again. It is a part of human nature.
There are multiple in and out groups that define our identities. With every definition, every value and ideal, you define who you are and who you are not. By extension, you decide who you belong to and who is not a part of your social groups. That is not a bad thing, or something to be fought or addressed. It is as it is.
But we need to be aware of this and the consequences that come with it. On the one hand, human nature leads us to create echo chambers. At first, we were connected only within our villages and everyone was made to think the same way (lest ye be a witch!). But in our post-modern interconnected world, we are free to think and express ourselves through the internet (with exceptions). It is only natural we are drawn to other people across the globe, who share our interests, values, and beliefs.
Those are members of our very personal in-groups. Hate-posts are nothing more than the post-modern equivalent of witch hunts. “This person thinks or acts differently; they must be a witch! Burn the witch!” To overcome hate speech, the only thing we can do, is to remind ourselves of our shared humanity and to build a common purpose, a common dream to strive for, in our case, a European Dream.
The European Dream: Is it a thing?
When asked what a European Dream – as opposed to an American Dream – would be, people often refer to our well-working social systems. Indeed, our European economies are far better at alleviating income inequalities than the rest of the world. On the downside, Europeans’ salaries and disposable incomes, are far lower than in the US.
But perhaps it is worth it, considering our dream is not to have a one in a million chance to go from dishwasher to millionaire. We want everyone to find their place in society, no matter what that is, and for everyone to have the opportunity to move up in the world if they work hard enough. It is a very different dream that is reflected in our institutional setups.
But is it real? Can we really say that everyone has equal access to opportunities (i.e. equity)? Not yet, but we are working on it and inequalities are falling in Europe. We only need to make sure we continue on this trend and deal with issues that affect very specific groups of people, who will otherwise be left behind. Here we agree on something with the US Marines. No one is ever left behind. That must also be our motto, moving forward. Our solidarity and compassion give us strength as a society.
Go to any unemployment centre in Europe, you will find a mixture of people. They are men, women, young, old and of all complexions. They are low and highly educated. Unemployment can hit anyone at any time. The same goes for disease. It can be random and cruel and we need to keep reminding ourselves that we believe in standing up to the cruel random nature of the world and cry out in unison: No! We stand together and that’s why you won’t get your way. One for all and all for one!
At the same time, we cannot deny that there is a disparity of wealth and influence in the world and this goes for Europe, just like the rest of the world, even if in Europe it is less extreme. But this is the natural state of the world and humanity. Some people are driven to achieve something great, others are content carving out their little corner and living comfortably. Often enough, it is about luck. Some musicians make it big, others are neglected, despite being talented. It comes down to whether or not they inspire enough people to spread the word about them and buy their work. Some manage this independently, most need help from big labels.
It’s about who you know
The same can be said for most everything in the arts and entertainment industry. There are other examples from other professions I could list, but you get the picture. Whether we are successful or not, whether we are allowed to join the elite, it is dictated by our access to information, our relationships, our connections, our environment and by extension, by the elite itself. That is why the elite has a responsibility to give back and build up more of their peers. But how do they choose whom to support? At times, it is random encounters. Other times, it is well-researched, and other times again, they support their friends and families.
And herein lies the fundamental issue for social mobility. If you don’t already have connections with the elite, when you are born, you are going to have a hard time making those connections later on. Why? Because the connections you do make and the pathways you move along, will lead you towards more of the same. If you are a rich person, you spend time with other rich people, doing the things rich people do in the places where they go to and where usually, other people cannot afford or are not allowed to enter.
As such, the likelihood of you meeting another rich person, falling in love, starting a family and passing on your combined riches is much higher than doing the same with a poor person. On the flip side, if you are poor, you are less likely to get noticed and propped up by someone from the elite, no matter how worthy you may be.
The truth about social mobility
On top of that, you will lack the knowledge necessary to live a self-determined life. For example, your parents and peers will probably never push you to study at university, or worse, try to stop you if you choose to study. They will also not be able or willing to teach you about sound finance and other essential skills needed to amass capital.
It is about what and who you know and if you are not in the right place with the right people at the right time, you will lose out on those opportunities. Instead, you will have to rely on luck and hope for the masses to recognise you for the amazing person you are. So how do we address this issue?
The elite will always seek out the elite. We cannot change this. It is human nature. But what we can change, is the nature of the elite. What we perceive as elitist, is very arbitrary. In fact, the very word is as hollow and meaningless as most political paroles and phrases. When the Spanish populist party Podemos first emerged, they were led by academics, who coined the term of “elites” as the source of all evil.
Demonisation of the Elite
Yet, an academic is already elitist in their own way, but Podemos managed to make the word “elite” a rallying cry for everyone and anyone, who felt in some way wronged or excluded from society. It doesn’t matter if you are elitist, so long as you do not identify with being elitist. Instead of unifying their voters under a common idea of who they are (in group), they united them under a common idea of an external threat, the elite (out group). It is undefined and can therefore take on whichever meaning any potential voter would like it to take on. Thus the elite became the perfect scapegoat for anything and everything wrong with the world.
But being part of the elite doesn’t have to be bad and in fact, it shouldn’t be. Just because you are on the top, doesn’t mean you pushed someone else aside wrongfully to get there. We need to stop demonising the elite and start looking at what it is that we want the elite to be and to do for the greater society.
Right now you can be seen as elitist, by having a good education. But having a good education does not guarantee untold riches. Most university graduates struggle to get by, just like every working woman and man. As university education becomes more and more common, can we really still call it elitist? No, and nor should we. Higher education should be universal, not elitist. As long as we view it as an elitist thing, it will create barriers of entry for lower levels of society. So education must not be seen as elitist.
Academia & The Media
Academia, on the other hand, can and should be seen as elitist, because that is what makes elitists, sitting in ivory towers, looking down on the real world and missing the point. That is where the outrage with “the elite” comes from. But it is not the elite, but elitists. There is a very important distinction to make. The elite is the group of people that are best at something. In a societal sense, it could be the best at their craft, with the most influence on and sway over the rest of society in that area of expertise.
You may use a different word for them: experts. At least that is what they used to be called. Today the word “expert” has become a synonym for elitists, who ponder about a world they did not get to know and lives they’ve never had to live. What defines an elitist, is their arrogance and blindness. An elitist is someone, who claims to be an expert on something, but doesn’t understand a thing about the realities of the subject matter they profess to have mastered. They are disconnected from regular people and in fact, often look down on them condescendingly. But a true elite would not look down on people. Experts are masters of their craft, not talking heads.
We’ve allowed academia and the media to produce bullshit artists that twist facts and figures in their favour and disregard the masses. It is a dangerous development that is causing silent revolts across Europe and beyond. People vote against this. They lash out in anger at what they perceive to be ignorance, lies and deception. Phenomena like Brexit are a consequence of this. But it comes down to the true elite staying silent. They’ve allowed these developments to happen on their watch, because they were comfortable in their own lives. But it is their duty to respond to societal threats.
The biggest threats come from within. We would do well to remember that the biggest empires in our history all crumbled from within, rather than being conquered by external forces. We are facing such a threat right now. On the one hand we have self-appointed “experts” pretending the world is not what we see, on the other, demagogues who foster and feast on the fear and hate they sow. This will not be magically overcome one day. There is no simple solution. But the solution will not present itself to any one group of people. We need both the elite and the grass-roots to overcome the challenges we are facing.
The “European Dream,” in summary
Our society cannot sustain itself if it doesn’t pull together. Instead of looking at our differences, we need to look at what we have in common. We need a cause, a dream, something we can all believe in. A dream about a better world, in which humanity overcomes its greatest challenges and soars to new heights. A dream, where no one is left behind and we all have a chance to become the elite in our own individual way. And once we do, we give back and help to build up the next generation.
Because being part of the elite is not bad or an end in itself. It is a privilege to be the best at what you do, to be listened to, asked for help and advice and to be able to shape society and have a positive impact on all of humanity. That is what it should mean to be an elite and it should be cherished and aspired towards, rather than frowned upon and resented. Jealousy has no place with this definition of the elite. It is a privilege and a burden.
In the words of Spider-Man’s uncle Ben: With great power, comes great responsibility. Words to live by.