The role of social elite within a democratic society is usually resented, because of the republican ideals. It is a problematic concept, as most of those elites in our societies come down from the landed families of the past, except in societies which may have gone through a revolution, like China. The elite is a throwback from the past, a reminder of the past tyrannies and oppression, and worse, their very existence is a symbol of failure of the republican ideals.
However, on the other side, there is this claim, empirically proven through experiences across countries and generations, that an elite class is needed for social order. Even the revolutionary societies in Russia and China had developed their own, replacing the Birth privileges with bureaucratic privileges, but nonetheless maintaining the asymmetry of power and access. In fact, the entire Bolshevik doctrine had, at its heart, a revolutionary elite, that will lead the masses to emancipation.
The American Republicans, despite their worthy ideals, also envisaged anarchy without an elite. They may have detested the European style aristocracy, and anti-Federalists may have rallied against the Federalist plans for the fear that such an elite would emerge, but Jefferson and others were still Gentlemen Planters very aware of their privileged position. Their's would have been an aristocracy of intellect, an aristocracy nonetheless!
The whole conversation about meritocracy is also based on our quest of a new social elite. While we may think privileges by birth and privileges through party rank may be repugnant, we would wish to find a secular criteria that allow us to create an elite in a fairer way. It may enrage the modern day advocates of meritocracy, but that idea very much came from the eugenicists, people who set out to prove the hierarchy of the races. And, while it has fallen out of favour, and such racial prejudices would be politically incorrect today, various measures of meritocracy would perhaps still show a racial asymmetry, though, as we know now, not because of brain sizes or any inherent attributes, but just because a social elite is a reality that already exists.
Having said this, though, the existence of social elites is not a self-evident fact but a social issue that needs to be discussed and debated. While one may see its persistence, the elite may often undermine a Democratic society and subvert the rule of law: For every revolutionary elite, there is a Stalin to follow; there is always a Von Hindenburg to undermine a Republican constitution. Christopher Lasch wrote persuasively about the Revolt of the Elites in America, and, one can see their persistent efforts to undermine democracies all over the world, including in big countries such as India. In fact, the elite everywhere has a new mantra - Development - and the doctrine that bread and work is more important than political and legal rights.
This is the other side of the argument. The elite claims that they are essential for democracy and then say that political rights come in the way of development, which is more important. So, we may want the elite in a democracy, an aristocracy of intellect, but they inevitably look to undermine the democracy as they see it as a challenge to their own privileges.
One way to look at it is that this is a fact of modern life and we can not do anything about it. But, such resigned attitude did not get us here. Progress did not happen on its own, we had to earn the progress. It is historically inaccurate to say that political rights and material progress can not coexist - it is a lie which has been tried and dispelled before. What can not coexist is material progress and an obstructive elite, and this has more historical evidence than the previous claim. So, the chief problematic of the social policy today should be, not what is to be done with the poor, but what needs to be done with the elite.
Indeed, that question was asked, and answered, rather brutally, in Mao's China, and a re-run may not be desirable. But there was a method in Mao's madness: He wanted to re-educate the elite. Indeed, this meant shipping people off to work in farms, but perhaps the message - that an education revolution is the key to integrating elites to a republican society - is valuable.
Now, education systems in our countries, particularly the two- or three-tier education systems of the Anglo-Saxon world, is at the core of this democracy problem. The whole idea of such a system is to manufacture an elite. And, despite claims on the contrary, educating an elite means, as it did for thousands of years, developing an young mind uncorrupted by plebeian values. This model is now being exported, with context and without question, to all those newly democratic countries with fragile roots and rapacious business classes. Right now, education systems around the world are manufacturing a rootless elite and undermining democracies.
So, here is my point: The role of Social Elites in our modern, republican and democratic societies is a crucial and delicate one. We need an aristocracy of intellect, but always guard against perpetuation of privileges and corruption of republican ideals. Education is key for maintenance of this balance, to protecting our values and preserving our democracies. The current, limited and instrumentalist approach to education - that education is for a job and a job alone - is undermining our ways of life irreversibly.
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