Elites: the oldest con trick

Political, social, and economic thought has been hitherto based on an assumption that the phenomena addressed by these disciplines behave in a linear (Newtonian or mechanistic) fashion similar to that seen generally in the natural sciences. Most people assume that causes and effects are linked in ways that could be modelled, and therefore predicted, through the use of universal laws.

The above assumptions have two far-reaching consequences. First, it is taken for granted that human beings are able to PREDICT and CONTROL the future to a degree that makes the effort worthwhile. Second, and less obvious, humankind requires ELITES (priests, politicians, experts, etc.) that are equipped to undertake these tasks on its behalf. Leadership, in this model, is thought to be highly demanding. It is readily accepted, therefore, that those involved need to come from the right background and to have lengthy training, expertise, dedication, and innate talents that are not available to the rest of humanity. Hence, they are rewarded handsomely by society: they get to keep the largest slice of the cake.

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and then Machiavelli (1467-1527) described in vivid detail the process through which certain individuals attain power. Elites and hierarchies are essentially the same whether we consider ancient or modern times. The interests of a few individuals, often those of a single person, determine the fate of businesses as well as countries.

Cascading rewards and penalties keep the hierarchical system in being, structured around the needs of a few egoist individuals at the top. For instance, chairmen of companies ostensibly recruit non-executive directors to their boards to foster good governance. But, non-executive directors also set salaries for chairmen and executive directors. In practice, a few persons play a national game of musical chairs. Each serves as a chairman in one corporation and as a non-executive director on other boards.

The elite embrace more people than those currently in the news at any point in time. Elections, in ‘democratic’ societies might change the faces, but the new faces are also members of the same elite. The faces come and go, but when they are not in the spotlight they still retain many of their privileges.

Why does society accept this model with its skewed distribution of rewards, especially in the face of evidence that suggests that the scope for prediction and control is severely limited? Basically, people have always sought security and assurance in an existence that seems to be fraught with dangers that could strike unexpectedly and at any moment. They look to ‘leaders’ with vision and power to guide them through the troubled waters of life. The justification for their faith in their ‘leaders’ (and the raison d’être for the privileged position of the fortunate elite) have varied over the ages, as argued by August Comte (1798-1857) who described religious, metaphysical, and scientific paradigms.

Priests have lost some ground, but those who attribute their place in the hierarchy to science (meaning the Newtonian science of mechanics) have gained in influence. This ‘scientific’ paradigm assumes that phenomena move naturally and irrevocably towards predictable ends along known paths. It is significant that both Marx and Fukuyama have used the same ‘scientific’ argument to explain their diametrically opposed points of view on the political economy; scientific socialism and outright political and economic liberalism respectively.

It is interesting to note in the above context that ‘leaders’ admit to a difficulty in their ability to predict and control (their only claim on privilege) only after they have enjoyed the considerable rewards of their position for many years. We all know Harold Macmillan’s famous lament after his retirement: “Events, dear boy, events”, but we should also remember Abraham Lincoln’s less famous words written one year before he died: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

Despite the obvious shortcomings, human beings seem to prefer a model that promises a degree of prediction and control, no matter how tenuous, to any other model that deals with human affairs as they really are; less predictable and more difficult to control. Equally, elites would be most concerned at any change to the status quo that would challenge their grip on ‘leadership’ and unequal distribution of wealth and power. The complicity of society in retaining an unjust system that does not deliver on its promises is nurtured by elites throughout the world. The most persistent claim made by the elite is that there is no alternative to whatever model it is peddling at the time (as the communist party did during the Soviet era, Saddam Hussein did in Iraq for over thirty years, Margaret Thatcher did in Britain in the 1980s, and as George W Bush is doing now for the whole world!). This is an established myth that has to be exposed.

Ideologies to suit

As described above, the most enduring feature in human societies is a hierarchical structure based on monopoly of power and wealth by an elite at the top and a complicit society that seeks justice and better rewards at the fringes. Over the centuries, ideologies were invented to justify the privileged position of the elite, and to offer a glimmer of hope for the rest of society. In the present era, the mainstream is represented by theories advocating a variety of so-called scientific explanations for the lopsided distribution of power and wealth. Some elites claim they are there to provide jobs and income for the rest of the community, while others assert their right to be at the top because they are the sole guardians of the revolution, motherland, or whatever.

Justifications might vary but the end result is the same. Basically, when people come together leadership is needed even at the lowest levels of social organisation and that requires the exercise of authority by a group of people irrespective of how that particular clique reached the top. And individuals who enjoy power over others simply could not avoid becoming wealthier unless otherwise checked by overt measures. Wealth and power lead naturally to more wealth and power.

The three main ideologies of the international political economy (Mercantilism, now considered as realism, Marxism, and Liberalism) and their variants (such as social democracy) explicitly or implicitly retain the same basic picture of a hierarchy in which the top is occupied by a small group of ‘leaders’. Elites in Western societies have always taken a pragmatic view of ideology. In practice, none of the nations concerned keep to the tenets of the ideology they espouse outwardly. Ideologies are seen as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Primarily, they are advanced as scientific evidence that the status quo is the one and only model that would yield the result sought by ‘the people’. This is yet another myth that has to be exposed for what it is; a means of manipulation.

Nothing new under the sun

Fancy names for modern ideologies should not convey newness. Liberalism, socialism, and realism have been on the scene for millennia. States, or the elites that lie behind them, have always tried to hoard power and wealth on the basis of apparently convincing beliefs. Ibn-Khaldun (1332-1406), for a time a professor at the world famous Al-Azhar Islamic University in Cairo, took a sabbatical of four years in a castle in the Algerian countryside to write an exhaustive history of the Islamic dynasties in North Africa. His studies covered a vast range of topics including expositions on the rise and fall of dynasties, the development of societies, and the acquisition and retention of power by elites. His theories on these and other subjects offer distinct parallels with today’s realist thinking.

In recent times, wider networks of elites of individuals, interest groups, and political parties replaced for the most part the priests and noblemen of old. It is claimed, with some justification, that this latest hierarchical model is flatter than previous models, but that is only a matter of degree; the elites in Britain or the USA, for instance, continue to be limited to, at most, a few thousands of people.

The evolution of ideologies was driven in part by the search for means to allow elites to preserve their grip on wealth and power under changing conditions, particularly increasing assertiveness by the community at large. Dictators still try to rule by terror, while some continue to assert their right to govern on the basis of mandates from heaven. But other elites adopted more subtle and effective strategies for keeping the majority quiescent. They concluded that it was generally more efficient to give people freedoms to do what they liked, including a modest measure of income generation and retention, on condition that they accepted the status quo and helped the elite to amass more power and wealth. Although this model is associated with modern Western ‘democracies’, the concept lay also behind the Taoists’ advice to rulers in Chine to keep people’s ‘bellies full’ in order to discourage them from developing unsocial ideas.

Some elites, therefore, realised early in history that a format that allowed people to lead reasonably free lives and to engage in trade for their own profit was an efficient model, as long as it benefited the elite and did not challenge their position. That scenario endured; it proved itself to be an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). Basically, Liberalism won the contest thousands of years ago, but a degree of socialism was needed for the system to work efficiently. A fair measure of realism was equally unavoidable as elites felt obliged to pursue, protect, and promote their interests against other elites. This amalgam of ideologies is nowadays the model adopted by Western ‘liberal democracies’.

A ‘natural’ tendency that has to be managed

Average complexity, in a group of complex adaptive systems, increases and entities with the highest complexity experience the largest growth. This is a key feature of complex systems theory. Communities of people, including nations, are, therefore, stratified in wealth as in most other respects, and the gap between those at the top and others has a propensity to grow larger. It would be unnatural for the system to work differently (when left unchecked); hence the failure of good intentions to eliminate or reduce inequality at personal, national and international levels. Ground rules have to be set and concerted effort has to be expended to effect a radical reorientation. ‘Trickle down’, beloved by advocates of capitalism, is not enough.

The global hierarchy, comprised of leading powers (the ‘core’), and their international regimes such as the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, and the rest of humanity (the ‘periphery’), is a typical model of the above feature. Recognition of this aspect of the way complex adaptive systems behave is a positive step towards achieving more meaningful democracy and in avoiding the pitfalls that mark the present setup.

Changing the basic rules that govern local interactions has a dramatic effect on the behaviour of complex adaptive systems and the global patterns that subsequently emerge from self-organisation. Hence, to achieve more meaningful forms of democracy the basic rules (and the values they are based on) have to be overtly considered right at the start. For that to happen, the beliefs mentioned earlier (ability of leaders to predict and control events, their claim on greater rewards, and the lack of credible alternative to this social model) have to be exposed as simple myths designed to retain an unjust and, even more important, useless model.

This is not easy to do. Elites have developed intricate arrangement to convince society that the beliefs that shape the present setup are inviolable. Oddly, the task is more onerous within Western ‘democracies’ where the public have been convinced that they enjoy the highest level of democracy possible (as seen for example in Winston Churchill’s assertion that “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those forms that have been tried from time to time.”) It is wrong to assume that the majority of people in the countries concerned feel there is any need for radical reform. Most are busy with other concerns (jobs, savings, pensions, security, etc.). They might experience feelings of frustration and discontent from time to time, but that is an occasional diversion that soon passes in favour of other preoccupations (serious, as in jobs, or manufactured, as demonstrated by TV programmes such as Big Brother).

More fundamentally, people in general do not perceive democracy as a continuum, and this is particularly the case with respect to Western nations. First, democracy is involved in almost all day-to-day activities (access to medical and educational services, for example). And second, democracy could not exist behind barriers that could effectively insulate ‘democracies’ from the ‘undemocratic hordes’ (the Berlin wall, and the wall currently being built by Israel to keep the Palestinians out, for instance). If real democracy is to exist anywhere, it has to exist everywhere. Recent efforts by the USA to introduce a form of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq through the use of highly undemocratic (and in some instances illegal) methods are a sham. This message is slowly coming through but there is a considerable way to go yet.


Political, social, and economic thought has been hitherto based on an assumption that these phenomena behave as linear (Newtonian or mechanistic) fashion.

This has two consequences. First, people are able to predict the future in detail. Second, only a few fortunate individuals (‘leaders’, ‘experts’, and other members of the elite) have that ability. They have to be rewarded accordingly.

So there has always been a predilection for society to be structured hierarchically, with a privileged exclusive elite at the top (priests, aristocrats, and now in the ‘scientific’ age experts, economists, and politicians).

Society at large is not unhappy with this model: someone is in charge to anticipate the future and to take decisive action to avoid misfortunes and attain progress.

The elite would not wish to see a change to the model either, for obvious reasons.

Religions and ideologies have been invented to justify the setup. Since the Enlightenment, many societies have used science (meaning linear science) for this purpose. Marxists and liberals have done this with equal conviction.

The various ‘ideologies’ have one aim in common: to safeguard the interests of the elite. Despotic ruling families rely on God-given rights. Dictators cite national unity and the need to make progress quickly. And ‘democratic’ regimes use moral and ideological justifications for the same purpose.

In a group of nested complex adaptive systems, average complexity increases over time and those with the highest complexity gain the most increase. For ‘complexity’ you could read wealth or power.

There is therefore a tendency for the elite to gain most unless something is done about it. ‘Trickle down’, beloved by advocates of capitalism, is not enough. A change in the basic rules of engagement is necessary. This is not the same as draconian compulsion.

This is not easy to achieve. Elites have developed ways and means to protect themselves against unwelcome radical change (especially in ‘democracies’):

Control of the media.

Rewards and penalties.

Reputations and labels.

Mocking conspiracy theories.

Appointment of ‘safe pairs of hands’ to sensitive positions (non-executive directors and hand-picked persons to head ‘independent’ enquiries, etc.).

And above all else, instilling fear within societies (as seen in the current furore about the dire threats posed by terrorism).