Oct 21, 2013

Staying clear from the gravediggers

One of the forefathers of the study of elites, Vilfredo Pareto, remarked that ‘history is a graveyard of aristocracies’. Indeed, maintaining an elite position is not self-evident and throughout history many elites have lost their position while new ones have risen to power. Elites are elites in relation to other social groups and by their very nature only constitutes a small minority, which makes them vulnerable to the moods and ambitions of other (more numerous) social groups and/or counter-elites. They seem often perfectly aware of this and my view is that many elites are actually quite good at anticipating potential changes and challenges.

For example, a family office of one of the richest Dutch families invited a professor who I taught with at the University of Amsterdam. He had a very opinionated view about the undemocratic conditions of global (and Dutch) finance. In particular, he was quite vocal in the media about bankers, the large social costs of their behaviour and their lack of responsibility. Initially, it seemed odd that this family office, a bastion of elite power, would invite him. However, I have since come across a number of other examples of elites and (big) business inviting individuals who condemn the patterns the ones at the top thrive on. As long as the critics are not outright neo-Marxist and asking for the dismantling of capitalism, elites, in times of change and popular resentment, show an openness to discuss opposing – and potentially threatening – views.

It certainly needs more in-depth investigation (I have so far come across few explicit analyses of this tendency to anticipate change). Yet, more than we think, elites and others in the axis of power appear to keep an eye out for potential changes and challenges in society, in the hope that if change occurs they may be well positioned to anticipate it. Hence, they invite a professor to learn about resentment, developments and directions of change. In their positions at the top, they are, subsequently, in a good position to quickly adapt to changes. Owing to their present advantages – financial means, networks, etc. – they are much better situated than others to secure privileges and power in the face of change. They may dispose some of their previous imagery, while taking up a new 'identity' in the meanwhile. Once a new situation has crystallised, we may have to conclude that the same elites have maintained their position, however. The graveyard may be full, but plenty elites cleverly stay clear from the gravediggers.