In a time and place where reality itself has nowhere to put down roots, how many of the “serious” words we use now have no definition? What is “our democracy”? When are we “at war”? What, exactly, is an “empire”? Or “fascism”? Or for that matter, “racism”? Is there a difference between “biological sex” and “gender” — and if so, what then is a “woman”? What do we mean by “violence” — and hence, by extension, what does it mean to be “safe”?
The very words we rely on describe the world around us no longer have a shared meaning. Moreover, the meaning of such “serious” words shifts almost existentially from group to group. Words we all still know how to spell now describe different human universes, perhaps even, what it means to be human.
Yet we must be able to describe our society: The human world that surrounds us, the social milieu in which we live. To describe our society at all, we must at the very least be able to define one of its core components: its ruling leadership, also known as its elites.
“Elites” is one of those serious words used more as epithet than as sobriquet: Which is to say, an imprecation as opposed to familiar nickname. “Elites” is a political missile causing damage precisely from its imprecision. It works as a slur only as long as it remains formless and undefined—just toxic.
Yet in contrast, America’s elites represent a well-etched—and perfectly definable—subculture within our larger national society. This is true of elites since the dawn of civilization (maybe even earlier). Moreover, we can identify (with some precision) where our current elites stand on the historical pathway of elite decline and fall.
America’s survival (or revival) as a functioning, cohesive national society depends on our ability to analyze the viability of our ruling elites. This, then, is such an attempt: to offer a short anthropology of today’s American elites, along with some notations to place this ruling class in historical context.
Ten things you should know about America’s elites
1- Suffer then, the elites. We have suffered elites for as long as civilization itself. A world of cities (that is what “civilization” means) imposed a complexity on civic life, above and beyond Neolithic village rhythms [Elites may even have significantly preceded agricultural life: a remarkable hypothesis].
To be “elite”—as in, “the elite imperial guard,” or “Germany’s elite shock troops”—need not mean that a ruling class is somehow “select” or “better.” The question for all elites is how to persuade the people that this is in fact the case.
2- Making (and keeping) power is the Prime Directive. Much, if not most, of elite energy is tasked with establishing and reinforcing the legitimacy and authority of elite rule and consolidating power.
Legitimacy—the right to make laws, i.e., rule—can be proclaimed as a gift from the gods, anointing a divine (or, at least, a sacred) king “to rule them all,” or perhaps an annunciation from revered ancestors (“founders”), or later, from the persons of kings themselves as the mouthpiece of God.
Society’s evolution in Modernity would later construct elaborate arguments for the inherent superiority of aristocracy or of the elite’s commitment to tutor the lesser and raise up the unwashed. Then it became, “Only the elite can guarantee that our immortal city will stay rich, ordered, and safe.” Finally, today, elites publicly deny the status they so desperately covet: “Hey, we are just middle class families trying to get by.”
3- Lock in your (deserved) wealth at all costs. All successful elites buy historical space (in collective memory) to enrich themselves and lock in continuing increases in wealth and status. Moreover, in the pursuit of ever-growing portfolios, elites will brook no challenge. This elite racket crystallizes over time with generational lock-in down the line. At some point, actual social mobility is severely constricted [cue Thomas Piketty]. “Intergenerational mobility” in America is just shutting down, and ruling elites shed such crocodile tears of false lamentation. “We read it in The Atlantic, so sad.” The United States today has about as much social mobility as 18th century Britain.
4- Why all winning elites fray and unravel. Successful elites also count on mobilizing old myth about ancestral success and its assumptions that the descendants of the laurel wreath and grass crown are worthy simply because they are the grandchildren of greatness. Yet the succeeding generations of heroic “builders” act increasingly entitled without anything to show for their narcissism. Increasingly distant from the people their ancestors once led into battle, they become increasingly contemptuous—fragile, yet borne up by inflated self-esteem.
5- Elites gone bad are hard to make good. Growing incompetence sifted with overweening selfishness creates growing rage among the people and explodes with crisis. Hence, the storyline: Elites in history are regularly overthrown and replaced, after elite repression ceases to work. If SWAT or FBI (think: Okhrana) beat-downs indeed work, this “solution” is only temporary. Instead, an even bigger crisis a few years later elicits even greater rage. This was of course the closing narrative of the Russian revolution.
However, even violent revolution—a visible rupture or discontinuity—can mask yet deeper continuity, in which the very savagery of revolution simply paves the way to a replacement elite that—whether it sees this or not—so often simply picks up the standard of the former regime [This dynamic is quite clear in France, but also, perversely, in Russia after the Revolution].
6- The hard math of elite vs. people. Socially, Elite station typically extends to no more than 10% of society, and this 10% is parsed into an elite hierarchy, typically of three levels. So, for example, our elite society is segmented into 0.1%, 1%, and 9%. Hence, only one-hundredth of the elite is truly consequential: only 1% of the elite itself can be considered oligarchs, or Dukes. The 1-percenters—ten times that number—are perhaps American barons. The rest, ten times that number, are what Medieval society would have labelled as knights (or squires, or gentry) or what Old Romans would have called Equites [Here I depart somewhat from Matthew Stewart’s compellingly argued philippic].
Actually, Medieval distinctions work rather well in highlighting America’s modern elite order. From Greco-Roman Antiquity to Modernity, the trialistic ranking within the elite almost perfectly describes the hierarchy of power.
7- The iron rod of elite authority. How, functionally, do elites maintain their aggressive station within society? Of necessity, successful elites must harness the power of embedded cultural functions of legitimacy, authority, and power, and integrate them into an irresistible organ of social control. Thus—just as all antecedent elites have “worked”—we can define how America works today.
Elite control depends on a non-flexing tripod of caste, class, and culture. Think: Standing, Status, Sensibility.
Standing (or Caste) is your titular place in elite hierarchy. You went to Yale? Brahmin. Family, home zip code, friends’ network: these count too. But degree-provenance trumps all. It is our equivalent to a king’s sword lightly touching the shoulder. It is not a degree; it is a title. Of course, caste can only confer elite place. Many from such high estate have fallen on hard times, yet they are still high-caste, simply not players. Their social standing cannot be taken away.
Status (or Class) denotes—in contrast to standing’s focus on “place”—a fixation on rank. How well have you done? Where are you on the pecking order? How much FaceTime can you boast with the Emperor? Status, unlike standing, comes and goes. It is situational, and must be fought for, tooth and nail, every day an Equite goes to battle to inflate (or at least bolster) his reputation. Here, Court ranking is the Alpha and Omega of life’s sweet and acrid rollercoaster in the virtual villas of reigning oligarchs. Yet above all, status is the key to wealth and income. “Coin of the realm,” indeed!
Sensibility (or Culture) is where the Woke rule the rulers. In England’s old upper class, accent was a make-of-break yardstick. In America, the cultural barometer is just as unforgiving, even if it trades in the arcane argot of today’s High Church of the elite. If anything, navigating the lexicon of Wokeness is akin to speaking fluent Farsi in the 17th century Ottoman Porte. Data on contemporary American ethos shows that only 8% of us are “woke.” How well that tracks with a 10% elite and does not of course include the muzzled legions of old liberals afraid to speak their mind in the New World of American NewSpeak. Religion trumps all opposition; hence, religion is the prize of all elite desire.
8- National Elites are most dangerous (to the people, and themselves!).
Throughout time, good and successful elites are physically and fraternally coterminous with the people. They live together in the same (walled) city, cheek-to-civic-jowl. As highly successful tribes and city-states go missionary and proselytize (also known as “conquer”) their neighbors and then their neighbors’ neighbors, elite subcultures tend to separate from their own, i.e., the people, the citizens who made them what they are.
Then, the “secrets of their success” become—perhaps, as in the case of Rome—the hard and unforgiving evidence of imperial failure. The original republic, the 39 tribes, even the whole of Latium was so impossibly cohesive as to withstand the slaughtering of Hannibal and eventually triumph. Half a millennium later, Rome’s elites were entirely removed from whatever people inhabited its decaying regnum.
France and Britain each consolidated their elites in the 18th century. Britain’s clustered in the sprawling urban giant that was London, or better yet, to the most exclusive real estate of Bath. Louis XIV, in contrast, whipped his recalcitrant aristocrats into Versailles, to be incarcerated in the most luxurious maximum security prison (in political power terms) of all time! None of this elite-harnessing worked out very well in the long term.
Giant (meaning, overextended and imperial) polities work best when elites stay local and regional. The downfall of the trans-Atlantic British empire came when London elites (i.e., Parliament) tried to bring faraway colonial elites—13 colonies in particular—to heel. Ancien Regime France came down when the Versailles elite tried to bring to heel the new Paris elite of the haute bourgeoisie.
9- The slo-mo train wreck of a classically clueless elite. Breaking News: our American elites are now fully nationalized. There is now—thanks to social media and an unbreakable iron network—a fully unitary, imperial elite presiding over our national life. Moreover, its locus of power is absurdly lean and spare, centered as it is in an aristocratic quadrilateral.
Today, that elite quadrilateral is anchored by New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Santa Clara. Nationally, today’s elites inhabit super-saturated communities. That is, the foundation of their rule must operate from densely packed “urban terrain” that resembles the cartographic compass of antique city states, literally the ruling space of walled cities in a sea of “Other America.” Their Blue world is literally an archipelago of tiny oases dotting the Red desert.
10- Halloween and the Sixth Generation curse. Today’s American elites can trace their provenance, like a burning electric charge through history, tracing its crackling energy back to the early 20th century. Our ruling elites’ ancestry begins with the Progressive Era, and the generations (in terms of their zeitgeist and working time) follow this path:
World Wars > Cold War
What is remarkable about this century is its continuity. Its spiritual—even doctrinal—provenance is Calvinist-Puritan, a skein that has remained unbroken. It remains remarkably steadfast to a religious goal that has taken its tenets from those of severe Protestant community to an equally severe godless “community,” yet the relationship of man to God remains steadfastly focused on the apotheosis of the individual person. Its radical terminus could perhaps even have been glimpsed by “The Metaphysical Club” wayback at the turn of another century.
However, the observer must note two concerns, which might be considered as warnings. The first: our elites’ sacral evolutionary course (even given its century+ provenance) is at heart driven by Messianic and Millenarian fixations, which are now—in the form of the Church of Woke—strongly opposed by the people it seeks to bring to the light.
The second: our reigning (and dominant) elites no longer can ignore the other elites in American society, however despised and injured they may appear to be. Composed of those left behind: Liberal “refuseniks,” conservative resistance, and traditionalists of all stripes—these are citizens who would otherwise be members-in-full of the establishment elite but for their unwillingness to KowTow. Today’s Woke elite should beware, not simply of the people, but also of the passionate elites their scalpel so recklessly slices away.
Moreover, the Sixth Generation scions of American Calvinist Progressive tyranny are themselves incommensurate descendants of ancestors of impossibly more stainless character. A great nation is not to be brought to heel by an elite unworthy of the name, or even of the thought.
Everywhere we can see sure evidence of revolt, perhaps revolution, already surging and certainly insurgency. Civil war, waiting in the wings, looks to that immortal line in Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay to Spartacus:
"The age of the dictator was at hand, waiting in the shadows for the event to bring it forth."