Observations of an ex pat: The Elite

In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church called them heretics. They were excommunicated or burned at the stake.

Hitler branded them Jews or Jew lovers and sent them to labour camps or to the gas chambers. During the Cold War era they were derided  as the intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union they were pulled out of their positions as teachers, journalists  and scientists and despatched to Siberian Gulags. In China they were given a little Red Book and sent to “re-education camps”. In Cambodia they were murdered.

Why? Because these people sought answers by asking questions.  They challenged the accepted wisdom peddled by ideologues and entrenched interests.  They fought against false facts and simplistic prejudice-based solutions which used the time-honoured scapegoat method as a solution to social problems.

Nowadays such people are dismissed as “the elite”. They tend to live in cities because urban areas are the perfect incubators for the exchange of ideas and information. So, they are called the “urban elite” or “metropolitan elite”. Their opinions are dismissed even though they have devoted years of their life to study and travel and learned the value of working with different nations, races and cultures. They base their decisions on facts backed up by science, logic and mathematical proofs.

The problem is that this intellectual –“elitist”—approach to life’s problems is increasingly banging up against the brick wall of the “gut instinct” coupled with a deep-seated faith, strong prejudice and a growing fear of identity loss.  The result is a tendency of a growing number of people to dismiss the opinions of the expert elite because they clash with their “feelings”. As leading Brexiteer and Britain’s current Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, said during the Brexit campaign: “Experts? The public are sick of experts.”

Expert logic clashes with what the non-expert population want to believe because what they want to believe is more familiar, comfortable and reassuring than what they need to believe.  Climate change is not really happening because it would destroy popular beachfront homes and require people to make painful adaptations to their tried and tested fossil fuel-driven lifestyle.

The expert elite complicate life by refusing to accept simplistic answers to complex issues.  A wall along America’s southern border will not solve America’s drug, immigration and crime problem. Withdrawal from the EU will not revive the glory days of the British Empire or transform Britain back into a homogenous white population where everyone eats fish, chips and mushy peas.

One of the ironies of the current situation is that the charge against the elite is led by people who would otherwise be branded as charter members of the very elite that they attack. This is because they have learned that playing on emotions by dismissing or twisting facts is the current best route to their goal of political power. Eton and Oxford-educated former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is a classic example. He is a brilliant journalist. His political career has spanned support and opposition to the EU.  But his best chance of securing the tenancy to 10 Downing Street is an alliance with the Brexit forces.

Donald Trump is the billionaire son of a millionaire property developer who was educated in private American schools. His politics have veered from liberal Democrat to far-right Republican; from thrice-married misogynistic playboy to evangelical Christian.  The one constant in his life has been the pursuit of money and power for the aggrandisement of Donald Trump.

These men peddle simplistic solutions to complex issues and deride the intellectual elite as unfeeling, out of touch or just plain wrong. Their vitriolic attacks enable an army of ideologues to hide behind the cloak of anonymity provided by social media to issue intimidatory death threats. They open the door to Russia and China destabilising democracies with fake news.  For these and other reasons, I am applying for membership of the metropolitan elite.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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  • They open the door to Russia and China destabilising democracies with fake news.
    Whilst they might open the door, I actually doubt either Russia or China actually have to do anything; Trump and the leading Brexiteers seem quite capable of creating their own fake news and rabble-rousing and so destabilising their societies – remember McCarthyism…

  • chris moore 1st Feb '19 - 10:00am

    The elite is not homogenous. Nor is it soley based in the cities.

    When Leavers speak of the “metropolitan elite”, they mean people who disagree with them. They do not welcome such disagreement.

    But sociologically, the elite will include many leavers. All the various Leave leaders are members of the metropolitan elite.

    Likewise, antagonism to the EU has been spearheaded over many years by London- based newspapers staffed by members of the metropolitan elite.

    It’s worth pointing this out every time idiotic cliches about “the metropolitan elite” are trotted out by Leavers.

    Likewise, the notion that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bojo et al have the interests of the “people” at heart is frankly laughable.

  • David Westaby 1st Feb '19 - 10:03am

    A very clear vision of the current ascendency of populist politics. A snapshot of the leading brexiteers and you find a cohort of politicians who are having their last shots of glory often from the background of a failed / failing career. Opportunists who exploit the uncertainty of an uncertain world.
    We all have a responsibility to oppose their ascendency.

  • That’s the problem with democracy – if the oiks on the reservations don’t believe that the system works for them, they can vote for the wrong thing.

    There is no universal law that the great unwashed should work and vote for the benefit of their cultured betters.

    If there is one lesson to be learnt from the referendum it is that aristocracy can come in several forms.

  • Arnold Kiel 1st Feb '19 - 10:27am

    All true and lamentable. There are only two indisputable conclusions: never have referenda and enforce your election law.

  • Nonconformistradical 1st Feb '19 - 10:43am

    “the notion that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bojo et al have the interests of the “people” at heart is frankly laughable.”

    Seconded wholeheartedly

  • Peter Martin 1st Feb '19 - 10:45am

    @ wg

    “….if the oiks on the reservations…….”

    That’s effectively what the ruling class said in the 19th century. That’s why the struggle for democracy was achieved by us ‘oiks’ just voting for it. ‘Oiks’ would have included all women then of course.

    @ Tom Arms,

    The argument over the eu is supposedly another case of us ‘oiks’ versus the elite. There’s no need to explain which is the pro Brexit side. However, when this ‘oik’ tries to get LIb Dems to take a closer look at just what Remainers want to remain a part of, the ‘elite’ of LDV don’t seem to want to know. Anyone wanting to understand just what the EU was, including the problems it had, from reading LDV would have a hard time of it.

    You say:

    “…..these people sought answers by asking questions. They challenged the accepted wisdom peddled by ideologues and entrenched interests. ”

    Well come on then Mr-newly-enrolled-member-of-the-Metropolitan-elite. Start asking some questions! You could start by asking how countries like Italy can expand their economy to be able to create jobs for Italian youngsters when the EU insists of one austerity Budget after another!

  • Andrew Toye 1st Feb '19 - 10:49am

    Those who don’t want the best people to run the country (the elite) presumably prefer someone useless or mediocre to do the job.

    They’ve obviously got what they asked for!

  • The “elite” according to the world of the conspiracy theorists at the extremes of politics are variously.

    * People who oppose Brexit
    * People who oppose UKIP / ERG and / or Corbyn and the unions
    * People who oppose David Icke / John Pilger / Craig Murray
    * Corporations / bankers
    * The EU and other supranational government institutions
    * Social Liberals
    * The Media
    * Foreign governments and their officials
    * Assorted think tanks (Trilateral Commission and so on)
    * Londoners who support multiculturalism
    * Immigrants

    Essentially it’s a meaningless phrase by conspiracy theorists to try and simplify a world they really do not understand properly. Much easier to be against something concrete and have simplistic solutions to deal with it, than to realise the world is far more complex.

    Basically it is a lack of joined up thinking which is exploited by demagogues.

  • Nonconformistradical 1st Feb '19 - 12:11pm

    “Essentially it’s a meaningless phrase by conspiracy theorists to try and simplify a world they really do not understand properly. Much easier to be against something concrete and have simplistic solutions to deal with it, than to realise the world is far more complex.

    Basically it is a lack of joined up thinking which is exploited by demagogues.”

    And could it be that our secondary education system doesn’t, for most students, begin to teach students how to practise joined up thinking about the world outside their own private universe?

    I say that given the obsession with measurable targets in education – ability to practise joined up thinking doesn’t seem very measurable.

  • Sue Sutherland 1st Feb '19 - 2:51pm

    Thatcher and Reagan made greed and selfishness acceptable and now Brexit has let hatred loose. These are both highly emotional ways of living but unfortunately the liberal elite try to fight this through intellectual argument. Greed has produced a society in which it is OK to grind the faces of the poor, reduce the benefits of those who are sick and disabled, deny succour to the refugee and run a second rate public education system as well as damaging the NHS on whom most of us rely.
    Greed has now been met by hatred from those worst affected by policies which make their lives miserable. Unfortunately many of them have been encouraged to hate the wrong targets by politicians who don’t have their best interests in mind. The true elite are a rather secretive bunch when it comes to revealing their wealth but the metropolitan elite are quite visible and live quite comfortable lives for the most part. Lives which are very different from those who have suffered from years of austerity policies.
    It would be better for the metropolitan elite to use their brains to sort out how the wealthy have been able to manipulate the ‘left behind’ and take steps to reverse this manipulation rather than resorting to telling them that they are unintelligent and wrong.
    The challenge for the elite is to abandon their self satisfaction and embrace the emotion of compassion for those whose lives are so depressing that the only way out is to hate someone. We should be offering them hope for a better life.

  • I don’t think we are seeing the rise of populism so much as we are witnessing the fall of political trends that failed to gain enough traction with actual voters. IMO it looks more like policies imposed by committees consulting with lobbyists of various types are being rejected at the ballot box. The driving force is thus not the rise of populism but unresponsive ideological dogma collapsing under the weight of its own hubris.

  • Or to use a metaphor. What we call the elites are like chefs and their customers. They carefully work out a menu and people going to the restaurant accept it to the point that even disagreement is couched within that framework. Meanwhile, no one else understands why they can’t mix and match coz they don’t like artichokes, what is so dreadful about drinking the wrong wine with the pan fried mullet or why salting your own food is an attack on culinary decency. It’s a fixed menu v a buffet. The point being that educated taste can be it’s own kind of trap.

  • “When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” (French economist Frédéric Bastiat)

  • “[The elite] base their decisions on facts backed up by science, logic and mathematical proofs.”

    If only!

    In their excellent book ‘Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity & Poverty’ Acemoglu & Robinson show that societies with economic institutions that are ‘inclusive’ (that is designed to promote fairness, opportunity etc.) typically thrive, with a virtuous circle of improved health and education, innovation and broadly-shared wealth.

    Conversely, economic institutions can be ‘extractive’ – designed to favour the ruling elite and treat the great majority merely as a resource to be exploited. And, because the rulers design the institutions, this unhappy state is hard to change once established. Even after a popular revolution, the new rulers tend to slip comfortably into the ways of the former elite as existing institutions and habits are the path of least resistance.

    ‘Inclusive’ economic institutions include things like a free press, good education and training, health care, fair taxes and one man, one vote (not £1, 1 vote). Politics is pre-eminently about choosing and designing the institutions that will deliver these benefits; when the good guys win the result is a liberal democracy, when dark side wins the outcome is a banana republic and extreme inequality.

    Britain’s track record is iffy to say the least. The high-water mark of inclusiveness was during and soon after WW2 which is why this passed into folk memory as our finest hour. But I suspect this happened partly because the ruling elite knew that defeat was an extinction-level threat and they had to maximise the nation’s economic potential. After the collapse of the Soviet threat all restraint was abandoned, and the elite have been gradually reworking institutions to make them more extractive (and profitable for themselves) ever since.

    The soaring wealth of the 0.1% shows their strategy is working but it’s taken lots of carefully selected ‘expertise’ to get there – delivered a mix of hired guns and useful idiots.

    THAT is why so many have given up on ‘experts’. The experience of most people over four decades is that they have consistently got it wrong in terms of pay, job security, housing etc. So, why should they believe them now?

  • [The elite] base their decisions on facts backed up by science, logic and mathematical proofs.

    No-one should for a moment believe that the mainstream economics that dominates political discourse is in any way scientific, logical or mathematical. Think of it as a fake secular religion and you will be a lot closer to the mark. Its purpose is to justify a way of organising the economy that ‘just happens’ to suit a small but powerful elite at the expense of everyone else (they see it as a zero-sum game). Poke it a bit and it unravels very fast.

    For instance, any system with three or more components that interact with each other is a ‘complex system’. The economy with its billions of interacting components (which include every person, every company, every country etc) more than qualifies. One consequence is that the economy evolves over time – just as we know it does.

    Yet bizarrely, neoclassical economics treats the economy as a set of weirdly disconnected equilibria and imagines that (ideally, and if no external force disturbs it) it would eventually reach a ‘General Equilibrium’ – hence the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) models of the economy that the Treasury and others use for forecasting.

    Just how wrong is this? Very, very wrong. It’s comparable in wrongness to the old Ptolemaic theory that the Sun and planets all orbit the Earth which is one reason why economic forecasts are often so bad (apart of course from their intrinsic difficulty). And it’s one reason why a few lonely economists who don’t think the Sun orbits the Earth or that general equilibrium is possible DID forsee the financial crisis of 2008.

    At a smaller scale Econ 101 usually teaches that supply and demand for a commodity both change with price so there’s a price where they meet at which the market settles – the equilibrium. Just one thing – it’s not true. It may happen like that, but a more general formulation would be that the price is determined by the relative POWER of the buyer and the seller. Now why would someone want us plebs to think that markets work by disembodied and impartial forces beyond human control and that it’s nothing to do with POWER?

  • chris moore 1st Feb '19 - 7:26pm

    Opinion formers are elite members of society There aren’t so many of them.

    The Referendum didn’t pit “the elite” against the unwashed. Utterly ridiculous sociologically. In fact, The Referéndum campaign was run by competing elite groups – a Remain elite and a Leave elite. The two elites themselves were and are split.

    There is no single homogenous elite. This is a paranoid fantasy of posters like wg. And is sociologically ridiculous.

    Leave voters were perusaded by the more effective lies of the Leave elite.

    We can think of small competing opinion forming elites – political leaders, national journalists etc who weighed on both sides of the argument.

    it’s true that level of education and wealth was a reasonably strong predictor of Remain/ Leave voting. But then again, there are plenty of well-heeled, well-educated Leave voters. And nearly all Remain voters are NOT members of the elite.

  • Sean Hyland 1st Feb '19 - 9:05pm

    Maybe the proles,oiks, and great unwashed just feel they have had enough of being patronized and told “we know best” by the “elite”.

  • Mark Blackburn 1st Feb '19 - 9:23pm

    The real breach of faith is those who purport to be taking on the ‘elite’ and end up appeasing it, or worse still perpetuating it, that’s what really disillusions people. You expect the Bojos and the Moggies to behave the way they do, but when the likes of Blair, Brown and Mandelson turn a blind eye at best to the extremes of laissez-faire capitalism and then we come along talking about the New Politics and a fairer society before propping up Tory austerity economics people understandably feel a little let down. No wonder they’re a ripe audience for Brexit and other extreme solutions which will only make them worse off.

  • Peter Martin 1st Feb '19 - 9:47pm

    I’d say Tom Arms’ argument is one of supposed Culture Wars. Progressives vs Reactionaries

    Progressives would be Socially Liberal on such matters as homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, the class system (maybe?), racial matters, climate change etc.

    And Reactionaries wouldn’t be! They are for more traditional values including what Progressives would see as an outdated attachment to the Nation State.

    Progressives usually get it right but not always. They start to err on economic questions such as globalism, internationalism which, of course, they generally favour. But this often ties in with a belief in neoliberal economics which is definitely one thing they don’t get right. Consequently they often get poor results, like we see in many EU countries right now, and are surprised when they then get a backlash from the less fortunate members of society. Brexit is just another example of that.

    Progressives generally run such institutions as the BBC, and even the EU itself. They tend to be so sure they are always right that the possibility of being on the wrong side of history simply doesn’t occur to them. They just assume that everyone else needs educating and that their only possible fault is possibly having not explained things sufficiently.

    The big fault of Progressives is to be inflexible. They like the idea that we should all “challenge the accepted wisdom”. Except when it’s their accepted wisdom. They don’t know how to handle that!


  • The truth is of course that we are all human. The differences between us are smaller than the things which are the same. However we love to create differences.
    The question is to what extent this is a result of our socialisation and to what extent to our genetics.
    I think the evidence is that we are capable of change. The science of epigenetics would show us the possibilities.
    If we want to move to a sustainable future for humans we need to change radically the way we organise society.
    We could start with our own party. We could explore ways of genuinely involving all our members in the running of the party. The New Economics Foundation published a booklet called “Participation Works” – cannot find a date on it – which gives 21 techniques of community participation. We really need to start with those, and others, and then we might do something useful to help begin a process of jointly working together to take control of our planet as it collapses in our own waste.

  • chris moore 2nd Feb '19 - 2:15pm

    @ Peter Martin

    Hi Peter, you say of progressives that …

    They tend to be so sure they are always right that the possibility of being on the wrong side of history simply doesn’t occur to them. They just assume that everyone else needs educating and that their only possible fault is possibly having not explained things sufficiently.

    Peter, my God , you’re confessing to being a “progressive”!

    It seems to me that actually you are simply describing a human tendency to think that one/one’s group is usually right. This is not a monopoly of “progressives” or “reactionaries” or indeed of any group.

    I’d love to see any evidence you have that “progressives” are more inclined to this type of cognitive bias than “reactionaries”.

    Seriously doubt it.

  • Peter Martin 2nd Feb '19 - 9:24pm

    @ Chris Moore,

    I don’t think your accusation is at all justified. I’m a scientist/engineer and its almost second nature to think of the possibility of being wrong. If you send off a batch of expensive equipment for acceptance testing by a customer it can be quite a difficult time! If you publish a paper you worry that someone will spot an significant error which then makes you look a complete idiot! I do feel for aircraft engineers who could cause multiple deaths in the event of their making a mistake.

    Before the GFC I used to think in quite conventional terms wrt to economics. I wondered how it was possible for countries to run up big debts etc etc. It wasn’t until I started to look at how things works after the GFC that I realised just how wrong I’d been! When the penny dropped my head was spinning for days afterwards with the realisation that nearly everyone else had it all wrong too.

  • chris moore 3rd Feb '19 - 8:38am

    @ Peter Martin,

    Hi Peter, I was just teasing you!

    I’m well aware of your scientific background and tendencies to empiricism.

    Nonetheless the cognitive bias you describe is common and shared across poltical positions. No way is it exclsuive to “progressives”.

    I too am aware of my fallibility. However, I accept that I am probably mistaken even more often than I myself realise.

    have a decent Sunday!

  • Simon Banks 3rd Jun '19 - 5:40pm

    An historical note. Most of the people who asked searching questions and were the intellectual cream in the Middle Ages (in Europe) were churchmen. There was always the risk of being adjudged to have fallen into heresy, but the Church was not anti-intellectual. There were plenty of academics, philosophers and scientists who joined the Nazi Party, even if that party’s foremost “thinkers” were not for the most part especially clever.

    Suspicion of experts is not in itself a bad thing. They often have it wrong: take the consensus among economists of how to deal with the Great Depression or the rather basic mistakes made by experts who actually considered the impact of an airliner crashing into the Twin Towers, but failed to allow for it being full of aviation fuel or for airliners getting bigger than when the Towers were planned. The trick is to ask experts searching questions; but to disbelieve them BECAUSE they’r experts is obviously silly. Sometimes the news IS unwelcome.

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