Is ‘The Metropolitan Elite’ a thing?
Just because ‘The Metropolitan Elite’ is a handy target for people who oppose strong democratic institutions, does this mean that it is phantasm? Is it just a malign fictional entity used to misrepresent a generally benevolent and necessary layer of society?
I’m going to argue that it is very much a thing, and one that needs to be challenged on a number of grounds.
- There is an identifiable and semi-exclusive social grouping of people who are directly involved in influencing lawmaking and policy. The obvious examples are the politicians, politician support networks (bag-carriers, people who work for the parties, etc), the executive (as opposed to administrative) parts of the civil service, people who work for quangos, regulators, think-tanks, the campaigning parts of NGOs, policy research professionals, the professional commentariat and journalists, some parts of the legal profession, a particular group of media professionals, etc. It even stretches to academics, artists, writers or comedians who commentate on the affairs of state in some way. These are a group of people who have a lot in common. With the rare exceptions of local activists/politicians or trades unionists that manage to bust their way in, they have similar social and educational backgrounds (often having studied with each other). They generally live within a short commute of the relevant ‘political village’, they will take their holidays at the same time, to similar places, have similar lifestyles (not 9–5, in many cases) and possibly even similarly atypical diets. An enterprising developer at Facebook could probably corral this exclusive group of people together fairly confidently. Buzzfeed could develop a ‘How Elite Are You’ quiz where we all rack up points and a scatter-graph of results shows very few people with more than one mark and less than six on a 1–10 scale. (As a London-based union official with some political access, I reckon I’m roughly 6/10, though A.C. Grayling retweeted me the other day so I may have briefly nudged ‘7').
- These people have lots of common material interests that they can indulge. They also have lots of common, unconscious biases. Whatever else they do when they make decisions on our behalf, they probably shelve any plans that would make life more difficult for their own social groupings (this concept is neatly captured in Patrick Dunleavy’s concept of ‘bureau-shaping’). There is also evidence that they have access to economic data that materially benefits them at our expense.
- We are relatively complacent about this social caste because they have managed to project themselves as a ‘meritocracy’. This is a big mistake. In reality, this social grouping is deeply unrepresentative of society, and very probably not the best group of people to have doing this work if we had processes that genuinely selected the right people to do these jobs in all of our interests. If you’d like this argument fleshing out properly, have a read of James Bloodworth’s short comprehensive book on Meritocracy.
- Every other professional group has been successfully disrupted and disintermediated by networked technologies in recent years. This lot haven’t. They’ve managed to preserve their self-serving inflexibility in ways that few others have done. Part of the reason that this Beltway clique are more obviously despised now than they were is because most other comparable professions have been forced to adapt. Anger is the product of un-met expectations and they have never been as un-met as they are today. Have a look at this book about digital disruption – The Future of the Professions – and see who doesn’t even get a mention? It relates to point 2 (above). This lot are great at vetoing changes that don’t suit them. At some point this will become unsustainable (and we may be witnessing the warning tremors already).
The Metropolitan Elite are a morbid symptom of a liberal democracy that is not able to renew itself in competition with its rivals (dictatorship, kleptocracy, oligarchy, technocracy, etc). The role that they perform in a liberal democracy could be carried out in ways that are more inclusive, more focussed on the interests of everyone, less subordinate to the interests of that elite, and more in keeping with our expectations of modernity.
I’m going to go out on a limb with a claim that I can’t substantiate at the moment; I think that many ordinary, non-political people understand and support these arguments a lot more than professional politicos realise – even if it isn’t very widely articulated.
This political moment that some people are calling ‘populism’ is a long way from the incoherent brain-burp that a lot of The Metropolitan Elite think it to be. These are sensible concerns and, if we don’t address them, those malign rivals to democracy will.
(This post was edited 1/6/2017 to include a link to the ‘bureau shaping model that I didn’t have time to find when hurriedly writing the original post in a hurry, along with a new link to the Royal Statistical Society that I thought relevant.)