Saturday, 6 November 2010

Who Are The Elites And What Do They Do?

***Dear Reader, I was working on this column some months ago and for some reason abandoned it. Today I read an exhaustive article about "elites", and decided right away to dust this off and put it up, with some recent additions.

August 6th

We hear much talk these days about the "elite". That would be the loose assortment of billionaires, captains of industry, politicians, celebrities and lobbyists we blame all our problems on and point our fingers at for the problems in our society and the aspects of it currently at various degenerative stages. Yet there is no easy categorization or definition of the elite. Who are the elite? The word is not, despite its lofty baggage, as negatively loaded as its cousins "elitist" and "elitism", often deployed by elites themselves against other elites trying to discredit their rival elites by exposing them to common people as elites. But it is a question I've been mulling for several days and one that I wanted to air out here over the blogwaves.

I don't believe that the elite are some evil shadow group working clandestinely towards sinister goals, although I admire those who have made careers online and in fringe media out of exposing conspiracies and making those claims, simply because that is an art in itself. Nor do I believe that all the elite are monolithic and belong in the same category. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of considerable family fortunes and extensive networks of business interests throughout the world, and while the people in possession of these do certainly belong to a global material elite, insofar as their money gives them choices and allows them to do things far beyond the average person's means, I do not think they are the ones specifically being referred to in general discussions around the elite. Being rich and unknown does not buy you membership into the elite, just as being famous and broke like Nic Cage, Hulk Hogan or Leonard Cohen does not get you an invite to Davos. So how does one know if they're elite?

November 7th

Hi, I had forgotten all about this until I read Margaret Wente's "Test to see if you are an elite" in today's Globe and Mail. I couldn't help but feeling that my unfinished thunder was stolen, reading Margaret Wente try to explain the "anti-elitism" that has affected a veritable political tour de force since my words on August 8th. Wente relies on clean, convienient clichés to brand you as either an elite, or not. Drink starbucks, live downtown, listen to public broadcasting, make good money, have a good education? You're elite. Like Nascar, tim hortons, UFC, Oprah, and double downs? You're part of the masses, and tired of the folks in column A telling you what's right from their insulated bubble, when they've never walked a mile in your Column B shoes.

We can go on with this categorization all day like the media does because it is entertaining, to some extent. But you're not here for that; you know where to find those polarizing and unhelpful generalizations. I want to finish what I started, answering the question that is the title of this posting. I'm pretty sure I know the answer. Mocking the "non-elites" with an expanded list of column B items and other stereotypes will only give people ammunition to attack you as an elite with, even if you are not. So, I will turn my attention to the elites, who are so much more fun to deride. Richard Florida thinks these are the freest members of our society and we will be liberated when we all become like them. Here is the real definition of elite.

1) You make six figures, preferably a comfortable margin of error over six figures.
2) You live in a neighbourhood where real estate is very expensive due to people with similar incomes also choosing to live there.
3) Here are some jobs you might do: University professor, Cabinet Minister, Bank executive, Law/Accounting Firm partner, CEO, Non-Profit Director, Newspaper columnist
4) No matter your background, you have a knack for forging alliances, building relationships, and thinking "strategically"
5) You are almost certainly educated, or have spent time in an educational institution considered "elite"
6) You have got to where you are today due to a combination of ambition and ruthlessness.
7) You sit on boards of charities, corporations, galleries, and are summonned regularly for panels, commentary, advice, and favours

Ok, there's your praise. I'm not particularly impressed, but the system has been set up to be, and that's why you are where you are and I am where I am. And this is where I take the gloves off. Want to know more about yourself?

1) You don't walk down the street or take transit or even drive. You get driven around. And if you do drive, your car is very expensive (Audi, BMW, Range Rover, Porsche), and even if it is older model, very expensive to fix. You don't think there's anything wrong with driving a car that costs 50x what a car that does the same thing costs.

2) You own considerable amounts of stocks/securities/real estate, and if you are a "public servant" who cannot have a "conflict of interest", your network and prestige will allow you endless oppurtunities to obtain such things once you leave public life (and many of you see no reason even to wait until then)

2A) Whoever buys your groceries, or you in the unlikely event you buy your own groceries, buys them in a small, snooty, expensive store where, truthfully, some harder to find exotic items are available, but the bulk of the inventory could be purchased from a normal supermarket for half or a third of the price. But this thought has never once crossed your mind.

3)You don't clean your own house or do your own dishes or clean your own toilet. Most of the time you don't even cook, if you ever do. You don't shovel snow, you don't take out garbage, you don't do laundry or fold clothes, and you don't make your bed. People do these things for you for low salaries, which is scandalous, just as it would be scandalous if they did them for you for high salaries, because you are paid in public money, whether its taxpayers, clients, shareholders, and you are in a certain way accountable for how that money is spent.

4) You have a reason for not doing any of these things. Your time is too valuable. I know. You're too busy making speeches, going to business lunches, holding press conferences, meeting with and ordering around underlings, making appearances, taking conference calls, talking on your blackberry, and getting on planes. You don't have any worthwhile relationships with your family, who stoically steel themselves to appear harmonious in a "sacrifice" for your "career" even though you have no time to pay attention to any of them and this arrangement often fractures uncomfortably.

5) You fly, a lot, but are more than likely in private plane by yourself, if not in business class

6) Finally, you think that you do this all in a sacrifice for the greater good. You really think you are making an enormous contribution to humanity. That is why that blackberry is going off all the time, or if you're important enough, that person you pay to hold your blackberry and let you know when its going off. You are always "on", "in demand", which requires that you be in public persona, and you have no "free time" or "friendships". Your life basically sucks. But you have, again, "sacrificed" all the things I mentioned that normal people do that you don't do because you're "making a difference". And of course, "you've earned the right."

Those are elites. The simplest way to describe them is "mo money, mo problems". Too much money or too much power/public profile or some combination thereof dehumanizes people; it removes what makes us able to relate to them and replaces it with something that makes us think they clearly put themselves on a pedestal above us, even though some of them may not do it on purpose. Adam Radwanski's recent up close and personal profile/exposé of the premier of Ontario revealed a man who has no friends or social life and, he admitted himself, very little contact with the outside world. When I think of the "global elite" I mentioned on August 6th, I cannot see how they avoid all the characterizations I outlined though it would be a mistake to believe they all apply to everyone. But I am not surprised that "anti-elitists" are gaining in popularity. Do you really want to support elites if what I wrote about them is true?

I don't want to glorify a man who caused the death of so many with famines, but you can't help but thinking of Mao sending people to be "reeducated". Society seems to have the same desire to do that now, when it sees what royalty looks like in 2010.

Having said that there is a path to criticizing elite by thinking objectively of their condition. Culinary skills, readership of certain newspapers, fitness, environmental choices and refusal to consume do not and should not brand one as elite. I might have had it in me to work hard and join their ranks once upon a time but now I don't know how they can take themselves so seriously all the time

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