The Revolt against the Elite

by John Feffer

You know you’re a wonk when your nighttime reading is as thick as the latest Stephen King novel, but no one in your family is clamoring to borrow your doorstop.

Consider, for instance, the Iran nuclear agreement. It’s a mere 159 pages, but it’s full of technical language that requires the parsing of a physicist. The deal’s opponents in Congress, the ones who would like to rip it up as soon as President Obama exits the White House, have not likely read the full text.

Meanwhile, the typical accession agreement between the European Union and a prospective member state is at least as long — the most recent one, with Croatia is 250 pages — and consists of equally turgid prose that only an economist could love. Going into the recent referendum on EU membership, most Brexit supporters didn’t have a clue what their membership entailed or even what the EU was precisely.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is larger still, more than 2,000 pages, and it really gets down to the nitty gritty of such subjects as tariff rate quotas, post-market surveillance, and whey protein concentrate. I’m not sure who has had to read the entire document, but pity the poor wonk.

Whatever you might think about these agreements, they are the result of long negotiations by teams of experts. They represent difficult compromises and carefully balanced trade-offs. There might have been some drama in the negotiating process — particularly the nuclear agreement, which went down to the wire — but the results are not page-turners.

These agreements are also, by their very nature, the product of elites. They are negotiated by elite diplomats and elite experts. Even if they eventually garner popular support, these agreements represent the geopolitical interests of elites. They are the supreme expression of the inside game.

Elites are insiders — but they’re not exactly “in” at the moment. The world is currently experiencing a backlash against elites. The British voted themselves out of the European Union, American voters have rallied around Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and populist leaders from Pauline Hanson of Australia to Julius Malema of South Africa are gaining strength all over the world.

Some of the anti-elite political organizing is done in the spirit of inside-outside strategizing — exerting pressure in the streets to strengthen the hands of sympathetic allies at the negotiating table on the inside. Bernie Sanders, for instance, decided to run for president within the Democratic Party, not as an independent, and now Sanders campaign alumni are trying to translate street heat into institutional change.

But much of the recent populism is quite different. The British who rejected the EU were not interested in reform. They had no interest in staying inside at all. They wanted out.

Similarly, the Trump candidacy is a bombshell directed at “powerful corporations, media elites, and political dynasties,” as the candidate declared back in June in his jobs speech. “I want you to imagine how much better our future can be if we declare independence from the elites who’ve led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another,” he went on.

“Throw the bums out” is a rousing cry that has attracted support for centuries. Indeed, the exclusively outside game — of just saying no — is indispensible when dealing with crushing injustice such as apartheid in South Africa, dictatorships in the Middle East, or genocide against minority populations. But these are the outliers in today’s complex world. Preventing wars, stopping global warming, bridging the wealth gap: These challenges require committed activists who stand on principle as well as allies on the inside who can play the political game.

“It is easy to boo,” Sanders told his supporters at the Democratic National Convention as he was executing his pivot to supporting the party ticket. More difficult is to craft political compromises that deliver on the promises made during the campaign.

It’s not just anti-elitism that fuels these efforts. It’s a yearning for simple solutions. As the world becomes ever more complex, one response has been to chuck it all in favor of “simpler times.” It’s a fundamentalist message that appeals to British nationalists, Trumpian exceptionalists, and Islamic State reactionaries alike.

The Reality of Complexity

Modern complex societies require new elites for their maintenance. Gone for the most part are the kings and the feudal lords.

In their place, a modern technocracy administers democratic political systems. Economists and Wall Street manage an increasingly interconnected global economy. Media elites preside over television, the printed page, and the blogosphere. Entertainment elites produce the movies and TV shows that translate our dreams into virtual reality. We have academic elites, religious elites, NGO elites, and even anti-elite elites (see, for example, Alex Jones).

All of these elites have developed expertise in their fields. They are also, almost by definition, arrogant. It is the rare member of an elite who doesn’t believe that he or she knows better. If they didn’t know better, they’d be out of a job. This is not the explicit arrogance of a megalomaniac like Trump. Rather, it’s structural arrogance. It goes with the territory.

So, yes, the economic transformations of the last several decades have not benefitted everyone. Rage against the European Union, anger at both liberals and conservatives in the United States, and the retreat into extremisms of various types are all fueled by economic dislocation, income inequality, and the perception that government helps the unworthy. But Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, and their ilk rely on a much deeper disaffection with complexity, the institutions that manage it, and the people who make their livings sustaining it.

Computers have enabled the creation of ever more complex institutions and relationships. The new science of complexity helps explain phenomena that hitherto exceeded our grasp, such as the behavior of consumers in a retail market and the myriad interactions in an ecosystem. But there will always be a backlash against this complexity, if only because control drifts further and further up the great chain of authority. The desire for simplicity is really about power and who wields it.

The Tower of Babel

In the story of Genesis, the people once spoke a common language. Together they worked to fashion bricks and wedge them together with tar. In this way, they built a tower that rose higher and higher. They built this structure “so that we may make a name for ourselves.” As their tower climbed ever higher, humans set their creation against their creator in what seemed an effort to storm heaven. And so the Lord set out to “confuse their language so they will not understand each other” and then scatter his most arrogant of creatures to every corner of the planet.

The EU is a similar structure, the creation of many different people who have found a common functional language to build something complex out of simpler parts. Yes, the EU is arrogant, in the sense that it arrogates to itself the role of administering a political, economic, and social overlay. The bureaucracy of Brussels could do with a dose of humility, a dash more democracy. But to enjoy the fruits of modern life — greater economic prosperity, freedom of movement — Europeans have until now been willing to cede a measure of power to an elite over and above their own national leaders.

The British rejected the EU because a large number of voters didn’t perceive the obvious benefits of membership, resented the elites that seemed to hold sway over their lives, and felt uncomfortable with complex solutions to complex problems. They wanted to destroy what they didn’t fully understand.

Donald Trump has taken aim at his own towers of Babel: multiculturalism, government, NATO, the global economy.

He has a deep aversion to complexity. He talks at the level of a third or fourth grader (occasionally reaching the eloquence of a sixth grader). He boils down his adversaries to cutting nicknames (that are usually only partial words like “lyin’” and “cheatin’”). He traffics in conspiracy theories that reduce the messiness of reality to simple narratives of hidden manipulation. He presents the world in black and white with no grey subtleties in between. Anything that does not elevate his own name — Trump Plaza, Trump Tower — is automatically under suspicion.

Trump and the Euroskeptics are keeping it simple. They appeal to the pieties of homeland. They are not interested in cultural diversity. They are fundamentally uninterested in the politics of give-and-take (as opposed to the politics of popularity contests). Like the Islamic State, they don’t want a place at the table — they want to blow the table up.

The Roman Empire, for all its myriad faults, created a complex set of political and economic institutions. Swept away by the barbarians, the empire devolved into a few enlightened duchies and monasteries scattered across Europe. In place of aqueducts and Roman law came Attila the Hun, the Plague, and a great cultural leap backward.

Invoking the barbarians at the gate is by no means a plea to accept everything that global elites offer. The EU, for instance, desperately needs reform, and free trade agreements like the TPP continue to favor powerful corporations. Elites are indispensible to a modern society — but they need to be kept accountable through democracy, not dictatorship.

To avoid slipping back into a new Dark Ages presided over by Donald the Hun and crippled by various modern plagues, a new commitment must be made to preserving global public goods. To rescue the better part of globalism, we need stronger responses to pandemics, to global economic inequality, to human rights violations. We need more internationalism, not less.

Above all, we need a renewed inside-outside full-court press on climate change. Trump, if he improbably won the presidency, would be the only national leader to reject climate change. His counterparts in other countries — like Pauline Hanson in Australia and Siv Jensen in Norway — have a similar bias. It would be catastrophic for such populists to take the helm of their countries.

The world simply can’t afford simple-minded leaders and simple-minded solutions. As H.L. Mencken once said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

Reprinted, with permission, from Foreign Policy In Focus.

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.



  1. The problem with elites is that they can’t take a hint, even when it comes in the form of huge and noisy support for anti-elites. How many more times must those noisy crowds slam 2x4s between the eyes of the “experts”?

  2. You are saying that elites are needed even if they are snubs and corrupt since the society is complex. This is partly true but I have two objections to your thesis.
    1 – Part of the mission of the elites is self-preservation. They create bureaucracies that are almost never ending since they are self justifying. They create obfuscations because they are not interested in transparencies. One recent example is e-mail dumps of DNC and HRC esp. the most recent ones about Clinton foundation. They show corruption and disregard for the law. The elite are not interested in transparency. They make things look more complex than what they are; it serves them best. Accountability is like the sunlight. If they make things intelligible to the masses then they can’t do behind the scene back-deals.
    2 – Your thinking is that this is inevitable. There is a Weberian iron cage inevitability in development of society and its ever increasing complexity. But one can counter this thesis in two ways. We need smaller governments, Smaller government are more amenable to transparency. We don’t want to sacrifice our sovereignity at the altar of modernity, globalization and trade.
    Secondly, as human beings, are we slaves to technology and economic progress? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? I guess you don’t see such possibility; you can’t envision a world in which human beings decide what is good for them with regard technology and global relations. I guess in your thinking those who resist the so-called inevitable globalization of Capital and Labor (with guaranteed winner namely Capital) are bunch of hilly billies.
    I have faith in humanity that it will find a way out. I am not as exasperated as you are.

  3. I second the comment of delia ruhe: the “elite” that Feller is describing are suffering from an appalling case of Marie Antoinette Syndrome.

    Fe?ler suggests that the only effective change comes from within, not from without.

    Maybe, but that presupposes that “the system” supports change and, so sorry, This One Doesn’t. It hasn’t since at least the election of Slick Willie, if not earlier.

    The elites think they have it all in the bag, end-of-history-style. They are utterly tone-deaf to, well, anything.

    As far as they are concerned they’ve won, baby, so what is there to discuss?

    Sorry, but this is not going to end well. It certainly won’t end with institutional reform precisely because, as Delia said, these guys won’t take a hint.

    They’ve stopped listening, John.

    They stopped listening a long, long time ago.

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