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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

George Walden's Anti-Elitist Elite


This piece is a commentary on George Walden’s book, New Elites: A Career in the Masses, which was published in 2006.

Walden joined the Foreign Office in 1962 and worked there as a researcher until 1965 when he went to Hong Kong to study Chinese.  As a politician, he was elected as the MP for Buckingham at the 1983 general election. He was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, Sir Keith Joseph, 1984–85 and Minister for Higher Education 1985–1987. He was re-elected in 1987 and 1992 and retired from parliament at the 1997 general election. He is now a journalist and writer.

New Elites received many favourable reviews, including the following one from Noel Malcolm (writing for the Sunday Telegraph):

“Walden has a fine eye for stupidities, and a very sharp pen… his book presents a brilliant analysis of the ‘inverted snobbery’ of the new elite, showing how our new masters, many of them from upper-middle-class backgrounds, affect to despise the very class to which they belong.”

The Revolution Has Been Won – But It Lives On

George Walden

The anti-elitist revolution began in the early 1960s – perhaps even before. That was around 50 – yes, 50! - years ago. “Since that time, the sixties revolt has taken the path of all revolutions: it has grown old and fixed in its ways.” And like all revolutionary leaders, the “spiritual descendants [of the 1960s revolts] have become narrow-minded, intolerant authoritarians themselves in their pursuit of populist dogma”. What’s more, the “circle has turned and a new conformism is in danger of replacing the old”.

Now anti-elitism “is constraining, a secular religion with its dogmas, its clergy, its cloudy hermeneutics”. However, like most revolutionaries, these anti-elitists believe in permanent revolution. They believe that revolution must go on lest the evil forces of reaction return. Yet the “truth is that the anti-elitist’s fox has long been shot”. More disturbingly,

“In the calls for vigilance against elitist thinking there are faint echoes of regimes where the revolution is never safe till every enemy, real or imaginary, has been liquidated.”

The revolution and the revolutionaries have thus become self-serving.

What the hell are these revolutionaries fighting against anyway? After all, “the average citizen can hardly be said to be in thrall to outmoded canons of taste and behaviour handed down from above”. Thus the more populist the elites are, and the less ‘traditional elitism’ there is, the “more insistent the campaign against them and their supposed values becomes”.
Lord Callinicos, leader of the SWP.
George Walden’s primary concern is with what may be called the Left-Liberal elite. The Left-liberal ‘revolutionaries’ are non-violent because they don’t need a violent revolution or to agitate on the streets. But of course it’s the Far Left, or the Revolutionary Left, who are the most supposedly anti-elitist of all. As per usual, the Rad Left is thoroughly middle class – indeed often upper-middle-class. Walden tells us how Robert Michels, the German sociologist, realised

“'how few genuine workers attended trade union meetings, how the leaders of the Left were almost invariably educated men and women from the middle or upper classes, and that it was their will and interests, rather than those of the working class, that tended to prevail.’”

The fact is that many Leftists and Left-Liberals - yes, the Establishment - have always hated the working class. That’s why they wanted to change its members, or treat them condescendingly, or lead them to a revolution. Even – even? -  Marxist revolutionaries hated 'the masses’. As Walden says of Lenin, he “described them [the masses] as ‘slumbering, inert, hidebound and dormant’”.

The revolutionaries then became the Establishment – or at least a large and fixed part of it. Now, “[f]or the first time in Western democratic history society is dominated by an elite of anti-elitists”.

These people are anti-elitists. But they are still an/the elite. They have an elite position largely bought by an elite education. Now they are trying to deny all that is elite to everyone else. They learn about English history, literature, grammar, etc. and then say that the rest of us don’t need such things (in our glorious comprehensive schools). They learn the classics yet the rest us are expected to do ‘media studies’ and study Coldplay or EastEnders when, in actual fact, most kids know more about all this stuff than their teachers.

The right-on elite are keeping the plebs in their place. No matter how good their mockney accents are, or how frequent their references to popular culture, it’s still they who have most of the power and control. The fact that they are left-liberals (sometimes with estuary English accents), or sometimes outright Leftists, doesn’t stop it being a fact that they have the power and the control. It doesn’t stop it being a fact that they are dumbing the rest of us down in order to build themselves up. In order to allow them to continue being the supreme condescenders that they are.

Examples of the Elite

George Walden gets very specific about how elite the anti-elite sometimes – or oftentimes - is. He recalls a particular dinner he once attended at which the subject of conversation was, of all things, elitism.

He recalls, particularly, one woman thus:  “‘Elitism’, the woman rapped out over dinner, ‘is a bad word.’” Yet “[t]he woman’s pronunciamento seemed at variance with her persona. She was expensively dressed, self-assured, a figure of authority [and] the observation seemed to conflict with her surroundings: the dinner was in an expensive club”.

Then the conversation became deeper. Walden himself mentioned Mathew Arnold’s famous phrase about ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’. The aforesaid posh woman took offence to this.  She said:

“‘Best? It depends what you mean.’”  

To which Walden replied:

“‘Well, something that’s better than anything else.’

“‘Who’s to say?’

“‘Well, someone has to say…’

“‘You mean some people are intrinsically superior to others?

“‘That’s not what I said…’”

The Elite against Elitism

What’s wrong with elite tastes and elite things if everyone, at least in principle, has access to them?  Or, as George Walden puts it, “we [have] reach[ed] the position where there is only one thing more reprehensible than having elite tastes, and that is trying to spread them, so as to make them less elite”. The problem with elite things is surely that they were out of the reach of many people. Nonetheless, art galleries aren’t out of reach. Radio 3 isn’t out of reach. Public libraries aren’t out of reach. Sure, many operas and theatre performances are out of reach; but things can still be done to stop that. Nevertheless, these anti-elitist elites are against things being out of reach of ‘the masses’, they are against these elite things themselves. Or, more correctly, they are against them now that they have learned about them or consumed them. That means that elite things are ‘too elite’ for the rest of us.

Thus these prize condescenders of the working class, the elite of anti-elitists, push their views about elitism on the rest of us and in the process their anti-elitism becomes “a recipe for the propagation of ignorance amongst the many". All this means that it’s not the people who are crying out against all things elite and elitist, but the (anti-elitist) elite itself. As Walden puts it, the “most striking aspect of anti-elitism as a social and cultural doctrine in Britain is that it is propagated not from below, but largely from above”.

The bottom line, then, is that the elite are protecting their own elite position – just as they’ve always done! These anti-elitist elites “appear to be more concerned with looking down in compassion than with enabling the objects of our pity to look up in hope”. They are denying the rest of us ‘the best that is known and thought in the world’ and keeping it for themselves. Instead we get ‘media studies’, more ‘light entertainment’, and the dumbing down of whatever else it is the anti-elitist elite thinks should be dumbed down.

The Elite's Fake Populism

Nick Clegg at his old school - Westminster.

In order to dumb down, or become populist, the elite has to pretend they it’s not in fact elite. Walden’s general argument is that in the old days the elite didn’t pretend – it was honest about its elitism on the whole (without always using the word ‘elite’ of course). Now the elite “take on the characteristics of their surroundings, chameleon-like”. You know, like Tony Blair with his estuary English and him pretending that he watched a football match which actually occurred before he was born. Or David Cameron “pedalling to the House of Commons followed by a chauffeur-driven Lexus carrying a clean shirt and shoes, like some bicycling Bertie Wooster with his Jeeves in motorised attendance “. Or Blair, again, choosing only three classical pieces and Cameroon none on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Or even the public school boy Guy Richards pretending to be a Cockney Geezer.

However, another of Walden’s arguments is that it’s no always a pretence. These elites may be elite in terms of power and privilege; but they can be quite genuinely ‘common’ or ‘popular’ too. After all, at many public schools the up-coming elites are trained in populism and how to hoodwink the plebs. Many people who’ve never even been in sniffing distance of a private school have some quaint illusions about them.  In actual fact, many public school teachers are training the up-coming elite to be Average Blokes just like Cameron and Blair. That is:

“ Contrary to the image of public schoolboys grubbing away at dead languages, a mere 3 per cent of sixth formers at independent schools study the classics, and a large proportion of classics graduates go into financial services."

I’m not arguing against public schools as such. I’m arguing against the posh boys’ fakery and their dumbing down for power, money and to keep the rest of us away from an education that has done them so well - thank you!

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