New Internationalist

The Chosen Few

Issue 093

Participation is a rare commodity. Power usually rests in the hands of the few - not always chosen. Bob Hawkins takes a look at those few who run the lives of so many.

Life has been good. Neither rich nor poor, I’m certainly living comfortably on what, in Australia, would be an above average income. Not only do I own my own home. If I were inclined, I could just about manage to pay to send my children to private schools. I could buy myself a second car. I can afford to take a month’s holiday each year.

In no way am I a part of, or even near to, the ‘power elite’ which runs Australia. But from the standpoint of, say, an urban Australian Aborigine, I would have to be ‘privileged’.

But it is privilege with power that this issue is about. So let’s look where it is. First, the obvious: from the United States to the Soviet Union, and at every stop along the way, small groups of influential people - politicians, military men, academics, clerics, commercial executives, trade unionists - are jealously guarding the niches they have secured for themselves in their societies. Not only that, they joust one with another to maintain or improve their positions.

The pattern has not changed much today from the time when humanity first organised itself into societies. Always two classes have appeared - those who rule and those who are ruled. Even today in the West’s much-vaunted ‘democracies’ the principle applies. Aside from political musical chairs by factions among the ‘rulers’, the lines of demarcation are clearly drawn. As one political scientist wrote: ‘The representative is not elected by the voters but, as a rule, has himself elected by them … ’ In principle, full, universal participation may be possible. In practice we are nearly always excluded from the taking of decisions which affect us.

The ranks of the power elite are no longer restricted to those who are actually members of government or the bureaucracies which buoy them up. Increasingly, the elite embraces the top executives of the ever-growing multinational corporations which are tightening their global grip on governments in both developed and developing world. China is no longer immune to their influence.

The personal benefits and pleasures accruing to these privileged few do not always have a harmful effect on the ruled - except for denying them a fair share. But often, when this privilege translates itself into a selfish abuse of political or corporate power, the resultant discomfort inflicted upon the majority can be frightening.

Latin America, from top to toe, has become a continent of the cowed - largely oppressed by military and mixed military-civilian juntas (with few exceptions like Costa Rica, and Venezuela) Extremely costly international advertising campaigns to convince Western democracies that life is better for Brazilians today than pre-1964 do nothing to conceal that, even if some of these people now have fullerbellies, they no longer have a political voice. The ,national security’ philosophy -a Hobbesian-like belief that man is fit only to be ruled with a no-nonsense iron fist - is being promoted as a new gospel, but the proselytisers are convincing few besides themselves.

Backing up the ‘national security’ theory is a brutal economic argument measured in terms of GNP and per capita productivity. Advanced high-energy technology is necessary. This means major foreign investment. And if investment is to be attracted, high levels of social discipline and hard decisions are required. The state must offer, good transport systems and provide power for industry - both costly items. It must guarantee that wages will be held down and that workers will not step out of line.

Eventually, as the recipe for growth begins to work, the state must decide how, at what rate and to whom, the newly­acquired wealth will ‘trickle down’. In the meantime the poor will have to experience increasing inequality and inadequate standards in housing, education and health.

Dr Rowan Ireland of LaTrobe University, Melbourne, points to Brazil as a clear example of how military elites justify their existence. Pre-1964 there was soaring inflation, labour unrest and a flight of capital. The 1964 coup leaders defended their elitism as a necessary condition for the greater prosperity of all Brazilians. They argue that mass politics impoverishes the masses.

In Africa the generals (sometimes colonels, even sergeants) have not put their act together so impressively. But here is to be found one of the most clearcut forms of elitism: apartheid. With, they imagine, God behind them, P. W. Botha and most of his fellow white South Africans are cock­sure of their divine right to dictate the destiny of 24 million blacks.

Muhammad Ali pinpoints this racial arrogance in characteristic fashion: ‘Jesus Christ is made to be white. At the Last Supper ain’t no Chinese, no Mexicans, no Africans. They all white … Tarzan swinging through the jungle is white.’

To the north of the white republic, regimes come and go. The horrors of Amin in Uganda have given way to non-elitist chaos, providing ammunition for those who ‘know what is best’ for the masses.

In the Arab world in the seventies control of oil - for so long extracted by the giant Western corporations at little cost apart from lavish attention to the needs of strategically-placed sheikhs - passed to those self same sheikhs. And still the Arab masses remain without political voice.

To the east, the people of Pakistan (West Pakistan until its position of privilege in today’s Bangladesh became untenable) have limped, with one exception, from general to general for two decades, only once savouring the pleasure of an illusory ballot box power.

In India, second time around, Indira Gandhi is finding it difficult to resist resorting to the authoritarianism which led to her removal a year or so ago. Ironically - and certainly to the delight of ‘national security’ advocates - it was the ‘chaos’ of democracy in India which brought this iron woman back to power.

East Asia - from the Bering to Malacca Straits (with only qualified exception), and the archipelago nations of Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia - sees privilege entrenched. All in their own ways — from Moscow-orientated Hanoi to Washington’s island friends in Jakarta and Manila and Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore - these regimes have persuaded or forced the people to submit to the guidance of those few who ‘know best’. Japan, with all the trappings of democracy, has a people who ‘know their place’.

This acceptance of a distinct pecking order is also evident in the Polynesian region of the South Pacific. There, where a ‘chiefly’ system predominates, hereditary authority rests easily on peoples seemingly content in their gentle subjection.

The picture in the Melanesian and Micronesian regions of the South Pacific is of a more meritocratic process. However, as these two areas are still emerging from the coils of colonialism, the legacy is one of not-yet-clearly-identified, but very real elitist groupings modelled on those of the departing masters.

So much for the South. Now a glance to the North. The capitalist West, through the media, almost glorifies its elite elements - power and non-power, presidents and pop stars. The socialist states, however, would have the world believe there is no favoured or privileged class within their ranks. Yet as long as man has organised,elite groups have formed - and neither Russia nor China has proved the exception.

Hedrick Smith in his book The R ussians describes the privileged society founded by Josef Stalin. It was perfectly logical, Stalin is reported to have argued, for certain people and groups which were especially valuable to the state to be given special rewards.

In the two decades that China under Mao closed itself to the world, stories from time to time leaked out of his wife Chiang Ching and associates acting in a manner of which the Chairman most surely would have disapproved. Generally, however, it was accepted that for the time being the elitism of the warlord classes had been broken and not replaced. However, with the return of Coca-Cola economics to China, it seems anti-elitist practices, such as sending the educated cream to the fields to see life from the other side, are fast disappearing.

In Britain wealth figures still point to enormous gulfs between rich and poor. And a report by Oxford University’s Dr John Goldthorpe, Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, argues that ‘no significant reductions in class inequalities have been achieved’ in the past 30 years.

Nothing much has changed since federation in Australia just after the turn of the century when the landed gentry - in the role of founding fathers - produced an almost watertight constitution that has virtually guaranteed their successors control of the-nation’s affairs ad infinitum short of revolution. Australians, apart from living with a gross distortion between the voting power of the urban and rural dweller, also know that their governor­general (in theory answerable to Queen Elizabeth 11) can dismiss a government at whim. It happened in 1975.

Almost without exception, those who lead us rank among the elite. But where does ‘leadership’ end and ‘elitism’ begin? Any leader, to function efficiently, requires a reasonable ease of living. But how far can this comfort be taken before it becomes excess?

Names like Fidel Castro and Julius Nyerere come to mind as one casts about in search of administrations led by truly non-elitist leaders; leaders attempting to disperse power rather than jealously cling to it.

Castro could hardly be faulted through the sixties and seventies as he worked seemingly selflessly to feed and educate all Cubans. But when he approved the import of 750 Alfa Romeos for his top bureaucrats there came the feeling that he too had fallen prey to the temptations of the good life -or that his position needed bolstering.

The epitome of anti-elitism is Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Though it is understood some of his top men drive him to distraction in their pursuit of the high life, Nyerere has never given up his fight to achieve an egalitarian society. But the apocryphal story goes that he feels he faces an uphill task on the road to Tanzanian socialism because he can’t find any Tanzanian socialists to join him.

Perhaps one of the most heartening developments of the sad seventies - when authoritarianism of right and left intensified and spread as a backlash to the enlightenment of the sixties - was a courageous and more outspoken performance by religious groupings around the world.

So often the Church and its top men (rarely women) have insinuated themselves into cosy ‘arrangements’ with those who rule and then turned a blind eye when their keepers have indulged in cruel excesses to subdue the masses.

In El Salvador this year, Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero paid with his life for stepping into the political arena in a bid to lessen the suffering of civil strife. In the Philippines Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, head of the Catholic Church (even though he hasn’t gone far enough for many of his priests in the field), has consistently pleaded with Marcos to modify his dictatorship. From the South Pacific comes the voice of Bishop Patelisio Finau of the Tonga Council of Churches: ‘The rich who give … also work for their own self-expansion. The hand that stretches to help also has a predatory claw and a paternal clutch … ’

When one looks back at the way in which Christianity - in tandem with Colonialism - has ridden its message over the bewildered masses, it is reassuring to see at last a dawning of understanding and a willingness by the Church not to be cowed by a regime which imposes unreasonable conditions upon its right to exist.

This new spirit of resistance is caught in a recent statement by a group calling themselves ‘Filipino Christians’: ‘Where people and nations are divided between rich and poor, powerful and powerless; where a few have command over, and benefit from, the resources that belong to all; where unjust structures exclude many from control of their own lives; there is underdevelopment. Underdevelopment is a new word for sin.’

But if anything, the consolidation of privilege and power is intensifying, not just in the Third World but everywhere. More than half the ‘southern’ members of the United Nations are now under some form of military control.

In the North there is little sign of a relaxation of the grip of the socialist dictatorships (Poland notwithstanding); and there is real evidence in the West that even the most ‘democratic’ of governments is becoming more and more subject to the ,guidance’ of rapidly expanding multinational groups.

Each year a torrent of ‘answers’ to the world’s problems flows from the plethora of United Nations agencies which grace the most comfortable cities of the world. But sift as you may, there’s rarely a word about the roles that abuse of privilege, unacceptable restrictions of human rights and freedoms and government and private corruption in specific areas play in foiling attempts to achieve a redistribution of resources and an improvement in the quality of life for the masses.

They are not even topics which can be broached officially with senior UN diplomats. Too many fear their own slips would be showing. Yet ostentatious displays of hospitality and personal indulgence in big city luxuries are apparent among the diplomatic representatives of even the most poverty-stricken nations. There are exceptions - but too few to offer hope that there could be any change of attitude in the foreseeable future at the UN’s New York headquarters.

It’s hardly fair to blame today’s leaders. Man aspires to all that he has learned to be of value. And too many of today’s leaders are the products of colonial systems. They are products of the top schools in the lands of their former colonial rulers; they recall clearly the days when colonial authority and abuse could under no circumstances be brought into question; and few see any reason why that system should not continue.

Frantz Fanon in the fifties, during his Algerian experiences, brilliantly profiled the whiter-than-white black who goes home after an education in the West not even wanting to accept that where he is going is home. Of such stuff is made today’s Third World autocrat who so rarely adheres to the austerity he imposes upon his people.

Through the fifties and sixties and well into the seventies, most proposals on development issues embodied an implied elitism. But with the thoughts of economists such as Dudley Seers, Mahbub ul Haq and others has come the call for more participation in development and less elitism.

The targets now are not GNP but the reduction and elimination of malnutrition, disease, illiteracy, squalor, unemployment and inequalities. Consumption planning for the benefit of all classes is winning more attention. So is the idea that better distribution and more employment must go hand in hand with increased production.

This is not new. The Basic Education Movement in Brazil prior to 1964 called for a type of human development which enabled all classes to develop a high sense of worth and dignity based on the opportunity to choose a way of life and have a voice in directing one’s own society. This ,alternative approach’ excluded the imposition of economic priorities by planners because this would undercut the values on which the new priorities were predicated.

This direction adds up to a non-elitist approach. It is non-manipulative and involves people at the grass roots in planning. ‘Change must be built,’ argues Dr Ireland, ‘on existing structures of co­operation at the grass roots rather than side-stepping or destroying them in the name of planners’ ideals. Planners them­must be non-elitist, listeners able to encourage bargaining between groups.’

How can the necessary distribution of power come about? Charles Elliot in Patterns of Poverty does not discount the possibility of ‘even the despised middle class do-gooders’ manipulating today’s structures on behalf of the excluded. He argues the possibility should not be ignored of a radicalised middle class that welcomes reductions in its own standard of living in favour of the excluded and which will put its political weight behind moves in that direction.

It sounds like a long haul. But logic dictates that if there is to be a road toward a more equitable distribution of the necessities for a reasonable life, Elliot’s would appear a reasonable one.

Elitism - and all the abuses of power and privilege which go with it - is not going to be eliminated by lopping off the tiny tops of our pyramidical world. What is needed is an education process which will purify the ideals of those on whose shoulders those at the apex stand.

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