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By L. Dean Webb


Questions to Consider:
  1. What is an elite?
  2. Why is the peasantry rarely a problem?
  3. Why are the middle classes troublesome?
  4. What is a counterelite?
  5. How can a counterelite gain more political power?
  6. Why is time on the side of liberalization? How much time are we talking about here, anyway?
  7. What are the differences between revolutionaries and reactionaries?

Elites are the guys in charge of running a society.

You said "guys". Isn't that being sexist?

Yes, that's a sexist term. It's also true. Throughout history, men have held dominant positions of leadership in nearly every urbanized society. And by "nearly every", I mean, "I can't think of any urbanized society consistently led by women for a major part of its history, but I'll cover my bets by saying nearly every instead of all." It's no secret women get treated terribly throughout history. It's only in recent years that womens' issues have even mattered. Before 1970, questioning something as being "sexist" wouldn't occur to most folks. The world has a long way to go in terms of allowing women to have access to true political control. The same can be said for tolerating political power among cultural, religious, or linguistic groups different from those which traditionally held power.

You mean minorities.

No, I don't. A minority cultural group can actually rule over a larger cultural group, such as the Afrikaners did in South Africa in the latter part of the 20th century. They were the elites of that society. In fact, elites are always a minority group in any society. By definition, an elite is a member of a select, not general, group. They are the top of whatever heap may be in question.

The elites are not just those who govern. Elites also include non-governing persons of note who have an incredible amount of say regarding who exactly gets to govern. Some of the non-governing elites may be in a faction currently out of power, but who desire to somehow knock the rulers out of their position and take it up themselves. When folks say it's lonely at the top, they're talking about the number of real friends you have, not the number of people trying to get your attention or encourage you to change careers, if you know what I mean.

The elites by no means share identical views or agendas. As you can see in the above illustration, there can be elites from many different societal areas. Often, elites will have more in common with non-elites with the same background than they will with other elites. Elites from different groups can and do compete for dominance within a society.

Historically, the largest group of any society has been the peasantry. These guys don't govern anything. They never have and never will.

Are you saying poor people don't ever rule? I know lots of stories about poor people or even former slaves who rose to lead entire countries.

Those are individuals, not groups. Sure, we all love our rags-to-riches heroes, but they're the exceptions who make everyone think he, too, can break the rules with enough gumption and know-how going for him. The fact is, the riches-to-yet-more-riches stories are more frequent, and those peasant upstarts often find themselves squirming naked on crosses for all the other peasants to see what becomes of those who disturb the way things the existing elites intended them to be.

Most peasants are scraping by, just barely getting enough calories in their diet to avoid dying of starvation, but not enough to keep from dying of chronic malnutrition. They're not bright, motivated, or possessed of any sort of gumption or know-how. They hope to perhaps gain some sort of advantage by flying under the radar of the elites and getting away with a little luxury here or there not appropriate to their station. Short of that, their existence is brutish and short. They're too busy surviving to make a grab for power. They are not, and never will be, elites.

So how come in America you can get dirt poor kids like Bill Clinton to grow up and become president?

Relative to the rest of the world, America is a very wealthy place. That wealth has led to the creation of a very sizeable middle class of people who are neither fabulously wealthy nor desperately poor. This middle class is full of upstart notions that there are places in society for everyone, but theirs is not a stable one. Middle classes expect better things for themselves as the years go by. This is known as rising expectations. Those middle-class notions permeate our society and inspire a disportionate number of erstwhile peasants to reject the lottery of their birth and strive for something more. The rest of the peasantry plays the lottery.

Anyway, this middle class is very troublesome to the elites. It's constantly the source of revolution and other threats to the power wielded by elites. Peasant revolts get brutally repressed at the cost of maybe a few lords murdered by their serfs. Upper-class power struggles result in a few executions and a lot of exiles or house arrests. Middle-class revolutions line everyone who used to be in charge up against the wall for a photograph and a firing squad. Believe you me, when the middle classes get riled up, they don't stop killing until they get sick of the color red.

We now have three major divisions in society: the upper-class elites, the middle classes, and the lower-class peasantry. Non-ruling upper classes and the middle classes make up the counterelite which is constantly seeking an opportunity to change places or replace the existing elite.

How does that happen?

Three ways: back-room scheming, bloody revolution, or peaceful election. The first method is, by far, the most common throughout history. Even in places like the USA and UK where elections happen regularly and are generally free from serious fraud, those back-door deals are constantly getting arranged to determine just who shows up as candidates for the elections. The elites are in control, make no mistake. But if the counterelite is too long frustrated, it rises in revolution and then it's too late for the elites to open up the back rooms. Heads will roll. As the middle classes expand in a society, it's more and more prudent for the existing elites to figure out ways to include them in government or risk losing everything in an uprising.

It should now be obvious that economic organization leads to political power.

It should also now be obvious that technological development leads to economic organization.

Therefore, as a society increases in technological sophistication, wealth is created, leading to the rise of a middle class and demands for a more inclusive form of governance. Eventually, we all wind up enriched and responsible for our own actions unless there's some future pattern-reversing pitfall I'm unable to forsee.

One pattern-reversing pitfall I do forsee as a possibility is the increasing rate of technological sophistication could eventually be such that there is no way for even a well-educated middle class to handle the information necessary to make sensible decisions about its future. When it gets to the point that even specialization in college does not give someone the ability to grasp the basic notions needed to deal with new innovations, that poverty of knowledge and understanding can place the middle classes smack dab back in the peasantry. Even members of the privileged elite could wind up in that peasantry if their privilege is compromised by ignorance. If schools up the ante and pack more information into the 12-20 years Level IV society allots them to educate the young, they risk leaving more kids behind with an increasingly demanding curriculum. Those left behind will either be part of the peasantry or a technophobic counterelite, its upward mobility frustrated by the complexity of the world. Hopefully, the pattern of increasing inclusiveness and liberality in government will result in a dismantling of unresponsive education systems and the creation of those that are more flexible in their approach, which would then be free to innovate a means to avoid the pitfall of ignorance.

Optimistic as the above may sound, one nevertheless has to keep in mind a point brought up earlier in this bit: we've only just begun this liberalization process. Centuries and millennia of brutality lie behind us and won't be overthrown in a convenient hour-long format common to most television drama shows. Search for the heroes of women's rights or minority rights before 1960: they are very few in number, and become fewer still when you try to find them before 1900. While social studies education today places a focus on the rich tapestry of the human existence and tries to include as much stuff on women, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and other non-Northern European males as possible, the sad fact is that historians have to stretch to find uplifting tales among the vast numbers of accounts of exploitation, slavery, murder, rape, and genocide.

Worse, the non-Northern European male elites tend to behave in as despicable a manner as their Euro counterparts. The good news is that we can study Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Aztec, or Congolese history with some detail. The bad news is that their rulers were as ruthless as rulers everywhere. We see that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

That last statement has a further nastiness to it. When those noble middle classes you're most likely rooting for rise up and wrest power from the corrupted elites, they become elites themselves and are then subject to the same corrupting influences that ruined the other elites. Those in the non-ruling groups have to keep a tight rein on their rulers to keep their desires for greater powers in check.

Geez, that's depressing. So why study history or other social studies?

We're on that liberalizing upswing, right? If you're reading this, you're part of the counterelite or elite, most likely the counterelite. If you learn your history, government, and economics well, you will be mentally better prepared to engage in changing your government to one that is more inclusive, free, and less corrupt. You'll know all the atrocities of the past and can at least recognize when they're being repeated. With luck, you can perhaps prevent them from being completed successfully. At worst, you'll be able to rant on to the next generation in the hope they'll have a better chance. Time is on the side of liberty, but it is an excruciatingly slow process, fraught with slides backward.

The American Revolution did much to further the ideals of liberty, but it's no longer an active force for change. Something more will be needed to make the next push toward greater liberty. With the USA's government now vested in building empires overseas since 1900, eroding the power of Congress in favor of a stronger executive since 1861 and even more so since 1933, and in solidifying sweetheart deals between huge corporations and government contractors since the late 19th century, the USA is not in a position to be a force for liberal change in the world. It is reactionary, moving to suppress individual economic and personal freedom when it conflicts with the desires of the ruling elites.

Unfortunately for the reactionaries, the world, and America particularly, is at the beginning of a revolution in communication which, if it flourishes, will result in a more rapid rate of change. That will result in a more rapid generation of wealth and, hence, growth of both numbers and political power among the counterelite.

All this talk of revolutions, however, requires we take a closer look at their dynamics and how they lead to changes in the elites and overall way of life in a society. That will be the next lesson...