The Crisis of the Elite
What I told the Battle of Ideas
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The following is a transcript of a speech Matt Goodwin gave at the Battle of Ideas in London.
What unites all of us today is that we’re all living through the same crisis. It’s a crisis that’s upending our politics. It’s a crisis that’s dividing our society. And it’s a crisis that’s driving a wedge between the rulers and the ruled.
It is a crisis of the elite.
Today, I want to make three points about the nature of this crisis —what is driving it, why it’s important, and where I think it will take us in the not-too-distant future.
The first, as my fellow speaker Frank Furedi points out, is that today’s elite has lost its moral legitimacy and authority. One of the most important differences between the old elite and the new elite is that the old elite was united by a sense of moral legitimacy and authority, which owed much to the surrounding context.
During the era of the Cold War, the old elite could rely on appeals to anti-communism and the national interest to cement its power, status, legitimacy, and authority. As Furedi notes, in the presence of a serious and credible external threat from Soviet Russia, the West’s ruling elite did not really need an ideology:
“The fear and hostility provoked by the other side of the Cold War provoked an unusual degree of domestic consensus in Western societies. So long as the power elite was associated with the ‘free world’, it could rely on a domestic consensus and, therefore, did not need to draw on an explicit ideology to uphold its rule … the authority of Western elites was sustained by their apparent moral superiority over the Soviet Union. Anti-communism was an important political resource on which the elite could draw. It also endowed elites with a sense of cohesion.”
The old elite’s sense of legitimacy, authority, and cohesion also owed much to how it could, put simply, get things done. This was a time when politics in Western states like Britain was organised around a strong, responsive, centralised state which handed the elite considerable power and influence. It was the time of the postwar boom, the ‘golden age of capitalism’, which further enhanced this perception of elite competency, authority, and legitimacy among the masses. And it was a time when the old elite respected the institutions which both reflected and projected its power to the masses, which further cemented a shared sense of identity and community.
But from the 1970s things began to change in profound ways. Increasingly, this perception of a competent, legitimate, and authoritative elite drained away as Western states grappled with an array of new disruptive forces —the rise and relentless spread of hyper-globalization, European integration, deregulation, devolution, and the onset of so-called ‘governance’, whereby power and influence were sent to a new expert class of unelected technocrats and supranational elites.
Power was increasingly pushed upwards or sideways, away from the masses. Elites actively participated in this, of course, because it chimed with their liberal universalist values, magnified their influence and imbued them with a greater sense of social status, esteem and moral righteousness. As Christopher Bickerton has written, increasingly elites derived their sense of social status, authority, and moral legitimacy not from their vertical relationship with the ordinary people below but rather from their horizontal relationship with other members of the new elite.
While this cemented the elite’s position and power, it simultaneously eroded their image of authority, legitimacy, and competency in the eyes of the masses. This is why, by the time Western states entered the twenty-first century, thinkers like Colin Crouch started to warn about the emergence of ‘post-democracy’ —a distant, self-serving, technocratic, elite-led style of politics in which the expert class conspired to marginalise the masses, all of which hollowed out and then made impossible a genuine grassroots democracy which gave voice to ordinary people.
This is also why Peter Mair warned elites in the West were increasingly ‘ruling the void’, congregating in institutions like the European Union that were insufficiently democratic, accountable, and transparent while losing touch with ordinary people. The age of party democracy, the age when elites were connected to the masses, argued Mair, was now over. The old parties had become so disconnected from wider society they no longer seemed capable of sustaining democracy. Instead, they had morphed into what Mair would later call ‘cartel parties’ —movements and leaders which no longer relied on the people for support but now relied on the state for money, resources, and an image of authority. This widening gap between the masses and the elites not only posed a crisis of moral legitimacy for the elite but now also began to drive growing support for national populist rebellions against the elite.
The growing strength of these rebellions reflected something else -how democracies in the West had entered the new era of ‘dealignment’, an era in which politics was simply far more volatile, chaotic, polarised and unpredictable. Disillusioned with a self-serving, insular elite, millions of ordinary people were now abandoning their traditional, tribal allegiances to the old parties, to the old left and right, and were instead switching to various challengers, whether the Greens, national populists, or simply choosing to stay at home and avoid politics altogether. The golden era of representative democracy, in short, had come to an end long before the shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump would powerfully symbolise this in 2016.
The second point I want to make is that …
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