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A no­tion has em­bed­ded it­self in global and lo­cal pol­i­tics over the last cou­ple of years. That no­tion is com­pressed into the word “elite”. It has equal pur­chase across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum from the far right to the far left, from the main­stream to the fringe. Ev­ery­one is against the elite: ac­tivists, union lead­ers, blog­gers, jour­nal­ists and, of course, the com­men­tariat in main­stream and so­cial me­dia.


How­ever it came about, “elite” is now a term of abuse, short­hand for who­ever is re­spon­si­ble for what­ever has gone wrong over the past decade – so­cial, fi­nan­cial, po­lit­i­cal, en­vi­ron­men­tal, med­i­cal and what­ever you’re hav­ing your­self. And all po­lit­i­cal up­heavals, in­clud­ing Brexit and Trump, are ex­plained as a global re­volt against the ar­ro­gant and out-of-touch elite.

But there are many re­volts against many elites! Which one is any­one re­volt­ing against? Surely not all! Don’t we want our sports­peo­ple to be elite?

And aren’t some of those who are in re­volt mem­bers of one elite or an­other them­selves? Are they up in arms be­cause of the fail­ure of an elite to which they be­long, or be­cause they them­selves have been frus­trated in their own elite am­bi­tions?

For ex­am­ple, aren’t those who at­tend our pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties part of an elite at home and abroad? In­deed, notwith­stand­ing our self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as global un­der­dogs, when mea­sured against much of the world, the Ir­ish are them­selves mem­bers of a first world elite. Jour­nal­ists and com­men­ta­tors are an elite too and it’s ironic that so many of them ap­pear un­aware of their priv­i­leged sta­tus.


Of course, a word’s mean­ing can mu­tate if it gath­ers ad­di­tional con­no­ta­tions and as­so­ci­a­tions. Ac­cord­ing to the on­line Oxford dic­tionary, “elite” de­rives from the French word élite, which means se­lec­tion or choice, from élire ‘to elect’. That dic­tionary de­fines an elite as, “A select group that is su­pe­rior in terms of abil­ity or qual­i­ties to the rest of a group or so­ci­ety.”

But cru­cially it adds a sub­sidiary def­i­ni­tion: “A group or class of peo­ple seen as hav­ing the most power and in­flu­ence in a so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially on ac­count of their wealth or priv­i­lege”, and gives as an ex­am­ple of this us­age: ‘the silent ma­jor­ity were looked down upon by the lib­eral elite’.

Isn’t this lat­ter how we use the term now? But it wasn’t al­ways thus – and its ap­pli­ca­tion, and the view of elites, varies. A guest here on Hog Heights once met a se­nior Gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial from Croa­tia, not long af­ter the last Balkan war ended. Ac­cord­ing to the Croa­t­ian, the big­gest prob­lem they faced in es­tab­lish­ing their new state was the lack of ex­per­tise in gov­ern­ment, eco­nom­ics and ad­min­is­tra­tion. She said their

pri­or­ity was the cre­ation of an elite to lead and man­age the coun­try to­wards ma­tu­rity.

Our Ir­ish friend protested that elites were not a good idea and that they should pro­ceed with cau­tion. But the Croa­t­ian woman looked at her as though she had two heads. With­out an ex­pert elite, she replied, they were doomed to fail­ure.

The kind of elite she had in mind is not un­like our own public ser­vice. It en­com­passes ex­pe­ri­ence, knowl­edge, re­la­tion­ships, in­sight, spe­cial skills, con­ti­nu­ity and so on. Are these bad at­tributes? Surely it’s only when they mal­func­tion that they should be op­posed. And yes, that hap­pens. Look at the chaos of our health sys­tem or the past and present dys­func­tional is­sues in An Garda Síochána.

Or is it that we think, as many in the USA seem to, that we should keep go­ing back to zero, delet­ing all in­sti­tu­tional and cor­po­rate knowl­edge?

Hard right and lib­er­tar­ian ide­ol­o­gists in the

USA talk of the “deep state”, the name­less bu­reau­crats and se­cu­rity ser­vices who, they say, con­sti­tute a sep­a­rate and un­ac­count­able gov­ern­ment di­vorced from the wishes of elected public of­fi­cials or the elec­torate. But, as David Rothkopf ar­gues in the on­line jour­nal For­eign

Pol­icy, while this may be prob­lem­atic, and cer­tain Dublin City Coun­cil of­fi­cials are cer­tainly a case in point, it pales into in­signif­i­cance be­side the growth of its an­tithe­sis, what he calls the “shal­low state”.

Its in­flu­ence is grow­ing and is, he says,

“scarier still be­cause it not only ac­tively es­chews ex­pe­ri­ence, knowl­edge, re­la­tion­ships, in­sight, craft, spe­cial skills, tra­di­tion and shared val­ues but (also) cel­e­brates its ig­no­rance of and dis­dain for those things.”

Its pro­po­nents skim the me­dia for any­thing that makes them feel bet­ter about them­selves. To many of them, knowl­edge is not a use­ful tool but a cun­ning bar­rier elites have cre­ated to keep power from the av­er­age man and woman. The same is true for ex­pe­ri­ence, skills and know-how. These things re­quire time and work and study and of­ten chal­lenge our sys­tems of be­lief. Truth is hard; shal­low­ness is easy.


It’s im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able and the risk of our own shal­low state is very real. Nowa­days most peo­ple get their news from the in­ter­net or so­cial me­dia. Ev­ery­one cherry-picks. The av­er­age visit to a news web­site is a few min­utes. We need to dig deeper. We must be more dis­crim­i­nat­ing.

You know, there’s a su­per yacht named Quintessen­tially 1 be­ing built by a con­sor­tium. The co-founder and chair­man de­cided to do it af­ter find­ing it dif­fi­cult to cater to rich clients when they all con­gre­gated at glam­our events like the Monaco Grand Prix. It will travel the world, he says, to where the wealthy want to go and be seen. A room will cost £2,000 a night.

Or there are the Candy brothers, Nick and Chris­tian, two Bri­tish bil­lion­aires, who moved their busi­ness off­shore be­cause they were “not pre­pared to pay any tax”, ac­cord­ing to their for­mer col­league Mark Holyoake. Pent­houses in one of their schemes in Lon­don cost up to £140m each.

And In­done­sia’s four rich­est men own as much wealth as the coun­try’s poor­est 100 mil­lion cit­i­zens.

That sounds like the worst kind of elite to me. And the hor­ri­ble irony is that the anti-elit­ist right is refashioning the world in a way that fur­ther enriches and insulates this boor­ish ul­tra-rich elite, while at the same time cor­rod­ing and dis­man­tling the nec­es­sary elites of public ser­vice. Worse still, their grand project is be­ing helped by cyn­i­cal ma­noeu­vres on the left.

As I say, we need to dig deeper.

The Hog

Rail­ing against “elites” has be­come a big trend amongst ex­trem­ists on both the right and left. How­ever, we need to be care­ful not to throw the baby out with the bath wa­ter.

The Monaco Grand Prix: a play­ground for the su­per-rich elite

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