Michael Dorfman (USA)
The discreet charm of the elites
In the USSR the novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell was banned for some reason. Soviet authorities shared the opinion of their Western foes that it was an anti-Soviet book. Some time has passed, the Soviet Union exists no longer, and a grim dystopia by Orwell remains relevant. In his book Orwell depicted a society in which the ruling elites were able to establish control over people’s thoughts. They turned the English language into an instrument of sophisticated control called Newspeak. The first and foremost step towards political totalitarianism was the consolidation of mass culture in the hands of elites. Immediate and pervasive control made it difficult to think beyond the defined boundaries. As the time passed, the elites were narrowing the boundaries so that people had almost no other choice but to follow the general line; not because they thought it was right. People could no longer imagine that there could be an alternative. General line replaced apparent common sense.
Long before the Orwell’s book was published, an Italian communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci had created an idea similar to Newspeak; however, with one significant difference. Gramsci was interested in interaction of various languages. Why does it happen that in some cases invaders adopt the language of conquered people (for example, the Normans in Kievan Rus’)? However, much more often the conquered peoples adopt the language of their invaders. Gramsci believed that the most important factor is the prestige of the invaders’ language, and he proposed a concept of cultural hegemony which was unusual for classical Marxism. In the world of Orwell’s book there were weird devices similar to cameras, with which the Thought Police was monitoring people’s behavior. People did not watch TV in that world. Instead, they performed a show themselves, behaving in proper way in order to please the Big Brother, otherwise the consequences could be disastrous. For Orwell, terror was the instrument of cultural hegemony. For Gramsci, prestige was such an instrument. According to Gramsci, cultural hegemony should not be imposed with threats and violence. It should not be imposed at all. The conquered sought to adopt the language and culture of their invaders, treating their native language crude, low, and second-rate. Gramsci’s hegemony theory gives a fine explanation to the assimilation of minorities in nation-states of the 20th century, as well as many other phenomena.
In order to explain the phenomenon of the Tea Party, its activist and political consultant Lee Harris uses the theories of the Marxism. He describes modern liberal Western society with the concept of Gramsci’s hegemony. For example, the USA is proud to be the society of meritocracy, i.e. the power of decent, educated people. Education promises the fulfillment of “American Dream” to any person. Prestige in society is being achieved not with fire and sword, but with diploma and degree. The intellectual elite in Western society plays the role the Catholic Church used to play in the Middle Ages: it provides managers and selects ideas in public discourse, creating prestige for certain ideas, people, and institutions. There is no need to impose prestigious things violently any more, because people strive to achieve them, sometimes through hardships and sacrifice. Therefore, the most prestigious universities, institutions and clubs always have more applicants than they can accept, and it further enhances their prestige. The situation appears when it is no more necessary to work for prestige, but the prestige starts to work for people.
The ruling elites, who have monopoly for the distribution of prestige, also possess immense power over mass culture. They are able to decide which ideas, people and movements the public eye is to be attracted to. Of course, they also can decide that some ideas, people and movements deserve contempt and disdain, or even that their existence does not deserve any public attention. Meritocracy encourages intellectual profitable connections, mutual reinforcement, and promotion of prestige within its own circle. This is true not only in the case of intellectual and administrative elite, but also in the case of any elite, including “crony capitalism.” Using natural human desire for prestige, the elites do not need repressive practices of Orwell’s Big Brother. For Marx, the ruling class is a class which has monopoly for the means of production and distribution of goods; now it is possible to define a new ruling class as a class which has monopoly for production and distribution of public opinion. Marx’s classical capitalism was engaged in producing and selling of products. Meritocratic elites are engaged in creation of ideas and opinions. Earlier, intellectuals could influence society through books. In modern society mass media affect even the most ignorant parts of population, and new methods of psychological manipulation and unobtrusive persuasion allow concealing propaganda under the disguise of entertainment. Having its hegemony over popular culture, intellectual meritocratic elites achieve much greater degree of control over the masses, dictators, kings and secretaries-general of the past could only dream of. Such power enables the elites to implement their ideas. Those who want to “be aware”, to look intellectual and respectable aspire to take over the prestigious ideas like dandies who hurry to wear stylish clothes of iconic brands. For Gramsci, prestige is enough to make people want to change their language with a more prestigious one. If they are willing to abandon their native language, then they will be ready to renounce their habits, customs, traditions, ideas, and values. The state described by philosopher Plato is in fact the most severe and desperate form of totalitarianism, and now it seems likely to be realized.
The iron law of oligarchy
The exact period when the meritocracy ascended in America is hard to determine. It could happen after the First World War, during the Great Depression of the 1930-ies, since the launch of progressive New Deal by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or after the end of the Second World War which made the USA a world superpower. The main project of meritocracy was American free-market corporate capitalism, which replaced businessmen with large corporation managers, economically independent middle class with totally dependent workers of the same corporations, and a strong industrial working class with workers of Wal-Mart and McDonalds who were deprived of any rights. The best of marketing technology has been used to destroy traditional bourgeois values of thrift and prudence in affairs. A good customer has become an ideal American: the one who has everything “like the Johns do”. So President Bush called on patriotic Americans to go and buy, spend money and support the economy after the shocking terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. The masses have enthusiastically supported the Newspeak, where “to save” means “to spend”, “peace” means “aggression”, and under the name of “freedom” a lot of goods is being sold, from cars to sanitary towels for women, from insurance policies to Chinese bathroom fixtures from Florida. Ideas, customs, and traditions that have lost their appeal in the eyes of the elite have been ruthlessly removed from public circulation, treated as outdated and irrelevant. New ideas have been implemented quickly and efficiently, as well as business practices and politicians who have managed to win the elites’ favor. Of course, there are individuals and groups capable of resisting. One such group is progressive and radical nonconformists who contributed to Obama’s victory during the presidential elections, contrary to opinion popular among the elites. Another one, the most famous and prominent of them, is the supporters of the Tea Party movement. The Tea Party is distinguished by being indifferent towards the whole idea of intellectual respectability, which makes it immune to the dominant reasons of prestige. Gramsci called such group “social outsiders.”
Harris appends Gramsci. He adds such notion as “marginalized outsiders”; and it changes the whole meaning because the Tea Party states that they are the “true Americans”; the elites marginalize them, deprive them from their America, and the Tea Party activists want to “return America back.” The radicalism of the Tea Party is a reaction to the radicalization of the elites, hastily taking new progressive political measures. Harris does not specify which particular measures are being taken: unemployment benefits, the elements of public health, control over the market, public schools, the abolition of racial segregation, or something else. All these measures cause resentment and alienation among the Tea Party members, except for the last one: racism is a taboo in America and there are a lot of African-Americans in the Tea Party.
Gramsci was born and brought up in Sardinia. It was his fellow countrymen who served as an example for typical social outsiders: rigid, stubborn, fiercely striving for freedom, independence and defiantly proud of their cultural identity. They seem to embody the mood of the Tea Party: “Don’t tread on me!” They were ready to confirm the motto with stubborn resistance, speeches, and uprisings. Italians from the mainland treated the Sardinians haughtily; considered them to be ignorant and rough hillbillies. They stubbornly spoke their special dialect which differed a lot from the literary Tuscan language used by educated people and business class. Gramsci was proud of his motherland, his origin and his countrymen. From his Sardinian youth Gramsci inherited the understanding of the fact that cultural monopoly is a powerful form of oppression; and those who possess the cultural monopoly are as unlikely to share it, as the owners of a commercial monopoly are.
The only thing the social outsiders can answer with is indifference. Supporters of the Tea Party do not care about existing standards of decency, respectable behavior, and prestige. This makes the party problematic and uncontrollable for those who care about the prestige, such as right-wing intellectuals and conservatives. However, this is what makes the Tea Party a revolutionary one. Of course, this is not the revolution Marx, Lenin, and Gramsci were thinking of.
It is to a greater extent the revolt against the privileged creators of public opinion. Such rebellion can be raised only by people who are free from the prevailing notions of respectability and acceptability, and who are ready to challenge the hegemony of public opinion. Therefore, there are no omnipresent conservative intellectuals in the Tea Party. There is no place for them there, because there is no need for new ideas. People in the Tea Party are confident that recently there have already been too many ideas. (These ideas are often absurd. For instance, popular libertarian dreams of the return to gold standard are as unrealistic as the dreams of environmentalists of the return to a horse with a plow). The Tea Party strives to revive the old spirit of freedom and independence, individualism, public moods aimed at opposition against the elites who intend to take away their freedom. The Tea Party believes that it does not need any elite, and is free to govern itself.
This is not the storm yet
Power without the elites is a utopian illusion. Destruction or removal of elites has always led to creation of new ones. Even if everyone is equal, there are always some who are more equal than the others. Any society is ruled by elites. Even direct democracy of Novgorod veche (1) actually covered cynical manipulations of plutocrats. Theory of the inevitability of the elites’ establishment was developed by Vilfredo Pareto. Gaetano Mosca has introduced the concept of “political class” which inevitably governs any society. Robert Michels formulated the “iron law of oligarchy”, according to which “the direct rule of the masses is technically impossible”; therefore, any regime will inevitably degenerate into the power of few chosen people. However, they have also warned of the dangers for the elites who take their position as a natural one. Illusions have a great power.
The utopia of direct democracy inspires to act according to it. Over and over again the myth that people are able to rule themselves turns out to be very useful to limit the appetite of the oligarchy. The iron law of oligarchy is the best reason to support democracy. The only effective barrier against the tyranny of the elites is a fear of the situation when they would start to irritate people. For deposed elites, there is little consolation in the fact that other elites will take their place. Elites exist because they perform their public function. If they deal poorly, they will be replaced, sooner or later.
Sometimes a society ceases to need some particular elites. This happened to the landed aristocracy, who has lost its function of protecting the public and became a burden with the invention of firearms. Sooner or later, the fate of the aristocracy will be shared by modern plutocracy, excessively sprawled financial sector which regularly produces crises and no longer adequately coping with its role of economy’s credit financing.
Laws and constitutional guarantees can be avoided. However, a stubborn thirst for freedom and independence can not be avoided. History teaches a simple and brutal lesson: people, who are easy to rule, lose their freedom; people, who are hard to rule, keep their freedom, and not just internal one.
The difference lies not in ideology but in spirit. Millions of Black Hundreds (2) activists who were afraid of new capitalist times poured to the streets in 1905 in order to protect the Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. In fact, they also said the society: “Don’t tread on me!” Being betrayed and trampled by coward imperial regime, they joined the masses Lenin needed, which caused the storm of 1917. Lenin had only to wait patiently until the stream of history would turn to the right direction. It was in this moment when Lenin was prepared better than the others; he turned to be an unsurpassed strategist who achieved and retained power, far more skillful than any of his opponents. Then, being already in the role of the dictator of the world superpower, terminally ill Lenin was not as effective. He was scared by an unmanageable bureaucratic machine, and those whom he brought into power did not need him any more. However, this is the topic for a separate discussion.
During the preparation of this article I have talked to many activists of the Tea Party. There are supporters of Dickens’ capitalism; opponents of corporations; libertarians, who differ from anarchists only with their respect for money. Much money is being poured now into the Tea Party by corporations who try to turn its outrage into a channel profitable for business. Some of party’s members believe (just as Lenin did) that corporations will sell them the rope they will be executed with. Others believe that an alliance with corporate capital is true and good for America; it is similar to German beliefs in the alliance of big business with radical Hitler. Among the activists there are very rich people, as well. Fore example, brothers Charles and David Koch, oil tycoons and radical libertarians, who have acted for decades against any governmental interference into business. They are the sons of an oil engineer, who earned his first millions in the construction of oil refineries during the industrialization of the USSR. Their father has been almost repressed in 1937; he returned to the United States being a wealthy person and a staunch anticommunist, confident that any centralized authority would sooner or later lead to terror and stagnation. The Kochs’ Fund named “Americans for Prosperity” supports the most radical initiatives, and after the election of Obama has started a personal vendetta against the President.
However, there is still a great American ingenuity in everything that relates to making money. The first meeting of the Tea Party in Tennessee brought a good profit to the consulting company which “helped” to organize the event. Representatives have paid a tidy sum for their participation, and the stars (such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin) have requested hundreds of thousands of dollars for their speeches made at the meeting.
Now the flow of history has moved marginal outsiders, such as Ron Paul and Koch brothers, at the heart of the perturbed masses. Now they wave yellow flags with a rising rattlesnake and the slogan “Don’t tread on me!” like American revolutionaries have done 200 years ago. The Tea Party is not a revolution. It is rather an indignant and stubborn response of people ready to rise against anyone who tries to trample them. From a practical point of view, it does not matter which ideas are used to defend and justify the rebellious attitude. It is much more important to support and maintain this attitude among a sufficiently large number of people. This is the only way a society can effectively restrain the thirst for corrupted and uncontrolled power and make the elites to carry out their part of the social contract.
(1) Veche – a popular assembly at local levels in medieval Russia
(2) The Black Hundreds – a counter-revolutionary movement in Russia in the early 20th century
Source: East West Review