Skip to content

Elites: Oligarchy, Aristocracy, Decline and Fall

Two long quotations on a theme I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks.

We value excellence and equality (moral equality for sure, and equality of opportunity in the sense of “a fair go”), but these exist in tension, not least because most of the excellent stuff seems to get done by small networks of people (“elites“).

Some thoughts:

  1. Excellence (and effectiveness) are a function of factors mostly beyond our control – inherited qualities, acquired skills, vision, energy and luck – which are unevenly distributed, sometimes as a result of injustice but often by their nature;
  2. Excellence tends to breed more excellence (does it become a habit?), so people who do something excellent become more likely to do more excellent things;
  3. At a group level, excellence seeks (and attracts) its like, and small groups / clusters develop, which become elites;
  4. A kind of reinforcement happens, firstly because of reinforcement / group culture raising standards (see Scenius);
  5. Small groups get more done, especially groups with confidence in their shared vision and culture;
  6. Once a culture of excellence is established, it tends to reproduce itself (exacerbating inequality);
  7. BUT to last, cultures of excellence (elites) must renew themselves or face decadence and decline…
  8. … and to be legitimate in the long run, elites must create more value than they capture.

So the question is, how can we maximise excellence for all – or is “excellence for all” an oxymoron?

And now the quotes:

The Durants on the almost-inevitability of oligarchy and the collapse of aristocracy

All in all, monarchy has had a middling record. Its wars of succession brought mankind as much evil as the continuity or “legitimacy” of the monarchy brought good. When it is hereditary it is likely to be more prolific of stupidity, nepotism, irresponsibility, and extravagance than of nobility or statesmanship. Louis XIV has often been taken as the paragon of modern monarchs, but the people of France rejoiced at his death.

The complexity of contemporary states seems to break down any single mind that tries to master it. Hence most governments have been oligarchies – ruled by a minority, chosen either by birth, as in aristocracies, or by a religious organization, as in theocracies, or by wealth, as in democracies. It is unnatural (as even Rousseau saw) for a majority to rule, for a majority can seldom be organized for united and specific action, and a minority can.

If the majority of abilities is contained in a minority of men, minority government is as inevitable as the concentration of wealth; the majority can do no more than periodically throw out one minority and set up another.

The aristocrat holds that political selection by birth is the sanest alternative to selection by money or theology or violence. Aristocracy withdraws a few men from the exhausting and coarsening strife of economic competition, and trains them from birth, through example, surroundings, and minor office, for the tasks of government; these tasks require a special preparation that no ordinary family or background can provide.

Aristocracy is not only a nursery of statesmanship, it is also a repository and vehicle of culture, manners, standards, and tastes, and serves thereby as a stabilizing barrier to social fads, artistic crazes, or neurotically rapid changes in the moral code. See what has happened to morals, manners, style, and art since the French Revolution.

Aristocracies have inspired, supported, and controlled art, but they have rarely produced it. The aristocrat looks upon artists as manual laborers; he prefers the art of life to the life of art, and would never think of reducing himself to the consuming toil that is usually the price of genius. He does not often produce literature, for he thinks of writing for publication as exhibitionism and salesmanship. The result has been, in modern aristocracies, a careless and dilettante hedonism, a lifelong holiday in which the privileges of place were enjoyed to the full, and the responsibilities were often ignored. Hence the decay of some aristocracies. Only three generations intervened between “L’ etat c’ est moi” and “A pres moi ie deluge.”

So the services of aristocracy did not save it when it monopolized privilege and power too narrowly, when it oppressed the people with selfish and myopic exploitation, when it retarded the growth of the nation by a blind addiction to ancestral ways, when it consumed the men and resources of the state in the lordly sport of dynastic or territorial wars. Then the excluded banded together in wild revolt; the new rich combined with the poor against obstruction and stagnation; the guillotine cut off a thousand noble heads; and democracy took its turn in the misgovernment of mankind.

Will and Ariel Durant – The Lessons of History

Charles Coulombe on the decline of America’s ruling class

Every society is ruled by its elites. There are always some groups who actually hold the levers of power, as opposed to the majority, who for better or worse are along for the ride, regardless of voting and taxes. 

But what makes an elite? Typically they are those at the apex of the social structure. Often, they or their predecessors were in on the formation of the current regime of society, and they are themselves steeped in the animating philosophy or religion of that regime. While their power may stem from many sources, their authority comes from their guarding that faith, and their legitimacy depends upon their observance of it. They must continually be willing to prove this through self-sacrifice—of leisure, of effort, and if necessary, of life—for that faith and for their fellow society-members who are lower down the spectrum. From this comes both their own self-confidence and the respect, honor, and obedience of their followers and subjects. 

Decline comes when they lose belief in their own legitimacy, or become wholly self-seeking, or both. Their sense of responsibility may turn over time into one of mere entitlement. This in turn leads to the disaffection of those beneath them, their withdrawal from public service into private luxury, and then to their gradual or violent replacement, wholly or partially, by a new and more energetic set. Of course, if they manage to prevent this overthrow without returning to their natural duties as a ruling class, their society as a whole will fall apart or transform into something radically different—whether through internal convulsion or invasion from outside.

But we Americans love to pretend that we are an egalitarian society. Even so, we speak of things having or not having “class,” by which we mean style. In any case, our insistence on this egalitarian unreality has had the effect of veiling the reality of power in American society. If there is no ideologically legitimate place for power, it doesn’t disappear; it just hides in the shadows. As with every other culture that has ever existed, we too have the rulers and the ruled. But neither has been static in the years since our founding.

Our first elites in the United States of America were the founders of our particular society: those who brought us political independence from Britain. Often, they had been members of the colonial elites, themselves based upon the descendants of the earliest settlers of each colony, combined with wealthier or brighter newcomers. The unique foundation of each of the Thirteen Colonies ensured that rulers and ruled alike would be quite varied ethnically and religiously. 

All the trappings and institutions of an elite ultimately serve this transcendent motivation as its tools for action in the world. A second major trait of a true elite is a dynamic and instrumental approach to their institutions, with one foot out and the other foot in. To be an elite is to act in the world as an independent historical player with the collective power and ambition to not simply accept established institutions, but to change them. Our late American upper classes maintained a sense of stewardship over their institutions—from universities to the United States—because these were the vehicles by which they could act in the world. And when they need something different, a true elite creates and re-creates its institutions, rather than merely staffing them.

Third, any elite that will last necessarily has a generational outlook in its internal culture. It is not just a set of individuals, but almost a tribe. The obsession of the WASPs with familial ties and prestige embodied in the Social Register reflected an understanding that the networks of relationships that embodied their culture could only survive if they were properly handed down through the generations. Those in the position to act as elites today will only realize their potential if they embrace similar independence of thought and action, and similar commitments to functional honor and etiquette, and learn to pass them down. What begins as a personal regeneration must ultimately become one of a family, a class, and a civilization.

These will not be the only key traits of a successful future elite, but they are some of the biggest currently missing from America’s halls of power. If, as Bob Dylan assured us, “the order is rapidly fading,” it is up to those now living to start building a better one in its place—whatever form that may eventually take.

Charles A. Coulombe – America’s Late Ruling Class in Palladium Magazine

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...